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The mind guru who electrocuted his stepfather
Richard Bandler is a former cocaine addict who was once tried for murder, and who admits to being "a little sociopathic ". Yet he has changed the way millions of people think. The Guardian's Jon Ronson went to meet him
It is a Friday in April, and you'd think some crazy evangelical faith healing show was taking place in the big brown conference room of the Ibis hotel in Earl's Court, West London. The music is pumping and the 600 delegates are ecstatic. There are people from British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, British Gas, BT, Bupa, Dixons, the Department for Work and Pensions, Ladbrokes and Transport for London. They have come to learn how to be better in the workplace. Lots of them tell me they signed up because of the TV star Paul McKenna, but the great revelation is the other speaker - the man they hadn't heard of.
Of all the gurus who thrived during the Californian New Age gold rush of the Seventies, Richard Bandler has had by far the biggest influence, on millions of people, most of whom know nothing about him. Bandler invented NLP, or Neurolinguistic Programming. From what I can gather, NLP is a way of "re-patterning" the human brain to turn us into super-beings. It is the theory that we can be reprogrammed as easily as computers. You were abused as a child? Forget therapy; just turn off the bit of the brain that remembers the abuse. You want to become a great
salesperson? NLP will reprogram you. Some people hail the way NLP has seeped into training programmes in businesses across the world. Others say NLP is a cult invented by a crazy man.
I first heard of Bandler in 2002, when a former US Special Forces soldier told me he'd watched him, two decades earlier, bring a tiny girl into Special Forces and reprogram her in seconds to be a world-class sniper. Bandler's theories were greeted with high praise in the Seventies and Eighties: Al Gore and Bill Clinton and practically every Fortune 500 Corporate chief declared themselves fans. But then there was the descent into the dark side - reportedly, during the Eighties, a coked-up Bandler had a habit of telling people he could dial a number and have them killed just like that. Then came the murder trial: in 1988, Bandler was tried and acquitted of murdering a prostitute, Corine Christensen. She'd been found slumped over a dining table, a bullet in her head. Her blood was found sprayed on Bandler's shirt. And now there's the renaissance, in the form of Bandler's partnership with the British TV hypnotist Paul McKenna. In 1994 McKenna -a long-time .admirer - suggested to Bandler that they go into business together. Since then, NLP has become bigger than ever, a vast empire that's making everyone millions.
Purple Haze booms through the speakers and Bandler climbs on to the stage. He hushes the crowd. "I marched up the Amazon," he says. "I threatened gurus to get them to tell me their secrets. They're pretty co-operative when you hold them over the edge of the cliff." There is laughter. "There was one Indian guru," Bandler continues, "I was holding him over the edge of a cliff, I said to him, 'My hand is getting tired. You have seven seconds to tell me your secrets.' Well, he told me them fast, and in perfect English!" I have to say that, had I been tried for murder, I would be less forthcoming with the murder gags.
Two hours pass in a flash. Bandler is mesmerising. He talks about childhood trauma. He puts on a whiny voice: '"When I was five, I wanted a pony... my parents told me I was ugly...'Shut the fuck up!" He gets the audience to chant it: "Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!" If you hear voices in your head, he says, tell them to shut the fuck up. "If you suffered childhood abuse, don't go back and relive it in your mind. Once is enough!" He says psychotherapy is a racket. Who cares about the roots of the trauma? "Don't think about had things!" During the lunch break, a delegate sidles up to me. "You're a very naughty boy!" she says. "Richard will be very cross with you!" "What?" I yelp. "You kept writing when Richard was talking even though you knew you weren't supposed to!" she says. "And you didn't have a smile on your face. Everyone was laughing, but you were scowling." Earlier Bandler said he had no unhappy clients. His exact words were, "The reason why all my clients are a success is that I killed all the ones who weren't."
Over the days that follow, Bandler and McKenna cure a stream of delegates of their phobias and compulsions. There’s a woman who had barely left her home for a year. She says a bossy voice in her head tells her the heater will turn itself on when she’s out and burn down her house. Bandler gets her to turn down the knob in her brain that controls the volume of the bossy voice. Then he gets the bossy voice to tell her, "If you keep worrying about this heater, you're going to miss out on everything good in your life." This is called the Swish technique: you take a bad thought, turn it into an image, and then swish it away, replacing it with a good thought. "I don't care about you any more, heater, because I want to get my life back," the woman says, and the audience cheers. Yesterday, Bandler cured someone who had a fear of doctors. Now he gets him to stand up. "Are you scared of going to the doctor?" he asks. "I... uh... hope not," the man replies quietly. "Boo!" shouts the audience, only half good-naturedly.
Richard Bandler was horn in 1950. He grew up in a rough part of New Jersey. During our interview I don't expect him to talk much about his childhood because several profiles say he never does. So I'm surprised when he says, "I was a compulsive kid." "Where did your compulsiveness come from?" I ask. "From being alone most of the time. My mother was always out working, and my father was violent and dangerous." He pauses. "Well, my first father was gone by the time I was five. My mother later married a guy who was a drunk and a prize fighter in the navy. He was very violent - broke a lot of my bones. But in the end I won." "How?" I ask, expecting him to say something like, "Look at me now, I'm getting driven around in a Bentley." But instead he says, "I electrocuted him." "Really?" I say. "I didn't kill him," he says, "but I could have. I waited until it was raining. I got a wire-mesh doormat. I stripped a lamp cord, put it underneath the doormat, put the other end in the keyhole and put my hand on the switch. When the key went in, I clicked the switch. There was a loud scream. He went over the railing. Six months in hospital."
The family moved to California, where Bandler became "a juvenile delinquent. Then I discovered it wasn't the Harley-Davidson that was scaring people. It was the look in the eye." He was diagnosed as a sociopath. "And, yeah, I am a little sociopathic." He says NLP came to him in a series of hallucinations while he was "sitting in a little cabin, with raindrops coming through the roof, typing on my manual typewriter". When you think about it, there is something sociopathic about seeing people as computers who store desires in one part of the brain and doubts in another. "See, it's funny," says Handler. "When you get people to think about their doubts, notice where their eyes move. They look down! So, when salespeople slide that contract in, suddenly people feel doubt, because that's where all the doubt stuff is." "So where should a salesperson put the contract?" I ask. "Put the contract on a clipboard," he says, "and present it to them up here!"
These were the kinds of ideas Bandler was typing in his cabin at the age of 25. His book would eventually be published under the title The Structure Of Magic. It was a huge hit. "Time magazine, Psychology Today, all of these people started seeking me out," he says. He designed training programmes for businesses across the US. They made him rich. He was hailed as a genius. But by the early Eighties things were spiralling downwards. His first wife filed for divorce, claiming he had choked her. He became a prodigious cocaine user and struck up a friendship with a cocaine dealer, James Marino. In early November 1986, Marino was beaten up; he got it into his head that his girlfriend, Corine Christensen, had organised the beating so she could take over his cocaine business. Bandler phoned Corine, and the conversation was recorded: "Why is my friend hurt? I'll give you two more questions, and then I'll blow your brains out..." Eight hours later Corine was shot in the head at her home. "Tell me about the murder trial," I say. He tells me what he told the jury - that Marino did it. Yes, he, Bandler, was in the house at the time. He lifted her head, which is how her blood ended up on his shirt.
I change the subject. I say, half-joking, that being an NLP genius must be awful. "To know what everyone's thinking," I say. "You must feel like one of those superheroes, ground down by their own superpowers." "Yeah," Bandler replies, suddenly looking quite upset. "You walk into a supermarket and you hear someone say to their kid, 'You're never going to be as smart as other kids.' And I see the kid's eyes, pupils dilating, and I see the trance going on in that moment... It became a burden to know as much as I did." And then he goes quiet, as if he is falling into himself.
I suppose people shouldn't judge gurus until they need one. Luckily, I do a bit. And so I use my audience with Paul McKenna to get him to cure me of my somewhat obsessive conviction that something bad has happened to my wife and son when I can't get hold of them on the phone. He does Handler's Swish technique on me. He gets me to picture one of my horrific imaginary scenes. I choose my son stepping out in front of a car. He spots, from my eye and hand movements, that the mental image is situated in the top right hand of my vision, big, close to my eyes. "Part of the neural coding where we get our feelings from comes from the position of these pictures," he says. "Pictures that are close and big and bright have a greater emotional intensity than those that are dull and dim and further away." "And Bandler was the first person to identify this?" I ask. "Yes," he says.
He chats away to me, in his hypnotic baritone voice, about this and that. He is extremely likeable. Suddenly, when I'm not expecting it, he grabs the space in the air where my vision was and mimes chucking it away. "Let's shoot it off into the distance," he says. "Shrink the picture down, drain the colour out of it, make it transparent..." And, sure enough, as the image shoots away, far into the distance, the neurotic feelings associated with it fade, too. This is Paul McKenna "re-patterning" my brain. He says it isn't self-help. I don't have to do anything. This is re-programming, and I am fixed. "You don't have to do anything now. It's worked."
Three weeks pass. I don't have a single paranoid fantasy about something bad happening to my wife and son. And so I have to say, for all the weirdness, I become very grateful that Richard Bandler invented NLP and taught it to Paul McKenna.
This article first appeared in The Guardian. Paul McKenna Training: 0845-230 2022; www.paulmckenna.com.
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