It took me two years to be able to write this …
I haven’t been able to deal with all the emotions since I drove off the hill at IICD, Williamstown [Massachusetts] in the summer of 1998. I just did not want to talk about it or think about it.
It even took me a minute to remember Ester Neltrup’s name — that’s how deep I have suppressed everything about my 5 years in the Teachers Group.
I even kept defending them long after I left, and denied I had been in a cult or had in any form been “brainwashed.”
I know better now, after a little time and distance. Being back out in the real world really cleared my eyes!
Ester, then IICD’s principal, screamed “just leave!” to me while Mikael Norling, who also lived there for a year, tried to keep me in the TG by offering me a position as principal of the new California campus!
Since I started signaling my TG “friends” that I might get on with my life outside of the group, I experienced all kinds of reactions from them, from extreme hate or golden promises, and people I had regarded as my closest friends stopped talking to me altogether. I was no longer to be trusted, and was “frozen out.” They held meetings behind my back, and kept paperwork about new developments hidden when I entered the office building.
It was time for me to leave …
I would like to share my experiences. I did an Internet search for IICD and found this site. I got a lump in my throat when I read the stories by Steen [Thomsen], Britta [Junge] and ‘Else’. I was not with the TG from the beginning, but I worked with many of the members during my first years and heard a lot of the same stories from them (in confidentiality). Thank you for getting the TRUTH out.
I was part of the TG for 5 years — 1994 to 1998. When I look back on what I did as part of this movement, I am not proud. I was in the end well aware that we were lying to our students at the schools and even helping them only tell half-truths in order to fundraise. I was part of cheating the authorities in any way we could get away with, and we fooled the public to gain a pretty decent share of the huge profits in the second-hand clothes market. We were deceitful in nearly all aspects of our operations.
In the three years since I left the group it has been hanging as a black cloud over my head. I suppressed everything that had to do with my “five lost years” but now I feel like I owe to my former students, friends and general public to do some explaining. What the hell happened to me, how could I change from an idealistic, honest volunteer into one that five years later was trapped in a network of lies and deceit?
I was all the time insisting to my family and friends outside of the TG that what we were doing was good. No, we were not a cult, and no, I haven’t been brainwashed! It was just that I had so much to do that I could only come home one week a year.
I first encountered the TG in fall 1993. I started as a Solidarity Worker in Hornsjoe, Norway (I’m Norwegian). In January 1994 I went as a volunteer to Guinea-Bissau, knowing very little about the country or Development Aid from People-to-People (aka Planet Aid, Humana People-to-People, or the Gaia Movement).
Our team dug 75 latrines and 10 wells in one of Africa’s poorest countries. For me the biggest shock was to return to an industrialized, almost decadent country where people just didn’t care or want to hear about how 4 out of 5 people on this planet are living below the poverty line. I always had to think of my own path to recruitment, when we later discussed whether any of our students were “ready for the TG yet.”
Since the TG’s beginning, the practice of sending unsuspecting volunteers to the poorest countries in the world has been a method used to prime people to be ready to make the life changing decision it is to join the TG.
I was sure enough ready to continue doing good work. I mentioned to my teacher that I would like to continue working for the organization. They sent me to Denmark to see the different schools and talk to longtime members. I had all along noticed a great deal of amateurism within the organization and met quite a few TG members who were incompetent in their positions. After seeing more of the same in Denmark I was ready to leave without making any commitments with them. I told this to my host, the principal of the school in Lindersvold, and said that I expected to get on the train home tomorrow.
The next morning Steen Conradsen arrived at the school and the teachers there made a big deal out of the fact that this TG big shot had taken time to meet with me. A teacher explained to me that Steen was one of the top people in the TG. His job was to travel all over to help with schools or projects in trouble. He takes over as executive director for six months and turns around schools or projects about to fail.
They sure built him up, and I was pretty excited when we met. He seemed to be exactly what they had said: extremely intelligent and charismatic.
I met with him for four hours straight. He did listen to my concerns and he told me about some of the TG’s ideology. Yes, some of us are less able and we sometimes take on tasks that are too big. But where else in the world could anyone work in a system where you can do anything you want, wherever you want, in the whole world? This is exactly why we need more intelligent people like yourself, he said, to improve and spread our alternative way of life. You can stay on the outside and criticize or you can join a group of like-minded people who have all dedicated their lives to Do Good. The TG provides start up capital for the life of your dreams and it’s impossible to get fired! You will no longer have to worry about loans, insurance or social security; the TG provides for all that.
Steen asked me what I wanted to do with my life if money were no obstacle. If I could picture my ideal life, what would it be? I said that I would like to travel all over the world, to learn and to help people. I am not religious or believe in any sort of afterlife. I think we all have one chance to live here on earth and I want to do my best to change the conditions for other more unfortunate people. Steen said that this is also what they thought about in the TG’s beginning. How could people free themselves from the ties of the capitalistic society and do what they really wanted? By creating their own independent society. A group of 20 people met in the late 1960s and early 1970s to explore a totally new way of relating to one another. The common was to come before the individual. The true democracy was when all decisions were made in common — and everyone agrees.
So paradoxically, he went on, the most important of your individual freedoms — your time, your money, your decisions — has to be given to the common to decide if you want to be free from the normal ties of the society. But instead of creating an elitist utopia, anyone who decides they want to join, can do so! This is why we are in no way perfect as you say, but we are a long step ahead of anyone else. Imagine what you can do with the power of 20 yearly salaries, or 200, or 2000! We have farms all over the world, we run our own clothes factory in Morocco, we have a TV crew who sail around the world making documentaries, we have doctors and scientists, even our own art museum and symphony orchestra! We are not revolutionaries, or a secret society. But we do want to change the world. When they hear about us, people can decide if this is something they want to be a part of or not. We don’t force anyone, Steen said, and I won’t be sad if you or anyone else decide to go on living their lives outside of the TG.
The way it works is that anyone who wants to join the TG, does so on a trial period of two years. He or she can then decide if this is something they want to continue to be committed to. They extend their commitment from a two year agreement to an indefinite agreement. It is not a written contract; we call it an “agreement” — your word is enough. In the TG we value a man’s word, maybe more than in the rest of the society. If you promise something in the TG, you have to keep it.
I decided to try it for the two years, and was sent to Grindsted, Denmark to be sworn in. I was read the same speech as all the other TG members, where you say yes to common time, common economy and common decisions.
Then, as the first of many surprises, there actually were a few things to sign, but in the excitement over joining I would certainly not make a fuss. The timing of this was perfect: I had decided to join, had just been sworn in and they downplayed these documents — all in Danish — that were presented for me to sign. They said it was just to keep our common bookkeeping easier and so they could do my taxes for me, etc.
The papers I signed gave them authority to sign documents for me, and allowed them to use my name in bank transactions. They could now put my name on a board of trustees or representatives for an organization without having to inform me first. I asked them to explain, and they said that this was a way for the TG to keep most of our hard earned money. We try to manage our funds as best we can, and pay as little tax as we can. It is the same as any individual would do, but because we are a group it really helps when there are just a few good economists who work full time to take care of TG’s economy in the best way we can. The other members can then spend more time on what they want to do. Of course everything we do is legal, but why should we be punished for pooling our money?
The society is built up around the core family, which has all kinds of laws and regulations that hassle a bigger unit of people. We have taken the decision to live our lives together in our way, and we do not want to be punished by paying extra to the government for our choice.
When I left the TG, I requested to have all my paperwork and documents sent back to me. I never did get the documents I signed (or copies of them) back, but they sent me my tax records and a letter stating that my file now is empty and closed.
I guess I will never know how much my name was being used, but just from the tax records I received it states that I received money from the Danish government as a teacher in government supported Traveling Folk High Schools. The course I led lasted 11 months; six of these we were in Africa, where the papers I now have show that I also had a salary as a project leader — $31,000 a year.
I remember signing that I had received my salary on a document that showed the transactions from Development Aid from People to People (now Humana or the Gaia Movement)‘s account to a private TG bank account in Switzerland! I also had the maximum allowed tax deductible gift to a foundation, called the Foreningen til Almene Formål [The Association for General Purposes]. This is also where we sent our regular salaries, and from where we got travel and pocket money as we needed it.
I led teams from Denmark to Guinea-Bissau and from the US to Nicaragua. We traveled to Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Finland and Germany with students for work at the second-hand stores or canvassing. During my five years in the TG I fundraised about 40 weeks. Every day up to 10 hours of aggressive street solicitation or door-to-door canvassing. This is part of every group’s training and is how the US schools get the money to run their programs.
The primary goal is money, but it also has a secondary effect on the people who do it. I am not sure how intentional it is, but this is where I can see a similarity to brainwashing: every day, for long periods of time, you have to approach strangers and try to convince them that what you are doing is good. So good, in fact, that they are willing to give you cash or a check to help you and your group in your work. Everyone has a goal to reach and we are not quitting until all the money is raised.
Each person has to raise $5,600 in seven weeks, and we left it pretty much up to the individuals exactly what they said to get the donations. You don’t really know a whole lot about your organization, or exactly where the money goes. You have a binder that shows the 501(c)(3) nonprofit registration, the city or village permit, articles, and letters of recommendation. About 20% quit the program because of the fundraising experience. The rest convince themselves that what we’re doing is really good, or at least that the reward — going to Nicaragua or Africa — is worth it. That is the effect it had on me, anyway.
Even after I saw how most of the money we raised went to the TG — and the other TG branches also seemed to generate income for themselves — I justified it by thinking that then the TG gets more money to expand and start other good things.
This is in essence why I stayed with the group as long as I did. I had the basic notion that we were doing something good for the world. This made me ignore the lies. We felt we were above the law. We were true revolutionaries, an elite, way ahead of normal people. We were a group of people who had dedicated our lives to our way of creating a new society.
We had an unwritten rule: to try to deal as little with authorities and governments as possible. It seemed that the goal was to be totally cut off or independent from the rest of the world. We even had our own fruit-of-the month thing going, whereby some of the TG plantations sent boxes of fruit to us. Each step in expanding the TG’s power was therefore good.
A significant amount of money finds its way to the TG through what on the surface are nonprofit organizations that actually do help people, which makes for a great cover-up and motivates people to support them. But the TG does a lot of selling and buying with itself — the used clothing collection and other businesses — and the profit, rent and salaries from all these operations go to the TG’s Common Economy.
We were pretty frank about this when we discussed budgets among ourselves in the TG. We looked at the budgets in two ways: how can we make sure that the TG benefits most from this, and how do we make sure that no outsiders can prove that this is happening.
For example, when I transferred to the US on a tourist visa, I could only help as a volunteer without salary. We solved this by giving another teacher a 100% raise to make sure that the TG wouldn’t lose money on me. I was listed as an unpaid volunteer in all official documents, and I had to explain for my teams not to call me team leader or teacher when we crossed the borders.
When IICD started in the US, Argyll Smith, a TG company in the UK tax-haven of Jersey, bought the grounds and buildings, so the TG actually collected rent from itself. We justified this by saying that the true ownership is nobody else’s business. One company can legally own and rent a piece of land to another. Legally, nobody can tell people what to do with their own private money. Why should it be wrong for people to share?
Legally we were untouchable, but IICD/Humana/Gaia etc. is dependent on the fact that the public doesn’t know who these groups really are.
Here are just a few personal stories off the top of my head: I was forced by the rest of the IICD teachers — Ester, Michael, Mattias and Uli — to lie to my students. Mattias and I had “slipped up” and told some of our students that we really owned the place as TG members. There was an uproar among the students, who, of course, were bright enough to realize that a significant amount of their fees and fundraising went back into our pockets, as IICD pays rent for the property and buildings to Argyll Smith.
They held a big “common meeting” to try to calm the students and deny any TG involvement with Argyll Smith.
I told Ester at the pre-meeting that I did not want to be part of directly lying to the students. Of course they all attacked me, asking where my solidarity was — with the students, or the TG? And that it was none of their business who owned Argyle Smith. All I had to do was to pretend I didn’t know. I am ashamed to say that I sat through the meeting with the students, listening to the teachers lie and the students’ accusations being right on. A few students didn’t believe us and left. This happened with nearly every group at every TG school that I was involved with, when they get a hint that something is wrong with the way things are being presented.
Another recollection: when leading a team from the Traveling Folk High School in South Zealand [Denmark] to Guinea-Bissau, we did another little salary cheat. While six months in Guinea-Bissau, the TG got my salary as a teacher for the group I led abroad. Dag Rune Hauglund, the Country Director, had me sign a contract stating that I was employed as a Project Leader. I later was sent an earnings record document, from Grindsted, with a note saying to sign and return it. It said I had earned $31,000 in that period and my salary had been sent to a Swiss bank account!
I thought that was amusing, so I kept a copy of it — which I still have.
It feels great being able to share this with people who were in it with me. I look forward to hearing from you, and maybe write more as a way to expose, warn others or just as a form of self-therapy for my 5 “lost” years.
I live in Chicago, happily married and work as a firefighter. I haven’t told many of my new friends about my past. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit I spent 5 years in a cult.
Keep up the good work.
(Name changed )