I’ve finally settled back into a normal routine after finishing a month of overtime work at the nuke plant. Now that I’m back to a regular work week on a more conventional job site, I’m getting caught up with all of my podcasts. Forgive me for being a month late to the game, but I just got to the Skeptic’s Guide interview with Robert Fitzpatrick about pyramid schemes, and I thought you all might be interested to read about some of my experiences and knowledge on this topic.
How do I know about this? Well, I grew up in Amway.
My parents discovered Amway in the late seventies, between getting married and having me. I’m not entirely clear on how they became involved, but my parents don’t do anything half-assed. They went for it big time. They recruited a few couples with whom they have remained very close over the years, and have maintained a small base of customers who do actually buy products from them.
Driven by the desire to “be his own boss”, my dad would go through phases of motivation, in which he would be out almost every night to “show the plan” to prospective new recruits, trading his grungy construction day wear for a clean suit and tie. Despite his natural charisma and friendly demeanor, he was never very successful at this endeavor. I think in the 15 or so years of his heavy involvement, he may have recruited 3 or 4 couples who stuck with it for any amount of time.
A constant memory of my childhood is of my parents getting all dressed up to go to local Amway meetings. These were the only times (apart from special church holidays) that I ever saw my mother in a dress or high heels or a purse (she’s a bit of a tom-boy). I remember knowing they’d come home when I heard the comforting clomp of her heels late at night. We would also travel to different locations throughout the country so they could go to Amway conventions. Sometimes these would be incorporated into a larger family vacation, which was cool in that we got to visit some places that we otherwise wouldn’t have gone to.
Then there was the constant harping about “brand x” products (anything that wasn’t made or sold by Amway). Like I said before, my parents don’t do anything half-assed. If Amway made it, we used it. In their more fervent phases, my siblings and I were not allowed to bring “brand x” items into the house.
My childhood was steeped in the language of the “can do” attitude. My dad would continually use cliches like “Are you a weiner or a winner?” (No, I am not making this up.) We were given Amway t-shirts with positive phrases on them, and subjected to the music of the Goads, an Amway musical group (again, I am not making this up). And then there were the motivational cassette tapes. Though, I must say, my brother and I had entirely too much fun creating our own tapes using the portable tape recorder my parents purchased so they could listen to their Amway tapes. I wish I knew where those ended up.
Despite our parents clear attempts at indoctrinating us, my brother and I adopted a fairly skeptical attitude toward all this. From our perspective, our choices were being limited, we could see that our dad’s attempts at recruitment were largely failures, and other people didn’t seem to take any of it seriously. Also, the higher up Amway people we had met were really fake and cheesy, and nobody like us seemed to be getting rich off of it. So we sort of made fun of it all behind our parents’ backs, and hoped for the day when they would realize it wasn’t getting them anywhere.
When I was 16 years old, my dad had some sort of transformative religious experience (or manic episode) which radicalized my family from a somewhat involved, church-going Catholicism to a cultish charismatic “evan-tholicism” (my husband’s word). So basically, they switched obsessions from Amway to Jesus.
My mom still sells Amway to a handful of people. I have to admit, I buy laundry detergent from her. What can I say? It’s highly concentrated and comes in a big jug, so I only have to buy it once a year. She doesn’t really make any money off of it. I think they still have 2 or 3 “downline” recruits, but are no longer actively pursuing expansion.
Do I think Amway is a cult? Definitely. The meetings were scary for me as a kid, and are even scarier in retrospect. Is it fraud? I’m not sure. Probably. From what I’ve seen, no one but the top tier are making any kind of substantial money off of it. I don’t know that I agree that the products are a token to disguise the true pyramid nature of the scheme. It definitely started that way, but I think as Amway has had to contend with legal challenges, they’ve put more energy into developing a legitimate product line. In all fairness, the stuff is generally pretty good. It is relatively expensive, but in my opinion is comparable to similarly priced “brand x” items. I think a big problem with this is the fact that most of the (working class) people like my parents who join Amway to achieve the “American dream” end up spending a lot more on their monthly expenses, because instead of buying generic shampoo at the supermarket, they are buying the equivalent of a salon brand from Amway–it’s good stuff, but they don’t really need to be spending $15 for high grade shampoo when they could get a perfectly serviceable brand for $1.
Amway definitely sells false hope and preys on people’s desire to find a quick way to get rich and be financially independent. It also churns out rhetoric about “winners” and “losers” that makes it difficult for people to place blame with the corporate structure when they do not succeed. It presents a bizarre fusion of capitalism and Christianity that first bolsters self esteem with feel good messages and ultimately tears it down when the system doesn’t work.
After all, Jesus wants you to be rich, and if you can’t do it selling expensive products to people who can’t afford them, well, you must just be a loser.