Content warning: this articles talks about various kinds of abuse. I mostly refer to it in generalities, omitting detailed descriptions. If that kind of content might be upsetting for you, please go slowly and take care of yourself as you read this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about abuse recently.
Last month I read Outrageous Betrayal by Steven Pressman, a 1993 book that chronicles the rise and fall of Werner Erhard and his organization, est, that is succeeded by the Landmark Forum. I picked up the book because many of my friends have raved to me about Landmark Forum classes and I wanted to scout them out before taking the plunge into a workshop (which lasts 12 hours a day for 3 days).
I was surprised that the story included A LOT of abuse, from Erhard to his family members, Erhard in his attempts to commit tax fraud, Erhard to his employees and “trainers” underneath him and workshop participants, and his trainers to each other and participants. Yikes, dude.
I was fascinated, particularly by the abusive methodology of the workshops. They worked like this: get participants to give their blanket consent to the workshop, then discourage them from re-negotiating their consent, then remove their normal ways of taking care of themselves (including going to the bathroom), destabilize their normal ways of processing by subjecting them to extreme fatigue, confusion, and other emotional states, and then install a narcissistic part (that was basically Erhard’s personality) in them.
Then, two weeks ago, I read an article titled Why I Left Radical Honesty by former certified Radical Honesty trainer Jura Glo. Her story of RH reminds me in some ways of what Erhard did and the culture he created. Then I read the petition to the Radical Honesty Institute, then I read this response from the Radical Honesty Institute. It’s a lot, but the point I want you to get from it is that all parties recognize that RH has at times been abusive and done harm to participants. The issues are various and systemic.
I’m telling you about this because I want you to know that, if you have been hurt in the practice of Radical Honesty, or Landmark, or any other therapeutic or spiritual practice, you are not alone. I hope that you trust then examine your feelings, and that you take action if action would help you. In the case of Radical Honesty, you could report the abuse through the form that RHI set up, or if you don’t trust RHI (some people have claimed that their complaints to RHI have disappeared) you can report the abuse anonymously here, or you could sign the petition to RHI.
Thinking about all of this, I am sad. I am sad that life contains so much suffering. Worse, when I think of these cases – Erhard and est and Landmark, Radical Honesty, and some of the people I grew up with – some of the suffering of life seems totally pointless and unproductive. Some people may spend their whole life surrounding their tender self with a castle of control and disconnection, feeding themselves with power and intensifying their power struggle, deepening their own unconsciousness and suffering. Some people (Erhard) even seem intent on training others to build the same kind of castle.
I am also hopeful: some people (Jura, the other co-authors, and the signers of the petition) care enough to voluntarily adopt responsibility for challenging the institution that perpetuates this abuse. It has been difficult for me to find my own courage lately, but this example of others’ courage was heartening for me. I imagine that there are brave others around the world who are standing up to different instances of abuse and oppression.
I want to zoom out now from the specific situation with RHI and leave you with a few of my thoughts about mental health support more broadly.
1. Deception and duplicity are red flags for abusive people and institutions. If you have any cognitive dissonance or a weird gut feeling about how someone’s words or actions aren’t aligned, trust it and talk with healthy people who have a different frame of reference.
2. It absolutely sucks that people are harmed as they seek mental health resources, but it is also totally commonplace, even when there is no abuse. All providers are flawed. I’ve received therapy from 3 different providers over the last 3.5ish years, and each therapist has been unable to fully meet me in my relationship with them because of the limitations in the training they received or because of their simple ineptitude. My most recent therapist had a pattern of pushing me into experiencing and talking about my painful feelings and trauma flashbacks before I was ready, and couldn’t explain why she kept pushing me. So I left. There are plenty of other options out there.
(I, too, have harmed people when I’ve been in the role of coach. It’s a bummer.)
3. Even when there is no abuse or overt harm, every therapeutic approach is good at some things and not others; every practice is particular, not perfect. I like Getting Real and Authentic Relating because they’re good for building relationship in the moment; my relationships with biological family members have been and continue to be mostly unpleasant and wounding, so GR and AR have helped me build a chosen family to compensate. But they’re by no means the best practices for dealing with my complex trauma, or helping me make my life meaningful, or building my positive beliefs so that I can succeed in business, so I’ve supplemented them with other practices. If anyone tells you that a single practice or school of thought will totally transform your person, be skeptical.
4. Relationship repair is both important to healthy relationships and notably absent from abusive relationships. Developmental psychologist D. W. Winnicott argued that the “good enough parent” is one whose connection with their child endures through the child’s progressive disillusionment, anger, and frustration at the world and at the parent themselves. In the same way, therapists, teachers, and coaches can be “good enough” by tuning in to the other person, being willing to listen and be affected by them (including their anger), genuinely apologizing and owning their behavior when they’ve done harm, and growing and making changes for them. The “good enough” relationship includes attunement and relationship repair.
Jura’s article contains the gem that an abuser is “someone who’s entitled to impact without taking accountability.” I aspire to live in a world where “impact WITH accountability” is the norm, and I hope you join me in working towards that.