*All names changed to protect privacy
More than a year after the tragedy, Waco is still on my mind, for I, too, once gave my life over to a cult.
But my story does not involve the Branch Davidians, or any other religious group that isolates itself in a compound. My experience was with a cult that arms itself not with rifles but with psychological manipulation. A cult called Lifespring.
Ten years ago my husband and I, 32 and 30 years old, enrolled in a course, hoping to improve our marriage. What started out as a weekend workshop grew into a five-month odyssey that ripped apart our family.
A perfect marriage
After five years of marriage, Tim* and I thought we had it all: a loving relationship, a newborn son, a 3-year-old daughter, and a house overlooking the ocean in southern California. Tim's accounting business was expanding; I was close to my goal of playing professional golf.
But our marriage wasn't perfect. After the birth of our son, we no longer seemed able to find time just to be together, to feel close, and Tim had become increasingly testy and demanding. He'd explode at the sight of toys on the floor, or unfolded laundry. "Clean the house or get a job," he snapped one day. "Why should I work SO YOU can play golf?" Neither of us was happy, and we realized we needed help. Three months after our son was born, we went to a marriage counselor.
The counselor said Tim needed to lower his expectations, and I needed to spend more time on myself. But we could rebuild our intimacy, he said, if we learned to talk openly and listen without judgment. Thanks to his suggestions, our marriage did seem to improve, and we rediscovered how much we still enjoyed each other.
Then one day, after two months of counseling, Tim announced he wasn't going to our weekly appointment. I was shocked. Surely he couldn't be giving up so soon. Did he want to try another therapist?
"No, I'm more interested in a workshop Dave and Lisa took called Lifespring," Tim said. "Dave says it improves relationships---cuts through the garbage in four days. In the long run it'll save us money and time."
Dave and Lisa, old friends in Los Angeles, had always seemed happily married. Surely they didn't need a couples workshop. I called Lisa.
"Dave and I are fine," she said, "but we know there's more to life than what we have now. At Lifespring everyone talks about how they feel alive and powerful. We want to feel like that. 11
That night Tim and I decided to try Lifespring. It was great to see him interested in something other than material success. As an accountant, his world had always been one of facts and rules. He used to tell me that I was good for him because I lived by intuition and spontaneity. I was touched that he wanted to work on himself and our marriage.
We went to the Lifespring center the next day. The* office, a half hour away, was staffed by conservatively dressed men and women who welcomed us warmly, and eagerly offered to sign us up for four days of Basic Training-at $400 each. Dave had warned us about the cost, and though Tim didn't seem to mind, I still thought it was outrageous. Seeing my hesitation, the recruiters assured us that after the workshop we were guaranteed to know ourselves better--or receive a refund. How could we lose? Tim cleared his work schedule for the next four days; I arranged for the kids to stay with my in-laws. We relished the idea of having time to ourselves.
High on intimacy
Basic Training began on a Thursday night in November, in the ballroom of a nearby hotel. Several men in dark suits guided us to our seats while the theme from 2001 played over the speakers. About 200 people sat facing an empty podium. They looked reassuringly normal-like the parents in my kids' playgroup.
Minutes later, Mark-tall, tanned, fortysomething appeared onstage to announce the rules for the weekend. Sessions would begin promptly at 10 A.m. and last until I A.M. We were to work with someone other than our spouse, and we would have to ask permission to leave the room, talk, or use the phone. We were warned that we would be dealing with emotions on a deeper level than we were used to, and that we'd rediscover parts of ourselves we'd covered up or left behind years ago. We were there for a reason, Mark said, even if we didn't yet know it. And it could change our lives.
Mark's manner spooked Tim and me: Who was this guy to control our lives, even for a weekend? But we didn't have time to reconsider. Mark was calling for our first exercise.
"Partner up. Now look into each other's eyes. And believe that your partner is either your mother or father. Then scream, cry, shout-do whatever you need to communicate."
I turned around to face Sean, a handsome man with dark hair and green eyes, who seemed to be in his thirties. As the lights dimmed I let him take my hand, alarmed by the intensity of the emotional outpouring suddenly filling the room.
I hate you! Hate you! Hate you!
Hold me, please hold me.
I need you.
"I'll start," Sean said, sensing my hesitation. "I'll be the child, and you be my mother."
His honesty was wrenching. Sean's mother died of cancer when he was 10, and within minutes he was reliving the trauma. "You can't give up," he begged. "You're my mother-why is God taking you away from me?" We were both sobbing by then. Sean explained that after college he'd gone on to become a priest, but that now he was thinking of leaving the church. He was so sensitive; it was easy for me to be open too.
"Mom and Dad," I began, "Tim and I are struggling, and I don't know what to do."
I spoke of a happy childhood, of love, and then of my recent loneliness. When the music began, signaling the end of the exercise, Sean and I hugged and returned to our seats. I didn't know how much time had elapsed, but I felt drained. Where were these confessions leading? I needed to think about what had just happened, but already we were starting a new exercise.
And that's how it went: hour after hour of intense confrontation, always with a different partner. At night Tim and I would drive home, too exhausted to talk, knowing the next session was just hours away. By the third day we were sleep deprived and emotionally overloaded, yet strangely stimulated by the energy and intimacy of the weekend.
Where are we heading?
On Saturday Mark directed the group: "Go to the person you find most attractive. Eat dinner together, and explain why you chose him or her."
Tim was the only one I had in mind. Until then we'd obeyed the rules and hadn't worked together. Wouldn't it be great if we dashed into each other's arms? I searched the room for Tim and spotted him-just as he walked off with Sandi, a leggy woman in jeans and tank top who didn't look a day over 21. My heart sank. We'd come to Lifespring to work on our marriage, but we'd hardly seen each other.
Just then, Sean hugged me from behind. Suddenly I regretted having revealed so much to him. Yet everyone else seemed happy to pair off.
We went to a nearby restaurant but were too nervous to eat. "I've never felt this way about a woman before," Sean said, squeezing my hand. I reminded him I was married. "Well, as Lifespring says, it's no accident we're together," he said.
For two hours Sean listed everything he liked about me, down to the freckles on my fingers. "When this is over, let's go away together," Sean said. "I want to enjoy life-with you." Then he cupped my face in his hands and kissed me. Stunned, I pulled away, shaking my head, trying to gather my wits. I hadn't been kissed by anyone but Tim since I got married, and it was an odd feeling-albeit a nice one. Here was a man who wanted me, faults and all.
Back at the ballroom, my heart pounded as I waited for Tim to return. I didn't know what to expect. A kiss? A good laugh about the whole exercise? But when he and Sandi entered, arm in arm, smiling and laughing, they floated right past me and sat down together, cuddling like puppies.
Sean motioned for me to sit with him. Clearly he knew how hurt I was.
As I switched seats I numbly wondered why I was putting myself through this.
"So how was your friend?" I blurted out later on the drive home.
Tim smiled. "She's great. You'd really like her."
"Who chose whom?"
"We chose each other."
My first reaction was to tell him Sean had picked me. But what was the point? To brag that another man found me special? Had my self-esteem sunk that low? I fingered a paper in my pocket with Sean's phone number on it, imagining a new life with him. Tim and I rode the rest of the way in silence.
In the morning, after a good night's sleep and a phone call to my children, I felt better. Why would I trade what I had with my husband? Tim seemed chipper too. It was our last day of training, and I decided not to ruin it by harping on Sandi. Despite exhaustion, our group was punch-drunk on shared intimacies, and the graduation ceremony sent us home higher than ever. For a few days I almost forgot that Tim and I had yet to deal with any of our issues.
Soon enough, I had cause to remember. Again, Tim became mean. Only now it was impossible to reason with him because he was too busy spouting Lifespring jargon. One night as I reached in the refrigerator for cottage cheese, the container broke, splattering curds all over my skirt.
"Look what you caused," Tim yelled. "You wanted this to happen. What are you really trying to say? That you wanted attention? Look at your results."
The Lifespring staff threw a reunion party a week after graduation, urging us to sign up for Advanced Training. It was $800 each for five days. The staff gave us a week to think about it, and when we returned to the center for our "post-training checkup," they immediately led Tim and me to separate rooms. I knew when I heard cheering next door that Tim had signed up for Advanced, no questions asked. But I could think of better ways to spend $1,600, and anyway, I wanted more time with my family, not Lifespring. The two staffers kept pushing:
"Excuses! We're asking for five days, not a lifetime. Maybe you don't want to make a difference in your life or your husband's. He'll be working on his life, and you won't."
They had me.
On to advanced training
There were 80 other trainees in our Advanced group, but we were the only couple. Training was held in a windowless warehouse in an industrial park, and it was hell from the start. The trainer, Rick, was all business. We didn't need to be babied, he said. We needed to look deep into our souls.
"What do you want?" Rick barked at an old man he pulled into the center of the group on the first day. "What do you want?"
"I want to do Christ's will," the man said.
"F--- Jesus! You think he's going to help you? He doesn't give a f---- You have to live your own life. So what do you want?"
The man began to cry. It was humiliating and embarrassing. Yet after 12-hour days of confrontation, when the trainer called the shots, you followed. In one exercise Rick polled each group member: How much sex do you have a week? How often do you masturbate? What do you fantasize about? In another he singled out me and four other women to dance for the group. As Rick put it, we were "nice girls" who needed to loosen up and push beyond our comfortable images. At first I wasn't sure why he thought dancing would test our limits. But when I saw the black lingerie and spike heels, I understood he wanted bump-and-grind action. Erotica. Raunch. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to explain why I did it. But we five women applied makeup and teased our hair and, finally, strutted out on the floor. The crowd surrounded us, hooting and hollering as we started gyrating to the music. I never looked up.
That night I slumped against our bedroom wall, desperately confused about what was happening to me, to us. "Why did I do that dance?" I asked aloud. Tim eyed me silently, and then slowly moved toward me.
"Why don't you put the teddy back on and do another one for me?" he whispered. "You were different tonight--looser, wilder. I like you better that way."
Is that what it took to get him to like me again?
By the last day we'd exposed so much of ourselves, it seemed there was no more to bare. I was wrong. It was Tim's and my turn to be called to the center of the group.
"So, Tim, what do you want?" Rick asked.
"I'm going to be living a new life," Tim announced boldly. "I was never clear on my wants. Now I can see I no longer want to be with my wife."
My whole body went numb. I tried to say something but couldn't. I listened as Tim explained that he was tired of dealing with numbers and money. That he wanted to do things he'd never done before. That he considered everything in his past a roadblock to growth..
"Is there another woman?" Rick asked, visibly surprised.
No, Tim said. He just wanted to focus on himself for a while. And Lifespring.
I was humiliated. I almost wished there were another woman. But the truth was Tim just no longer wanted me.
"What do you think about what Tim said?" Rick asked.
I couldn't answer. In my mind I was floating away, detached from the scene. On some level I knew I should leave, but I couldn't. I followed the next assignment like a zombie and mindlessly stripped to my bathing suit when ordered, just like everyone else.
My husband came up and hugged me. "You'll be fine," he said, smiling at me in my bikini. "A lot of the guys told me they want to get to know you better."
"Great," I said, turning to hide my tears. "One big happy family."
We drove home that night, but I slammed the bedroom door when we got there, snapping, "Sleep by yourself!" I needn't have bothered. That night marked the first of many Tim and I spent apart, though for reasons I still don't understand, I couldn't bring myself to ask whether he really wanted to end the marriage, and he never said.
As soon as he finished working, Tim would rush straight to the center to recruit for Lifespring. It didn't take him long to enroll four new people, some of them clients, and to qualify for Leadership Training. Lifespring members called at all hours, checking on his enrollment performance. There was talk that Tim could really move up in Lifespring. He loved the attention.
Lisa called one day to tell me she and Dave had finished Advanced and were ready for more training. "Don't you love Lifespring?" she bubbled.
Love Lifespring? My marriage and my life had deteriorated drastically over the last two months. I'd all but dropped golf and lost 15 pounds and all my self-confidence. When Tim and I did talk, he said he'd never felt more complete. My unhappiness, he said, was of my creation. And in light of his popularity at Lifespring, it was easier to think something was wrong with me than to face the truth. I stayed sane by focusing on my kids.
On Christmas Eve we loaded the car with presents for a celebration at my parents' house. But at the last minute Tim announced he wasn't coming: "I'd rather be with friends." I drove away, determined not to spoil the kids' holiday.
It was raining hard. I inched along but suddenly, on a hill, I lost control and planed across five lanes of highway. I desperately tried to steer the car, but we were heading for the center divider. Just before we crashed, I closed my eyes and prayed, "I want to live!"
And in that second I knew that I could not-would not-let what was happening with Tim break my spirit.
Miraculously, no one was hurt. The police took us to a fast-food restaurant, where I called Tim and told him we'd had an accident.
"That figures," he said. "But there are no accidents. You wanted this to happen, so you handle it."
I hung up and motioned for the police to leave. "Someone's coming for us," I lied. Then I broke down, sobbing. It was the last thing I expected to be doing Christmas Eve-eating french fries with two children at a highway restaurant,
But we were alive. And I knew what I had to do. Let go.
When Tim finally came home late that night, all he did was rant about the cost of fixing the car. After the kids were asleep, I confronted him about our marriage. "I'm still here, aren't I?" he said. "Isn't that good enough for now? I don't want to make any decisions until after Leadership Training."
"Lifespring is not our life," I said, the anger finally welling up. "Our life is here, in this home. But you don't care about anyone but yourself and Lifespring!"
I stayed up all night, summoning the courage that I knew I'd need.
On Christmas morning, before the children awoke, I told Tim to leave: "You don't deserve me."
Tim smiled: "That's fine with me. I'm on my way out."
"What about the kids?"
He stopped, and for a moment I detected remorse. "Tell them this just wasn't right for me. You'll handle it."
After the holidays I felt disconnected. I wanted to return to the life I'd led before Lifespring, but that wasn't possible. Tim was living at his father's, giving me money to cover the expenses. So much had changed, I couldn't even call old friends-they'd never understand. Instead I spent much of my time screening my calls, trying to avoid the daily-sometimes hourly pressure from Lifespring recruiters to continue my training.
One day Tim called to urge me to sign up. "You may not believe this, but I really do care," he said. His voice sounded softer, more like the Tim I loved. "I think it would be good for us to do this -together."
Did he really think there was hope? It seemed hard to believe. I struggled to maintain my resolve. "We need to sit down and talk about legalizing our separation," I said.
"Let's wait until Leadership is over. It won't do us any good to rush. And maybe we'll still end up together."
I teetered. Perhaps I had been rash. Were a few bad months worth dumping a six-year marriage? And so I rationalized my way back into Tim's life and signed up. Somewhere deep in my soul, I knew I was out of control.
The belly of the beast
Now, with my first Leadership meeting, I was on the inside of Lifespring. The center was set up like a telethon, with phones and directories crammed everywhere, and staffers working hour after hour soliciting enrollments. The air was thick with competition.
Lifespring, I discovered, works as a kind of pyramid: Those at the bottom receive no pay, but those who "produce" may get a position and salary. We weren't being led toward personal growth. We were there to enroll new members and fatten Lifespring's coffers.
One evening I heard Tim rave about Basic Training to a friend on the phone. Finally I snapped.
"Did you tell him about us?" I exploded. "How it improved our marriage so much that we outgrew it? You're living a lie!"
He just smirked. "How many people have you enrolled?" he said. "If you're so great, prove it."
That was it. I refused to play the game any longer. I began calling old friends and telling them the truth. They were shocked. And upset I hadn't called sooner.
Then I told Tim our marriage was over.
"Good," he said. "I've already spoken to my attorney."
It was a while before I talked to Tim again or let him see the kids. But one day, about eight months into our divorce negotiations, he called to say he wanted to talk about us. I was surprised-in my mind we were a closed subject. But when he showed up at my doorstep, he dropped to his knees, sobbing, "I'm so sorry all this happened. It's killing me to not be with you. Please give me another chance."
I thought my heart had been yanked from my body, the pain was so severe. But I couldn't find even a shred of the love I'd had for this man-there was none. Lifespring had stripped it away. We were like two bones. It was over.
Picking up the pieces
Today I have custody of the children, and Tim sees them every other weekend. Eventually he too tired of Lifespring's pressure to recruit, and drifted away from the organization. Still, I'm not sure he realizes the extent of the harm done during those months with Lifespring. Where I once saw a strong, confident man, I sometimes see a confused, lonely soul. He got married again, but it didn't last. And although he's working hard and is good with the kids, I know he's still searching for something.
I've become stronger over the past ten years, thanks to friends, family, occasional therapy, my work as an education consultant, and playing golf again. But I've had to do a lot of soul searching to find out what made me such a willing victim. I loved Tim. And wanted my marriage to succeed. I just never dreamed I'd lose myself trying to save it.
Now when I meet someone considering a "personal-growth" course, I tell my story. It's my way of remembering that life is a personal journey-that no person or group has the answers. It's an important lesson. And I learned it well. But at a tremendous cost.
How Lifespring works
Founded In 1973 by John Hanley, Lifespring claims to have trained more than 400,000 people through its ten centers across the country. Like many "personal growth" groups, it counts on the fact that most people are impatient to learn about themselves and will do almost anything to speed up the process of self-discovery, including spending a lot of money for "secret" strategies. "Cults like Lifespring are like a psychological prison: What they do is narrow your world," says Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program, "You leave friends and destroy relationships for a false high."
There have been at least 30 lawsuits against Lifespring, alleging everything from emotional damage to death. According to Gerald F. Ragland Jr., an attorney In Alexandria, Virginia, in 1984 a Philadelphia jury awarded $800,000 to a client of his whom was hospitalized with mental problems after her Lifespring training. In 1992 a jury in Washington, D.C., awarded $300,000 to a young lawyer who was hospitalized for a mental breakdown five days after training. Yet according to Pittsburgh lawyer Peter N. Georgiades, its more common for cases against Lifespring to be settled out of court In 1982 the family of a man who leaped from a four-story holding following a five-day Lifespring training session settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. And In 1993 Georgiades won a $750,000 settlement for a Lifespring trainee who was institutionalized for two years following Leadership training.