One of our earliest goals at SEEK Safely was to put together a list of “Red Flags“–things to look for when consuming a self-help resource that tell you the resource may not be safe. We share these Red Flags often, because we feel that when a seeker is aware of these signs, they may be better equipped to avoid or get out of a potentially harmful situation. If Kirby had known to watch for these signs, she may have left the Spiritual Warrior retreat before the sweat lodge that killed her, or maybe she never would have signed up for it in the first place.
If you’ve looked through these Red Flags, especially the event-related ones, you may wonder what the heck we are talking about. What actually happens at these events that would lead us to list things like “Very short breaks that do not allow adequate time to get a meal, have snacks, use the restroom or properly hydrate?” Does this really happen?
Yes, it does. But we realize it sounds unbelievable. One victim of the “self-help” organization/cult M.I.T.T. who’d sued that organization after she experienced a psychotic break following her involvement with the group, expresses the point so well: “I think the fact that it sounds so absurd makes people not believe it. And that can be problematic, because if something sounds really outrageous, [people] very quickly will say, ‘Well, that wouldn’t happen to me.'”
That quote comes from an article in GQ magazine, “My Life Cleanse: One Month Inside L.A. Cult of Betterness” by writer Rosecrans Baldwin. As a newish resident of L.A., he was fascinated by the plethora of self-improvement stuff of every stripe in the city. As he describes it, “Self-help has become a habit in America, but it’s pathological in Southern California.” He decided to try out a number of different self-help tools to understand what the fascination was, which led him to M.I.T.T., a rebranded version of the 1970’s “human potential” organization Lifespring, which was blamed for a handful of participant deaths.
His article details the experience he had with M.I.T.T., which reads like a live-action version of our Red Flags. No bathroom breaks allowed, little interaction between participants and no outside contact while in the training, very limited sleep, mocking and belittling from the “trainer” (whom he hilariously gives the pseudonym, “Aunt Lydia”), the fact that neither the trainers nor the volunteer-staff members have any psychological training. It’s a fascinating, disturbing read that really demonstrates these Red Flag concepts and I highly recommend it.
He spoke with a Washington Post journalist who’d researched Lifespring and exposed many of its failings. This journalist, Marc Fisher, noted, “‘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.'” Yup.
I came across the article while reading about a reality TV star who has recently become involved with the group. Leah Messer, of Teen Mom 2 fame, has apparently completed the M.I.T.T. training recently and is now pushing the group through her social media outlets. It’s concerning, because she has 2.2 million Instagram followers and 1.4 million Twitter followers: a significant audience. It’s yet another example of how people who aren’t even looking for a self-help resource can get exposed to it, and why we all need to know the red flags to watch for so we don’t get caught up in a dangerous situation.
The final idea from the GQ article (which you should read!) I want to share is this quote:
If there’s one thing that connects many of the people I spoke to for this story, it’s that they’re searching. Searching for meaning. Searching for purpose.
And is that a bad thing? I certainly don’t think so! In fact, I (along with pretty much every philosopher ever) think this search for meaning and purpose is at the core of what makes us human. This is why our organization is called “SEEK!” What a terrible thing, to exploit that very basic virtue of our humanity.
Have you had any experiences with a group like M.I.T.T.? Do you follow anyone on social media who shares questionable self-help resources?