It was not unusual for me to be filmed in my office. Since getting my Ph.D. and moving to Oregon, I had made frequent local and regional appearances, commenting on whatever disaster was in the news. Whether the Iran hostage crisis or the slaughter in Jonestown, I was often on TV, formulating what I hoped was an informed psychological context. I was a regular on a local morning talk show, too. I enjoyed being a media psychologist. I often recorded the shows in which I appeared and studied them so I could make improvements in my public persona and wardrobe. It was like watching someone I didn’t know and I often grimaced as I observed that person on the screen. But I was a determined student and, over time, the appearances fell more in line with what I expected of myself. I learned not to blink so much, to speak without “uhs,” and to dress more simply.
And now, sitting across from me in a yellow-green leather chair in my office was television personality and icon Geraldo Rivera. He had flown in his camera crew, his girlfriend du jour and his segment producer from New York to interview me for his highly rated ABC program, “20/20.” I had just finished a morning full of clients in a busy clinical psychology practice in Beaverton, Oregon. It was 1979.
Rivera was known for his belligerence. He had a reputation for combativeness, both physical and intellectual, and I was determined to avoid getting caught up in anything resembling that. I knew he would present a challenge unlike any other interviewer.
Being a psychologist on TV wasn’t an easy task in the 1970s nor was it as ubiquitous as it is today. Psychological and psychiatric information was pretty much owned by those professional associations, accessible primarily to those who had earned advanced degrees. The specter of television shrinks was threatening to the preeminent psychology establishment, the American Psychological Association. The professional organizations watched over us as if we were errant children, hoping to forestall any violation of unethical behavior. I’m not sure they wanted us on TV at all, really. It escalated the risks of professional embarrassment.
There was a fine line between offering commentary and giving individual advice, though. The former was acceptable but the latter could be grounds for an ethics complaint and even the equivalent of disbarment. The APA frowned on providing anything resembling therapy or therapeutic interpretations if the doctor had never met the patient. If I had been asked, for instance, what I thought about a certain actor who had been arrested several times for spousal abuse, I would likely begin to discuss the conditions under which abuse often takes place, the usual scene when the police arrive, etc., without ever mentioning the celebrity or what I thought about his guilt or innocence. It was a thin line, to be sure.
In the years between 1970 and 1980, the “sudden growth” pop psychology movement had emerged and flourished. It’s likely not coincidental that its rise paralleled the popularity of cults like Scientology and the Unification Church (aka the “Moonies”). After the tumult of the 1960s, people seemed to be looking for a different kind of metamorphosis. They had changed the social and political landscape; now they sought similar radical changes within.
While I had been a civil rights demonstrator in the 1960s and a vocal advocate for social change, I had little sympathy for this new pop psychology movement. I could see it being potentially dangerous to many, especially in the hands of the untrained. And it almost always was. The trainers were simply people who had weathered the rigors of the courses provided by the cult. No further education in mental health required.
The notion of do-it-yourself personal growth became more accessible with the creation of Psychology Today magazine, though it took years for it to catch on after its 1969 debut. It’s no surprise that its first publisher was the American Psychological Association itself, exerting its influence over the dissemination of information. The door had been opened, however, and all comers raced to capitalize on this burgeoning market. Now you didn’t have to pay for expensive therapy to “find yourself.” You could read a magazine – or spend a weekend with others similarly seeking rapid personality change. The most successful purveyors of this lucrative pseudo-therapeutic and often dangerous movement were est and Lifespring.
It seemed inevitable that this fad would intersect my life. In the 1970s, I had a full time teaching load in clinical psychology at Portland State University, eventually as a tenured Associate Professor. I also had a full-time private practice in a Portland suburb. I loved both as they demanded my intellectual and emotional resources on a daily basis. During this decade, I had married and had a son but by the end of it, I had terminated the marriage, juggling joint custody with his father. It sometimes seemed as if I were undergoing my own growth processes during a very busy life.
I had heard about est and Lifespring. The latter had been founded in 1974 as an offshoot of est. And liberal, well-educated Portland seemed to be Growth Central for the movement. The groups were ubiquitous and wildly popular. Soon, I was fielding inquiries about them from the media. Did I know there had been adverse experiences, psychotic breaks, even some deaths as a result of their rigorous, confrontational training? What did I think of this?
Before the Age of Google or even the personal computer, it took a lot of research to answer those questions. First, I discovered that Lifespring had located its profitable Portland headquarters on the banks of the Willamette River, just blocks from my office at Portland State. The more I heard and read, the more concern I felt. Students discussed their experiences with me, but only under anxiety and duress as if they feared some unnamed consequence. Part of the indoctrination was a promise not to reveal anything to others so “you won’t spoil it for your friends.” As they started to talk about it, I was surprised at their evangelical zeal. They described the afterglow as “life-changing” and seemed more than eager that all their friends take the course. In reality, they were pressured to proselytize, to “put asses in seats,” as founder John Hanley had coarsely demanded.
As I waited for the interview to begin, I wondered if Geraldo had interviewed Hanley. They were alike in some ways – not as smart as they thought they were, ego-driven and dangerously charismatic. Both sported an arrogance that often comes with power.
My opinion was of interest to the media because I had begun seeing some casualties from the training. People came into my psychotherapy office deflated, depressed, unsure of their lives and their commitments. It’s as if all the stuffing had been extracted from them. Therapy became a rebuilding process, centering on meaning, wants and needs and trying to undo the painful memories of their often destabilizing Lifespring experiences.
Lifespring, along with other similar groups, used many of the same techniques as those engaged in brainwashing during the Korean War. There were three parts to the training: personal attacks by the leaders intended to rapidly uncover often painful or embarrassing secrets, a public catharsis often accompanied by crying or screaming, and a “rebuilding” – done at the end by the Lifespring trainers and always accompanied by affirming applause by the group.
People were isolated from friends and family for long hours during the five-day period; food, water and even bathroom breaks were legislated by authoritarian leaders, the rules dictated at the first session. If people left the room, they were pursued and entreated to return. Most damaging was the breaking down of people’s habitual defense system, done by public harassment and degradation. In the more advanced training, which the trainees were pressured to attend, the inductee was required to act on some long-standing fear in order to confront and theoretically erase it, often at their peril. If accomplished, praise was heaped, declarations of mental health bestowed with the person ending on a fabulous high. Many people seemed to walk on air in a state of euphoria – at least for six months, which was the maximum period the giddiness seemed to last.
In early cult research, an overwhelming number of “graduates” rated the training to be “valuable” or “very valuable.” Psychologists knew this to be the result of a well-known phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance.” Subjects in experiments always praised their results more highly if they were made to undergo a painful or embarrassing process. “I would not,” one tells oneself, “undergo such discomfort if it hadn’t been totally worth it.” So goes the psychological axiom.
By the late 1970s, I had given numerous interviews to magazines, newspapers, TV and radio about the dangers inherent in all manner of cult-like experiences, including Synanon and Scientology. Then I was contacted by a Seattle attorney who had been retained by the survivors of victims who had died during or shortly after Lifespring trainings. He asked if I would be interested in working with him as an expert witness.
This was a familiar and comfortable role for me. I had served in this capacity many times, often on the side of the defense in criminal and civil litigation. Like media psychology, there was something wonderfully theatrical about sitting in the witness box. I even relished a tough cross-examination since I was always well-prepared with my diagnoses and conclusions.
The cases against Lifespring were of national importance due to the number of deaths starting to mount. Eventually, there were over 30 lawsuits, ranging from inducing psychosis, to suicide, to wrongful deaths. Attorney Richard Stanislaw met me in my office to discuss the first case. Artie, a blue-collar worker in his 20s, had nearly drowned as a child and was afraid of the water. He never learned to swim. During an “advanced training,” Lifespring leaders had convinced him that he needed to confront that fear to move forward in his life. It was decided he would swim across the Willamette River (from the eponymous “Lifespring Island”), but sadly he only made it part way across, drowning in the early-morning attempt. His surviving family filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
As the expert witness, my job was to dissect the process that led to this tragedy, how someone like non-swimmer Artie would agree to such a seemingly doomed endeavor. Why would he violate what seemed to be common sense and take that kind of fatal risk?
Over the course of the next few months, I met often with Stanislaw, informing him of the brainwashing aspects of the program, how Artie was likely made to unburden himself in front of all the other people, and how he would surely have been publically shamed and embarrassed if he refused to take on the task assigned by the leaders. His personal weaknesses were probably exploited, as he gave over control of his life to these powerful leaders and was under extreme psychological duress, much like a POW.
As I studied this cult further, my biggest concern was that there were no conventionally trained mental health counselors anywhere to be seen. The entire leadership consisted of Lifespring graduates who had survived their own brutal indoctrination, and taught how to lead these groups by those with similarly inadequate formal mental health education. It turned out they were effective in breaking down a person but not so skilled in reconstruction, especially with those who might be more at risk. But because there was no screening of the trainees, the leadership had no idea who might be the most vulnerable. It could be anyone who showed up the first night, but especially those with some unresolved trauma, who had pre-existing mental health issues or had suffered childhood abuse - the most psychologically fragile. They would be pushed beyond their own limits with no trained professionals to pick up the pieces. It was a frightening scenario.
There had been more than 30 lawsuits during the late ‘70s, some of which were decided against Lifespring for large sums. None of the suits in which I was involved actually went to court. Apparently, the information and opinions in the depositions were sufficient to motivate Lifespring to settle. I was developing a reputation as a “cult buster” in the media and, apparently, in the courtroom.
As I was finishing up work on Artie’s wrongful death suit, I got a call from a producer from ABC’s “20/20,” then as now a top-rated television show. They were doing a two-part story about Lifespring and wondered if I would be willing to discuss it on camera with Geraldo Rivera. By now, I had become something of an expert on Lifespring and was even serving on a national committee on cults for the American Psychological Association, traveling to D.C for meetings.
“Of course,” I responded. “But he’ll have to come to my office and coordinate the interview with my work schedule.” I had many clients with regular time slots and it was essential to avoid a disruption or any possible upset.
Geraldo and his crew had arrived early and were waiting in the library when I emerged from my session. I showed them around the office suite so they could select the best location for the shoot. As I followed Geraldo down the hall, the effluvia in his wake made it nauseatingly clear he had not had time to shower that morning. Had he been flying on the red eye from New York? Or was this his norm? The grease in his hair looked as if it had missed the last 5000-mile oil change.
I excused myself to go to the restroom where I ran into a woman who introduced herself as his “girlfriend,” and “just part of the entourage.” Checking myself in the mirror, I reapplied my makeup and headed back to the office.
I assumed Geraldo wanted to hear about my direct experiences with the Liffespring casualties. He likely had “people” doing research for him but he would surely appreciate hearing from one who had treated some of the victims of this insidious pyramid scheme. He was known for his incisive questioning, for having taken a point of view before the interview. I was nervous but prepared.
Geraldo sat back in the therapist’s chair while I was opposite him on the couch. Once the lights were set, Geraldo began the questioning. To my disappointment, he wasn’t at all interested in my experiences with Lifespring casualties. Nor did he want to hear about my specific concerns about the program. He knew what he knew and that was apparently sufficient, so I was making more general statements. I commented on the lack of training of the trainers, the lack of screening, the dropouts who were dogged by the Lifespring staff to return. Half way through the interview, he stopped me, shaking his head with impatience.
“Could you say something more dramatic about this?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said.
“Your words aren’t strong enough. You’re being too careful. I need something more…more forceful.”
I began to worry that he wanted more than I was comfortable delivering. I couldn’t discuss the recent lawsuits still in process. I expressed my concern about the lack of mental health safeguards in this “sudden growth” organization, but it still wasn’t “tough” enough.
He seemed satisfied, however, when I concluded, “Based on all the information I have about it, I would say that Lifespring is hazardous to your health. I would advise people not to go anywhere near it.” A sound bite made for TV.
The gang packed up and I met my next client in the waiting room who was stunned to have seen such a famous face leaving my office. “Was that really Geraldo Rivera?” she asked.
Because I had sometimes seen publically recognizable people in therapy, there was a separate exit door away from the waiting area, but Geraldo and company unsurprisingly opted for the more flamboyantly public departure.
I thought I had done a good job with the interview while exercising caution and not slipping into personal invective or overstating the dangers. I thought about it several times over the course of the next few days and looked forward to seeing the programs.
The shows aired, were well reviewed, and I didn’t think anything more of it. Well, OK, I admit to having a brief fantasy of our two-part show winning an Emmy.
Then after several months passed, I got a call from someone in ABC’s legal department in New York.
“You’re being sued by Lifespring for over a hundred million dollars.”
My first response was to laugh. “What?”
“Yes. You, Roone Arledge, Geraldo Rivera, the staff of “20/20” and ABC News are equal parties to the suit.” He told me an ABC attorney would fly in to meet with me within the week.
Did he say a hundred million dollars?
I hung up the phone and stood in my office, head filled with white noise. What did this mean? Could they take everything I own, my career, my reputation, my future? A hundred million dollars? For a few words on television – words I knew to be true, even measured?
Gathering my wits, I called Dick Stanislaw in Seattle and told him the situation. Soothingly cool, he told me he would represent me if necessary and be with me during all court matters. But, he advised, “ABC should indemnify you since the allegedly litigious words occurred on its program. No matter what, this shouldn’t cost you anything – except time, of course.” I felt reassured by his statement of support. At least, I wouldn’t be dealing with this by myself. I had no idea how time-consuming this would become, not to mention disruptive on an emotional level.
ABC’s sharkskin-suited attorney on the case, Warren Wilson, arrived in Portland a few days later. We met for dinner at Trader Vic’s in downtown Portland. I thought it a good choice as the restaurant was known for its stiff drinks.
He was waiting for me and stood as I approached the table.
“Good to meet you, Dr. Munter.”
“Please. Call me Pam. Looks like we’ll be working together on this problem. I am very upset about all of this, as you can imagine.”
“Yes. But you needn’t worry. ABC gets sued all the time. We see this as a nonsense suit.”
“Doesn’t feel like nonsense to me.”
The server came over and I ordered a Mai Tai. It was there almost immediately, as if she had seen me coming.
“Yes. I can understand. There will be depositions and numerous delays in a suit like this. It could take years.”
“Years?” I gasped. “Can they win?”
“Well, we hope not. They will harass you any way they can. They’re hoping you and the rest of those being sued will capitulate. A favorite tactic is to intimidate you and wear you down.”
The Mai Tai started to have its way with me. “Warren, if I’m looking at two years of my life under this kind of stress, I have to know I won’t be liable in case there’s a settlement in their favor. I expect ABC to indemnify me.”
“Yes. Well, we can talk about that later.” Oh, no, I thought. I can’t put this off. It had been the only thing on my mind since the papers arrived. I was trying not to resent his seeming nonchalance.
“Before I jump on board with you, I have to have an assurance I’ll be protected legally. I don’t want to threaten you, really, but you have to know that if I’m held liable for a penny of this, I will sue the shit out of ABC.”
“Yes. I understand.” He didn’t flinch. “I will consult with the legal team in New York and get back to you very soon. I can’t make that decision now.” Could he have been surprised by my demand? Did other codefendants in all the other suits to which ABC was a party just roll the dice and hope for the best?
With the ingestion of the alcohol and the hope of indemnification, I relaxed a little. We started to talk about the “human potential movement” and the emergence of Lifespring. These groups always thrived best in secrecy so the “students” would be blind-sided by all the confrontation and deprivation. I was beginning to identify with their stress levels.
“They want to silence you. They want you off their back. You’ve been a powerful foe.”
“Dick said there are more cases coming down the line besides the ones we’re already working on and I have agreed to work with him.”
“I would advise you to be very selective and careful about that. And I need to tell you we are asking you to stop commenting on Lifespring in the media while the legal action is going on.”
So, it seemed that even if Lifespring lost this suit, they had won on a bigger front. They had neutralized my commentary. In the coming days, I fielded calls from Charlie Rose’s office and a “Sixty Minutes” producer, but I had to tell them I was not able to appear because of the pending hundred-million-dollar lawsuit. A hundred million dollars. It still stunned.
Two weeks later, Wilson called with the news I had been indemnified by the network and would not be responsible for any possible monetary judgment. I was pleased, of course, but it did not alleviate my anxiety. I was dealing with two big corporations here, caught in the middle, punished for doing what I thought was responsible and ethical. My fear played hopscotch with my anger.
Though Lifespring had no documented history of violence, I knew its marketing and retention strategies were aggressive at best. And I was well aware that the media had reported alleged episodes of violence in other cults like Scientology and Synanon. I had been an expert witness in cases involving both. The shocking mass slaughter/suicide of the followers of Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple had happened only the year before. I was becoming more cognizant of all things around me – noises, shadows, hang-up calls on the phone. If out after dark, I started carrying a flashlight and kept my keys ready in my hand when I went to my car. One night, before going to sleep I looked up through the skylight in my second story bedroom. I knew I was way overstressed when I wondered if Lifespring was monitoring me in some way.
Wilson had been right about being swallowed up by the process. The next two years were filled with constant demands for my records, frequent depositions by both ABC and Lifespring attorneys, numerous phone conferences, and a truckload of angst. Many times, several hours were carved out of an already busy day to meet with the Lifespring attorney and Stanislaw. I appreciated that Stanislaw was there to protect my rights, especially regarding client confidentiality, but it was inevitably tense. Lifespring and the lawsuit had competed for space in my crowded life and I was getting worn down. Wilson flew in from New York several more times and we always met over dinner and drinks. At least, the ABC people ate well.
Finally, late one afternoon between clients, Wilson called to tell me that ABC had settled the case with Lifespring. No one would tell me the exact amount but I understood it to be a token low double-digit number I guessed to be around $20,000. I was disgusted that a major media outlet had been bullied by this dangerous organization, rewarded for their irresponsible behavior. At the same time, I was relieved I had my life back. My stomach unclenched for the first time in two years.
Within a few years, Lifespring closed its headquarters in Portland and reduced its presence on the national scene. Eventually, Lifespring morphed into a new and similar organization, like Whack-A-Mole, perhaps in an attempt to clean the legal slate and bring in new, unsuspecting recruits. The controlling, authoritarian structure and brainwashing techniques remained, altered slightly to avoid further legal complications.
The perennial human hope for change and renewal knows no decade or age group. We’d all like a quick fix to our problems and worries. While trauma can happen in an instant, real personality change requires a much longer commitment. For those not wanting to put in the time and the work, groups like Lifespring will always have a place in our culture, by whatever name they become known. One sure antidote to the perilous flim-flam is an ongoing educational process emphasizing the development of critical thinking, using proven, scientific methods as tools to evaluate any potentially life-changing experience before jumping in. Unfortunately, there aren’t any shortcuts to long-lasting personal growth.
While my life had been flipped on its head for a couple of years, it eventually returned to normal. There had been no major life lessons learned here. The phrase “unintended consequences” comes to mind, but I did what I thought was appropriate all the way along this pothole-filled path. Would I have done anything any differently? No.
During the agonizing two years of anxiety and worry, I never again heard from Geraldo Rivera. He’s still on TV, his persona having morphed to fit the times. Perhaps because of his many years as a controversial broadcaster, he has become inured to massive lawsuits and threats to his wellbeing. I never did.
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