Autumn Phillips: Cleveland rocks?

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She was being so nice. I should have been suspicious. But I was young -- 20 or 21 years old. I hadn't learned that when a phone call begins with a shower of compliments, something horrible is about to happen.

So, I was not suspicious of my co-worker, who had never called me before but was on the other line at 9 p.m., telling me how much she admired me and how she was sorry she had never told me before.

Even as I write, I am growing suspicious of her. But at the time, I was an ego to the slaughter.

We were VISTA volunteers working for a child abuse prevention agency. I was renting a small apartment for $200 a month in the boarded-up town of McKeesport, Penn., a 20-minute public transit ride from Pittsburgh. I had the kind of landlord who made me buy my own refrigerator and called one afternoon to offer me a ride to Wal-Mart so we could buy curtains for my place. She picked out some ruffled white curtains with matching sways and stood back at the counter as I paid for them.

I walked to work every day and talked to people my age who had been sent to our agency by the courts. It was my first exposure to multi-generational welfare recipients who saw no other future for their children. I listened to their stories and felt the weight of the world on my shoulders as I sat later in my empty office trying to dream up programs that would help.

The other VISTA volunteers on my project lived in Pittsburgh proper. They were recent graduates of the University of Pittsburgh and had a solid network of friends. I was lonely, and this phone call felt like a lifesaver.

After she finished fluffing me with flattery, she asked whether I wanted to go to a concert in Cleveland that weekend.

What band?

Oh. Just some band. I can't remember its name.

Of course. I'd love to go.

She picked me up after work the next day, and we drove an hour outside of Pittsburgh toward Cleveland. She pulled into a hotel parking lot and stopped the car.

Are we stopping to pick someone up?

No. This is it.

I could tell this was going to be a strange concert.

The hotel lobby was full of people wearing nametags and drinking coffee out of small Styrofoam cups.

My friend introduced me to "my group leader" and announced she would see me at "the end." She disappeared. Everyone filed into a small auditorium, leaving behind hundreds of empty, lipstick-stained cups in the lobby.

It was immediately clear that I had been tricked. I had no idea where I was or why I was there. Maybe they wanted me to sell Amway.

The big double doors swung closed, and a man started walking around the room, Donahue style, to ask people why they were there.

Everyone with a nametag, it turned out, already had attended "the first workshop." It had changed their lives. I quickly figured out that people like me, without nametags, were the targets of this strange gathering. We were to be convinced to take the workshop.

For $700, the guy with the microphone would lock you in a room just like the one I was in for three days. It was intense, everyone agreed. For three days, he and "the others" would tear you down and reconstruct you.

There is something in each of you holding you back, he said. We have to figure out what it is so you can move on.

What he meant, of course, was move on to the next workshop -- which cost $1,000 but offered a level of enlightenment equal to the cost.

By the time the microphone reached me, most people who spoke had broken down in tears. All of them had learned, after three days locked away, that they were fundamentally flawed, and now they were working to fix themselves.

The man asked me what I thought my problem was. Everyone in the room stared.

Obviously, my problem was confusing flattery with friendship or thinking Cleveland had a better music scene than Pittsburgh.

I told the microphone that I wasn't quite sure why I was there and didn't think I would be taking the workshop. VISTA volunteers don't even make $700 a month, let alone $700 extra spending money. And even if I had that kind of money, would I pay someone to methodically drive me insane in a hotel conference room? Probably not.

I was in denial, he said. I was full of anger, he said. And then he gave me the best peer pressure line I have ever been given: "The thing that is holding you back now will hold you back for the rest of your life." His breath smelled like Tic Tacs.

The drive back to Pittsburgh was a quiet one. My friend didn't admire me anymore, and I had just attended the worse concert of my life.

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