22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2006
I came to "Life 102" a bit late in the game, I guess, and via an unorthodox trajectory. I knew of McWilliams not from his ahead-of-the-curve computer books in the 1980s (distinctly before my time), nor from his bestselling self-help books "co-authored" with MSIA guru John-Roger (essentially before my time), but instead from his "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do." That brilliant, rambling, flawed and insightful manifesto for the social libertarian movement contained in its original edition an attack on the Cult Awareness Network, an attack I thought meshed uncomfortably with the freethought positions otherwise advocated by the author. Thankfully, McWilliams clarified this discontinuity in the paperback edition of "Business," noting that he had been so emphatically anti-cult because...well, he was *in* one at the time. And for more information...
Most of my generation has, in all likelihood, never heard of the MSIA and its guru John-Roger, which are McWilliams's targets (and his targeters, given the unfortunate after-story of this book and its current copyright status) in this entertaining semi-narrative, semi-confession, semi-exposé. New Religious Movements have long since been absorbed into the catch-all of the "new age;" separate organizations like MSIA, TM, the Hare Krishnas, and so on almost seem anarchronistic in this light. The relative obscurity of MSIA actually works to McWilliams's advantage, as he can demonstrate in a "bias vacuum" (something not possible with flashpoint topics like the Unification Church of Scientology) how nobody-NOBODY-is immune to reprogramming.
I'm getting ahead of myself, however. As I mentioned before, "Life 102" is a combination of a confession, biography, narrative, and exposé. McWilliams writes at one point that it represents a catharsis, a way of organizing his thoughts as his legal battles with MSIA loomed. Unsurprisingly, then, "Life 102" is a very roaming narrative. McWilliams constructs a very loose historical framework--the book roughly chronicles the whys, hows, whats, whos, and whens--and feels free to digress when needed, whether to explain, pontificate, or delve further into the "sociopathic" personality of MSIA's founder.
And while McWilliams is clearly bitter, he never lets his bitterness overshadow his core principles. The spirit of "Ain't Nobody's Business" looms over this text. McWilliams claims that he isn't out to show that MSIA is a scam, its principles fraudulent, and its techniques worthless; he maintains to the end that people are free to believe whatever they want, no matter how absurd. Knowing that the testimony of an apostate, and especially an apostate engaged in a legal battle, does not represent the most trustworthy source of information, he ingeniously allows the MSIA and its founder to hang themselves, by liberally quoting MSIA scripture, personal correspondence, and other damning evidence. On one hand, this is likely what led to the withdrawal of "Life 102" from the marketplace; on the other, if even 75% of these transcripts are accurate...
To draw a parallel, it's one thing for opponents of Scientology to claim that L. Ron Hubbard was scientifically ignorant; it's another thing entirely to hear Hubbard's own voice extolling the benefits of cigarette smoking (it cures cancer).
At its core, though, "Life 102" is a cautionary confession, and as other reviewers have noted, it's in this capacity that the book truly shines. Anybody who's ever shaken his head at a bizarre belief system, or wondered how people could *fall* for something so transparent...well, here's your answer. McWilliams may be far from everyman, but he's still an intelligent, funny, perceptive guy who fell under the spell of a movement whose theology (when presented in a detached manner) seems reasonably below the giggle-test cut off. McWilliams maintains that abusive relationships with "cults" are really no different from abusive relationships with people, food, television, spouses, or anything else; reprogramming, he emphasizes, can happen to anybody, at anytime, anyplace, and indeed goes on all the time. He stresses that the stereotype of a "cult member" as a zombiefied, unrecognizable person couldn't be further from the truth. In MSIA, Peter McWilliams was still Peter McWilliams, but used his intelligence, cleverness, and perception to further his activities in the movement. MSIA became a framework, and inside of that framework everything was A-OK. McWilliams may not convince those who believe that they are above the reach of reprogramming, but he at the very least provides a compelling testimony.
The book itself is a delightful read; as one prior reviewer noted, Williams is hardly Tolstoy (except perhaps in volume!), yet his relaxed, conversational style perfectly meshes with the form and function of the book. McWilliams's approach isn't really in the scholarly tradition, yet he knows to present examples and cite evidence to lend weight to even the most bizarre anecdotes. Even the chapters of less universal consequence, like the oh-so-dishy (but still friendly) chapter on Arianna Huffington circa 1994, are fabulously entertaining, especially in hindsight (one aside about Arianna's unsuitability for "anonymous phone voices" is particularly giggle-worthy). The only real time bitterness and hurt come to the surface are in the chapters on John-Roger, and in between the self-deprecating "why was I so naïve?" lamentations, one senses the true source of McWilliams discord. He had done TM, been a Catholic, and so on, and while he no longer adhered to those doctrines, he had walked away with no more than cursory scars. His asides about the Maharishi, while not universally flattering, have no malice to them. John-Roger, though, is different: John-Roger actively sought to manipulate Peter's fears and insecurities for his own ends, and it is *that* regret that drives McWilliam's resentment.
Verdict: "Life 102," while no scholarly treatise, is one of the most informative books on manipulation and personally cults I've ever had the privilege of reading. Its tragic historical context-in the events that inspired the book, in its immediate aftermath, and in McWilliams's horrific and untimely death-lends it all the more power.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2003
Life 102 is something of a specialist's text. The average reader in search of juicy scandal might be overloaded with the level of detail in Mc Williams' book.
Contrasted with Steven Pressman's expose of John Rosenberg who became Jack Frost who became Kurt Wilhelm Von Savage who became Werner Hans Erhard in the book _Outrageous Betrayal, The Dark Journey Of Werner Erhard From EST to Exile_, McWilliams' treatement of his subject is far more personal, nuanced, and interior.
Both Pressman, a reporter who sought to unravel an objective fact pattern that existed behind the "Werner" persona, and McWilliams, a self help author, describe on an identifiable psychological type, the Narcisstic Charismatic.
Sinclair Lewis' fictional creation, the preacher Elmer Gantry,
is in all probability the best extended meditation on the Narcisstic Charismatic. Life 102 often reads like a surreal retelling of Elmer Gantry with a dollop of Flannery O'Conner's _Wise Blood_, a goodly helping of Madame Blavatsky, some fringe science fiction, and a shot of daytime television game shows seen under the influence of mind altering substances.
A very useful and compact work, _Hypnotic Leadership_ by Micha Popper, will be necessary reading for those who wish to have a better psychodynamic grasp of this subject.
McWilliams appears to be in the last throes of ambivalence with Life 102, as he has neither Pressman's journalistic ability to tightly edit his thoughts, nor Popper's academic clarity, nor Sinclair Lewis' gifts as a storyteller.
He does, however, offer an exceptionally detailed study of the thought processes which animate the Leader figure as well as those of the Followers. McWilliams has found himself in the unique position of being able to look both ways, how does the Leader impose his will on his group, and how the group enables and empowers the Leader. One soon detects the outline of a dialectical process of the Leader and the Follower creating and shaping one another in a stable, hermetic "reality maintenance contract".
The major task before this field is that of shifting from the idea of the Leader as an alien force that captures unsuspecting souls in his tractor beams to that of appreciating that the Leader is more a creation of his Followers (who then willingly transfer their inner authority over to him) than the Followers are a creation of the Leader.
The Narcissistic Charismatic appears to be a disturbed personality type who might otherwise be marginalized or ridiculed, but under certain social circumstances discovers the perfect fertile soil for his "gift" to bear fruit.
Peter McWilliams has done an excellent (thorough to the point of tedium) job of capturing many salient details that other writers have glossed over as mere noise or simple too much effort to belabor. However, in paying close attention to these datails, much like examining a good specimen under a microscope, one can indeed fill out one's mental portrait of the Narcisstic Charismatic personality type, his tactics of "thought judo", his obsession with loyalty and betrayal, the gradual hardening of the personality, the wish to invent a parallel reality in which one is a deity or a superbeing, the gross discrepancies between the way the Followers perceive the Leader (his hygeine, his idiosyncracies, the meaning of his behavior and utterances) and a more objective, indifferent observer would.
For these reasons Life 102 is highly recommended for all students of the Narcisstic Charismatic personality, not as great literature, but as a highly detailed blueprint of this style and how it operates.