This week I was transported back to a time nine years ago when I was living in California and spent an intense six months, somewhat under the spell of a would-be guru who profusely proclaimed that he was not that. I’ve wondered what happened to him, and although I’ve had online glimpses that he took his dog and pony show to NYC, where he is originally from, I didn’t have any really clear view of what has been going on until I happened to Google his name five days ago. OMG. The guy seems to have really made a name for himself, although most probably not in the way that he would like.
My Google search took me to an article published this past May in Jezebel, the magazine. Here’s the link: http://jezebel.com/inside-superstar-machine-which-ex-members-say-is-a-cul-1775494367 . Wow. I recognized so much of what is reported here–minus the sex talk at meetings and on the phone and the various “levels of membership,” everything else was very much like what I experienced and observed.
As is reported in this article, and also on this additional site, http://www.thethriftworld.com/2013/08/bizarre-scams-international-hot-school.html , it all starts out seemingly so innocently. In my case, “International,” as he is now apparently known, had just moved from Los Angeles to one of the small communities in Northern California near where I had moved just a year earlier. I was still finding my way around and was still in the process of getting over a major affair of the heart, so, as it turns out, I was a perfect victim for what “International” was up to.
I saw an ad on the local community website for free screenwriting classes, taught by an LA screenwriter at the local arts center. Screenwriting was something I was looking into, if fairly casually, so I went to the first meeting of this class, full of curiosity about the class itself and the one teaching it. There were about twenty or so others who also showed up. The meeting started late, although there was a woman who seemed to be in charge who was greeting people and getting them to sign a guest book, I liked her. A number of the other attendees appeared to know her/be her friends. Everyone was very friendly.
Finally, 15-20 minutes past the announced start time, “He” came rushing in. Casually dressed in khakis, an open oxford cloth shirt, flapping in the breeze as he hurriedly walked, disclosing a t-shirt underneath, and topped off (bottomed off?) with bright red sneakers, he was taller than average by a lot, had long (nearly shoulder length) silver hair, and a face that didn’t match the age his gray hair might have indicated. I figured he was early 40s. Very Hollywood-looking, but hey, that’s where he was allegedly from.
He obviously was very bright–I don’t even remember the content of that first group class, but I was impressed with his brain as much as his good looks. In the end, well, it wasn’t quite “the end,” it was decided that the first three of these meetings would be free, and then after that “we’d see”–I think that was how it went. I know the first few classes were free. The old Bogart and Bacall movie The African Queen was to be the model we studied to understand the structure of a classic screenplay–the three acts and what each contains. So, all of that happened. The discussions, especially when not strictly about the movie itself, were thought provoking and therefore interesting. I was getting hooked from the start.
“He”, now known as “International,” but back then he was just “Greg,” announced that these classes were to be the kick-off for something “really big” (sounding a bit like Ed Sullivan here), and that he had just procured a barn in the next small town, about five miles away that would be a center for developing artists of all kinds. Sounded intriguing. It became known as “The Barn,” and the interior of it is pictured in the photo accompanying this piece. What Greg did not initially announce was that The Barn was also his home, which of course was fine, but still, when found out, it seemed a bit odd that this hadn’t been mentioned right up front.
The classes continued at the arts center for about a month, and at some point they became paid classes, but the cost was not great. Then the idea was floated about having another kind of class, based on screen writing, but about our own lives–and determining what “act” (first, second, or third) we were currently in. That sounded like fun and like the kind of intellectually adventurous college class I had liked way back when I was a student. The classes became quite intense at points. The groups were small–usually four-six, sometimes fewer, on a given night. Most of the attendees were women, but there were a couple of men–married to a couple of the women of the group, but apparently there of their own free will and not coerced by their wives. The price had gone up by then, and we were each paying $50/class. Classes were held once a week.
The story continues from here. The classes had moved to The Barn, and in addition to those, The Barn was host to three performances, spread out over four months, by our own “performer-in-residence” (although she was not a resident of The Barn)–the woman who had appeared as Greg’s right arm in that first and subsequent classes at the arts center. She is a very talented musical artist, singer, and comedienne, and for these shows at The Barn, she created a character who spoke to the audience as if they were an assemblage of her closest friends, the talk interspersed with her original songs that she sang and accompanied herself on guitar. The shows were fantastic–hysterically funny, great musically, and really had people fired up and impatient for the next show. The audience grew accordingly, and mostly by word-of-mouth. Although this woman had also known Greg from before–in his earlier Hollywood days–and had befriended him and encouraged him to leave LA and move north, she also became one of his victims–perhaps a bigger one than I was to become, as she had more at stake in terms of her career and livelihood. She and I have remained friends and in touch.
I became more entrenched as I turned out to be the producer-in-chief for these shows–but it was fun, and I didn’t mind the time and effort this required. Meanwhile, the classes continued and became more intense, with delving into people’s deep dark secrets from the past and how those were currently affecting their current lives. It was a bit like group therapy, and Greg was the self-appointed therapist.
A couple of months after the first class at the arts center, a young woman–more accurately, a teenage girl with an almost year-old baby, arrived on the scene. It was not clear who she was or where she came from except that she was someone Greg had met and was trying to “help out” as she was in a bad marriage to boot. All of that was true, except Greg’s purpose was not to “help this girl out,” but to be her man, her guru, her everything. She had nothing in the material sense, unless you count her natural beauty. She was 19. Greg was 46. What I refused to see, although it was right in front of me, was that Greg and this girl were lovers. Even when she all but moved in with him, I refused to see it. Make no mistake about it that Greg worked hard, at least at first, to hide this from me. I now know that he saw me as “someone with money” who could play some major role in funding him–he, who had no income, and hadn’t had for some time (he lived off what was left of his inheritance from his father). Later on, he was no longer making the effort to conceal the relationship, but I was still refusing to open my eyes. The way it seemed (to me), was definitely not the way it was.
I learned about three-four months into my involvement that there were Sunday meetings taking place at The Barn that were not at all “classes.” I was invited to one and was shocked to see Greg being “presented” in a ritualistic kind of way by these two women whom I had met, but who were not part of the classes. One of them I knew had known Greg for some time and she and Greg were “partners” in an addiction support relationship…meaning they each were accountable to the other for any variances in what they had agreed upon at the start of each month as to what they were going to avoid in terms of food. I guess they each felt they had food addictions of some sort, so as an exercise in self control at the start of the month each would declare what food they would not eat–like chocolate or pasta or whatever. Then, if they felt for some reason that they had to indulge in that particular food, they couldn’t do that until they had permission from the other to do it. Point is, they had had this on-going relationship for some time and now this woman also appeared to be playing some kind of religious priestess role in this Sunday meeting gathering.
Greg didn’t appear in this Sunday conclave until about 20-30 minutes into the proceedings, and when he did, I nearly burst out laughing, but kept a lid on it–I shouldn’t have. He appeared über-solemn and he was wearing what I remember as some kind of robe. He walked in as if in a trance, slowly, deliberately, in stocking feet, until he arrived at the chair that had been prepared for him by the priestess and her assistant, who then remained seated–but on the floor–next to him. It was unbelievable to me, and yet I kept a straight face and tried to play along. One might well ask WHY?, as I do now.
Things started to become contentious between Greg and me near the end of the year. Just before the final show, which was set for a week before Christmas, I nearly walked away from it all because I was so angry when I discovered the level of deceit Greg had perpetuated, just to keep me, his primary workhorse and potential sponsor (he thought), on the string. In addition to the deceit, he had become more and more authoritarian in his classes and suddenly we–mostly I–were/was “not allowed” to question his authority or to say anything he perceived as a challenge. He and I had already had several rows over it. Here is what I wrote about that on my (previous) blog at that time: http://www.nancybabcockwrites.com/2011/07/exercising-edgar-2/ .
It was the first week in January of 2008, six months after that first screenwriting class at the arts center, that Greg and I had our final falling-out, resulting in my walking away from him, The Barn, and all that they represented. I never looked back–until now–and having read Anna Merlan’s article in Jezebel, as well as the 8/16/13 post on thethriftworld.com site, I see 1) how stupid I was to have gotten as ensnared as I did, and 2) how lucky I was that I escaped unscathed. My parting words to Greg, which I knew were the (only?) ones that would cut through to his core, were “You are your father!” He had constantly professed his hatred of his father and all that he stood for–Hollywood success, which had always eluded Greg. I could see why.
The other thing that I should have added to those parting words to him was that he–Greg–had made me into my mother–the thing I had said from the outset of the classes where we were each examining our own lives was the #1 thing I never wanted to become, and yet I had–and in his service, no less. I had become his lackey, his slave, his “possession” to direct as it suited him, and all of this was in the name of empowering me? Where was my brain? Obviously AWOL.
What had seemed such an innocent thing, a screenwriting class in a community arts center, turned into this convoluted attempt at manipulating people–mostly women, men had not yet been banned–into promoting Greg as some savior to the arts world. Later, I see he changed this to “savior of young, naive, down-on-their-luck women.” I was not young, I was not down-on-my-luck, but I was very naive and in a weakened state of coming out of a depression over a lost love, so I fit the bill. Women everywhere, take heed and beware–he, and others like him, is/are still out there and things are not always as they seem. Read the Jezebel article to get more of the current particulars.