So I drive out to Jingbang Jaya, find the building after getting lost and found again. The ChangeYourLife! office looks like any other corporate building. In the lobby and outside the glass doors some folks are milling round: presumably these were others who have been invited for the graduation. Though wasn’t “graduation” too grand a term for it? Linda said on the phone that she’s been on this course for just five days: three evenings and now this weekend.
More and more people, and I see that everyone is buying gifts: flowers, cards, stupid stuffed toys, mugs with motivational messages on them. Isn’t this a little … overblown, I think. Still, I toy with the idea of buying Linda a rose, because every woman deserves flowers … until I discover that I’m supposed to shell out RM10 (US$5) for it. It's better perhaps to nick a few red flowers off the ixora hedge that borders the road.
I pick up a newsletter to find out what kind of training this company runs. I read about “Meaningful Moments”; a day of charity events; an article by a couple of previous graduates (pictured in their Malay wedding finery) about how the course helped them to find their soul mate and realise their full potential; an article about how saying sorry is really a cop-out; another article on leadership. Nothing about what the courses contain. A course schedule on the back is written in a code that obviously isn’t intended to be deciphered by the uninitiated.
The crowd gathers. I meet up with an ex-student of mine, and her whole family. Her brother is “graduating”.
Finally, the door of the auditorium open and the crowd is ushered inside bearing their bouquets and teddy bears: the scene reminds me of hospital visiting time. We’re told to be silent as we file in. Shhhhhh, young men in turquoise t-shirts hiss at us. This makes me want to talk even more. But hey, this is for my friend so I’d better play the game. Whatever the game is.
The room is in semi-darkness. There’s soothing music being played in the background. All the course participants – all 170 of them as I learn later, are lined up along the walls and down the centre of the room, hands linked to the person next to them in a huge chain, eyes firmly closed. We are apparently supposed to locate our person and then stand silently in front of them. The crowd shuffles around the room and I follow in their wake, feeling incredibly claustrophobic.
Eventually I find Linda and stand in front of her as I’m supposed to do. There’s a man talking very softly into a microphone in the corner of the room over the strains of I Am the Wind Beneath Your Wings. (Oh god, I think I’m going to collapse with the corniness of it all.) The speaker is from Ohio, specially flown in to conduct the course. He’s reminding the participants of some of the things they covered on the course, a final reminder before they are launched back into the world.
Then they are allowed to open their eyes. And suddenly all the participants are bursting into tears and hugging each other and their loved ones. Linda hugs me very tightly. It’s as if we haven’t seen each other for years. She hands me a thank you card telling me that she’s so grateful for my friendship over the years. Then she bounces off to hug a whole lot more people, her course mates apparently, and I lose her for a minute. She hugs a Sikh guy. What is this? I’ve never seen Linda hug anyone before. She’s normally so scared of men (forty-something virgin). She’s weeping and this is the first time I've seen her in tears.
Everyone it seems is weeping and hugging and hugging and weeping, what is this?
We leave the hall. It takes a long time with even more hugging on the way out. She introduces me to Pastor Pete, and gives him a hug too. He introduced her to the course. She invites him along to go to dinner at Restoran Four Season with us.
Soon the pair of them are preaching the gospel of the ChangeyourLife! course. Over a meal of very indifferent Chinese food, I try to get out of Linda what she learned on her course. But it seems she isn’t allowed to tell me. All participants are sworn to total secrecy about the contents of the course and the training methods. I can tell Linda and Pastor Pete are dying to compare notes, but I’m there so all they can do is make cryptic references.
Which bit of the course did you find most powerful? he asks Linda. I remember I cried my eyes out during the Sunday morning session. Did that move you too?
Linda looks a little lost. She can’t remember what they did this morning. She doesn’t remember crying this morning, but she did cry on Thursday night, she says. It’s his turn to wrinkle his brow. He can’t recall what exercise they did on Thursday night when he did the course.
They talk about the exhaustion. How little sleep you get on the course. How it’s so emotionally draining because you are sharing your innermost thoughts and secrets the whole time. Then he and Linda are waxing lyrical about how the course can make such a profound difference to their lives.
Just imagine, Linda says, there were such young people on the course, some of them still at university, some of them sponsored by their companies. They are getting the benefit of this training so early on in life and haven’t had to wait half their life before they discover it, she says enviously.
The Pastor is a slight, skinny guy, who looks as if a slight breeze might blow him over. A propos of nothing it seems, he talks about his life. He tells us how his parents drummed into him that he’d be a failure in life, about how he ran away from home and made an attempt on his life, how his friends laughed at him and said he wasn’t even able to kill himself properly. He always suffered from poor self esteem before he went on the course, he says. (Hey, I thought it was supposed to be Jesus who saved, and all that? But Jesus doesn’t get a look in apart from a quick grace over the very dry lemon chicken in a gloopy catering pack sauce before we lift our chopsticks.)
The Linda takes up the chorus and reveals all the secrets of her unhappy life (over the prawns in sticky black sauce). Stuff it’s taken me years to prise out of her offered over the dinner table with the mixed vegetables.
Pastor Pete has completed his Elementary Training and his Further Training and is now going on to attend the Leadership Programme. He tells Linda how incredible the Further course is. She has to wait before the school holiday now before she can take it. They talk about the course fees and suddenly I’m doing my sums and realise that whoever is responsible for these course, which run more or less back-to-back is raking in hundreds of thousands of ringgit every week, and millions each year. Subtract costs and overheads. But there’s need for advertising – it become clear to me why I’ve been invited today – the “graduates” are supposed to pull in their friends and family to do the course. It’s like pyramid selling!
Pastor Pete was sponsored by ChangeYourLife! he tells me, as he ladles more of the taufu in curry sauce onto my plate. He says this is one of the ways they give to charity. Never mind that through him the organisation have access to all his parishioners.
It’s wonderful you’ll see, Linda tells me over the desert of sweet taufu soup with gingko nuts. I’m going to bring you along on Thursday night, she says, so you can see what it’s all about. It’s a special guest night. I hope you’ll sign up. This will change your life.
The warning bells begin to ring in my ears. Is Linda on a hard sell? This is something else I’ve never seen her do before.
When I get home I consult the all-wise oracle, in the corner of my back bedroom. I type ChangeYourLife! into Woogle. There’s plenty to read. I’m taken to websites calling it a cult, warning of its dangers.
The courses ChangeYourLife! runs are apparently examples of Large Group Awareness Training, something that used to be quite a phenomenon in the United States, and this organisation, after a spate of lawsuits against it has now shifted its operations to Asia.
Let me quote from one of the articles:
All these LGAT programs apparently fit the same pattern. They tear people down within a controlled confrontational seminar setting, and then build them up, according to their programme model. Their methods have been compared to a type of “brainwashing.”
First, groups like ChangeYour Life! gain virtually total control of a participant’s environment. Then they may use various methods to induce a kind of Trance State, which may achieved through long periods of staring into your assigned “buddy’s” eyes or some other practice. Then they hammer away in confrontational exercises until you eventually “get it”. Whatever that is.”
All this sounds pretty sinister, and it leaves me with a dilemma. Do I warn Linda about all this and play the killjoy? Do I let her continue to waste her money and find her self inducted further and further into what looks like some kind of cult? Do I go along with her on Thursday to keep her happy and to satisfy my curiosity a bit further? One part of me also thinks, is it so bad if she goes around hugging strange men? She might even find a soul mate. If she finds a little joy in her life, should I be the one to burst her bubble?
I have sleepless nights, believe me. But tell her I do, presenting her with the sheaf of papers I've printed out. She takes it all surprisingly calmly.
She tells me that she went for a follow-up interview that day and to submit her final written assignment which was an account of how she'd benefitted from the course.
The man who interviewed me, she said, read my work and then he just screwed up the piece of paper and threw it in the bin. He told me that I was a total loser in life and would continue to be a total loser unless I took the Further course.
She smiles bravely. I wasn't prepared to be humiliated like that, she says, and I just walked away. I'm glad that you told me all this because now I don't have any regrets at all.
*Names and a few other details have been changed.