Here I’m going to delve into the odd and fascinating relic that is THE PIT: A GROUP ENCOUNTER DEFILED by Gene Church and Conrad D. Carnes. Allegedly a true account, this blistering 1972 publication details a corporate seminar that took place sometime in the late 1960s, run by sadists who were apparently determined to pack most of the atrocities of de Sade’s 120 DAYS OF SODOM into their 4-day session. Apparently such methodology wasn’t terribly uncommon for the time, although I’d say the behavior described in THE PIT, on the part of both the instructors and the participants, crosses the line.
The book is dated in many aspects but hasn’t lost its edge. It foreshadowed the rise of self-improvement gurus like Tony Robbins, who charge exorbitant amounts of money for weekend seminars not unlike the one described in this book (significantly, 21 people were injured in a 2012 Robbins seminar). Also, as a fact-based study in group dynamics and blind obedience I’d say THE PIT surpasses more celebrated works like THE WAVE and the 2012 film COMPLIANCE.
Told from the point of view of its primary author Gene Church, THE PIT takes place in a room of the late Ricky’s Hyatt House in Palo Alto, CA. At the time Church was employed by Mind Dynamics, an affiliate of the cosmetics giant Holiday Magic. To advance in either organization executives had to attend (and shell out $1,000 for) the seminar under discussion, run by another Holiday Magic affiliate called Leadership Dynamics Institute. All three companies were real, and so was Ben Gay, LDI’s president and the ringleader of the mayhem outlined herein.
As recorded in these pages, Mr. Gay’s aim is to inspire total honesty in his subjects. To this end he gleefully dishes out all manner of brutality, including beatings, confinement in a coffin and crucifixion(!). Further atrocities perpetrated by Gay and his henchmen include forcing a man to drink his own vomit another to eat a turd. The tortures are often tailored to the victims’ individual quirks, as when a devoutly religious man is made to watch his fellows soak a bible in urine and a closeted homosexual is ordered to fellate himself.
The torment, punctuated by a military-styled regimen of forced exercise and marches through the Hyatt House parking lot, takes place in an area of the hotel room identified as “The Pit,” where the participants are ordered to strip naked and recite their faults. If they don’t comply (or in most cases even if they do) they’re subjected to humiliation and violence, as when an upstanding man with no evident faults is beaten and crucified for not going along with the program. Once the torture is finished the victims invariably find themselves purged, and joyously embrace their tormentors with a lot of teary thank yous.
Gene Church himself undergoes the requisite taunts, beatings and purging along with everybody else. Throughout it all Church finds himself inwardly questioning the brutality but never speaks up, as doing so would result in increased pain at the hands of Gay and his fellows and, more importantly, nobody else is doing so and Church (in his own words) doesn’t want to be different.
The fact that THE PIT is a (supposedly) true account is both a major flaw and a saving grace. Gene Church never bothers to explore the background of the Leadership Dynamic Institute seminars (wouldn’t their violent tactics result in major lawsuits?), which is a major point of frustration; at one point Church opines that the element of violence was probably introduced after LDI had been in operation for years, but never confirms that speculation. On the other hand, the book’s focus and simplicity are paramount to its effectiveness, with Church forced to make his own blundering way through the nightmare that is LDI. There are no knowledgeable elders on hand to show him the ropes, and nor is there a romance to alleviate the darkness, two things that would likely be present were this a novel.
To see how THE PIT might work as a fictionalized horror story check out the 1981 film adapted from it, CIRCLE OF POWER, a.k.a. BRAINWASH. Directed by HEARTBREAKERS’ Bobby Roth, the film follows the book’s overall structure reasonably closely, and incorporates many of its tortures (the cage, crucifix and coffin are all present), here dished out by a femme sadist played by Yvette Mimieux.
Taken by itself CIRCLE OF POWER is a diverting enough sleaze fest, bolstered by Mimieux’s wonderfully evil performance and the sight of actress Cindy Pickett (a.k.a. Ferris Bueller’s mom) in a see-through bikini, but it’s a joke when compared with the book. The movie takes place in a secluded art deco mansion, with a headstrong individualist (Christopher Allport) in the lead role who steadfastly resists Mimieux’s attempts to break his will. This ignores the book’s overriding theme, that anyone can be broken though intimidation and peer pressure, as well as the air of surreal comedy that pervaded it. The fact that THE PIT took place in a nondescript hotel room rendered its atrocities all the more bizarre and affecting, while its descriptions of businessmen marching in military formation are worthy of J.G. Ballard. The movie, alas, never ventures beyond simple-minded exploitation.
Not that any of this matters much, as the book and film are both quite obscure nowadays. As for Holiday Magic, the corporation behind all the madness, it was dissolved in 1974 after the Federal Trade Commission found the company guilty of deceptive trade practices.
The irony here is that, obscure though THE PIT currently is, its narrative is arguably more relevant now than it was in 1972. Given our recent history of financial collapse and corporate bailouts, it seems curiously appropriate that this uniquely violent and depraved account involves a bunch of suit-wearing executives at a business seminar, with nary a mobster, drug dealer or serial killer in sight. Another irony is that while the methods utilized during that seminar are deeply immoral and traumatizing, they DO, as Ben Gay proclaims throughout the book, seem to get definite results. Can we expect to see more LDI-styled seminars in the near future, and further books like THE PIT? Stay tuned…