Note: Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center is a licensed residential treatment facility that provides a program of counseling and instruction to victims of cultic abuse, religious abuse and/or thought reform.
Executive Success Programs Inc. by Keith Raniere is a series of high intensity high demand work shops that are designed to "actualize human potential"1 A selection of promotional material dated 1/30/2001, entitled "Executive Success Programs. Inc, (ESP)" reads, "Our School is designed to change the way people think, make decisions, react, and perform in various [areas?] of life.......All of ESP's programs are designed to help individuals develop the emotional and intellectual skills necessary to reach their maximum potential in all areas of life. Rational Inquiry is a science based on the belief that the more consistent a person is in their thinking, the more successful the individual will be."
In the same promotional sheet, there is a paragraph entitled "Why should I so this?" - meaning why should a person take ESP? Raniere writes, "All adults have disintegrations because when we were children learning to be adults and learning about the world our perspective was based on the perception, intellect, and wisdom of a small child. These lessons become the foundation of our whole adult reality. There has never been vehicle in our society that allowed us to go through and re-examine these beliefs and re-incorporate them now from an adult perspective.....until now. Rational Inquiry is that vehicle. It is the systematic introspective science that provides us with the necessary tools for human transformation."
A key motto of ESP is "We Teach everything nobody else teaches..." and everything they do2 ESP claims that students will reach "their full potential" with the program.3 Raniere claims to have devised a "radical new technology to create an unprecedented success program. It is a total personal and professional development system."4
ESP can be further defined by looking at the 12 Point Mission Statement of ESP.5The first point is, "Success is an internal state of clear, honest knowledge of what I am - my value in the world and my responsibility for the way I react to all things." The second point is, "There are no ultimate victims, therefore, I will not choose to be a victim." The information gleaned from ESP seminars is to be kept confidential. There is a pledge to purge oneself of all parasite and envy based habits. There is a pledge to control as much of the money of the world as possible within each student's success plan. In fact, it is essential for the survival of the world for as much money of the world to be controlled by ethical people - by implication, graduates of ESP. The mission statement says, "A world of successful people will be people a better world indeed a world devoid of hunger, theft, dishonesty, envy and insecurity. People will no longer try to destroy each other steal from each other down each other or rejoice at another's demise. Success ethics and integrity are co-inspirational. I pledge to share and enroll people in ESP and its mission for myself and to help make the world a better place to live."6
In a workshop session called "Mission," the reader is further enlightened as to the purposes of ESP.
How does understanding ESP'S integrated matrix help us determine destructive patterns of human behavior and give us clues as to what is to come? We are now at the highest level of technological advancement in human history. The lifestyle current technology affords us has never existed before on the planet. Human civilization has had rises and falls for centuries; yet, it is our belief humanity cannot survive another fall. All members of the human team must understand the historic reasons behind this tendency so we can change it and survive. We believe this is the ultimate cause because it means our existence and all other causes and our existence depend on this knowledge. The Mission of ESP is to develop an integrated ethical framework of human experience to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward. This practice session explains ESP's mission and gives students a clear knowledge of how and why to act to change historic trends.7
ESP Training is offered through workshops called "Intensives."8 The term "Intensive" is fairly common in the human potential movement to describe their training courses. ESP Intensives are offered as a three day or weekend, 5-Day, or 16-Day Intensive. The 16-Day course starts at 8 am to 9 pm daily with lunch and dinner breaks and breaks. Tuition cost is $7500.00 or $6000.00 if paid two weeks in advance. Full tuition must be paid first day of class.
The 5-Day Intensive. Cost is $2700.00. Pre-registration discount is $2160.00. Full amount must be paid two weeks before class resumes. Class hours are the same as those for the 16-Day Intensive.
The 3-Day Intensive: Friday 4-10, Saturday, 8 AM to 9 PM, Sunday 9 AM to 6 PM. Tuition $1200.00. Full tuition must be paid two weeks before Intensive starts.
There is also an Ethos Training for Coaches and Coach Apprentices. This program appears to be offered beyond the 16 day intensives. There are several levels of lengths of enrollment and the cost varies according to time of enrollment from 3 to 12 months and from $800 to $1800. There is a full refund guarantee for those signing up for the one year Ethos program if students are not satisfied.
Students also are required to wear sashes which signify rank. A white sash reflects student status, stripes reflect levels of certification and practice. Yellow sashes are worn by an Apprentice Coach/Coach. Having one stripe signifies a true coach. Two or Three Stripes indicate more advanced and experienced coaches. Three stripes is an active contributor. Four stripes indicates "Full Integration facilitated." Orange Sash: Apprentice Proctor/Proctor. Coach Certification II. Orange Sash is the highest sash rank.9
ESP Intensives then lay out the mechanics of how the student is to achieve all the success promised by ESP. This process is accomplished through a series of topics presented during the "Intensive" sessions. Raniere places great emphasis on the psychological concept of projection. However, according to ESP "until now there has never been a concise explanation of how this complex process works."10 The Intensive includes the three stages of human evolution in which, according to Raniere, human beings are born parasitic, unable to take care of themselves, they depend on others for their very survival." As adults parasite strategies, "keep people dependent on others and lower self esteem."11 Many examples of parasite behavior are presented, such as complaining about pain and suffering, saying, "I'm hungry," "I know I promised but I had no idea how hard or painful this was going to be." The point here according to ESP is that parasites try to avoid responsibility simply because they tried so hard.12
The program spells out a new version of "Good and Bad." Here is a sampling from the workshop
When we were little children, we learned "bad" when someone yelled "No!" or "That's bad. Stop!" We learned "good" when we were rewarded in some way. This sort of learning is inconsistent and limiting - because in order to have a full understanding of each concept, we would have to examine every example of good and every example of bad. This practice session affords you the opportunity to re-evaluate your definitions of these vital concepts to form a solid foundation for the future.13
In the course of the program normal terms such as good and bad are redefined. Good becomes pro survival, and bad counter survival or destructive of value. Rules according to ESP are fear based and ethics are internalized.
ESP then adds the element of a motivational track where students are taught and practice certain motivational states such as "Toward" which is patterns that "focus directly on goals and objectives. When people are utilizing toward patterns, their effort and attention moves them to have, get, obtain and achieve something asa result of desire."14
Other concepts covered in the motivation section include, "Away From," patterns that "focus directly on circumstances to avoid....."; "trigger," " a stimulus response mechanism.....used to bring back the emotional state.....the motivational state at will."15
ESP makes some bold and unique claims about what it wants to accomplish and what it is. In summary the following list presents many of the salient points of the ESP program.
The first point of analysis deals with a claim that ESP will provide the tools, or training that will help people reach their maximum potential in all areas if life. What does this mean? What is maximum potential? Are There scientific measures for maximum potential? Does "all areas of life" extend to health benefits? Would those taking the training have less cancer, less heart disease? Do ESP graduates have better marriages, happier children? The point is that the use of the phrase "all areas of life" and "maximum potential" appear promising but the phrases demand defining, otherwise they are phrases without practical, concrete application.
Further, how does Raniere know? What evidence has he provided? Having hotel conference rooms filled with happy attendee is not "proof" that the program has achieved maximum potential in all areas of life. It may be proof that there are people in the room. Some may be happy to be there, some may want to leave, some may have benefitted in some areas of their lives, some may have seen decline in aspects in other areas of their lives. The point is that the area is open to empirical investigation, but there are no independent studies demonstrating that ESP can support these claims.
The second point is the claim that ESP is a science. Raniere says it is, but that does not make it so. Science must meet certain requirements. There is nothing in the published scientific literature about ESP nor has an exhaustive search of the psychological literature base shown any publications by Keith Raniere.24
The third area for analysis concerns the fact that adults have perceptual distortions, "disintegrations" developed from childhood. He too was a child and was likewise a casualty of perceptual distortions. This presents a problem for Raniere. How did he overcome these distortions? By what measure would one judge that Raniere is free of the distortions? How did Raniere know there were distortions? How does Raniere know that every child suffers from these distortions? Did he do a study of every child on earth? Such a study is clearly impossible. Therefore, how does he know this truth? Unfortunately, the workshop participant appears to have to accept these claims by faith. But this faith is a far cry from the scientific claims of ESP that Raniere asserts.
The fourth area is an extension of the third, namely, that not only do all humans have distortions or disintegrations but no one has ever developed a mechanism to examine these disintegrations and correct them. Again, the attendee must rely on Raniere's word alone. Of course, one must assume the truth of the disintegrations to then assume that Raniere has also scanned all the "vehicles in our society" to see if any one group, individual or system has re-examined the faulty beliefs or disintegrations held by the world's masses. Raniere apparently has provided no evidence that he has done such an analysis. And if he has it would be a monumental undertaking.
Number five, maintains that "There are no ultimate victims." What does this mean? How far do we take human responsibility? Is a raped woman somewhat responsible for her rape? Is a battered wife somewhat responsible for her battering? Is an employee subject to a mean, dishonest, boss somehow not a victim? Are slaves in some manner not victims? Are those hit and hopelessly crippled by a drunk driver not victims? Are those accidently paralyzed by the slip of a surgeon's knife not victims? What does Raniere have to say to this? The normal definition of victim, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, is "a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime or accident. 2. A person who is tricked or duped." Common observation teaches that there are victims. ESP appears to make victimhood seem as unnatural as sensing the brisk chill on one's cheeks on the morning of the first autumn frost.
The sixth area of analysis concerns the need to keep the ESP material confidential, and by extension invite people to attend to ESP Intensives where they pay to receive this information. Certainly, Mr. Raniere has intellectual property rights if he so desires. Most of his material has a patent pending and copyright on the bottom of the printed materials. He certainly has the right for his students not to distribute the material, copy it, or sell it. But the ESP Mission Statement says,
"The methods and information I learn in ESP are for my use only. I will not speak of them, or in any way give others knowledge of them, outside ESP. Part of the condition of being accepted into ESP is to keep all its information confidential. If I violate this I am breaking a promise and breaching my contract, but more importantly I am compromising my inner honesty and integrity."
This segment of the Mission segment appears to stretch beyond the intent of what might be covered by copyright and intellectual property rights. The confidentiality issue seems to approach a gag order. Why? What is the harm in some general discussion about your workshop. In fact, what would be the harm if you have invested so much time in these Intensives and share some general observations about them with your wife, mother, or boss? The prohibition on sharing may serve as a wedge between those who have taken the courses and those who have not. This confidentiality issue may put pressure on people to enroll loved ones just so they can talk again. Perhaps the actual answer is not as important as the question "Why? Why is it necessary?" It would seem that some of the pressure on the copyright issue would be taken off if Raniere published some tapes, wrote a few articles, or wrote a book. Then people could blab all they wanted about his book, the tapes, articles, etc. And it would answer the nagging question "Why?" But if Raniere isn't interested is selling tapes, then there may be a problem elsewhere.
Number seven is simply breathtaking, that ESP graduates need to make as much money as possible and control as much money as possible in order to save the world from destruction. A modest proposal, and a humble one as well! History has shown that the ethic of seeking wealth is a risky one at best, especially one that tells us to control as much as possible, as much of the wealth in the world! Power corrupts! Wealth also tends to corrupt. How did Raniere, a la "Vanguard," divine such truth? On face value any proposal that suggests that a group of graduates from a human potential seminar should control as much money, wealth, and resources of the world as possible in order to save the world seems to come leaping out of the pages of a James Bond novel! Here Bond is summoned by M and a file is given to him about a madman - a Keith Raniere who has trained over 400,000 followers who are now rapidly accumulating most of the world's wealth. ESP followers have plans on "controlling as much of the wealth, money and resources of the world as possible." I am sure someone of importance will look at Raniere. His claims are not benign. Either they must be taken seriously, that is he has developed a science and therefore he must come up with the corresponding proof. So far he has not. Or he is the leader of one of the largest human potential growth enterprises, devoid of scientific proof. If his claims are bogus then it is likely that he is a person with a serious mental problem and/or a con man with very grand and perhaps not so benevolent schemes.
Number eight continues with the seventh theme, "It is our belief that humanity cannot survive another fall. All members of the human team must understand the historic reasons behind this tendency so we can change it and survive. We believe this is the ultimate cause because it means our existence and all other causes and our existence depend on this knowledge. The Mission of ESP is to develop an integrated ethical framework of human experience to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward. This practice session explains ESP's mission and gives students a clear knowledge of how and why to act and to change historic trends."25
The same arguments and analysis applied to number seven applies to number eight. However, not only is ESP interested in wealth and power, the knowledge that ESP possesses is essential for the survival of humanity! What Moses and all true prophets throughout the ages of human history could not do, Raniere claims he can do. It now it appears that Raniere has developed an ethical framework "to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward." This appears nothing short of a religion, a system that has answers to the problems of life.
Some meta analysis is in order. The Mission and the other promotional material that I have cited from ESP bear two similarities to other types of groups. First, Dr. Robert J. Lifton describes a concept he calls "sacred science". ESP is portrays the characteristics of the "sacred science" in the following ways.26
First there is the "ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence." Then, there seems to be little room for questioning of basic assumptions. Raniere cleverly redefines "cult" in an attempt to deflect questions about his organization. Next there is a demand in sacred science for a "reverence for the originators of the Word." A comparison with the readings of ESP can clearly see the emphasis paid on "Tribute" and especially tribute to "vanguard." Sacred science makes the claim of airtight scientific precision, and ESP also makes the claim that it too is scientific. Here we have with ESP the idea that Raniere's moral vision can be true for all men for all times, a true sacred science that, according to Raniere, is a scientific discovery.
The similarities between ESP and a sacred science continue to the individual level. There is the promise of personal growth and success. Again, the possibility for genuine insight and inner discovery is held out to the seeker. And this experience of genuine inner transformation clouds the reality that the overarching truth of the movement is not based on some logic and science that is going to change the course of history. ESP has created a system so broad that within the system there is no thought or area that cannot be adequately covered by some principle. And that is exactly like a sacred science, "there is no thought or action which cannot be related to it."27
The teaching and practices of the workshop contain elements that correspond to the eight themes of thought reform as described by Lifton, of which the "sacred science" is just one. The materials from several Intensives were examined, including those from 1/30/2001, 12/2000, 1/2001, 2/2001, 4/2001, 5/2001, 6/2001 and 7/20001. The specific examples are individually referenced.
So far we have presented evidence showing that ESP has characteristics that are consistent with the themes of thought reform. What then are some of the consequences of those subject to thought reform programs? Lifton observed certain clinical symptoms in the subjects he studied. For example: borderline psychotic state, split identity, fear (p. 33), confusion (p. 34), feeling neglected, hostile, suspicious, critical, lonely, missing communism - yet terrible ambivalence about it (pp. 35,36), lifestyle changes (p. 39). Other symptoms include inability to distinguish the real from the unreal (p. 45), an attack on one's sense of inner identity, a confession process of expelling the old self and allowing the group to re-educate the person.(pp. 67,68). In such environments people become guilty, they feel they must change, they must confess, betray self and/or others. Then comes as sense of fear, a near total difference between the new environment and the old once known. There is then a fear of annihilation. One's only relief besides psychosis, suicide, or death is to merge with the movement and thus experience the "new birth." He then also experiences leniency, and then the student becomes a willing participant in his or her own thought reform(pp.70-73). However, the new self which was spawned by conspiracy and guilt continues to permeate the victim of thought reform (pp. 78-81).There are also great problems with trust (p. 85).
Those who express thought reform cliches may reflect an inner brittleness about their true inner conversion (p. 118). Often there is ambivalence about confession, about the horrors of the group. They may shock others and say something to the effect that things in the group were, "perfectly well," they may say little to parents and talk about it at length to old friends (p. 125). Guilt can be overwhelming and irrational - guilt about still holding good thoughts about the group, and guilt towards those who arranged their release (p. 126).
Even among apparent resisters there had been penetration into the theological structures of, for example, a priest (p. 126). Thought reform succeeded in eliciting incriminating confessions from all Westerners whom Lifton interviewed (p. 150). Resisters though suffered fear, confusion, and agitation (p. 175). Some felt shame for the perceived moral failures in cooperating with communists while under their mental sway (p. 186). Certain aspects of the movement are retained while the movement as a whole is rejected (p. 195). In time even the flaws of the remaining portion, i.e., criticism and self criticism, are rejected (p. 195).
The long term task for recovery was to regain the self overcome with guilt, in a word "the restoration of integrity"(p. 223).
As Lifton noted, for those Westerners imprisoned and subjected to thought reform programs only one or possibly two from fewer than a hundred were transformed into genuine communists (p. 237). But knowing the enduring effects of thought reform is perhaps the most essential aspect in understanding thought reform.
"Despite the years that had passed since their imprisonment, these men and women were still grappling with the powerful emotions and ideas implanted by the Chinese Communists. Most had succeeded in neutralizing them; but the implant had been compelling enough to defy easy excision. For once a man has been put through prison thought reform, he never completely casts off its picture of the world and of himself" (p. 237).
"Four years after the experience my subjects still bore marks of both fear and relief" (p. 238)
Yet undergoing such an ordeal can be "therapeutic," there are reports of becoming "emotionally strengthened," and becoming more sensitive to one's own and others' inner feelings, and "more flexible and confident in human relationships"(p. 238).
Of those in the revolutionary colleges, where there was no physical imprisonment, symptoms were also present. There were first-hand reports of some becoming psychotic, at least one third of the students were observed to show signs of "fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, vague aches and pains, upper respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms" (p. 266). Common symptoms included fear, guilt, hate, inability to maintain emotional control regarding feelings relating to communism, and nightmares (pp. 289-299).
A profound sense of "anomie with profound personal and social and social dislocation and unrelatedness" is perhaps the hallmark of all thought reform victims (p. 309).
Clearly, the thought reform experience is not benign. However, in saying this it would be erroneous to conclude all participants are harmed equally. Before leaving Lifton, it is important to note his observation made in the preface to the 1989 edition to his Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. There he commented how the advent of communism had been superseded by a "worldwide epidemic of political and religious fundamentalism.....these latter groups are often referred to as cults." Lifton went on to define cults as groups with charismatic leadership, and having patterns of thought reform as described in his book (p. vii).
In closing there is an entire body of literature about cults and psychological harm. For brevity's sake, I will list only two major references on the topic.28
1 See 12 point mission statement by Keith Raniere
2 From promotional piece entitled "We teach everything nobody else teaches... and everything they do - Executive success programs
5 12 Point Mission Statement of Keith Raniere
7 "Mission" Student notes 3/2001 p.1.
8 Promotional Material entitled "Executive Success Programs, Inc, (ESP)" dated 1/30/2001
9 See ESP materials White, Yellow, Orange Sash" Draft Copyright 2000 Executive Success programs, Inc.
10 "The Face of The Universe" Student's note #2 "Projection," 3/2001
11 "Parasite/Producer Module I -Concepts Student Notes, p.1 7/2001
13 "Good and Bad" Student Notes, p.1, 7/2001
14 "Motivation, Building Desire" Student Notes, p.1 3/2001
16 "Executive Success Programs, Inc promotional material dated 1/30/2001
20 12 Point Mission statement of Keith Raniere
23 "Mission" Student notes, p.1, 3/2001
24 Utilizing Psyclit, a computerized literature search of all psychological and psychiatric journals, nothing appeared under Keith Raniere or Executive Success Programs, Inc.
25 "Mission" Student notes, p.1, 3/2001
26 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and The Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, Chapel Hill and London, The University of North Carolina Press, 1989 edition.
28Paul R. Martin, Michael D. Langone, Arthur A. Dole, Jeffrey Wiltrout, 1992. "Post-Cult Symptoms as Measured Before and After Residential Treatment." Cultic Studies Journal, Vol.9 No. 2, pp. 219-250.
Jodi Lynn Aronoff, Jay Steven, Peter Malinoski, 2000. "Are Cultic Environments Psychologically Harmful?" Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 20, No.1, pp. 91-111.
Note: Paul Martin is the Director of Wellspring Retreat and a licensed clinical psychologist. Wellspring is a nonprofit residential treatment facility, which was founded in 1986. Located near Albany, Ohio the retreat offers care, education and counseling to the victims of cults, religious abuse, coercive persuasion and/or thought reform programs. It is a nonprofit corporation staffed by credentialed mental health professionals.