Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart
The subtitle summarizes the evidence you will find in Merchants of Deception. This book by Eric Scheibeler has been out for many years in some form including digital or electronic. My 2004 review edition lists the publisher as Keystone Solutions Group. Amazon.com has a 2009 edition listed. Updates continue and are available at www.merchantsofdeception.com. Scheibeler wrote this exposé “for those who have been deceived and as a ‘road map’ for governmental authorities.” His effort echoes that of many ex-cult members who have dared to blow the whistle on large cults with aggressive attorneys and enough financial resources to squelch serious complaints and lawsuits. Amway/Quixtar has sued Scheibeler for his efforts to publish information. He managed not only to survive the legal onslaught; he also maintained the right to speak out. In other words, Amway failed to silence this author and former, high level IBO (Independent Business Owner) in the Amway scheme. Scheibeler knows intimately whereof he speaks. He and his family spent 10 years in the Amway “system.” Although he has reestablished his life and family since his bankrupting experience with Amway, he continues to campaign to divert others from what he says are Amway’s corporate manipulations and deceptions, and to provide a resource to all those who have been wounded and scarred by the Amway experience. His experience started in 1989 and waned radically by 1999.
Despite effusive endorsements by preachers, celebrities, and American politicians who have accepted tens of thousands of dollars (e.g., a former US president allegedly accepted $100,000 and a former Speaker of the House, $50,000 [p. 226]) to speak at Amway rallies, according to Scheibeler’s testimony, Amway (a.k.a. American Way, the Business, Quixtar, and “cult of free enterprise”) remains riddled with controversy since its inception in 1959. I am not going to summarize this book because the potential reader easily can look up the controversy on Amway on the Internet, but I wholeheartedly endorse Scheibeler’s effort. I have also read Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise, by Stephen Butterfield, 1985; and Amway Motivational Organizations: Behind the Smoke and Mirrors, by Ruth Carter, 1999. Both Butterfield and Carter, like Scheibeler, were burned by years of entanglement in Amway. Scheibeler’s personal story is painful to read, even for someone as seasoned as I am regarding cult controversies. Scheibeler takes us through a blow-by-blow description of how he and his wife were recruited and manipulated to believe and hold onto the bizarre construct that is Amway. Too late they concluded that Amway is less about selling products and personal freedom than it is about paying for Amway products and “tools” and attending manipulative, motivational gatherings at your own expense—and in the end, except for a rare few, losing your money and wasting your time.
I agree with one other Amazon reviewer that Merchants of Deception could have been better organized and shortened. The book lacks an index and list of references that I believe it sorely needs. I made my own index with definitions as I read so I could follow what the author meant by IBO, PV, BV, Upline, Leg, Direct, Diamond, Emerald, and other in-house abbreviations and loaded jargon peculiar to Amway. The book argues that not only is Amway like a business cult, but it also is religious in the basic sense of that word: Amway works to “bind back” its members into the devotional milieu of its closed system. Amway leaders in America unabashedly employ a version of evangelical Christianity along with conservative, flag-waving politics to empower the Amway system. The religion, however, is not so much about Jesus as it is about encouraging the Amway experience. Like Scheibeler, Amway recruits reported mystical experiences they felt, in the early stages of indoctrination, toward the leaders and ranking members. Wild applause generally attended the appearance of a Rich DeVos or a Dexter Yager at Amway rallies and conferences. Amway leaders describe their faux-capitalist enterprise in transcendent terms. Maybe Amway is too good to be true!
I am not merely being coy. Nine years before Scheibeler entered the confusing Amway maze, a suave, grey-haired man and his adult daughter approached my humble portrait stand at a shopping mall. At the time, I had a business as a portrait artist and sold enough work to get by for 5 years running. The man never said he was representing Amway, but he cleverly pitched his “Business” model to me, asking me if I would like a large studio someday and all the time I needed to develop my art, to travel at will to see great art around the world, and to get all that with only 10 to 15 hours of work a week. The man was a former policeman. He had no way of knowing that I broke away from a large New Age cult just months before, that I was renting a large studio, and that I was about to take a 3-month, round-the-world tour. I did not tell him. I did agree to go to his home to sit through a predictable 2- to 3-hour pitch complete with videos, a whiteboard schematic illustrating how I could make all this money, and juice and cookies. He let on that the “Business” was Amway-related only at the very end of the talk. I did not act surprised. He gave me four cassette tapes or “tools” to listen to since I seemed curious but unconvinced.
He did want the well-used tapes back. I listened to two and later returned all of them to his outdoor mailbox, never to meet him again. Why would such a “successful” man not be able to give away a few cheap tapes, I wondered? I do recall how put off I was by the deception, but I also felt sorry for him. Many of the people in the New Age cult I was with struggled mightily to make money through suspicious multilevel and direct marketing schemes, including Amway; talk about double jeopardy… What a pathetic way to try to make a living, I thought at the time; and, as I see it now, made worse if you somehow got rich doing it.
And that is what Scheibeler brings home to question: Can you have integrity if you make money the Amway way? Now we all suspect that businessmen are manipulative in the sense that they want a potential buyer to believe in the product. All advertising is spin, and all marketing targets emotions with exaggeration. In our consumer-driven society, we have become jaded to such manipulations. We expect it and often find it entertaining: Think of Super Bowl ads. What makes Amway especially insidious for new recruits is how well it masks itself within expected business practices and capitalist goals, while taking full advantage of legal loopholes. Under its mask is what Scheibeler calls “evil.” It is the unblinking reptilian mind that “motivates” the recruit with words of God, patriotism, love, freedom, and positive thinking.
Consider this insight, reported by Scheibeler:
In the Business, distributors are admonished never to take a family vacation until they go Direct… The problem is that 99% of distributors will never go Direct (p. 151)… Understand now that the audience believed those of us [Directs] on stage were making from $25,000 to $100,000 a year and were debt free. The truth is that many of the Direct Distributors were actually running their businesses at a loss. Yes, they were losing money. We [Scheibeler and his wife] were near bankruptcy as Emeralds. (p 158)
Scheibeler was one of those merchants of deception, and this book is his remedy.
Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his two-year devotion to a New Age sect called Church Universal and Triumphant. He began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986.
Since 1998 he has worked in the crisis department of a psychiatric emergency hospital in Pennsylvania. He continues to assist families with interventions and former members in recovery, including consultations via phone and internet.