Tuesday, July 26, 2005

ChangeYourLife! Sdn. Bhd.

Linda’s* summons was pretty odd, garbled into the telephone on Sunday morning. She asked me to be there when she “graduated” from her course. (I had no idea that she was even on a course, but then that’s Linda – always looking for ways to improve herself.) She said that she was supposed to find someone who had made a big difference in her life – that was her final “homework”. I decided to go along because she sounded like she needed a friend – even if I didn’t get what she was on about, and yes – I suppose I was flattered at being the person she’d chosen as being particularly influential in her life. (Though I just try to teach her how to loosen up, to be bit badder, to tell the folks who make her life a misery – as they do, because she won’t assert herself - to eff off.)

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.


dz said...

dont tell me you plan to join asiaworks!!! come back sharon come back!

btw - roadie is waiting for your call.

Jordan F. MacVay said...

Interesting! *shiver*

aneeta said...

It's scary! All this manipulation going round.

mistyeiz said...

ayaiyai...!!!! reading this gives me the tingles all over. ;S

XMOCHA! said...

I have been there, same invite, same flattery method - SCARY like HELL, I ran as fast I could. And I have those Woogled stuff too.

Still running!

Duped and Demeaned said...

I happened to discover your blog just a few days ago. I first saw cooments about the group you mentioned on DZ's past website and now on yours.

I was a fool who parted with RM1,500 for the elementary training and RM2,500 for the Intermediary training. And not enough with that, I parted with another RM1,300 for the leadership programme (LP).

But LP opened my eyes. The trainer wanted us to go out and convince family and friends to join too. We were given one day. When we returned with failure, we were scolded and put down.

As a person who didn't like selling or persuading people to buy or join anything, I didn't want to do this activity. I dropped out of the programme but received no refund.

The people in my so-called team and the team leaderbegan harassing me by handphone. they accused me of not helping myself. So I stopped answering their calls or SMS.

When a close friend finished her LP, she started nagging me about joining LP too. Apparently, it worked for her. But hey, she's an insurance agent! Selling is her thing!

I stopped talking to her for many months. But even now that we have patched up, she continues to mention the LP in hopes I would do it. She even says she'll pay for it.

But I would never do it even if I was dragged to that building where the scam operates and given an entirely free, all expenses paid, transport taken care of, option.

This is because they really play with your brain. I was and still am a conservative Muslim person but during that workshop, I hugged men and let them hug me, I danced (I didn't even dance with my classmates during an event at my all-girls secondary school!), I went to a disco and danced wildly (I had never visited a disco in my life before then!), I didn't mind when some men kissed me on the cheek without my permission and I let my guard down, crying while I was labelled things like 'cow' and 'taker',not a 'giver.'

During the Intermediary workshop, my brain did start thinking and I did tell Asiaworks' founder, some guy surnamed Gentry, that he was talking psychobabble, which he denied. But I enjoyed making new friends and stayed on.

I only hope that more people will find out that this brainwashing thing is something they should never register for.

If anyone tries to persuade any of you to join, citing all sorts of benefits, then run 10km away from them!

bibliobibuli said...

Glad you all found it scary too ... i wasn't sure at the time quite what to make of it, but am glad that my friend decided not to carry on with the courses.

duped and demeaned - thanks so much for sharing your experiences - and writing about them at such length. I think it is important to talk about this ...

Namra said...

My, I am certainly surprise that there 's still cult in this time of age.

this so remind me of an episode of murder she wrote and one of those movies about going to a meetings with people wearing robes and worship a er...something weird.

speaking of cult I would like to inquire about the details about your creative writing clas, not to investigate wheter it is a cult or anything hahaha, as to how to join, the fees, the schedules that sort of details, i'll check up the comments later.

have a nice day.

bibliobibuli said...

namra - this organisation isn't a cult per se but uses techniques that cults use to pull in members and keep them committed.

My courses are filling so quickly I daren't even advertise them now! I have one starting tomorrow night at MPH Midvalley, but that one is full. I have one more mid-September also at Midvalley and that one is almost full ... I will add your name to my list and let you know of where's and whens.

Maybe I am a cult!!

dz said...

eee i was dragged to a tea session, with my friend and we ran. but first, before we could leave, they actually told us they would accompany us to the ATM to take out RM1500 for the course. hello, my pay isn't that much you know? whatever i freelance goes to the car, the apt etc! i was harrassed for 2 months! they put me down etc etc.

funny, sharon, but (we'll have a gossip at tea one day) but the people i know that are there adn have told me that i would always be a loser as a writer, they have yet to be published. not that i am being mean, but i thought, hello! materialise your dreams first before you condemn others!


Anonymous said...

mid-september?! wow I see your cul..errr..class IS certainly going very well. Now I am even more intrigued to join.

well ok then, I'll email to you my contact number later as to notify me by email isn't very practical for I tend to forget I have emails (well unintentionally I just revealed my social status there have I?)

namra said...

FYI the top comment was me. have a nice day

bibliobibuli said...

Call me lah Namra. (016-3834877) Or maybe bump into you one day soon ... Saturday got readings you know ...

dz - look forward to your tea and to share experiences about the "cult" or whatever it is ...

Anonymous said...

This Asiaworks is a brainwashing area. They pressure my GF(then was my GF) to join this Brainwash programme like they will make you somebody. This is a stupid crazy program. It is like a cult they told you not to tell anyone about the course program BUT just tell you to join. They brain wash you GILA GILA like everyone is so happy. BUT TRUST ME. I know this place aint good for anyone. This course has made my relationship worse and broke up at the end of 3 year realtionship. Worse still, my GF had gone crazy and we had quarrels over a Brain wash programme. She was pressured and when we quarrel all her so called Team Members cover her and blame me for not caring for her. Suddenly they decided out relationship future. I was really dissappointed with my GF. MY FINAL WORDS TO YOU GUYS and GALS NEVER JUST SAY TRY this programme. DONT DO IT IF YOU DONT LIKE IT. YOU WASTE YOUR TIME AND MONEY. YOU WILL ONLY THINK WHO YOU ARE IN THIS PROGRAMME BECAUSE THEY PSYCHO YOU MAXIMUM. THEY MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD AND STUFF LIKE THAT. THIS PROGRAMME IS LIKE MAKING YOU FEEL EXCELELNT LIKE DRIVING A FERRARI AND THEN YOU CANT AFFORD IT . BE REALLY WISE. THEY ARE ASKING MONEY JUST TO ENJOY SOME FAKE FANTASY. I publish this message anonymous because i dont have an account i just want to leave this message. Dont Be a Fool. This place is full of crap.

jaeb0t said...

I am very very very sad because my girlfriend whom I loved so very dear dumped me upon completing this workshop.

I feel bitter and sad.


is there any support group for victims of people who lost friends/partners/loved ones to this white collar hug club cult?
sign me up please.

bibliobibuli said...

i am so sorry for you both. i don't know of any support group, but maybe you should try to form one (on facebook maybe?).

what really bothers me is that there has been no investigative journalism about this. i thought of writing a piece, but what magazine would be prepared to take it?

Happy walker said...

thanks for sharing this..

(A Growing Teenager Diary Malaysia)