Dec 13, 2017

Self-Help Group Lured Man Into Sexual Cult, Lawsuit Claims

KELLY WEILL
The Daily Beast
December 13, 2017

So many people have Googled “Gratitude Training cult” that the self-help seminar company launched the webpage “GratitudeTraining.com/cult” to combat the allegations.

“Is Gratitude Training a cult?” it asks. “Well, the answer is simple...you decide!”

A new lawsuit has decided yes.

Mark Robbins claims he and his twin children joined the Florida-based group for its personal development seminars. Instead, Robbins claims, he got suckered into an exploitative club that left a dead rat on his doorstep after he left. In a new wage theft lawsuit, Robbins accuses Gratitude Training of being a cult. But Gratitude Training’s founder says they’re no more a cult than Apple fans are.

Gratitude Training advertises itself as a three-step self-improvement program to “awaken the planet, maximize joy and actualize peace.” That peace can be yours for $3,585, the combined price of Gratitude Training’s increasingly expensive and time-consuming sessions. (The final session clocks in at nearly 200 hours, spread out over three months.)

Robbins, who joined Gratitude Training in June with his twin children, says he made it through the program’s first two phases before his doubts began piling up. In his suit, he describes allegedly witnessing Gratitude Training staff bully a young woman into an “altered state” during an “exercise,” and berate a man with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Robbins claims Gratitude Training knowingly enrolled people with histories of sexual misconduct and that he witnessed those members participating in sexualized rites, “which include group stroking and massaging, lifting members in the air by their buttocks; and skits in which male members wear diapers.”

Jo Englesson, Gratitude Training’s founder who is named as a defendant in the suit, says that’s not true.

“There’s nothing immoral or sexually inappropriate going on in these trainings,” Englesson told The Daily Beast. “It’s a completely frivolous lawsuit and we’re filing a defamation suit against him next week.”

If Gratitude Training is a cult, then so are people who line up for the iPhone, Englesson said.

“If it’s a cult in the sense of the cult of Apple, people who like the computer product, then yeah,” she said. “But it’s not a cult in the way he’s alleging.”

But Robbins claims Gratitude Training suckered him out of time and money. In his suit, he accuses Gratitude Training of pushing members to work unpaid for the company. Robbins worked over 100 hours without seeing a penny, and one woman in the group “gave so many hours of unpaid service… that she was poverty stricken, and posted on Facebook that she would pose nude for food or money,” he claims.

When Robbins claims he complained about the lack of pay part way through the training’s third phase, he was booted from the group while his children remained on the inside, he alleges. Englesson said Gratitude Training members sometimes volunteer their time and that while Robbins might have volunteered to work security for the group, he never had reason to expect pay.

But other Gratitude Training students have also taken to the internet to complain about an alleged pressure to volunteer for the group. In a 2014 review on the consumer complaint website Ripoff Report, one person claiming to be a former student decried an alleged push for Gratitude Training members to “volunteer, work and recruit for free” while the company profited.

The former student accused Gratitude Training of being a “cult” that uses “public humiliation,” “manipulation,” “food and sleep deprivation,” and “psychological breakdown” to keep members hooked. Gratitude Training staff “keep you in a room for 12-14 hr days, scolded people if they needed to use the rest room other than the assigned few breaks,” the student alleged.

Another reviewer accused Gratitude Training of luring her daughter into a cult. “Not being aloud to speak of what just happened that night (of ‘class’), not coming home and staying at ‘elders’ of the group’s home, being evasive of what her weeks entails,” the reviewer claimed, “I have asked for opinions of others and they all say ‘cult.’”

It’s reviews like these, and numerous threads on cult-discussion forums, that led Gratitude Training to launch the webpage GratitudeTraining.com/cult to combat the cult allegations.

“We are aware that there are a few people - some that have actually completed a training with us and others that have not - who had an adverse experience of the Gratitude Training and has utilized cult forums on the internet to share this experience,” the page reads, under a picture of a person making a heart with their hands. “Their ‘testimonials’, even if only a handful, show up at the top of search engines.”

The page goes on to enumerate other “cults you may be part of,” including fans of the brands Apple, Mini Cooper, Ikea, and Lululemon. “Cult” is a misunderstood word, the company argues, while conceding that Gratitude Training might be a cult, depending on one’s definition.

“If we neutrally look upon the word ‘cult’ we can simply recognize that there is a deep faith,” one that Gratitude Training students share, the company claims. The page encourages skeptics to read former students’ reviews.

And most public testimonials are glowing, with some former students boasting of repeating their courses multiple times. On Gratitude Training’s Facebook page, nearly every review is five stars. But the negative reviews are vivid. “Crazy cult-like people comparable to Scientology or religious extremists,” one Facebook reviewer alleged in a one-star review in September. “Run. Away. Fast.”

But when Robbins left, his children remained in the group, which “intentionally and maliciously placed [distance] between Robbins and his sons,” his suit alleges. Since Robbins left, one of his children “was coerced in GT into dancing in a thong with 60 other scantily clad people,” he claims. Englesson told The Daily Beast no sexually inappropriate behavior happens in the trainings.

Robbins has also filmed himself calling “hey cult members” at people gathered outside a Gratitude Training center, and expounded on his Gratitude Training conspiracy theories on his blog, which Englesson claims is defamatory.

Both sides agree a rift has opened between Gratitude Training and the former member.

“Since leaving the Cult, Robbins has received death threats, and been the subject of false claims,” his suit alleges. “Robbins’ car was also vandalized. Cult members left a dead rat on his doorstep.”

The three-month course and the stress of splitting from it have left Robbins with “chronic headaches, nausea, vomiting, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression,” he claims.

He also claims the group “filed meritless claims against [him] with police, and wrongfully obtained a restraining order against [him] based on baseless stalking allegations.”

Englesson confirmed she got a restraining order against Robbins. “He’s also, on a daily basis, contacting all the students who have done our leadership training on Facebook. He’s finding friends of friends of friends and sending them stuff daily from his blog.”

In October, she sent Gratitude Training’s high-level students an email apologizing for what she described as Robbins’ “continuous online harassment and publishing of defamatory content.” The email, which Robbins posted online, prompted students to fill out a questionnaire if Robbins’ emails had led them to cancel their classes—lost revenue that Gratitude Training could try to extract from Robbins if they sue him for defamation.

“We have tons and tons of proof it’s all just crazy talk,” Englesson said. “I’ve been going through this for like three months and it’s pretty hardcore.”

That’s almost exactly what Robbins alleges of her classes.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/self-help-group-lured-man-into-sexual-cult-lawsuit-claims

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