My wife left me after attending a PSI7 "Seminar" at the ranch in California. Her attitude change and she just walked out without a reason other than this was what was right for her. Seems to be the common theme with the poor souls who are "recruited." Check out the other posting here, them explain alot more and below is some of the things I found dealing with PSI and groups like it.
My best advice it to stay away from PSI and if your wife/girlfriend or friends be prepared to lose them.
On various "Positive Thinking" trends within Christianity, and a specific question about whether PSI Seminars in particular was a cult; by Dean VanDruff. PSI looks like a clever packaging of the human potential teachings of the 70's with a bit of California new-age flair. The word "vibrations" was actually used on the PSI website. <smirk> The name PSI is almost a self-parody, really, being the engineering designation for pressure, as in inflated, after all. <smiles>
I have little stomach for such hype, but it is a free country. My intuitive feel is that this is not a sociological cult, nor really a doctrinal cult of any other religion; it is just a rehashing of self-delusion teaching. I do think it is dangerous and wrong, mind you, but not for cult reasons. Rather it is just bad advice and teaching.
Take a man who is unethical and untrustworthy and who destroys trust in those he works with, ruining a great business he is involved with. Well, these failures might lead to reflection, repentance, and change, but not if he falls in with PSI types. With PSI, the business failure was not due to character flaws and poor ethics, but his "attitude". If you follow me here, any honest reflection on character deficiencies which ought to be the normative feedback from failure in life are short-circuited as "negative"... and such normal feedback is actually BLAMED for the failure instead. Thus, real growth and improvement in actual ability is not possible.
Instead, false confidence is given through "goal setting" and "visualization" and so forth, and our man is going to hurt people--and himself--more next time if he continues to coat-over his real problems. If he ripped people off the first time, and they abandoned him, shall we give his "confidence" a hypo and send him back for more of the same... or shall we "negatively" look to the real causes of failure?
A more sweeping critique is that PSI is the intellectual equivalent of injecting yourself with HIV. AIDS is a deficiency of the immune system, which normally acts to attack that which does not belong in the body. By analogy, "negative" feedback acts to attack that which does not belong in the character. By thinking only "positively", the character immune system is sabotaged, and the results will be a mentally sick person; perhaps incurably.
For example, some people are for various reasons mentally divorced from reality and deluded. We call them "insane" or "crazy". Perhaps it was a chemical imbalance, or some horrific event in life that pushed them over the edge of reality. You must now address them as "King Henry the Fifth" and so forth, and they are generally locked up or strapped down. If you tell "King Henry" he is really John Scwartz and you are his older brother, he will say "Off with his head". For "King Henry" does not like being John Schwartz for whatever reason, so he projects a delusion more to his emotional liking, and rejects all reality to the contrary. John is deluded, and the situation is pathetic.
But their is something even more pathetic than someone driven to delusion by the pain of life, or genetic or chemical imbalance. It is when normal, semi-sane people will sell-out reality for an imaginary "success". This is delusion in degrees, to be sure, but the pathetic thing is that it is self-inflicted. Such delusion does not make one better at life, any more than "King Henry" really has any power to really decapitate anyone outside of his own imagination. And "King Henry" can't help it, perhaps, but the PSI customer is paying to enter deliberately and substantially into the same state. Delusion for sale.
If success can be had by these hollow, self-absorbed hypsters, it will be in spite of this training, not because of it. Somebody might inject themselves with HIV and not get AIDS, but this should not endorse an otherwise dangerous practice. Likewise, should we be injecting our minds with delusions of grandeur? Like HIV, the real and present danger is that such reckless mental activity might lead to a breakdown in the mind's immune system, which in healthy people serves to kill-off bad habits and learn from mistakes. PSI is the virus to put this normal mental function into atrophy or actually shut it down completely. Another "King Henry" is made, only this one paid for the privilege.
Dear PSI Basic Grad. Congratulations on sticking through it and the different outlook that you have on life. Not that I am being judgemental here, but do read some of the rants and raves about PSI Seminars and other LGAT - Large Group Awareness Trainings. I too have just completed PSI Basics and was similarly on fire just as you are. However, after much thought and considerations, I am aware of the dangers that lurk in attending these seminars. Too, I am glad that you have found a different way of relating to yourself and others.
However, I must caution you that PSI Seminar facilitators are not trained psychiatrists and the wounds that I saw being exposed were not properly addressed. So, I caution here that it can be detrimental to some if they have deep issues opened up without the aid of a trained therapist to help them process those issues and perhaps help the individual to bring closure to them in the most professional way. I did not see nor hear of a professionally trained staff person who had gone to school to become a professionally trained therapist on hand, other than myself. I went because a couple of my friends kept bugging me to at least give it a go. And, after having gone, I am having to decompress for myself and am embarrassed that I invited close friends to go to this seminar and knowing what I know now. And, if you do a google search on PSI Seminars, you will undoubtedly come across some other blogs about the experiences of people who have completed PSI Basics, PSI VII, MLS and WLS, and Principia. I was not to encouraged after reading about their lives post PSI. So, a word of caution is for you to be wise and do some background research prior to your going to one of these LGAT's, especially PSI Seminars.
This post is not to burst your bubble, but as a PSI graduate myself, had I done a bit more research prior to attending, I would have thought more than twice about going.
Hope that this helps some. We live and we learn. And, hopefully, you are not going into debt to pay for PSI VII as some of the people whom I attended PSI Basics are doing. There is a reason why the staff people and facilitators push PSI VII on day 4 of the event when people are most vulnerable after having opened up old wounds the previous 3 days. It also makes one wonder just what is put into the water that is served during the PSI events...? It sure was addicting, huh.... I could not get enough of that water. Hummmmmmmmm......
But, you make up your own mind and this is not to bash PSI Seminars, but it is more of a consumer be advised.
large group awareness training program
A large group awareness training (LGAT) program is a personal development training program in which dozens to hundreds of people are given several hours to several days of intense instruction aimed at helping participants begin to discover what is hindering them from achieving their full potential and living more satisfied lives. LGAT programs have also been developed for corporations and public agencies, where the focus is on improving management skills, conflict resolution, general institutional strengthening, and dealing with the eternal problem of employees who drink too much or use too many drugs.
LGAT gurus claim to know how to help people become more creative, intelligent, healthy, and rich. They focus primarily on the role interpersonal communication plays in self-esteem and in defining our relationships with others.
LGAT gurus claim to know why their participants are not happy or why they are not living fulfilled lives. They assume everyone is being hindered by the same things and that one approach will suit all. Some LGAT gurus use public television and books as their vehicles. Others give seminars in hotel ballrooms. Some use infomercials and peddle books and tapes to the masses to help get them on the path to self-realization and success.
The U.S. Army might think it takes a few years to "become all that you can be," but the gurus of self-help think it can be done in a few hours or days. These gurus might all take the one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach to self-help, but the founders of such programs as est, Landmark Forum, neuro-linguistic programming, Tony Robbins seminars, etc., use their own unique cookie cutters.
Though some advocate visualization, self-hypnosis, and other techniques for achieving self-realization, most LGAT programs focus on communication skills and the effect of language on thought and behavior. Those running the programs must excel in those skills. The trainers are motivators. They must use their powerful communication skills to persuade others to believe that (a) they (the trainers) know something valuable about fulfilling one's potential; (b) the valuable knowledge can be transmitted to the participant in a short time; (c) the trainee can expect to reap tangible, even if subjective, benefits in a short time (such as improved relationships with others or feeling better about oneself); and (d) the trainee has only experienced a small taste of the wonderful pleasure and fulfillment that awaits those who sign up for advanced training. In short, the trainers are not just teachers; they are sellers.
Their main job is to motivate participants to buy more services, i.e., sign up for more courses. The fact that trainers are unlikely to do any follow-up on their trainees, except to try to persuade them to take more courses, indicates that their main interest is not in helping people lead more fulfilling lives. The trainers have a sales job to do. They are paid commissions for the number of people they recruit and train, not for the number of people they truly help. It is not in their interest to do follow-up studies on their trainees. It is in their interest to do follow-up recruiting calls.
A short amount of reflection should make it apparent that the gurus of personal development training are like those infomercial stars who promise to share with you their secrets on how to make millions of dollars by taking out classified ads or by buying repossessed properties. The real money is not in taking out classified ads or buying repossessions; otherwise, that is what the infomercial star would be doing instead of making infomercials. The real money is in selling the idea to others. If the trainers who work for Tony Robbins or Landmark Forum could realize their true potential in a meaningful, lucrative way, would they take a sales commission job? Would they work for a guru for a relatively small sum of money, while investing a rather extensive amount of time in the hopes of some sort of breakthrough? No. If they want to reach their own true potential they must break away and start their own personal training program. Which is exactly what many of them do.
Personal training programs are likely to be successful, however, if only because (a) the participants are strongly motivated toward self-improvement and (b) the trainers force participants to reflect on themselves, their lives and their relationships. Such motivation and reflection will result in either perceived insights or renewed effort to gain such insights. Being surrounded by many others in search of the Promised Land serves to energize participants and to give them hope. Ultimately, the main product being sold by human potential gurus is hope itself. It should be obvious that in itself this is not a bad thing. We all need hope. Without hope, there is no point in making plans for the future. Without hope, there is no point in working on a relationship or setting goals. Thus, insofar as participation in Large Group Awareness Training increases one's hope for finding one's way and for achieving one's goals, it is good. Even false hope may be better than no hope at all.
Since fear is a major obstacle to hope, the human potential trainers must help participants overcome those fears which hinder development. For example, there can be no hope of achieving a goal if the fear of failure is so strong that one avoids setting goals in order to avoid failing. After all, if you don't try something, you can't fail at it. Likewise, no troubled relationship can improve if one fears rejection by the other to such a degree that one will not even try to heal the wounds. One must overcome fears of failure, rejection, ridicule, humiliation, etc., if one is to have any hope of achieving a very meaningful existence as a human being. One is powerless to achieve anything if one is paralyzed by fear. Empowerment to achieve requires empowerment to overcome one's fears and thereby gives one hope. The most direct way to empower someone would be to convince them that if what they most fear were to happen not only would nothing be worse than it already is, but most likely things would be even better than they are. Another way is to convince people that their own beliefs are hindrances to success and that they can replace those beliefs at will.
No one knew this better than Leo Buscaglia, one of the more successful LGAT gurus of the 1970s and 1980s. He used books, lectures and public television programs to promote the idea that the key to everything is love. He popularized notions that Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and B. F. Skinner had written about, e.g., the psychological power of loving those you fear. "Love your enemies," he would say. "It'll kill them!" Your enemy doesn't have to be another person, however. Your own fears can be your enemies. Embrace your fears, it'll kill them. If your relationship fails, what is the worst that can happen? The relationship ends. You can dwell on it, crawl into yourself, withdraw, surrender. Or you can learn from it, grow, develop, be prepared for a better relationship in the future. It's up to you. As the Stoics said: know what's in your power and what is not. Don't try to change what is not in your power to change. You can't control what others say or do, but you can control your attitude, your emotional response, to what they say or do. In short, if you don't try, you can't succeed. If you try and fail, you can still succeed. It's up to you. It is up to the human potential guru or trainer to convince you of this.
Self-growth programs such as est, Landmark Forum, neuro-linguistic programming (and even cults like Scientology) can point to many "successes." They can demonstrate that their programs "work." They can bring forth to testify on their behalf hundreds, if not thousands, of satisfied customers, many of them famous celebrities such as John Denver, John Travolta, Yoko Ono, Cher, Valerie Harper and others. Many people apparently find that their lives are better after they get involved in est, NLP, Landmark Forum, or Scientology. Those of us who have been trained to study philosophy and psychology, who have a deep sense of the nature of speculation and empirical research, are able to recognize the pseudoscientific nature of such programs. We know that testimonials do not validate a self-help program. We know that there is significant post hoc reasoning by both gurus and their followers. We are aware of the role of subjective validation, confirmation bias, wishful thinking, the regressive fallacy, and communal reinforcement in the success of such programs. We know there is little or no research done by the promoters of these programs to (a) test causal claims that might establish some degree of effectiveness to their methods; (b) establish clear criteria for what counts as "successful" training; (c) keep records of "failures" or those who feel ripped off or harmed by the program.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of proof that these programs work the way their advocates claim, and despite the fact that many trainers are overly zealous in their recruitment of participants in seminars and advanced seminars, many participants feel they benefit greatly from such programs. However, research has shown that the feelings of having benefited greatly from participation in an LGAT do not correspond to beneficial changes in behavior (Michael Langone, "Large Group Awareness Training Programs," Cult Observer, v. 15, n. 1, 1998). Also, many of those who feel they have benefited do not understand that others may not feel they benefit at all from such programs. To their healthy friends and family members, the zealot may appear to have been brainwashed. Their enthusiasm seems unnatural and disproportionate. If they were unbalanced before taking the program, they may appear to have gone beyond "breakthrough" into "breakdown."
See also est, firewalking, Landmark Forum, and neuro-linguistic programming.
By Kirsten Marcum
"Look around the circle and decide which four people you find most attractive."
It is mid-August, 1996. I'm in a conference room in the basement of the Regency Plaza Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Like everyone here, I'm doing as I'm told.
"Now narrow it down to three," the trainer says into the microphone.
"Look around the circle again and decide on one person. When I say so, go stand in front of that person. Don't break eye contact. Don't say anything. If someone's already standing there, just get as close as you can." He demonstrates how this will work. Presumably, a very attractive person could wind up with a small congregation of spectators.
"Do we understand?" We do. Go.
James and I make a beeline for one another. We stare as instructed. I feel naked. Charged. James is wearing cook's pants and a military haircut. He seems gentle and sad. We have never spoken. In three months we will be engaged.
We are both here because someone we knew has promised that this weekend seminar would turn our lives around. I'm convinced it's working. In fact, I'm about to abandon my job hunt, lose my friends, alienate strangers, work for free, and go broke. If you had tapped me on the shoulder and told me so, I would have said you were crazy.
I would have had that backwards.
I graduated from Carleton in June 1995. I spent college preparing for a business career. The summer after junior year I had already started work on an M.B.A. Senior year I founded a Women in Business group on campus and had already interviewed for jobs in New York and Minneapolis. But as June approached, I began to lose confidence.
I have been a writer for most of my life. As a kid, I used to look for the spot on the library shelf where my work would someday sit. At Carleton, I majored in English and edited the newspaper, assuming that one day I would manage a two-career life--business from nine to five, writing at night. But all along, my creative-writing professor thought I should wait tables at night and write all day. And then an alum I called for career advice suggested I go to work in a laundry. One day, thinking about the thank-you notes I didn't want to write, the résumés I didn't want to send, I decided they were right: A business career would be a distraction. If I wanted to write, I should write.
After graduation I moved to Minneapolis and began working minimum-wage jobs: shelving bottles in a liquor store; serving coffee. I was working 60 hours a week to make ends meet, and before long I was jealous of the people I waited on, jealous of my career-oriented friends. I wasn't writing. I felt like a failure. A year passed. In April of 1996, my parents announced they were separating. In July, my boyfriend moved to Japan to teach English for two years. Disappointed, frustrated, bored, and lonely, I convinced myself that what my life lacked most was a full-time career.
Then I bumped into Alex.
I was having coffee with a book distributor when he appeared at the table. We had dated in college--briefly, turbulently--and he seemed very happy to see me. "We should catch up," he said. I gave him my number, and when he called I agreed to meet him that weekend. To my surprise, we talked for hours. I told him about my job search. I told him I wanted to work in magazines, then get my M.B.A. and become a publisher.
Alex seemed completely different to me. In college, I'd thought he was selfish, impulsive, and scattered--all good intentions and no follow-through. Now, he was a generous listener. Everything about him suggested a newfound discipline. He was professionally successful, financially stable, and had dozens of friends. When I mentioned the change, he credited a company called Vistar. He had watched it turn people's lives around. It had helped him identify and deal with the things that had been holding him back. He stopped smoking pot and addressed his attention deficit disorder.
A week later I went with Alex to hear a motivational speaker sponsored by Vistar. I was skeptical but intrigued. The speaker repeated an empty brand of corporatespeak I had heard before--clichés about the importance of mission and vision. And I found it odd when Alex hugged everyone there. Still, it was a relief to be around adults in business clothes again, people speaking the language of success. I hadn't realized how lost I felt, how unidentified.
My admission to the lecture included a free, one-hour coaching session the next day with Julie, a Vistar staff member. We talked about Vistar's three-course series--two weekend seminars followed by a seven-week immersion for $1,950. That night, as I did almost every night, I wrote in my journal.
"Today, I had a one-hour interview with Julie. Against my better judgment, I'm signing up for the Vistar seminar. What got me, actually, was her answer to one of the reasons I was resisting: I don't have the money now. Julie said that I was choosing to let the rest of the world decide when I would have something rather than deciding when I would have something."
As Julie explained it, Vistar was about identifying the life you wanted and then making it happen. I recognized the hype, but it still sounded nice. If it helps me get a full-time job, it will be worth it, I told myself.
That same night, Alex called me after midnight and begged me to sign up. "I'll pay for it," he said.
"It's all right," I told him. "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it myself."
I have the microphone now. I'm trying to speak, but the trainer keeps interrupting.
"You're coming from your head," he says. I'm supposed to come from my heart. I start over several times. By the time he lets me finish, my knees are shaking. I mutter something about how I limit myself in order to protect other people's feelings, then sit down.
"Who makes you feel that way?" he asks from the stage. I stand again.
"Um," I whisper into the microphone, "my parents?" I burst into tears. The trainer asks a series of questions about my family. When he's done, everyone applauds. I don't stop crying all day. I seem to have experienced some sort of psychological breakthrough. If this is what it takes to make me a better person, I want more.
Level I: The Stand lasts four days. Like all Vistar courses, it happens in a hotel conference room. Against one wall, there is a small stage with a microphone stand, a stool, and an easel. The trainer either paces the stage or perches expectantly on the stool. When he wants to illustrate something, he draws on the easel paper with a black marker. We sit uncomfortably close, in chairs that are hooked together at the sides.
My 34 fellow enrollees are mostly white, middle-class professionals. A psychologist from Reno, Nevada, is there because her husband's Vistar experience worked wonders for their marriage. A 73-year-old minister signed up because his son, who was in the midst of the Vistar training, got down on his knees and begged his father to do the same.
For two evenings followed by two full days, we are led through a series of games, lectures, and exercises. In between, we are encouraged to share personal epiphanies. Some exercises are uncomfortably intimate. During one, I sit across from someone, stare into his eyes, and complete sentences the trainer provides: "What I don't want you to know about me is..." "The way you can love me is..." In another, we split into pairs and take turns lying in each other's lap. One of us plays parent, the other child. There is a lot of nervous laughter, but in time the physical closeness begins to seem normal, even comforting.
The games explore themes that are amplified in the next lecture, and the exercises that follow encourage personal exploration, which lead us to our epiphanies. People participate enthusiastically, even when it gets difficult. Periodically, there are tense moments. On the first day, a participant refuses to attend a followup seminar and, after a brief confrontation, he is asked to leave. On the second day, a quartet of smokers is late getting back from a break. They are called to the front of the room.
"What was more important to you than being on time?" the trainer demands. The four hang their heads. "What was more important to you than being on time?" he asks again. When they don't answer, he mocks their behavior. He tells them this is a perfect example of why their lives have stalled. He calls their smoking self-indulgent. Resistant. Weak. He asks them to confess other ways they are self-indulgent, resistant, and weak. They do. "You want a better job?" he asks one woman. "Tell me why you deserve it. What do you have to offer? Indulgence?"
When the smokers sit down, they're sobbing. The same thing happens to other people who question the training or are uncooperative. Sometimes it happens for no reason. But I assume the pain has a purpose.
Early on, most epiphanies are weepy stories of failure and disappointment. But by the third day, the stories are self-congratulatory. We begin to pinpoint, in various exercises, the major stumbling blocks in our lives. In my case, it is arrogance. I sought success as a means of self-glorification, rather than serving the world and humanity. I failed to keep my commitments. So, I decide it is time to stop cutting myself slack and start, as Vistar put it, "holding myself to greatness."
By then, "commitment" is a crucial concept. The trainer mocks the wider world, where promises are rarely kept, calling it "the drift." He implies that we are in on a glorious secret: We understand, as few people do, that the success we are seeking will arrive as soon as we learn how to make commitments, and then "enroll" other people. Enrollment, we learn, is key. For one thing, we can't do everything alone. But more important, enrollment is the only true test of our commitment.
As the seminar ends, our trainer asks us if we want to practice enrollment. Of course we do. He tells us Vistar is sponsoring an evening lecture. We commit to enrolling a certain number of people, then discuss what resistance we might encounter.
"Not enough money," someone says. The lecture costs $10.
"Is it really about money?'' the trainer asks.
We laugh. We know better. Of course it isn't about money. Lack of money is a cover story--a lie you tell yourself to resist what you really want.
We list other possible excuses. Then someone says, "They might think it's a cult?" There is a tense silence as we brace for an attack. Then the trainer laughs and soon we are laughing along: Oh, the lies people tell themselves to avoid success. To me, the idea that Vistar could be a cult is absurd. These people want to help me reach my goals, not change them.
That night there is a graduation ceremony. We stand in a circle with our eyes closed while friends and family sneak into the room and stand in front of us. When I open my eyes, Alex is there. "I'm so happy for you," he says, hugging me.
The following Monday, a friend from college comes to stay with me. I try to tell him about Vistar, but he won't listen. "I'm going to call the Cult Action Network and have you deprogrammed," he says. He calls the Better Business Bureau to ask if there are any complaints against Vistar. There aren't. I think he is being obnoxious. When we go out that night, my other friends won't listen either. When I invite them to the Vistar lecture, they start to choose their words carefully, the way you might talk to someone standing on the wrong side of a balcony railing. It makes me furious.
"Listen, I don't want you to run off with these Vistar people," someone says later that night. I ask him his reasons, and listen politely while he explains about jargon, recruitment, and brainwashing. Secretly, I think he is an idiot.
Most people assume they would know if they were being brainwashed. They think it involves great force, or some obvious, epic struggle in which the mind slowly and grudgingly succumbs. But mind control only works when the subject cooperates. And cooperation requires that a reasonable person not know what's happening. You have to lead her where you want, but she needs to think she's going someplace else. In Vistar, self-help is the distraction.
To brainwash someone, you first have to break her. Both Level I and Level II: The Reach began by helping participants break themselves. Under the guise of identifying our obstacles, we were encouraged to catalog our failings and confront fellow participants about their own. Even though the early exercises and lectures were confusing, anyone who asked for an explanation was ridiculed--told to stop thinking so hard. Doubt, we were told, came from arrogance and certainty. Arrogance and certainty had caused our failures. Instead, we were supposed to trust the process, let ourselves go, and just be. There was a certain amount of relief in the idea.
According to experts who study groups like Vistar, people faced with stressful, incomprehensible situations begin to defer "ego functions" like logic and reason to the nearest available authority. In other words, Vistar participants quickly learn to rely on the trainer to interpret their reality. At this point, about two days in, the trainer starts to talk about responsibility. Vistar's philosophy is based on the assumption that you caused everything in your life, including the selection of your parents. The death of loved ones. Rape. Abuse. Job loss. All yours.
Psychologists Janice Haakken and Richard Adams published a paper about a Vistar-like seminar in Psychiatry magazine in August 1983. They found that introducing the concept of responsibility turns what had been an "infantile helplessness" among participants into an "infantile omnipotence," that allows "grandiose fantasies of unlimited power." In practical terms, this meant that suddenly I felt in control again. After two days of self-doubt, I believed there might be some hope for my future. It didn't mean I agreed with the whole Vistar worldview. I didn't have to. I just had to believe enough of it to keep participating.
Once we began to play along, our cooperation was rewarded with exercises that promoted intimacy and community. Presented with different situations, we were asked to "choose" how we would respond to each other. Feeling fully in control, we responded generously, which meant that exercises kept collapsing into group hugs. The more it happened, the more I wanted it to keep happening. The more it kept happening, the more central it became to my existence.
By the time I graduated from Level II, I was hooked. And I wasn't alone. Of the 34 who went through the first seminar with me, 20 returned for the second. Of those 20, 13 returned for the third. Some who dropped off stayed in touch and finished the training later that year.
Those who remained became the civilian equivalent of foxhole buddies. Increasingly under fire from our friends and family, we sought comfort and community among people who understood how we were trying to live. This informal support network included fellow seminar participants and, in increasing numbers, Vistar alumni from earlier seminars. At the end of Level II, the group linked arms to rock each person in a human cradle, telling them they were "unconditionally loved and accepted." It felt that way, too.
By that time, James and I had started to spend time together outside the seminars. We met for dinner or talked on the phone for hours at a time. I was certain that the Vistar seminars had laid the groundwork for a powerful and intimate relationship. I'd stopped thinking about my boyfriend, who was doing his best to keep our relationship going from half a world away.
Graduation from Level II fell on my 23rd birthday. We were supposed to invite family and friends to our graduation, and I took perverse pleasure in extending invitations to people I knew would never come. A few days later, one of those friends came over to use my computer. While he worked at my desk, I lay on the bed behind him and called each person from Level II. I had long, personal conversations, and before I hung up would always say, "I love you." I remember watching my friend's back. He didn't turn around once. He never said a thing. When he finished his paper, he said good night and left. I figure that was the day my friends wrote me off for good.
In 1969 John Hanley, a 23-year-old college student, was fined $1,000 by the U.S. District Court in Des Moines, Iowa, and placed on five years probation. The social-science major had been selling franchises for toilet-cleaning routes that didn't exist. In 1974, Hanley invented a three-course "human potential" training series, and then founded a company called Lifespring to sell it. Over the next 15 years, nearly a half-million people took the courses at branches around the country, including one in Minneapolis. The company ultimately raked in some $15 million a year.
More than 30 lawsuits were filed against Lifespring, alleging that the training had caused everything from emotional damage to psychotic breakdowns to suicide. The first unfavorable jury verdict came in 1984, when Deborah Bingham, a 30-year-old blackjack dealer, was awarded $800,000. She said she'd been in a psych ward for a month after attending two Lifespring courses. In 1982, after David Priddle jumped off a building, his family accepted an undisclosed sum; so did Artie Barnett's family, when Barnett, who couldn't swim, drowned as fellow participants egged him on. And Gail Renick's family received $450,000 after she died from an asthma attack during a training session. She had been led to believe her medication was unnecessary. Gabriella Martinez testified that she heard her trainer's voice in her head the night she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Lifespring settled the case out of court.
In 1980 ABC's 20/20 aired an investigation of Lifespring. It included an interview with cult expert Dr. John Clark of Harvard Medical School, who said the group practiced mind control and brainwashing. In 1987 Virginia Thomas, who is married to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, told the Washington Post she had had to hide out of state to get away from Lifespring. In 1990 KARE-TV (Channel 11) ran a segment called "Mind Games?" that Lifespring claimed was deceptive and sensationalized. (The Minnesota News Council rejected the company's claim.)
While trainings continued until the mid-Nineties in certain parts of the country, the lawsuits and the bad press crippled the company. In Minneapolis many Lifespring grads were sad, angry, and determined that the work should continue. One of them, Sue Hawkes, founded Vistar in partnership with two California-based Lifespring trainers. She ran the company out of her home in Plymouth. It's a good guess that Hawkes's idea was to grow Vistar into a self-help empire like Lifespring, where people took the training seminars in groups numbering several hundred. It never happened. During my involvement, Level I enrollments hovered between 15 and 50 people. Despite ample free labor, the company couldn't have been very profitable. Unlike Hanley, who invented the seminars for profit, everyone running Vistar had been through the program and they believed in it. I sometimes wonder if that's why they failed.
Today, all of the phone numbers associated with Vistar have been disconnected. There are no new directory listings, no Web pages, no evidence that the organization is still active in Minneapolis.
It hardly matters. There are approximately 3,000 groups like Vistar operating in the U.S. today. Exit counseling has become a viable career, and mind control is an academic subgenre, complete with schools of thought, theories, and counter-theories. Most people who study cults conclude that groups like Vistar's, classified as LGATs (Large Group Awareness Trainings), are pathological, but they disagree about the extent of the damage. Are they cults? Cultlike? In the 15 years since the American Psychological Association released a report condemning LGATs in general, and Lifespring in particular, no one has brokered a clear consensus. This might have something to do with the fact that specificity can be dangerous; lawsuits are an occupational hazard.
Last year the Phoenix New Times reported that Landmark Education, a company that markets a class similar to Vistar's--known as the Forum--was distributing a letter from UC Berkeley's Dr. Margaret Singer stating that their approach does not warrant cult status. The company had sued the professor emeritus of psychology for mentioning Landmark in her book Cults in Our Midst. As part of the settlement, she agreed to write the letter and strike references to the group in later editions of the book. She declined further comment to the New Times reporter, saying, "The SOBs have already sued me once."
Landmark trains 125,000 people annually in 100 cities worldwide, including Minneapolis.
On October 29, 1996, I wrote in my journal: "I know I am loved---deeply, and for the rest of my life---by all of these people in my Leadership Program, and by James...I am willing to devote my life to that love."
At that point I was halfway through Level III: The Edge. A seven-week program, Level III was advertised as an opportunity to practice the Vistar model of success in a group setting. It would teach participants to stretch the limits of what we believed to be achievable. After all, the only thing holding us back was the lies we told to keep ourselves small.
Level III was structured around a group challenge and a series of personal goals. The group was to raise $27,000 and use it to rehab an abandoned house in Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood. Individually, we each wrote a "Letter of Intention" or "LOI," setting multiple, measurable objectives in seven areas of our lives. Under "Work," I committed to finding a job. Under "Health," I dedicated myself to running twice a week, giving up dairy products, and eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. My LOI contained 22 goals in all.
Almost parenthetically, we were asked to commit to enrolling at least one person in one of several upcoming Level I seminars. After all, our success in enrollment would be the best indication of whether or not we "got" commitment. I committed to enrolling one person. Some people committed to as many as four.
It was a frenzied time. There were daily coaching calls with Vistar graduates called "seniors," who were not unlike camp counselors. There were daily calls with an assigned "buddy." There were weekend meetings to gauge our progress on the project. Weekdays, there were 5:00 a.m. meetings and midnight meetings. We were expected to demonstrate total commitment.
I spent every available moment at the house in Phillips, laying carpet, peeling wallpaper, plastering ceilings. When I wasn't working, I made phone calls or went out looking for people or money. One day, relying on family friends, various canvassing schemes, and sheer adrenaline, I raised more than $1,000 before a midnight meeting, most of it in cash. The money went into a bank account that was to be used for tools, supplies, and contractors. Other Level III participants reported that friends had accused them of fundraising for a cult. We rolled our eyes. People in the drift clearly didn't get it.
I don't know how those with full-time jobs and families managed it. On a good night, I got four hours of sleep. Awake, I tried to make the rest of the world work like Vistar, tried to generate the same love and connection. Walking down the street, I said hello to everyone. I made friends with the homeless men who rode my bus. I sat with them in the back and laughed.
I was exhausted, but I couldn't afford to stop. Tiredness was a lie, something I had to push through. Rather than withdraw from the group, I turned to it for coaching and support. When people did withdraw, missing a meeting or a phone conference, we bombarded them with calls or went looking for them. After all, we had promised to hold each other to greatness.
As the weeks ticked by, we grew frantic. We worked harder, slept less. Our seniors kept focusing on enrollment, and so we did too. We called people at midnight or at work. We approached strangers on the street. We offered to pay their fees if they would just give Vistar a chance. Between this recruiting and the house (and the rest of our lives), there was little time left for our personal goals--so we started to cheat. My buddy had committed to hiring a salesperson for her graphic-design business, and I had committed to finding a job. She hired me and we each crossed a goal off our list.
Finally, the seven weeks were up. We had raised the money, we had all but finished the house, and we got 53 new people to enroll in Vistar. The Star Tribune published an article about our house project and the family who was moving in: There were four kids, both parents were recovering addicts, and they moved in the day after Christmas. The first week of January, the father sold the house to drug dealers and took his family back to Mississippi. (Most Vistar-inspired success stories would last about as long.)
Meanwhile, I broke up with my boyfriend in early October and James and I started dating (starting a relationship was one of the goals on his LOI). One week later we were engaged. When I called my best friend to tell her, she hung up on me.
After graduation from Level III, my social life revolved around Vistar. The sense of community was staggering. When someone moved, dozens of people would help carry furniture. When you needed something, 50 people who would instantly drop whatever they were doing, whether you needed a shoulder to cry on, a ride, a meal, or help paying your property taxes. Everyone in Vistar believed in you. They showed up when they said they would. They delivered what they promised. Every week there were events packed with people who were thrilled to see you. There was nothing like it in the outside world.
Then again, in the outside world, my life was falling apart. I had an internship and some part-time work, but I was spending too much time working for Vistar to look for a job. I didn't have a car, health insurance, or money for food. The worse it got, the harder I worked the Vistar formula, which promised: Once you get enrollment, you get everything else. Desperate to master enrollment, I joined the Vistar sales team. But despite endless hours of phone calls, heart-to-heart talks with anyone I could corral, I failed. I never enrolled a soul. After a while, I became unhinged. I cried myself to sleep. I cried walking down the street. When I ran into old friends, I accused them of jumping to conclusions about Vistar. I told them my life was better than ever. I was beginning to doubt it myself, but what else could I say? If I told the truth, to myself or anyone else, I would never enroll anyone in the courses and my life would never work.
Things finally came to a head when I applied to senior a Level III. It was June, seven months after my own Level III graduation. And I was chosen, with one caveat: I had to enroll someone first. I spent two weeks trying. During the last two days I worked out of Sue Hawkes's basement in Plymouth, where Vistar was headquartered, cold-calling people from stacks of cards collected at various recruitment events. In between calls, I would set down the phone and weep. Just hours before the Level III kickoff, someone finally agreed to take the course and I copied down his credit-card number over the phone.
The following weeks brought a series of confrontations. The small group I was coaching wasn't enrolling anyone, and I was held responsible. One evening I was summoned to an emergency midnight meeting, where two staff members cataloged my failings in excruciating detail. I cried. I promised to try harder. A week later, there was another emergency meeting because I'd told someone I wanted to quit. I was attacked again. I promised again to stay and try harder.
A week later, two of my three fellow staff members skipped a 5:00 a.m. meeting. One of those absent was Hawkes, who ran Level III. Midway through the meeting, she called to lecture the participants about their lack of commitment. There was no speakerphone in the room, so she delivered her tirade, piece by piece, to the guy who answered the phone. Piece by piece, he delivered it to the rest of us. It was absurd. Still, I wasn't planning to quit that day. I was just tired. There was a staff meeting scheduled for 8:00 p.m., and that afternoon, I took a nap. While I was asleep, a storm knocked out the power. It took out the alarm and the cordless phone. Messages piled up in my voicemail. I slept until the next morning.
The next day, in an ugly, curt telephone call, I was removed from my position. I was both elated and mortified. Mostly, I was relieved. I figured I would take a break and then throw myself back into Vistar. I would try even harder. After all, that's what a lot of people did.
My deprogramming happened by accident. A week after I lost my position as a Level III senior, I was in Barnes & Noble when the word cult caught my eye. When I picked up a book called Cults in Our Midst, I felt triumphantly traitorous, until I came to a detailed description of Level I. I put the book back and fled. Later that same night, I went to a different bookstore. Another cult book. Another description of Level I. I visited several more bookstores in the next month. It was awhile before I could bring myself to believe it, much less buy it.
After I had read the books, I told James that we had been conned. It took him some time to come around. We talked about it for months. We planned a lawsuit. We planned to blow the whistle. When we heard that Vistar had scheduled a teen seminar, we planned a disruption. In the end, these plans went nowhere.
One reason people stay in cults even when the experience is deeply painful is that it can be far more psychologically painful to admit to being unreasonable and wrong. For me, throwing off mind control was a matter of education and time. I learned that what keeps people in difficult and painful situations is an unwillingness to admit that they might have made poor choices. Before long I applied the same logic to my marriage. James and I were married in July 1998. Shortly thereafter, he started drinking heavily. We fought about it for a year, and then I left. Eventually we agreed that without Vistar, we never would have married.
During my marriage and afterward, I had nightmares in which I would suddenly find myself in a training room. I would know what was coming, and I would know there was nothing I could do. I felt a similar dread each time I spotted Vistar people around town. I didn't feel safe until I moved out of state.
One day, in the thick of my Vistar involvement, I was downtown with a fellow grad. We were talking about a WCCO-TV employee who had gone through the Vistar program with me. She mentioned the media coverage that had brought down Lifespring. "I've always wondered if Beth was in undercover," she said thoughtfully. I was immediately certain it was true. Though I didn't say it out loud, I wondered: "Could we kill her?"
I was reminded of that conversation last summer, three years after leaving Vistar. Late at night, driving home, I was sitting at a stop sign when a passenger in a white van behind me leaned out the window with a gun. He fired 12 times before I managed to drive off. My first thought, when I had one, was that people who shoot at you 12 times probably want to kill you. And it would be just like someone in Vistar to tackle a job with great enthusiasm and no expertise. I had recently pitched my story to a City Pages editor in a public place. Had the wrong person overheard?
As it turned out, it wasn't Vistar--just wrong place, wrong time. You could say I'm familiar with the concept.
Editor's note: All but two of the names used in this story were changed to protect privacy. James is the author's ex-husband's real name. Sue Hawkes did run Vistar out of her home in Plymouth.
The other day I was invited to an "awareness training" seminar. I have always looked on them with some degree of scepticism (and even alarm, when I recently saw a group of people in one taking part in a fire-walking exercise). The person inviting me began to describe how ‘intense’ the programme was and happened to mention that there were limited breaks for food or to go to the bathroom. That immediately set off alarm bells: restraint from bathroom breaks, sleep deprivation, food rationing, working people to exhaustion, emotional abuse and group pressure are techniques widely reported to have been used by nice folk such as David Koresh and Jim Jones. I’m also wary of any intensely emotional experiences that involve crowds: they are almost always manipulative hokum that end in people losing money.
I thought I’d read up on the group involved, see if there was anything to my gut feeling. Turns out I was right to be wary of the methods used in many of these programmes. Many take their methods from the pioneering work of Werner Erhard’s est (Erhard Seminar Training and Latin for "it is"), one of the more successful entrants in the human potential movement. Some people found the approach used in est to be abusive, profane, demeaning and authoritarian. Many large group awareness training programmes have toned this down but they often remain high-pressure, authoritarian outfits, drive primarily by the need to recruit more people to attend more expensive seminars.
Consider the words of one of the few groups of researchers to conduct any scientific studies on these seminars (more reliable than testimonials):
"Many of those who seek out self-help programmes are troubled already. There is evidence that many of those who sign up for LGAT programmes are having major problems in their lives. Y Klar, R Mendola, JD Fischer, RC Silver, JM Chinsky and B Goff, reported in the Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology [990; 58(1): 99-108] that:
"A study was conducted to assess the psychosocial characteristics of individuals who become involved in large group awareness training (LGAT) programmes. Results revealed that prospective participants were significantly more distressed than peer and normative samples of community residents and had a higher level of impact of recent negative life events compared with peer (but not normative) samples.
"People who are having problems, are dissatisfied, feel unfulfilled, desire direction, etc., are the kind of people who sign up for seminars that will help them. It is almost inevitable that the vast majority of people who would get involved be in some sort of distress. Likewise, by "regression" we would expect many people to have upswings and experience fewer problems, be more satisfied and fulfilled, feel less lost, etc., after periods of distress. It is predictable that many participants in self-growth programmes will attribute their sense of improvement to the programmes they’ve taken, but much of their reasoning may be post hoc. Furthermore, their sense of improvement might not be matched by improved behaviour. Just because they feel they’ve benefited doesn’t mean they have. Research has shown that the feelings of do not correspond to beneficial changes in behaviour."
Psychological Recovery From Mental Abuse
Written by: Gordon, Ruth Posted on: 05/01/2003
Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics
Psychological Recovery From Mental Abuse by Ruth Gordon
Psychological and social techniques are used to induce people to join groups, change their behavior and maintain them as prisoners (this occurs mostly in intense, closed and totalistic groups). This is the case regarding not only cults, but also large group awareness training programs, thought reform programs and social influence programs, which are infiltrating training programs for business and industry.
There are certain issues of recovery for people coming out of the types of groups where there has been a high level of control. They come out and have three distinctly different belief systems that have to be integrated and reconciled: the value system that they took with them in the group, what they were taught while in the group, and those two systems must be reconciled with a third one, namely the current situation. These often are three very different sets of values.
The consequence of having been in these groups causes what is termed cognitive inefficiencies. Regardless of how smart or educated individuals might have been upon entering the cult, because of things that happened while they were in, results in them having tremendous trouble studying or concentrating.
It is hard for them to maintain reflective thought and sequential reasoning, to get a sense of planning ahead, to be motivated, or have a sense of self-agency.
Most people don't need psychotherapy, they need education and information. They need someone to help them learn what it was that happened to them that changed the way their mind and thinking works, and what it is that is causing these floods of emotion, for no good reason, to just come pouring out of their awareness.
Those people coming out have a heightened fear of getting involved with any other group that might control them. There is also a battle with guilt and feelings of defectiveness. Cults harp on perfection. You can't be in a cult and not continually fail.
Blaming themselves is a second set of berating, first from the leader of the group, and second from exiting and thinking there's a defect within them.
Former cultists are under-experienced in dealing with conflict. While in the group they were not allowed to disagree with leadership. When they exit, even minor arguments are exaggerated and differences of opinion are viewed as a major conflict. Children and teenagers that come out of cults need to understand that they were taught to dislike non-members of their group, as well as relatives. They need help reconnecting with grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Teenagers have difficulty coming under the authority of their parents because they were raised under the leader's authoritarian, dogmatic ways, and they saw their parents being put down. Parents must reestablish their role as parental authority. Parents also need to deal with their guilt elsewhere and not through their parenting.
Teens also are behind in learning how to compromise, mediate differences and conflict resolving they never saw their parents exercising conflict resolution.
25% of the millions of cult members worldwide "will suffer enduring, irreversible harm that will affect their ability to function adequately in emotional, social, family, and occupational domains," according to Dr. Martin. For every person who becomes a cult member, many more are impacted; parents, children, other family, and friends suffer personal and often economic loss.
People can be exit-counseled even ten years after they've come out. An exit-counselor is usually a former cult member who has gone through some apprenticeship training, understands thought reform programs, and has tremendous knowledge about all the different kinds of cults.
The recovery from floods, fire, and divorce often takes about two years. For many former cultists it takes about two years before you can even begin to work on some of the above areas. In the meantime, work on your inner spirit (The above is a summary of the video: Recovery From Mind Control video summary, Dr. Margaret Singer, Cult Awareness Network Annual Conference, 1991, Oklahoma City, OK).