Monday, June 11, 2007

A curse in miracles, Part 1.

It is known as "A Course in Miracles." And in 1997, it became the gateway to the New Age—and a new sub-basement of hell—for Donald Grogan.

Donald was then a long-haul driver for a major interstate trucking firm; his pretty wife, Lesley, a former school teacher, was now a stay-at-home mom to their two young children, and a part-time daycare worker. Life was good for the Grogans, at least as Don saw things. He had taken a somewhat unusual path into trucking almost two decades earlier, arriving as what he liked to call a "corporate refugee" after graduating from college and quickly burning out on the business world. And he did well enough driving his long hauls from the Grogans' midwestern base, taking home "high five figures" most years. Sometimes Lesley would accompany Don on trips that ended in destinations they'd both wanted to see, if he could work out the timing and they could get someone to watch the kids. "You can't always pick and choose when you come and go," he explains. "You can't sit somewhere for three days with a load of cantaloupes." But by this point in his 19 years in trucking, Don knew how to work the angles of the schedule. He was especially pleased in the summer of 1997 when that schedule permitted him to arrange a long weekend in Los Angeles.

Aside from the normal enticements of a trip to The Coast, Don had planned a special surprise for Lesley, who'd recently developed an intense interest in Marianne Williamson. Williamson's status as high priestess of the New Age, Pop-Culture Division, was unquestioned in the mid- to late-1990s, thanks in no small part to her obligatory kiss-the-ring appearances on Oprah. What is true of almost all self-help stars was especially true of Williamson: Her message of love and faith proved irresistible to American women. Three of Williamson's books during this period reached the coveted No. 1 slot on the New York Times best-seller list, beginning with 1992's A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles, which spent fully 39 weeks atop the list. Although Don thinks he saw his wife eventually reading such subsequent Williamson classics as Illuminata and A Woman's Worth, it was Return to Love that had Lesley Grogan's full attention in the summer of '97; that much he's sure of. "It was like she was reading scripture," recalls Don. "She would read it a while, put it down and think, sometimes close her eyes, then pick it up and read some more. She'd do this over and over, any given night in bed." At the core of the book was the "course in miracles" itself, which Williamson has described as "spiritual psychotherapy."*

Anyway, because it all seemed innocent to Don—in fact, he'd noticed the increased patience Lesley seemed to show around the kids**—he decided that while they were in L.A., they'd take in one of the mega-seminars that Williamson now was holding. "I was never into that stuff," he says, "but Les'd tell me it would be good for me to 'try to grow,' too, you know. And I figured what the hell, it would make her happy if we went together." Seeing her happy, he says, made him happy.

Lesley Grogan was very happy, if not positively euphoric, on the night of the seminar, which Don remembers very well. He remembers the singing, and the hypnotic aura that overhung the auditorium. Above all, he remembers it as the last night that he felt fully connected to his wife of 10 years.

"Oh, I saw the change immediately," he says. "What I noticed first was, she stopped holding my hand. When we went out together, she used to always take my hand as soon as we got out of the car, and that's how we'd walk into restaurants." No more. In fact, not only did Lesley stop taking his hand, but she often seemed unaware of his presence, lost in thought: "there but not really there," as Don puts it. It struck Don as very odd behavior for a woman studying a book on love.

Over the ensuing several months, Lesley grew progressively more immersed in the New Age. For one thing, she began speaking differently, seemingly in a new, private tongue (a common characteristic of people on the path to spiritual enlightenment, as we'll see in other stories). "I'd ask her the same ordinary questions I'd been asking for years and get these spacey answers about harmonic vibrations," says Don. "A simple thing like, 'Have you seen my blue shirt, honey?'—you never knew where that could lead. The conversation could go almost anywhere from there."

Don also had a more concrete way of measuring his wife's growing absorption in the New Age: money. Specifically, its disappearance. "She was calling all the psychic hotlines," he recalls. "We'd get phone bills that were suddenly $300 because of the 900 numbers." The charges started showing up on the Mastercard as well. When one bill revealed $700 in such charges, he half-jokingly told Lesley, "Next time you call, maybe you could ask, 'Will we ever have money again after I finish spending it all calling you?' " Lesley didn't see the humor. "She looked at me with that peculiar expression that was almost always on her face and said, 'Money's not important to me.' " So I said, "We have two kids, don't you think money's important to them?' And she'd say, 'The kids will be provided for.' " Don wanted to ask what she meant by that—why she'd phrase it in such a strange, almost ominous way—but he was frankly afraid to. He had a feeling the answer was guaranteed to make him feel even worse.

Soon, having burned out on the understanding approach, Don tried to confront his wife, but that went nowhere, either: "She wouldn't engage. I could scream, I could plead with her, I could try to have a normal conversation; it didn't matter. She was in this place she went to where I wasn't invited." Still, the kids looked well cared-for and didn't seem troubled by the changes in Mommy that were so obvious to Don, so he tried to write it off as a "phase."

At around this time, late fall of 1997, Don was just back from a trip when he got a call from the daycare where Lesley worked. It came on an afternoon when Lesley was out shopping, and he welcomed the call, having wondered how his wife's newfound state-of-being was going over with the other adults with whom she routinely interacted. He'd planned to ask Lesley's boss about it, but the woman, though tentative and clearly uncomfortable, beat him to the punch. "She said she hoped I wouldn't think she was crazy," says Don, "but she wanted to know if I'd 'noticed anything' about Lesley. I wanted to say, 'Are you kidding?! How about everything?' " It took every ounce of willpower Don could summon, he says, for him not to scream into the phone, " 'Thank you, thank you—so I'm not the one who's going psycho here!' " But he didn't, he says, because he was loyal, and he still loved his wife very much, and he "didn't want to make things worse if this was something she would eventually snap out of."

Tomorrow: Don learns that it isn't just a phase, and she won't be snapping out of it.

Read part 2.

* It bears noting here that Williamson herself is not ordained to practice any religion, and owns no credentials in psychotherapy.
** Later, Don would wonder if it was really "increased patience," or the beginning of the detachment, the constant spaciness, that had overtaken his wife in full by the fall of that year.


NOTE: All situations recounted in this series of stories are as described to me by the people who were kind enough to submit their experiences. Where possible and practical, I have made a good-faith effort to verify stories through independent means. I reserve the right to make minor changes to names, dates, and places, in circumstances where such verification was not possible, or where the risk of legal complications looms large. Not a single material fact has been embellished or fabricated. Like all content in this blog, these stories are subject to applicable provisions of U.S. Copyright Law and international treaties on same. All rights reserved. No material is to be reproduced in any form without my written permission, except for usages covered by "fair use" provisions of law.


Cosmic Connie said...

My guess is that this story is already sounding distressingly familiar to many who have been close to followers of New-Age/New-Wage cults. The changes Donald describes in his wife are so typical -- particularly the conversations that don't make any sense. Once the cult follower starts talking almost exclusively in "the lingo," he or she is lost to you, and vice versa. From a distance it’s often amusing, but when you’re involved with someone who suddenly begins to spew spirito-babble, it’s scary and sad.

In the early 90s I briefly met Marianne Williamson, who hails from my neck of the woods. (So, for that matter, do John Gray, John Bradshaw, and John DeMartini. What *is* it about this place? Must be the swampy air or the pollution. :-)) Anyway, the event where I met Marianne was a book signing at a metaphysical bookstore for "A Woman's Worth." A line of eager customers -- mostly women, natch -- extended all the way through the medium-sized store and out onto the sidewalk. On a whim I actually bought a copy of the book, even though I was well into developing my Cosmic-Connie brand of cynicism by then. In fact I had a pretty cynical opinion of Ms. Williamson.

But she exuded such an air of sincerity… and up close, I saw what looked like genuine kindness in her eyes. We had a brief conversation as she signed my book, “For Connie: May the Goddess reveal your glory to everyone.” I began to understand her appeal, though I did not succumb, being too far on my path away from that stuff. I did actually try to read her book, and much of it seemed to be nonsense – fairly eloquent and poetic nonsense at times, but nonsense nonetheless.

BTW, “A curse in miracles” has a second meaning. Sweet as she is, Ms. Marianne is no stranger to using foul language when the occasion calls for it.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I hope your teasers have a better pay off than the SOpranos last night. Man that was terrible. I guess they had to leave their options open but, after the big build up I still felt cheated.

I didn't mean to change the subject, this is good stuff, just venting frsutration that I think alot of people are feeling today!

Steve Salerno said...

Carl, it's OK, I feel your pain. And yes, apparently (based on AOL's coverage of the "event") I wasn't the only one who momentarily reached for the phone to call my cable company and see if we'd lost transmission.

As to the matter at hand, yes again, I think this story will have a "better payoff" for you, though one hesitates to use that terminology in light of the needless damage wreaked on a family here.

a/good/lysstener said...

This sounds like it's going to be a heartbreaking story in the end, Steve, but I enjoyed the way you set it up. Very suspenseful and, if it means anything coming from me, well-written.