Consider the following incident: in December 2005, a healthy, happy, normal 34-year-old woman (Rebekah Lawrence) attends a self-help course (Turning Point) run by a Cremorne-based company (People Knowhow). Four days later, after undergoing an extreme change in behaviour, Rebekah falls to her death, naked, from an inner-city office building. The Turning Point course is referred to, both worryingly and ambiguously, as being “high intensity”, and speaking on its behalf, the founder of People Knowhow, Richard Arthur, claims that the course is not suitable for “highly vulnerable people”. 

Is it just me, or does this statement sends shivers down the spine?

A quick Google reveals several interesting things about Turning Point, not least that it “offers you the opportunity to come home to yourself”, a proposition which is sufficiently cult-spooky to set off warning bells. It is also worth noting that Richard Arthur is not a trained psychologist. He is, in point of fact, a computer scientist. Huh?

Clicking through to the People Knowhow site, things soon become even stranger. There is a course called Mastery and Service, linked to the founding principles of Turning Point, which is intended to help participants “grow in consciousness”. For those over 50, there is the Way of the Elder, which features a grainy sunset graphic and a promise to “guide you through a series of reflective exercises towards reconnection with your life’s story.” Of greatest interest, however, is the link to the webpage for the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, which, in keeping with the non-psychology background of Mr Arthur, states cheerfuly that anyone wishing to teach their courses need not be deterred by a “lack of teriary training”. Rather, their training programme “welcomes applications from people who feel attuned to this way of understanding human experience and growth”.

Type “somatic psychotherapy” into Google, and you’ll find that the first webpage to come up is – surprise, surprise – that of the Australian College. Wikipedia has an entry on somatic psychology and another on body psychotherapy, but not a specific entry for somatic psychotherapy; a website called Goodtherapy, however, defines it as the brainchild of Wilhelm Reich, a German psychologist who believed, among other things, in a cosmic, primordial energy called orgone and who was known to try and increase the ‘orgiastic potency’ of patients by treating them in their underwear. Leaving aside the question of Reich’s more extreme theories and practices, there is a more pertinent question to answer, viz: how do members of the College – and, by extension, People Knowhow – use somatic psychtherapy?

The definition given on their page is lengthy and obtuse, hinting vaguely at deeper methodologies without actually explaining them; you can read the whole thing here. Among other things, the College mentions the idea of “toxic cultural practices” being passed on through contemporary psychology and the importance of people’s “sensing/feeling patterns” being developed “throughout the life cycle”. The introduction concludes on a rather ominous note, with the acknowledgement that “all psychotherapy theories (including somatic based theories) invoke particular ethical practices, either explicitly or implicitly, and we need to ask ourselves, as Foucault suggests, whose interests are best served by these practices; who gains power.” (My emphasis.)

What, pray tell, are “particular ethical practices” in the context? Perhaps they have something to with the fact that, like Richard Arthur, the Director of the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, one Jeff Barlow, has no formal training in psychology, either. Reading between the lines, one might conclude that the College’s view of the “toxic culture” inherent in non-holistic psychology has lead most of its members to eschew it entirely, although given the number of somatic psychologists who don’t appear to have studied it at all, one wonders where and how they have developed this perspective. Curiouser and curiouser.

It is not difficult to concede the existence of a genuine link between our physical and mental health, but by all accounts, the teachings of People Knowhow and their affiliates seems to resemble cultish mysticism more than genuine science. Combine the cryptic poetry and riddle-style aphorisms espoused by Richard Arthur, his lack of any relevant formal training and the fact that People Knowhow conducts corporate workshops, and you have a recipe for hokum, pseudo-science and general malaise. Perhaps I’ve been forced to attend too many day-long management courses, but I am deeply cynical of any form of emotional work-based consultancy, particularly in forms which claim to incorporate genuine elements of psychology – or, for that matter, any other discipline in which the facilitator lacks training. I once, for instance, had to listen to a grown woman tell me that the concept of human synergistics was pioneered by Aristotle. So when someone like Richard Arthur suggests, against all logic, that “the amount a person suffers in their life is related to how much they are resisting”, my bullshit detector goes into overdrive. When, on the same page, Mr Arthur references Turning Point and says that the course teaches “a cluster of techniques for permanently raising your stress threshold” so that “when the world doesn’t cooperate with you, your distress will be less extreme”, I wonder how many of those “techniques” were taught to Rebekah Lawrence.

How much longer can this culture of faux-uplifting, change-your-life consultancy by uninformed, pseudo-intellecual, would-be dilettantes continue? When will we wake up to ourselves? The real toxic culture is being peddled by modern witchdoctors, not trained psychologists.

Comments
  1. It’s really sad to know about what happen to Rebekah after taking the self-help course, I think they should know their inner self first before attending to this kind of course.

    • carol.lamb says:

      With due respect, these courses are dangerous, full stop. If you want to sort yourself out, see a psychologist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy, most do.

  2. Dtrain says:

    I welcomed your post on this topic. Until recently, I had a best friend who was brainwashed by a similar course; he literally came home after a 5 day workshop, left his wife of 5 years (and son), chucked in his job and within 2 weeks had engaged some woman that he’d never met before. Now he actually works for the mob that he did the course with, this is despite the fact that he has never had any training in psychotherapy, psychology or mental health (he was a payroll officer). I agree, its all pseudo science and poor individuals like Rebekah who didn’t have the emotional fortitude to seek proper help for her issues has now paid the ultimate price. Regulate these people and stamp out the rubbish!

  3. carol.lamb says:

    Your blog is a fair comment. New Age cults including Self Transformation (Walter & Gitta Bellan), EST (former Scientology) which morphed into Landmark Forum then Landmark Education etc. have ruined the lives of family members and friends. It’s all based on emotional manipulation, and very little science. There is a very high incidence of psychosis with many people checking themselves into psych clinics shortly after.

  4. L K Tucker says:

    The problem is not the message but the method of presentation. Landmark holds people in lectures for up to ten hours each day for three days. When they sit that long they eventually engage Subliminal Distraction exposure by learning to dissociate knowledge of those moving in their peripheral vision.

    We all do that. But we cannot turn off a primitive part of our brain that continues to subliminal detect that movement and attempt to warn us by triggering a startle. Once you attach a zero level of attention to movement around you the startle is blocked. But the subliminal appreciation of threat will eventually color thought and reason. With enough exposure you will have a mental break.

    There is a warning on the Landmark site but they claim no knowledge of the cause. Search the site for the “Notices” page. Scroll down to item number six under Legal Agreements.

  5. Khris says:

    Finding this article on your blog was a surprise.

    I saw a somatic psychotherapist for years (and always fully clothed – in fact the underwear thing you mention is not part of contemporary somatic psychotherapy) and have learnt so much about my behaviors and patterns. The sessions have helped me in my relationships with people – especially in developing close and meaningful relationships.

    Not all somatic psychotherapists are the same – and so there may be some who are crackpots – but this is the same in medicine or any other field you care to mention. To label all somatic psychotherapy in this way is not reasonable and suggests a bias.

    These courses you mention may employ some somatic psychotherapeutic techniques – but they are not somatic psychotherapy as I understand it. It is a client and therapist relationship – together in a room – exploring experience and relationship.

    Your blog contains so many entertaining and interesting reads, but this article is uninformed.

  6. Ted says:

    I did the Turning Point course in 1999. Richard Arthur ran it however it was facilitated by a selection of other people who had previously done the course and had reportedly attended some further training course.

    The course was an intense couple of days. It was attended by people who had some real deep-seated issues, eg one young lady who had grown up with her Dad calling her a “slut”. Her concluding session was to beat down on a giant gym mat whilst the rest of the group stood around it and called her a slut. This continued until she was physically drained of energy at which point we all provided her with supporting words and comfort. Another guy had lost his family after their car crashed into a river when he was a child. He was the only one able to swim to shore. His concluding treatment was to have everyone yell at him to “save your brothers!” while he was beating the mat.

    Other parts of the course were more meditation techniques and conflict resolution approaches, more so for the weak amongst us who would cave in if anyone disagreed with them; even if they were right.

    It was intense and certainly not something I would have recommended to people who I deemed as suicidal.

    To be honest, at the end, I may have gained something from it, but certainly not the $300+ it cost me to do.

    Ted

    • fozmeadows says:

      Wow, that’s… pretty full on. I’m trying to imagine the psychological benefits to such an approach, but offhand, it’s not easy.

  7. Ted says:

    In another activity, we were paired up and given the directions that one person was to convince the other person to do “it” their way and the other person was to simply refuse by saying no repeatedly but not give any reason why not, just no. This was done next to a large foam mat that you could punch or kick as you wanted to. The girl I was paired with was very sweet and timid, until we got into it. After a few minutes of my stubborn refusal, she got really angry and wanted to punch me. Instead she punched the mat. The intent of this activity was to bring the person’s strength to the surface. She felt it was a good release of frustration. After it was done, we as a group decided that she should choose where we went for dinner that night. Whilst she would normally just go where everyone else wanted, she did choose a nearby restaurant that we went to. This was a good eyeopener for her but with no followup after the course, it all would have been undone.

    So, what was the pyschological benefit of this…..short-term as above but long term, probably none

    • L K Tucker says:

      Ted,
      How much of the time did you spend sitting in a large classroom situation?

      • Ted says:

        Hi LK,

        It was a while ago, but I recall it was about 3 very long days, ie from around 8-9 in the morning until well after 6-7 pm, maybe even later. One of the things that they did at the start of each day was to take everyone’s watches off them. By the time we sopped for lunch, it was around 2-3 pm. This is pretty much as you described it in your last post.

  8. Keith says:

    It is unfortunate that the PeopleKnowHow (PKH) organisation’s well intentioned instructors were irresponsible enough not to understand the importance of having professional medical or psychology qualifications to appropriately conduct their personal development courses. Although they provided useful skills for my personal growth in conducting the Turning Point course the reality test is that they failed to understand the potential damage caused to vulnerable participants as established in the Coroners inquiry.

    I found it offensive that the PKH instructors authorised unqualified Course Participants to make value judgements about participants behaviour including mine

    One participant chose to undermine my character at a time in my life when I felt very vulnerable and fragile due to My Mum’s imminent death. I was blocked from responding because of PKH requirements that participants deemphasize reason, in favor of accepting feelings.

    It was unsettling to find that some of these unqualified participants had big egos and limited life experience also had a range of personal issues including expecting a perfect world. Some had an axe to grind whilst failing to acknowledge their own imperfections. It was unacceptable to find that their damaging judgements went unchecked by the instructors.

    Although the instructors were well intentioned and the personal development skills invaluable, it is deplorable that PKH were irresponsible enough not to have appropriate professional qualifications to address major issues caused by the course. It is unfortunate that it has taken the death of a past course participant and the resulting findings in the Coroners Court for PKH to reveal what is expected of them when conducting an appropriate personal development course.

    • Larry Tucker says:

      Keith,

      I know I have posted this before but I see I should expand on the explanation.

      None of the things you write about caused Rebekah Lawrence’s mental break and suicide. Two other suicides have happened in Australia after similar seminars. There was a psychotic mental break murder in the United States.

      There are two major suicide clusters in China and France where the companies failed to provide effective Cubicle Level Protection, Foxconn and France Telecom. The cubicle was designed to block peripheral vision to stop mental breaks in offices by 1968.

      For years the Landmark Education site carried a warning about mental breaks following or during their LGATS called The Forum. They apparently found my site and removed the warning recently. The circumstances during those long hours sitting side-by-side replicates the situation where the mental breaks were discovered in 1964.

      All they would have to do is turn off the lights over the audience in the seminar. When you concentrate to follow the speaker you eventually dissociate knowledge of people moving around you. That movement will then be subliminally detected causing your brain to attempt a vision startle reflex. In a safe area you assign a zero level of attention to that movement ignoring it. The startle is blocked and will stop but you don’t have control over the primitive brain function to subliminally detect threat-movement and begin the attempt to execute the startle reflex. The subliminal appreciation of threat will eventually color thought and reason. With enough exposure the full mental break will happen.

      There is no basis that untrained lecturers could cause such a mental event. Unaware the simple problem of human physiology exists experts seize on a popular myth to explain ir.

      Subliminal Distraction is explained in first semester psychology and has been known to cause a believed harmless mental breaks for 48 years here in the United States.

      • Andrew Morgan Smith says:

        The untrained lecturers would not have been assisted by understanding your simplistic concept of subliminal distraction. The untrained lecturers would have been assisted with having trained psychiatrists assisting them on the courses – professionals who understand how to spot someone undergoing a psychotic episode. If such professionals had been present to assist Rebekah Lawrence, she would have been sent to hospital, given the appropriate medication and care, instead of being told to relax and have a bath. End of story. It’s completely irresponsible for untrained people to run such courses, unless they agree to having trained experts present with them. The trouble is that a good psychiatrist is unlikely to put themselves in such a situation to begin with.

  9. Cyril Covac says:

    I attended these courses when they first started in Sydney in the 80s. They were run by Walter and Gita Bellin and Robert Meredith. I was then involved with the organisation for a very long time, even going to the UK around the time they set up there. I have a lot of inside knowledge about these people, and would like to set a few things straight.
    Firstly, I don’t think the people who set up this program were ‘bad’ people, and in fact, believe that their intentions were honourable. In my opinion (and that is all it is), the ‘problem’ in People Knowhow (Which was first named Self TransformationSeminars, then The Walter Bellin Partnership and at one stage, Zeoros as well!), was Walter Bellin.
    Again, don’t get me wrong- Walter Bellin was not some evil cult leader, but I believe he was extremely misguided and far more egocentric than the other teachers.

    Walter refused to consider that chemicals play a part in person’s ability to change and/or make new decisions and appeared unable to see that other people experienced life differently from himself.
    Although his ex-wife Gita was more than a little strange, in retrospect, I think she had a great deal more compassion than Walter, and Robert Meredith also had a lot of integrity and compassion. In my opinion, Walter ‘taught’ compassion, but never actually felt it. It is telling that he sought to have the organisation’s name changed to “The Walter Bellin Partnership”. The man wanted to make a mark on the world and really, he should have gone into the corporate sector. He mixed up the healing profession and the corporate world, striving to create some kind of corporate identity for himself.
    There is no link between Scientology and this organisation. The founders combined some of the work of EST (later the Forum) with Eastern Meditation techniques. The three original teachers were past devotees of an Indian guru.
    The organisation has also helped thousands of people and that cannot be disputed. I am one of them, but my experiences were mixed. Overall, however, I would say that my experience was more positive than negative- largely due to some of the very kind and wonderful people involved.
    However, the problems that have arisen in this organisation do go back to the person that structured the course called “The Turning Point”, and that is Walter Bellin. There is no doubt that some of the processes in this course were dangerous for some people, although not for the majority. In reality, the only safe way to run such a course, would be if an experienced psychiatrist were present at all times. It needed someone who could tell the difference between neurosis and psychosis, because psychosis simply requires medical intervention. And the problem was that Walter Bellin, in my opinion, would have found it very difficult to accept that he was not an expert in everything, and would have especially found it difficult to accept that others might not see him as such,

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