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Home arrow Psychotherapy Cults arrow Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) arrow White collar cults, they want your mind ...

White collar cults, they want your mind ...

...and your money, and six of your friends. A look at the new, white-collar world of cults--where 'personal growth' means brainwashing.

by Dirk Mathison

Self Magazine, Feb. 1993


All they were asking was 400 bucks and a few days out of her life... What do I have to lose? thought Karen Thorson, a 21-year-old nursing student ending a bad relationship. The workshop, her mother's idea, promised to unblock her "human potential" --and, if her mother was any example, it worked. Although caught up in a painful divorce, her mom had begun to seem happier, softer somehow, after taking the five-day seminar. And so, in July of 1987, Karen walked into a hotel conference room and signed up. At first she couldn't help measuring herself against the impeccably dressed graduates: They had such bright, smiling faces. God, she thought, I'd like to be more like these people. They were talking about such important stuff --getting in touch with what you want, "transforming" yourself, maybe even changing the world. This isn't superficial, she thought.

Karen was about to be brainwashed. In her eagerness to comply with the seminar's rules for success, she would be an unwitting accessory in her own psychological disintegration, through trance-induction, guided imagery and other hypnotic exercises. And all in the name of personal growth.

Karen's experience began with a word, change, a buzzword this year, and every year, in America. She felt that her life could be better, to her credit, she set about trying to improve it. For the millions of people like her who hold change synonymous with hope, an entire industry, known variously as the "personal growth" or "human potential" movement, has grown up over the past 30 years.

The movement is huge, an array of self-help mentors and groups united by an underlying belief that problems cannot be solved on a piecemeal basis, but only by making fundamental changes in a person's psyche of belief system. It's promoted by earnest talk show hosts, laid on thick in half-hour infomercials. It comes at us from friends and relations, the church and the office --particularly the latter, where seminars, workshops, and refresher courses are ubiquitous. Millions of people, at some time or another, attend some sort of self-help training session, which for the price of a 27 inch Zenith often promises nothing less than a total life make-over --improved relationships, greater productivity and bolstered self-esteem.

An array of human potential practitioners believe that through specific exercises people can release their boundless capacities and reach "self-actualization." They claim to solve problems as prosaic as time management and as immense as mental illness. Many of the organizations focus on relationships; the more radical ones claim to offer cutting-edge therapies for problems that are traditionally treated by psychologists or medical specialists. Karen's bad luck was to choose a program that had at its core a desire to manipulate and control its members for the profit of the few.

These destructive elements can be found, more and more, in the groups that mask themselves as scientific, success-oriented, professional. They model their style and language on America's managerial class. They cater to corporate America with the lure of bullish sales. And, experts say, women are flocking to what are, according to Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, "upscale cults for the more affluent."

What makes a cult? "For our purposes," says Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program, "we define it as a group that, one, uses coercive pressure and deception to get people to join in and, two, uses mind-manipulation techniques without the consent or knowledge of the participant."

Slicker than the hard-core religious sects (such as the Unification Church and the Boston Church of Christ), the new cults keep a sophisticated, media-wise profile. Nevertheless, says Kisser, "they mirror techniques used by less sophisticated religious cults. The tactics are the same." And the results can be just as devastating.

This is so disorienting, thought Karen. Two exhausting nights in a Dallas hotel conference room. Odd exercises where she'd close her eyes while the seminar leader talked. Rules she didn't understand and that they would not explain, such as having to be seated by the time the taped music stopped playing. But now she was starting to feel close to the assembled. Improprieties were being confessed, traumas revealed. One woman told of having been sexually abused as a child. Confession was good for the soul, wasn't it? There was talk about attaining goals, of improving relationships. And the promise that if she stuck it out, something wonderful awaited.

The second night they paired her off with a woman. "Keep eye contact," they told her. "And imagine your partner as a parent. Tell him or her everything you've always wanted to tell them." Staring deeply into her partner's eyes, she thought of her father, who;d died five years earlier. Soon she felt a rush of overpowering dizzying emotions. What the hell am I doing here? she wondered.

Anthropologists have found evidence of groups like these throughout history and in every society. They are referred to as "cults of the afflicted," in which members, once "cured" of whatever ails them, go forth seeking new converts. It's a pyramid marketing scheme that dates back to the pyramids themselves.

Group therapy sessions in the Fifties started the modern trend. By the 1960s, those early experiments had evolved into intense encounters where members became openly confrontational toward one another.

One offspring of the medically supervised encounter sessions, called Mind Dynamics, introduced a business angle into the mix. The resulting cross between Dale Carnegie and encounter groups expanded the potential market, since to be unsuccessful, or even insecure, was to be "afflicted." Group therapy now was mass therapy (and "therapy" was soon supplanted by the more business-friendly term "training").

The mass training business took off in the Seventies; dozens of outfits with names like PSI World, Insight and Lifespring flourished. Werner Erhard and John Hanley were two early Mind Dynamics trainees. Erhard went on to found est, the mass training movement that talked about "getting it" --and most famously, wouldn't let enrollees go to the bathroom for hours. Hanley, armed with a bachelors degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin, founded Lifespring in 1973.

By the early Eighties, despite frequent and heavy criticism from the psychological community, there were dozens of such groups, often started by graduates of est and Lifespring. (to date, some 400,000 souls have taken Lifespring workshops alone.) They've survived scandal and scorn even legal action.

By the third night, between the seminar and work, Karen was exhausted. Like being on a roller coaster, she thought. But most of her early cynicism was gone. No more questions about all the petty rules, just a rubbery compliance and the desire to win her seminar leader's approval. What a wonderful thing this is, she began to think, despite the painful confessions and the lack of sleep. I don't know why, exactly, but it is wonderful

On the last of the five days, as the music played, everyone in the room took turns hugging each other. It made all the pain and trauma worth it. These people, she believed, love me unconditionally. Two days later, she was uneasy enough to ask for an assurance that there was "nothing emotional" about the advanced course. She paid $850 and signed up.

So what is it about these groups that keeps the banquet and conference rooms across the country filled? By first highlighting and augmenting feelings of insecurity, superficiality and alienation, and then offering to cure them, mass therapy groups tap into and inexhaustible supply of potential customers. Who hasn't felt lonely, cut off from humanity, at some time? Those in a transitional period --living alone for the first time, breaking up, grieving, going through a job change -- are especially vulnerable to the pitch. And, make no mistake, the modern therapy groups use a compendium of state-of-the-art sales tactics.

"These groups are very aware that just about everyone is vulnerable." observes Kisser. "We all have areas we're guilty about, areas we'd like to improve. The customers are people who wouldn't consider being involved with the Moonies or another religious cult. But they still have questions about careers and relationships."

Research disputes the idea that cult members are "crazy." In fact, they are disturbingly like the rest of us. While the typical cult converts are people in their late teens and early twenties, white-collar groups attract an older crowd. It's also a female crowd: All of the experts interviewed for this article agreed that more women seem to be gravitating to the new cults. Just why is still open to speculation, but the American Family Foundation's profile for a cult-joiner cites the presence not only of unusual stress but also of a tendency toward low self-esteem, high dependency and unassertiveness --traits familiar to any reader of Colette Dowling (The Cinderella Complex) or Gloria Steinem.

"People come because it works." says Lifespring founder Hanley, now 49, And, he continues,"If there's a common thread among initiates, it's that these are people who are not committed to the status quo of their lives. They're always asking 'What else is possible? My life's okay, I'm not here complaining, but what else is there?'"

Which would be fine if the mass therapy groups didn't rely upon deception and aggressive marketing techniques to keep warm bodies running through the training pipeline. "It's simply a form of pyramid selling." says Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph. D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading expert on the groups. "People are cajoled into promising to bring at least six guests to the gust nights. They use guilt to get their friends and colleagues to come. They say, 'Come on, I did this for you. You should do this for me.'"

Zealots offer to put the cost of a recruit's workshop on their own credit cards, with a promise that if the workshop isn't beneficial, the recruit won't have to pay for it. Guilt,of course, does the rest. The profit motive in the groups is carefully disguised. Membership becomes the goal. Those who bring in new members. says Dr. Singer, receive from the group only much-needed emotional strokes, which are withheld unless their quota is met. No cash. At the advanced stages, the loftier goals promised earlier are mentioned less and less.

"At first, [recruits are] convinced they can transform themselves, even change the world," says Singer. "Then they become more and more aware that the whole point is simply to get people to sign up. They become depressed, and realize they weren't helping a soul, including themselves."

By this time, members have cut their ties to the outside world, abdicated their decision-making abilities and surrendered their psyches as well as, in many cases, any assets they might have. The cult is all the convert has left, which is why so many stay on.

Nonsense, says Hanley. "By the time our customers reach the advanced stages, they obviously already feel that Lifespring is something powerful to them. If they want to share that with a friend, we'll be available to help them. That's all."

In conversation Hanley can be disconcertingly unmemorable for someone who has changed the lives of nearly half a million people - and fended off more than 30 lawsuits, some settled for as much as $800,000. Speaking in a calm, uninflected voice, he carefully avoids using the Lifespring jargon, in particular its emphasis on "making a commitment."

Clean-cut and collegiate in appearance, often decked out in a sweater a la Apple Computer's John Sculley (whom he resembles), Hanley is warm and sincere - particularly when compared with Werner Erhard, whose bluster can be felt even in a phone call. Unlike most of his peers, Hanley welcomes media attention. A consummate salesman, he has overcome many a harsh article, as well as six early mail fraud convictions - a testimony to his charm and the promise of transformation.

Hanley talks about his "suburban lifestyle," and makes sure to mention that he coached Little League. The only time his composure slips is at the mention of charges that Lifespring uses trance-inducing techniques. For the first time he seems under stress. Sounding as if he's reading off a three-by-five card, he says, "What we do is always going to be controversial simply because the subject of change is controversial."

If the first course was a roller coaster ride, the advanced stage was like bungee-jumping. Twelve hours a day, five days straight. Relatives and old friends would later tell Karen she looked "dead behind the eyes." She was drained as much by the exercises as from the lack of sleep. In one session, she had to get up, stand in the middle of the circle ("feedback arcs," to the initiates) and submit to appraisal. "I experience you as ugly," one woman was told. "I experience you as fucked-up," someone else yelled out. Karen wondered: Why aren't they telling us why they're having us tear each other down like this? But by that point she was too cowed to ask.

In another exercise, everyone was given five Straws to distribute to people they thought worthy of being "saved" on a lifeboat. The five with the most straws would "survive." Karen made it aboard the lifeboat, only to be ridiculed by the seminar leader for not having saved a straw for herself. My God, she thought. There's no winning here.

But the highs were so high. With her eyes closed, she went back and forgave everyone who had ever hart her. And always, there was the promise of something more, something wonderful…. She signed up for the next workshop, 77 days in all, including three weekends. And this time it was free.

Karen Thorson had been brainwashed. Her sweeping euphoria was all smoke and mirrors or, more accurately, unannounced trance-induction and manipulation.

It was during the Korean War that, for the first time, American POWs defected or denounced their country in large numbers. The brainwashing process would begin when the Chinese Communists persuaded POWs to write down a mild criticism of their country. such as "America is not perfect." Once that stone had been laid, and enough psychological pressure exerted, it was often only a matter of time before the prisoners were making harsher statements.

This, say the experts on cults, is exactly how many of today's human potential groups begin their programs - with the strict observance of seemingly petty rules, such as needing permission to go to the bathroom, or having to be seated by the time the music stops playing. The group leaders really don't care if you're sitting or not, only that you've followed orders, And once you say yes to something small, it is that much easier to say yes to something big - even if that means revealing your innermost traumas to a hundred strangers.

Even the way that today's trainers often smile after barking orders is a legacy of the Korean War. "The Chinese knew that it was much more effective to, smile at their prisoners than to torture them," says Singer.

The techniques can seem innocuous, at first. Some of them-guided imagery, for instance - may actually be familiar from a relaxation class or a self-help audiocassette. In the wrong hands, however, these techniques can do an astonishing amount of harm.

"Trance-induction," Singer explains, is brought about by "a high central focus of attention or concentration, which leads to diminished peripheral awareness. It can be achieved through various methods, and it's a means by which one person gets the complete attention of another."

Closed-eye exercises, a form of guided imagery, can be one of the most powerful trance-induction tools used in workshops. With the sense of sight deadened, customers are more attuned to the voice of the seminar leader. While this sounds innocent - sports psychologists enlist Olympic athletes in guided imagery exercises - the potential for abuse is great when the object of the exercise is not, say, running a faster 100-meter dash.

In one closed-eye exercise witnessed by Singer, the seminar leader said, "Imagine you are opening a gate, and behind the gate you see yourself as a six-year-old child. But where are your parents? Are they there for you?" In effect, every person in that room was handing over the keys of his or her psyche to a stranger.

Another technique is the "dyad," in which participants pair off and, as the facilitator talks, stare into each others' eyes for several minutes at a time, During the dyad, the instructor will issue orders ranging from "Tell your partner how you feel about them," to "Imagine that your partner is actually a parent."

Take a few days without proper rest, add a regimen of closed-eye exercises, and anyone can become vulnerable to suggestion, "You're simply flooded with emotion," observes Singer. "The trainers usually get you to think of all your most powerful memories, under the guise of somehow conquering your past." After several days of being "dragged down into the pits", says Singer, "the final day of exercises is usually designed to pump you up. By this time, customers usually just sort of drool and follow the leader. A false sense of community and camaraderie has developed. By now, they do everything they can to give you the 'warm fuzzies,' so that you'll sign up for the next course."

Hanley says such talk of hypnosis and trance is absurd. As for guided imagery, "This is only a fairly rigorous way of looking at your life," he says, "not a bolt of lightning from above. Everybody in the seminar is under his or her own power at all times.

A long list of human-potential-movement casualties says otherwise. A Seattle woman died after trainers allegedly refused to let her take her asthma medicine (the suit was settled out of court for $450,000). Actual psychotic breaks occur in customers unprepared for the emotional rigors of the workshops. Attorney Michael Flomenhaft contends that his client, a young florist on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, still requires psychiatric care after having a severe psychotic break after attending Lifespring 10 years ago. "These groups misrepresent themselves as something innocuous," says Flomenhaft, who settled the case out of court last February and is about to try a new case against Lifespring. "But in actuality they are quite malignant." Hundreds of other lawsuits have been filed against the groups as well.

Singer estimates that she has counseled more than 50 workshop graduates - some because of suicide attempts - in the aftermath of programs. "A trained professional knows when someone should not be put under stress," she says. "And these people have absolutely no training outside the group."

The price of a "transformation" can be steep in other ways. Relationships end when one partner gets involved in training while the other shuns it. Family members come under bitter, unrelenting attack for "abuses," such as a lack of love or concern, that the convert has discovered during his or her training. Jobs are lost, either as a result of supervisors who insist subordinates take their workshop, or when an employee earns the wrath of his colleagues by proselytizing at work. Academic careers are either terminated or put on hold. Friendships suffer. "We get a lot of calls from people who are concerned about all their friend's time being spent volunteering for one of these groups," says Rachel Andres, director of the Commission on Cults and Missionaries. "They often seem happy, but look exhausted. All their energy is going into the group."

Now in the third workshop, Karen was awakened before seven every morning with a call from someone in the group. She had a list of goals to achieve, and number one on the list was: Who was she going to sign up that day? It seemed as if she just didn't have the time for the other goals about improving relationships and all. The group talked about "commitment," which meant getting more people enlisted. And "accomplishment," which also meant getting more people enlisted.

She was exhausted and. in short order, lost 25 pounds she could ill afford to lose. She had no time for old friends. She was laid off from her medical records job after being told her recruitment for the group had cut her productivity. She decided it was too time-consuming to go back to nursing school. She got back into the troubled relationship she had ended, after being convinced by the group that it was her "responsibility." She came down with a strep infection. Told at the group office that perhaps she had some "emotions you need to let go of" she didn't see a doctor. The infection lasted six weeks.

If she could not get enough people to the guest events, she was told, she must not care enough about her friends to convince them to come. Or, conversely. that those who refused to enroll were "trash." Increasingly, she found that how she felt depended on what they thought of her. And if she got a new member in, if she had made the "commitment," then the stroking was bliss. If not, then their disapproval was painful.

Still, on the third weekend, the group picked her up and cradled her in their arms, rocking her slowly. And while she was being rocked, they played a song picked just for her: "You Decorated My Life." Her own song. She decided to become a full-time volunteer.

Now she herself was one of those bright, shiny people she had so admired. She was also gaunt, jobless and out of school. She soon found that behind the cradling and the sense of camaraderie, the action was ugly. Trainees who dared to dissent were called "worthless." When one woman, there over concern for a friend, questioned the psychodrama techniques, trainers called her a "slut" behind her back, The woman finally ran out of the room: Karen tried to follow. She was told to sit down. She did.

And then something clicked: She was not going to be allowed to comfort someone who was hurting. And she was going along with it? That was enough. At the urging of a friend, she went to the library and read about what she had just been through. I feel duped, she thought. Betrayed. And she got out.

Although all the evidence points to a predictable cause-and-effect cycle of physical and mental manipulation, converts to these groups believe they've experienced a miracle in a few short days. It's this bargain-basement mysticism that ultimately tarnishes any cult's claim to respectability. "It's highly unlikely," observes a wry Cynthia Kisser, "that we would have had to have waited through all of history to get answers to life's problems from guys like Werner Erhard. Any group that promises transformation over the weekend is not being truthful. There will be less than they promise."

To which Hanley replies, "We're here to stay."

It was six weeks after leaving the group. Karen Thorson was bitter enough to have started speaking out against it in letters to the editor and interviews. Then one night she came home and replayed the messages on her answering machine. Suddenly her song came on: "You Decorated My life." A not-so-subtle reminder from someone in the group. She burst into tears. For a moment, she was back in their arms, cradled and loved. But then she remembered: It was all a lie. It wasn't real. And she erased the tape.