Cult Status

In which the author struggles to escape the psychological shackles of a self-help seminar

 "Look around the circle and decide which four people you find most attractive."

It is mid-August, 1996. I'm in a conference room in the basement of the Regency Plaza Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Like everyone here, I'm doing as I'm told.

"Now narrow it down to three," the trainer says into the microphone.

Adam Larson

I do.


I do.

"Look around the circle again and decide on one person. When I say so, go stand in front of that person. Don't break eye contact. Don't say anything. If someone's already standing there, just get as close as you can." He demonstrates how this will work. Presumably, a very attractive person could wind up with a small congregation of spectators.

"Do we understand?" We do. Go.

James and I make a beeline for one another. We stare as instructed. I feel naked. Charged. James is wearing cook's pants and a military haircut. He seems gentle and sad. We have never spoken. In three months we will be engaged.

We are both here because someone we knew has promised that this weekend seminar would turn our lives around. I'm convinced it's working. In fact, I'm about to abandon my job hunt, lose my friends, alienate strangers, work for free, and go broke. If you had tapped me on the shoulder and told me so, I would have said you were crazy.

I would have had that backwards.


I graduated from Carleton in June 1995. I spent college preparing for a business career. The summer after junior year I had already started work on an M.B.A. Senior year I founded a Women in Business group on campus and had already interviewed for jobs in New York and Minneapolis. But as June approached, I began to lose confidence.

I have been a writer for most of my life. As a kid, I used to look for the spot on the library shelf where my work would someday sit. At Carleton, I majored in English and edited the newspaper, assuming that one day I would manage a two-career life--business from nine to five, writing at night. But all along, my creative-writing professor thought I should wait tables at night and write all day. And then an alum I called for career advice suggested I go to work in a laundry. One day, thinking about the thank-you notes I didn't want to write, the résumés I didn't want to send, I decided they were right: A business career would be a distraction. If I wanted to write, I should write.

After graduation I moved to Minneapolis and began working minimum-wage jobs: shelving bottles in a liquor store; serving coffee. I was working 60 hours a week to make ends meet, and before long I was jealous of the people I waited on, jealous of my career-oriented friends. I wasn't writing. I felt like a failure. A year passed. In April of 1996, my parents announced they were separating. In July, my boyfriend moved to Japan to teach English for two years. Disappointed, frustrated, bored, and lonely, I convinced myself that what my life lacked most was a full-time career.

Then I bumped into Alex.

I was having coffee with a book distributor when he appeared at the table. We had dated in college--briefly, turbulently--and he seemed very happy to see me. "We should catch up," he said. I gave him my number, and when he called I agreed to meet him that weekend. To my surprise, we talked for hours. I told him about my job search. I told him I wanted to work in magazines, then get my M.B.A. and become a publisher.

Alex seemed completely different to me. In college, I'd thought he was selfish, impulsive, and scattered--all good intentions and no follow-through. Now, he was a generous listener. Everything about him suggested a newfound discipline. He was professionally successful, financially stable, and had dozens of friends. When I mentioned the change, he credited a company called Vistar. He had watched it turn people's lives around. It had helped him identify and deal with the things that had been holding him back. He stopped smoking pot and addressed his attention deficit disorder.

A week later I went with Alex to hear a motivational speaker sponsored by Vistar. I was skeptical but intrigued. The speaker repeated an empty brand of corporatespeak I had heard before--clichés about the importance of mission and vision. And I found it odd when Alex hugged everyone there. Still, it was a relief to be around adults in business clothes again, people speaking the language of success. I hadn't realized how lost I felt, how unidentified.

My admission to the lecture included a free, one-hour coaching session the next day with Julie, a Vistar staff member. We talked about Vistar's three-course series--two weekend seminars followed by a seven-week immersion for $1,950. That night, as I did almost every night, I wrote in my journal.

"Today, I had a one-hour interview with Julie. Against my better judgment, I'm signing up for the Vistar seminar. What got me, actually, was her answer to one of the reasons I was resisting: I don't have the money now. Julie said that I was choosing to let the rest of the world decide when I would have something rather than deciding when I would have something."

Next Page »