Roger Willco

Tin Promises - Cultic Influences, Part 5 of 6

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The MLM culture I experienced included a symbiosis with self-help and prosperity cults, which seem to orbit its periphery in order to exploit a population made vulnerable by its already-suspended ability to think critically. The MLM events I attended often featured motivational speakers who encouraged listeners’ involvement in these cults. The pursuit of material wealth was central to MLM’s message; and high-level distributors pushed neophytes to read books and listen to audio programs authored by cult gurus. The relationship between MLM and cults seems to be a vicious circle. MLM promotes self-help and prosperity cults, which in turn, promote MLM. Some critics refer to this unholy syndicate as “The Big Sick Machine”.

In our later years together, Danni had become so consumed by her appetite for self-help and prosperity-focused books and CDs that she accumulated sizable libraries of them. Always a student, Danni did her hour-long morning fitness workouts to the accompaniment of her CDs; and our hours on the road were serenaded by her chosen gurus’ voices droning nonstop over the car stereo. Danni called it our “university on wheels”; but for me, it was a disappointing departure from her delightful and well-informed commentary about the natural and man-made wonders she noticed on our travels in happier times. I’d always been fascinated by Danni’s ability to identify any crop growing in a field a half mile away, and describe it’s growing season and the weather conditions necessary for it to flourish. When it came to nature, she was a virtual encyclopedia.

Four years into our relationship, Danni decided to participate in a “personal-growth” seminar offered in a distant city by an organization her MLM associates heartily endorsed. In late-night phone calls to me while she was away, she recounted a highly regimented schedule from early morning until at least nine o’clock at night and sometimes until eleven. That regimentation even extended to bathroom breaks. Much of the curriculum Danni described made sense. However, I found the absence of trained and licensed psychological counselors at the exercises involving deep personal disclosure and other challenges to emotional vulnerability disturbing.

I was also concerned about the virtual deification of the program’s leader among his followers. It was the same sort of reverence MLM participants seemed to have for their companies’ founders. After her return home, Danni began to receive CDs from the seminar’s producers through the mail. They consisted of motivational messages from their guru and his inspirational interviews with various prosperity gurus and MLM leaders.

Danni went on to attend three more seminars in the next twelve months to complete the series. Again, she described legitimate fear challenges that made sense to me. However, the schedules were highly regimented from early morning until late at night, just as they were in the first seminar.

Shortly before she attended her final seminar, I went with Danni to one of the program’s half-day introductory workshops. Throughout the workshop, I recognized the same sort of psychosocial deprogramming I’d experienced twenty years earlier in basic training at the beginning of my hitch in the U.S. Army. I saw firsthand the indignity imposed on attendees by an authoritarian facilitator—a tall, fit and stern-faced young man I’ll call “Adolf”. Wearing a well-tailored grey suit and marching purposefully up and down the center aisle, he barked orders to his assistants and to us. The only things missing in his drill-sergeant impression were shades and a flat-brimmed campaign hat tilted forward atop his shock of blond hair. I can’t recall that he cracked a smile at any point in the workshop—all in all, not my idea of a fun time.

At the end of the workshop, Adolf gave a recruiting pitch for the first seminar, complete with the fee “discounting” that is so familiar to anyone who’s experienced similar workshops. I don’t remember the claimed dollar value of the seminar; but it was in the thousands. By the time Adolf finished his spiel—“This course is worth $xx,xxx. How many of you would sign up today if we offered you this outstanding opportunity for $x,xxx?” —the fee had “dropped” to $500. Were I to observe a similar workshop today, I would recognize many clues that would suggest the organization was a cult. However, I hadn’t yet learned enough to realize I had briefly stepped into that netherworld.

I understand that the necessary purpose of military training is to ultimately reprogram new soldiers to follow orders without question, to overcome fear, and to make it possible for them to participate in the horrors of combat without intolerable guilt. However, I wondered what reprogramming participants in this series of self-help seminars underwent. Aaaah . . . but that was a secret.

Danni came away happy with the overall experience and with noticeable changes in her attitude—some that seemed good and some not so good. She was more self-confident; but she had also become recalcitrant in her refusal to accept any information coming from outside her cultural bubble or which countered her MLM-prescribed biases. Danni’s ability to think critically about anything coming from inside her bubble seemed to be completely wiped out. One positive was her inclusion in an accountability group, established in the first seminar. The group initially conferred by phone every week. However, that fell apart after just a few conferences. Regrettably, Danni was also $12,000 poorer for her adventure.

A few months later, Danni’s 17-year old son, Ethan, signed up for the first in the cult’s series of seminars—this particular one tailored to adolescents. He too came away happy that he’d attended and convinced he’d gained a lot from it.

Fast-forward four years. Ethan was doing exceptionally well in college. He was brilliant, talented, athletic, highly motivated and self-directed—much like his mother. Amid all this good news, came a troubling development. Ethan had begun exhibiting episodes of bizarre behavior that prompted his dad to have a psychiatrist examine him. The doctor’s diagnosis was “high-functioning schizophrenia”. Ethan was never able to acknowledge his disease; and tragically, he declined treatment.

Note: I don’t for a moment think that his years-earlier encounter with the self-help cult was the cause of his illness. Schizophrenia is an organic disease of the physical brain, not an environmentally induced disease of the intangible mind.

It wasn’t long after Ethan’s struggles came to light that Danni and I terminated our relationship. We had stayed in touch; and a year later, we were working to salvage our long-standing friendship from the wreckage of our failed relationship. I had relocated to a nearby community where I was rebuilding my life. My vengeful anger had softened; and I was now motivated by a compassionate determination to help others avoid the devastation I’d seen victims of the MLM industry suffer.

One evening, while relaxing after a day of writing and online research, I received a call from Danni. In a trembling voice, barely understandable through her agonized sobs, she told me what she could of a story that broke my heart.

(To be continued )

© 2014, Roger Willco, All rights reserved.

Links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6
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Updated 12-28-2015 at 07:32 PM by Roger Willco

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