Tin Promises: How MLMs Can Tear Lives Apart, Part 2 of 2
This is the conclusion of "Roger Willco's" story about his life on the fringes of multi-level marketing (MLM) culture. If you haven't read Part 1 of this story, I suggest you do so first.
Sometimes, involvement with MLM -- and the self-help/motivational/LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) culture that both supports and is supported by MLM -- can have tragic consequences. More than finances and relationships can be decimated; sometimes, on occasion, lives can be lost. In all fairness it is not a common occurrence, but it happens enough to be noteworthy...although even one occurrence would be too much.
We've seen tragic extremes in recent years with selfish-help guru and star of The Secret James Arthur Ray (who has been covered more than once on this blog and, in much more detail, on Salty Droid's blog). And tragedies have occurred with lesser-known gurus and LGATS as well, the link in this sentence being just one example.
Disastrous consequences have been a part of LGATs ever there have been LGATs. Group such as est (later The Forum, then Landmark Forum/Landmark Education, now Landmark Worldwide) have had their share of fatalities and injuries over the years, although one has to be careful how one frames these incidents, since Landmark, somewhat like Scientology, is notoriously litigious. The 70s-style "encounter groups" that were held in venues such as Esalen also spawned their share of tragic tales. One problem then as now has been that egregiously under-qualified "leaders" have been allowed to guide vulnerable participants through grueling emotional processes, sometimes leading to traumas or even psychotic episodes that the "leaders" have been utterly unequipped to handle.
Sadly, most people don't see or acknowledge the potentially dangerous side of LGAT culture or MLMs, any more than they see or acknowledge the cultish insidiousness that Roger documented so well in Part 1 of this narrative. When tragedy strikes, some will blame the victim, and others will rationalize the incident as an aberration, perhaps an unavoidable one.
I am impressed by Roger's even-handed treatment of the story below. He blames neither LGAT nor MLM, and certainly does not blame the victim or the victim's loved ones. He acknowledges the victim's mental illness and does not blame any external factors for that illness. At the same time he is forthright about what he sees as the roles that LGAT and MLM may have played in the tragedy.
It was difficult for Roger to write this story; he is still processing it, still trying to make sense of it. I am grateful to him for allowing me to share the story here.
I am also grateful to Roger for wrapping up his narrative by offering some solid pointers on how you can protect yourself from well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) people in your life who may be earnestly offering you the next great opportunity to finally live the life of your dreams. It is Roger's hope -- and mine as well -- that reading his story can help you see that those golden promises these people use to lure you are all too often forged of tin. And sometimes things made of tin have sharp edges and can hurt you.
One more point, since this has been a frequent topic on this Whirled of late: If you've recently been separated, either willingly or unwillingly, from serial scammer Kevin Trudeau's Global Information Network (GIN) MLM -- which was suspended on November 30, 2013 -- and you are now even remotely tempted by the siren song of ex-GIN principals who are offering you still more golden promises (in the form of, say, a chance to get in on a private phone call about The Next Big Thing), please make it a point to read this story, and Part 1, again. And then read it again, if you have to. It will be a far better use of your time than listening in on that phone call.
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".
Epilogue: Tin Promises
by "Roger Willco"
© 2014, all rights reserved • Used by permission
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 change 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, describe its 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; and that regimentation extended to meals and 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 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 the cult 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.
Start them young...
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 one piece of bad news. 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 accept 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 anger had resolved into a determination to help others avoid the devastation I’d seen victims of that industry suffer; and my motivation had turned from vengeance to compassion.
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.
The prior weekend, Ethan had been invited to help staff an initial mini-seminar sponsored by the same cult he was confident had helped him so much in the past. It was held several hundred miles from where Ethan lived, so he stayed in the local sponsor’s home.
Sometime mid-seminar Ethan phoned Danni, upset that he’d violated his obligation to participants by sharing too much about his own personal struggles. In subsequent calls to her over the next several days, he told her that he was [obsessively] studying the cult-founder’s written manifesto. Apparently, no facilitator, seminar staffer or his host realized that Ethan was in emotional crisis. They simply didn’t have the knowledge or expertise to recognize it.
After the seminar, Ethan returned to his home near the university he attended. By midweek, his continuing bizarre behavior had alarmed his long-time girlfriend. She phoned her dad, who owned the house in which they were living; and he came over to tell Ethan he’d have to find someplace else to live until he got some psychiatric help.
Danni received another call from Ethan that morning in which he told her of his unraveling situation. She was out of town for the day; but she reassured him with an invitation to move in with her until his circumstances stabilized. That call would be Ethan’s final communication with anyone in his family.
An hour later, a friend of Danni’s, Joanne, arrived at Danni’s house to feed her menagerie of birds and cats. As she let herself into the house, she noticed Ethan sitting on the front room sofa, reading aloud from the cult guru’s manifesto as if delivering a sermon. As a puzzled Joanne wished him a good morning, Ethan, without acknowledging her greeting or saying another word, set his book on the coffee table, pulled a small-caliber revolver from his backpack and pressed its muzzle against the right side of his upper neck. Joanne, now panicked, ran back outside and to the house next door to call 9-1-1. At almost the same moment the spring-loaded screen door slammed shut with a bang behind her, she thought she also heard a second report that sounded to her like it could have been a gunshot.
Minutes later, police found Ethan, slumped onto his left side on his mother’s sofa, his legs askew and dangling to the floor. He wasn’t breathing. His book was open, face down on the coffee table—almost as if he had intended to pick it up again, and his handgun lay beside him on the sofa cushion near his empty right hand. The officers found a nearly bloodless gunshot wound just below and behind his right ear. His handgun’s deadly missile had obliterated his brainstem and Ethan had died instantly.
So ended the life of an amazing young man, full of promise, full of care for everyone whose life he touched, and loved by all who knew him. Hundreds attended Ethan’s memorial, listening to his grieving friends and brothers tearfully recount his delightful personality, his intellectual curiosity, his openness, his honesty and his ability to think outside the box.
Months later, Ethan’s closest friends and family gathered once more—this time aboard a borrowed yacht. They silently sailed on a gentle breeze into the deep waters of the ocean Ethan so loved. They ceremoniously scattered his ashes on the water’s surface, consigning his physical remains to the sea and locking their memories of him forever in their hearts.
Questions left unanswered
Ethan left no written communication explaining his decision to end his life. As is always the case, his family and friends sought some—any—explanation for his unexpected passing. Estranged from Ethan’s family and alone with my grief, I began my own analysis of what might have led to Ethan’s decision to leave a life that had become for him, too painful, for a more peaceful place.
My opinion is heavily colored by emotion and should by no means be considered anything more than that of an acknowledged layman. I’m just someone with a penchant for logic who loved Ethan and is trying to understand why he died. However the circumstances involved, from the beginning of my life with Danni to the end of Ethan’s life, lead me to conclusions which more than any other, make sense to me.
There’s no question that Ethan’s untreated psychosis was the ultimate cause of his suicide. That fact cannot be obscured by the other circumstances surrounding his death. There was nothing his family or friends could have done to prevent it. Ethan’s choice to refuse treatment was his alone. This written story is available to Danni; and if she ever reads it, I want her to understand that this reality is incontrovertible. No person on this planet—not even Danni—had the power to change Ethan’s tortured thought processes without his permission.
Beyond that all-important recognition, it seems apparent that Ethan’s final psychotic episode began while he was staffing a self-help seminar the weekend before his death. In my opinion, Ethan’s cult-related activities’ proximity in space and time to his suicide point to its contribution—at least as a triggering factor.
None of us who knew and loved Ethan could have predicted his life would end this way. Maybe he didn’t really have to die. Maybe Ethan died, in part, because of the dangerous mind-bending stress that self-help cults impose on their followers without appropriate knowledge and expertise.
The unacknowledged and deniable link between MLM and self-help cults isn’t intuitively recognizable . . . it all seemed harmless enough to me at the time. However, there’s an observable and documented connection.
MLM is allowed to flourish because agencies of our state and federal governments charged with protecting the public from fraud have abdicated their responsibility to understand and counter the economic and social tolls the MLM industry exacts from its victims. Because it flourishes, mind-control cults do as well.
Our government regulators fail to act because they are in reality us; and we as a nationwide community, choose to tolerate these predatory enterprises. Until we stop tolerating their malignant abuses, the MLM industry will continue to feed pernicious mind-control cults with ready victims. One thing is certain: The consequences of our tolerance reach far beyond the economic and social costs to victimized members of our community. The chain of contributing factors to Ethan’s suicide extends all the way to us—Americans whose love of freedom sometimes leads us to forget our responsibility to prevent exploitive abuses of our blood-bought liberty.
That is why I’m making this very private story public. It’s a story my conscience won’t permit me to leave untold. I’ve changed the names of victims, kept undisclosed the identity of perpetrators and altered details of Ethan’s suicide to protect the privacy of innocent people who’ve already suffered far too much.
However, this story couldn’t be more real. The tragedy of what happened to Ethan and Danni, and the pain Ethan’s family and friends suffered at having to tell him "goodbye" much too soon doesn’t have to be a complete and total waste. If their story can help persuade a reluctant public to put an end to the MLM deceptions that all too often entice our innocent neighbors onto a disastrous path, at least some good can come of it.
The path begins with glittering golden promises. However, it’s also a path which at least 99% of the time leads to financial loss . . . a path which if followed farther, leads to financial and social ruin, revealing the golden promises of MLM as counterfeits made of tin . . . and a path which can end in devastation. In Ethan’s case, those tin promises were ultimately deadly. Maybe Ethan didn’t have to die . . . but he did; and from where I stand, it looks very much like we, as an unenlightened community, let it happen.
Peace … Out [Ethan’s favorite sign-off]
"It’s not that we can’t do something about it . . . it’s just that we haven’t." — Salty Droid
Can Keep You Out of Trouble
Here’s the technique: Simply state to the seller at the outset of their pitch that as a condition of doing business with them, you need to see a true copy of their most recent income tax filing for the business into which they’re inviting your participation. If their tax form—usually an IRS schedule C—showing their net (taxable) profit—line 31on Schedule C—is positive, the proposition may merit further investigation, although you’re not necessarily safe. If on the other hand, line 31 indicates a net loss, you’d be wise to assume that you too would sustain net losses in the same business.
Unquestionably, this is a difficult demand to make on a friend or family member—the persons most likely to offer you a home-based business opportunity. They will probably tell you in all honesty that they haven’t been in business long enough to make a profit. That’s OK. Just ask to see the same documentation from the person directly above them in their upline. Keep going until someone up the line is able to produce a qualified document. Only three in every thousand MLM distributors make a net profit; and chances are, you’ll get a flat refusal before you get to someone who can show bona fide proof of profitability.
Deceptive business-opportunity sellers will make up all kinds of excuses for refusing to cooperate. Nevertheless, if you are persistent in your demand for valid proof of profitability, their excuses won’t sway you; and malevolent sellers will look for another mark somewhere else.
- Don’t accept substitute documentation. The penalties for filing fraudulent income tax returns are sufficient to give you some assurance of a filed IRS document’s legitimacy.
- If at any point you’re told that having a home-based business allows them (and you) a way to write off ANY non-business related expenses, walk away. The person who’s giving you that information is committing tax fraud. Would you really want to be in business with someone of that ilk?
- Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into a conversation with anyone in your prospector’s upline until your demand is met and you’ve actually seen the document. Most often, that third person has specific expertise in deceptive tactics that will dissuade you from true due diligence so they can close the sale. Don’t allow it under any circumstances!
- Before you sign anything, require your prospector to provide you with a certified photocopy of the IRS document they show you as proof of their business’ profitability that you can retain for your records. This gives you written documentation of fraud if it turns out your prospector sold you a bill of goods.
- Finally, don’t be drawn into ANY proposition that promises quick or easy material wealth, a fast track to emotional health or to success in any aspect of life. It’s safest to assume those propositions are fraudulent and predatory. I can’t say there are no exceptions. However, I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered one.