My Experience with Leverage Research
I was part of Leverage/Paradigm from 2017–2019. This is a description of my time there.
Many folks have reached out to me privately w/ their own stories about Leverage or Geoff. Some comments on facebook, twitter, Medium, and LessWrong have shared or implied further stories (& concerns about anonymity). So, here’s a place you can submit stories anonymously. It’ll be handled & vetted by Aella, who I trust. https://medium.com/@anonleverage?p=1cd1b6335303
If you’ve already shared stories in comments (or privately to me), consider sending it in here also so it’s consolidated in one place.
For clarity: “Leverage” or “the ecosystem” were catch-all terms for a non-profit organization led by Geoff Anders which ran from 2011–2019. It grew to include many organizations, including the for-profit Paradigm Academy and the cryptocurrency startup Reserve. Leverage and Paradigm in particular, while legally separate entities, operated as an enmeshed social/cultural unit. I’ll use “Leverage” from here on out to refer to the entire cluster.
I believe that, while it is an incredibly complex situation, Leverage was harmful enough to me and others that certain realities about it should be made public.
Why I Haven’t Talked About It Until Now
Fear of Response
It’s Still Confusing
Relationship to Other Ex-Leveragers?
Variations in Responses
Subgroups Were Very Different
Workshops Were Pretty Chill
Concrete Features of Leverage?
Geoff’s Specialness — “Things Are Only Real Once Geoff Makes A Theory About Them”
Personal Life Attendant Upon Geoff
What is “debugging?”
Was Debugging Required?
Pressure to Debug Other People
Negligence and Seriously Bad Effects
Effects of Leverage on Me — What Are The Stakes Here?
Since leaving Leverage/Paradigm in 2019, I experienced a cluster of psychological, somatic and social effects that radically impacted my well-being (these effects are typically associated with cPTSD, including some unique to experiences with “cults,” less sensationally called “high-demand groups” or “high-control groups”). These experiences were completely unfamiliar to me and were unique to the two years after I left Leverage.
I experienced every single symptom on this list of Post-Cult After-Effects except for a handful (I did not experience paradoxical idealization of the leader, self-injury or sexual changes). So, that includes:
- night terrors
- trouble sleeping
- startle responses
- triggers flinging me into flashbacks/trance states/paranoia/terror/shutdown
- avoidance/dread of the people and places associated with Leverage
- radical changes in emotional regulation noticed by those around me including inhibited or explosive rage, terror spirals, and lack of laughter or smiling
- (new) difficulty trusting others
- some memory loss
- episodes of “trance states” and other numb dissociated periods
- feelings of being fundamentally “defiled” or “ruined”
- On rare occasion, suicidal thoughts
I still struggle with mild paranoia about groups, difficulty with trust in friendships, communities, and one-on-one relationships, and a damaged, inhibited, or frightened relationship to what used to be my greatest strengths and passions (community leadership and acting onstage among them). I still see two different therapists and occasionally attend cult recovery group sessions online. I’m very sensitive to gaslighting, double-bind language, scapegoat dynamics, and themes of mental invasion in conversation or media. Exercise and embodiment, historical strengths and joys of mine, are only just starting to feel safe and accessible again.
In addition, I’ve experienced enormous, wonderful, unexpected post-traumatic growth, for which I’m really grateful (but for which I credit myself and those kind souls with whom I’ve shared my story, not Leverage). Overall, despite these lingering difficulties, I’m clearly on a path to healing, and am doing enormously better with every passing month.
A more comprehensive description of my post-Leverage experiences is written here.
Why I Haven’t Talked About It Until Now
Before I get into the specifics of what happened in Leverage, I want to provide some context.
I left two years ago. If it was so bad, why haven’t I said anything until now? There are a few reasons for this.
Fear of Response
Leverage was very good at convincing me that I was wrong, my feelings didn’t matter, and that the world was something other than what I thought it was. After leaving, it took me years to reclaim that self-trust. I’d get angry at something they did and then wonder if I was just being dramatic. Am I playing the victim? Why does nobody else seem upset?
But even as I realized I wasn’t being dramatic and what happened at Leverage wasn’t normal, I’ve still been worried about the response from others, which has kept me from saying anything publicly. Specifically:
1. Geoff is good at convincing other people of things, and I’m terrified he’ll whip up a narrative that justifies everything and frames me as insane or misguided — someone to not take seriously. I’m also afraid of litigation.
2. Some other people at Leverage had very different experiences from me, and I’ve been afraid they’ll use their experience there to try to convince others that I’m insane or misguided.
3. I’ve been afraid the larger community wouldn’t believe me. Will they view me as sensitive, overreacting, just trying to cancel people?
It’s Still Confusing
This whole experience was really fucking confusing. The gaslighting and lack of public knowledge has exacerbated the struggle for a coherent description of events and dynamics, and I spent a long time believing I was at fault for the pain I was going through. I’ve never been so confused or overwhelmed by anything in my life.
In addition, many people adjacent to Leverage have noted how peculiar it is that
a) nobody who was there talks about the OG Leverage, despite what a large presence it had for awhile (at least 45 people involved at its height, I believe)
b) when folks do talk about it, it’s usually secretively
c) when folks do talk about it, they all say wildly different things
I believe these confusing facts can’t be explained by normal individual differences in perception. I think they point to the use of narrative warfare, manipulation, and subtle, reality-distorting reframes that occurred at Leverage.
Relationship to Other ex-Leveragers:
I still care very much about the people who were there when I was.
I’m concerned it might be too soon for some folks who were there to deeply grapple with their experiences, and that some folks are still memetically captured or in denial, probably for good psychological reasons. I don’t mean to condescend and I don’t think this is true of every ex-member. In addition, because a lot of the harm I experienced was via narrative warfare, gaslighting, and reality distortion, I could imagine my narrative, while maybe relieving or clarifying to some ex-members, might be threatening or triggering to others who are trying to hold onto their own perceptions of the place.
I’m also sure some people were genuinely hurt less than I was, and I’m just plain-old afraid of being judged by those folks. Wounds imply a cause, and if you don’t see Leverage as a high-demand group, you’re probably going to have trouble acknowledging the horror of my experience without being tempted to locate the cause of my pain in me — in my sensitivity, my weakness, my vulnerability, my blindspots. This happened to me repeatedly at Leverage, and subtly from former members since leaving.
Geoff had everyone sign an unofficial NDA upon leaving agreeing not to talk badly about Leverage, and agreeing that he would narrativize the whole place in a way that was favorable to all of us. I am the only person from Leverage who did not sign this, according to Geoff who asked me at least three times to do so, mentioning each time that everyone else had (which read to me like an attempt to pressure me into signing).
I believe Geoff knows the value of an oath, a name on paper, a psychologically binding agreement. Most of the people I talk to want distance from the whole thing, and some are downright paranoid — afraid of being assassinated or tortured if they speak up (I’ve literally heard this from an ex-member of Leverage, someone who’d been there longer than I had. When I pressed, they said, “would you really put anything past Geoff Anders?”). Reasonable or not, these don’t seem like normal responses to a normal work environment. And I can attest to these folks’ usual rationality and mental health, having known them for years.
Who am I?
Here are some facts about me:
I have no history of mental health problems, nor of difficulties with sleep, self-esteem, or physical health, and have mostly been a very happy person. I held jobs stably in New York in the years after college and before Leverage, including childcare and personal assistant work. I had a relatively normal childhood, which is to say I wasn’t coming into this experience with unusual amounts of preexisting trauma. I don’t have any notable history of being ungrounded, though I was trained as an actress, so probably have a higher-than-average degree of openness and willingness to be vulnerable (I do suspect my openness and phenomenological, cognitive, and emotional sensitivity had an impact on how intensely I took in the Leverage environment relative to others).
I’ve tried very hard to process my experiences, aware as I am that trauma can cause cognitive distortions. I’ve come to the conclusion that while mine certainly isn’t the only story of the place, as one of the more extreme ones, it is especially important that it be heard and known. I’ve tried my utmost to have integrity about my perceptions without stepping on anyone else’s experiences.
Benefits of Leverage
I know we’re already elbow-deep in context — I promise I’m getting to the meat and potatoes of everything shitty about Leverage. But before I do, I want to give credit where due.
Some things about Leverage were special and amazing. I and the other people who joined weren’t idiots — there were in fact many extremely attractive, genuinely exciting, useful, or unique characteristics of the place to find appealing. Some of these offerings were false promises in the end (i.e., we did not, in fact, “save the world,” and enjoy all attendant glory, goodwill from mankind, and historical significance), but many of these genuinely hold up over time, and many people feel they got really valuable things from their time there. Even I, with my clusterfuck of trauma, feel I got some valuable things, including some ace psychological techniques (albeit delivered in some pretty toxic wrapping paper), a lot of new information about what kind of methodologies, subcultures, values and pursuits are out there, and a lot of excellent models. It was an exciting, rich intellectual environment where we were free to discuss weird ideas and dream big, and that was amazing to encounter.
Variations in Responses
One final piece of context. Why do people say such different things?
I know some folks feel Leverage primarily had positive effects, and little to no negative ones. I also know folks who struggled just as much as I did upon leaving; I know of at least 6 people who went home to their parents’ houses for many months to collapse and regroup (which could also be explained by the financial bind many of us found ourselves in). I spoke to someone who described it as “the most terrifying and confusing experience of his life.” I spoke to someone else who said he’d spent multiple days in bed in fits of psychological processing upon reaching his parents’ house, and that the processing brought him into some of the scariest states of horror and confusion he’d ever been in. I know of at least 5 people (and I believe that’s probably an underestimation) who have a personal no-contact rule regarding Geoff, and in some cases, other leadership members from Leverage. Everyone lost friends and community when the place exploded.
Subgroups Were Very Different
These variations in response, however, go beyond variations in individual personality structure — there were also enormous cultural differences between subgroups at Leverage. The subgroups themselves went through constant changes and restructuring, so who was in which groups, the names of groups, the leaders of them (with the exception of Geoff, who was always head of project), the level of exclusion they practiced, the requirements within them to maintain one’s funding — these things all changed very often.
One of the consistent distinctions would have been between the “Psychology Research” and the “Sociology Research.” On the whole, the Psychology area was where things were far and above most fucked up. The folks who spent their time primarily doing the Sociology stuff and somehow managed to avoid the psychology stuff (usually by being deemed useful by the head of sociology or otherwise providing special skills, which let them off the hook from debugging expectations — more on these expectations later), probably had a way more benign experience of Leverage.
Lastly, there were the factions that emerged in the final months of Leverage (the first half of 2019).
These factions were essentially 3 groups, all of them involved in Psychology — Geoff’s sort of “mainline” Leverage group (for some weird reason called “Team Team,”), “Guild,” led by one of my former supervisors, a longtime part of the leadership structure, and “Alignment Group” led by two other de facto leaders. Participation in one group or another would’ve had a large impact on how bad people’s experience of Leverage was, and is one reason for the varied reports.
So, the weirder stuff I’m going to describe is limited to like 15–20 people who were most involved with the psychology experimentation.
I’d say the least harmful associated organization was Reserve (a crypto startup which emerged as a funding strategy for the ecosystem) — no idea what happened there, but mostly it seemed like a regular company, albeit with a weird financial agreement with Geoff.
Workshops Were Pretty Chill
If you had brief contact with Leverage (i.e. went to a workshop or socialized at events), chances are good that you had a great experience. Some people were repulsed by something in our vibe (“seems culty” & “seems elitist” were common critiques) but I’ve also heard many people say they found the people earnest, intelligent, and helpful, the tools very useful and clarifying for their personal goals. That makes sense to me. I think the really dysfunctional stuff only affected those who were there a long time.
A Taste of How Out of Control This Got
To give you a picture of where the culture eventually ended up, here’s a list of some things I experienced by the end of my time there:
1. 2–6hr long group debugging sessions in which we as a sub-faction (Alignment Group) would attempt to articulate a “demon” which had infiltrated our psyches from one of the rival groups, its nature and effects, and get it out of our systems using debugging tools.
2. People in my group commenting on a rival group having done “magic” that weekend and clearly having “powered up,” and saying we needed to now go debug the effects of being around that powered-up group, which they said was attacking them or otherwise affecting their ability to trust their own perception
3. Accusations being thrown around about people leaving “objects” (similar to demons) in other people, and people trying to sort out where the bad “object” originated and if it had been left intentionally/malevolently or by accident/subconsciously.
(“Objects” were something that became a topic of study at Leverage, and about which Geoff gave presentations. They were considered to be sort of like autonomous psychological bits that you could accidentally or purposefully leave in another person’s mind to affect or control them. If intentional, it might cause them to subtly view you a different way, make more real or less real certain concepts, change their experience of the passage of time, say, or make them more susceptible to mind-reading attempts in the future, etc.)
4. People doing séances seriously. I was under the impression the purpose was to call on demonic energies and use their power to affect the practitioners’ social standing.
5. Former rationalists clearing their homes of bad energy using crystals.
6. Much talk & theorizing on the subject of “intention reading,” which was something like mind-reading. Geoff gave multiple presentations on this.
7. I personally went through many months of near constant terror at being mentally invaded. My only source of help for this became the leaders of my own subgroup, who unfortunately were also completely caught up in the mania and had their own goals and desires me for that were mostly definitely not in my interest.
8. I personally prayed for hours most nights for months to rid myself of specific “demons” I felt I’d picked up from other members of Leverage.
If this sounds insane, it’s because it was. It was a crazy experience unlike any I’ve ever had. And there are many more weird anecdotes where that came from.
In addition, I’ll be honest — I experienced real effects of these “demons.” A huge part of my healing has involved recovering from an ongoing state of terror around mental invasion. I now believe these phenomena are the type of thing often described in normal conversation with un-sensationalized language (i.e. “she has good energy” “that place gave me the willies” “intuition” “he’s got stage presence” “reality distortion fields”). I think the narrative framing around “demons” and “objects” led us to build these kind of “abstract alternative reality palaces” around these phenomena, leading to hyper-reification and thus greater paranoia and hysteria.
The way these concepts got out of control and exploded the group is the aspect of Leverage I’ve heard discussed the least publicly. I suspect many people still half-consciously believe “intention reading,” “objects,” and their impact on the ensuing events is highly significant secret knowledge and should not be talked about. I think keeping this secret and significant encourages an ongoing elitism and separatism narrative in ex-members, and hinders smooth integration of these experiences into the rest of life.
My personal read is that there’s a real thing here, underneath the paranoia, hyper-reification, heavy narrativization, witch hunting and adversarial weaponization, and that the real skill is simply a form of soft, focused attunement to another person which can allow you to learn a lot about (and from) them. There’s a lot more I could say here. At the end of the day, these phenomena were narrativized, exploited, and used to induce panic, terror, opportunities for control, and eventually led to the self-cannibalization of a community.
Concrete Features of Leverage
This is a list of internal narratives and features of Leverage that I think were either harmful or place it definitively in the category of a “high-control group.”
1. People (not everyone, but definitely a lot of us) genuinely thought we were going to take over the US government.
One of my supervisors would regularly talk about this as a daunting but inevitable strategic reality (“obviously we’ll do it, and succeed, but seems hard”). Another supervisor bemoaned with some (performative?) unease the necessity of theories about violence and military skill, because they just couldn’t see any other way we’d get to world takeover level.
2. The main mechanism through which we’d save the world was that Geoff would come up with a fool-proof theory of every domain of reality.
3. Geoff estimated that there were roughly 10 “super weapons” or “super theories.” He said we already had 1–2, one being we had solved philosophy (but not completely, he admitted — all he had left to do was prove that time exists and maybe a few other details, was what I remember him saying). The second super weapon/theory was that we had the One True Theory of Psychology (this phrase was used regularly by many Leverage members).
4. “The Tools” were heavily infused with something close to mystical importance on the global/historical stage. One day, I heard people say, it would be known that we were the ones who had invented these techniques that changed everything. “Can you imagine when this stuff is taught in schools? Can you imagine when this building is a museum as a testament to the early days of our work here?”
Geoff’s Specialness — “Things Are Only Real Once Geoff Makes A Theory About Them”
Geoff and his theories had a kind of glow, a kind of special prestige and mystical strength.
The plan was fundamentally based on Geoff’s “theorizing skills,” which were legendary. One person repeatedly worried about him getting in a car accident, saying “I hate to think of the consequences for the world if anything happens to his head.” A peculiar phrasing.
No one else, with one exception being the head of sociology, was considered to have any theories that could possibly be good enough to significantly further the plan like Geoff’s could. We might attain his level of self-efficacy, theoretical & logical precision, and strategic skill only once we were sufficiently transformed via the use of our debugging techniques.
While I found some of the theoretical content immediately interesting and useful, most of it felt hard to ground in anything I already understood. I remember getting the impression that it was truly brilliant, and that when I had made more progress on my learning and debugging, I might get it.
There was a common pattern of people bringing in their various areas of expertise and attempting to give presentations or classes on it. The result was usually either that they weren’t recognized or that Geoff, a few weeks later, would follow up with his own theory on the topic, which was considered superior, and the original person’s contribution was either forgotten or made a footnote in Geoff’s process. It often felt like a topic couldn’t really be taken seriously or considered real if Geoff hadn’t theorized about it yet.
Personal Life Attendant Upon Geoff
Some peoples’ personal life plans were influenced by things Geoff did or made theories about. I heard at least two members say, “I’m waiting to decide about kids until we know if the project has kids,” or “I’m waiting about marriage until Geoff decides/releases a theory.”
There were definitely folks who didn’t buy into this frame.
There was a narrative at Leverage that we had access to great things — this was mostly Geoff himself, the psychological tools and techniques, Geoff’s theoretical process, and the harder-to-pin down values of rigor, truth-seeking, self-reflective methodology, and a genuinely scientific approach.
Like I said, a lot of that was good. The lie wasn’t that Leverage had good stuff. The lie was that Leverage was the only place you get it.
For example, it wasn’t uncommon to hear “Connection Theory is the One True Theory of Psychology,” “Geoff is the best philosopher who has ever lived” “Geoff is maybe the only mind who has ever existed who is capable of saving the world” or “Geoff’s theoretical process is world-historical.”
— Within a few months of joining, a supervisor I trusted who had recruited me confided in me privately, “I think there’s good reason to believe Geoff is the best philosopher who’s ever lived, better than Kant. I think his existence on earth right now is an historical event.”
— Another supervisor spoke wonderingly about Geoff’s presence in our lives, “It’s hard to make sense of the fact that this guy exists at all, and then on top of it, for some reason our lives have intersected with his, at this moment in history. It’s almost impossible to believe that we are the only people who have ever lived with access to the one actual theory of psychology.”
— Someone else in my group wrote an entire document outlining the history of psychology starting with the Greeks, going through Freud, Behaviorism and CBT, and ending with Geoff’s Connection Theory — the One True Theory of Psychology.
— Near the end of Leverage 1.0, I expressed to another mid-level member my growing upset about Geoff’s behavior. He said, “I’m so sick of this whining about Geoff. You should be grateful to him. Getting access to these tools now is life-changing. You really think any of us could’ve gotten them without him?” People regularly talked about how these skills were something like an early-level intervention in our life paths that was going to completely change the course of our lives
— I’ve also spoken to a surprising number of people who fervently wanted to be part of Leverage at some point or another and were crushed when they were deemed unrecruitable. I suspect some of this internal story of “special stuff happening at Leverage” leaked into the community and played on the very human desire to be part of the rare or elite (as it turns out, kiddos, I believe you dodged a bullet).
All these internal narratives left me with a feeling of specialness and a sense that almost anything was worth sacrificing for the significance of being part of the project. It also created scarcity — you can’t leave (or be fired) because then you lose access to the one true project, the end of history.
In case it needs to be said; that scarcity narrative is total bullshit. I’ve encountered all the goods of Leverage elsewhere, at way lower cost. I’ve since met many special people and a few unique communities who are committed to this same culture of rigorous scientific methodology, insatiable curiosity, and openness to updating. I’ve also found similarly powerful psychological tools elsewhere (IFS, Focusing, Schema Therapy, Coherence Therapy, NEDERA, DBT, EMDR, IPF, as well as a whole host of meditation techniques and more obscure tools). If you’re really into that “magic” shit there are shamans and artists with those skills. And while Geoff certainly has a unique, sharp mind, I’ve met people with excellent clarity of thought, meta critical thinking skills, and rigorous, explicit epistemics who possess a much better-handled shadow and leave far fewer gouges in the psyches of those with whom they interact.
You don’t have to put up with the weird bullshit to get the goods.
There are a lot of questions about the culture of debugging at Leverage. What was it like? Was it really optional? Asymmetric? Was there oversight?
What is “debugging?”
Skip this if you already know.
In the larger rationalist and adjacent community, I think it’s just a catch-all term for mental or cognitive practices aimed at deliberate self-improvement.
At Leverage, it was both more specific and more broad. In a debugging session, you’d be led through a series of questions or attentional instructions with goals like working through introspective blocks, processing traumatic memories, discovering the roots of internal conflict, “back-chaining” through your impulses to the deeper motivations at play, figuring out the roots of particular powerlessness-inducing beliefs, mapping out the structure of your beliefs, or explicating irrationalities.
At Leverage, we used mostly Leverage techniques for this (charting, belief reporting, self-alignment technique and a bunch of others that were developed). The overarching objective was to discover and “update” deep irrationalities and eventually become a sort of Musk-level super-person (“attain Mastery” of a world-saving-relevant domain). Yes, people sometimes leaned on known techniques like IFS, but in my experience, those who did were sometimes criticized or demeaned.
This work, when effective, usually resulted in significant belief, behavior, or somatic changes. I think we were cued into most of the same feedback mechanisms as self-transformative work in the normal world for measuring effectiveness.
Was Debugging Required?
The explicit strategy for world-saving depended upon a team of highly moldable young people self-transforming into Elon Musks. For a long time, what was asked of me in order to maintain my funding was to “become a self-debugger” — become capable of working with my own mind effectively enough to be able to change it in the direction that would be useful for the project, which it was assumed was also the direction I’d obviously want, because right now I wasn’t a powerful Elon Musk type, and obviously I was here because I didn’t want to keep being an ineffective, unagentic powerless normie forever (this was not remotely the self-concept or set of concerns with which I entered Leverage, but it was a shameful prospect by the time I left). I sat in many meetings in which my progress as a “self-debugger” was analyzed or diagnosed, pictographs of my mental structure put on a whiteboard. What were my bottlenecks? Was I just not trying hard enough, did I need to be pushed out of the nest? Did I just need support in fixing that one psych issue? Or were there ten, and this wasn’t going to work out?
If I was introspectively blocked for too long, I’d have to come up with something else I could do for the project, like operations or sociology, and quick. And if I wasn’t any good at those, I was out. I couldn’t be out, so I doubled down on trying to mold my mind in the “right” direction.”
Trainers were often doing vulnerable, deep psychological work with people with whom they also lived, made funding decisions about, or relied on for friendship. Sometimes people debugged each other symmetrically, but mostly there was a hierarchical, asymmetric structure of vulnerability; underlings debugged those lower than them on the totem pole, never their superiors, and superiors did debugging with other superiors.
In my early days, the debugging seemed much more open-ended, curious, and similar to regular therapy. In retrospect, it came to feel decided beforehand what was acceptable to believe. If I didn’t come to the same conclusions about project strategy, group culture, Geoff’s theories, etc, it was definitely because I just wasn’t “there yet.” I wasn’t smart enough. After the first seven months or so, I no longer debugged myself or theorized to find the as-yet-unknown truth; I did so to try to see the truth that they saw, to integrate and perceive what they perceived as my reality. This seemed like the path to being valued and valuable.
There was kind of an implicit goal to eventually have no more irrationalities left. I heard at least four people there talk about “when we have no more psych issues,” this kind of golden age we’d achieve as a prerequisite to the kind of skilled mastery of the external world that would make the project succeed.
Pressure to Debug Other People
I was repeatedly threatened with defunding if I didn’t debug people. But I didn’t want to do it; every time I tried, I got brain fog and couldn’t focus. Especially as our techniques and my skill improved, I was making contact with another person’s mind, body, energy, memories, family history, or even with parts of them I wasn’t sure they had access to — their shadow, their subconscious. It was precious and intimate to be in such close contact with someone else’s mind, but throughout all of it the goal (especially when the pressure was on for my funding) was to “improve their trajectory,” “help them become a master” “make them more trainable” “get over their introspective blocks.” I didn’t know how to hold the expectations coming from the top that I “make them more productive,” or the sly implication that as the trainer, I knew better than they did what direction they should grow. I was expected to “diagnose their bottlenecks,” often without even asking them what direction they wanted to grow, or expected to interact with them somatically according to what I thought should happen in their bodies, like I was some sort of G-d.
Now I feel revulsion at these practices, done with such arrogance, disrespect for others’ autonomy, lack of humility, and utter, egotistical blindness.
At the time, I didn’t know how to articulate how bad it all made me feel. I did tell my supervisor repeatedly that I didn’t like it, and was there anything else I could do? When they asked what happened when I tried to work with folks, I’d describe my brain fog and distraction. We’d slip into debugging automatically (this happened all the time). There wasn’t an option that there was a good reason why I didn’t want to do it, that maybe it was bad for me (or other people). It was just something I was being resistant around.
It’s impossible not to wonder if I violated others the same way I have felt violated. As far as I can tell, I was too resistant to the frame, even if in the subconscious form of distraction and avoidance, to really hurt anyone as a trainer. However, I can’t be sure. So, if you were there and I ever hurt you, I’m genuinely, deeply sorry. If you feel like telling me, I’m very open to that.
Negligence and Seriously Bad Effects
This might be controversial, but I believe at least one person had a full-on psychic break from doing this work in this environment.
Honestly, this is a separate, completely insane story with a lot more weird detail, but suffice it to say that at the time I found interacting with him shocking and confusing, not the least because everyone else was acting like he had made a big achievement, like he’d achieved what we were all working towards — a breakthrough resulting in a massive increase in personal power. His trainer got a lot of kudos, to my memory.
Reframing my memories of interacting with this fellow and of everyone else’s behavior around this event has been one of the more clarifying demonstrations of Leverage’s utter negligence. In retrospect, the guy clearly needed help (he said he was angry with God for turning his girlfriend against him, believed he was learning from Kant himself live across time, and felt the project was missing the importance of future contact w/ aliens — this was not a joke), and everyone was focusing on whether or not he had now become psychologically powerful enough to be a legitimate threat to Geoff as project leader, as he apparently believed, or congratulating ourselves on the power of our techniques.
Culture of Confession and Criticism
I experienced a pattern in which I was repeatedly thrown into a position of social defense, and then attempted to repent, apologize, “own” my badness, or debug myself in order to make up for supposed harms I’d caused (to superiors, who would suddenly become very upset with me at random times).
All that was expected of me upon joining, as far as it was communicated, was that I provide 2–3 acting classes a week. Other than that, it was communicated, my time was mine and learning the tools was up to me (but anticipated, as I was interested anyway). I set to work immediately, and within my first 7 months I succeeded wildly; I taught acting to 5 members of Leverage and we put up a full night of short plays which the whole organization attended. It was a blast, and I was extremely proud of my students. I couldn’t wait to see how these classes might grow and cross-pollinate with the existing psychological techniques.
Unfortunately, this was the peak of my time at Leverage — it was all downhill after that show.
I’d had a falling out over these classes with my 1st supervisor/trainer/recruiter. She had originally agreed to be a student in my classes, but in retrospect I think there was some mutual tension over my authority, given she was my superior outside of class. In addition, despite my having outlined the requirements for participating (stringent attendance policy), she had missed a lot, so I eventually asked her to either commit to showing up or leave the class. She left and did not take part in the performance.
A few weeks after this big success, this person told me my funding was in question — they had done all they could do to train me and thought I might be too blocked to sufficiently progress into a Master on the project. They and Geoff were questioning my commitment to and understanding of the project, and they had concerns about my debugging trajectory. This was when it was suggested I cancel my intended trip to Europe to show my commitment, which I did. Regardless, I remember experiencing a sudden, sharp status drop after this conversation, and noticing everyone in the organization treating me differently. This was the start of the repeated instances of being told I was failing/harmful/resistant/not making enough progress and on the verge of being defunded.
A year later, I was told by a different supervisor that I had manipulated them into pouring attention into me — they were very angry, and communicated they weren’t sure they could work with me anymore after my manipulation, my repeated resistance to debugging others, and my insistence on valuing acting & other things over the project. I spent six hours that evening, staying up most of the night, trying to identify and debug out this supposed manipulative shadow part. I was horrified that I had been so manipulative and determined to prove I could do better.
Six months later, I’d found two supervisors to work with, but despite it starting out hopeful and respectful, things somehow exploded again. I still couldn’t tell why. I kept trying to teach the group about acting and vulnerability and creating safety — maybe it had something to do with that, because the leadership began to accuse me of trying to gain power in the group.
I’m giving the brief version, but eventually, for reasons I still don’t fully understand (scapegoating?), my status fell totally in the shitter over the course of a few weeks. When I spoke, people would barely look at me before moving on to the next topic. No one would debug with me anymore. It felt like everything I said left a sour taste in peoples’ mouths. I knew one of the supervisors still personally valued some of the things I could bring to the group, even if they also resented or resisted them — safety, connectivity, authenticity, curiosity, collaborative creation, all these things I’d learned as an actor — but I couldn’t seem to make any headway.
Eventually, the feeling of ostracism was too much to bear, and I begged for the opportunity to do conflict resolution with my two supervisors. They reluctantly agreed.
They said in this meeting that I had a part of me I wasn’t aware of that was implicitly offering them connection in exchange for debugging support, but never following through, and that they were angry with me for manipulating them now that they realized this. I tried to identify what they were talking about, thought I did, apologized profusely and thanked them for being such good friends to tell me the truth about my psyche, since I knew they didn’t have to do that, and I knew I’d hurt them.
To clarify…as far as I can truly tell, I didn’t do anything egregious in any of these cases. True, I had agreed to train others at some point mid-project when it seemed the only path to staying funded, and then ended up too blocked to do this (brain fog and distraction). Nevertheless, I was compliant and tried hard to work through these blocks or to train people anyway (whether I should’ve done so or not — a wise Zoe would’ve just left). I received a lot of training hours, which was sometimes held up as evidence that I was getting more than I was giving, but I would’ve been in an equally or far more serious predicament if I had refused those hours (“then what are you doing here? You’re not valuable to the project as you are.”). I suspect my immediate superiors were also under enormous pressure to show something of their work or lose their own status, and I was, in a sense, “their work,” so I think a lot of anxiety got projected onto me.
It took me a long time to realize this; at the time I absolutely thought I deserved it, and responded with apologies, doubling down with self-debugging, self hatred, and anxious attempts to get back into their good graces and not be defunded. The social punishments the group gave me effectively kept me on my toes, afraid, and I spent most of my attention trying to keep it from happening again.
I have many more stories of this type, and am not including them for brevity.
Insularity, Social Isolation, Elitism
We could officially read anything we wanted, go where we wanted, talk on the phone to whoever, visit family, etc. That said —
While we could interact with friends and family outside the group, almost everyone came to express discomfort that their family or friends couldn’t perceive things the way we now did, and many people tried to recruit people from their “old life.” I was asked to cancel a trip to Europe, as I mentioned, because it didn’t look good for my commitment to the project. I was told I could only go on a trip to NY to study acting if I used it in my research afterward. There was no vacation policy, which seemed good, but in reality panned out in my having no definitively free, personal time that couldn’t be infringed upon by expectations of project prioritization.
In addition, my other passions were psychologically derided and attacked. One day, I was debugging with a supervisor and we got to the topic of my desire to perform as an actor. He couldn’t understand why I still wanted to do that, saying he thought he’d been more than patient about it. I recognized that there might be a larger, more worthy goal for helping the world. He agreed, saying he thought that wanting to do acting after everything I “now knew about the suffering in the world and how badly it needed us” was “honestly sociopathic.” I felt a shock, but agreed with him. It did seem very selfish relative to our big plans. It took me a few years after leaving to shake this belief.
Overwork and Busy-ness
We were kept extremely busy. I feel this is relevant because in further readings I’ve done about cult dynamics, totalism, and the eight criteria of thought reform, overwork and busy-ness is cited as an essential ingredient in making recruits mentally less resilient, less capable of critical thinking, and more susceptible to influence.
A psychologist involved in the cult space, Paul Martin, provides the following summary of the first “criterion of thought reform” (“Milieu Control” — for further detail, check out the links or anything by Robert J Lifton, who is an excellent researcher):
“Control of communication […] Includes other techniques to restrict members’ contact with outside world and to be able to make critical, rational judgments about information: overwork, busy-ness, multiple lengthy meetings, etc.”
Here are four screenshots of my calendar, showing an average month in my last 6 months at Leverage. The events reference specific people, so I blacked them out. I haven’t removed the ones that are more-unambiguously “personal activities”, but you can imagine these activities represented by the yellow blocks and that will convey the correct density. The other blocks were time I spent on ecosystem-related socializing or work, or on personal debugging.
Given the other cultural pressures and how many of these hours were destabilizing mental/emotional work (some of what I blacked out here included, “Debugged hard” “Debug w so-and-so” “Nap-debugging” “Try to work on my mind” “Extremely psychy for hours” “Debug at coffee shop” and even — I shit you not — “crazy crazy demon dreams”), I think this schedule was dangerous.
I was regularly left with the feeling that I was low status, uncommitted, and kind of useless for wanting to socialize on the weekends or in the evenings. Geoff was known to sleep only about 5–6 hours. Multiple people in leadership had themselves booked from 7am until past midnight every single day of the week.
Two years out of Leverage, I struggle to journal, despite having been an avid journaler since I was eight.
My old “debugging” journals from Leverage say things like:
“Debug why I don’t value power”
“Debug blocks around being a trainer.”
“Debug why I’m avoiding debugging”
“Just sit down and do it, Zoe — be rigorous, for every introspective block, ask why, go meta on it until you have access — you are going to resolve this, in this session. If you get fog, ask why…” etc.
Otherwise, these journals are full of endless self-reflection, self-doubt, “rigorous” (relentless) questioning of my desires, goals, hopes, preferences, and wishes, and the assumption that absolutely every aspect of myself is changeable and, increasingly, should be changed.
It’s not surprising that normal self-reflection is difficult after filtering my private reflections so thoroughly through a third party’s goals for my mind for so many years, with so much of my passion and energy. The shame I’ve felt for treating myself this way has been equally painful.
Did these practices affect my critical thinking? Absolutely. The more brain fog, “introspective blocks,” anxiety, body tension etc I experienced, the more I was handed “the tools” as the solution. It was a constant cycle of doubling-down. Did I really have another option if I wanted to stay included?
III. Final Notes
How did genuinely smart, good-hearted, intelligent people get wrapped up in all of this?
- Most were extremely young. Not true across the board, but for the most part, recruits were 19–25 and leadership were 32–40.
- Recruitment from nearby communities selected for goodness (EA communities) and for truth (rationality) as values. Leverage also specifically selected for extremely high openness people. Recruitment criteria changed a lot, but consistently included psychological analysis of a potential recruit’s openness to influence, via assessment of their “level of entrenchment” in preexisting beliefs or cultures.
- It provided meaning, as these things do. Being very smart, passionate young people, what could seem better than working with other extremely dedicated people to do something good and powerful?
Even if I’m unusually sensitive or misguided in some ways, this still doesn’t justify what they did.
- A common narrative at Leverage was that if you are hurt by this, you’re simply too weak or overly sensitive for this tough world, and I anticipate some of that narrative in response to my experience. But even if I was overly weak, or overly sensitive, that still doesn’t justify what they did. At the very best, Leverage still utterly failed to care for the emotional health of its sensitive members, which is a huge failure given their ambitions of running the world with a complete theory of psychology.
- Leverage is still gaslighting people. See those PR posts on the recent LessWrong post, and what looks like a coordinated attempt at defense (notice the comment structure is very similar). No attempts for repair have been made at all.
- The community still dissolved, and everybody lost some connections after investing heavily.
Why is this so important to me?
I saw Geoff is moving in the world.
- He recently got a small Progress Studies grant from a known Silicon Valley funder.
- If Reserve succeeds, he’s going to get millions of dollars, because they already agreed to this contractually. He might have a lot of power coming his way.
- I’ve still heard about unknowing people being set up on calls with him. Some people might be fine. Others might be like me.
- The rebranding of the website. This was a conscious rebrand that I’d heard discussed a bit as I was leaving. I’m pretty sure Geoff was afraid as everyone left that all the psychology stuff was going to look culty, and decided to do a hard science rebrand. The beakers and shit all over the website actually crack me up. It’s very try-hard. But it also demonstrates he’s still breaking his back to seem legitimate.
- He deleted the entire slack and the entire online library. Maybe this is normal infosec practice but in this case, given everything else, it means it’s hard to find evidence against him. We joked regularly that if anyone ever saw the slack, we were fucked.
Listen. I don’t want to subject myself to more judgments and criticism from exactly the people who terrified and hurt me more than anyone else in my life. However, it’s time for me to not be holding this alone anymore. It was never mine to hold. Whatever happened to Geoff that makes him act this way, it’s got nothing to do with me. So, I hereby hand it back to the community. I’ve done my work — my trauma processing, my learning, my constant grappling with questions of integrity and truth, my studying of cult dynamics, my reckoning with self-doubt and shame. I can’t carry this alone nor should I have to. And I don’t want to stay quiet and find out later some other poor kid went through what I went through.
So, here you are, community.
My hope is that we have a more accurate public understanding of Geoff’s history and behavior, and of the history of Leverage. I expect some former members speaking in its defense are honestly unaware of everything that went on in other parts of Leverage, especially as the project schismed and fell apart. However, I feel that normalizing Leverage prior to fully publicly reckoning with its harms (and benefits) is skipping steps, and it’s to the benefit of one man and not, I believe, to the benefit of the larger community.
I hope folks who speak in defense of Leverage without also reckoning with its harms realize it has a negative effect on those who are the most quiet, the most afraid, the most wounded, many of whom I know and who don’t want to speak up right now. Reading the pro-Leverage comments on the Common Knowledge LessWrong post led me to doubt every perception I’ve had of Leverage, my own character, and the integrity of my basic perceptions.
That said, I also realized while reading the LW comments that, even if I hated or disagreed with what people were saying, I was just so relieved that people were finally talking about it. Together, I think we can hold and process this thing and let it shake out however it needs to. I hope we’re stronger, more intelligent, more whole, and more flourishing because of an honest reckoning.
Lastly, I request that folks not bother people who were there. While some won’t mind, for some this is similar to an abusive relationship, so it’d be kind of like going up to someone and being like, “So Hilda were you really raped?” They might be totally fine, but you can’t know from afar.
I also expect this document will stir up feelings in some folks who were there. They might be experiencing a lot of confusion themselves. So, to others in the larger community— I’m speaking about it, so I’m opening myself to questions and criticism, hard as that is, but — not everyone is consenting to that type of engagement. Please respect their privacy, unless they choose to speak up as well.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
Zoe Rose Curzi