There are probably stranger ways to spend the Saturday of the Thanksgiving long weekend, but here I am holding a "trauma card" to heal my "damaged spirit" with a dozen other people in a conference room of the Sheraton Hotel.
I shake it (no sound) and give it a sniff (odourless). An "instrument keeper" with the Gentle Wind Project, the controversial New-England-based group sponsoring this seminar, whispers, "Put it between your hands like you're praying."
In quiet card contemplation, I feel my heartbeat more clearly, which is what usually happens when I meditate.
Others claim that holding a Gentle Wind "healing instrument" (besides the trauma card, there are "healing pucks" and a half-dozen other instruments) makes everything from anxieties to serious ailments go away.
I approached the seminar seeking insight into the theory behind these bizarre objects. Health care workers are among Gentle Wind's promoters and detractors on the Internet.
This bitter Web site warfare has moved to the courts. Gentle Wind is suing two prominent former members and other detractors in the U.S. for making what it alleges are false accusations about the group's health claims and fundraising activities.
Gentle Wind says in a document filed in U.S. court that allegations against the group are "wild, scurrilous and utterly unfounded."
Back inside the seminar, the group's president, Mary Miller, who's sporting no-fuss hair and sensible shoes, is eager to tackle from the get-go the legal ill wind blowing around Gentle Wind.
"For those who don't know," Miller begins, "there's some negative information about us on the Internet, calling us ridiculous things. But believe me, we're the most boring group of middle-aged people around, and you'd be crazy to want to follow us." Laughs all around.
She then takes a direct shot at the group's critics. "When the quack-watchers bad-mouth you, you know you've made it in alternative medicine!" Miller says.
Maybe so. But the "quack-watchers" aren't the only ones keeping a watchful eye on Gentle Wind.
The Maine attorney general's office is interested enough in what former members have to say about Gentle Wind to be keeping an active file.
Canadian authorities have also taken note of the group's forays here, which include regular gatherings in Vancouver and Montreal. The group's most recent Toronto visit raised concerns at Health Canada.
It seems the Gentle Wind Project is selling what Health Canada considers "risk class 1" devices, something the group is not allowed to do without a licence. ***
The Gentle Wind Project, whose motto is "Science and engineering for the human spirit," takes its name from a passage in the I Ching that refers to "the way the sage's thought penetrates us ." John and Mary Miller were young adults when they met at social work school at the University of Connecticut. They became friends and were both "interested in going beyond the limits of counselling and psychotherapy," she says. They began to look at Dr. Edward Bach's Bach Flower Remedies, which were a good start, according to Miller, but limited because of the difficulty of knowing which remedy goes with which ailment.
Nine years after graduation, John Miller approached her with his new technology based on "radiational paraphysics," which he thought vastly superior because it healed the specific damaged areas of the spirit. "It was a gradual development process that is still ongoing," she says.
Indeed, the Millers say they are constantly upgrading the "technology." Miller says Gentle Wind produces countless prototypes, of which few "go out into the world." The five regularly produced models undergo improvements every year. There have probably been over 100 models since 1984.
The non-profit has grown from pushing aromatherapy to raising more than $1.2 million in "donations" last year.
It boasts a significant enough presence in North America to keep Mary Miller, the group's official face, jetting to conferences and seminars, including stops twice a year in Toronto, where there are at least eight "instrument keepers."
According to the group's literature, the engineering of the instruments is inspired by "telepathic communications from non-physical entities living outside the Earth's physical and astral systems."
John Miller is the main receiver of these messages from the ether, say former members.
It's no secret there are many Millers in the core group of the Gentle Wind Project, but Mary Miller is a little reluctant to get into the finer details on how that all came to pass.
"We were an odd group living and researching in a house in Maine," she says, "and we wanted to do renovations but couldn't get a permit because we didn't constitute a family."
When pressed, she adds, "We were just getting the runaround from an individual person at the town hall, and it's been made into this story about following a guru." Mary and another member, Shelly, changed their names to Miller. The fourth Miller is John's wife, Carol.
A key tenet of the group is that an invisible sphere 5 feet wide and 9 feet high surrounds each of us. It is made of "32 different levels of sub-atomic spiritual tennis netting," says Miller.
According the group, pain, fear and loss cause damage to areas of this netting. Holding a "healing instrument," which contains a particular combination of cell salts, undisclosed herbs and minerals and sometimes gold, returns one's sense of well-being by repairing the damaged bits.
Gentle Wind is registered as a non-profit, but some have wondered about the group's determined sales pitches. At the Toronto seminar, I'm buttonholed by one "instrument keeper."
And Miller is quick to correct anyone who wants to "buy" a healing device. That said, each device comes with a specific "donation request": $2,075 U.S. for a Healing Puck V, and $10,000 for a thorough overhaul from a New World System V 2.2.
At the Toronto seminar, Gentle Winders hand out promotional material stating that "trauma technology has recently been accepted for a phase one clinical trial through a medical university in New England."
Asian medicine practitioner Mary Ryan will conduct this study. She teaches medical anthropology part-time at the University of Massachusetts. The planned 12-week trial will gauge the potency of the trauma and pain cards by giving them to one group of participants and a placebo to another group. Participants will answer questionnaires and mark levels of pain on a scale from one to 10. The study will not be conducted at the university, but at Ryan's Tibetan and Chinese medicine clinic.
"I am willing to put my whole career on the line and report I have never come across an alternative therapy that worked so well and that so escaped my understanding," she says.
But since my contact info appeared on a Gentle Wind "victims" Web forum, I have received more than 20 e-mails from six ex-instrument keepers in Australia, Canada and the U.S. The picture they paint of Gentle Wind is not as glowing.
From Toronto: "I was very ill and the docs couldn't help me. I was desperate to try anything. I was introduced to the original puck by a health care provider in California whom I trusted. I was disappointed with the one I got, so I complained to the GWP, who kept encouraging me to upgrade. I ended up with 14 instruments. Now I'm just broke, humiliated and in need. It will take me years to save $5,000 again. I have to seek government assistance for my needs."
From Brisbane, Australia: "I have shared my instruments with over 3,000 people, and monitored the results . No one had any long-term benefits. One month I forgot to 'send' distance healings to several people, which involves holding a puck in one hand and thinking about the person's name and location. The persons who gave me their names reported back that they'd all had breakthroughs. That made me aware that placebo and suggestion play a big part in the sales success of the instruments."
The most serious charges against the group, however, come from Judy Garvey and her husband, Jim Bergin, two former Gentle Wind adherents who published on their Web site detailed and dramatic accounts of their 17-year involvement with the group.
The mud-slinging between the Millers and Garvey and Bergin continues with gusto. Mary Miller says Garvey and Bergin stand to profit financially from their public criticism of Gentle Wind. The two have a hypnotherapy practice. Garvey says she was so taken in by Gentle Wind that she participated in "energy work" that involved sex. Both deny the others' charges. ***
Gentle Wind's Web site admits that the way the instruments work "cannot be understood by anyone in humanity at this time." It offers that the devices are based on "high-frequency temporal shifting, matrixed with pre-defined etheric modifications operating in a vertically and horizontally oriented polarization." "Gobbledygook!" says Robert Baratz, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud in the U.S., who has monitored the group. He says Gentle Wind's scientific explanations are "high-sounding phrases that mean nothing."
When I tell him that Mary Miller sent me a stack of instrument-praising testimonials from social workers, nurses and even a couple of MDs, he scoffs.
"A bunch of degrees after someone's name doesn't give them any claim on the truth," Baratz says. "If someone makes a claim about something medical, it is their duty and obligation to provide not anecdotes but hard data that show the claim is true."
In tax forms filed by Gentle Wind with the Internal Revenue Service in 2002, the group claimed a $861,368 exemption for "education and research."
California lawyer Carl Starrett, who has been looking into the group on behalf of a non-profit and consumer watchdog, has been left wondering, "Why is the research so costly if the product specifications come from the spirit world?" Starrett is among a group of detractors who are asking the IRS, among others, to investigate the group for alleged "financial improprieties."
He points to expense reports filed with the IRS by the group, including $66,979 for a sailboat. Miller says the expense is easily explained. She says she and her colleagues teach people how to do things they have never done before, like build a sailboat, to give them confidence and to learn how individuals react to being challenged in a positive way. ***
A spokesperson for the IRS tells NOW that it "cannot confirm or deny anything ongoing" related to Gentle Wind. The attorney general's office in Maine will only confirm that it is "interested in getting information about the Gentle Wind Project." Gentle Wind lawyer Daniel Rosenthal is unfazed.
"The attorney general has had many months to say if there's a problem, and so far there is no resolution."
He adds that Gentle Wind's lawsuit against former members isn't a referendum on customer satisfaction. Instead, Rosenthal says, it's to keep self-professed "experts" from publishing content about a law-abiding group.
The courts, however, have so far not smiled on Gentle Wind. A court has already recommended dismissing federal claims against Garvey and Bergin, as well as several others with links to their Web site.
The courts have also denied Gentle Wind's motion for reconsideration due to lack of personal injury. All that remain are the state claims.
Douglas Brooks, a lawyer for one of the co-defendants, an exit counsellor from Arizona, says Gentle Wind is using litigation "to cow people. "
Back at the Toronto seminar, Miller tells the gathering that "the effects of just one healing can continue throughout a person's life, but it's true that they can't help everyone. We can help people who have problems, not people who are problems."