For two evenings at Impact Trainings followed by two full days, we are led through a series of games, lectures, and exercises. In between, we are encouraged to share personal epiphanies. Some exercises are uncomfortably intimate. During one, I sit across from someone, stare into his eyes, and complete sentences the trainer provides: “What I don’t want you to know about me is…” “The way you can love me is…” In another, we split into pairs and take turns lying in each other’s lap. One of us plays parent, the other child. There is a lot of nervous laughter, but in time the physical closeness begins to seem normal, even comforting. The games explore themes that are amplified in the next lecture, and the exercises that follow encourage personal exploration, which lead us to our epiphanies. People participate enthusiastically, even when it gets difficult. Periodically, there are tense moments. On the first day, a participant refuses to attend a follow up seminar and, after a brief confrontation, he is asked to leave. On the second day, a quartet of people is late getting back from a break. They are called to the front of the room. “What was more important to you than being on time?” the trainer demands. The four hang their heads. “What was more important to you than being on time?” he asks again. When they don’t answer, he mocks their behavior. He tells them this is a perfect example of why their lives have stalled. He calls their tardiness self-indulgent. Resistant. Weak. He asks them to confess other ways they are self-indulgent, resistant, and weak. They do. “You want a better job?” he asks one woman. “Tell me why you deserve it. What do you have to offer? Indulgence?” When the others sit down, they’re sobbing. The same thing happens to other people who question the training or are uncooperative. Sometimes it happens for no reason. But I assume the pain has a purpose. Early on, most epiphanies are weepy stories of failure and disappointment. But by the third day, the stories are self-congratulatory. We begin to pinpoint, in various exercises, the major stumbling blocks in our lives. In my case, it is arrogance. I sought success as a means of self-glorification, rather than serving the world and humanity. I failed to keep my commitments. So, I decide it is time to stop cutting myself slack and start, as Impact Trainings put it, “TO GO THE DISTANCE.” By then, “commitment” is a crucial concept. The trainer mocks the outside world, where promises are rarely kept. He implies that we are in on a glorious secret: We understand, as few people do, that the success we are seeking will arrive as soon as we learn how to make commitments, and then “enroll” other people. Enrollment, we learn, is key. For one thing, we can’t do everything alone. But more important, enrollment is the only true test of our commitment. That night there is a graduation ceremony. We stand while friends and family come into the room and stand in front of us. When I open my eyes, Alex, “my angel” is there. “I’m so happy for you,” he says, hugging me. The following Monday, a friend from college comes to stay with me. I try to tell him about Impact Trainings, but he won’t listen. “I’m going to call the Cult Action Network and have you deprogrammed,” he says. He calls the Better Business Bureau to ask if there are any complaint against Impact Trainings. I think he is being obnoxious. When we go out that night, my other friends won’t listen either. When I invite them to the Impact Trainings lecture, they start to choose their words carefully, the way you might talk to someone standing on the wrong side of a balcony railing. It makes me furious. “Listen, I don’t want you to run off with these Impact Trainings people,” someone says later that night. I ask him his reasons, and listen politely while he explains about jargon, recruitment, and brainwashing. Secretly, I think he is an idiot. Most people assume they would know if they were being brainwashed. They think it involves great force, or some obvious, epic struggle in which the mind slowly and grudgingly succumbs. But mind control only works when the subject cooperates. And cooperation requires that a reasonable person not know what’s happening. You have to lead her where you want, but she needs to think she’s going someplace else. In Impact Trainings, self-help is the distraction. To brainwash someone, you first have to break her. Under the guise of identifying our obstacles, we were encouraged to catalog our failings and confront fellow participants about their own. Even though the early exercises and lectures were confusing, anyone who asked for an explanation was ridiculed–told to stop thinking so hard. Doubt, we were told, came from arrogance and certainty. Arrogance and certainty had caused our failures. Instead, we were supposed to trust the process, let ourselves go, and just be. There was a certain amount of relief in the idea. According to experts who study groups like Impact Trainings, people faced with stressful, incomprehensible situations begin to defer “ego functions” like logic and reason to the nearest available authority. In other words, Impact Trainings participants quickly learn to rely on the trainer to interpret their reality. At this point, about two days in, the trainer starts to talk about responsibility. Impact Trainings’s philosophy is based on the assumption that you caused everything in your life, including the selection of your parents. The death of loved ones. Rape. Abuse. Job loss. All yours. Psychologists Janice Haakken and Richard Adams published a paper about a Impact Trainings-like seminar in Psychiatry magazine in August 1983. They found that introducing the concept of responsibility turns what had been an “infantile helplessness” among participants into an “infantile omnipotence,” that allows “grandiose fantasies of unlimited power.” In practical terms, this meant that suddenly I felt in control again. After two days of self-doubt, I believed there might be some hope for my future. It didn’t mean I agreed with the whole Impact Trainings worldview. I didn’t have to. I just had to believe enough of it to keep participating. Once we began to play along, our cooperation was rewarded with exercises that promoted intimacy and community. Presented with different situations, we were asked to “choose” how we would respond to each other. Feeling fully in control, we responded generously, which meant that exercises kept collapsing into group hugs. The more it happened, the more I wanted it to keep happening. The more it kept happening, the more central it became to my existence. That’s brainwashing. By the time I graduated from Summit, I was hooked. And I wasn’t alone. Of the 34 who went through the first seminar with me, 20 returned for the second. Of those 20, 13 returned for the third. Some who dropped off stayed in touch and finished the training later that year. Those who remained became the civilian equivalent of foxhole buddies. Increasingly under fire from our friends and family, we sought comfort and community among people who understood how we were trying to live. This informal support network included fellow seminar participants and, in increasing numbers, Impact Trainings alumni from earlier seminars. At the end of Summit, the group linked arms to rock each person in a human cradle, telling them they were “unconditionally loved and accepted.” It felt that way, too. By that time, James and I had started to spend time together outside the seminars. We met for dinner or talked on the phone for hours at a time. I was certain that the Impact Trainings seminars had laid the groundwork for a powerful and intimate relationship. I’d stopped thinking about my boyfriend, who was doing his best to keep our relationship going from half a world away. Graduation from Summit fell on my 23rd birthday. We were supposed to invite family and friends to our graduation, and I took perverse pleasure in extending invitations to people I knew would never come. A few days later, one of those friends came over to use my computer. While he worked at my desk, I lay on the bed behind him and called each person from Summit. I had long, personal conversations, and before I hung up would always say, “I love you.” I remember watching my friend’s back. He didn’t turn around once. He never said a thing. When he finished his paper, he said good night and left. I figure that was the day my friends wrote me off for good. On October 29, I wrote in my journal: “I know I am loved—deeply, and for the rest of my life—by all of these people in my Impact Tranings family, and by James…I am willing to devote my life to that love.” At that point I was halfway through Level III: Lift Off. A multi-week program, Level III was advertised as an opportunity to practice the Impact Trainings model of success in a group setting. It would teach participants to stretch the limits of what we believed to be achievable. After all, the only thing holding us back was the lies we told to keep ourselves small. Level III was structured around a group challenge and a series of personal goals. Individually, we each wrote a “Letter of Intention” or “LOI,” setting multiple, measurable objectives in seven areas of our lives. Under “Work,” I committed to finding a job. Under “Health,” I dedicated myself to running twice a week, giving up dairy products, and eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. My LOI contained 22 goals in all. Almost parenthetically, we were asked to commit to enrolling at least one person in one of several upcoming Impact Trainings “Quest” seminars. After all, our success in enrollment would be the best indication of whether or not we “WERE GOING THE DISTANCE”. I committed to enrolling one person. Some people committed to as many as four. It was a frenzied time. There were daily coaching calls with Impact Trainings graduates called “angels,” who were not unlike camp counselors. There were daily calls with an assigned “buddy.” There were weekend meetings to gauge our progress. Weekdays, there were other various meetings. We were expected to demonstrate total commitment, “GO THE DISTANCE”. Other Impact Trainings participants reported that friends had accused them of participating in a cult. We rolled our eyes. People in on the outside clearly didn’t get it. They just don’t understand. I don’t know how those with full-time jobs and families managed it. On a good night, I got four hours of sleep. Awake, I tried to make the rest of the world work like Impact Trainings, tried to generate the same love and connection. I was “challenged” to give various gifts to public servants as a way to recognize there service to the community. Walking down the street, I said hello to everyone. I made friends with the homeless men who rode my bus. I sat with them in the back and laughed. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t afford to stop. Tiredness was a lie, something I had to push through. Rather than withdraw from the group, I turned to it for coaching and support. When people did withdraw, missing a meeting or a phone conference, we bombarded them with calls or went looking for them. After all, we had promised to hold each other to greatness, “TO GO THE DISTANCE”. As the weeks ticked by, we grew frantic. We worked harder, slept less. Our seniors Impact Trainings alumni kept focusing on enrolling new members, and so we did too. We called people at midnight or at work. We approached strangers on the street. We offered to pay their fees if they would just give Impact Trainings a chance. Between this recruiting and other Impact meetings, there was little time left for our personal goals–so we started to cheat. My buddy had committed to hiring a salesperson for her graphic-design business, and I had committed to finding a job. She hired me and we each crossed a goal off our list. Finally, the seven weeks were up. We had got 53 new people to enroll in Impact Trainings. Meanwhile, I broke up with my boyfriend in early October and James (my Impact Trainings love) and I started dating (starting a relationship was one of the goals on his LOI). One week later we were engaged. When I called my best friend to tell her, she hung up on me. After graduation from Summit, my social life revolved around Impact Trainings. The sense of community was staggering. When someone moved, dozens of people would help carry furniture. When you needed something, 50 people who would instantly drop whatever they were doing, whether you needed a shoulder to cry on, a ride, a meal, or help paying your property taxes. Everyone in Impact Trainings believed in you. They showed up when they said they would. They delivered what they promised. Every week there were events packed with people who were thrilled to see you. There was nothing like it in the outside world. Then again, in the outside world, my life was falling apart. I had an internship and some part-time work, but I was spending too much time working for Impact Trainings to look for a job. I didn’t have a car, health insurance, or money for food. The worse it got, the harder I worked the Impact Trainings formula, which promised: Once you get enrollment, you get everything else. Desperate to master enrollment, I joined the Impact Trainings sales team. But despite endless hours of phone calls, heart-to-heart talks with anyone I could corral, I failed. I never enrolled a soul. After a while, I became unhinged. I cried myself to sleep. I cried walking down the street. When I ran into old friends, I accused them of jumping to conclusions about Impact Trainings. I told them my life was better than ever. I was beginning to doubt it myself, but what else could I say? If I told the truth, to myself or anyone else, I would never enroll anyone in the courses and my life would never work. Things finally came to a head when I applied to be a senior for Lift Off. It was June, seven months after my own Summit graduation. And I was chosen, with one caveat: I had to enroll someone first. I spent two weeks trying. During the last two days I worked out of a friends basement, cold-calling people from stacks of cards collected at various recruitment events. In between calls, I would set down the phone and weep. Just hours before the Lift Off kickoff, someone finally agreed to take the course and I copied down his credit-card number over the phone. The following weeks brought a series of confrontations. The small group I was coaching wasn’t enrolling anyone, and I was held responsible. One evening I was summoned to an emergency meeting, where two staff members cataloged my failings in excruciating detail. I cried. I promised to try harder. A week later, there was another emergency meeting because I’d told someone I wanted to quit. I was attacked again. I promised again to stay and try harder. A week later, two of my three fellow staff members skipped a meeting. One of those absent was a friend, who ran Lift Off. Midway through the meeting, she called to lecture the participants about their lack of commitment. There was no speakerphone in the room, so she delivered her tirade, piece by piece, to the guy who answered the phone. Piece by piece, he delivered it to the rest of us. It was absurd. Still, I wasn’t planning to quit that day. I was just tired. There was a staff meeting scheduled for 8:00 p.m., and that afternoon, I took a nap. While I was asleep, a storm knocked out the power. It took out the alarm and the cordless phone. Messages piled up in my voicemail. I slept until the next morning. The next day, in an ugly, curt telephone call, I was removed from my position. I was both elated and mortified. Mostly, I was relieved. I figured I would take a break and then throw myself back into Impact Trainings. I would try even harder. After all, that’s what a lot of people did. Is it really possible “TO GO THE DISTANCE”? My deprogramming happened by accident. A week after I lost my position as a Lift Off senior, I was in Barnes & Noble when the word cult caught my eye. When I picked up a book called Cults in Our Midst, I felt triumphantly traitorous, until I came to a detailed description of Impact Trainging’s “Quest”. I put the book back and fled. Later that same night, I went to a different bookstore. Another cult book. Another description of Impact Trainging’s “Quest”. I visited several more bookstores in the next month. It was awhile before I could bring myself to believe it, much less buy it. After I had read the books, I told James (my Impact Trainings love) that we had been conned. It took him some time to come around. We talked about it for months. We planned a lawsuit. We planned to blow the whistle. In the end, these plans went nowhere. One reason people stay in cults even when the experience is deeply painful is that it can be far more psychologically painful to admit to being unreasonable and wrong. For me, throwing off mind control was a matter of education and time. I learned that what keeps people in difficult and painful situations is an unwillingness to admit that they might have made poor choices. Before long I applied the same logic to my marriage. James and I were married in July 1998. Shortly thereafter, he started drinking heavily. We fought about it for a year, and then I left. Eventually we agreed that without Impact Trainings, we never would have married. During my marriage and afterward, I had nightmares in which I would suddenly find myself in an Impact Trainings training room. I would know what was coming, and I would know there was nothing I could do. I felt a similar dread each time I spotted Impact Trainings people around town. I didn’t feel safe until I moved out of state. .
This complaint and/or review was posted on HolySmoke.org on 22:46 pm, January 05, 2018 (CST) and is a permanent record located at: https://www.holysmoke.org/scam/impact-trainings-bluffdale-utah-review/.
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