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“Neuro-linguistic programming” is a marketing term for a “science” that two Californians?Richard Bandler and John Grinder?came up with in the 1970s. Bandler was a stoner student at UC Santa Cruz (just like I later was in the 00s), then a mecca for psychedelics, hippies and radical thinking (now a mecca for Silicon Valley hopefuls). Grinder was at the time an associate professor in linguistics at the university (he had previously served as a Captain in the US Special Forces and in the intelligence community, ahem not that this, you know, is important… aheh…). Together, they worked at modeling the techniques of Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt therapy), family therapist Virginia Satir and, most importantly, the preternaturally gifted hypnotherapist Milton Erickson. Bandler and Grinder sought to reject much of what they saw as the ineffectiveness of talk therapy and cut straight to the heart of what techniques actually worked to produce behavioral change. Inspired by the computer revolution?Bandler was a computer science major?they also sought to develop a psychological programming language for human beings.
What they came up with was a kind of evolution of hypnotherapy?while classical hypnosis depends on techniques for putting patients into suggestive trances (even to the point of losing consciousness on command), NLP is much less heavy-handed: it’s a technique of layering subtle meaning into spoken or written language so that you can implant suggestions into a person’s unconscious mind without them knowing what you’re doing.
Though mainstream therapists rejected NLP as pseudoscientific nonsense (it has been officially peer reviewed and discredited as an intervention technique?lots more on that here), it nonetheless caught on. It was still the 1970s, and the Human Potential Movement was in full swing?and NLP was the new darling. Immediately building a publishing, speaking and training empire, by 1980 Bandler had made over $800,000 from his creation?he was even being called on to train corporate leaders, the army and the CIA. Self-help gurus like Tony Robbins used NLP techniques to become millionaires in the 1980s (Robbins now has an estimated net worth of $480 million). By the middle of the decade, NLP was such big business that lawsuits and wars had erupted over who had the rights to teach it, or even to use the term “NLP.”
But by that time, Bandler had bigger problems than copyright disputes: he was on trial for the alleged murder of prostitute Corine Christensen in November 1986. The prosecution claimed that Bandler had shot Christensen, 34, point-blank in the face with a .357 Magnum in a drug deal gone bad. According to the press at the time, Bandler had discovered an even better way to get people to like him than NLP?cocaine?and become embroiled in a far darker game, even, than mind control. A much-recommended investigation into the case published by Mother Jones in 1989 opens with these chilling lines:
In the morning Corine Christensen last snorted cocaine, she found herself, straw in hand, looking down the barrel of a .357 Magnum revolver. When the gun exploded, momentarily piercing the autumn stillness, it sent a single bullet on a diagonal path through her left nostril and into her brain.
Christensen slumped over her round oak dining table, bleeding onto its glass top, a loose-leaf notebook, and a slip of yellow memo paper on which she had scrawled, in red ink, DON’T KILL US ALL. Choking, she spit blood onto a wine goblet, a tequila bottle, and the shirt of the man who would be accused of her murder, then slid sideways off the chair and fell on her back. Within minutes she lay still.
As Christensen lay dying, two men left her rented town house in a working-class section of Santa Cruz, California. One was her former boyfriend, James Marino, an admitted cocaine dealer and convicted burglar. The other, Richard Bandler, was known internationally as the cofounder of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a controversial approach to psychology and communication. About 12 hours later, on the evening of November 3, 1986, Richard Bandler was arrested and charged with the murder.
Bandler’s defense was, simply, that Marino had killed Christensen, not him. Many at the time alleged he used NLP techniques on the stand to escape conviction. Yet Bandler was also alleged to actually use a gun in NLP sessions in order to produce dramatic psychological changes in clients?a technique that was later mirrored by Hollywood in the movie Fight Club, in which Brad Pitt’s character pulls a gun on a gas station attendant and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t pursue his dreams in life. That was, many said, Bandler’s MO.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Bandler was indeed let off, and the story was quickly buried?I’ve never spoken to a student of NLP who’s ever heard of the murder case, I’ll note, and I’ve spoken to a lot. The case hardly impeded the growing popularity of NLP, however, which was now big business, working its way not only into the toolkit of psychotherapists but also into nearly every corner of the political and advertising worlds, having grown far beyond the single personage of Richard Bandler, though he continued (and continues) to command outrageous prices for NLP trainings throughout the world.
Today, the techniques of NLP and Ericksonian-style hypnotic writing can be readily seen in the world of Internet marketing, online get-rich-quick schemes and scams. (For more on this, see the excellent article Scamworld: ‘Get rich quick’ schemes mutate into an online monster by my friend Joseph Flatley, one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the Web.) Their most prominent public usage has likely been by Barack Obama, whose 2008 “Change” campaign was a masterpiece of Ericksonian permissive hypnosis. The celebrity hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown also demonstrates NLP techniques in his routine.
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