"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: Some names in this story have been changed to protect privacy.