How “School” Recruits “Students”

midvale-school for gifted This narrative describes how “school” recruited me and is a re-write of Chapter 2, How to Join a Cult. No one “joins a cult”; People join groups that speak to something in them. Once in a cult people discover that the group falsely advertised itself as something more appealing. When I “joined”, “school” had successfully implemented its five-meeting recruitment process. I’ve heard that the five meetings are now reduced to three . The overall deception and manipulation, however, remain the same.

On that note, here is the Chapter 2, How To “Join” a Cult rewrite:

Step-by-Step to Cult Membership for Lost Souls & Recruiters

You’ve always wanted to join a cult, but didn’t know how. You could visit Scientology’s local branch office, but you’d prefer something a little more “private” — the smaller, more secretive, harder to find, cottage-industry cult — like, say, a “secret esoteric mystery school”. This step-by-step guide will refine your vibrations to generate the “magnetic center” and attract the right recruiter to you.

You, on the other hand, are seeking lost souls for your secret cottage-industry cult. It’s challenging — and sometimes dangerous — but your imperative mission to awaken sleeping humanity calls! You must find and save lost souls; fellow soldiers who seek meaning and purpose; those who long to connect to something bigger then themselves; those who will join the effort to safeguard secret, society-saving, esoteric ideas; those who will surrender everything else to this higher purpose until the grave, or senility sets in … whatever happens first … at $350 a month. To learn how to instantly recognize your devotees, bait your line and hook them every time, read on!

 Step 1: Be Broken Heart-ed, Discontented and Constantly Questing:

Rain saturated Boston in spring, 2006. Every day I stepped off the train into the latest deluge. Jeff and I started dating in March. For years we practiced tai chi with the same teacher. One night we joined with classmates to hear music, after which we peeled off from the group and went to the nearest pub. His blarney entertained me and — as was typical of me — I found the storyteller attractive; the dysfunction played out in the typical way with a new twist.

At the time, I was completing final projects and preparing to graduate from a writing program. I was launching a new career — I hoped. The new relationship raised additional hopes — after a unimpressive roster of failed romances, maybe I had found the one. My life was beginning to turn around, I hoped.

But Jeff’s gifted gab starting digressing into random and disconnected thoughts. “Context, Jeff?” I would tease him. “If you want me to know what you’re talking about, context would help.”

One day, he abruptly disappeared and avoided my calls. We were through, I figured. But just as abruptly, he apologized. We were circling Walden Pond — our break up locale — he took my hand and revealed that interactions between us were playing out in his head. The storyteller had been spinning imaginary conversations — he was angry at me for things I had never said, in response to the things he had never told me.

This screaming siren should have sent me scrambling away at warp speed. Nope. With hope and a savior complex as my motivator, I gave our romance a second chance. Predictably, disappearing-act round two began, with the heartwarming addition of Jeff complaints flooding my email inbox. I wrote back: don’t email me. If you’ve something to say, call. The stream accelerated into a relentless river of pressured, cruel and accusatory messages. I blocked him, put pen to paper and wrote four sentences:

Jeff,

I need to end this. Don’t contact me.
Sam has your stuff. If you want it back, call him.

Best,

Esther

I sent the letter; the rain clouds burst. I was drenched inside and out.

Step Two: Magical Grocery-Store Encounter

Remember lost souls are everywhere. Stay awake during your day-to-day comings and goings! Let your “aim” guide your every moment. Your “Aim is your God”! While shopping at Whole Foods, ask yourself who in here is longing for “freedom”. Arm yourself with prepared questions, such as “who do you admire in history?” Strike up a conversation, develop rapport, be positive, but don’t linger! Keep it fast, friendly and upbeat; don’t give your new “friend” time to question – less is more. Say, “I have to run, but I’ve really enjoyed talking to you! We should get together sometime. Can I get your phone number?”

Uncomfortable with the hidden agenda? Remember, you are doing this poor soul-less, sleepwalking slob a favor by introducing him or her to “The Work”. Only you are “awake” enough to sense his/her “magnetic center”. Remember how “The Work improved your life!” Once upon a time, someone was awake enough and bold enough to do this favor for you.

Don’t mention the expectation of lifelong tenure at $350 month; the eternally, exponentially expanding group demands; the alienation from friends and family outside the group. In fact, don’t mention the group. You are simply making a “new friend”. Finally, for your safety, give your target recruit a pre-established answer phone — i.e. a voice mail.

Shortly before Jeff’s email onslaught, I attempted one last conversation.
“If we are going to break up, let’s at least be adult about it; let’s have a summit,” I said. “I’ll pick up some food. Come over and we’ll talk.” He agreed.

On summit night, I shopped at Whole Foods Market. Waiting in the cashier’s line, I ruminated over my failures – 40-years old, temping for $15/hour, “career” aimless and amorphous, another failed relationship, blah, blah, blah. Enveloped in self-pity, I was vaguely aware of the family behind me. A pretty, dark-haired woman, pointed to a magazine cover and said to her daughter, “What to you think of that?” Her daughter looked at the photo — a Zen garden — and rolled her eyes. Then the woman asked me, “What do you think?”

Inside me something said, “What does she want?” I dismissed that thought. “It looks awesome,” I replied, wistfully. The question felt strange, but the garden looked green and peaceful; beautiful and serene – a perfect contrast to my despair, unrest and discontent. I wanted to crawl inside the magazine cover and sit in that garden. Bing! Cult recruitment was off and running.

Lisa, a painter, and her husband, Josh, a writer like me, engaged me in conversation. We shared consternation(s) about squeezing our passions between life’s obligations. I complained about my boring and meaningless temp job. The cashier frantically rang up items over our blather, as the line extended behind us. They briefly pulled me out of my morass, so when Lisa said, “We should get together.” I said, “Great.” We exchanged information and parted ways. I drove home to be blown off by my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend.

As my relationship unraveled, Lisa left messages persistently and patiently — undeterred by my slow response. I was busy falling apart, after all. I was busy letting Jeff shred my heart. I was busy feeling old and lost and crappy. I was busy weeping with the sky.

One day I was home. The phone rang, I answered. We scheduled a “meeting”.

Step Three: Five meetings

Pursue patiently, until you set up a meeting. In the first two meetings  gathe information — is your potential recruit employed? What is his/her job? How much money does he or she make? Married or single? Does he or she have children? Does he or she long for purpose, question reality — have a “magnetic center”? For “your safety and privacy” refrain from talking about yourself as much as possible.

In meetings three and four, insert “secret” esoteric ideas into conversations; do they spark interest? If yes, tell the new recruit, you want to introduce him/her to a “friend”. Your more experienced colleague will establish whether this recruit is appropriate.  We don’t want just any old lost soul; our recruits must have “magnetic center”. They must be transitioning, or unsatisfied, vulnerable in some way. Oh and, by the way, if said recruit works for law enforcement, military, or the media, your more experienced colleague will reject them.

Lisa and I took walks, drank coffee, wandered museums and met for lunch. The magical new friendship felt like a divine intervention — orchestrated from above, right when I needed some hope. She asked me a lot of questions and listened attentively. I revealed more and more about my discontent with myself, and my life. She told me almost nothing about herself. Generally, I tend to be a listener and ask questions, so the dynamic felt uncomfortable and yet I looked forward to our visits.

One day I said, “I don’t know what it is about you, Lisa. I talk so much about myself.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” she asked. “It’s different.”

“What about you?” I asked. “How did you meet your husband?”

She shifted in her chair, and looked down. “We met in an acting class. It’s hard to explain.” She changed the subject. It struck me as odd, but I followed her lead. Five years later I would leave “school” and learn that many “schooled” couples “meet in an acting class”.

At the time, though, my need for validation overrode suspicions. Lisa had a gentle presence and a great sense of humor. We laughed a lot and discussed fascinating topics and global mysteries. I wondered about the meaninglessness of my day-to-day existence: another failed relationship; empty temp job; a persistent and unending longing to pursue my songwriting and connect that art form to a passion – grabbing for the brass ring and always missing. She appeared to understand without judgment and won my trust through her patience, kindness and ability to empathize.

“Is this all there is?” I would (stereotypically) wonder our loud. “There has to be more to life.”

At meeting 4, she popped the big question:
“How would you like to meet other, like-minded people? I get together with a group of friends on Tuesday and Thursday nights. We discuss life’s big questions and ponder ideas.”

According to Lisa, people came and went. They laughed a lot. These ideas, she said, provide guidelines on how to live, tools if  you will. Suspicion, curiosity and hope poked at me; but hope took the lead – maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally found something that can help me break out of a cycle of constant failings. My self judgment steamrolled over lovely friendships, dysfunctional but loving family, musical and artistic passions and academic degrees from the Harvard Extension School, Lesley University and Hiram College.

This pervasive self doubt, and persistent longing for things that felt unattainable, namely musical and artistic pursuits, made me the perfect target for “school” – a win for the ambitious cult recruiter.

“Sure, why not.” I replied.

She wanted to introduce me to a “friend” and then informed me of the first required deception, a.k.a. “clever insincerity”: “It is very important that you not tell anyone about this. It’s private, just for you.

The secretiveness should have been a red light. It was a red light. I disregarded it. The seductiveness of “privacy, just for me” outweighed my suspicions; besides that, I trusted her.

Step Four: Meeting Robert — “Just for Me”

At the fifth meeting, introduce the new recruit to Robert. He will make the final call.

Torrents fell in sheets and buckets, again, when I met Lisa and a slightly round, very tan, bearded man named Robert at Pete’s Coffee. I commented on the steady deluge hitting Boston that spring.

Robert replied, “It has been said that raindrops are angel’s tears, and that the angels are crying.”

Wow! I’d been raining all spring — the thought of crying with angels cinched the deal — let the magic begin! As we sipped lattes, Robert expounded on how each human — in purest form — is an “essence” visiting earth from the “starry world” – earth is not home. We journey here, he said, to learn something about an essential weakness. I heard those angel voices rise and saw sunbeams part the dark clouds of my  dirge. Finally! I’ve met others who could explain and understand my lifelong befuddlement and sense of not belonging to this world!

But Robert had moved on — he pontificated on other ideas and I kept asking him, “What do you mean?” He finally said — with a wee bit of exasperation leaking out — “Well, I’m trying to tell you.” On looking back, I see that his entire rap was an introduction and exposition on the “ideas” to come. I was unable to absorb all the new “knowledge”. He was outlining the “school” experience, should I choose to accept the mission.

At one point in this final meeting, Lisa and I shared my post-Hurricane Katrina, disaster relief adventure with Robert. In 2005, I joined with Scientologists and handed out bottled water and gallons of bleach in Mississippi. I’d shared several crazy scenarios with Lisa previously, so we were laughing about something Scientology related. Robert’s face darkened — his voice tightened as he said, “They don’t get it.” Then he stopped himself. He dismissed the conversation abruptly, as though swatting away a fly. We followed his lead.

He asked me – as had Lisa – whether I’d like to meet “like-minded people” and try out a free “five-week experiment” called “school”.

“Does it have another name?” I asked.
“No just ‘school’.” He replied with a smile.
“Where do we meet?” I asked.
“When we start a new class, we’ll let you know.” He replied.
“Is there a cost?” I asked.
“Look, if you decide to continue after the five-week experiment there’s a tuition fee. It really depends on each student,” he said.
“O.k.,” I told him. “I’ll try it. All I can say is it feels right.”
“Great. Just remember that it is critical to not to tell anyone about this. It’s private. Just for you.”

Like Jeff’s quirky and odd behavior, I brushed past the flashing red lights  — the secrecy, or “privacy” as “school” likes to call it, was screaming step away from the cult recruiters, ma’am; it was also seductive and special … “just for me.”

I didn’t tell anyone and I waited for the new class to begin – after all, what could a five-week experiment hurt?

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