“Try to hold onto this tissue,” the leader said.
The man took the tissue. The leader snatched it back.
“Don’t hold it. Try to hold it.” The tissue floated to the hotel conference room’s geometrically-patterned carpet. “Do you see the difference?”
The difference is clear for those wishing to change their lives and willing (and able) to pony up the money to do so. The personal empowerment seminars that surged to prominence in the 1970s are going strong, some with a twist. New Age pyramid schemes in the age of Instagram; hard-sell self-help seminars; online mediumship: These manifestations of spiritual hucksterism are commodifying the sacred in a time of unprecedented connection and despair.
On a leave from work one year, I signed up for a weekend seminar that promised to change my life. For three 12-hour days, I sat full-bladdered in the too-close chairs, hands empty, phone off; told my story of job dissatisfaction at the mic; made uncomfortable phone calls to family members and had the promised epiphany. For days afterward, I floated, colors vibrant, music brighter, my euphoria so pronounced, my partner signed up, too. I took seminars for several months, but eventually the money ran out.
Garage-sale self-improvement books had shaped my thinking as a child. The practicality and optimism of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary—only 15 minutes a day!—How to Win Friends and Influence People, and The Power of Positive Thinking appealed to me, so I knuckled down to follow their prescriptions.
Minister Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking begins, “Have faith in yourself!” and ends chapters with lists of 10 actions that “you can do now to build up your self-confidence.” The actions include much repetition of phrases and many invoke a populist faith-based edict. The repetitions amount to a form of self-hypnosis and indeed theologians and psychologists have criticized them as doing more harm than good. Peale has a dark side, however: He is also known for having befriended Richard Nixon and has been credited as a source for Donald Trump’s relentless positive spins.
Motivational seminars, in all of their earnest, feel-good glory, also make money. Some work on a pyramid model that most rewards those at the top. Under the guise of genuine spirituality, they market platitudinal or pragmatic thinking though they may inspire feelings of improved well-being. Their structures are ripe for satire. A “peak performance coach” like infomercial-peddler Tony Robbins is easy to exaggerate or render ridiculous, evoking laughter to make a comment about our need for connection outside of religion or our desire to feel a sense of control.
In her novel Radiant Shimmering Light, Sarah Selecky satirizes sacred-based businesses like Danielle LaPorte’s Lighter and Marie Forleo’s B School, systems which operate much like Selecky’s own real-life online writing school. A glamorous woman at the helm of these enterprises promises an improved lifestyle: the opportunity to associate with other attractive aspirants with the promise of successful entrepreneurship. The novel’s charismatic leader, Eleven, markets a seminar called “Express Your Enlightenment,” complete with color palette, aphoristic tagline—Want What You Want—and alliances with New Age products like “conscious” truffles infused with positive energy. It’s a heady cocktail, and one I’ve drunk a couple of times (hello Spark Kit): one that blends business with core values, psychology with the bottom line.
As far back as the 1970s, the film Semi Tough skewered EST (Erhard Seminars Training), the cult-like, quasi-religious organization that evolved into Landmark Education. In Semi Tough, Bert Convy as Friedrich Bismarck leads a disturbingly (and hilariously) realistic seminar called BEAT (Bismarck Earthwalk Action Training): calling the participants “assholes,” refusing to let them go to the bathroom, insisting that they will know “IT” when they get “IT.” The bit is laugh-out-loud funny, and not just because of the presence of a laconic Burt Reynolds in a star-printed denim suit and 10-gallon hat dozing in an aisle seat. As Bismarck says, “Believing is shit. Being is where it’s at.”
As a young adult, my taste for self-help woo-woo continued unabated. Despite my graduate-level education, I devoured everything from Celestine Prophecy to The Rules to You Can Heal Your Life. Yet I struggled to put the fuzzy concepts into practice, sitting in front of a mirror in my junior one-bedroom apartment repeating, “I love and accept myself,” staring at trees and hoping to see their energy and not accepting Saturday-night dates after Wednesday. Then a breakup that coincided with a work drought and writers’ block plunged me into a depression. Among other salves, I bought A Course in Miracles—the text, workbook, and teacher’s edition, as well as a companion guide—and made it through 30 days’ worth of daily reading and incantations, fluffing over the claim that Jesus himself had dictated these muddled teachings to a woman named Helen [Schucman]. At a low point, I attended a church basement meet-up of random people, many of whom seemed as unemployed and unhappy as me.
Author Denis Johnson took a unique approach to incorporating New Age spirituality into his work, throwing random quotes from A Course in Miracles into his novel Already Dead: A California Gothic. In his author’s note, Johnson writes, “In some passages, the dialog is sprinkled with quotes from the text of A Course in Miracles in a way that distorts their intent.” He goes on to recommend the text, workbook, and teacher’s manual to readers. Already Dead ends up the worse for these insertions, which muddy an already confusing book and send readers (if they choose) on a wild goose chase rather than into an immersive experience.
More appealing is Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, which features characters who’ve turned to a cult as a valid means of coping with the unbearable. In The Leftovers, a Rapture-like event disappears millions of random people all over the planet in a single moment. In response, a cult called The Guilty Remnant forms under the premise that those who remain didn’t make the cut in what the government has branded “The Sudden Departure.” Their business card makes their position clear: “WE STAND BEFORE YOU AS LIVING REMINDERS OF GOD’S AWESOME POWER. HIS JUDGMENT IS UPON US.” Members sell their businesses, donate the money and cut themselves off from their families. Yet there is a logic to the Guilty Remnant in the wake of such random loss on a massive scale. The group provides a template for how to respond to the unreasonable—a surrender, even.
Later in life, I sought any method I could find to remove whatever was blocking me from getting pregnant. On a naturopath’s recommendation, I ended up in a hotel conference room in Ottawa as a white-haired woman in a blue caftan led me through a garden-variety meditation down into a cave to (mentally) confront someone from my past. The visualization came through very clearly (visualizing has never been a problem for me) and the energy of the crowd was stimulating. I left ready to drop multiple thousands of dollars to take a cruise with the seminar leader (and hundreds of others) just to continue the teachings. Like many, I didn’t have enough in my bank account, so I settled for the CD, which would allow me to enter the cave on a daily basis and which I didn’t listen to once. I returned home no more or less fertile than I’d been before I left and hundreds of dollars poorer.
George Saunders takes a buoyant satirical approach to the motivational seminar that turns on a protagonist’s weak-moment humanity, often walking that fine line between the desire for the lottery-like promise of “success” and the realities of mental illness, responsibility, and family ties. In his short story “Winky” from Pastoralia, Saunders jumps into a head-on satire of self-help seminars complete with characters playacting negative emotional labels like “Whiny” and “Self Absorbed.” The leader’s patter soon reveals familial issues with a brother disabled by a drunken motorcycle accident. The leader has based the resultant book and seminar, the proceeds of which are able to fund a wheelchair ramp, on avoidance of responsibility as much as he has on helping others.
The seminar Yaniky attends in a hotel ballroom includes many trappings that induce the character to feel important. Inside he carries deep shame about his parents—their poverty and ignorance and inability to stand up for themselves. He deeply resents having his sister live with him and determines to kick her out. His self-talk—“Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz!”—parrots the hollow, unattainable promise of the seminar. More poignantly, he thinks, “If Dad could see [me] now. Walking home in a suit from a seminar at the freaking Hyatt!” The seminar’s promise of a better life and his determination to attain it are underscored by his sister’s story of potential brain damage and the heaviness of our responsibilities to each other.
That desire for a better life is not unreasonable, and motivational seminars provide a non-religious, low-commitment access to self-improvement. They also dovetail nicely with capitalist principles: You are paying for a service—in some cases, as with EST/Landmark, a semi-abusive leader—and you will see change. The catch: The change comes from you, your effort. Another truth: As with “Winky,” the leader often carries a full share of trauma.
Frank TJ Mackey’s scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia are a trenchant send-up of motivational speakers, addressing the cocktail of arrogance and vulnerability unique to a charismatic individual with a life-changing process to market. Mackey (played against type by Tom Cruise) enters to Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The backlighting, greasy, shoulder-length hair, and tight vest give Cruise the look of an erect penis about to take flight. From the flopping sound of the “Seduce and Destroy” banner dropping to Mackey’s sleazy, snake-hipped, Elvis-esque sex-mime, this parody has all the elements of a motivational seminar pushed to the extreme. Cruise sells it: His “respect the cock” is believable if laughable, and if the Youtube comments below the snippets are any example, its contents sincerely, if disturbingly, speak to some people. As with Radiant Shimmering Light and “Winky,” the satire bleeds into the real.
Ross Jeffries, known as “one of the biggest names in pickup,” purveyor of Speed Seduction, whom Anderson claims inspired the Mackey character, speaks about “manipulation” in an interview with Hayley Quinn, defining it as “the act of moving forward deliberately.” His interviewer agrees with him despite his glossing over the nuance of the word’s meaning, the aspects of unfairness and unscrupulousness. His offerings include webinars, home-study courses, and one-on-one coaching. He is using manipulation to sell the secret of manipulation and becoming wealthy in the process.
Mackey’s techniques, from his repetition to his booklets to his appeals to the hard-done-by nature of his pre-incel audience members, are Jeffries’s techniques exaggerated out to just a little beyond impossible. Like firewalker and “neuro linguistic programmer” Tony Robbins, he sports a head microphone and uses language to convince audience members to spend more money on his tapes, his CDs, his DVDs, his vitamins—whatever he tells them they need to make them attractive to women.
Serial TV show The Americans picks up on the need to connect that drives many of us to motivational seminars while resisting the urge to mock. When Russian spy and brutal killer Philip Jennings attends an EST graduate seminar on sexuality in 1983, he finds he can open up more readily in the context of Werner Erhard’s teachings. When discussing why he is there, Philip’s friend Sandra parrots Erhard: “Everyone comes here thinking they’re here for someone else but they’re here for themselves.” The props are the same—the chalkboards, the PowerPoint axioms, the microphone, the crammed-together chairs—but so is something else: participants baring their feelings in a roomful of strangers.
In her recent Netflix show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby speaks about how the reliance of comedy on the setup and the punchline is ineffective for comedians like her. Jokes depend on tension, may derive from trauma, and by their nature freeze the story at the moment of trauma. Motivational seminars promise a way forward from trauma and despair, one whose odds of success seem commensurate with how much one can afford to pay. Yet as Gadsby says, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In satire of motivational speakers, we focus on the rube, the hopeful, easily fooled desperate person willing to surrender money to make a difference or make a connection. But the story freezes there.
A bout of nausea, precursor to a migraine, signaled the end of me taking seminars. It hit me as I sat in the front row of a weekend workshop sneak-eating salted chocolate. As I was leaving, the head coach reminded me of the agreement I’d signed the first night promising to make up any time missed. I consented to complete that day at my expense, a decision which meant I’d have to go fly to another city. I chose Vancouver. To friends and family, I dressed up the reason for my trip, calling it an “opportunity,” telling them (if I told them) I was going for “a conference.” Was this how it felt to belong to a cult? Vancouver felt significant, as if not going would pass worse judgments on who I was. I’d set out to hold onto the tissue. In the process, I missed the funeral of my partner’s well-loved nephew.
Beyond a few selfies in front of rainy windows, my Vancouver photos were generic: trees, nests, totem poles, beaches. Not so much those of a tourist, but those of one from a cold-locked place admiring the soft warmth of early spring. Embarrassed, I stayed for less than 48 hours, connected with no one, worried that others would think me a zealot.
Completing every minute of the course, as I told the seminar group the following week, even half a continent away, did increase my sense of my own integrity. Yet I didn’t take any more seminars, the cost too great. Our nephew had taken his own life. My cousin had died the same way. I’d dreaded being triggered and chose to heed the rules of a self-improvement seminar instead of canceling my plans, taking the financial hit and supporting my partner. Had I really improved? This is the story I am left with.