How I ended up in a pyramid scheme

I was broke and desperate enough to try anything -- like praying with Sufis and selling miracle chocolate

Topics: Life stories, Religion, Recession, Great Recession, Editor's Picks,

How I ended up in a pyramid scheme (Credit: iunewind via Shutterstock/Salon)
Names of certain individuals have been changed to protect their identities.

We were broke. Again. The economy, in a swirling, reverberating, downward spiral, took my freelance writing business and my husband’s fine art business with it. A newspaper I wrote for cut my fee to $25 per article, which after taxes could buy me a trip to Starbucks. The magazines weren’t much better.

After spending hours in the personal growth section at Get Lost bookstore, I splurged on a hardback edition of “How to Get a Life That Doesn’t Suck” to add to my already enormous self-help book collection. I also unearthed my dusty deck of Louise Hay’s “Power Thought” cards from my nightstand drawer, buried under mismatched jewelry, the TV remote, miscellaneous receipts to file, and a lubricant that promised to be warming and tropical but was neither.

I sat at my desk writing down affirmations just like Wayne Dyer told me to do:

I, Kirsten, never have to worry about money again. Ten times. Then I looked up to see my parents staring back at me from a silver Pottery Barn frame. My mom wore a silk mango-colored blouse that complimented her complexion; my dad sported a grey suit with a crisp white dress shirt and a navy and green striped tie.  The photograph appeared in the St. Peters Episcopal Church Directory. One of the reasons I refused to call them to borrow money: They would tell me to go to church. The more obvious reason was that it would make me feel like a complete loser.

I started to immerse myself in affirmations and visualizations, committing myself completely to all the techniques my self-help library provided. In addition to Louise Hay and Wayne Dyer, my shelves held a plethora of authors waiting to help me: Jerry and Esther Hicks, Rhonda Byrne, Dan Baker and Cathy Greenberg, Joel Osteen, Lynne Grabhorn, Terry Cole-Whittaker. The pervasive theme was the “Law of Attraction” – the idea that I have the power to bring into my life whatever I think about.

So, I directed all my work at attracting prosperity. I imagined unexpected checks arriving in my mailbox. I thanked the dollar bills that were in my wallet. I put a sticker on a dollar bill and wrote: “I am thankful for all the money I’ve been given in my life.” I wrote down things like, “I make more money than I’ve ever made this year,” and “Wonderful things come my way at all times.”



A few days after starting my routine, I felt good. In fact, I felt a bit self-righteous. I passed people walking down the street with a smile, thinking that I had this whole law of attraction thing down. And then, out of the blue, my friend Shakti (whose real name is Roseanne) offered me a free massage and Reiki session. A $120 service! Free! When I asked her why, she just laughed and said, “I’m not really sure. For some reason I felt like the universe was telling me to do something nice for you.”

It was a sign, I thought. I’m attracting good things to me. Next will be the checks arriving in my mailbox from unknown sources.

When I arrived at Shakti’s office, soothing Native American flute music played, and scents of lavender and lemon grass wafted through the air. Lit candles gave the room a warm glow. Shakti dressed the massage table with a fuzzy blanket. I am destined for this, I told myself. Very soon, I’ll be able to pay for this kind of service every week – it won’t even be a luxury.

As I was getting dressed after my treatment, I noticed a flier on the side table. It advertised a workshop called “God, Show Me the Money.” I was wary of “God” in the title, paranoid of being swept into some Heaven’s Gate cult where I’d await my soul’s departure on a spacecraft trailing the Hale Bopp comet.

When I asked Shakti about it, her eyes lit up. “Oh. My. God. This guy who is coming is A-MA-ZING. You should totally take this workshop.” She told me it was run by this Sufi master who accepts any and all connections to a higher power.

“Sufi?” I asked. “I was married by Sufis – my dear friends from San Diego. I’m not freaked out by Sufis. They’re all about love. Rumi! I love Rumi!”

“Exactly!” Shakti said, her energy infectious.

I looked at the cost. $300. “I don’t know. Money is really tight right now.”

“All the more reason to go,” Shakti said, grabbing my elbows. “This could change everything for you.”

Two weeks later, on a Friday evening, I arrived at the home of the workshop host, Tammy. She used Ghaffar as her adopted Sufi name (I would later find out that its meaning is “forgiving,” and she was working on forgiving her ex-husband for leaving her). A large woman wearing a tie-dyed mumu greeted us with hugs and gave us name tags to fill out with Sharpie pens as if we were at a singles mixer. She led us downstairs to a basement-level living room with dark faux wood paneling and brown shag carpet. We joined a handful of other people who, like me, clearly needed money. It was late June, and the room was stifling. We were cramped together in metal fold-out chairs, sweating.

A salt-and-pepper-haired middle-aged man with and a wee bit of stubble on his jawline and chin sat on the ground in front of us. This must be the master, Joe Salam Morgan, I thought. He sat yoga style, his legs folded in a pretzel, his hands resting on his knees. He wore a little black kippah on his head, kept his eyes closed, and curled his lips up a little, as if in pleasant thought. He looked a little like the actor Patrick Dempsey.

Joe opened his eyes after a few minutes and smiled. “Welcome,” he said in a low, slow voice like Ram Dass on acid, his arms spread, palms to the heavens, as if releasing doves. We told our sad stories – bankruptcies, foreclosures, repos, businesses gone under, thousands of dollars in credit card debt. A few of us wept. I’m a crier, so of course I did. I was more accustomed to the kind of icebreaker where we shared our favorite food or color and why.

We closed our eyes while Joe sang Sufi prayers.

I tried to block out the voice in my head that asked: What the fuck are you doing? But then, on our lunch break, I checked my voice mail and my husband, Todd, left me a message saying that some clients were in town, and wanted us to come over for dinner to discuss a substantial commission. Not only were Barbara and Ron very kind and interesting people, they were rich and always respected Todd’s fee. What’s more, they typically pulled out some fancy local wines that I dreamed of tasting but that were far beyond my budget. Could it be that all my positive visualizations for both Todd and myself, pretzel poses, chanting and singing were already working?

That night at dinner, sure enough, 95-point wines that I read about in glossy magazines flowed. The conversation was lively. The weather was perfect as we sat outdoors admiring the grounds of Barbara and Ron’s home. And here’s when it almost became too good to be true. Todd and I had wished to spend the Christmas holiday in Mexico for some time, but between airfare and lodging, it was always out of reach. Out of the blue, Ron mentioned that they couldn’t use their time share in Playa Azul Tulum over Christmas because their daughter was expecting a child during that time and would we like to use it. Are you kidding me, I thought?

That night, I called Shakti to tell her of my news.

“Uh-huh,” she responded in a tone that said I told you so.

The next day at the workshop when we were all gathered in what I had dubbed the Sufi sweat lodge, mumu woman stood at the front and said, “Kirsten, I understand that you experienced great results after yesterday’s session. Can you share with the group?”

I felt uncomfortable because I sensed my fellow beloveds knew I was the most skeptical of Joe’s teachings. I recounted the events of the prior evening and everyone clapped, and some even got up and hugged me. I was humbled, and felt guilty that I had judged these people and the process just the day before.

On a break, I called Todd. “I think these are my people,” I announced to him excitedly. “I think I’ve finally found a spiritual group I can relate to.”

The workshop ended and we all hugged and cried and blessed each other. Mumu woman approached me before I left, finally introducing herself as Betsy, but I should call her Fattah. She could sense my newfound enthusiasm for the workshop and asked if I wanted information on the Sufism University of Peace in California. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but hell, I already had several nearly useless degrees, why not add one that would be me closer to God and abundance!

I took the brochure and CD from the university home with me, and vowed to find the money to attend the university. That night, I got a message on my phone from Shakti. She said she had an “A-MA-ZING” business opportunity to discuss with me and could I stop by her house tomorrow. I was beside myself. The workshop had ended only two hours prior, and I was already being offered what sounded like a major opportunity.

The next day, I arrived at Shakti’s to find another woman from the workshop, Julie, there also. Julie, from what I remembered, was in worse financial shape than I was, which was hard to fathom. Shakti set out an ornate ceramic bowl filled with squares of dark chocolate and had a crazy grin on her face.

“You guys,” she said, clapping her hands and bouncing from side to side like a cheerleader, “I am so excited to tell you about this! God wants us to be rich!” She then picked up the bowl of chocolate and presented it to us as if it were a vessel of holy water. “First, you have to try this chocolate.”

I told her I wasn’t a sweets person – not a dieting thing, just a preference for savory. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and practically shoved a chunk into my mouth.

“This isn’t just chocolate. It’s Cacao Miracle, the chocolate for health.”

“What?” Alison asked before I could.

“It’s like a miracle chocolate. Here, watch this video.” She placed her laptop in front of us and pressed play. It occurred to me halfway through the presentation that Cacao Miracle was a multilevel marketing scheme. The last time I had been lured into sitting through such a presentation was when I was 22 and desperate for work. I applied for a sales and marketing position with a “rapidly growing company.” I showed up for the interview, only to find about 150 other people there, herded like cattle into a conference room to learn about a miracle water filtration system.

When the video was finished, Shakti said, “This is different. You’re already set up to succeed! You’re not coming in on the ground floor – Salam is at the top, Fattah is under him, I’m under her, you both would be under me, and I’ve got people lined up that would be under you. You make money on what you sell, and you make money off what the people under you sell.”

I tried to do the mental gymnastics in my head, sort of when I tried to understand my family’s genealogy chart. I was very confused.

“All you have to do is order your start-up kit,” Shakti said, interrupting the pyramid diagram I was constructing in my mind.

“That’s $350. What if I can’t sell any?” I protested.

“You have to trust,” Shakti said in a soft voice while holding my hands. “We saw you break through some of your trust issues in the workshop.”

I had a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe all these Sufis at the workshop were part of an MLM company. And on the other hand, I had come to trust them with my future.  I mean, it made sense that they were all working together, and that, collectively, their prayers and visualizations could sell a lot of chocolate – chocolate that cures diseases!

The next morning, Shakti called and asked me to meet her at a fancy place called Janine’s Bistro for lunch. I couldn’t afford much more than a cup of soup, but at least I’d get more information on this chocolate company.

I showed up to find Shakti already seated.

“I didn’t know you liked Janine’s,” I said, sitting down at the table covered in white linen, the crystal water glass shimmering in the afternoon sun.

“Just because I’m a healer doesn’t mean I don’t want the finer things in life. And just because you’re a writer, doesn’t mean you have to suffer.”

I took a big gulp of water, noticing the Cacao Miracle brochure set on the table.

“Look around,” Shakti said, extending her arm out. I glanced at the table next to ours, an attractive woman laughing, gold bangles on her wrist clinking together as she took a sip of white wine.  “This is your future. Believe it. Once you join Cacao Miracle, you can dine here every day.”

I took a minute to think about it, imagining my wealthier self about to order a beautiful meal. Screw the soup, I suddenly thought, rummaging through my wallet to find a credit card with any available balance. After all, by the time my meal showed up on my next credit card statement, I’d be able to pay off the entire card! I was feeling so good about the idea that I ordered a glass of French Chardonnay and the salmon special.

And next thing I knew, I was signing on the line and giving Shakti my debit card number, with clear instructions to not put the order through until Friday, otherwise I would be overdrawn.

That afternoon, I received an email from Salam, the leader of our “beloved chocolate team.” After congratulating me and welcoming me to the team, he instructed me to order a copy of the book “Life’s a Vacation” about a guy who became a multimillionaire through an MLM company. He had also set up a conference call for the team to give us a pep talk and do some group prayer.

But over the next couple of days, I heard an internal voice telling me to get out. Don’t sell chocolate. The voice got louder as the hours went on. I shared my feelings with Todd, and he told me to listen to my gut, which was in knots.

It was Thursday, which meant I still had time to bail. But despite my conviction, I was too much of a wimp to call Shakti, so I texted her. She immediately called me and I let the call go through to voice mail. I was clearly too susceptible to her power of persuasion. When I listened to her message, she said she couldn’t cancel the order because she already placed it. My face was burning. I went online to look at my bank statement. Sure enough, there was the charge, along with overdraft fees.

Before I even had a chance to call Shakti, I was getting phone calls and emails from Joe Salam, Betsy Fattah and a couple of other people I didn’t know telling me that the team needs me, that I’m a natural, and they all brought up the trust crap again. I felt like I was in a cult, and knew that I had made the right decision.

Though Shakti apologized profusely for putting in the order too soon (“I was just so excited to get you going” was the excuse), I spent nearly the entire day trying to get ahold of the chocolate people to tell them to not send the starter kit and credit my account. I couldn’t get through to a live person, and every time I called, the president of the company gave a robotic Stepford wives-style greeting congratulating the caller on discovering the world’s most powerful antioxidant and business opportunity. I barraged the customer service email, even threatening to sue. (A. I don’t have an attorney. B. I used to have an attorney, but he went to jail for dealing marijuana.)  A week later, a refund was posted to my mess of a bank account.

But the harassment from the Sufis wouldn’t stop. Eventually, I called Shakti, furious. She made one last-ditch attempt to persuade me.

“If you just let God hold your heart in his hands …”

“Uh, Shakti,” I said.

“And just be willing to receive what He wants for you …”

“Shakti.”

“Because what He wants for you is abundance in all ways and …”

“Shakti! God does not want me to sell chocolate!” And with that, I hung up the phone.

I never spoke to Shakti again, but I heard recently that she got married to a guy that she met at the Sufism University of Peace and lives in a yurt in Weed, Calif. As for the beloved chocolate team, I heard that some of them had moved on to another MLM company.

Despite all of this, I keep doing affirmations, and I do believe that I have attracted good things into my life as a result. Just not chocolate.

Kirsten Telander is an award-winning fiction writer, co-author of "Wine Taster's Survival Guide," and a contributor to numerous Pacific Northwest publications. She lives in Walla Walla, Washington with her husband, artist Todd Telander, sons Miles and Oliver, and eight chickens.

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