* In 1921, John Steven McGroarty, a poet who later became a congressman, wrote, “Los Angeles is the most celebrated of all incubators of new creeds, codes of ethics, philosophies—no day passes without the birth of something of this nature never heard of before.” The author Eve Babitz had her own version of this: “It’s very easy to stand L.A., which is why it’s almost inevitable that all sorts of ideas get entertained, to say nothing of lovers.”
* One word that never appeared in Aunt Lydia’s lectures at M.I.T.T. was Lifespring . Lifespring was a popular self-help program from the 1970s and ’80s, similar to groups like Landmark Forum or EST. As a large-group awareness training program (LGAT), as they were known among psychologists, Lifespring had offered a five-day “Basic” training followed by an “Advanced” class, followed by a “Leadership” program, all part of a self-help curriculum.
Marc Fisher, a journalist for The Washington Post , attended one of Lifespring’s Basic trainings in 1987. While reporting on the group, he learned that Lifespring’s executives had known for years that some trainees experienced adverse reactions. The group’s founder, John Hanley, told Fisher, “If a thousand people get benefit from the training, and one person is harmed, I’d can it.” And yet, according to Fisher’s investigation, over the years there were dozens of “casualties,” Lifespring’s name for people who left the training with severe psychological issues.
By the time the Post story went to print in October 1987, according to its reporting, about thirty-five trainees had sued Lifespring; six people had died. In one case, which Lifespring settled, a man who couldn’t swim was persuaded by his trainer to dive into a river to overcome his fear and drowned. “Lifespring denied any responsibility, saying that no one forced [him] to jump in the river,” Fisher wrote. “‘The training doesn’t cause anything,’ Hanley said then. ‘Life causes stuff.’” In another example cited by the Post , a woman had an asthma attack during a training. Trainers told her the asthma was self-induced. “When she finally left the room, she wandered into a parking lot, collapsed and died after five days in a coma.” Lifespring denied responsibility and paid the woman’s family $450,000 to settle their claim.
Thanks to Lifespring’s success, Hanley became a multimillionaire. Previous to Lifespring, he had committed a felony, Fisher learned. In 1969 Hanley and a partner were found guilty of mail fraud. In a separate case, the Wisconsin Justice Department sued Hanley and others for running a pyramid scheme, unrelated to Lifespring, which he paid to settle in 1973.
* Fast-forward to 1998. A Dutch woman named Margo Majdi, a Lifespring trainee and the owner of a beauty salon in Beverly Hills, purchased the rights to the trainings from Hanley. After a publicist told her that Lifespring had gained a bad reputation and she should consider rebranding, Majdi renamed it, coming up with M.I.T.T. “When I made it Mastery in Transformational Training, everybody thought I was crazy,” she told me later during an interview at her home. “Notice now everything is called mastery, mastermind, master this, master tribe…”
* the main purpose of M.I.T.T. seemed pretty clear to me: to make Ms. Majdi, Aunt Lydia, and whoever else a bunch of money, in a system where the biggest epiphanies were still one course away. And surely, even more faucets of cash would be opened if they persuaded us to draft our friends and family to join. Multiple people informed me that close to 100 percent of trainees were referrals—M.I.T.T. didn’t advertise—in part because students were eventually expected to recruit, or “enroll,” outsiders.
* Marc Fisher was now a senior editor at the paper. “This is the perfect time for a resurgence of interest in these kinds of programs,” he said. “We’re living in a time that’s tailor-made for an M.I.T.T., a Lifespring, or an EST. It’s a time of tremendous dislocation in people’s careers and the economies of families. It’s a time of political polarization. It’s a time of loss of community as a result of social media. It’s only natural that people are craving the connections and the meaning that these programs promise.” I asked him what stood out in his memory from thirty years ago. “The relative ease with which the guy running the program could assert control over a large room of people. And not just the willingness but the eagerness of people to be led and for someone to take authority over them.” He added, “Anytime we’re in a crisis of government, or parenting, or family structure—all those things that made this society so unsettled—for somebody to come along and tell you, ‘This is how things are going to be. This is what you need to do to fix it. And then everything’s going to be okay, or better’—that’s pretty powerful.”
* It is not difficult to find people in Los Angeles seeking transformation, and also those who would help them. Mystics, psychics, preachers. Life coaches who advertise their services on telephone poles. In the San Fernando Valley, a man known as “The O-Man,” an orgasm whisperer, was said to make women reach ecstasy dozens of times in a single session, though in the manner of a personal trainer. “I fix their posture and mobilize their joints,” he said in an online interview. “It’s pretty simple, just a twenty-to-thirty-minute massage followed by two hours of coming.”
* In On the Road , Jack Kerouac called Los Angeles “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” Around the same time, the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, Winnicott, writing in The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis , called the capacity for a human to be alone a sophisticated phenomenon. “It is closely related to emotional maturity. The basis of the capacity to be alone is the experience of being alone in the presence of someone.”