Aug 02 2013

Escape From Oz: An Ebook in Progress

How can you tell you might be going to a personal growth program?

It’s easy. In the marketing materials you will find words like transformation, breakthrough, shadow, initiation, healing, a big price tag (usually over $600), and so forth.

One of your friends, family, or in some cases, therapist or coach will also be the one to “invite” you to  “a weekend.”

There are many psychotherapists in the Chicago area who are familiar with personal growth workshops and may have referred many of their clients.

I think it can be assumed the vast majority of people who attend these programs benefit in some way, some tremendously.

It’s oversimplifying, but there are probably 3 camps when it comes to these programs:

·         The most enthusiastic are the ones who love the experience and claim it has changed their lives for the better.
·         The ones who give it some credit, but are not likely to repeat their experience.
·         This is the usually very quiet group, but when asked “trash” the experience. This third group are the ones to file complaints and lawsuits.

Often people make it through the program with positive experiences only to find they are encouraged to volunteer in the organization where they provide free labor on behalf of leaders and programs.

Often kept in a state of suspended growth and development, these people can also feel exploited, even after many years looking back.

I can hear them saying, “Was I called brother because I supported those leaders unquestionably and made numerous referrals to their programs?”

Even though these individuals perceived they were getting a lot out of the experience, hindsight may lead them to ask themselves, “why did I do this and what was I  getting out of it?”

Worse, of course, are the people injured or killed.

While it may seem negative to raise these issues the facts remain individuals with pre-existing medical and mental health issues may be ill-advised to participate in these programs.

Even very healthy people can be seriously injured or killed by placing their trust in charismatic leaders who ultimately only view them as a source of revenue and additional referrals.

A quick view of the research offers multiple examples of serious negative outcomes for participants of these experiences. Among many, here are a few examples:

·         3 deaths and injuries of participants of a James Arthur Ray program (Stroud, 2015)
·         Reports of psychotic episodes after the Landmark Forum (Glass LL, 1977)
·         Reports of at least 30 lawsuits,  high percentage of complaints, psychiatric hospitalizations and deaths after Lifesprings programs
·         Mindsprings being forced to close after lawsuits by the State of California charging fraud and practicing medicine without a license.
·         Report of a suicide after a Mankind Program weekend (Wikipedia, Mankind Project, 2016)

Obviously, these are very serious problems, and any family member or friend would be concerned and upset by these occurrences.  I offer citations and links to help anyone interested do additional research to learn the details of these events.

For example, Warren Throckmorton, a university psychology professor has written about the suicide after the MKP program in Houston, TX in some detail and a simple google search offers many other links to newspaper articles and commentary about this tragedy. (Throckmorton, 2008) The man apparently had some pre-existing mental health concerns, yet went to the weekend, came home, complained about the program, then killed himself.

Some programs I have experience with are the Mankind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure and the Victories of the Heart. I have staffed both weekends and became a leader of the Victories of the Heart Breakthrough weekend and helped to create the Victories “facilitating psychodrama” training program.

Our leader team instituted an evaluation process and always scored about 4.7 on a 5 point scale. The comments of the participants were enthusiastic and inspiring. Life-changing was the common theme. Aside from the huge burden of responsibility, it was an incredible experience to share in such momentous work with these men.

The Breakthrough weekend was the brainchild of Bob Mark, PhD and the late Buddy Portugal, LCSW. It’s  conceived with a wonderful balance of engaging men in a process of deep personal exploration.  The program first developed as a non-residential weekend in Evanston, Illinois and then later as a weekend residential. Dr. Mark and Buddy Portugal received awards from the American Family Therapy Association and the Family Institute for this particular aspect of work with men.

As I have written for the 2004 Strategic Plan process, I experienced the Men’s Room weekend (then Initial and Breakthrough weekend) as similar to the MKP Warrior Weekend in structure and organization. There is the engagement of the men, deepening self-exploration, intense action-oriented work, then the beginning to return to the ordinary world with the offering of a small group experience made up of participants from the weekend.

There are also many differences in both weekends and organizations. The following is  a more elaborate discussion of these factors:

I will perhaps never know if these Victories founders understood the neuroscience involved in the action oriented work done during their early Men’s Room, later Initial and then Breakthrough weekends.  I have studied their books and spent time with them in weekends and meetings. I never read anything about neuroscience or heard them talk about it.

Science helps us understand now that because of the unique way trauma memory is stored, humans need to feel safe in order for that memory to be accessed. (Van der Kolk B. , 2014) Perhaps every human being experiences trauma, yet not everyone is traumatized.

We now understand trauma memory is stored in fragments and implicitly, so it’s not easily remembered. Trauma survivors have a tremendously difficult time putting together a cohesive, personal story because the effects of trauma interrupt and damage the normal storage of memories.

State-dependent memory research has shown that when people (rats too) are in a similar internal state, implicitly stored trauma memories can be accessed. In psychoanalytic language, this has been called an “abreaction” and is commonly referred to as “catharsis.”

So, during personal growth weekends, processes are designed to create enough intensity, so the participant is able to access, identify, process and hopefully resolve, these implicitly stored trauma memories.

My unique contribution to Victories was my interest in neuroscience, trauma and how experiential therapy methods helped human beings heal trauma.  I began teaching this at the psychodrama trainings we created and also on the Friday mornings before every Breakthrough weekend.

All of us on the leadership teams began to have a common understanding of what we were doing, the conceptual map based on research, and common language and methods so we could all speak together and collaborate on behalf of the men. It was a beautiful time for me, Kurt, and I think the other guys.

I had some truly wonderful experiences working in the leader team we created. Many of those guys are now in leadership positions in Victories and have made many, many positive changes.  I also like many of the workshops offered via the MKP men’s centers all over the globe.

Not everything about these two local programs (MKP has a center in Chicago but is an international program) is perfect and MKP has had its share of controversial moments, complaints, deaths, and a few lawsuits.

What led to the creation of these and other personal growth programs?

It’s surprising in a way that more leaders and stakeholders of these organizations have not studied the historical connections to other similar programs.

In the social science literature, these programs are referred to as large group awareness trainings (LGATs). (Wikipedia, LGATs, 2016)

LGATs evolved out of the Human Potential Movement (HPM) and the New Age Movement (NAM) in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They shared similar goals in helping people increase self-awareness and become more empowered in the world, but had significant differences.

Suzanne Snider in her excellent article, est, Wernard Erhardt and the Corporitization of Self-Awareness, states:

“the HPM  and NAM movements diverged philosophically when it came to attributing the source of human experience. The HPM (think Werner Erhard or L. Ron Hubbard) credited/blamed each individual as the sole determiner of his or her own experiences, whereas NAM (think Shirley MacLaine, but please think well of her) explored spiritual, metaphysical, and extraterrestrial realms as forces guiding and even determining a person’s life.” (Snider, 2003)

Suzanne’s article is a fascinating review of this history and anyone interested in these issues will benefit from starting with this article.

So, LGATs started with lofty goals of increasing self-awareness and personal success and the methods were a mixture of many common psychological techniques, like guided imagery, self-hypnosis, meditation, group process, and more unorthodox methods, like enforced no-bathroom use for long periods of time (people apparently wet their pants) and verbal abuse.

Suzanne goes on to say:

“the Human Potential Movement (programs) engaged in far less soothing awareness-training sessions, filled with screaming and crying and verbal abuse. HPM groups such as Lifespring, Mind Dynamics, and est aimed (often in competition with one another) to goad us into more fully realized versions of ourselves…”

I never experienced any of these LGATs, though my wife attended the Landmark Forum here in Chicago and encouraged me to attend a orientation session. It was a fail, as the young woman leading the event seemed barely out of college and her diagrams on the blackboard left me pretty confused.

However, it’s clear Landmark Forum has evolved away from the verbal abuse and confinement of participants during events. There website makes it clear there are breaks and meals and participants can be assured of not wetting their pants, as occurred at earlier est trainings.

But those early LGAT sessions had to be pretty memorable. For me and any of my Catholic school friends, the idea of someone standing in the front of the room verbally abusing us is pretty easy to imagine. We experienced that all the time.

Most of these early HPM programs were motivated by profits and there was a lot to be made. Over time, modifications were made, like est became Landmark Forum and continues to this day to offer programs which many find very helpful. Wikipedia reports there may be as many as 2.4 million graduates of Landmark Forum programs. (Wikipedia, Landmark Worldwide, 2016)

One has to admit there is something happening in Landmark which people find meaningful. In fact, the Landmark website features an endorsement from Alan Menken, 8-time Academy Award Winning Composer who says:

“This is basic training for the mind, the heart and the soul. It is the most positive transforming experience I’ve ever been a part of.”

There are other celebrity graduates of Landmark who offer a boost in testimonial value to the organization. No doubt, Landmark Forum, the direct descendent of est is mainstream now and boasts millions in revenue yearly.

Landmark is only one of the LGATs reviewed in the literature both from the point of view of success and failure. A law firm defending Rick Ross of the Cult Awareness Network wrote a an excellent review of the litigation involving Landmark’s attempts to quiet it’s critics. (Skolnik, 2006)

These attorneys understand the power dynamics of larger, powerful organizations like Landmark use of litigation. Here’s what they say:

“In an effort to suppress this unfavorable dialogue about the company, Landmark, like Erhard before it, has repeatedly used litigation and threats of litigation as an improper tool to silence its vocal public critics.  This type of lawsuit — typically accusing the defendant of defamation and related torts — is known in various American jurisdictions as a SLAPP suit: i.e., a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation; a lawsuit brought not for its merits, but for the specific purpose of silencing a vocal critic, often one who is unlikely to have the financial resources to defend himself.”

It’s quite a read and shows clearly an organization with a lot of money and attorneys can make people’s lives miserable they deem harmful to their image/brand. (Not sure if I am proud or not, but I have had four SLAPP lawyer letter threats and 2 veiled threats. )

When you consider the effort to silence critics of LGATs, you begin to question Suzanne Snider’s definition of the HMP movement as:

“well-meaning… a movement which put a premium on human possibility, with an emphasis on the spiritual side of humanity.” (Snider, 2003)

One wonders why programs which claim to do such good in the world would need to be so harsh in their effort to squash people’s First Amendment rights. I guess one reason is because they can.

The five main characteristics of LGATs include the following:

1.creation of an altered state of awareness
2.catharsis or the intense expression of emotions
3.rebirthing or some exercise leading to a sense of new beginnings
4.recruitment
5.engaging participant graduates as volunteers

It’s been fascinating to me that many people involved in leadership of these programs have not understood the historical influences of other LGATs or even the underlying structure and processes of these programs.  Social scientists have been studying LGATs for decades and there is a lot of interesting literature out there.

Mind Dynamics started in 1968 and is widely understood to be one of the first, and perhaps, most influential LGAT, leading directly to the creation of est or Erhard Seminar Trainings, which then led to the Landmark Forum operated by Landmark Education. A second LGAT evolving from Mind Dynamics was Lifesprings Seminars.

Writers suggest Mind Dynamics and it’s owner were influenced by Edgar Cayce, Theosophy, Silva Mind Control and Curtiss’ Depression is a Choice. (Edgar Cayce, 2016) (Theosophy, 2016) (Curtiss, 2016). I’m providing links here for anyone to read more about these early influences on LGATs. It wasn’t all pretty and Mind Dynamics was sued for false advertising and forced to cease operations in the early 1970’s.

Most of the smaller Chicago based programs have been influenced greatly by the Mankind Project’s success. Imitation is flattery and I know the MKP guys welcome other programs learning from them and moving on to create other programs. MKP has been an incubator for leadership, healing & recovery, and global change. With men’s centers in many parts of the world, they bring the opportunity for health and well-being to tens of thousands of men and their families, especially through their skillful use of psychodrama.

One example of this influence is my own participation at psychodrama training workshops sponsored by MKP or men associate with MKP, like David Karr. I thought it was a great learning experience for me. When I began to work with my leader partner, Kurt Schultz, in the Victories Breakthrough weekend, it was apparent we had to develop a conceptual map about leading psychodrama. Kurt was very good at it, but I was not and needed to do catch-up. I had been trying to study psychodrama and MKP offered the only way to do so at the time.

Our work there with the other participants was very helpful and enabled us to continue to work with the informal team of guys at Victories to develop a cohesive way of teaching and facilitating psychodrama. I credit my relationship with Kurt Schultz and the other guys for their ability to collaborate in what was a transformative step in the history of volunteer training in Victories. Many of those men are now leaders and Board members/stakeholders in the organization. I am very proud of this accomplishment.

For some reason, keeping processes secret has been important to LGATs. A lawsuit against MKP several years ago led to more transparency on the website where prospective participants can learn more about what actually happens. Victories has also increased their transparency with their Breakthrough and Wisdom years weekend website descriptions, yet keeps their shadow weekend processes more secretive. This secretive process is one reason I have been so critical of the Victories Shadow weekend over the years.

Victories seems to be increasing the transparency of the Shadow weekend, as their website now offers more detailed testimonials from participants which  offers insights into the experience. I was very impressed by what I read and could tell these men had a meaningful experience which might even be called life-changing.

I helped staff one of the first Shadow weekends and did not have a good experience. Like all bad experiences, this was imprinted more powerfully in my memory system, so it’s been difficult for me to change my opinions.

When events bother us, they cause our neuronal activity to increase, thus causing us to remember these experiences more vividly. It also is a simple fact of evolutionary biology that our direct ancestors were able to remember bad stuff, so they survived. This developmental pattern evolved to the present day where for better or worse, trauma survivors have difficulty forgetting the bad things they remember.

Victories also had an open, free meeting (August 2016) to learn more about the Shadow weekend, probably an experiential program just a few weeks ago. This was a terrific idea and evidence of the better judgment of the current Board leadership who may understand the benefits of transparency. I would have actually gone to this had I known in time and will watch for another opportunity. The old days of “you should do this program I can’t tell you about because it’s better you don’t know what will happen” are over. I am fascinated by the impact of personal growth weekends and can only discuss what I know or can learn from reading or experiencing.

I swore I would never go to another Shadow weekend,  but I would  love to know the ways in which it’s been improved. I’ve been assured it’s been redesigned and believe the people who have told me this. I have always been against the keeping stuff secret, but in this case, I  believe the Shadow weekend’s viability as a program has been damaged. I have been privately and publically critical, but several problems existed which made it difficult, and for me, impossible to refer men.

Although the leaders of this program had decades to create enthusiasm, the program is offered, at best, once a year. By any marketing standards, it has not been successful and it  could have been. The conceptual material is there and the leaders have been some of the most popular, intelligent and charismatic leaders in the organization.

Ironically, I think the growth of non-therapists as Board members, stakeholders, and program leaders has been helpful to Victories. These non-therapists guys I know are  bright and successful men in their own professions. The most brilliant example of this is Kurt Schultz who I was lucky to have mentor me and enable me to stretch into a leadership role in the Breakthrough weekend.

Kurt was one of the most powerful lawyers in the country, placed in the top 5 of his graduating law school class, was a veteran (when other men were seeking  military deferments), and dedicated himself to public service as a Board member at various Chicago social service agencies. Kurt was a successful, wealthy man who I knew helped others financially almost whenever he was asked. He was certainly generous in his contributions to needy causes.

To absolutely anyone who has been involved with Victories, Kurt is well-known as a great program leader and the President of the Board who guided Victories through its tumultuous post-2004 Strategic plan period. This was a very difficult period, as new policies were created which led to leaders earning a fixed stipend, eliminated leaders sharing profits from weekends, and increased calls for accountability.

You can do the math. With 20 participants paying $600 and the average costs for each man being about $200, the leaders shared in these profits. So, the stipend was a big step down. I know. In my first weekend as a leader, I shared the profits, while the very next weekend I received the stipend, a 50% reduction in compensation. I admit I felt a little tweaked, but wonder how the other leaders felt who earned substantially more profits for nearly 20 years.

The other problem Kurt had to deal with was the power dynamic related to program decisions and the allocation of resources. The founders were intent on building a Wisdom years leadership group and expanding this program to other cities. Boston was the first target city.  Ironically, I attended the Boston Wisdom years weekend, in part to support the guys and attend a weekend where I would have more anonymity. I later became embroiled in a personally damaging conflict which, like most conflicts, was layered on the surface about content issues (how I thought the program could be improved) and process issues (who  had the power to make decisions now and the “who do you think you are kind of blowback for any upstart to reveal the emperor has no clothes.

Kurt had his hands full trying to appease and satisfy the founders and their interest in expanding the Wisdom years, while still keeping the larger organization stable and in the necessary transition. It was not easy for him. I would hear some of these conversations while we were driving and talk about them with him when we had time. In hindsight, I think we all and the organization would have been better off had the 2004 Strategic Plan been followed more closely. It called for a process where conflicts would have been faced head on. Conflict addressed appropriately may have avoided all the sharp elbows, the damage of conflicts going subterranean, and the understandable, but very petty jealousies about just about everything.

I was the biggest advocate for an expanded leadership team and a move away from what I considered the cumbersome and conflict inducing dyadic leader structure. However, I can see how each leader team developed a cadre of guys which formed a safe and beautiful place for them. An oasis from the seemingly endless demand to smile and say fine, when so much was brewing under the surface.

What  person doesn’t feel better after talking about a problem with their partner or friend? How brilliant men can languish in the mire of unresolved conflicts for decades is confusing and tragic. I heard “I love you” a lot. I guess it’s partly true that “love means you never have to say you’re sorry.” Secrets always create a wall between people.

The progress in making programs and their processes more transparent is welcome in the world. All medical and mental health care is based on the premise of “do no harm” and informing patients of diagnoses and available treatment options. A personal growth weekend promises change, even transformation, so to keep details secret runs in conflict with the ultimate goal of the program. It’s counterproductive to keep such positive programming secret.

I remember sitting in leadership meetings at Victories and conversations with MKP folks many years ago saying, if we know this program can be very helpful, we should be more transparent.  If it’s too secretive, even stakeholders and board members of these organizations may not know what happens.

None of these programs are perfect and one person’s transformative experience is another person’s waste of money. I understand this.

Needless to say, licensed therapists are advised to avoid any leadership role in such weekends. Although the threat of malpractice may be low, they should imagine what might happen if someone is seriously injured or dies during a weekend where they have some official role. There will be an investigation, perhaps criminal charges, and lawsuits.

Notably, there is the James Arthur Ray program which had a national audience, thanks to Oprah Winfrey. Ray’s program exploited vulnerable people for a lot of money and was recently convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of participants in a sweat lodge.

Another example of a psychotherapy practice evolving into a personal growth program is the Wright Institute, the brainchild of Robert Wright and his wife Judith Wright. Robert (Bob)Wright is a graduate school colleague of mine who now runs his own graduate school or something akin to this. Knowing him from then, I do believe he is doing this now. While there are scores of Wright’s clients whose lives have been transformed, one only use google to learn of many more who have filed complaints.

Generally, these programs have charismatic leaders who put naive people into intense exercises where an emotional release takes place. Often, participants may be the psychotherapy or coaching clients of leaders of these program, increasing the risk of exploitation. How can a psychotherapy client refuse his own therapist or coach?

During these programs participants have what’s called an “abreaction” where emotional memories stored implicitly are released. This may provide an immediate sense of relief, even healing, if the exercise is done well. A successful breakthrough like this creates a profound sense of connection between the participant and the facilitator therapist.

Ethically, this can be argued as a good and bad thing. Good because it can cement the relationship and bad because it can inflate the status of the therapist to unrealistic proportions. One of the arts of therapy is for the therapist to remain connected to the client in ways which equalize the relationship so change is more seamless and not dramatically associated with the magic of the therapist.

In my review of Bob Mark’s book, Clearing the Path: Opening the Spiritual Frontier, I explore Dr. Mark’s centrality to the positive changes in his client’s lives. A constant theme is his encouragement of the reader to reduce their doubt, in a sense become more open to the spirit world. I didn’t  know Dr. Mark very well, but understood his training in family therapy and Gestalt and could see this influence in the creation of the Breakthrough weekend. For you history buffs, this was originally called the Men’s room program.

Without giving away details of the Breakthrough weekend, one can easily recognize Dr. Mark’s expertise in designing the program, the initial phase of connecting, building a safe container for work, helping participants begin to focus internally, then engage them in a deeper process where emotional memories can be accessed, explored and resolved, then the preparation for the return to ordinary life with the opportunity to continue the work in a group with other interested participants from the weekend.

There is no doubt I liked the Breakthrough weekend a lot and had many, many memorable experiences with assorted members of leadership teams. My most gratifying times were with Kurt Schultz who helped me and other guys (many of whom are current leaders and Board members) be leaders.

While I  liked the experience, I had concerns about the structure of the early Victories organization, the Men’s Room. It was essentially an offshoot of the leader’s private practice and leaders shared profits from the weekend. Most often, leaders had many of their own private practice clients participating in their weekends, creating dual and multiple type relationships, a dynamic which risks the exploitation of the client by the therapist.

I was most critical of the notion of leader/therapist as source of change in Dr. Mark’s  book, which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. ,

Here’s what I said about therapist and magic:

” Therapists do not create magic to change their clients; they experience it right along with their clients. Together, the magic of the therapeutic relationship unfolds, changing both the client and the therapist for the better.”

I could see this leader/therapist as central and source of change in the style of the earlly leaders in Victories. It wasn’t technique, as there were no techniques to identify, teach or use by anyone who wanted to be a leader.

I witnessed some duplicity too when Victory leaders soaked up the idolatry of volunteer staff who were in awe and mesmerized by leaders who I learned later were using psychodrama concepts learned from Warrior weekends and I-groups. I was like Dorothy discovering the Wizard was just a little man with an amplified voice.

For them, it was their own unique gift and the love for their partner that flowed into the participant to create change. One can look at this simplistically and say the leaders thought of themselves as mother-mother, father-mother and were providing unconditional love to their hurt and injured child.

This can also be viewed in a more grandiose way in that the leader sees himself and their relationship with their leader partner as some type of “leader as central source of power” where they create miracles out of thin air. I sensed this in Bob Mark’s book on spirituality. It was about him as a conduit of spirit energy, reading palms, throwing stones, etc which created the change.

This type of thinking is flawed and disregards the voluminous research on the attachment and neuroscience. Understanding that research as I did, and trying to integrate it into the Victories programs was welcome and applauded when it came to the psychodrama training, but led me into conflict with the leader teams for the Wisdom years and Shadow weekends.

After a good faith effort, I grew tired of the old systemic problem of leaders swinging sharp elbows, working behind the scenes to get Kurt on their side, then issuing unilateral pronouncements about the way things were going to go. After one of the last meetings I attended, I might have said more clearly, “By the way, thank you for wasting many, many hours of my time and having me show up for a 90 minute meeting which gives me the chance to let you know how much more powerful you are than me and how little my opinion is worth to you.”

This was at the height of the transition when leaders were still trying desperately to hold onto absolute control of their programs and used sharp elbows, raised voices, and indirect methods (calling the President of the Board to get his ok) to get what they thought they deserved.

This was part of the older system. I remember spending hours (I was a great acolyte) trying to think up new names for the organization to change it from the “Men’s Room.” The study group unanimously recommended Breakthrough. We all found out the new name would be “Victories of the Heart” which coincidently was the name of the founders’ new book. Ok there! More time wasted by me and others by the illusion of inclusiveness, transparency, and collaborative decision-making.

In the older system, they did deserve (most) everything. They owned the programs and profited or lost money on their ventures. The problem discussed in the 2004 Strategic Plan was how to transition privately owned programs to a public non-profit.

So, some people may have felt I abandoned them and the organization. I was unable to stay in a situation where I felt so out of alignment with the leadership structures.

I’m thinking now of the college fraternity where I lived and how I told the chapter I was not planning to become an active member and was moving into the dorms for sophomore year. I had been disgusted by the rampant alcohol abuse, providing alcohol to high school seniors visiting and what I suspected was the sexual abuse of an intoxicated irst-year, female student. This was never discussed, but I reported it to the school many years later.

The point here is the majority of the upperclassmen secretly voted to “blackball” me after I told them I was moving out. Classy. It’s widely known a characteristic of narcissism is to react with rage when they feel criticized. In terms of this fraternity, I had to ask what this blackballing meant and although it was the responsibility of the men who blackballed me to speak with me, you can guess none of them did. They were probably drunk when they did it and were afraid to confront me directly. I had been on the freshman football team and had the second highest grade point after the first semester in the freshman class.

Like with Victories, I still liked many of the friends I made from that class, but they were sworn off having any contact with me. I was persona non grata, just as I had become with Victories.

By now in my own personal journey, I was recovering from a deep depression, having begun anti-depressant medication and was beginning to see things more clearly. I could see how being a leader of these weekends was a powerful experience, a rush of amazing proportions. I was hooked by the extreme positives of leadership and also my crusader effort to change some of the ways Victories operated, especially an effort to move it away from the dyadic leader model to leadership teams, leader selection by merit, competent evaluation of programs, and ethics policies and standards.

My efforts, although consistent with the 2004 Strategic Plan, were confronting the principals in ways in which they were not accustomed. It was not pretty and I decided I would not be able to sustain my efforts. I was challenging both their fundamental beliefs about what made the Breakthrough weekend (at least) work. They felt criticized, understandable, and reacted. It was not in my character to ignore such reactions.

To view some of my accomplishments asserting myself on behalf of vulnerable people, view here and here on my website.

I also knew something else was deeply wrong with my judgment and ability to maintain a stable mood that participation in Victories was not helping.

I knew the anti-depressant medication was helpful right away. It was the “vitamin” my body and brain needed. With the correct levels of serotonin, I began to sleep better and think more clearly. I also was diagnosed with hypo-gonadism (low production of testosterone), so adding testosterone to my medication regimen also made a big improvement in my energy levels and improved brain functioning. It was all good.

In my own search accurately diagnosis my vulnerability, I did diagnostic brain scans and neuropsych testing. I learned I had brain damage likely from early childhood trauma which directly caused many of my life’s ups and downs. Serious medical and mental health problems men’s work would never cure. So, it was all a bad idea for me. Some gains and good times, but likely the stress of it all caused more damage.

Devoting myself to Victories, especially when it meant a more uncritical support of the original leaders dreams, was no longer a good idea. I knew the effort to expand the Wisdom years to Boston would fail. I participated in that Wisdom years, experienced the program, and met the possible Boston leaders. I knew it had very little chance to fly.

I was asked to give my evaluation both at the weekend (I signed my name) and afterwards.  In sum, I said I had a wonderful experience and  enjoyed being there and helping the Boston program get started. I also offered specific parts of the weekend to change. You can guess how popular this made me.  Only in some ideal and unrealistic world would my change efforts at that time have been well-received.

How would you get men to do a Wisdom years in Boston? Only through some recruitment effort by guys who knew very little about the program with virtually no source of referrals locally.

It’s ironic I became embroiled in a conflict about the Wisdom years, as I was determined to stay out of the undercurrent of disagreement. When I returned from the weekend, Kurt nonchalantly asked me how I liked it.

I told him it was great and I enjoyed myself, especially the dose of “geritol” they gave me before bedtime! Kurt laughed with one of his full-throated laughs and we enjoyed our moment of brevity. Then he asked me about a particular practice on the weekend.

I told him I had seen that before and was surprised they did it at the weekend. I won’t say more about Kurt’s view, but at the next Board meeting, he spontaneously raised the issue and appointed another Board member and myself to “study” this practice and make recommendations. The other Board member and I looked at each other as if to ask, “did you know he was going to do this?” We both answered silently, no.

I made a joke to make sure everyone there knew there was no conspiracy against the Wisdom years and I did not know about this appointment. Kurt knew I did not want to get involved, but when Kurt asked, you said yes.

Fortunately, the other Board member called me a few days later and told me the issue was dropped and there was no need to “study” it any longer. We were both relieved to pull ourselves out of the hornet’s nest without being stung. I was naive to think the hornet’s were not still buzzing.

The 2004-2008 period when I had re-engaged in Victories was a tough period when the original leaders had to yield the total power they had over programs and details and allow the Board to assume authority.

I do not believe this time went well and think it was ultimately harmful for me. There are several neuroscience concepts which help explain some of the unresolved conflicts, but implicit memories are very important. (Zimmerman, 2014)

Memories of hurt and injuries are stored implicitly with no time stamp. This means whenever triggered, the stored feelings can surface as if the hurt and injury had just occurred. Such is my life and the life of other trauma survivors. The brain damage I lived with only made matters worse.

Recruitment is a key characteristic of an LGAT.  It becomes problematic when the participants are encouraged (some might say pressured) to become ambassadors for these programs and recruit other family members and friends.

It’s not too fun to have one of these individuals start to pressure you to attend one of these weekends.

The Mankind Project has made many contributions in the personal growth arena, especially making psychodrama, a sophisticated therapy model, available to many thousands of men (and some women) around the globe. I think this one of its significant accomplishments.

While they can be criticized for other aspects of their program, they have developed a way of training and facilitating psychodrama that is quite excellent. They have specific types of psychodrama that are offered for specific types of presenting issues during their weekends.

The men facilitating these exercises have experienced psychodrama themselves, received training, and are being supervised or teaming with more experienced leaders during the program.

Over the years, the Mankind Project has been forced to confront some problems in their programming and have made progress in creating more transparency (men know what they are getting into), attempts to evaluate the mental health of potential participants, and other ways of bringing their program into the 21st century.

The Mankind Project has also influenced many other personal growth programs. While these programs would publicly deny any influence, the similarities are unmistakable to a well-trained eye. While these other programs may deny this, imitation is a form of flattery. In some cases, I would suggest an unhealthy type of envy. It’s called Warrior envy.

These other, smaller programs have faltered as the “identity quest” of the 1980’s and 1990’s has faded, especially when such programs were organized around charismatic leaders who financially profited from their programs. Many participants and volunteers in such programs could see through the veneer of greed and eventually dropped out.

Some filed complaints and lawsuits. For example, James Arthur Ray, (Times, 2015) was so negligent, he was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of several of his followers. Each participant paid $15,000 for a personal  growth experience in which 3 died and several injured in a failed sweat lodge experience. (Stroud, 2015)

When these programs are built around charismatic personalities, internal conflicts are often suppressed. Anyone who dares to challenge the “leader” is likely met with some type of threat, expulsion, etc. It’s usually not pretty. This inability to address and resolve differences and conflict can damage organizational ability to grow and expand.

So, although I was in and out of involvement myself for many years, I tread cautiously. It seems impossible to create any quality control, although I think  Victories and Mankind Project do a pretty good job with this.

Individuals have been hurt and killed in the past, but hopefully, this will not happen in the future. There are too many good men trying to do good things.

Do I recommend these local and national programs anymore? I mention them as possibilities, but nothing else. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to join a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution.

I know providing good psychotherapy based on research will be more helpful to individuals in developing better lives. Let people choose their own organizations. That’s called self-determination and it’s a good thing.

Like in everything we do, look before you leap. It can be a long way down.

How can you tell you might be going to a personal growth program?

It’s easy. In the marketing materials you will find words like transformation, breakthrough, shadow, initiation, healing, a big price tag (usually over $600), and so forth.

One of your friends, family, or in some cases, therapist or coach will also be the one to “invite” you to  “a weekend.”

There are many psychotherapists in the Chicago area who are familiar with personal growth workshops and may have referred many of their clients.

I think it can be assumed the vast majority of people who attend these programs benefit in some way, some tremendously.

It’s oversimplifying, but there are probably 3 camps when it comes to these programs:

  1. The most enthusiastic are the ones who love the experience and claim it has changed their lives for the better.
  2. The ones who give it some credit, but are not likely to repeat their experience.
  3. This is the usually very quiet group, but when asked “trash” the experience. Typically, this  group files complaints and lawsuits.

Certain people make it through the program with positive experiences and find they are encouraged to volunteer in the organization where they provide free labor on behalf of leaders and programs.

Often kept in a state of suspended growth and development, these people can also feel exploited, even after many years looking back.

I can hear them saying, “Was I called brother because I supported those leaders unquestionably and made numerous referrals to their programs?”

Even though these individuals perceived they were getting a lot out of the experience, hindsight may lead them to ask themselves, “why did I do this and what was I  getting out of it?”

Worse, of course, are the people injured or killed.

While it may seem negative to raise these issues the facts remain individuals with pre-existing medical and mental health issues may be ill-advised to participate in these programs.

Even very healthy people can be seriously injured or killed by placing their trust in charismatic leaders who ultimately only view them as a source of revenue and additional referrals.

A quick view of the research offers multiple examples of serious negative outcomes for participants of these experiences. Among many, here are a few examples:

The 3 deaths and injuries of participants of a James Arthur Ray program (Stroud, 2015)

Reports of psychotic episodes after the Landmark Forum (Glass LL, 1977)

Reports of at least 30 lawsuits,  high percentage of complaints, psychiatric hospitalizations and deaths after Lifesprings programs

Mindsprings being forced to close after lawsuits by the State of California charging fraud and practicing medicine without a license.

Report of a suicide after a Mankind Program weekend (Wikipedia, Mankind Project, 2016)

Obviously, these are very serious problems, and any family member or friend would be concerned and upset by these occurrences.  I offer citations and links to help anyone interested do additional research to learn the details of these events.

For example, Warren Throckmorton, a university psychology professor has written about the suicide after the MKP program in Houston, TX in some detail and a simple google search offers many other links to newspaper articles and commentary about this tragedy. (Throckmorton, 2008) The man apparently had some pre-existing mental health concerns, yet went to the weekend, came home, complained about the program, then killed himself.

Some programs I have experience with are the Mankind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure and the Victories of the Heart. I have staffed both weekends and became a leader of the Victories of the Heart Breakthrough weekend and helped to create the Victories “facilitating psychodrama” training program.

Our leader team instituted an evaluation process and always scored about 4.7 on a 5 point scale. The comments of the participants were enthusiastic and inspiring. Life-changing was the common theme. Aside from the huge burden of responsibility, it was an incredible experience to share in such momentous work with these men.

The Breakthrough weekend was the brainchild of Bob Mark, PhD and the late Buddy Portugal, LCSW.  It’s conceived with a wonderful balance of engaging men in a process of deep personal exploration. Dr. Mark and Buddy Portugal received awards from the American Family Therapy Association and the Family Institute for this particular aspect of work with men.

I will perhaps never know if these Victories founders understood the neuroscience involved in the action oriented work done during their early Men’s Room, later Initial and then Breakthrough weekends.  I have studied their books and spent time with them in weekends and meetings. I never read anything about neuroscience or heard them talk about it.

Science helps us understand now that because of the unique way trauma memory is stored, humans need to feel safe in order for that memory to be accessed. (Van der Kolk B. , 2014) Perhaps every human being experiences trauma, yet not everyone is traumatized.  The important concepts are priming, implicit memory vs explicit memory,  and state and dependent memory.

We now understand trauma memory is stored in fragments and implicitly, so it’s not easily remembered. Trauma survivors have a tremendously difficult time putting together a cohesive, personal story because the effects of trauma interrupt and damage the normal storage of memories.

State-dependent memory research has shown that when people (rats too) are in a similar internal state, implicitly stored trauma memories can be accessed. In psychoanalytic language, this has been called an “abreaction” and is commonly referred to as “catharsis.”

So, during personal growth weekends, processes are designed to create enough intensity, so the participant is able to access, identify, process and hopefully resolve, these implicitly stored trauma memories.

My unique contribution to Victories was my interest in neuroscience, trauma and how experiential therapy methods helped human beings heal trauma.  I began teaching this at the psychodrama trainings we created and also on the Friday mornings before every Breakthrough weekend.

All of us on the leadership teams began to have a common understanding of what we were doing, the conceptual map based on research, and common language and methods so we could all speak together and collaborate on behalf of the men. It was a beautiful time for me, Kurt, and I think the other guys.

I had some truly wonderful experiences working in the leader team we created. Many of those guys are now in leadership positions in Victories and have made many, many positive changes.  I also like many of the workshops offered via the MKP men’s centers all over the globe.

Not everything about these two local programs (MKP has a center in Chicago but is an international program) is perfect and MKP has had its share of controversial moments, complaints, deaths, and a few lawsuits.

What led to the creation of these and other personal growth programs?

It’s surprising in a way that more leaders and stakeholders of these organizations have not studied the historical connections to other similar programs.

In the social science literature, these programs are referred to as large group awareness trainings (LGATs). (Wikipedia, LGATs, 2016)

LGATs evolved out of the Human Potential Movement (HPM) and the New Age Movement (NAM) in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They shared similar goals in helping people increase self-awareness and become more empowered in the world, but had significant differences.

Suzanne Snider in her excellent article, est, Wernard Erhardt and the Corporitization of Self-Awareness, states:

“the HPM  and NAM movements diverged philosophically when it came to attributing the source of human experience. The HPM (think Werner Erhard or L. Ron Hubbard) credited/blamed each individual as the sole determiner of his or her own experiences, whereas NAM (think Shirley MacLaine, but please think well of her) explored spiritual, metaphysical, and extraterrestrial realms as forces guiding and even determining a person’s life.” (Snider, 2003)

Suzanne’s article is a fascinating review of this history and anyone interested in these issues will benefit from starting with this article.

So, LGATs started with lofty goals of increasing self-awareness and personal success and the methods were a mixture of many common psychological techniques, like guided imagery, self-hypnosis, meditation, group process, and more unorthodox methods, like enforced no-bathroom use for long periods of time (people apparently wet their pants) and verbal abuse.

Suzanne goes on to say:

“the Human Potential Movement (programs) engaged in far less soothing awareness-training sessions, filled with screaming and crying and verbal abuse. HPM groups such as Lifespring, Mind Dynamics, and est aimed (often in competition with one another) to goad us into more fully realized versions of ourselves…”

I never experienced any of these LGATs, though my wife attended the Landmark Forum here in Chicago and encouraged me to attend a orientation session. It was a fail, as the young woman leading the event seemed barely out of college and her diagrams on the blackboard left me pretty confused.

However, it’s clear Landmark Forum has evolved away from the verbal abuse and confinement of participants during events. There website makes it clear there are breaks and meals and participants can be assured of not wetting their pants, as occurred at earlier est trainings.

But those early LGAT sessions had to be pretty memorable. For me and any of my Catholic school friends, the idea of someone standing in the front of the room verbally abusing us is pretty easy to imagine. We experienced that all the time.

Most of these early HPM programs were motivated by profits and there was a lot to be made. Over time, modifications were made, like est became Landmark Forum and continues to this day to offer programs which many find very helpful. Wikipedia reports there may be as many as 2.4 million graduates of Landmark Forum programs. (Wikipedia, Landmark Worldwide, 2016)

One has to admit there is something happening in Landmark which people find meaningful. In fact, the Landmark website features an endorsement from Alan Menken, 8-time Academy Award Winning Composer who says:

“This is basic training for the mind, the heart and the soul. It is the most positive transforming experience I’ve ever been a part of.”

There are other celebrity graduates of Landmark who offer a boost in testimonial value to the organization. No doubt, Landmark Forum, the direct descendent of est is mainstream now and boasts millions in revenue yearly.

Landmark is only one of the LGATs reviewed in the literature both from the point of view of success and failure.  A law firm defending Rick Ross of the Cult Awareness Network wrote a an excellent review of the litigation involving Landmark’s attempts to quiet it’s critics. (Skolnik, 2006)

These attorneys understand the power dynamics of larger, powerful organizations like Landmark use of litigation. Here’s what they say:

“In an effort to suppress this unfavorable dialogue about the company, Landmark, like Erhard before it, has repeatedly used litigation and threats of litigation as an improper tool to silence its vocal public critics.

This type of lawsuit — typically accusing the defendant of defamation and related torts — is known in various American jurisdictions as a SLAPP suit: i.e., a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation; a lawsuit brought not for its merits, but for the specific purpose of silencing a vocal critic, often one who is unlikely to have the financial resources to defend himself.”

It’s quite a read and shows clearly an organization with a lot of money and attorneys can make people’s lives miserable they deem harmful to their image/brand. (Not sure if I am proud or not, but I have had four SLAPP lawyer letter threats and 2 veiled threats. )

When you consider the effort to silence critics of LGATs, you begin to question Suzanne Snider’s definition of the HMP movement as:

“well-meaning… a movement which put a premium on human possibility, with an emphasis on the spiritual side of humanity.” (Snider, 2003)

One wonders why programs which claim to do such good in the world would need to be so harsh in their effort to squash people’s First Amendment rights. I guess one reason is because they can.

What are the characteristics of LGATs?

The 5 main characteristics include the following:

  1. creation of an altered state of awarenes
  2. catharsis or the intense expression of emotions
  3. rebirthing or some exercise leading to a sense of new beginnings
  4. recruitment
  5. engaging participant graduates as volunteers

It’s been fascinating to me that many people involved in leadership of these programs have not understood the historical influences of other LGATs or even the underlying structure and processes of these programs.  Social scientists have been studying LGATs for decades and there is a lot of interesting literature out there.

Mind Dynamics started in 1968 and is widely understood to be one of the first, and perhaps, most influential LGAT, leading directly to the creation of est or Erhard Seminar Trainings, which then led to the Landmark Forum operated by Landmark Education. A second LGAT evolving from Mind Dynamics was Lifesprings Seminars.

Writers suggest Mind Dynamics and it’s owner were influenced by Edgar Cayce, Theosophy, Silva Mind Control and Curtiss’ Depression is a Choice. (Edgar Cayce, 2016) (Theosophy, 2016) (Curtiss, 2016). I’m providing links here for anyone to read more about these early influences on LGATs. It wasn’t all pretty and Mind Dynamics was sued for false advertising and forced to cease operations in the early 1970’s.

Most of the smaller Chicago based programs have been influenced greatly by the Mankind Project’s success. Imitation is flattery and I know the MKP guys welcome other programs learning from them and moving on to create other programs. MKP has been an incubator for leadership, healing & recovery, and global change. With men’s centers in many parts of the world, they bring the opportunity for health and well-being to tens of thousands of men and their families, especially through their skillful use of psychodrama.

One example of this influence is my own participation at psychodrama training workshops sponsored by MKP or men associate with MKP, like David Karr. I thought it was a great learning experience for me. When I began to work with my leader partner, Kurt Schultz, in the Victories Breakthrough weekend, it was apparent we had to develop a conceptual map about leading psychodrama. Kurt was very good at it, but I was not and needed to do catch-up. I had been trying to study psychodrama and MKP offered the only way to do so at the time.

Our work there with the other participants was very helpful and enabled us to continue to work with the informal team of guys at Victories to develop a cohesive way of teaching and facilitating psychodrama. I credit my relationship with Kurt Schultz and the other guys for their ability to collaborate in what was a transformative step in the history of volunteer training in Victories. Many of those men are now leaders and Board members/stakeholders in the organization. I am very proud of this accomplishment.

For some reason, keeping processes secret has been important to LGATs. A lawsuit against MKP several years ago led to more transparency on the website where prospective participants can learn more about what actually happens. Victories has also increased their transparency with their Breakthrough and Wisdom years weekend website descriptions, yet keeps their shadow weekend processes more secretive. This secretive process is one reason I have been so critical of the Victories Shadow weekend over the years.

Victories seems to be increasing the transparency of the Shadow weekend, as their website now offers more detailed testimonials from participants which  offers insights into the experience. I was very impressed by what I read and could tell these men had a meaningful experience which might even be called life-changing.

I helped staff one of the first Shadow weekends and did not have a good experience.On the night before the participants were to arrive, I was asked by the two leaders to go with them to a place by a small lake where a fire had been built. They then told me the 3 of us were going to smoke pot and kill a pet white rat they had purchased at a pet store. I was taken aback, but essentially told them I would not do that and if they did, I would leave and report them to the Board. They told me they would not do it, the meeting ended. I never saw the rat nor did I see any pot. The ensuing weekend was not well planned and some of the events, like the sweat lodge, was not like any other sweat lodge I had ever seen. I had a terrible experience and I lost respect for the two men who I had come to love so much.

Like all bad experiences, this was imprinted more powerfully in my memory system, so it’s been difficult for me to change my opinions.

When events bother us, they cause our neuronal activity to increase, thus causing us to remember these experiences more vividly. It also is a simple fact of evolutionary biology that our direct ancestors were able to remember bad stuff, so they survived. This developmental pattern evolved to the present day where for better or worse, trauma survivors have difficulty forgetting the bad things they remember.

Victories also had an open, free meeting (August 2016) to learn more about the Shadow weekend, probably an experiential program just a few weeks ago. This was a terrific idea and evidence of the better judgment of the current Board leadership who may understand the benefits of transparency. I would have actually gone to this had I known in time and will watch for another opportunity. The old days of “you should do this program I can’t tell you about because it’s better you don’t know what will happen” are over. I am fascinated by the impact of personal growth weekends and can only discuss what I know or can learn from reading or experiencing.

I swore I would never go to another Shadow weekend, but I would  love to know the ways in which it’s been improved. I’ve been assured it’s been redesigned and believe the people who have told me this. I have always been against the keeping stuff secret, but in this case, I believe the Shadow weekend’s viability as a program has been damaged. I have been privately and publicly critical, but several problems existed which made it difficult, and for me, impossible to refer men.

Although the leaders of this program had decades to create enthusiasm, the program is offered, at best, once a year. By any marketing standards, it has not been successful and it could have been. The conceptual material is there and the leaders have been some of the most popular, intelligent and charismatic leaders in the organization.

Ironically, I think the growth of non-therapists as Board members, stakeholders, and program leaders has been helpful to Victories. These non-therapists guys I know are bright and successful men in their own professions. The most brilliant example of this is Kurt Schultz who I was lucky to have mentor me and enable me to stretch into a leadership role in the Breakthrough weekend.

Kurt was one of the most powerful lawyers in the country, placed in the top 5 of his graduating law school class, was a veteran (when other men were seeking  military deferments), and dedicated himself to public service as a Board member at various Chicago social service agencies. Kurt was a successful, wealthy man who I knew helped others financially almost whenever he was asked. He was certainly generous in his contributions to needy causes.

To absolutely anyone who has been involved with Victories, Kurt is well-known as a great program leader and the President of the Board who guided Victories through its tumultuous post-2004 Strategic plan period. This was a very difficult period, as new policies were created which led to leaders earning a fixed stipend, eliminated leaders sharing profits from weekends, and increased calls for accountability.

You can do the math. With 20 participants paying $600 and the average costs for each man being about $200, the leaders shared in these profits. So, the stipend was a big step down. I know. In my first weekend as a leader, I shared the profits, while the very next weekend I received the stipend, a 50% reduction in compensation. I admit I felt a little tweaked, but wonder how the other leaders felt who earned substantially more profits for nearly 20 years.

The other problem Kurt had to deal with was the power dynamic related to program decisions and the allocation of resources. The founders were intent on building a Wisdom years leadership group and expanding this program to other cities. Boston was the first target city.

Ironically, I attended the Boston Wisdom years weekend, in part to support the guys and attend a weekend where I would have more anonymity. I later became embroiled in a personally damaging conflict which, like most conflicts, was layered on the surface about content issues (how I thought the program could be improved) and process issues (who had the power to make decisions now and the “who do you think you are” kind of blowback for any upstart to reveal the emperor has no clothes.

Kurt had his hands full trying to appease and satisfy the founders and their interest in expanding the Wisdom years, while still keeping the larger organization stable and in the necessary transition. It was not easy for him. I would hear some of these conversations while we were driving and talk about them with him when we had time.

Despite being powerful, Kurt was perhaps a more loving and compassionate human being. He had plenty of dealing with conflict in his professional life and really didn’t want more. Like most of us, he wanted others to be happy and would sacrifice a lot to help that happen. I knew many times, he felt pressured by pleasing the principal leader teams.

It wasn’t he felt their programs were especially powerful (Wisdom and Shadow programs), but he was content to allow them to learn from natural consequences. He and I agreed the Wisdom years would not make it out of Evanston and there were problems with the Shadow weekend, he just didn’t want to exert top down pressure on these men, thinking they would learn from their own outcomes. I thought he was wrong then and now.

I don’t think I understood what was at stake then. Kurt and I believed the creation of the Program committee would serve as some central place to evaluate programs and make changes. My conflict with the principal leaders erupted right before this group was to convene and I never made it.

In hindsight, I think we all and the organization would have been better off had the 2004 Strategic Plan been followed more closely. It called for a process where conflicts would have been faced head on. Conflict addressed appropriately may have avoided all the sharp elbows, the damage of conflicts going subterranean, and the understandable, but very petty jealousies about just about everything.

I was the biggest advocate for an expanded leadership team and a move away from what I considered the cumbersome and conflict inducing dyadic leader structure. However, I can see how each leader team developed a cadre of guys which formed a safe and beautiful place for them. An oasis from the seemingly endless demand to smile and say fine, when so much was brewing under the surface.

What  person doesn’t feel better after talking about a problem with their partner or friend? How brilliant men can languish in the mire of unresolved conflicts for decades is confusing and tragic. I heard “I love you” a lot. I guess it’s partly true that “love means you never have to say you’re sorry.” Secrets always create a wall between people.

The progress in making programs and their processes more transparent is welcome in the world. All medical and mental health care is based on the premise of “do no harm” and informing patients of diagnoses and available treatment options. A personal growth weekend promises change, even transformation, so to keep details secret runs in conflict with the ultimate goal of the program. It’s counterproductive to keep such positive programming secret.

I remember sitting in leadership meetings at Victories and conversations with MKP folks many years ago saying, if we know this program can be very helpful, we should be more transparent.  If it’s too secretive, even stakeholders and board members of these organizations may not know what happens.

None of these programs are perfect and one person’s transformative experience is another person’s waste of money. I understand this.

Needless to say, licensed therapists are advised to avoid any leadership role in such weekends. Although the threat of malpractice may be low, they should imagine what might happen if someone is seriously injured or dies during a weekend where they have some official role. There will be an investigation, perhaps criminal charges, and lawsuits.

Notably, there is the James Arthur Ray program which had a national audience, thanks to Oprah Winfrey. Ray’s program exploited vulnerable people for a lot of money.  Each participant paid $15,000 for a personal  growth experience in which 3 died and several injured in a failed sweat lodge experience. (Stroud, 2015) James Arthur Ray, (Times, 2015)  was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three of his followers.

Another example of a psychotherapy practice evolving into a personal growth program is the Wright Institute, the brainchild of Robert Wright and his wife Judith Wright. Robert (Bob)Wright is a graduate school colleague of mine who now runs his own graduate school or something akin to this. Knowing him from then, I do believe he is doing this now. While there are scores of Wright’s clients whose lives have been transformed, one only use google to learn of many more who have filed complaints.

Generally, these programs have charismatic leaders who put naive people into intense exercises where an emotional release takes place. Often, participants may be the psychotherapy or coaching clients of leaders of these program, increasing the risk of exploitation. How can a psychotherapy client refuse his own therapist or coach?

During these programs participants have what’s called an “abreaction” where emotional memories stored implicitly are released. This may provide an immediate sense of relief, even healing, if the exercise is done well. A successful breakthrough like this creates a profound sense of connection between the participant and the facilitator therapist.

Ethically, this can be argued as a good and bad thing. Good because it can cement the relationship and bad because it can inflate the status of the therapist to unrealistic proportions. One of the arts of therapy is for the therapist to remain connected to the client in ways which equalize the relationship so change is more seamless and not dramatically associated with the magic of the therapist.

In my review of Bob Mark’s book, Clearing the Path: Opening the Spiritual Frontier, I explore Dr. Mark’s centrality to the positive changes in his client’s lives. A constant theme is his encouragement of the reader to reduce their doubt, in a sense become more open to the spirit world. I didn’t  know Dr. Mark very well, but understood his training in family therapy and Gestalt and could see this influence in the creation of the Breakthrough weekend. For you history buffs, this was originally called the Men’s room program.

Without giving away details of the Breakthrough weekend, one can easily recognize Dr. Mark’s expertise in designing the program, the initial phase of connecting, building a safe container for work, helping participants begin to focus internally, then engage them in a deeper process where emotional memories can be accessed, explored and resolved, then the preparation for the return to ordinary life with the opportunity to continue the work in a group with other interested participants from the weekend.

There is no doubt I liked the Breakthrough weekend a lot and had many, many memorable experiences with assorted members of leadership teams. My most gratifying times were with Kurt Schultz who helped me and other guys (many of whom are current leaders and Board members) be leaders.

While I  liked the experience, I had concerns about the structure of the early Victories organization, the Men’s Room. It was essentially an offshoot of the leader’s private practice and leaders shared profits from the weekend. Most often, leaders had many of their own private practice clients participating in their weekends, creating dual and multiple type relationships, a dynamic which risks the exploitation of the client by the therapist.

I was most critical of the notion of leader/therapist as source of change in Dr. Mark’s  book, which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. ,

Here’s what I said about therapist and magic:

” Therapists do not create magic to change their clients; they experience it right along with their clients. Together, the magic of the therapeutic relationship unfolds, changing both the client and the therapist for the better.”

I could see this leader/therapist as central and source of change in the style of the earlly leaders in Victories. It wasn’t technique, as there were no techniques to identify, teach or use by anyone who wanted to be a leader.

I witnessed some duplicity too when Victory leaders soaked up the idolatry of volunteer staff who were in awe and mesmerized by leaders who I learned later were using psychodrama concepts learned from Warrior weekends and I-groups. I was like Dorothy discovering the Wizard was just a little man with an amplified voice.

For them, it was their own unique gift and the love for their partner that flowed into the participant to create change. One can look at this simplistically and say the leaders thought of themselves as mother-mother, father-mother and were providing unconditional love to their hurt and injured child.

This can also be viewed in a more grandiose way in that the leader sees himself and their relationship with their leader partner as some type of “leader as central source of power” where they create miracles out of thin air. I sensed this in Bob Mark’s book on spirituality. It was about him as a conduit of spirit energy, reading palms, throwing stones, etc which created the change.

This type of thinking is flawed and disregards the voluminous research on the attachment and neuroscience. Understanding that research as I did, and trying to integrate it into the Victories programs was welcome and applauded when it came to the psychodrama training, but led me into conflict with the leader teams for the Wisdom years and Shadow weekends.

I made a good faith effort, but grew tired of the old systemic problem of leaders swinging sharp elbows, working behind the scenes to get Kurt on their side, then issuing unilateral pronouncements about the way things were going to go. After one of the last meetings I attended, I might have said more clearly, “By the way, thank you for wasting many, many hours of my time and having me show up for a 90 minute meeting which gives me the chance to let you know how much more powerful you are than me and how little my opinion is worth to you.”

I felt I made too many compromises. Going way back to about 1994, there was an attempt to get me to smoke pot and kill a pet rat prior to a weekend. Then, there was the pressure to drink tequila and allow the tequila to be poured down my pants onto my genitals as the prelude to two different weekends. At no time did any of these leaders ask me if I was abstinent from substances or if I would have any objection to killing a defenseless pet rat.

The coup d’etat was the 30 minutes or so of what I experienced as degrading and disrespectful voicemails by my former therapist and principal leader who brought up his negative judgments about me being “chronically negative” even about my family which could have only come from our therapy sessions 15 years earlier.

Then there was the prevailing view in 2004 when I was recruited to come back to Victories all the problems were the result of one person (think scapegoating) and the organization was now on good footing and moving forward. I remember meeting Kurt for the first time at the meeting which was supposed to be a clearing for the end of this process. I was not a part of the inner circle and didn’t know what was actually happening behind the scenes.

Kurt had trouble understanding as well and didn’t know how to explain it to me. Reading some of the comments from the Strategic Plan and thinking about my own experience, I realize there was something systemic going on. It wasn’t one person. It was all of the people and elements within the system and the rules and norms of this system.

My opinion is the rules and norms were follow the leaders blindly, honor them, and avoid honest and direct feedback and conflict resolution. When I realized how much resentment I experienced by being honest, I began to realize the organization I re-joined in 2004 had not really changed its rules and norms. Names changed and Board members were recruited and offered their time and money generously. However, it was still felt to be the principal’s organization to do what they felt best, no matter what others thought. For me to speak up unleashed a quiet anger which sought to isolate, discredit and discard me.

Instead of moving forward after the great start with the 2004 Strategic Planning session, there were stops and starts and sideways movement. Having been involved in many development efforts, like the Illinois Teen Insitute and Operation Snowball, I expected there to be more of a team effort. (Snowball, 2014) Certainly, the other members of the Board participating in that Planning process may have expected the same.

When I finally resigned with as much exhaustion as protest, some of the other principals were surprised. This should not have been surprising at all, as this particular team had criticized me after a shared leadership weekend, then ignored my attempt to collaborate openly in improving a program and generally acted in sharp elbows behavior which like with other communication, I found disrespectful.

These were men of whom I had higher expectations. The dyadic leader structure problems were highlighted by the communication problems I experienced. These men would spend large amounts of time with each other thinking, feeling, planning, and reinforcing each other’s view of the world. In their view, I was now the person who was like the others, trying to change them, not recognizing their exceptionalism.

Maybe their thoughts were, “how could Bill ever think he could match our knowledge and experience…”  Left alone to speculate in their dydadic team, they could think and rationalize almost anything. During the follow-up meeting for that shared leadership weekend, I was shocked to be the target of their complaint.

The complaint itself also made no sense, as they were upset I had stepped up to lead a man’s psychodrama and interfered with their dyadic plan to lead with a certain participant. How was I supposed to know this? They hadn’t told me or anyone else on the leadership team.

At the same time, many of the other team members came up to me to alert me this participant was going to step up soon and they wanted me to make sure I stepped up and facilitated the man’s work.  These were men who knew me and had been trained by me. They knew I was skilled and would be able to provide competent facilitation. I did not deliberately interfere with anyone’s facilitation of work. To wait and surprise me during a follow-up meeting was as ridiculous as insensitive.

This was at the height of the transition when leaders were still trying desperately to hold onto absolute control of their programs and used sharp elbows, raised voices, and indirect methods (calling the President of the Board to get his ok) to get what they thought they deserved.

This was part of the older system. I remember spending hours (I was a great acolyte) trying to think up new names for the organization to change it from the “Men’s Room.” The study group unanimously recommended Breakthrough. We all found out the new name would be “Victories of the Heart” which coincidentaly was the name of the founders’ new book. Ok there!

More time wasted by me and others by the illusion of inclusiveness, transparency, and collaborative decision-making.

In the older system, they did deserve (most) everything. They owned the programs and profited or lost money on their ventures. The problem discussed in the 2004 Strategic Plan was how to transition privately owned programs to a public non-profit.

So, some people may have felt I abandoned them and the organization. I was unable to stay in a situation where I felt so out of alignment with the leadership structures.

I’m thinking now of the college fraternity where I lived and how I told the chapter I was not planning to become an active member and was moving into the dorms for sophomore year. I had been disgusted by the rampant alcohol abuse, providing alcohol to high school seniors visiting and what I suspected was the sexual abuse of an intoxicated irst-year, female student. This was never discussed, but I reported it to the school many years later.

The point here is the majority of the upperclassmen secretly voted to “blackball” me after I told them I was moving out. Classy. It’s widely known a characteristic of narcissism is to react with rage when they feel criticized. In terms of this fraternity, I had to ask what this blackballing meant and although it was the responsibility of the men who blackballed me to speak with me, you can guess none of them did.

They were probably drunk when they did it and were afraid to confront me directly. I had been on the freshman football team and had the second highest grade point after the first semester in the freshman class.

Like with Victories, I still liked many of the friends I made from that class, but they were sworn off having any contact with me. I was persona non grata, just as I had become with Victories.

By now in my own personal journey, I was recovering from a deep depression, having begun anti-depressant medication and was beginning to see things more clearly. I could see how being a leader of these weekends was a powerful experience, a rush of amazing proportions. I was hooked by the extreme positives of leadership and also my crusader effort to change some of the ways Victories operated, especially an effort to move it away from the dyadic leader model to leadership teams, leader selection by merit, competent evaluation of programs, and ethics policies and standards.

My efforts, although consistent with the 2004 Strategic Plan, were confronting the principals in ways in which they were not accustomed. It was not pretty and I decided I would not be able to sustain my efforts. I was challenging both their fundamental beliefs about what made the Breakthrough weekend (at least) work. They felt criticized, understandable, and reacted. It was not in my character to ignore such reactions.

To view some of my accomplishments asserting myself on behalf of vulnerable people, view here and here on my website.

Devoting myself to Victories, especially when it meant a more uncritical support of the original leaders dreams, was no longer a good idea. I knew the effort to expand the Wisdom years to Boston would fail. I participated in that Wisdom years, experienced the program, and met the possible Boston leaders. I knew it had very little chance to fly.

I was asked to give my evaluation both at the weekend (I signed my name) and afterwards.  In sum, I said I had a wonderful experience and  enjoyed being there and helping the Boston program get started. I also offered specific parts of the weekend to change. You can guess how popular this made me.  Only in some ideal and unrealistic world would my change efforts at that time have been well-received.

How would you get men to do a Wisdom years in Boston? Only through some recruitment effort by guys who knew very little about the program with virtually no source of referrals locally.

It’s ironic I became embroiled in a conflict about the Wisdom years, as I was determined to stay out of the undercurrent of disagreement. When I returned from the weekend, Kurt nonchalantly asked me how I liked it.

I told him it was great and I enjoyed myself, especially the dose of “geritol” they gave me before bedtime!. Kurt laughed with one of his full-throated laughs and we enjoyed our moment of brevity. Then he asked me about a particular practice on the weekend.

I told him I had seen that before and was surprised they did it at the weekend. I won’t say more about Kurt’s view, but at the next Board meeting, he spontaneously raised the issue and appointed another Board member and myself to “study” this practice and make recommendations. The other Board member and I looked at each other as if to ask, “did you know he was going to do this?” We both answered silently, no.

I made a joke to make sure everyone there knew there was no conspiracy against the Wisdom years and I did not know about this appointment. Kurt knew I did not want to get involved, but when Kurt asked, you said yes.

Fortunately, the other Board member called me a few days later and told me the issue was dropped and there was no need to “study” it any longer. We were both relieved to pull ourselves out of the hornet’s nest without being stung. I was naive to think the hornets were not still buzzing.

The 2004-2008 period when I had re-engaged in Victories was a tough period when the original leaders had to yield the total power they had over programs and details and allow the Board to assume authority.

I do not believe this time went well and think it was ultimately harmful for me. There are several neuroscience concepts which help explain some of the unresolved conflicts, but implicit memories are very important. (Zimmerman, 2014)

Memories of hurt and injuries are stored implicitly with no time stamp. This means whenever triggered, the stored feelings can surface as if the hurt and injury had just occurred. Such is my life and the life of other trauma survivors. The brain damage I lived with only made matters worse.

Recruitment is a key characteristic of an LGAT.  It becomes problematic when the participants are encouraged (some might say pressured) to become ambassadors for these programs and recruit other family members and friends.

It’s not too fun to have one of these individuals start to pressure you to attend one of these weekends.

The Mankind Project has made many contributions in the personal growth arena, especially making psychodrama, a sophisticated therapy model, available to many thousands of men (and some women) around the globe. I think this one of its significant accomplishments and has had positive global impact.

While they can be criticized for other aspects of their program, they have developed a way of training and facilitating psychodrama that is quite excellent. They have specific types of psychodrama that are offered for specific types of presenting issues during their weekends.

The men facilitating these exercises have experienced psychodrama themselves, received training, and are being supervised or teaming with more experienced leaders during the program.

Over the years, the Mankind Project has been forced to confront some problems in their programming and have made progress in creating more transparency (men know what they are getting into), attempts to evaluate the mental health of potential participants, and other ways of bringing their program into the 21st century.

The Mankind Project has also influenced many other personal growth programs. While these programs would publicly deny any influence, the similarities are unmistakable to a well-trained eye. While these other programs may deny this, imitation is a form of flattery. In some cases, I would suggest an unhealthy type of envy. It’s called Warrior envy.

These other, smaller programs have faltered as the “identity quest” of the 1980’s and 1990’s has faded, especially when such programs were organized around charismatic leaders who financially profited from their programs. Many participants and volunteers in such programs could see through the veneer of greed and eventually dropped out.

When these programs are built around charismatic personalities, internal conflicts are often suppressed. Anyone who dares to challenge the “leader” is likely met with some type of threat, expulsion, etc. It’s usually not pretty. This inability to address and resolve differences and conflict can damage organizational ability to grow and expand.

So, although I was in and out of involvement myself for many years, I tread cautiously. It seems impossible to create any quality control, although I think  Victories and Mankind Project do a pretty good job with this.

Individuals have been hurt and killed in the past, but hopefully, this will not happen in the future. There are too many good men trying to do good things.

Do I recommend these local and national programs anymore? I mention them as possibilities, but nothing else. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to join a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution.

I know providing good psychotherapy based on research will be more helpful to individuals in developing better lives. Let people choose their own organizations. That’s called self-determination and it’s a good thing.

Like in everything we do, look before you leap. It can be a long way down.

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