Not to be confused with a leap of faith
Let me say right off that this is not a terribly new story; in recent weeks I haven't been on top of things as much as I would like, so I'm definitely late to this party. I got a nudge the other day from one of my Aussie pals*, who said that the subject of this post is a hot-button topic in Oz right now. The big issue, which is one we've wrestled with on my side of the globe as well, is the fact that egregiously unqualified people are conducting "therapy" in the guise of self-improvement seminars. And sometimes the results are tragic.
The headlines in the Australian press couldn't be more lurid: Shy young wife in naked death leap. Now, that's the kind of headline that really garners attention. (And I can imagine humorist Dave Barry's response: "'Naked Death Leap'" would be a great name for a rock band.")
But there is a very sad story behind those titillating headlines. In December of 2005, a 34-year-old Australian woman named Rebekah Lawrence, described by many as normally shy, modest, and polite, took off her clothes at work, hurled insults at her coworkers, shouted out her love to her husband David, and jumped out an office window, plunging to her death. No alcohol or other drugs were found in her system, and she did not have a history of psychiatric problems. Yet according to at least one forensic psychiatrist, she was clearly in a state of psychosis.
A couple of days earlier, Rebekah had completed an intensive $695.00 "experiential" self-help course called The Turning Point, which, among other things, focused on bringing out one's inner child. It was one of those screaming/crying/pummeling-the-pillow deals, designed to leave people raw and tender. The course was led by a guy named Richard Arthur, who was paid $3,000.00 to lead the class Rebekah was in. Richard had impressive qualifications: he had taken a couple of psychology courses when studying for his Bachelor of Science in Computers degree, and had attended the Turning Point and other similar courses. (I'm thinking that if he'd purchased a couple of phony doctorates he could have commanded a bigger fee, but I digress.)
At an interview conducted during the inquest in August of this year, Richard admitted that although the course was designed to improve the quality of people's lives by "developing emotional maturity, intelligence and soulfulness," he was, in light of "circumstances," no longer certain about its safety. You can read more about his responses here.
Rebekah attended the course for five days, for up to twelve hours a day. After a highly emotional inner-child session on the third day, she became teary and upset, according to testimony at the inquest. Teachers and support staff weren't concerned, since the inner-child exercises were always emotional, and people often screamed and cried and raged. One support volunteer noticed Rebekah crying after the session, and went to speak to her. "I supported her in feeling what she was feeling," he said. (Uh-huh. That's what they always say. SNAGs are nothing if not "supportive.")
A couple of days after completing the course, Rebekah wasn't feeling any better. In fact she was feeling a lot worse, and made a series of distraught phone calls to People KnowHow, the company behind the Turning Point course. (As you'll see if you follow that link, People KnowHow's web site is apparently in the process of being revamped, no doubt because of the recent troubles.) Rebekah left messages saying that she was having some "awful experiences surrounding death." Five days before Christmas of 2005, just before four o'clock in the morning, she left a voice mail saying, "I've been touched by something really awful and every time I shut my eyes and go into that feeling I just see awful stuff." When she finally reached a live person, another volunteer support worker, the support person told her to take a warm shower, have a hot drink and ''be gentle on herself."
Legal counsel for Turning Point has said that it wasn't the course that sent Rebekah over the edge; it was the fact that she felt her biological clock ticking, wanted to have a baby, and her hubby didn't want one. Opposing counsel countered that this is a pretty lame story, saying that Rebekah and her husband had been dealing with this dilemma quite well, as countless other couples do, and were actually pretty happy together.
In the wake of the inquest there has been a great deal of discussion in the Aussie media about whether or not self-help seminars like the Turning Point should be regulated more heavily. One of the main points that has come out during the investigation is that none of the teachers or support personnel involved with Rebekah's course were qualified to detect the onset of psychosis in participants.
It turns out that Rebekah is not the only person whose death is now being linked to the Turning Point. Eighteen years before that, a 24-year-old man had jumped naked out of a window after taking a course run by the creator of the Turning Point Program. And about a year after Rebekah's death, a Korean student who had also taken the Turning Point Course was found naked in his apartment, dead of multiple self-inflicted stab wounds.
"Oh, but these are extreme examples, Cosmic Connie," you might be saying. "We shouldn't damn the entire industry just because a few whack jobs slip through the cracks, or jump out windows, as the case may be. That would be like damning the entire auto industry because some people text while driving and plow down little old grannies. Or it would be like damning the entire recreational-substances industry because some people get addicted, or overdose."
Moreover, some might hasten to add, most of these experiential self-help seminars are careful to state in their literature and on their web sites that they are not for everybody, and that people who have serious psychological or psychiatric issues should not participate. Most even have participants answer detailed questionnaires and/or sign some sort of waiver. In other words, the onus is on the participant to tell the truth about his or her mental and physical health, and to accept full responsibility for anything that happens during or after the course in question.
That all sounds nice if you say it fast, and hey, I'm all for personal responsibility. But one problem with these seminars and just about everything else in the New-Wage/selfish-help industry is this: While the disclaimers are whispered out of one side of the mouth (or written in fine print on one page of the web site), what comes out of the other side are the loud (or large-point-size) proclamations that THIS technique or path or technology or course or workshop or whatever will improve the quality of your life and deliver miracles – whoever you are, and no matter what your problem is. Add a bunch of poetic marketing copy, and throw in a few filmy trailers with mystical music and special effects interspersed with ecstatic testimonials from "graduates," and you have a very powerful emotional cocktail. Disclaimer, schmisclaimer.**
The manipulation doesn't stop once the marks have signed up and paid; in fact, it's just beginning. There's manipulation to get participants to spend even more money for additional products, "graduate" classes, and other next-level stuff. But there's an even bigger problem, and it is the crux of the present controversy: the one-size-fits-all therapizing, which is conducted all too often by unlicensed, under-qualified facilitators/leaders/teachers/gurus.
What's the solution? More laws, or just more warnings and disclaimers, more prominently displayed? I tend towards wanting the latter, but I do think that, overall, there is way too little accountability in the selfish-help industry. People such as my pal John Curtis, of Americans Against Self-Help Fraud, think that here in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission's truth-in-advertising regs should be applied to the selfish-help industry.
You'll just have to decide for yourself. Meanwhile, take a look at this video of this segment from the August 30 edition of Australia's 60 Minutes. In the video, Rebekah Lawrence's widower David describes his wife's bizarre actions and state of mind in the time between "graduating" from the Turning Point brainwashing and leaping out that window.
I have a feeling that Turning Point's days in Australia are numbered. But there's always the U.S., the world capital of New-Wage gullibility. So keep your eyes open, my fellow Americans, and keep your inner child, your outer adult, and your pocketbook shielded from the grifters who are far more interested in taking your money than in liberating your soul.
* * * * *
As I implied in my prelude above, I'm hardly the first one to hop on this story. It's been the topic of a spirited discussion on Rick Ross' forum for a few weeks, and, not unexpectedly, The Crack Emcee at The Macho Response has tackled it as well.
* Thanks to "Abalanceofhope" for alerting me to this story.
** Besides, by all accounts, Rebekah Lawrence was about as far from a "whack job" as a person can get. She had problems, as we all do, but nothing that would, in normal circumstances, make her kill herself.