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Alumnus’ podcast ‘Gooned’ gives voice to survivors of Troubled Teen Industry

The cover of “Gooned” is pictured. Hosted by alumnus Emma Lehman, the podcast is about the Troubled Teen Industry. (Courtesy of Gooned)

By Reid Sperisen

Feb. 14, 2024 1:16 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 15 at 7:13 p.m

“Gooned” is uncovering the truth about the Troubled Teen Industry.

Created and produced by alumnus Emma Lehman, the investigative podcast sheds light on the dark history of the often-overlooked Troubled Teen Industry. “Gooned” is a 12-part series that has released new half-hour episodes every Wednesday since December. The series’ title refers to the Troubled Teen Industry term of being “gooned,” which is when parents hire strangers – also known as “goons” – to legally kidnap their teenagers and transport them to facilities such as rural wilderness camps and unregulated treatment centers. Although some people are aware of the TTI, many survivors’ stories are not being told, Lehman said.

“Being able to speak to so many survivors and being trusted with those stories really kind of kept me going,” Lehman said. “I was really inspired not only to make this but to make it good and to make it something that people would listen to and would learn from.”

[Related: Eleonor Palabrica offers vulnerable insights on podcast ‘Unreliable Narrator’]

Lehman said she was drawn to audio journalism because of its engaging storytelling power and digestibility for audiences compared to long-form written journalism. “Gooned” is her second podcast, following “Texas Twiggy,” an analysis of the life of actress Shelley Duvall in the years after her performance in the 1980 horror film “The Shining.”

Looking to bring coverage to this topic in a refreshing way, Lehman said her interest in the Troubled Teen Industry first arose during her last year and a half of college. She said she arrived on the TTI as a viable podcast topic after hearing about television host Dr. Phil sending children to teen ranches and learning that some of her close friends and family had also been affected by the TTI. Lehman added that she decided to present her findings in audio form because the stories are even more real when presented to listeners in the voices of the people who experienced the TTI firsthand.

The most challenging aspect of creating “Gooned” was interviewing survivors, Lehman said. It was a hefty responsibility to speak to survivors – some several decades older than her – who admitted that no one had ever asked them about their experiences with the TTI before, she added. However, Lehman said speaking with survivors was also one of the most fulfilling parts of making the podcast.

“Everyone that I spoke to was wonderful,” Lehman said. “But I think just for myself, this is not something you can screw up. This is not something that you want to represent inaccurately, so that was a lot of pressure.”

One of the many people whose commentary was included on “Gooned” was Casey Akerhielm, a survivor of the TTI who was in the system until age 17. He said Lehman first contacted him for an interview around late 2021. Akerhielm now works as a clinical mental health therapist and focuses on helping other survivors who have been victims of the TTI and similar coercive control tactics, which he said allows him to reclaim the misguided therapy that was once used against him.

“I think I underestimated how emotional I would get talking about it,” Akerhielm said. “I tried to formulate what I was going to say, but then when it came time, … it really started to come up for me easily, and it was really cathartic as well.”

Avery Erskine is a childhood friend of Lehman who worked on the production of both “Texas Twiggy” and “Gooned.” She said her primary role was to act as a sounding board for Lehman’s ideas, especially regarding interviews and working with lawyers. Erskine contributed most to copy editing and making revisions to the podcast’s script to help Lehman convey her message effectively, she said.

Lehman said she spent nearly a year solely focused on producing “Gooned,” but that she had been conducting interviews for the podcast since late 2021. She added that she worked on “Gooned” full time after quitting her part-time job at Trader Joe’s in March 2023. Although she said she is unsure if her next project will look further into the TTI, her awareness of developments in the industry and her concern for those affected by its reach will continue.

[Related: Emmys 2024: Alumnus Jerry Henry shares his experience working on ‘The 1619 Project’ docuseries]

Akerhielm said it is reassuring that there is increased cultural awareness surrounding mental health issues. He said more frequent conversations about the TTI help provide more reliable information to families looking for help for their teens. It is a positive development for celebrities and media personalities such as Paris Hilton and Danielle Bregoli, known professionally as Bhad Bhabie, to be sharing their stories on social media, he added.

“Our stories are really buried amongst a lot of other things America has that are dark,” Akerhielm said. “It was just really cool to be able to be a part of something to get that out there.”

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