Thursday, November 8, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 19 - Extreme Ghostwriting I
Cults are much on my mind these days as my wife goes public with her beautifully intense memoir of 10 years spent in a burgeoning yogic enterprise.
Families often operate like cults, as my wife says, even though families are supposed to want to keep their members outside cults. You would think all therapists would feel that way too. There was a time, though when I had all too much firsthand experience of a therapist himself morphing into cult leader.
Robin seemed to me the last person who would be a cult leader – and maybe he was more legitimate when I first met him. Maybe he changed over the years.
He was a sometimes twinkly, cherubic little bald psychotherapist who was bright and quick and funny. And the years did slip away until a point when I could no longer ignore that he was working, consciously or not, to keep his followers right where they were, imprisoned by the past he had convinced them he could help them escape. Keep them right there where he could find them and dominate them.
While it was true he did help some to split off from abusive families, and got some others to leave a seminary they had entered too young, he also pushed them all to leave all their deepest relationships, including marriages, even though in his minister role he conducted weddings, sometimes, as I can tell you, more than once for the same client. Eventually it seemed clear to me that he was out to get his clients to leave all relationships that took precedence over their relationship with him.
The often inevitable problems that come up in relationships made for great cover. It could seem that Robin was out to help people to be their true selves, while actually, while helping them run from other relationships, he was implanting false selves - selves that were more Robin than the client.
Not that leaving relationships cannot have its healthy side. That was why it was so hard to see what Robin was up to. At one point I left a brief unhappy marriage that I had hoped would work but was not working. Robin, who had performed the marriage ceremony, told me later that although he had remained silent he had known it would not work. And when the separation at last took place,in a time of anger and sorrow, he said that this was a happy event for now there would be nothing in the way of work he and I would do together. Not me and my wife with Robin. Just me and Robin alone.
And he said the same thiing again whenever I parted from a girlfriend. Later on, he came up against a brick wall when he tried hard to break up my marriage with the love of my life. Unlike the last time, this marriage of deeply connected lovers was thriving. His instincts failed him. As so often happens with dictators who outlive their time, he went too far.
Robin had not suggested I not get into that earlier brief and troubled marriage. But he eventually got quite nasty about other relationships,and not just those that were between lovers. He was sarcastic about the relationship I had with my spiritual director, who is a widely loved and admired figure in liberal Catholic circles.
But Robin was quick and bright, which was a big part of his appeal. Another part had to with how he portrayed himself as a living legend. He could be inspiring, but he was worse than he sounded - as someone once said about grandiose Wagner music. To my discredit, it was a long time before I took seriously enough for action what I knew about the legend part. The legend had, for instance, Robin starting out as a young and brilliant and far-left part-time Methodist preacher who became a major sixties figure. He talked of his role in the networks of well-known Vietnam-era war protesters, one of whom had been a fugitive whom he said he had helped to hide from the FBI. But I talked once with that former fugitive, and later I became good friends with another famous sixties figure with whom Robin claimed a connection, and neither had ever heard of him.
Still, I kept keeping such evidence tucked away. What I was learning could not be what I thought I was learning. For the man was indeed perceptive. And I, much like a devotee of a charming ego-maniac guru, continued to push evidence aside. After all, Robin was my ally. I could lean on him in hard times. When financial disaster struck, he waived his fees.He understood me. Maybe there were some connections in my life that were not what Robin thought they were, but maybe they were just a blip on the screen. I told myself that certain evidence did not matter in light of his overall work.
If it has been less extreme I might have caught on immediately. Where it was most extreme, however, it was connected with a certain kind of intensely personal and fake kind of what struck me as something very much like ghostwriting – a form of writing books in which the real writer, a professional, is not the writer whose name is on the story.
Ghostwriters in the book world sometimes disappear behind words that sound a lot like the author's words. And sometimes they take over and distort what is on the mind of the author. Robin would often tell his clients precisely, word for word, what they should say - pretending these were their own words - when they wrote, at his suggestion, to family and loved ones.
This was quite aside from how awful Robin's own writing was. Although the legend had him as an important poet, what he put on paper was either oblique pretentious nonsense or stories about his family and former wives, portraying them all in ways that kept the stories forever set in place – pieces of carefully worked out analysis that were so dead they could never change, could never grow as art can grow– and the stories were larded with often conventional theological statements that sounded better than they were.
But as cult leader his own writing was not the writing that seemed to me key to Robin's story. I was strangely willing to try to believe that I liked it. And anyway what he did with own stories was overshadowed by what he did with other people’s stories.
Some of his followers had been with him for twenty years and more, some since they were teenagers. I did stay too long, but Robin and his groups were not the absolute center of my life - nothing like the Authentic Writing program. And anyway I was a very long way from literal early youth when I met him, and I was older than he was. And I already was so deep into my own stories that there was nothing basic he could tell me - though he was good at playing up certain details - which would appear in responses that came when he got his clients to tell big lies to people who might not always have their interests at heart but trusted them not to lie.
A very big part of Robin's appeal was that he could read people at a glance – know where they were strong and where weak, and where they lied and where they didn’t lie, where they came from and what they wanted. And when he had no idea what was going on with you he would give a sharp look – rather like Rod Steiger playing a tough but shrewd and kindly Southern sheriff – that could convince you he knew more about what was going on with you than you yourself could ever know. This ability to read people, so useful to a therapist who wants to help people, so dangerous in the hands of a cult leader who wants to both help and enslave people. And this pretense that he knew things he could not know so very dangerous to his followers.
This therapist cult figure – who decided to literally write people’s stories for them – write mine for me. How I came to hate him. This place of tyranny masked as a place of caring - so like the Pharaoh's ancient Egypt slave state.