He commands the banquet room from the moment his lips part, pacing back and forth in front of us with verve, purpose and style, clad in a finely-tailored suit, never pausing to catch his breath or recollect. Summoning the words is no challenge. He has, after all, crafted and hewn them for just this purpose, in just this order, over the course of hundreds of events just like this, carefully selecting each letter until chained together they make the double helix look modest. Intricately bound, his words humbly bide their time within him until called forth to serve the master.
A few days earlier, on a sunny May Friday just before the blistering summer heat began its four-month assault on central Arizona, my law school held a party to say goodbye to the building that served as its home for nearly fifty years. I took the day off of work and celebrated the pending relocation to a much sexier off-campus edifice some ten miles to the west.
I think of this party as I sit before our presenter, enveloped in enchantment and disgust. I am mesmerized by this man and resent every word that leaps from his mouth. He peddles snake oil and I am determined to buy every last drop of it and then help him sell more. If only he would tell me how…
By what seemed at the time to be a happenstance of little note, over lunch at the old building’s celebration I bumped into a classmate of mine who I had not seen since we were students. We discovered that in the ten years since graduation we shared some overlap in our specialized area of practice, although in different states and at different times. Ultimately we agreed that we spent entirely too much time doing work that left us uninspired and unfulfilled, a refrain of discomfiting familiarity to anyone who has owned a law degree for over a decade. She went on to explain, with a vaguely dreamy look in her eyes, that after all of those years she finally found the path that gave purpose and mission to her professional existence.
‘The product,’ our magnificent presenter explains, ‘this product is something you cannot live without!’ Tell me more, I whisper. ‘Who here has ever needed a lawyer and not been able to afford one?’ A room full of raised hands. Eyes widening, he asks, ‘And how much does a lawyer cost when you need one?’ A thick murmur of quiet protest. ‘This product changes all of that. How have you lived without it for all of these years?’ I am ashamed when I admit in my own mind that I have never owned the product, finding it useless and a scam, and I pray that our presenter will not be able to detect these impure thoughts, pray that he will forgive me and let me buy and sell for him. He continues, ‘I have owned the product for more than fifteen years, it’s been in existence for more than forty, who could question its necessity?’ Cheers from the crowd, responding as if to their Reverend on Sunday morning. ‘Who could ever doubt its value?’ Nobody, the crowd shouts, nobody, nobody! He goes on, ‘Family… now family, who could argue against its legitimacy?’
After eight years, I told my friend at the law school, I finally moved on to something less stressful but equally unfulfilling. She, on the other hand, was part of a movement revolutionizing the way people practice and approach law. She didn’t elaborate much further, beyond saying it was unbelievably exciting, and as lunch ended the attendees were being gathered for a presentation in our grand lecture hall. She gave me her card and we exchanged contact information. As we parted ways and I sat down for the continuing education session, it occurred to me that I just spent more time talking to her than during the three years of law school combined.
I am grateful to be here with our presenter, to be granted this place in the audience, on this wonderful Tuesday night. His stories and witticisms continue as he demonstrates through PowerPoint all of the virtues of the product, and how minimal the cost is to purchase it, and how once we begin selling it, for a small upfront fee, we will be part of a larger community. ‘Family,’ he says again, ‘the possibilities are endless, you can make as much money as you want simply by recruiting others to sell for you. You will oversee their work for your business that will grow! It will be through your sweat and tears that you achieve success! And you will climb the ranks until you reach the top, and you will know happiness.’
Two days after the law school party my former classmate texted me to tell me how much she enjoyed reconnecting with me and that her company was hosting an event in a couple of days, a celebration for recent graduates and an opportunity to learn more about the organization. She invited me and, if nothing else, curiosity compelled me to attend.
The audience’s enthusiasm swells, a great wave rising with every step our presenter takes across the room, back and forth, a raconteur of the highest order fed by the reaction we before him provide. He regales us with anecdotes of people who had been saved by the product, who may have lost their liberty or livelihood without it. He then describes to us the endless perks, the tropical vacations, the BMW club, the worldwide network of support, friendship, and family. This all lay before us, to commit would be to join something much greater than ourselves. To decline would be to renounce paradise. ‘The choice is yours, family.’
When I arrived for the event on the second floor of a respectable businessman’s hotel on the outskirts of town, I was impressed by the size of the crowd and the buzz that coursed through it as everyone waited for the banquet room to open its doors and welcome us. My friend found me and introduced me to several people, including her mom and dad, and a beautiful young woman in a vibrant yellow dress. About three quarters of the people present were like me, unaware, uninformed and curious, many of whom appeared to be right around college-age. These must have been the graduates my friend mentioned. The rest appeared to work for the company and they each shared, I noted with a hint of concern that I quickly subdued, the same sly smile and mildly fervent glimmer over their eyes.
I recall the glimmer as our magnificent presenter reaches the end of his recital, which lasts twenty minutes longer than promised. I haven’t eaten yet and take exception to the disrespect for my time and rise as one with the group to applaud him and wish to myself that he would never quit his magical speaking. He leaves the room and then begin the personal testimonials.
As we entered, my friend led me to my chair, strategically placing me right in the middle of the crowd, towards the front, next to her mom and dad. It became clear throughout the evening that each individual was seated according to a scheme, likely repeated at these events around the country. The newcomer shall sit next to one member and one other newcomer. The members shall applaud, laugh and fully react to prompts, and shall give the impression of an unscripted call and response, which shall then result in the newcomers fully participating and growing comfortable, feeling wanted, and included, surrounded by the group. This happened repeatedly during our magnificent presenter’s speech. Even better, they seated all of the newcomers in such a fashion that getting up to leave would have been noisy and awkward. They created a captive audience.
Our presenter’s absence broke the spell and the testimonials were what you would expect. I was a failure, then I discovered the company and I have been blessed ever since. I was unemployed and beginning to engage in petty crimes, then the company rescued me. I am a mother of three and when my husband lost his job, I thought we would lose our house, then the company came and now we live in a bigger house. I was a lawyer, unhappy with my life and yearning for something more, then I found the company and I am never turning back.
After it ended I left as quickly as I could, feeling ill and suffering physical symptoms of withdrawal now that I was severed from that most charismatic creature. Barely pausing to say goodbye to my “friend” I made it outside, took in a breath of fresh air, got to my car and texted my wife that I had just endured a cult recruiting effort.
I researched the company a little bit the next day and the first couple of internet searches included the phrase pyramid scheme. The average employee, according to SEC filings from a few years back, earned two-hundred-fifty dollars annually. The setup was perfect: invite mostly recent graduates and describe to them a land of limitless bounty. Have the perfect embodiment of charisma pace the front of a room, invite individuals, lonely or lost, to join the family. Grab them young, ideally, maybe while they are trying to find a summer job or find their way, extract a few hundred dollars from them to start, and maintain the promise that the riches will come soon. Just be patient.
I didn’t fall for it, in the end, but even my skepticism was tested. Maybe this is legit. Maybe this is what I should be doing with my life. I haven’t really found my passion, maybe growing a business with great help and support is what I need. The magnificent presenter made it look so appealing, so wonderful. How could I go wrong? He wouldn’t lead me astray, would he?
The next day my old classmate texted me to ask me what I liked best about the event. I never answered her.
An educated man in my mid-thirties, I feel like I never should have been susceptible to a scam like this. But it all sounded so good, coming from his silver tongue, the riches and rewards, the meaningful existence, all just within my reach. I don’t believe that I was ever really at risk of falling for it, but it’s still nice to know that I got out of there with my wallet and dignity intact. It might sound silly, but I’m pretty proud of my resilience. Not everyone is so strong.
I’m glad I went through it. I’d never experienced anything like that before and I don’t know that I ever will again.
Now let me tell you about this opportunity that I have for you. This product will change your entire life…
Guest blogger RMK is an attorney for a paycheck, not a living. Previous posts by RMK include “Up To You“, “Seven Year Itch” and “Ribs“.