Whirled Musings

Across the Universe with Cosmic Connie, aka Connie L. Schmidt...or maybe just through the dung-filled streets and murky swamps of pop culture -- more specifically, the New-Age/New-Wage crowd, pop spirituality & religion, pop psychology, self(ish)-help, business babble, media silliness, & related (or occasionally unrelated) matters of consequence. Hope you're wearing boots. (By the way, the "Cosmic" bit in my moniker is IRONIC.)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't be so sure about America being the New-Wage capital of the world. Australia is very rapidly (through the rise of self-appointed "New age Gurus") becoming a training ground for new money hungry self-help enthusiasts looking for a piece of the new-age pie. It would appear that Rhonda Byrnes and David Schirmer are direct examples of this greed inspiration, having been instrumental in the formation of the most successful (in profit, at least) new-wage informercial of all time. I have no doubt others are out there looking at the success of "the secret" with envious eyes. As you've reported many times Connie, numerous other attempts have been made to revamp the same tired message in hopes of achieving the same profit as the secret - the Opus, etc etc etc.
Not that I want to go off topic, but it does seem that Australia is becoming a world leader in the fully-fledged new-wage industry. It's anyone's guess as to why - whether aussies are naturally gullible and there's a market for these shams, or whether our laws are just too relaxed to regulate the industry, as you have also pointed out at times.
Either way, it's remarkable at how far some of these self-help "experts" can roll before people start asking questions. It's mildly akin to World War 2, where Hitler annexed Austria and invaded Poland before the world suddenly stood up and noticed. Who knows how long it's going to take to make us all notice this.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 7:06:00 AM  
Blogger RevRon's Rants said...

Placing responsibility upon participants for their own instability is ludicrous. One should bear in mind that an individual experiencing a psychotic episode is typically the last one to recognize it. Their behavior & thought processes seem perfectly reasonable to them, no matter how bizarre they might appear to everyone else.

Guiding another in their efforts to get in touch with their "subconscious" or their "inner child" constitutes therapy, and I truly believe that at least a minimal degree of educational background should be required - at least sufficient to recognize when someone is wandering into potentially destructive territory.

Even ministers are typically required to take some psychology courses to make them aware of danger signs, and the honorable ones will advise their congregants to seek professional help when appropriate. Too many unqualified New Age gurus, however, will glaze over even obvious pathologies, adopting condescension when intelligent compassion is called for. These folks, IMO, should be just as liable for the damage that results from their malpractice as is a physician who harms a patient. Whether the damage is the result of carelessness, ignorance, or outright malfeasance is of little import. The damage is done, and lives can be ruined or even lost.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 7:25:00 AM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Good points, Abalance, and no, you didn't go off topic at all. But I think the selfish-help/New-Wage connection between Australia and the US is really a two-way street.

Some of the goo begins Down Under and seeps out to infest the larger world, "The Secret" being the prime example (although most of the "stars" were Americans).

On the other hand, some New-Wage hucksters who began in the US have arguably found greater success in Australia and New Zealand. I'm thinking of Gary Douglas, who began the ACCESS scam in California in the early 1990s, but seems to have really gotten a foothold in Australia.

(Which reminds me, I need to do an update on those jokers. Among other things, Gary's bidness partner, "Dr. Dain," is offering an Orgasm teleclass this month. Yuck.)

Some people have been asking questions about all of this selfish-help stuff for a long time, despite obstacles (e.g., in your country, some who have criticized David Schirmer have been silenced by his threats to sic his anti-defamation barristers on them). But obviously, the hucksters are selling to a hungry market, and truly, it's a toss-up whether Americans or Australians are more gullible.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Ron wrote:
"Too many unqualified New Age gurus, however, will glaze over even obvious pathologies, adopting condescension when intelligent compassion is called for."

Amen, and I bet you and I could think of a few examples right off. ;-)

I agree that it is wrong to place all responsibility on the participants, but I also think some reactions are unpredictable. In the case of Rebekah Lawrence, she had no history of psychotic episodes. While this fact might seem to let whoever signed her up off the hook, it does lend credence to the claim that the course was responsible for her tragic end. It certainly appears that Turning Point is generally at fault for not having properly qualified people running the classes or staffing the support team.

Ever since Werner Erhard started it all with est, there have been questions about responsibility/liability regarding these LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) schemes. Since Rebekah's case has received so much coverage in Australia, I'm thinking it really will have an influence on their laws concerning the selfish-help industry. It remains to be seen, however, if this story will even be a blip on the radar in the US. I have a feeling it will just be business as usual on these shores, until and unless some large group commits suicide as a result of some wacko guru... Wait. I guess that's already happened a few times too, and yeah, it's still bidness as usual. ("Oh, but we're not like THOSE crazies.")

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous disillusioned said...

Some irony in the moniker 'People Knowhow'
These LGAT set-ups are expressly about stripping down an individual's personality, destabilising the sense of who they are--the facilitators cannot then claim not to know that the stripping down might cause problems for some participants.

We're actually none of us immune to instability in this area, the most sane and stable character can crumble under such a psychological onslaught. These LGAT techniques were lifted wholesale from psychological experiments intended to produce for the military forces a means of interrogation and thought reform that avoided the ethical problems (and bodily evidence) of physical torture.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 4:55:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

You're right, Disillusioned; nobody is immune to being shaken up by this sort of thing. Of course that's supposed to be the whole point, and it's billed as a good thing, a way of ridding oneself of illusions and getting closer to one's truth. Or something like that. And that's why people by the hundreds of thousands -- not just in the US, but in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc. -- have willingly subjected themselves to the LGAT experience in some form. I am sure that for many it is an exhilarating and perhaps even liberating experience...for a while, anyway, till the high wears off and it's time for the next fix. For others, it might take just one bad LGAT experience to push them over the edge.

Some of the most successful gurus wholeheartedly endorse LGAT and other New-Wage gimmicks as a way of "investing" in oneself. (And if one LGAT doesn't work, there's always another; being a serial workshop junkie is pretty common in the New-Wage world. Joe Vitale has claimed that he owes his astounding success not to one single workshop, book, teacher, technique, etc., but to the fact that he tried EVERYTHING.)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 5:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

abalanceofhope - I doubt that David Schirmer had anything to do with the secret being a success other than to try to screw who ever he could to get as much money as he could for himself. There were whispers that he got screwed in the end so maybe thats an indication of his level of understanding in the law of attraction right there or maybe its karma if thats what you beleve. He and all people in that industry should be held directly responsible for what they cause others to do and say because they are taking money from people on the pretext of having the appropriate qualifications when in fact any tom dick or harry can do what they do.

What is ironic is that their lives just dont reflect any level of understanding at all and this is even more so in this guys situation it seems. I suspect that the self help new age guru mania that has gripped the world and its not just down under, is suddenly losing its grip because of people like schirmers exposure and people are sick to death of frauds in that industry. Thank god that people are speaking out about these greedy selfish driven fools and may they all be held directly responsible for the grief and anguish they cause many many lives. I have no sympathy because they are driven by money and greed.

Friday, September 04, 2009 9:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Schirmer is one of these fools who claims to understand NLP yet he has no visible qualifactions in the area of psychology or anything for that matter otherwise he would have been boasting of it everywhere to justify his existence. I do see that he has made frequent visits to the USA to visit marketing courses and incredibly with the very questionable Perry Belcher.

As far as I can research Schirmer doesnt even has any qualifications for his trading course which he is attempting to sell to the world. he definitely has no Financial License which is apparently a requirement down under. To me it seems that everything he claims any fool can do yet he puts himself on a very high and mighty pedestal. Incredibly there are people who still believe him and buy into the pipe dream.

Im thinking that there might not be much money left in it for the likes of Schirmer but it seems they dont care much for credibility when they can suck in enough fools to pay the bills. I suspect the real law of attraction is slowly working as it should.

These people and this guy in particular lost my vote years ago when I had my own experience and reason to question indepth the business actions and comments of a certain person claiming to be a wealth guru. I think the industry should definitely be regulated and we might find these people in need of their own psychological treatment as a result. The ludicrous claims that some of them make is criminal in my view.

Connie havent you documented previously that Schirmers sibling/s have had serious issues of the psycho nature? To even claim that you are a guru sounds incredibly psycho to me and to top it off if all else fails just claim you are God or doing Gods work. Fools.

Friday, September 04, 2009 9:47:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Anon 9:09 PM: Apparently it doesn't matter to David Schirmer that he wasn't the BIG star of The Secret (I think that honor is reserved for Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale, who is now billing himself as "the stand-out star of The Secret," LOL). Schirmer and every other hustledork in the world's most famous moviemercial are still milking it for all it's worth. It's true that The Secret has garnered as much criticism as kudos, but for every one person who is wise to the scam, there are apparently hundreds more who are still buying into it. Hope springs infernal, as Steve Salerno of SHAMblog once said...

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Anon 9:47 PM: Apparently David Schirmer's lack of credentials hasn't stopped him from continuing to market himself as a financial/wealth expert. Heck, not even all of those court actions have stopped him yet. Still, he hasn't reached the giddy heights of New-Wage stardom that many of the other hustledorks have. Not that it's stopped him from trying, and he's leaving no stone unturned in his effort to capture the US market. Of course, we know that when a stone is overturned, all sorts of unsavory things can crawl out (speaking of Perry Belcher...).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The entire industry is swarming with frauds and greed. What is unfathomable is that these people have the gall to join their hypocrisy with a religious belief and pull others down with them. I think the lot of them are an absolute disgrace and should be held accountable for any angst they cause through their arrogance and greed. The ones who are honest it won't concern at all but the ones who are dishonest, greedy and frauds will squeal all the way and that makes it plainly obvious who is real and who isn't. That Schirmer guy has got to be the most unreal person ever.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 9:37:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Anon 9:37 PM: I do get a kick out of the way David Schirmer is playing the "faith-filled Christian" card. He's using that to set himself apart from the other Secret stars, most of whom seem to embrace some combination of New-Thought Christianity, Buddhism (and other Eastern paths), Jewish mysticism, paganism/earth/nature religions, various indigenous/native spiritual stuff, etc. -- in other words, anything that's even remotely trendy or hip. (In other contexts, that universal acceptance would be called "religious tolerance," and I'm all for that, of course, but in the New-Wage bidness context it's called "marketing.")

As I've noted numerous times before, the bigger Secret stars seem to have refused to let Schirmer into their clubhouse, so he has to content himself with marching about just outside the clubhouse, carrying the banner of righteousness and "salvation."

For those who genuinely embrace the teachings of Christ, however, I can well imagine that his constant waving of the Christian banner is more offensive than amusing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009 9:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Yakaru said...

I suspect this isn't such a rare occurence - that someone comes unstuck and kills themselves after a self-help group, or after becoming involved with some spiritual nutcase. The thing is, they usually don't it so dramatically and or in such a tabloid-friendly manner.

Richard Arthur can probably consider himself a bit unlucky that it happened to him so extravagantly (yes, ok and repeatedly). No doubt plenty of other teachers have skeletons in their closets, but they just haven't been unlucky enough for the link between the suicide and their incompetence to be so clearly and publically displayed.

But really what else is to be expected of a "culture" which is hostile to any form of criticism or even self-evaluation, where everyone has "their truth which is true for them" (and if that means screaming insults at your colleagues, stipping naked and leaping to your death, then that is simply what is right for you).

I've known of a few such groups which actually do reject people because of previous history of psychosis (though I suspect this may be because people with real problems disturb the group process) and some who, more commendibly, have an established contact with medical practitioners and don't hesitate to call emergency services.

Friday, September 11, 2009 5:52:00 AM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

You made several good points, Yakaru, one being that the selfish-help "culture," though claiming to be all about facing the truth, often either ignores or is hostile to criticism. Some gurus or groups look upon virtually all criticism as defamation and habitually threaten critics with legal action. Others simply ignore their critics and go on about their business. Either way, the money keeps flowing into the gurus' coffers.

Another irony is that while most of the LGAT schemes offer some teachings about personal responsibility and accountability (and are to be lauded for that, IMO), the owners/administrators/leaders of the schemes are rarely held accountable, in the US or Australia or anywhere else, for any damage their teachings may do. They are quick to take credit for any benefits participants may realize, but insist on being held harmless when something goes wrong. (Hence all of those legal disclaimers that are attached to virtually every selfish-help/New-Wage product, web site or workshop.)

You do have to wonder how long they will be able to get away with having it both ways -- all of the credit and none of the blame. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

Friday, September 11, 2009 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger The Lazy Vegan said...

Be careful about generalizing too much re: those of us who believe in the Law of Attraction. I've been an informal "student" of it for years (and *all* of this info can be had for free, gratis, no charge, and absorbed through self study, reflection, and introspection, no gurus in sight). You said, IIRC (paraphrasing), that we believe these people either consciously or unconsciously attracted their own deaths. If someone were being reckless, I'd say that were possibly true. But I don't believe for a moment these people courted their own deaths purposely; they did not go into the sweat lodge anticipating that they would be in physical danger. I only find it sad that they so disrespected themselves, apparently, that they placed someone else's opinion of them ahead of their own lives.

They were gullible and wanted quick answers, hence turned their power over to a charlatan who promised he had those answers (for the low, low price of $10K). Because of his carelessness and arrogance, they lost their lives.

This was a "cult" that used LOA as its center, but that doesn't mean LOA is a crock any more than any belief system is. The idea of it *can* be misconstrued and abused by those evil and charismatic enough to twist it to their own purposes, of course. We see this often with so called "Christian" cults that are anything but Christian in the way leaders treat members and others.

A "true" guru or leader in this situation would have always been tapped into people's physical, mental and emotional well-being, and would have encouraged them to honor themselves first and foremost -- even if it meant disregarding the leader's "authority." LOA is truly about self-empowerment, and nothing more.

But that self-empowerment does *not* include disrespecting others, and it doesn't mean one is narcissistic, either. "Self" empowerment doesn't mean you leach energy from others parasitically, or that you try to control them. It means you find your footing, your place in the world, your sense of self, FOR yourself, even as you recognize and respect that others will do the same for themselves.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 2:43:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

You make some good points, Lazy Vegan, although I think maybe you meant to comment to my post on the James Ray sweat lodge tragedy. So I'm going to copy and paste your comment to that post too, in order to give more people a chance to read it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 2:57:00 PM  
Blogger The Lazy Vegan said...

>although I think maybe you meant to comment to my post on the James Ray sweat lodge tragedy

Yep, sure did -- in fact just sent you an email to that effect.

>So I'm going to copy and paste your comment to that post too, in order to give more people a chance to read it.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009 3:09:00 PM  

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