Is this a cult? If so, how do I tell my friend?
February 9, 2016 5:17 PM   Subscribe

My friend just got back from one of these $6000 spirituality retreats, and frankly she sounds very different.

I'm definitely hearing weird insidery lingo being used in her speech, and combining that with the $6000 price of the retreat (before travel), I'm frankly worried. I don't think anything dangerous is going on, but it at least seems like a con, grift, flimflam etc. This is a non-trivial amount of money for her.

Has anyone heard of this Karen Rodger before? Been to one of these retreats? Is this worth the money?

I'm pretty sure I'm gonna talk to this friend about it either way, so any advice on that front would be helpful too...
posted by butterstick to Human Relations (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
what are you hoping to achieve in your talk? it's a bit late to persuade her not to go. are you going to try convince her she wasted her money? i am not sure that's going to be terribly productive. so perhaps start by deciding what message you really want to get across.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:29 PM on February 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

The website for that retreat is filled with testimonials from women writing about how they were "radically transformed" by the experience. If your friend now sounds "very different" then it seems she got exactly what she wanted when she signed up.

You are, more generally, asking if faith is a con. If your friend got what she paid for, it was not a con, even if what she paid for is of no value to you.

Barring more data, I would give it a few months to wear off. Like, people who are new to AA are typically all about AA; their thinking, language and relationships all change relative to AA. Given more time to integrate what they find valuable about AA into their identities and lives, they typically chill out.

Having said that, of the many testimonials there is just one that stood out with big red flags:

How does one truly thank someone for helping them remember who they are and what they are here to do? The answer is love; simply to spread the light and love that is manifested so beautifully as this wonderfully full woman known to all of us as Kate Rodger.

That is very culty language. When you talk to your friend, I would listen, gently question from a position of curiosity, and challenge in no way at all. Just get some data.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:38 PM on February 9, 2016 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Right, I kinda chalked it up to the "zealotry of the recently converted", so I was just gonna let it wear off.

I did actually try to get more data. Apparently they have conference calls every week, so I asked if I could sit in to see what it is she gets out of it. She told me that she had a great opportunity for me but I had to "be committed to this path" before I could attend. It kinda tripped some red flags for me, especially when combined with all the jargon she picked up over the weekend.
posted by butterstick at 5:53 PM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

If she's not the sort of person for whom this kind of thing raises all kinds of red flags already, you're not going to be able to call her attention to it now.
posted by The World Famous at 6:27 PM on February 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A red flag here is that a 5-day retreat for a spiritual retreat cost her $6000.

Lots of different religious organizations have retreats. Just to give you an idea:

This six-day retreat costs $390 to $650. (They have a sliding scale so that people with less money can afford to go.)
These ten-day courses are run entirely on donations.
This 5-day Jesuit retreat is $525, plus $35 for massage.
This religious center charges $500/month for a two-month residency.

So, faith does not necessarily have to involve exorbitant amounts of money. Maybe you can mention other spiritual opportunities to her that match her inclinations. This may get across that $1200/day is not the norm. And if she does not already have exposure to more open and standard spiritual organizations, perhaps she needs that to know what is available to her.
posted by ignignokt at 6:28 PM on February 9, 2016 [18 favorites]

I could not find anything on Kate Rodger, but on one partner site, she states that she spent 12 years under one Dr. Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith of the Agape International Spiritual Center. A little googling shows that he is associated with the movie/book The Secret. As far as I'm concerned, that's a big ol' red flag.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:30 PM on February 9, 2016 [12 favorites]

A red flag here is that a 5-day retreat for a spiritual retreat cost her $6000.

From looking at the website, it seems that that price is for 4 different sessions of five days each, including food and lodging, with conference calls in-between. Still not cheap by any stretch, though.
posted by bearette at 6:39 PM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I read some of their site and some of the sites of people who tout in their CVs that they are Modern Day Priestesses via The Institute of Modern Wisdom and I agree with you that there is an over-abundance of woo and a heck of a lot of words strung together than essentially don't seem to mean much, so I understand your concern. The $6000 is for a year long program, so she has 3 other weekends to pay travel to and get further immersed in this world. They also are vague about further costs that got my radar up: paying to be interviewed by the reverend Kate, paying for another session with the reverend, paying for assigned readings, etc. And what's with the random Capitalization of words? The testimonials sound like those people need to be deprogrammed. Caveat: I'm cynical when people start rambling about Reiki, the Angelic Realm and Animal and Plant Spirit Medicines, especially when so much money is changing hands.

She is an adult and can do what she wants with her time and money, but it is a bit concerning, not because I think it's a cult, but because I wonder if this becomes an ongoing drain on her finances. There is a second year offered, a training program to be a yoga teacher, etc. If you question the program you may lose a friend, but you may have lost her already if she dives deeply into this. So I would talk to her.
posted by cecic at 6:41 PM on February 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would say that's roughly equivalent to the cost of Yoga teacher trainings in the US,when you factor in that it includes food and lodging.
posted by bearette at 6:42 PM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you were told it was $600 would you consider it worth it or see red flags? To me, this is a bunch of hooey, but if a friend wanted to spend their hard earned money on it and seemed to be happy about it afterwards, I would let it be. If, after some time (months?) this was still a part of her life, I would then decide if I wanted to remain friends. Likely, I would, but with the understanding that this is an important part of their life and I needed to respect that just as my friends need to respect my annual goal of seeing or hearing all or part of every NY Yankee game played that year.
posted by AugustWest at 6:49 PM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Many years ago I rented a room from someone who joined a cult. Here are some of the red flags I observed:

- increasingly repeated participation in very expensive retreats
- some kind of way for her to get to new levels/gain new karma etc. It was not very formal but repeated weekends did seem to increase the status of the attendees and make them feel more like insiders
- repeated attempts to get me interested in these weekends
- repeated assertions that I was missing out on something really cool

If this really is a cult your friend may already have been primed with comebacks for any inquiries from you regarding her activities. In fact suspicion on your part will only increase her trust in the retreat and the people who run it.

I think in the end my landlady sold the house (which her mum had purchased for her) to pay for more weekends.
posted by carter at 6:59 PM on February 9, 2016 [21 favorites]

I think the best you can do with this kind of situation is to ask questions, deflect, and be a total brick wall if your friend attempts to recruit you. If you see her spending a lot of money or giving away her worldly possessions or beginning to isolate, you can tell her you are noticing all those things and are worried for her, and then prepare yourself for her to make some really dumb choices that will have consequences.

Some people are drawn to cults or weird groups that do cultish type shit, and there is very little you can do but remain rational, dubious and unemotionally, pleasantly distant while they hopefully rebound from their own mistakes.

PS - one longtime friend who really has little more than her dog and the clothes on her back sometimes finds a way to do things like give $1000 to a psychic to take the curse off her fifteen year old piece of crap car that makes it keep breaking down. It's in her nature. No one can do a thing.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:22 PM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, this is a cult. People who are drawn to cults probably are already extremists and have a lot of internal struggles to deal with. It's kind of like drugs. Be supportive, in general, of your friend. Do not engage in talk of this cult. If she decides to let go of cult, be there. She probably needed therapy before this and is self medicating with the cult to some extent. If she mentions *struggles*, you could mention therapy.
posted by Kalmya at 8:25 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you'll forgive a (very brief) YouTube link -- "I've been involved in a number of cults, both as a leader and a follower. You have more fun as a follower. But make more money as a leader."

That was the first thing I thought of -- that the "value" of garbage like that is in the chance that you too could rake it in by having...well, yes, it's a cult. But it almost looks more like a feel-good nonsense cult than anything else, more comparable to MLM crazies than Moonies. Spend $6k, rinse and repeat a few times; eventually you too can run "retreats" for $6k, etc.

Of course it's a scam! Even cursory Googling (see computech_apolloniajames's comment) brings up how stupid it is, and how many people are making money off of ripping off people like your friend because some people are cruel and some people are gullible.

If there were easy answers for how to fix that we would've found out long ago, though. The other YouTube link that comes to mind: Gene Wilder trying to explain morons. There's not much to do other than to thin out the relationship, if not entirely sever ties. You can explain why, but I wouldn't expect much to come of it (perhaps in a decade; they will track you down and thank you, but it will take somewhere around that long for "this is rubbish and you are being conned" to be a thing they appreciate).

OTOH. It looks like the entire run of Roberta Gregory's excellent Bitchy Bitch comics are now in an anthology which is $3.75 used. Bitchy's boss Sylvia goes on a lot of similar-ish 'retreats.' They don't always work out well. You see her spending money on crystals and teas, going to the retreats...periodically screaming while alone in her car, her husband cheating on her while she's at the retreats; etc, it's a small sub-plot, but it's very nicely done. Sylvia's a nice person, it's not patronizing -- but her 'higher power' doesn't do anything, despite all the money thrown at it. Bitchy Bitch is appropriately dubious. I'd just gift it with a casual 'I enjoyed this and thought you might too -- yours, butterstick,' and say no more.
posted by kmennie at 8:30 PM on February 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

My experience doesn't reflect on Karen Rodger events, but you might need to accept that your friend's life was changed.

About twenty five years ago I went on a long weekend thing, could be called a "retreat" but wasn't labeled as such, which cost a similar amount in adjusted dollars, and it did truly change my life greatly for the better. After the weekend I felt different, spoke differently, even stood differently, and think I've been a better person ever since. The weekend also transformed the lives of other people what were there with me. So as an anecdotal point, good change can happen from an exorbitantly expensive "retreat"
posted by anadem at 9:10 PM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Cult" is a pretty controversial term. Here are some questions that may be less loaded and more helpful: is anything about this program coercive or abusive? Are the leaders misleading about the amount of money required? Do they solicit more and more money as time goes on? Has your friend been encouraged to cut off contact with anyone in her life? Does her involvement with it seem to be making her nervous or unhappy? Do you feel that she's in danger?

If none of this is the case: would you be this concerned if she spent the equivalent on a cruise or a car?
posted by thetortoise at 10:23 PM on February 9, 2016 [14 favorites]

I don't think this is necessarily healthy or normal behavior, but I think as long as it is not something that is like Scientology or Jonestown where she is expected to cut off contact from her friends and family, face abuse or engage in unsafe/illegal activities, it will be difficult to try to force her to see that this is just a load of baloney. It does sound like this could be a financial drain on her, but she was willing to pay $6,000 before she had even joined this group, right? That would tell me the problem is with your friend and not necessarily this group itself. If your friend believes she is really experiencing a life-changing benefit, it's going to be hard to convince her otherwise, even if $6,000 is very steep. I would question why enlightenment is only available to those who can drop six Gs, but I'm sure they have an answer for that. This strikes me as more of a scam than a cult per se, and I would just raise concerns, but then quietly keep an eye on things.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:40 PM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would say that this has many of the earmarks of a cult, and that while your friend is immersed in it, there is little you can do or say to dissuade her. She has been "programmed to believe" and will not hear you. It depends on how good a friend she was before getting involved in this whether the friendship will survive if you do not join her in the cult. She is already trying to recruit you.

O.P. said:" She told me that she had a great opportunity for me but I had to "be committed to this path" before I could attend. It kinda tripped some red flags for me, especially when combined with all the jargon she picked up over the weekend."

I was casual friends with some people who got involved in EST when that was big, and eventually I had to drop them as friends because I could not take the jargon, the talking in circles, and the constant attempts at recruitment. "It changed my life"...well, you can't really say much about that and if she is close friend, try to ride it out. But when it becomes "it will change YOUR life" and a "great opportunity for you", if saying firmly you are not interested does not shut that down, it is time to reconsider the friendship and maybe run. Cults of this sort consume the person's life and time and eventually become their entire social circle. Be prepared that she may cut you off eventually if you do not join, even if you want to stay friends with her.
posted by mermayd at 2:54 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think your reaction is over the top. I am used to all sorts of flowery language so constant mentions of love and things being magical don't scare me. The whole 'Karen is wonderful' thing might be odd but if it's only one person saying it, it doesn't sound like it's an affirmation that's being drilled into everyone. Some people fawn over the message, others the messenger. That's in every group. There's always one person who brings the teacher an apple.

It sounds as if she had a spiritual awakening that's important to her ('finding herself' etc) and she's going to learn how to dance in a circle and heal people with glitter. What should she be spending $6000 on? Cars? Clothes? Which cult is 'okay'? I'd be more concerned about the guy in that circle who wants to be a priestess.

"Committed to the path" basically means 'make sure you want to do this or else you're not going to get anything out of it and you'll waste everyone's time'. If she's hanging around 19 committed people and she's cynical about everything ('THAT's not what unicorns look like', 'For God's sake - another Kaftan?', 'How many Kumbayas has it been today?!''This wand SUCKS') then it won't be a pleasant experience for anyone.

I am surprised she told you though. This is the sort of shit people keep quiet about. I'm guessing this has always been a secret part of her. Maybe step 1 of the program is: Share your journey with the most cynical person you know.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:44 AM on February 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

$6000 for four 5-day retreats including room and board is a somewhat different equation than $6000 for one. (It comes out to about $300 a day, which is in 'decent hotel room + meals' plus what would be considered reasonable workshop / training fees for a lot of people. Still a lot of money, especially if it's money she really can't spare, but the same magnitude as a lot of vacations, you know?)

On the not letting you listen in on the conference calls - that's actually a pretty common restriction even in reasonable groups. Think about it this way: the other people who are on the call may be sharing personal things. It's fair and reasonable for everyone involved to know who they're sharing with - the people they are doing this training with, not those people plus a random friend or spouse or someone else.

For talking to her, your best choice might be asking her some questions about not what they do, but instead, what it means for your friend: what changes she's looking at making, how she feels about them. Touch on whether the group is making that easier or harder, but if you can provide a 'and how does this connect to the other stuff you care about?' filter, that might help.

The other thing is that fairly often when people do this kind of distance training experience, they feel like they're missing something they can't get locally. Nudging at that a little and/or passing on comments about opportunities for connection, community building, supportive conversations, etc. in your own area might provide a bit of balance and some better long-term resources for your friend.

(Also useful because the intensity of the connection of weekly conference calls / regular gatherings can leave people feeling lost when the initial year or whatever ends.)
posted by modernhypatia at 8:30 AM on February 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Every year my husband and I spend about 1/3 of that to spend a weekend at the top of a mountain with 100 other people, taking classes and hearing speakers, eating communal meals, recharging our creative batteries, performing rituals*, and then we come home fired up** and telling people what a great time we had, and indeed I would tell you that you might get a great deal out of it yourself, if you're willing to commit to the path, which is to say: really into comedy podcasts.

* s'mores
** we moved halfway across the country pretty much as a direct result of our participation in this retreat, and my husband changed careers

We can't afford the weeklong comedy/music/writing cruises, but those are even more expensive and spoken of very fondly. I know people who send their kids to summer camp, and people who go to Worldcon no matter where it is, and people who've gotten into Clarion and taken six weeks' leave of absence from work plus paid tuition and board to do it. None of those are cults.

My point being that people get super-into their transformative experiences without it actually being a cult. For $6000 I would expect at least a weekly conference call, and I would be unsurprised if they don't upsell additional services, because that's the way this particular revenue stream works. You'll find lots and lots of "get rich blogging" and "somehow having a Pinterest can replace having a job" and "dominate with your Scrapbook prowess" and "this isn't exactly a religion but it makes you better in some vaguely-defined way" businesses operate in a similar fashion.

Is it a con? Not exactly, people are getting something out of it and generally aren't specifically hobbled from stopping whenever they want. And sometimes it absolutely does give someone the push they need to go for that promotion or get out of that relationship or believe they can go back to school or whatever. Is it a little bit predatory? Sure, but lots of things in life are, including almost everything we do to entertain ourselves in between working and sleeping.

If you think she's under pressure to cut her family off, or divert her paycheck direct deposit to them, or is just compulsively spending too much money on their products/services, you can be worried then. But until that point, she's just really enthusiastic about a new hobby that you find irritating.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:54 AM on February 10, 2016 [10 favorites]

"Committed to the path" basically means 'make sure you want to do this or else you're not going to get anything out of it and you'll waste everyone's time'.

Mmmm, I respectfully disagree. I think "committed to the path" is jargon for "you will pony up your money." Committment = payment. These types of groups work hard to separate you from your money by making it the only measurement of dedication. There becomes no other way to prove yourself, so to prove yourself, you fork it over. It's manipulative and shitty but it works, especially when you're immersed in all the feels and everyone else is doing it (or appears to).
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:08 AM on February 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

For what it's worth, here Is a rubric for thinking about whether a group is a cult or not. May be helpful as you think about your friend's experience.
posted by Sublimity at 10:54 AM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

The focus on the cost seems a little silly in terms of whether it's a cult or not. It's very easy to find hotel rooms (no food or educational programming included) that cost far more than $6k for 5 days. You may consider that absurdly expensive, but it certainly doesn't mean something is a cult or a scam...
posted by primethyme at 11:28 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have to say, as a spiritual seeker, the content of the retreat sounds like new age bullshit to me, but to each their own?

Let's do a price comparison. This guy is verifiably the real deal: Adyashanti, and his retreats cost a range of 760-1700 for 5 nights dependent entirely on the cost of lodging, with an average of around 1200. So compared to 1500, the difference is notable but not profound. (Though geez, it'd be nice to get a commitment discount. Where are they staying anyway? Super nice places?)

Anyway, the point is I wouldn't dismiss it on costs grounds only. Is there anything specific in her changed behavior that concerns you? People seek their spirituality in many different places, including expensive froufrou retreats that I suspect don't provide real spiritual insight, but might feel good. Doesn't have to be a cult.
posted by namesarehard at 3:56 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

There seems to be quite an abundance of flowery and trademarked phrases, which is a bit excessive, but that's a personal issue. It does not read as a cult at all, just a specific type of self growth, which focuses around getting back in touch with one's feminine nature. These are quite popular these days. The cost for four long weekends and a year of support does not seem excessive at all.

Not your deal, I get that, but it seems to be hers. I think it's fine. That being said, she may very well change. That is her prerogative.
posted by Vaike at 4:17 PM on February 10, 2016

Also? Those flowery and trademarked phrases? That's more about branding and marketing what she does.
posted by Vaike at 4:27 PM on February 10, 2016

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