We’ve been talking lately about multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) and their similarity to the worst end of Christianity. I even noticed a few people in comments talking about how recognizing that similarity helped them escape the religion itself. Much the same thing happened reto me. Today, let me show you how an MLM shill for Amway accidentally firmed up a lot of apprehensions I felt about Christianity. Today, join me for the story of the Ambot who loved me.
(Disclaimer: I present this story as an isolated event that I personally experienced. I do not pretend that my or Roy’s experience is representative of all Amway salespeople or practices. Names have been changed to protect those who really should feel guilty–but don’t.)
Biff and I traveled to Japan in the very early part of 1994. When we failed to find long-term employment there, we returned home. Instead of going back to Houston, we decided together to head for Portland, Oregon.
Thanks to some friendly contacts back in Houston, I found a job immediately. Biff had a lot more trouble, though. Having proven incapable of finding work in Japan, Biff next proved incapable of finding work in Portland. I watched in astonishment and then dismay as he sabotaged every single opportunity he lucked into. Weirdly enough, interviewers seemed solidly uninterested in a job candidate who spent most of the interview yammering about Jesus and trying to proselytize them. Gosh, that’d gone so well for him in Texas!
About six months after moving to Portland, he enlisted in the military.
Just before he shipped out to boot camp, he asked our across-the-way neighbor Roy to keep an eye on me. He also asked Roy to make sure I had people around me and stuff to do. He trusted Roy, though I barely knew him.
As it turns out, Biff’s judgment of character was about as good as his grasp of morality.
Roy the Ambot.
Roy was a shill for Amway. He belonged to a very large and famous distributors’ group.
Most of my knowledge of Amway involved its cleaning products and my mom’s unsuccessful try at selling it in the early 1980s. However, Roy said much had changed in the ensuing years. So he worked a day job managing a fast-food franchise, but his free time belonged to Amway.
Initially, I liked Roy. He was a fundagelical like Biff, but we didn’t talk about religion. I think he just assumed I was Christian; certainly Biff still thought so.
Every so often I went to visit Roy after work. Often, I discovered him listening to Amway “tools.” Those were cassette tapes he bought religiously every week. They contained exhortations and rah-rah from his upline, the people who’d signed him up to Amway. Anybody Roy signed up in turn would become his downline, but he hadn’t managed that trick yet. He called himself an IBO, or Independent Business Owner, though as far as I could see he didn’t own anything and whatever he was doing looked nothing like any business I’d ever heard of.
Roy had been chasing his tail with this “business” for about two years, and his fortunes had been steadily sinking that whole time.
As far as I could tell, his “business” consisted of buying tons of Amway stuff that he didn’t need and couldn’t use and trying to talk other people into doing the same thing as his downline. Oh, and he attended a lot of useless motivational meetings and listened to tons of tapes.
When I finally asked why Roy spent so many hours every day listening to these tapes, Roy explained that the tapes helped him banish negative thoughts, or stinkin’ thinkin’, from his mind. His upline said that successful Ambots did this, and so he did it. Whatever they told him to do, he did it. His adoration of his upline seemed complete and all-encompassing.
He invited me over one Saturday afternoon to listen to a tape with him. In retrospect, I know now that he was scouting me out as a prospective downline–Ambots pretty much have to be in sales mode 24/7, just like evangelism-minded Christians must be. Not realizing his ulterior motive, I went over and sat in his one easy chair while he lounged on his couch and played the tape.
Roy explained that he listened to this particular tape often. It concerned positive thinking. In it, his upline described the vast wealth he enjoyed and how poor he’d been before starting “the business,” which is what Ambots apparently said instead of just “Amway.” And the upline made frequent references to religion and prosperity gospel, though I didn’t know yet what it was.
Whatever Roy had hoped to achieve by asking me to listen to the tape, though, it backfired.
“Roy,” I said afterward, very flummoxed, “That guy sounds exactly like a preacher.”
The idea of someone talking exactly like a revival preacher rattled me. I’d always associated that style of speech with the power of the Holy Spirit. But here was a guy who talked like that in a decidedly non-Jesus-y context. He professed deep faith, but even I could tell that whatever form of Christianity he meant, it wasn’t anything I’d ever seen in the Bible.
Suddenly, I realized that quite a lot of Amway customs and practices reminded me of the religion I’d just left.
Roy attended church once a week, Assemblies of God I think. But he attended at least three Amway meetings a week. One of those meetings lasted way longer than church did! His adoration for his upline–and the unwavering obedience he gave to them–would have been the envy of any fundagelical pastor.
As for Roy’s faith that his “business” would take off once he’d followed “the plan” often and faithfully enough, I’d thought exactly the same way when I was Christian.
Another Plan of Salvation.
Roy had a tape-recording of one of the recent big Amway quarterly meetings. He’d attended it, though I’d declined his invitation to go along. When he played me the recording he bought afterward, I told him it sounded exactly like a revival service, except it revolved around constant recitations of material wealth and unbelievable success stories.
These glowing reports were testimonies as sure as anything I’d ever heard in Christianity. And I knew just how reliable testimonies were.
Further, the idea of buying tapes to an event that he’d actually attended in person reminded me equally uncomfortably of the way that my Pentecostal church-mates had always bought tapes of church services right after these services ended, as soon as the church’s audiovisual department got them made. (Like what, were they going to forget what had been said?)
That practice had never made sense to me–but looking back, I could see how these tapes were probably a big profit-maker for my church. Suddenly I wondered just how much profit Amway’s leaders made off of their own tapes.
(As it turns out, a whole lot of profit. In fact, they were a game-changing kind of profit.)
Sliding Into the Groove.
Roy’s Amway upline applied all these fundagelical concepts and styles of thinking and acting. And Roy, a fundagelical himself, had slid right into line with all of it.
I think I only saw those similarities because I’d only freshly deconverted. If I’d still been Christian, I probably would have been thrilled to finally find a company that was run in a totally Christian way–like Roy often said of Amway.
For a while, I tried to support my friend. When he asked me to sit in on one of his presentations for moral support, I did so. It felt exactly like sitting in on a particularly disastrous soulwinning attempt, though, so I only did it once. The couple he “showed the plan” did not leap at the opportunity. When I drove us back home, he sneered at them for not taking the opportunity he’d presented, and then a day later he forgot he’d ever talked to them.
As you likely already expected, he did eventually try to talk me into signing up with Amway. Haha, NO. I made a pity purchase every so often–lipstick that felt unpleasant to wear, toothpaste that tasted weirdly gross. But I figured that these weren’t Amway’s wheelhouse.
I liked the cleaning products all right, so at his suggestion I ordered their “starter pack” thing. It seemed like a good buy with a lot of stuff in it, and I still hadn’t really outfitted my apartment and needed almost all of it. But the pity purchases and starter pack purchase had given Roy entirely the wrong idea. This starter pack was also what new IBOs bought because along with the cleaning supplies it also conferred an Amway membership on the purchaser.
(Note to those dealing with MLM shills in their lives: DO. NOT. EVER. MAKE. PITY. PURCHASES. Seriously. Don’t.)
Oh Yeah, That.
Remember, at this time I was freshly deconverted. It took me years to learn to set and honor my own boundaries. Roy probably thought I would be easy pickin’s to sign up as a downline. He didn’t count on my dogged stubbornness, though.
When he tried to stress what a wonderfully easy business Amway was, “just buy from your own store and convince others to do the same thing,” I mentioned that everything in his full-color catalog was priced easily three times higher (if not more!) than comparable products. When he tried to stress how high quality the products were to command such prices, I pointed out that they offered for sale a desktop PC. It featured solidly sub-par parts that were about two years out of date, but Amway priced it about four times higher than the cost of a new top-of-the-line computer.
At the time, I worked as a network manager for a large print shop downtown. So I knew, with complete certainty, that Amway’s quality was not as high as he said it was in this one department.
Little lie, big lie. What else wasn’t up to par but being sold for wildly-inflated prices?
Roy had no answer for that concern.
As a last ditch, Roy convinced me to call someone to offer her “the plan” while he sat beside me. He thought this encounter would show me how easy it was to set up these meetings–and how good I’d be at it.
The whole thing felt so dishonest that I felt like I was Christian all over again. I wanted nothing to do with Amway afterward. Ever. That decided everything for me, once and for all.
Afterward, I told Ron I was never doing that again. “The business” was not for me. I would not discuss the matter again.
Roy’s face fell, but he said he understood. He didn’t sneer at me, at least–but I was eventually going to find out why he’d made an exception for me.
As a further humiliation to Roy, though, something went hideously wrong with the Amway starter kit I’d ordered. I never got it. The check I wrote got cashed–I think it was $120 or $150–but somehow I never received my box of cleaning supplies.
I took that problem as a sign–not that I needed one!
As the months went on, I began to notice things about Roy I’d never seen before: his arrogance, his overwhelming inability to see things for what they were, his lack of self-awareness, and most of all his solid belief in the ANGLE that he was sure that rich people knew that he didn’t. If he could only figure out what that ANGLE was, he’d get rich just like them. He thought Amway was his ANGLE.
While he chased his dreams of wealth, though, he probably spent about USD$400-500/month to stay active in “the business.” Beyond the amount he had to spend just to maintain his eligibility for commission (about $300), he swallowed a lot of other little monthly and annual expenses.
Despite those hardships, he kept his aspirations as high as possible and his thoughts as positive as possible. Once he headed downtown to a luxury-car dealership. He talked the salesperson there into letting him sit inside a Jaguar car. He did it to absorb the luxury vibes from the car. See, he’d always wanted one, but now he wanted one extra-lots. He thought this experience would motivate him more.
In addition, he made laminated cards containing various aphorisms he’d learned from his upline. Every morning, he told me, he repeated those aphorisms in the mirror.
All of it felt like some weird secular version of Pentecostalism!
The Delicious Tears of a Misogynist.
When Roy lost his day job at the fast-food franchise, very quickly his life spiraled into pure disaster. Needless to say, he had zero savings. He sold nearly everything he owned to pay his mounting bills. Not once did he consider quitting Amway, though.
He proved as solidly incapable of finding a new job as Biff had been. I’d largely found other friends to hang out with by then. However, I still thought of him fondly and was in a position to help. I gave him rent money–which he accepted with great chagrin, promising to repay it as soon as possible.
I never expected to be repaid, though, which is why I’d positioned my offer as a gift, not a loan. Dude hadn’t even found another day job yet. He was still talking about retiring in a few short years to live in luxury forever with a docile, submissive little Christian wife and a passel of noisy children, but as far as I could see, he had as much chance of that happening as I had of ever seeing that money again.
And I was right.
But a few years later, he caught up with me online, on the game I played and helped administer, and I learned something I hadn’t known before about him.
Shot Down in Flames.
Yep. You guessed it–from the post’s title if nothing else. He told me that he’d always loved me. He’d been madly in love with me that whole time in Portland. He’d kept in touch with Biff, so he knew we’d divorced; he thought I’d done that so I’d be free for him later!
But he’d waited to declare his deep love for me till he’d gotten another job and gotten a bit more situated, which had taken all this time. He now fully expected me to dump the boyfriend I was currently living with and dash back to Oregon to take up my role as the supporting actress in the movie playing in his head.
When I declined that dubious honor, he acted like it was fine. But after I sent him back into the game to play (at his request), he began acting up in the most childish and petulant fashion. He told the increasingly-angry players online right then that because he was my BFF 5EVER, he could get away with that and I wouldn’t do anything about it.
Boy, was he ever surprised when I banned him.
That was the last I ever saw of him.
I’ve never been tempted to join any MLM after brushing so close to Amway. In a nearly-literal sense, I suppose I vaccinated myself!
More than that, though, I’d gotten a crash-course in what happens when very authoritarian principles get applied across different contexts. It took me a while to figure out what I’d experienced. When I did, though, I couldn’t ever un-see what I’d discovered.
The principles of control had been the same across both Amway and Pentecostalism. The people were exactly the same. They believed the same exact things and talked the same exact way. All that changed were the labels those people used between contexts. Sometimes they called what they were doing Christianity, and at other times they called it building the business.
And in both contexts, the people in these respective groups believed that the strength of their beliefs mattered more than the veracity of those beliefs. When the facts contradicted everything they believed, then they thought faith could make up the difference. They’d succeed anyway–simply because they believed they would.
Except that’s not what happened. I can see that, and then I can go a different way instead of bashing my brains out and drilling down all the harder on failed plans that simply don’t work. I’m so glad I escaped, and in a weird way, I’m glad that Roy’s totally failed “business” helped me awaken to just how harmful it is to hold beliefs that aren’t informed by reality.
NEXT UP: It’s the Christmas season! Look for themed posts throughout the month. Next, we’ll look at why ex-Christians compare deconversion to a child losing faith in Santa Claus. Then, I’ll show you just how non-divine Christians’ “spiritual gifts” really are. See you soon!
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