Did self-help course lead to woman's suicide?

Associated Press/October 10, 2009

Sydney - The young woman stood naked in her downtown office building, swaying next to an open window. Her final words were sudden and calm: "I know I am going to jump."

Rebekah Lawrence burst into song and leaped out the window.

Lawrence died that day. But her mind had begun to show cracks a few days before, during an intense self-help seminar called The Turning Point.

The course had pledged to change her life. Instead, some say, it led to her death.

For nearly 40 years, the mental health community has kept a wary eye on the explosion of self-help groups around the world. But despite concerns they can push the fragile too hard, too fast, these groups operate unmonitored and unregulated, most run by people with no formal mental health training.

In the four years since Lawrence's fatal plunge, investigators for an inquest into her death have focused on a key issue: Was a course to blame for her psychosis and death? Or did the 34-year-old woman's descent into madness begin earlier, triggered by an ungranted wish to have a child?

Lawrence grew up along Sydney's northern beaches and received an archaeology degree from the University of Sydney.

She met David Booth on a blind date in 1996. A few weeks later, they moved in together.

In 1999, Lawrence proposed. He agreed reluctantly; he already had a son, Jarrod, from a previous marriage.

Seven years into the relationship, Lawrence brought up the idea of children. Booth was angry; Jarrod was nearly out of high school and the prospect of starting over with a baby was daunting. And so he told her children were not an option.

They fought about it every month; Lawrence, then 33, struggled over whether to leave.

A friend suggested the couple attend a course called "The Turning Point," run by People Knowhow, a Sydney self-development company. The program had worked miracles for her marriage, the friend said.

On its Web site, People Knowhow says the course has helped 40,000 people achieve work-life balance, greater emotional intelligence and loving relationships.

The couple was curious, but tucked the suggestion away.

In 2004, Lawrence sought counseling. Her therapist, Helen Mitrofanis, later told police Lawrence was lonely and anxious over whether to have children. She wondered whether her life had been pointless.

In October 2005, Lawrence finally paid the 695 Australian dollar ($600) fee for the four-day Turning Point course. She wanted guidance on her conflicting feelings over children, and resolution to her anxiety over friendships and habit of blushing.

The friend who had suggested The Turning Point was pleased, Booth says, but warned Lawrence that she had felt unsettled after the course.

For years, mental health professionals have tried to determine if any link exists between some self-help seminars and participants who later suffered psychosis. But the research has offered few answers.

In the early 1970s, entrepreneurs began offering courses to teach people how to unlock their untapped potential. Emergency rooms began reporting scattered cases of participants turning up in psychotic states.

But because most self-development companies bill their courses as educational rather than therapeutic, they are not subject to the same regulations as counselors or psychologists.

People Knowhow's officials have no formal psychological training. Director Geoff Kabealo has a degree in business administration; Turning Point leader Richard Arthur has a degree in computer science.

The first of Lawrence's four sessions with Turning Point took place on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2005.

Over the next few days, Booth began noticing subtle changes in his wife. At his office Christmas party, she hid behind a wall and asked to leave immediately. Her sleep grew fitful.

Turning Point officials later told investigators students took part in a session called "the inner child," during which Arthur asked them to close their eyes as he talked them back through their memories of childhood. Arthur told police the exercise was supposed to show participants the beauty of their younger selves.

Lawrence's last Turning Point session was Sunday and Booth was in bed when she bounded into the house around midnight.

"David!" she called as she hurried down the hall. "I can SING!"

She burst into the room and began belting out Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All."

Booth stared at his wife. Something was wrong.

Lawrence was painfully shy about singing. As a child, she'd even mouthed the words to songs in the school choir.

Course officials had advised participants to take a day off work to readjust after completing the program. Booth stayed home that Monday, too, to keep her company. But her behavior grew stranger.

Her voice was dreamy and childlike. She couldn't recognize her favorite song or remember what her husband meant by "the usual" at their favorite Lebanese restaurant. And she tried to command their dog Maddie with her mind.

Booth was getting frustrated. What was happening to his wife?

Walter Bellin developed the Turning Point program in 1980. He hasn't been involved with the course since 1988, but remembers it as "very intense," with a focus on connecting participants with their childhoods.

But critics say "regressing" a person to a childlike state - typically via hypnosis - can cause distress and even implant false memories.

The therapy usually encourages people to recall traumatic events - which can leave them unstable, says Robert deMayo, Associate Dean of Psychology at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology in Los Angeles. And if those people aren't monitored by professionals, he says, the results can be disastrous.

Bellin says only those who underwent a medical exam and signed a contract stating they were not in psychological treatment were allowed into the original program.

"We didn't know whether there was any danger," he says of the course. "But we didn't want to take the chance."

At 3 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 20, Booth awoke to the sounds of his wife drawing in deep breaths.

"I'm having fear of death," she said.

Lawrence rang Jameson Wright, one of two on-call Turning Point volunteers. She got his voice mail.

"I've just had a really awful experience surrounding death," she said in her message. "And I feel really - I've been touched by something really awful. And every time I shut my eyes and go into that feeling, I just don't know."

Lawrence called the second volunteer, Pam Berwick, who later told police an agitated Lawrence talked of a strict upbringing and a movie she had seen about exorcisms.

Berwick advised her to have a cup of tea and a warm shower, and be kind to herself. Lawrence returned to bed.

In the car on the way to work that morning, Lawrence told Booth The Turning Point had taken her back to her childhood and helped her resolve her issues with friends. It had also helped convince her that she did not want to be a mother.

Booth was unnerved - her voice was still strange and childlike, her demeanor detached and dreamy.

"When are you going to be yourself again?" he asked.

"I'll never be myself again," she replied.

She opened the door, stepped out - and was nearly struck by a passing car.

"Be careful, Rebekah!"

"Don't you worry about me, David," she assured him. Then she turned and walked into her office.

It was the last time he saw her alive.

In Australia, a coroner investigates unusual deaths in court-like proceedings called an inquest. The report into Lawrence's death is due Oct. 16.

Lawrence's loved ones insist the link between The Turning Point and her death is obvious. She had no history of mental illness, and an autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in her system. Forensic psychiatrist Michael Diamond found for the inquest that course officials failed to recognize warning signs in Lawrence's behavior.

Turning Point officials declined to comment, but in police interviews they denied their program was to blame.

During the inquest, the lawyers for Turning Point officials insisted her behavior was brought on by an undiagnosed condition and the stress of a loudly ticking biological clock. Kabealo, the company director, said Lawrence was the only such tragedy out of 40,000 course graduates.

But Robert Bromwich, the lawyer assisting the coroner, told the court that one year after Lawrence's death, a man was found dead in the Australian city of Wollongong after completing The Turning Point. The man was naked, Bromwich said, and had died of self-inflicted stab wounds.

Couldn't Kabealo see a link between the two cases? Bromwich asked.

Kabealo acknowledged he could see the "nexus," but maintained the origins of Lawrence's breakdown lie elsewhere.

"If somebody is psychotic, then they were psychotic before the course," Arthur told police. "Courses like this don't make people psychotic."

The details of what happened inside Lawrence's office during her final hours can be found in her court file.

Minutes after arriving, she called People Knowhow and left a message for Kabealo. She would call the group several dozen more times. She also called her boss in Germany, and rambled about The Turning Point.

Around 11 a.m., she and supervisor Peggy Sanders arrived late to a meeting, where one of their waiting colleagues remarked, "Speak of the devil."

"Peggy is not the devil!" Lawrence said loudly.

Just before 5 p.m., Booth called his wife to tell her he was running late to pick her up. Something made her laugh, and he brightened.

"Wow!" he said. "It's so good to hear that laugh again!"

"David, I'm all right," she replied, and hung up.

Ten minutes later, Lawrence spoke to Kabealo on the phone. Kabealo later informed investigators she sounded joyful - so joyful, he told his wife that night how well Lawrence had done with The Turning Point.

Sanders was sitting in her office around 5:30 when she heard, "Peggy, I love you."

Lawrence was standing in her doorway, naked.

"I'm all right, Peggy," Lawrence said in a singsong voice. "I'm all right. Don't worry."

She skipped out of the room.

In the bathroom, Lawrence asked Sanders to help her dress. Abruptly, she turned aggressive.

"GET AWAY!" Lawrence shrieked, shoving Sanders into the wall.

Lawrence's co-workers began leaving frantic messages for Booth at home; he had no cell phone. No one knew he was sitting in his car on the street below, wondering where his wife was. Figuring she'd taken the train, he drove home.

Back at the office, Lawrence had again stripped naked and swayed next to an open window. Two paramedics approached but she cursed and shrieked.

"I love you, David," Lawrence said.

And then: "I know I am going to jump."

No one had time to react.

She never put her arms out to brace her fall.

In the ICU, Booth clutched his wife's hand until it grew cold. Then he called a Turning Point official. "What have you done?" he demanded. The official, Booth says, told him the group had done nothing wrong.

He wishes he had gone into her office instead of driving home. He wishes he had agreed to have her child.

"It broke her mind," Booth, now 42, says of the course. "Fractured her mind somehow. And I don't understand it."

He hopes the coroner will recommend regulation of the self-help industry, but says whatever Turning Point officials may have done was not intentional.

"I know she's around," he says, looking out over the harbor they loved. "I know she exists somewhere else on the other side. And I know I'll see her again."

On the last day of the inquest's hearings, the Web site for People Knowhow was taken down. In its place was a message: the company is reviewing its programs and systems.

"Our new website," it promises, "will soon be launched."

Narrative scenes were reconstructed based on interviews with Rebekah Lawrence's husband, David Booth, and sister, Kate-Lawrence Haynes, and documents in her court file, including transcripts of police interviews with witnesses, Turning Point officials and students, Lawrence's therapist Helen Mitrofanis, family members, co-workers and friends; police evidence including police reports, crime scene photos and Lawrence's autopsy report; copies of e-mails between Lawrence and family members; psychiatrist Michael Diamond's report to the inquiry; court transcripts; and the reporter's own observations in coroner's court.

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