Élan School was founded as a drug treatment program in 1970, pairing controversial confrontational attack therapies with education, all in the wooded setting of Poland, Maine. It’s founders, Joe Ricci and Dr. Gerald Davidson, promised rehabilitation, reform, and a future for many children of wealthy and well-known parents.
When outside state officials took a closer look at what really went on behind closed doors, it was just the beginning of unending allegations and controversy.
This is the Dark History and Demise of Élan School.
The Church of Synanon
Elan School opened in 1970 as a private behavior modification program and boarding school. Founded by Joseph Ricci, a man who Maine would come to know well from local headlines and as the owner of Scarborough Downs Racetrack, and child psychiatrist Gerald Davidson, Elan School was originally established as a drug rehabilitation center that would practice so-called “confrontational” or “attack therapy.” This unconventional style of treatment had its roots in the anti-drug organization known as Synanon.
One simple Google search of Synanon turns up a myriad of articles, blog posts, and videos describing a cult-like group with shaved heads that used violent “attack therapy” to rehabilitate drug addicts and alcoholics. In 1958, Charles E. Dederich dreamed up Synanon in Santa Monica, California, and it eventually became the Church of Synanon. The organization approached drug addiction with a tough love, cold turkey philosophy—as opposed to jail time.
Synanon would ultimately shutter when Dederich was prosecuted and convicted of abducting a woman and forcing her to join the group. He then went on to hire two men to hide a rattlesnake in the prosecutor’s mailbox. As you can imagine, that added a bit more time to his sentence.
But the tentacles of Synanon would reach far and wide, spurring multiple variant programs, including Phoenix House, CEDU, and Daytop Village in New York. That’s where a reluctant, troubled teen from Port Chester named Joe Ricci would overcome his own heroin addiction.
Joe Ricci was born in 1945 to a first-generation Italian family in the working class village of Port Chester, New York. According to Maura Curley, a former marketing consultant for Joe and author of, Duck in a Raincoat: The Joe Ricci Story, he was raised by his maternal grandparents after his mother signed over custody.
Throughout his youth, Joe was in and out of trouble. A story on Elan for Corrections Magazine written in 1979 states he was addicted to drugs by age 12, and it was in 1963 at age 18 that a rough and restless Joe was arrested for robbing a mail truck. Authorities had had enough. He was given a choice—spend seven years in jail or go to a rehabilitation center. Joe chose Daytop Village.
Daytop opened in 1963 through a group effort by psychiatrist Daniel Harold Casriel and Father William O’Brien, who had both visited the Synanon location in Westport, Connecticut. Daytop practiced a Therapeutic Community style treatment and took a few cues from Synanon’s own tactics. Joe, noted as “one of Daytop’s greatest success stories” by Corrections Magazine, said of his experience there, quote, “I’d done the therapy bit, but this blew my mind.” Unquote. Though he didn’t agree with the shaved heads or the lack of education.
Daytop, and this certain subset of therapeutic treatment evolved from Syanon’s methods, appeared to have a lasting impact on Ricci. He was not only a student success story for the program, but he also aimed to become a leader in the field himself.
The Beginnings of Élan
He was a leader, charming, and enigmatic. People were drawn to him. Important people. Even a seasoned Boston psychiatrist couldn’t resist the charisma. They were like the odd couple—Dr. Gerald Davidson, a child psychiatrist working for Massachusetts General Hospital and lecturer at Harvard University, and Joe Ricci—a former drug addict with a not so squeaky clean record.
With Joe’s first-hand experience in Daytop’s programs and subsequent professional background and leadership in the space, paired with Dr. Gerald Davidson’s psychiatric expertise, something between the two clicked. Their visions and goals aligned.
Together, Ricci and Dr. Davidson were set on establishing a new kind of rehabilitation option—one that would utilize the tough therapy Joe claimed to owe his own recovery to while offering education and, ultimately, a future. They’d call it Elan School.
Élan, a word of French origin, meaning momentum, energy, style, enthusiasm. To do it with élan is to do it with flair and vigor. Used in a sentence, “He pursued his goals with great élan.” For Joe Ricci, those goals were thinly veiled. For Joe Ricci, Élan School meant money.
Press play for the full story of Élan School, its ties to a Kennedy murder scandal, and the heartbreaking, still questioned death of a Maine teen after his alleged time in “The Ring”.
Episode Source Material
- Curley, Maura. Duck in a Raincoat: An Unauthorized Portrait of Joe Ricci. Menukie Press, 1991.
- Joseph Ricci’s Career and Controversy by Dwight F. Blint, Hartford Courant, 15 Feb 2000
- The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry by Maia Slalavitz, Mother Jones, Sept/Oct 2007
- Oversight on Scared Straight: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Education and Labor House of Representatives Ninety-Sixth Congress, Hearing Held on 4 Jun 1979
- Elan: Does Its Bizarre Regimen Transform Troubled Youths, or Abuse Them? By Philip B. Taft Jr., Corrections Magazine, March 1979
- Credit Cutoff Brings $15-Million Judgment Against Bank by Jerry Hark, 19 April 1987
- For the Child’s Own Good hosted by Robert Rogers, NBC News, 1980
- The Last Stop. Directed by Todd Nilssen, 2017
- His family asks: What really happened to Phil at the Elan School? by Kathryn Skelton and Lindsay Tice, Lewiston Sun Journal, 13 March 2016
- The day ‘Officer Smiley’ helped a boy escape from the Elan School by Lindsay Tice and Kathryn Skelton, Lewiston Sun Journal, 20 March 2016
- Trail of Guilt by Dominick Dunne, Vanity Fair, Oct 2000
- How the Skakel-Moxley Murder Case Unfolded Over Four Decades, The New York Times, 2 Nov 2020
- Opinion: Many Still Ask: Who Killed Martha Moxley? by David R. Cameron, Hartford Courant, 22 April 2013
- Greenwich Neighborhood Recalls Slaying of High School Girl in ’75, The New York Times, 31 Oct 1976
- Skeletons in the Classroom by Warren St. John, The New York Times, 2 Jun 2002
- Opinion: Shocks from the System by Maia Szalazitz, The New York Times, 7 Jan 2007
- Exclusive: New York State Acts to End Abuses at Elan School by Maia Szalavitz, Huff Post, 17 Jan 2007
- Police: Death of Elan School student is ‘priority’ for state investigators BY KATHRYN SKELTON, Sun Journal, 18. Mar 2016
- Elan School Report, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Obtained via FOAA Request