Jon Rossler trudged down the aisle of the Celebrity Delly, took a drag on his cigarette, grabbed a Heineken from the fridge and ran smack into his father's open arms. His father, whom Jon had barely spoken to since he was a little kid, with whom Jon couldn't stand being in the same house -- Chuck Rossler stood there now in front of all the staff and customers and gave his 21-year-old son a bear hug.
Something had happened to Chuck Rossler. One day he left work fat, sad and compulsive, a tyrant to the help at his Rockville restaurant, a strain on his wife, a total loss to his son. Five days later, he returned, crying like a baby. He lost 25 pounds in the next few weeks. His wife declared him "totally changed." His son did a double take, then another. Chuck suddenly couldn't stop hugging his son. Kisses too. And talks, about work, the family and life.
"I thought he was a mean ogre," Jon says. "Then I walked into his Lifespring graduation and there was this mood music, and I saw my dad standing there, crying. And I just started crying. I just lost it. That was the first time I hugged my dad since I was 6 years old."
Chuck Rossler, who had fancy cars, the big house, the pool, everything, now had something more. "I'm 46 and I've talked to my parents this week like I never did," he says. "I told them about the love I never got and the love I did."
What happened to Chuck Rossler is called a breakthrough. It happened in a course called Lifespring, which Rossler and 220 other people paid $400 each to take in a hotel ballroom on Capitol Hill. To this day, Chuck Rossler isn't sure how he got his breakthrough. He knows he was manipulated, "but it was for my own good." He knows the course was designed to get him to take the next course, which he did, which cost him $850, which led to the third course, which was tuition-free, except that he had to pledge to enroll more people in the first course, all of which he considers "ingenious."
What Rossler does know -- and for him it is enough -- is that after all the hours of crying, after being pushed to do the one thing that would most humiliate him, after 56 people who had been complete strangers just days before lifted his 300-pound body into the air and rocked him like a baby, he had his breakthrough.
"I wasn't at peace with myself until that moment, when I closed my eyes and hugged myself and felt my arms on my body. I realized I was somebody. I cried enough to fill a glass."
"PEOPLE WILL ASK YOU, 'WHAT IS IT?' AND YOU CAN'T EXPLAIN IT. SO YOU'LL SAY, 'JUST DO IT, DO THE TRAINING.' "
-- JIM COOK, Lifespring trainer
THE ROOM AT THE QUALITY INN Capitol Hill is packed. The new recruits are here because people they know have asked, even begged them to come, or because they've seen in a friend or relative a startling and wonderful change. What happened? The response was one word: Lifespring. What is it? "You can't explain it," they were told. "Just do it, do the training."
More than 250,000 Americans have done the training, including a congressman, an associate superintendent of the District school system, Capitol Hill aides, scores of Georgetown University students and hundreds of military officers and policemen. More than 17,000 people in the Washington area, almost a third of them in the past two years, have taken "the Basic," Lifespring's five-day, 38-hour introductory course. Founded in 1974, Lifespring has taken off lately, growing at a phenomenal pace, especially here. Lifespring Inc. projects 75 percent growth this year after reporting 25 percent growth last year. It has opened new offices in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Honolulu this year, expanding to 15 cities.
Lifespring is a fabulously successful business. It has made its founder, John Hanley, a multimillionaire. Lifespring, an outgrowth of a sales motivation course that also spawned est and several other new age personal-growth companies, is this effective: Thousands of Americans now call themselves Lifespringers and spend hundreds of hours recruiting new students with no compensation other than the belief that they are helping people revolutionize their lives. Graduates often get their entire families to sign up, become friends with fellow Lifespringers, even go into business with or marry other graduates.
In recent months, Lifespring has begun a major campaign to persuade corporations to use its training to improve workers' productivity and morale. Numerous large companies now reimburse employes for taking the course, and graduates have formally proposed that Harvard and other business schools incorporate Lifespring in their curricula.
There is another side to Lifespring, one of court battles about emotional trauma, psychotic episodes and even death. There are experts who believe Lifespring is a dangerous company that uses psychological tricks to manipulate minds, a view Lifespring and its paid experts dispute. There are deprogrammers and lawyers who have built careers out of suing the company. And there are dozens of "casualties," the company's name for people who leave the training with severe psychological problems. Casualties, Lifespring says, happen because people with psychological problems who are warned not to take the course take it anyway.
But there is no talk of any of this at the Quality Inn. Fresh-faced college kids sit on the carpet. Middle-aged professionals lean against the walls. Retirees take the few seats.
The instructions on the pre-training questionnaire describe the next five days in only the vaguest terms: We will play games, participate in "mingles" and "dyads." Some of the exercises will be "confrontive"; some will be difficult emotionally and physically. No one screens the students, but the questionnaire tells people who have had nervous breakdowns or have been in therapy in the past year not to take the course.
About 220 of us start the basic course. There are trainees of all ages, from the city and suburbs, Baltimore and Florida, Rochester and Kentucky. These are not new age freaks, ex-hippies or lost souls. No, it's a largely yup crowd, a little skeptical, a bit frightened right now. Heavy on professionals, lobbyists, real estate agents and other salespeople. Mostly folks with some cash to spare, but with more than a few clerks and secretaries, service workers and low-level bureaucrats. About two-thirds are women.
Lifespring has never measured the demographics of its customers beyond the founder's sense that the average trainee is a yuppie. But academic studies show a slight majority of women; an overwhelming number of 20-to-40-year-olds; lots of divorced or single people, probably more than half the trainees; and an extremely well-educated clientele, almost all with some college and more than a third with some graduate school.
They are here for all sorts of reasons: "because I saw what Lifespring did for my wife," "to get a steady job," "to find direction." Chuck Rossler wants to lose weight and improve relations with his son. Ronnie Rosenthal wants to break the emotional logjam with her in-laws. Marty Deputy wants to shake that empty feeling, learn how to express herself, let people know her emotions. Other folks have no specific goals; one teen-ager is here because "my boyfriend took it, and it scared the hell out of me." A Virginia woman heading off to college says, "I just want to have everything, to succeed and do it all." A State Department employe, new in town, needs friends. "I'd like advice on where to meet people in D.C. and ways to make friends," he says.
That's what they say they want. What they really want, Lifespring believes, is the one thing the company offers: breakthrough. No one from Lifespring has said what that means, only that it will happen sometime in the next five days, Wednesday through Friday evenings from 6:30 p.m. to midnight, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The staff -- about 25 clean-cut folks impeccably dressed in the most conservative of suits and dresses -- ushers us into the main ballroom, a vast, featureless hall empty but for several rows of chairs facing a stage. Over the stage, a small banner inquires, "What Are You Pretending Not to Know?"
"Have a good training," the stern-faced Lifespring people say over and over as we file in, alternating with injunctions to "Fill up the front rows first!"
"IF YOU WANT TO COME AND DO OUR SEMINAR, YOU ARE TO PLAY BY OUR RULES."
-- JOHN HANLEY, founder and president, Lifespring Inc.
"GOOD EVENING!" JIM COOK SAYS, bounding past us down the aisle and up onto the stage, smiling broadly, dapper in his blue suit, cute in a Michael Keaton way. "Do you want a breakthrough in your life?"
He is charming, reasonable, supremely confident. He is all business, but you know he's a good man, a family kind of guy. He is clearly going to be firm with us, but he knows what he's doing.
In a 90-minute introductory lecture, Jim says that Lifespring "is not about feeling good. It's about . . . your life." He does that, pauses dramatically before completing a sentence, quite often. Pretty soon, the trainees start to finish his sentences for him, and Jim encourages this.
"I am not here to wave a magic wand and say, 'Poof, you feel good' or 'Poof, you'll have success in your life,' " he says. Instead, Lifespring will show you how to break out of your dull, frustrating life and find the highs, the success, everything you want.
"Y'know," Jim says -- he says "y'know" a lot -- "we're all scared of life, scared of taking risks. So we play it safe. We do what's easy."
One time, Jim's young nephews corralled him into taking them on a wild, stomach-turning roller coaster called Montezuma's Revenge. He was frightened, but he went on the ride seven times. "I made a commitment and took action because it was a risk. I expanded my comfort zone and I found the highs that we don't let ourselves experience in life."
Lifespring will show us how to do that. Lifespring will teach us to be players in the game of life, spectators no more. "Showing up as your commitment in your life," they call it in Lifespring jargon, a language all their own.
The changes -- our breakthrough -- will come not through understanding or psychological insight, but through "action" and "taking responsibility for your life." Then, Jim says, we will want everyone we know to do the training.
But first everyone must agree to nine simple ground rules. Anyone who balks at even one rule must leave. Jim will go over each rule, take as long as we wish to answer questions. He will not discuss reasons for any rules. It's like getting a traffic ticket, he says. You don't ask the cop why, he doesn't ask you how you feel about the rules. They just are.
The rules are indeed simple. For example, attend the entire training. Be on time. Be seated before the music ends. Don't eat, smoke or chew gum in the training room. No drugs or alcohol during the next five days. No side talking. Follow the trainer's instructions; the trainer will not tell you to do anything immoral or illegal.
A woman raises her hand. She has to miss one night. The ground rule forbids that, Jim says.
"Well, I have to miss that evening," the woman says.
"Do you have a question about the ground rule?" Jim asks.
"No, I just can't be here that night."
"The ground rule says, Be here for the entire training. Do you have a question about the ground rule?"
"You're saying you don't agree to the ground rule," Jim says. "I have to ask you to leave."
She gets up and goes. A murmur sweeps the room.
Another woman stands to say she is here from Florida and cannot stay for the mandatory interview the week after the training. It's not that she doesn't want to be there, she just can't. She has to be back at work and her hotel costs $64 a night and the cat is in the kennel and that's another $12 a night and she has a non-refundable plane ticket home and her children bought her this training as a Mother's Day gift and they never said anything about having to stay beyond Sunday.
Jim listens to this long list of excuses, stares into the woman's eyes, nods at each thing she says. Finally, when she has finished, he very calmly says, "Do you have a question about the ground rule?"
The crowd does not like this. "Give her a break!" one man shouts. "Deal with her problem!" says another.
The woman repeats her problems, tells Jim how much she wants to do the training, begs him to understand that she wants to be here. She just can't.
Jim is silent through all this and when it ends, he softly asks the woman, "Do you have a question about the ground rule?"
A man in the back row stands and curses Jim for his cruelty. "I don't have to take it. I'm out of here." He moves to the door.
"Sir, you're avoiding," Jim calls after him. It's too late. He is gone. Jim returns to the woman, who remains standing alone in the audience, blotting away tears with a tissue.
"If I gave you $100,000 when you got to the interview, would you be able to be there?" Jim asks.
"I'd borrow the money for the hotel from my children," the woman says. The crowd collapses into laughter.
"Thank you for sharing," Jim says, his voice trembling with sincerity. And then, sotto voce, almost as an afterthought, he offers the woman an exception from the rule requiring her to be at the interview. Everyone applauds.
It takes more than an hour to go through the rules. At the end, everyone who agrees must stand. Those who don't must leave. A handful of people file out."
It's time for a break. Before we leave the room, Jim announces that each training session begins when "Also Sprach Zarathustra," the theme from the movie "2001," ends. "The music is 1 minute and 37 seconds," Jim says. "You have given your word that you will be seated before it ends."
The music ends with a long rumbling sound. A couple of trainees straggle in late. While the crowd stares silently from the seats, Jim orders the tardy pair to freeze in their tracks.
"What does this say about your word?" he says angrily.
"You gave your word and you didn't keep it. So your word means nothing?"
"No, I just got tied up," says the man, a student at Georgetown.
The two contend that their word is important to them. Jim won't hear it. "Based on results, your word means nothing, right?"
They deny it, but Jim persists. You said you'd be seated before the music stopped. Were you?
No, but . . .
But nothing. "Based on results, your word doesn't mean anything, does it?"
"n voices barely above a whisper, they give in. "No."
"Okay, thanks for sharing," Jim says, suddenly friendly again.
It's time for the first exercise, called a "mingle." Everyone stands and for about five minutes wanders around the room, making eye contact with as many people as possible, staring into each other's eyes and then choosing one of four statements: "I trust you," "I don't trust you," "I'm not sure," or "I don't want to say."
Later, after everyone has returned the chairs to their precise positions on straight lines of tape on the floor, Jim leads a discussion of the exercise, which he says was about honesty. A lot of people say they told others they trusted them, not because they did, but because they didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. That's just a belief, Jim says, a fear about what other people will think of us. We're going to break out of those beliefs.
It is a little after midnight. The evening is over. As we leave, the sound system blares the voice of Karen Carpenter. "We've only just begun . . ."
"ONE OF THE THINGS I LIKE ABOUT LIVING IN AMERICA IS THE GROUND RULES. I'M A CAPITALIST ALL THE WAY. SOMETHING EITHER PRODUCES RESULTS OR IT'S GONE. THAT'S WHY LIFESPRING IS A PROFIT-MAKING ORGANIZATION."
-- JOHN HANLEY
THE FOUNDER OF LIFESPRING IS A brilliant salesman and businessman, an amateur educator who got a D in the only psychology course he ever took. He is also a convicted felon.
He was adopted by an engineer and a registered nurse when he was 18 months old. Now 41, John Hanley is a lean and strong man with sparkling green eyes and big, dramatic gestures. He is so charismatic that people who work for him tend to pick up not only Hanley's favorite phrases, but even his inflection. "I'm not the guru here," Hanley says, but people around him talk about Hanley as a person to emulate.
From behind his high-tone, jet-black desk in a state-of-the-art office in the San Francisco suburb of San Rafael, Hanley directs the privately held company that 10 years ago put him in a position in which, he says, "personal economic considerations were no longer a factor." His tax records are more specific: From 1978 to 1983, Lifespring paid Hanley an annual salary and bonuses of $400,000 to $500,000. In addition, he owns a 300-acre ranch, a 17-room Georgian mansion and 92.7 percent of Lifespring. Hanley has also devoted himself to community work: The Lifespring Foundation, a charity run by Hanley's wife, has raised more than $1 million for the March of Dimes and offers free courses to educators, Vietnam veterans and convicts.
In 1969, John Hanley and a partner were found guilty of six counts of mail fraud in a scam involving selling toilet-cleaning service territories. They told their victims that an annual payment of $7,500 would guarantee them $18,000 a year. But prosecutors showed that the territories didn't exist; the hucksters had no intention of guaranteeing any salary. A federal judge heard Hanley's confession, considered his plea for leniency and rejected it. "You played too sophisticated a part in this scheme to defraud," the judge said. "It's very, very difficult . . . to understand how you could be so callous as to take this money." He gave Hanley a five-year suspended sentence and fined him $1,000.
In 1980, a federal judge rejected Hanley's move to expunge records of his conviction, stating that a felony conviction "is not a private affair." More recently, Hanley's request for a presidential pardon was denied. Hanley repeatedly asked The Post not to report his conviction because it is irrelevant to his current business and because "it would blow us out of the water," he says. "I learned a lesson. I was just a kid. And that judge was a little crazy. He wasn't all there."
Soon after his conviction, Hanley joined a company owned by William Penn Patrick, a leader in the self-help industry. Papers in a recent D.C. case against Lifespring say the Wisconsin Justice Department sued Hanley and others over a pyramid scheme involving Holiday Magic, Patrick's cosmetics firm. In 1975 the civil suit was settled. Hanley denies responsibility. He paid the state $1,750 because, he says, he didn't want to pay a lawyer.
While working for Holiday Magic, Hanley attended Patrick's Leadership Dynamics Institute, a brutal training program in which salesmen were whipped, beaten, tied to crosses and forced to eat garbage and feces. Hanley made a name for himself at the institute when he reacted to being locked in a coffin for 14 hours by falling asleep. The trainers were so impressed by Hanley's will that they invited him to join their staff, according to former Lifespring vice president James Moore. Hanley confirms the coffin incident, but says it is irrelevant to Lifespring. "What will it look like?" he worries. "It just looks so bizarre."
After graduation from the University of Wisconsin, Hanley moved to another Patrick-related company, Mind Dynamics, which was located in the same offices that now house Lifespring headquarters.
Mind Dynamics, a mental relaxation course Hanley taught with est founder Werner Erhart and other future personal-growth entrepreneurs, used elements of Zen and transcendental meditation along with exercises called guided imagery. As students sat with their eyes closed, a trainer used mood music and storytelling to lead them back to their childhood, to a lifeboat where they had to decide whom to save, to moments of great emotional catharsis. Some of the exercises are used to this day in Lifespring.
"It was a very mellow, relaxing experience, not hard-driving at all," says Mark Damaske, a former Mind Dynamics executive who was hired as a trainer by Hanley in 1970. But Damaske and others say Mind Dynamics changed drastically in the early '70s, as trainers who came over from the Leadership Dynamics Institute brought harsh tactics with them.
Damaske and others say Hanley was one of the trainers who pushed to give Mind Dynamics more flash, more physical contact, more emotional confrontation. The idea was to bare your soul, tear down your personality and build a new person.
"The guy's a salesman," Damaske says. "He always said, 'Get the cash.' Understand, John honestly believes what he's doing is for the good of the people in the class. But it's kind of a delusion because they don't allow the students to question the program. It's a dictatorial approach."
The course got very tough. In a class for Mind Dynamics trainers, Damaske says, he was held on the floor by four people with his nose and mouth covered by a wet washcloth until he nearly passed out.
Hanley was not in the room, but when Damaske emerged, he says, Hanley told him the exercise was for his own good, that when he desired success as much as his next breath, he would have it.
Hanley says he and three other trainers left Mind Dynamics in 1973 to create Lifespring because "I wanted to do a course that rather than calm people created vitality, aliveness, a sense of presence." He read about humanistic psychology and Gestalt therapy. He decided he could help people be all they could be with a course that rejected intellectualism and focused on emotion.
As president of the new company, Hanley settled on a large-group format because he found that people were willing to divulge their feelings in front of strangers. Hanley believes most people have given up on life but don't know it. Lifespring is designed to provide "an enormous step towards freedom."
In the early years, Hanley and a handful of instructors taught the training sessions themselves. Graduates opened new offices in several cities, including one in Georgetown in 1977. But the company's early growth came to a crashing halt in the early '80s following a rash of bad publicity about psychotic episodes and even deaths during and after Lifespring trainings. Enrollment plummeted; four of the 11 offices shut down.
Hanley says the thinking behind the course has changed, moving from a psychological model to a philosophical one, but the exercises and the tightly structured format of the course are pretty much as they were 14 years ago. Trainees are still expected, as Hanley puts it, to "surrender to the coach. It seems inconsistent, but the only way there is freedom, is with control."
Hanley's new philosophy has softened Lifespring, moving away from the tenet that got Lifespring in most of its legal battles. Until a few years ago, Hanley preached that everyone is totally responsible for his life; there is no such thing as a victim. Students sometimes took that to mean they were responsible for lost jobs, family breakups, even how their parents raised them. Some students suffered breakdowns and sued Lifespring. The company argued it was not responsible for the psychological problems.
Today, Hanley says, "I have matured in my view." Instead of telling students they are responsible for everything, Lifespring asks them to "take a stand" for responsibility, one careful step removed from the old lesson.
"There ought not be any harsh tactics" in the training, Hanley says. Told that trainers still call customers names, he says he is disappointed. "I apologize if anyone in the training was treated in anything but a respectful way."
Lifespring has also dropped some of the secrecy that once surrounded the training. For this article, the company allowed photography of a class for the first time, although Lifespring officials permitted the photographer access only to the final day of the course. Hanley says, "We put all our cards on the table" at Guest Events, where prospective customers learn that Lifespring consists of lectures and "experiential learning."
Lifespring remains an intentionally mysterious process. There is no hint of how guided fantasies and closed-eye exercises provide the emotional kick of the course. "That," Hanley argues, "would be like saying, 'Next week we're going to have a surprise party for you . . . and then we want you to be authentic."
Surprise is crucial to the Lifespring method, he says, but not as much as he once believed. "We used to think we didn't want anybody to know anything," he says. "We thought it would ruin it all for them. It just wasn't so." First, Lifespring scratched the rule against wearing watches. Then trainers quit chastising people who needed to go to the bathroom during training. Now, Hanley says, "it could be the next evolutionary step will be we'll give everybody a syllabus."
The new Lifespring wants to be more mainstream. "One of the big problems we have is dealing with the general public," Hanley says. A less secretive Lifespring is winning more corporate clients. And Lifespring's message, delivered through its jargon, is popping up in places like Madison Avenue.
MasterCard now urges Americans to "master the possibilities," a phrase Lifespring has used. The Army wants kids to "be all you can be," a common imperative in Lifespring circles.
"The language is changing," Hanley says. Lifespring's message "has had a powerful impact on our society."
"THE GOOD NEWS IS, YOU ALREADY HAVE WHAT YOU WANT."
-- JIM COOK
BEFORE WEDNESDAY'S SESSION ENDED, the trainees split into teams of nine, each led by a Lifespring graduate who had volunteered to go through the basic training once again. My leader was Connie Brenner, a florist who started in Lifespring in January. Now she's in the Leadership Program, Lifespring's third level. On her lapel, she wears a Lifespring logo pin.
Thursday afternoon, she calls each of her trainees and asks, "What are you committed to doing tonight?" Whatever the answer, Brenner responds, "I know you are really all you can be. You can count on me 100 percent for anything you need. I'm excited about tonight. You have a great day."
Evening at the Quality Inn. When the music stops, all but one person is seated. Jim briefly scolds her, but that's not tonight's purpose. Tonight is about getting what you want. Tonight is about being a victim, about blaming others for not getting what you want.
"We all want a Prince Charming or a Princess Charming or Career Charming," Jim says. "But it doesn't exist. You have options in your life and you choose. There is no such thing as 'I have to' because 'I have to' is a choice you make. Not a great choice maybe, but the best available."
For more than an hour, Jim invites the group to say what we really want: the perfect mate, the finest cars, the cash that would make life fulfilling (wishes range from $2,000 to $1 million). Then Jim delivers the good news: All those things we say we want, we really don't want. Because if we really wanted it, we would choose it, and we would have it. "The good news is, you already have what you want," he says.
This does not go over well. Lots of people don't like what they have. The last thing they want to hear is that they have what they want.
Jim sets out to prove his point. In the movie "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," Indiana gets trapped in a room with walls moving closer and closer. Spikes pop out and push toward him.
Imagine yourself in such a place. You have three choices. Stand there and die. Jump into a pit marked by a sign that says "10 feet of cess." Or jump into a pit that says "4 feet of cess."
"You take the last choice, right?" The crowd agrees. "It's not a great choice, is it?" Certainly not. "But it's the best available choice, right?" Everyone agrees.
"These are your possibilities in your life," Jim says. "Don't look outside them, because those aren't your choices. Surrender to your choices. Be in your experience."
Tonight is the introduction to the logic and methods of Lifespring.
There are lectures. For example, an explanation of the difference between experience and experiencing. The former is in the past and of little use. The latter, what's happening now, is the way through problems. This is hard to grasp at first. Trainees keep saying, "I understand . . ."
"You're analyzing," Jim reprimands. "That doesn't help anything. If you get a traffic ticket and you understand why, that doesn't change the fact that you have the ticket. You have to do, not understand. The only way out is through."
There are "dyads," in which participants sit across from a partner, stare into each other's eyes and speak. Each trainee tells of being a victim -- in a fight, in business, in a relationship. Next you retell the story as if what happened was your own fault. This is taking responsibility.
There is "sharing," Lifespring's version of confession, in which trainees are urged to come forward, take the microphone and reveal "whatever you are experiencing," which turns out to be all manner of memories, of harsh parents, betrayed lovers, lies, rapes, lives of self-hate.
There are guided fantasies, in which the lights are turned down, trainees sit on the floor and Jim tells a story over a sentimental pop song, asking everyone to conjure up troubling childhood memories.
Tonight he takes us back to when we first encountered a symptom -- physical or emotional -- that bothers us. We visualize that symptom, hold it in our hands, talk to it, feel it and then crush it. Pulverize it. In the Quality Inn lobby, people hear a torrent of shouts and banging as nearly 200 people inside sit on the floor, shout at an imaginary symptom, flail at it with their arms, rip it apart and pronounce themselves purged.
"I felt the physical presence," one man tells the group. "I never knew I could control it before. I just didn't know. It's amazing." He is out of breath, deeply moved. He can barely speak.
Jim polls the trainees; more than 80 percent say their symptom, whatever it was, has drastically diminished.
We're taught not to believe this, Jim says, but consider that things just might work this way. He talks about Karen Ann Quinlan, the New Jersey woman whose prolonged coma became a critical case in the right-to-die movement. Six weeks before ingesting drugs that left her in a coma, Karen Ann wrote in her diary that she wanted to lie down and have someone take care of her forever.
"And you know, someone did take care of her for 10 years," Jim says.
Or consider the young boy in San Jose, who told his mother that he wanted the ailing girl down the street to have his heart. A few days later, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. The girl got his heart.
"Are these coincidences?" Jim asks. "Don't just believe me, but be open to the possibilities."
It's sharing time. Egged on by the trainer, people stand and tell the group that they have suddenly realized that all those times they thought they were victims, they were really responsible for what happened.
To win over everyone else, Jim removes his suit jacket and delivers an impassioned, half-hour sermon. Gesturing broadly, pacing, Jim performs his most earnest, pleading pitch of the week.
"In your life, you can be a victim or you can be responsible. We are 100 percent responsible for our lives. Everything about our culture says be a victim -- resignation. That's what everyone wants you to be. That's okay. But you know, being responsible is being alone. You're out there. And there's no evidence for it. You'd have to be responsible and people would laugh at you and dismiss you. And you'd have to be responsible and still love them. You'd have to turn away and take a stand, you, alone.
"And" -- he snaps his fingers -- "you'd be there. Like a rocket ship to the moon . . . You can't just sit there and want to 'get' the training. You choose. You take a stand. Now if you're ready to do that, let's do it. Shout it out. Say you're willing."
The room erupts into cheers, shouts of "Yes, responsibility! Yes!"
It's after midnight, and as trainees move toward the door, Jim shouts, "Hey, what are you experiencing right now?" And then "Nothing," the song from "A Chorus Line," swells from the speakers.
"IT'S A BIT LIKE BEING ADDICTED TO CAFFEINE. YOU JUST HAVE TO KEEP GOING BACK FOR MORE AND MORE. YOU'RE TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF IT BUT YOU'RE SO TIRED AND YOU JUST THINK, SURE, I GUESS IT MAKES SENSE."
-- MAURA O'CONNOR, Lifespring graduate
FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, LIFESPRING executives have known about adverse reactions to the training. James Moore, a former Lifespring vice president, said in a deposition that Lifespring executives in 1977 discussed "casualties," "wackos" and "basket cases," their terms for people who suffered ill effects.
Lifespring brass talked about how to "turn down the dial," making the training less harsh while keeping it effective. Lifespring internal memoranda show that trainers told Hanley about severe reactions to the training throughout the late '70s and early '80s. Dozens of "incident reports" describe trainees who became panicky, incapable of making decisions, "erratic and hyper," incoherent and nervous. Some trainees ended up in psychiatric wards. Some had visions. Some regressed to the womb. Some became terribly depressed.
Six trainees died.
And about 35 trainees sued Lifespring.
Hanley says the problems are not Lifespring's fault, but happen because people who shouldn't take the training do. At least half the suits filed against Lifespring involve a young person with domineering parents who "acts up" after the training, he says. As for the other cases, Hanley says, "28 percent of Americans have mental problems. I suppose we're going to run into a few of those too."
At least five lawyers around the country specialize in suing Lifespring on behalf of trainees who have had psychotic episodes or other emotional strains they attribute to the training. Only two cases have reached a jury. Nearly all the others were settled, with Lifespring generally paying from $150,000 to $500,000 while admitting no fault, lawyers say. (Hanley won't discuss those cases and says he has no idea how much Lifespring paid.)
A sampling of Lifespring cases:
-- In 1980, a Seattle woman suffered an asthma attack during a basic training. Trainers told her the attack was self-induced; when she finally left the room, she wandered into a parking lot, collapsed and died after five days in a coma. Lifespring denied any responsibility and agreed to a $450,000 settlement of the family's suit.
-- Lifespring also settled the case of Arthur Barnett, a Portland, Ore., man who could not swim but was convinced by his Lifespring trainer that he could overcome his fear of water by diving into the Willamette River. Barnett did it. He drowned. Lifespring denied any responsibility, saying that no one forced Barnett to jump in the river. "The training doesn't cause anything," Hanley said then. "Life causes stuff."
-- In 1983, Lifespring won a verdict in the case of Florence Simpson, a Philadelphia woman who said Lifespring should have warned her of the emotional stress that could result from the training. Lifespring argued that Simpson should have heeded the company's instruction that people with psychological problems ought not take the course. The jury found that Simpson's prior psychological problems made it impossible to determine whether Lifespring had injured her.
-- In 1984, in the only other case to go to a jury, trainee Deborah Bingham won a verdict of $800,000. Bingham, a dealer at an Atlantic City casino, came out of the training believing herself to be "a new person," with new-found energy and zest. She called it a "Lifespring high." But a few weeks after completing the second Lifespring course, she woke up one morning feeling empty. For days, she couldn't stop crying. Over and over, she asked herself questions in Lifespring jargon: "What are you creating for yourself? Why am I doing this to myself?"
She couldn't sleep, eat or work. She had shakes that had started during a Lifespring exercise in which other trainees stood in front of her and repeatedly criticized her, making fun of her body, her jewelry, her personality. She entered a psychiatric hospital and stayed for a month. Her symptoms continued to some degree for years.
Hanley says he wanted to appeal but his insurers decided not to.
Gerald Ragland, an Alexandria lawyer who has represented Bingham and six other Lifespring graduates, says her case is typical. "In Lifespring, the person who breaks down is often not the person who is 'sharing' and talking, but someone who is silently sitting there, going psychotic."
Among Ragland's other clients are a woman who, driving home from the training, believed she could control the traffic lights; a man who showed up for the last day of basic convinced that Lifespring wanted him to take over the training; and a man who, a few days after the training, thought God was telling him to sacrifice his baby son.
Today, Hanley says, "We have almost no legal problems. It's getting better."
If Hanley is correct, it might be because of a new element in the first evening of the basic. After the ground-rules discussion, the trainer announces that participants must sign a legal form promising never to sue Lifespring, its officers or staff or anyone else taking the course. And this fall, Lifespring added a new clause to the release, requiring trainees to agree that any disputes stemming from the training will be handled not in a court, but through private arbitration.
"About a year and a half ago, our liability insurance became too expensive and we dropped it," Jim Cook told his trainees. "That's why we ask you to sign this."
Lifespring no longer carries insurance against psychological injury because,Hanley says, it is "no longer availableto us."
If the trainees refuse to sign away their right to sue, they must pay Lifespring an extra $300 to participate. At a recent Washington training, everyone signed.
Lifespring is not callous about lawsuits, Hanley says. "If a thousand people get benefit from the training, and one person is harmed, I'd can it. I have an absolute commitment for having this training work for every person who takes it."
Last month, Ragland filed a new suit on behalf of a Washington lawyer who says he went from the basic course to a psychiatric hospital after he suffered paranoid delusions and threw away all the knives in his house for fear that he would hurt himself. The lawyer spent many months in the hospital and suffered a relapse last year. Lifespring says the lawyer signed a form saying that he knew that the basic might be an emotionally stressful course and that he would not hold the company responsible for any problems.
Peter Georgiades is a Pittsburgh lawyer who has filed seven cases against Lifespring. Lifespring settled most of those cases, agreeing to pay former trainees if the amount was kept confidential. In his cases with no secrecy deal, Georgiades has won settlements of $100,000 to $800,000.
Lawyers say Lifespring has been spared several other lawsuits because injured trainees are ashamed to reveal that they participated in harsh exercises such as the "stretch."
That is part of the advanced course in which trainees are told to do the one thing that would most humiliate them. One man had to put on a pink tutu and dance like a ballerina. A woman was told to wear a tiny bikini, stand on a busy corner in Georgetown on Saturday nightand lead a parade of men through the streets.
"People know they'd have to tell the world about walking around on all fours snorting like a pig," Georgiades says.
Those who don't sue sometimes turn to deprogrammers such as Kevin Garvey, a Pennsylvania counselor who gets a steady stream of referrals from psychologists, physicians and ex-Lifespringers.
"I do know people who have benefited by doing Lifespring," Garvey says. "These are people with a few unexamined conflicts, people who had difficulty approaching a girl, went to this and came out with more confidence."
But Garvey has also seen cases in which Lifespring made profound, subliminal changes in people's lives. While the basic course has been softened, Garvey says the new Lifespring is perhaps 5 percent different from the old. It is still, he says, not an educational program, but an indoctrination camp.
"Every level of their system attacks the intellect," he says. "Their 'sharing' sessions are not an exchange, but a didactic tool. There is no time or opening to exchange or question."
Virginia Thomas, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, took Lifespring a couple of years ago, when she was a congressional aide. She was confused and troubled by exercises such as one in which trainees listened to "The Stripper" while disrobing to skimpy bikinis and bathing suits. The group then stood in a U-shaped line, made fun of fat people's bodies and riddled one another with sexual questions.
After talks with Garvey, Thomas decided she had been taken in. It took her months to break fully from Lifespring's "high-pressure tactics. I had intellectually and emotionally gotten myself so wrapped up with this group that I was moving away from my family and friends and the people I work with. My best friend came to visit me and I was preaching at her, using that tough attitude they teach you."
Thomas felt guilty about breaking her Lifespring "commitments." She hid out in another part of the country to avoid constant phone calls from fellow trainees who were taught that it was their responsibility to make Thomas keep her commitment to Lifespring.
Maura O'Connor, an Alexandria artist who took the basic two years ago when a friend recommended it, says Lifespring left her mentally exhausted and plagued with weird dreams. "You're feeling all these emotions and you never have time to think it through. The hours are so long, and you're always tired. At the time, I thought it was helping. And I really liked the trainer -- he's not exactly ugly and he's got you kind of in a trance. I found myself very disappointed that you weren't allowed to talk to him afterwards."
O'Connor insisted on a refund and eventually got one. But the friend who drew her into Lifespring is cool to her now. And her friend's Lifespring crowd won't even say hello. "There's this whole groupie feeling," O'Connor says. "It's really scary."
"JUST LIKE GOOD THEATER, THE LIFESPRING TRAINING'S GOT TO PLAY. IT'S GOT TO HAVE FIRE."
-- JOHN HANLEY
TONIGHT WE ARE ALL DRIBBLE, WORTHLESS protoplasm, powerless losers who fritter away our lives.
Jim suddenly appears on stage at the moment the music ends, the same instant the last trainee finds his seat, at which point the crowd erupts into applause. Everyone has obeyed the ground rule.
Jim pretends not to notice and lets out a chipper, "Welcome to Friday night of . . ."
"My life," the trainees answer in unison.
That about wraps up Jim's cheer for the evening. Tonight he is tough. He doesn't like us very much. He will call us "dribble." He will call us "worse than dribble." He will turn away from us in disgust and tell us, "You are not committed to you, so go to your diets, go to your books about relationships."
What ticks Jim off is that the trainees, every one of whom stood and committed to obeying the ground rules, have broken them. Jim asks who has broken any ground rules and almost everyone stands. Now, for 20 minutes, Jim tells us what our word really means.
"Your word is dribble. Your word is something to throw up on. You can't trust yourself. Your word means nothing to you. I'm tired of talking. I'm tired of doing this for you. Your word means sh--."
One man interrupts Jim; he wants to explain why he broke a rule.
"Close your mouth," Jim snaps. "Did anyone ask you to speak?"
For the small minority who remained seated, who really did follow every ground rule, well, they don't get off easily either.
"And you who in your arrogance are sitting, you're just looking for a little approval, a little something in your cup. 'Please, can I have some approval?' " he mimics. "You'll give your word and keep it so you can get your little fix of approval from others. I'm sick of it.
"There are no winners here," Jim says. Those who rise to speak are "looking for approval." Those who move to speak, but don't groet to the stage fast enough, "didn't really want to do it. 'There wasn't time' is an excuse, and there are no excuses in life. Based on results, you didn't intend to share. Your commitment was to sit there and be resigned, be a victim."
All in all, a pathetic lot. Jim can't stand to look at us. The room is silent, people look down, cast glances around at the chastened crowd.
Jim turns down the lights for an exercise. Everyone is on the floor, eyes closed, and Jim is at the microphone, speaking ever so softly, painting a lulling picture of a cool meadow, a deep forest through which each of us walks, alone. Soon we come upon a bridge, and on the other side of the bridge we see a door, but it doesn't seem to be attached to anything, and we decide to cross that bridge, and open the door and find ourselves in a junkyard, and it turns out, many calm and gentle moments later, that this is the junkyard of our broken promises, the final storage place for the piles of times that we broke our word.
And we dig, each of us, actually scooping up the junk with our hands, digging into the ballroom floor so hard that the room echoes with scraping. We are digging, Jim says, to find the prize, that one memory, that one moment when we gave our word and then failed to come through -- for Mom, our favorite teacher or our best friend.
"And look," Jim says, "over here in the junkyard, off in the corner, here is your esteem, here's where you lost it, your self-respect." Soon, as we dig and search and listen, there is another sound in the room. Sniffling. First, female sniffles,just a few; then, quite a number. Before long, the bodies around us are heaving, the sniffles have become sobs and the crowd of more than 200 people in the ballroom of the Quality Inn is crying, nearly as one.
Perhaps only a few of us have noticed the music up until now, a soft adagio of strings that swells now, as Jim's story picks up pace.
"You're a little boy now, or a little girl, and you've found where you left your word, when your word really meant something . . . And there's your family and your friends and their arms are outstretched waiting for you. You've found it, found your word in a little treasure chest."
Jim describes that delicate, special chest, leads a tour of it, and again the room collapses into sobs. "Let it bubble," Jim says. He announces a break, with an added rule. For 10 minutes, this will be a silent break; if we want to communicate, it must be with something other than words. "Let it bubble out with each other," Jim says. As the crowd files out, the staff silently circulates, dispensing tissues to the tearful.
The trainees keep their silence, look deeply into each other's eyes, and here and there, there are hugs, and people who 48 hours ago had never met now hold each other, tight.
The fantasies continue. Next, Jim paints an idyllic family portrait, taking the crowd back to a Frank Capra American childhood in which each of us is "the perfect boy and girl with the perfect Mom and Dad, who'll listen to you and won't reprimand you or punish you. And you're back in time now and you're that little boy who dreamt every night of getting up at bat and hitting a home run to win the game, a grand slam that made the crowd roar. And your dad is in the stands and your mom is saying, 'That's my boy.' Or you're that little girl now, home with your best friend and you're sitting and talking for hours, telling each other secrets about how you want to help people when you grow up, or about how you want the perfect husband and to be the perfect mom."
The music swells again, Cat Stevens singing "I am the child," and again, the contagion of sniffles sweeps the room, and eyes still red from earlier in the evening are rubbed and dabbed.
"But you know," Jim says, "in every family, there was that special time, and maybe it was breakfast time in your house, and you're that little child at the dining room table with one arm curled around the cereal box and the other shoveling cereal into your mouth, and your face is buried in that secret decoder ring on the back of the box. And there's Dad now. Talk to him, tell him what you've always wanted to say, say it now, out loud, he's here."
And they do. The man next to me, an aide to a midwestern congressman, turns to me and speaks to his father: "I always wanted a bicycle. And I never got it. He kept promising and it never happened. I got underwear instead." The man bursts out crying. Cat Stevens reaches a crescendo and the sobs spread through the room again. The congressional aide tells me about his mother's inability to talk about sex, about moments in elementary school when boys laughed at him for thinking that babies came from storks.
"I was so angry," the man says, "that I went home to the barn and killed all the pigeons." He stops. Then, "I never remembered that before."
He breaks down again, looks into my eyes. "I didn't get anything out of this until tonight. I just got my $400 worth."
Hidden memories flow freely in the dark, helped along by Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind." When the lights come on, exhausted trainees rise to tell of parents who abused them, never understood them, ignored them. Jim listens and rejects it all: "Your parents weren't good or bad. They did what they did. They made the best available choice." Again, tears and sniffles.
Enough crying. Time for the Black/Red Game, a standard tool in personal-growth courses. The group is divided in half and told only that the object of the game is to win. A scoreboard displays a variety of point values for each of several color choices. Fairly quickly, a few people in each group realize that the only way to get a positive score is for both teams to end up with the same score.
But as usually happens with this game, neither team can bring itself to trust the other side to make the correct choice. The game is stalemated. Finally, one team makes a selfish choice. When time elapses, Jim walks in, disgusted.
"None of you are winners -- not one. You couldn't do it. You're losers, losers in your jobs, losers in your relationships, losers at playing the game. And the game is the game of your life. Your good ideas are dribble. Just intellectual ideas. You don't do anything. You don't vote. You're not even registered to vote. You just ridicule the people who are elected. You're resigned to everything. You don't care. It's like the arms race: You know how to win, but you don't care. You just go on doing what you're doing. And don't tell me you knew how to win the game, but you just couldn't persuade everyone else. The only thing that matters is commitment and action. Well, I am out of things to say."
The music starts -- it's "Games People Play." The crowd files out, a quiet stream of long faces with bleary eyes.
GAMES LIFESPRING PLAYS
"GROUPS ARE VERY POWERFUL FORCES. IF YOU HAVE ANY VULNERABILITY OR LACK OF CRITICAL THINKING, YOU CAN JUST SNAP AWAY FROM LIFESPRING, SNAP RIGHT INTO A PSYCHOTIC EPISODE."
-- DR. GEORGE FULOP, psychiatrist, Mt. Sinai Medical Center
LIFESPRING WAS DEVELOPED BY LAYMEN to be taught by laymen to "mentally healthy" people. Anyone can pay $400 and take the course.
Lifespring's registration material clearly states that people who have had nervous breakdowns or have been in therapy in the past year should not do the training. That decision is left to the customer.
Lifespring does no screening. And that sparks the most serious professional criticism of Lifespring.
In legal arguments, public statements and internal memoranda, Lifespring has always contended that it cannot predict who might emerge as a "casualty." Internal memoranda show that 10 years ago, Lifespring executives discussed and rejected administering psychological tests to screen out vulnerable people.
Dr. Martin Blinder is a San Francisco psychiatrist who has never taken the course but has been hired by Lifespring to examine graduates who have sued the company. Blinder says he has never seen anyone adversely affected by Lifespring. Even if there were danger to the course, he says, it would be impossible to screen for potential victims.
"Lifespring, by design, is a fairly intense emotional experience," he says. "Any experience emotional enough to effect positive changes is powerful enough to effect negative changes. And without doubt, there are people who should not take Lifespring. Unfortunately, these people are not easily distinguishable from those people who get great benefit from Lifespring."
About 5 percent of Lifespring customers become casualties, Blinder says, but he argues that all social institutions -- marriage, college, work -- produce casualties. "I feel badly for someone who takes Lifespring expecting wonderful results and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. But scientifically, it probably doesn't tell us anything about Lifespring."
There have been a few scientific studies of Lifespring's impact. Lifespring touts the findings of researchers it funded, such as Lee Ross, a Stanford University psychologist who found that customers expect better personal relations and greater self-insight. Among basic graduates in his study, 56 percent called the course "one of the most valuable experiences I ever had." They reported feeling happiness, excitement, security and support, along with -- to a lesser degree -- depression and anxiety.
The latest study, paid for by Lifespring and reported in April's American Journal of Psychiatry, says the trainings "pose minimal risk, although clearly they are not risk free." Over three years, University of California psychologist Morton Lieberman watched 299 trainees in the training, then interviewed and tested them. He found no evidence of permanent psychological harm but did find trainees who experienced "high distress," disorientation, depression and, in one case, a psychotic episode that lasted 1 1/2 days.
"To me, any education worth a damn has a certain risk to it," Lieberman says. "I'm sure some people will get into trouble, but I personally don't feel the risks are inordinately high here." While Lieberman has not studied the benefits of Lifespring, he says the course "appears to help people who are ready to change, whether it's through Lifespring or therapy."
In one study, Lieberman concluded that six of 33 trainees had psychiatric disorders that apparently predated the course. (In another study, he found that 81 percent of trainees in large-group awareness courses have been in therapy.) Lifespring neither caused nor cured the problems, Lieberman says.
Three years ago, Lieberman recommended changes in Lifespring to reduce the risks of the training. He asked the company to strengthen the warnings on its sign-up form -- and it did. He asked it to teach trainers to recognize signs of stress in trainees -- and it did. But Lifespring did not change the course to accept "my message that they really have to reduce the pressure on people to stay in the room," Lieberman says.
Hanley says Lifespring eliminated pressure by changing its refund policy. Formerly, only trainees who completed the course could get a full refund; now they can withdraw at any time and get a pro-rated refund. Those who finish the course are no longer eligible for any refund.
Another major study of Lifespring -- not funded by the company -- is much more critical. Oregon professors Janice Haaken and Richard Adams, who observed the training with Lifespring's permission, reported in the journal Psychiatry that the training was "pathological." Lifespring, they say, systematically undermines the ego by encouraging trainees to expect dramatic change and then requiring absolute obedience -- witness, for example, the frantic compliance to the apparently meaningless rule that everyone be seated before the music ends. And Lifespring reduces trainees' ability to think critically -- for example, by requiring applause for every statement that mimics the trainer's jargon.
As chief psychiatric resident at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, Dr. George Fulop saw several Lifespring casualties. He saw trainees who "took very seriously the message that you can do whatever you want. Lifespring is an overwhelming group experience with forced exposure to confrontational, emotional exercises. That can be very dangerous. I saw one woman who believed she was carrying the trainer's child. And later she thought the world was going to end and she had to save it." That woman, a 28 -- year-old professional with no psychiatric history, was hospitalized for 16 days.
The long crying jags, the warm music, the strangers who suddenly hug you when you're down -- Lifespring can be deeply moving. But "catharsis without meaning is nothing," says Anita Solomon, a Rockville psychologist who has treated several Lifespring graduates. While the message that you can control your life can boost self-confidence, in Lifespring, the trainer, not the trainee, is in control. "Lifespring is minutely programmed to look spontaneous," Solomon says. "They control the music, who speaks and when. They create low self-esteem, telling you you're no good. You're not really taking control of your life if you're giving them control."
"LIFESPRING IS LIKE AN ENEMA OF YOUR EMOTIONS. IT'S CRYING AND CRYING, ALL YOUR EMOTIONS COMING UP. IT GAVE ME REAL CLARITY."
-- RONNIE ROSENTHAL, Gaithersburg real estate agent and Lifespring trainee
EARLY MORNING. CONNIE CALLS HER team. "It's going to be a really great day," she says. "Come to create."
Less than 10 hours after leaving the hotel, we're back. The music ends and here's Jim. He's not wearing a jacket or even a tie today and he jumps up on stage, smiling this grin of supreme goodness, this beatific smile, and we who were scum just hours ago are now the most wonderful group of people he has ever beheld. Someone comes in late and Jim makes like he doesn't even notice.
He asks for volunteers to "share," and dozens of trainees jump up, race to the front of the room and pour forth stories of rape, divorce and self-loathing."I don't want to be divorced," an 18-year-old girl says, and the crowd weeps with her.
A quaking young man speaks gingerly into the microphone: "I just have to say, and I've never said this to anyone before, I am a drug addict." The crowd rises as one to applaud his courage.
Jim is sensitive and encouraging today. He guides each confession, prodding the trainees until they use the words posted on the wall, words such as risk, sharing, trust and surrender.
Surrender is key to Lifespring. Things are as they are, and the only way to get past them is to surrender. Consider Lifespring's account of World War II. Germany and Japan tried to dominate the world economy. They met with resistance. So they surrendered.
"And now how many of you own cars from Germany or Japan?" Jim says. "So who won?" The crowd murmurs with understanding.
At the end of each testimonial, Jim asks, "What do you want?" He gets all kinds of answers -- love, respect, money, a promotion. No good. Jim wants to know what we really want. The trainees spread out around the ballroom, pair off, stare into each other's eyes, and ask each other, over and over, dozens, hundreds of times, "What do you want?"
For minute after deafening minute, with Jim on the loudspeaker urging on the crowd, quickening the pace, volunteers randomly lean into the pairs and shout at the top of their lungs, "Whatdo you want?" Throughout the room,one member of each pair screams the question while the other struggles to answer.
The exercise continues until voices are hoarse, until the crying has begun once more. Jim again intones his invitation to "let it bubble up, let it pour out, go deeper, deeper. Go beyond 'I don't want to be here,' beyond 'I just want him to shut up.' "
The woman across from me, a financial analyst, has run out of things to want. She sits through the exercise silently waiting for it to end. She is here because her boyfriend "is heavy into Lifespring and he got me into it like he got all his friends into it. I've just sat here and it's just sad to hear all these people who hate themselves. I like myself, I feel good about what I do and who I am. When all these people started crying, I just couldn't believe it. I don't have any dramatic thing to tell about drugs or anything."
But she is interrupted as Jim prods the crowd to "get it out. Shout like you've never shouted before!" and for nearly two minutes, the room vibrates with a painful strobe of sound, a pulsing ring of all the roaring 200 people can do. And suddenly, silence. "Sit," Jim says, "and listen." John Denver's straining voice comes over the loudspeaker, singing of "Sweet Surrender," and another cryorama commences, followed by another 15-minute silent break. The customers leave the ballroom, many arm in arm, hugging, wiping away each other's tears.
After the break, one man rises to challenge Jim. George Motley, a construction contractor and retired military man, isthe only person who will question the trainer's tactics during these five days. "You are putting words in people's mouths," he says. "You don't let them sit until they say what you want. I don't need to say those words."
"Sir, you are the most arrogant person I have ever met," Jim says. "Everyone else here is sick, right? They need something, huh? But not you, no, you are perfect. You are above all this, above feeling, above stepping out and risking, you, sitting there in your arrogance."
The crowd, silent at first, revels in Jim's put-down, shouts Motley down. There are even a few boos. Motley, unrepentant, assures everyone that he agrees Lifespring "is a beautiful thing for many people, but I just don't need it."
Jim next asks trainees to select the person in the room they most dislike, seek him out and tell him in great detail what they most despise. It is a difficult and frightening task. When it is over,Jim announces that everything we have just told the other person is true of ourselves. "Once again," he says, "you chose the perfect partner, because you chose him."
The sharing continues. A middle-aged woman explains how she has selflessly cared for her blind husband and children, refusing to ever say no. "It has always been so hard," she says, "and thanks to Lifespring, I've resolved to just keep saying yes, and it's not a burden any-more."
She gets her ovation, as does a young woman who says, "I've been sitting here wanting to get up and cry and let it out like everyone else, but I don't have the tears. I'm sorry." She talks about her difficult relationship with her mother, but she isn't ready to say she's "100 percent committed" to anything. "I don't feel those words. I'm sorry."
"That's good news," Jim says, "because for you, taking the risk of saying that is your risk. So you've shared, too."
"Yes," she says, "I have."
By midday, the crowd is euphoric. Jim delivers a rousing lecture about the breakthroughs we have all had.
After another break, the group returns to a ballroom booming with the high-energy sound of Lionel Richie's "Dancing on the Ceiling." For 15 minutes, the ballroom is a disco, and the trainees dance, hug and kiss. Jim keeps the mood going, sending trainees into small groups to discuss the "commitments you've made in your breakthroughs."
"I'm going to get an expensive car with leather seats, even though I don't need it," Ronnie Rosenthal says, and everyone applauds.
"I've learned how to lie better, which is something I have to do in my job," the man from the State Department says, and everyone applauds.
The lights dim, and Jim moves everyone to the sides of the room and stands in the center to demonstrate "the Lifespring hug. It is a body to body, peepee to peepee, bellybutton to bellybuttonhug," he says, leaning into a trainee, embracing him with a warm, long, soft, close hold.
It is time for the Hug Line. All 200 people stand in parallel lines curving through the room. Each trainee stands opposite another and holds up one, two, three or four fingers for the other to see. One means you feel nothing for that person and so you do nothing. Two means you express your feelings by looking into each other's eyes. Three means limited physical contact such as a handshake. And four means the Lifespring Hug. If the partners do not agree, the lower number rules, or the two negotiate silently, with their fingers. Then everyone steps to the left and faces a new partner.
Jim interrupts after the first, hesitant round to pitch for the hug. By the second pairing, the room has become a massive hug-in. Nearly every one of the pairs jumps right into the full-body, long-lasting, hard-pressing hold.
The loudspeaker pumps out a festival of numbing, sentimental sounds -- the prewashed classic Pachelbel's canon, over and over; Lionel Richie's "Three Times a Lady." We make our slow way down the Hug Line for an hour, and then Jim steps into his role as deejay of our emotions, reading over the lulling music a wife's letter to her husband in which she pours out her unexpressed love for him. When he is finished, Jim tells the crowd that the letter came back to the woman, unopened, together with a telegram informing her that her husband had been killed in Vietnam. Suddenly all those hugs, all that closeness, dissolves into sobs. Jim loses not a second, starts the tape rolling, cranks up the speakers and soon everyone is standing in one huge circle, swaying and singing along to "We Are the World."
"You are the world," Jim says, "black, white, brown, Catholic, Jew, atheist, young and old. You are it." Everyone hugs.
It is mid-evening now and a woman stands to tell Jim that "when I came in here Wednesday, I was skeptical. When I heard your name, I thought, 'Oh, no, he's Jim Jones,' and if I saw any Kool-Aid around, I was gone." The crowd laughs, and Jim laughs, and more people apologize for their initial doubts and talk about the changes they've felt.
There's a campfire feeling in the room now, and plenty of spontaneous hugging. So when Jim invites everyone to break out of their "comfort zone" and do things they would never do, like jumping up and screaming and making barnyard noises and acting like slobs and making the loudest, most vulgar burping and farting sounds, people jump to do it.
The 25 volunteer staffers who have sat silently in the back for four days burst back into the room after a short absence, made up like fools and bums, covered with black streaks and torn clothes, a Dickensian crew of the slimy and pathetic.
This is, as it's known in the Lifespring manual, "Asshole Theater," a chance for the volunteers, who are advanced Lifespring trainees, to show basic trainees what they were like when they came in, and while they're at it, to demonstrate the camaraderie of Lifespring's higher levels. Standing in a chorus line, theLPs (slang for Leadership Program trainees) chant a nursery rhyme about the types who resist Lifespring, those who analyze, insist there's nothing wrongwith them, or come in looking for a magic cure.
And now, as the actors run through the seated crowd and the trainees see pieces of themselves in the performance, the novitiates feel for the first time that they are part of Lifespring. They have had their breakthrough.
"JUST ABOUT EVERY BRANCH OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS INVOLVED. AND BUSINESSES EVERYWHERE ARE GETTING INTO IT. LIFESPRING IS REALLY HAPPENING."
-- PATTI COHN, Lifespring marketing director
WHAT DOES LIFESPRING WANT?
To make the world better by graduating more and more people, as individuals and through businesses, says John Hanley.
To train people in American business and government while making huge piles of money, says deprogrammer Kevin Garvey.
"Enrolling someone in the training is not something people do for Lifespring but for a world that works better," Hanley says.
Lifespring's structure leads inexorably toward recruiting the next batch of customers. Trainees who complete the first two courses have spent $1,250 and become eligible for the no-charge Leadership Program, which, as Hanley says, "is an opportunity for people to create possibility in their life by enrolling people in the trainings."
"Their most outrageous abuse is pressuring people to pay for more training," says lawyer Georgiades. To Hanley, Lifespring's primary objective is enrollment, or, as he put it, "asses in the seats," says former vice president James Moore. "The more intense the experience that people had, the more they marketed," Moore says. "It's almost like a dial . . . You can spin the dial all the way up, and I think that's where some of the severe problems came from, but that gives you all that extra. You have this group in front of you and they're an emotional marketing reservoir."
Hanley concedes that Lifespring's reliance on trainee recruiting "is an area of criticism. We probably deserve the criticism." Still, the founder says the Leadership Program is "pure as the driven snow." When outsiders see friends and relatives volunteering enormous amounts of time to a for-profit business, they raise what Hanley calls "very legitimate questions. I can justify every move we make, but it doesn't do much good."
Lifespringers tend to associate with other Lifespringers as friends, business associates and even as spouses. That closeness is not evidence of a cult but a result of "commitment," the founder says. Finding such a relationship is "easier done with somebody who's done the Lifespring training than with someone who hasn't."
Notes from an advanced Lifespring seminar taken by one of Garvey's deprogramming clients quote a trainer telling customers that they are part of "an elite vanguard that will change the path of our species."
Lifespring has long been intent on winning credibility by attracting customers from government and large corporations. The company publishes a "client roster" that lists the likes of American Express, AT&T, Time/Life and the federal government.
The "client roster" is not a list of employers that have hired Lifespring to conduct trainings, but of employers that have reimbursed workers for taking the course. Lifespring provided The Post with a list of five such Washington-area companies. Spokesmen for four of the five businesses -- IBM, Pan American Health Organization, Rosenthal Chevrolet and ComSearch -- say they have never reimbursed anyone for doing Lifespring. Lifespring marketing director Patti Cohn says she cannot explain the discrepancy.
Lifespring has been successful with government agencies. Plaques in the lobby of the company's headquarters commemorate its relationships with the U.S. Air Force and the San Jose police department. Both later cut ties with the training.
In 1980, Lifespring trained hundreds of servicemen at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In a letter to the Pentagon and in press reports, a captain there said that Lifespring was security risk because trainees would find their loyalties torn between military values and those taught by Lifespring. A Harvard psychiatrist said servicemen would be "loyal to Lifespring." The Air Force stopped the training.
San Jose police announced they were dropping Lifespring after the chief decided that graduates had endangered the lives of innocent citizens. In one case, the chief said then, an officer who had taken Lifespring decided -- against department policy -- to drop his gun and approach a hostage-taker to listen to the man. The policeman was then taken hostage.
Today, Lifespring seeks to involve government employes through individuals rather than through their agencies. "Just about every branch of the federal government is involved," Cohn says.
At Fort Myer in Virginia, "it's caught on like wildfire," says Paul Mazzuca, a retired Marine colonel who says he recruited at least eight officers to Lifespring. On Capitol Hill, Lifespring "recruits very actively among the congressional staff," says a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. "There is a lot of peer pressure to do it." Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.) took the course and later served on Lifespring's advisory board. Several members of Rose's staff also attended Lifespring a few years ago. Rose has since resigned the post; he did not respond to requests for an interview.
At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Capt. Karen Klingenberger tries to keep her Lifespring recruiting low-key. "I ask people if they're interested in a really great opportunity. I tell them how it increases your effectiveness as an officer." Klingenberger has enrolled at least six other academy officers in the past year, but she treads carefully because "the Air Force viewed all of us with suspicion, wondering whether we were trying to get the cadets involved or whether we were being subversive."
Most typically, Lifespring expands through word of mouth in offices. Ronnie Rosenthal says she signed up because "everyone in my office was doing it and my boss told us it would really help us."
James Brown, an associate superintendent of the D.C. school system, got into Lifespring at a friend's suggestion, but has since spread the training among his employes. "I have a staff of 3,500 people here and all of them could use it. But I wouldn't pressure them. You have to be very careful. Some people get very defensive about something like this. I have had one retreat and one seminar where I've had people from the organization in and the word Lifespring was never used." All told, Brown says, at least 45 people attended Lifespring trainings that were not billed as such.
With graduates doing the work, Cohn says, the company need not spend money on expansion. "We don't seek it," she says. "It just happens." Hand-scrawled work sheets on her office wall tell another story. "Get more media coverage," they say. "Solicit testimonials from grads." Lifespring intends to be in 25 cities by 1990 and to increase the number of customers from 15,000 in 1985 to 30,000 in 1987, a goal it is close to reaching.
Graduates still bring in thousands of new customers, but the startling growth has executives thinking bigger. In interviews, Cohn pledges allegiance to word-of-mouth marketing. Her wall again reveals another story: For the first time, Lifespring is considering advertising.
"YOU MAY BE THINKING, 'GREAT, BUT HOW DO I KEEP DOING IT WHEN I LEAVE HERE?' YOU DO IT BY KEEPING ON DOING IT."
-- JIM COOK
SUNDAY MORNING AND THE LOVEFEST continues. We spend five minutes listening to a soft remake of "Let It Be" while everyone embraces himself. The mood is reflective, self-congratulatory. Jim asks how our feelings have changed since Wednesday, and trainees race to the stage, actually jostling for position, straining for a chance to speak. They talk about their new-found honesty with themselves, their willingness to give, their "100 percent commitments," their decisions to "take a stand for responsibility."
"This is like a rebirth for me," a 28-year-old restaurant manager says. "I never knew I could talk to people like this. But I'm skeptical about what I'll be like after it's over. Outside, you don't have all this support. And I don't want to lose this."
Jim nods. Yes, it can be hard once you leave your new Lifespring friends. This is his cue for a 40-minute pitch: "For most of you, this is one of the most significant experiences in your life. You may be thinking, 'Great, but how do I keep doing it when I leave here?' You do it by keeping on doing it.
"This week, after you leave here, you're going to have a chance to sit with Lifespring graduates like yourselves for an hour, and that hour will be about you. I can guarantee you an authentic person who is totally committed to you. And it's about what's next for you, and we'll be talking about whether the advanced course is right for you. So be sure to be there with that possibility in mind. Allow yourself to make that choice. And that means bringing a credit card or checkbook or whatever you need to make that choice."
Jim tells how the advanced course transformed him from a callous financial adviser into a caring person who devotes his life to Lifespring. In the advanced training, 60 people stay together for five entire days, dawn to evening; the course moves on only when every single person is ready.
"I can promise you breakthroughs in extraordinary achievement in your life," Jim says. The advanced, $850, no refunds, begins in one week.
"Based on results," Jim says, "60 percent of you will do the advanced. And 60 percent of that group will go on to LP."
In a final lecture, Jim sums up the training. "You already have what you want in life," he says. Hardly anyone believes him. Again he asks, "What do you want?" Again, he gets the usual list: cars, spouses, money. Those are only symbols, Jim says. What you really want is the experience those symbols stand for -- joy, power, responsibility, sex, happiness.
"This is what this whole training is about," he says. "Be, do, have. Just be who you are, and you will do what you do, and you will have what you want. Because you already have what you want. Because if you didn't want it, you wouldn't have it. And if you don't have it, you don't want it."
With that, Jim sends the groups off to lunch, asking them to discuss whether the advanced is right for them. In our group of nine, six trainees say they will definitely or most likely do it.
"This morning, during the break, I did it," Ronnie Rosenthal says. "I just went over to the phone and called my in-laws and invited them for dinner. I can't believe I did it, but I did. They were so shocked to hear my voice, they just accepted. If Lifespring could get me to do that, I have to do the advanced."
A housewife from Bethesda had the guts at dinner last night to ask someone to put out their cigarette. "That was a very big step for me." She will do the advanced.
Another woman, Martha, whose daughter cajoled her to do the basic, will not do the advanced. "It's not for me," she says. "I see all this emotion going on. Genuine emotion. And I wonder why I don't feel it. I know I'm a very giving person. But when I hear the music and the crying, I just feel like the group is what's doing it. The group, any group, scares me. And I've seen in my daughter that need to stay in the group after it's over."
Connie tries to get her to see that "there's a joy and aliveness in people's eyes here. Don't you see that? And Jim is so empowering."
Before lunch ends, group leaders ask trainees to commit themselves to bring recruits to the next Guest Event, Lifespring's three-hour pitch for the basic. The groups compete to pledge the largest number of guests. One group commits to 37, others are around 25.
The final afternoon mixes expressions of euphoria with pitches for the advanced. While the speakers pump out a string-heavy number called "You're the Wind Under My Wings," the trainees give the volunteers a standing ovation. Then the two groups stand facing each other, crying as they hold up the four-finger symbol of the Lifespring Hug.
In the last-chance "sharing" time, one woman admits to childhood alcoholism. Another stands on a chair to announce that "I'm filing for legal separation from my husband tomorrow!" The group responds with wild applause and cheers.
A college student from Florida says she wants to be a lifeguard. With Jim's prodding, she "commits" to doing it. But she's not sure how to get the job. Jim pushes her along: "Do you want the job?" Yes. "Will you get the job by next Friday?" The crowd roars. The girl says yes. Jim, too, is committed to her getting the job. "Will you call me at my office in California at 5 p.m. Friday to tell me what happened?" She will. The trainees, overwhelmed by Jim's involvement, rise to cheer.
And the woman Jim trashed the first night, the woman who said she couldn't stay for the entire training because of her job and her cat and her tickets and her hotel room -- in the final moments of the training, she stands to explain how she stayed on hold with her boss for 45 minutes and kept calling him when he wouldn't speak to her and finally won his permission to stay in Washington for an extra day. And she tells of convincing Continental Airlines to switch her non-refundable ticket without penalizing her. And she says she will indeed stay for the interview the next day. Her fellow trainees, many of them crying, welcome her into the fold.
"I'D LIKE TO BE ABLE TO RUN MY LIFE LIKE THE TRAINER RUNS HIS CLASS. THAT'S POWER."
-- JAMES BROWN, associate superintendent, District public schools
"MAYBE IT IS MOB PSYCHOLOGY. IT'S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO GET AWAY ONCE YOU'RE THERE. BUT I JUST FELT I'LL NEVER, EVER BE IN SUCH AN ATMOSPHERE -- SO SUPPORTIVE -- AGAIN IN MY LIFE. SO NOW I FEEL THE MORE PEOPLE I CAN GET INTO LIFESPRING, THE MORE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD WILL BE OPEN AND RECEPTIVE."
-- RONNIE ROSENTHAL
ON SUNDAY, TRAINEES ARE TOLD TO bring fine clothes for the graduation ceremony. In the afternoon, after a break for everyone to change, the room refills with women in party gowns, men in suits and funky dance get-ups. The ceremony is a secret; Jim has said only that we ought to invite as many people as we care about.
With the end only a few hours away, the group is ever more sentimental. Jim asks each group to stand together. This is what Lifespring calls the "group grope," a long, warm squeeze that starts with circles of nine people holding each other, rocking back and forth. The grope slowly expands as the trainees form one massive, undulating megahug.
Jim lowers the lights, starts soft music and moves everyone into a huge circle. He recalls what it was like to enter this room five days ago, spelling out how the group discovered "our possibilities."
With the lights all the way down and the speakers playing Bette Midler's "(The) Rose," the trainees listen, eyes closed, holding hands, to a long reconstruction of the childhood memories, the games, the moments of deep emotion.
Suddenly, Jim says, "you will hear the pitter-patter of footsteps," and we do. "And when you open your eyes, you will see the people you love. And you will see a person who felt so strongly about you that they wanted to share something with you that was very special to them."
All at once, 200 people open their eyes. Standing before each trainee is someone who kisses them and holds them in a Lifespring Hug for as long as the music plays. And that person, often the person who brought them into Lifespring, hands the trainee a fresh-cut rose and congratulates them. Now, Jim says, they can go out into the world and tell their friends and their families, and in a few weeks, they too can come to a graduation and hand a rose to a new Lifespringer.
December 15, 1987
Mr. John Hanley
161 Mitchell Boulevard
San Rafael, CA 94903
Dear Mr. Hanley:
The Post has discussed with Lifespring representatives the points Lifespring raised about the October 25, 1987 article in The Washington Post Sunday magazine entitled "Inside Lifespring."
With regard to your general concerns, The Post did not approach the article with any preconceptions about Lifespring, nor is The Post adverse or hostile to Lifespring. The article includes the views of supporters of Lifespring and of its critics, and The Post intended to present these views neutrally. The article was based in large part on the experience of The Post reporter, who took the Basic Training course. As the story indicates, most people who take the Basic Training view it positively, and this is consistent with the reporter's observations in his course.
I understand that you are very concerned about the confidentiality of the Basic Training that The Post reporter attended. Trainees were named in the story only with their consent, which may reassure other trainees who may be concerned.
The remainder of this letter clarifies or corrects certain points:
The Post did not state, and did not intend to imply, that Lifespring trainees were made to crawl on their hands and knees, cry like infants or tightly hug 200 strangers.
The Post has no knowledge of any determination that Lifespring training has caused any deaths. The Post has knowledge of only one determination that Lifespring caused injury -- the Bingham case discussed in the article. In that case there was an appeal, and it was settled for an amount less than the verdict. The article also briefly discusses two cases brought against Lifespring several years ago, one brought on behalf of a Seattle, Washington woman who suffered an asthma attack during a training session and later died, and another on behalf of a Portland, Oregon man who drowned after a training session. Both of the cases were settled. The article summarizes the plaintiffs' charges. Lifespring had several witnesses who testified to different facts, and Lifespring raised a number of defenses.
The article states that a Pennsylvania lawyer sued Lifespring and obtained large settlements. The article overstates the dollar range of his settlements.
The article cites several professionals, some who are critical of Lifespring, some who are not. The Post reported their opinions and did not state, or intend to suggest, whether studies funded by Lifespring are valid or invalid. San Francisco psychiatrist Martin Blinder has reaffirmed his view, stated in the article, that he knows of no instance in which Lifespring training has harmed anyone. The article attributes to Dr. Blinder the opinion that five percent of Lifespring trainees become casualties. In subsequent conversations, Dr. Blinder has told The Post that he believes any casualty rate in Lifespring is "infinitesimal."
The article summarizes the circumstances surrounding the San Jose police chief's decision to drop Lifespring training for police officers. One incident cited by the chief involved an officer who put down his gun and approached a hostage-taker. The chief pointed to this conduct because it went against department policy. After this occurred, however, the female hostage was released and the gunman was talked into surrendering.
The article in question was sixteen pages long, and this letter does not deal with all of the issues your representatives have raised. Nevertheless, this letter resolves all matters between you, Lifespring and The Post.
Boisfeuillet Jones, Jr.
Vice President and Counsel