Naked Men: The ManKind Project and Michael Scinto

The organization was supposed to make him a better man. Instead, his parents say, it made him a dead one.

"The ManKind Project offers trainings which support men in developing lives of integrity, accountability and connection to feeling."

— From The ManKind Project Web site

"They had three naked men bring out two chickens that they hit with a ­hammer."

— Michael Scinto in a letter to a ­Madison County sheriff's deputy.

Michael Scinto was literally scared to death.

On an isolated 11-acre compound down a winding, country dirt road 110 miles north of Houston, Scinto watched as the leader of the men's group instructed him and nearly 40 other strangers in the room. Put one foot on the carpet. Make sure to keep that foot on the carpet at all times. The leader then began grilling them about who makes them mad.

"They provoked the men into a rage," wrote Scinto in a letter to the Madison County Sheriff's Office. "They were telling 1 man fuck you, you are ­worthless.'"

Scinto felt nauseous and told a staff member he needed to leave.

When Scinto had arrived the day before, men dressed in dark clothes, faces painted black, stripped him and his fellow initiates of their keys, wallets, cell phones and watches. Now, wanting to go home, Scinto demanded his keys and his wallet back. Not that keys would help at this point anyway. After all, he didn't have his truck with him; Scinto had been driven up Interstate 45 from Houston, through the rural town of Madisonville and over to the training compound located on the grassy ranchlands of North Zulch. All the men were carpooled because they were told there was not enough space for everyone to park.

Outside and away from the other men now, the group leader sat next to Scinto.

"He told me that if I left," wrote Scinto, "I would be causing harm to the other participants. I told him that I did not care. I told him to get my stuff so that I could leave. He said that if I left they would kill...(I was) convinced that if I ran they would catch me. At this point I feared for my life."

Scinto initially agreed to sign up and pay the $650 for The ManKind Project's New Warrior Training Adventure several weeks earlier after hearing about it from his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Kim Sawyer. Like everyone else who attended, Scinto was not told what the weekend would specifically entail. He signed several confidentiality contracts and liability waivers and filled out a medical questionnaire, but was promised all activities were voluntary and he could leave at any time. Plus, of course, he trusted his sponsor. Sawyer, a business coach who counsels corporate clients on how to run more effective businesses, had been Scinto's sponsor for about eight months. Sawyer joined The ManKind Project more than a decade earlier and sold the idea to Scinto, telling him it would be the best thing he could do for himself.

"So many of the character defects that eat you [sic] lunch can be replaced by strengths and skills and understandings you'll discover from this training. It will be the best Return on Investment you ever got," Sawyer wrote to Scinto in an e-mail before the initiation.

As Scinto became increasingly distraught at the retreat, staff members fetched Sawyer, who later told police that Scinto was crying and explained that he had unearthed a traumatic childhood memory. Sawyer told Scinto that leaving would be difficult and that it would be best if he expressed his thoughts and worries openly with the group.

Scinto had to make a choice: stay and continue with the program, or try to walk away alone along the poorly marked country roads, lost and terrified someone was close behind, hunting him down.

Scinto stayed.

In a letter to the sheriff's office, he detailed some of the rituals and activities he witnessed:

• Blindfolded walking tours in the nude;

• People blowing sage smoke in his face while 50 or so naked men danced around candles;

• Men sitting naked in a circle discussing their sexual histories while passing a wooden dildo called "The Cock";

• Naked men beating cooked chickens with a hammer.

At the end of the third and final day of the retreat, the leaders and staff members herded the initiates into the main room.

"They threatened us with imprisonment," wrote Scinto. "They said that if we were married to tell the wives we loved them. They told us not to discuss any of the process that we went through. Then they let us leave."

Fifteen days later, on July 25, 2005, Scinto's father and sister found him dead, rotting in his apartment from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.

His family did not understand. So they began investigating.

What they discovered was that the international men's organization with thousands of vocal loyalists claiming life-altering training also had an underworld of critics with bone-chilling tales of physical and psychological abuse.

Becky Arnett, his sister, took off from work and was able to access the group's internal Web site using her brother's password. She got a copy of the organization's local membership roster, which includes prominent doctors, lawyers and businessmen, as well as therapists and addiction ­specialists.

Some of the more surprising names included El Lago Mayor Brad Emel; Houston Ballet Foundation Director of Marketing and Communication Andrew Edmonson; artist Brooke Stroud of the Menil Collection; Marty Kelly of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and University of Houston Chair of Anthropology Norris Lang.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's name was also on the list. When contacted by the Press, he declined to comment.

Of course, merely being listed is no indication of what exactly anyone who went to the retreat did. For instance, one of the people who talked with the Press said he didn't engage in the nudity.

The Scintos came to believe that the group seemed to target vulnerable members of 12-step recovery groups and that its leaders appeared to practice psychology without a state license.

They were especially upset to find the names of several Roman Catholic priests on the roster and contacted the ­Galveston-Houston Archdiocese with this ­information.

Now, two years later, Scinto's parents, Kathy and Ralph, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Harris County against The ManKind Project Houston and Charles Kimberly Sawyer in an effort to uncover and expose once and for all what happened to their son, and why.

It almost sounds like the lead-in to an old joke: What do you get when you cross an ex-marine, a therapist and a business ­consultant?

Answer: The ManKind Project.

In January 1985, the three founding members of The ManKind Project, Rich Tosi, Bill Kauth and Ron Hering, took 18 men out on what was then called the "Wildman Weekend," in Haimowoods, Wisconsin. They conducted three more such weekends that year, initiating a total of 72 men.

Today, the retreats are called The New Warrior Training Adventure, and, according to the organization, more than 30,000 men across the globe have attended some 800-plus initiation weekends. The ManKind Project has 42 centers throughout the United States, Canada, England, Germany, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. None, however, are as active as the one in Houston. The local center's Web site boasts it has held the greatest total number of trainings anywhere, initiating more than 4,000 men since 1991 at an average of 350 a year. The Houston center is known simply as "The Weekend Machine."

The ManKind Project describes its training as "a traditional masculine initiation, but geared toward the modern-day man." Its stated mission is "to assist men in reclaiming the sacred masculine for our time through initiation, training and action in the world."

If this all sounds a bit New Age, there's a reason. The organization sprang out of the so-called "mythopoetic men's movement" that is in part derived from the work of famed psychologist Carl Jung, who studied the psyche by exploring dreams and myths, and the poet Robert Bly, whose best-selling book Iron John: A Book About Men offers a romantic view of masculinity. The overall aim is to empower men to regain their masculinity by looking at the male situation through myths and poetry. The avowed goal is to create caring and trusting relationships between men and to help men overcome their emotional wounds.

Many who join The ManKind Project say they feel the program is the most rewarding experience of their lives.

"It was a very positive experience for me," says Edmonson. "It really helped me to move forward in several areas of my life."

"I consider it more of a way of life than a membership," says George Chambers, a fourth-grade teacher at Houston's Pine Shadows Elementary School.

Artist Brooke Stroud no longer is a member and did not participate in some of the naked rituals during the initiation, but praises the organization.

"I guess I did the fraternity thing in college and did not want to go that route again," he says, "but overall, it's a good group and was a very positive experience."

Neither Kim Sawyer nor ManKind Project Houston's executive director, Scott Cole, returned phone calls requesting comment for this story. However, Les Sinclair, spokesman for the national parent nonprofit The ManKind Project, did.

"This is the best thing on the planet," he says from his home in Las Vegas. "The initiation is a real wake-up to life. We teach men to be accountable for the choices they make or the actions they don't take. We look at the emotional wounds that have taken a man's power away...He may have low self-esteem, he may feel like he doesn't measure up to other men, he's afraid of men or he's afraid of women, or he's afraid of life in general. We look at what was that key emotional wound that took his power away and set up some form of psychodrama for him to overcome. It is a very powerful process."

The procedures and protocols em­ployed at each of the organization's centers are carefully constructed and controlled, says Sinclair. And though each center is its own entity, filing its own nonprofit tax return, they all administer the same routine.

"The only difference between a training in France and in Houston," says Sinclair, "is that the training in France would be in French."

As for the nudity that takes place during the course of the retreat, Sinclair says, "It's getting real with our bodies and being men. It's of course nonsexual or anything like that. It's getting men to get beyond their shame of their bodies, like, there's nothing wrong with your body."

As for the chicken bashing, Sinclair says he cannot say what happened on Scinto's retreat because he wasn't there. However, he says that it might have been to "have a bit of levity. In the past they have brought out cooked chickens to sort of ritualize the feast" that the men have on Sunday to conclude the weekend.

It costs $650 to attend the initiation weekend, and then an additional $190 to attend eight weekly Integration Group meetings where men discuss how to incorporate the organization's philosophies into their everyday lives. Suggested activities to do during the Integration Group meetings include shaving another man's face, kidnapping a member of another Integration Group, and changing clothes with another man. Additionally, members can choose to pay hundreds of dollars more to work as staff members during retreats and to take advanced training courses, so they can rise within the organization's ranks and one day lead an initiation weekend. Members also pay yearly dues and are encouraged to make donations.

A 2005 tax return filed by the Houston center, also known as Men In Mission, shows the nonprofit group collected more than $242,000 in contributions and more than $300,000 in revenue, primarily derived from men paying to attend the retreat weekends.

The organization maintains its nonprofit tax status by asserting it provides educational services. However, critics say this claim is a sham. If the organization said it was doing therapy, it could jeopardize its special tax status.

"What it boils down to," says Rick Ross, head of the Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey, which studies cults, groups and movements, "is that they are doing group therapy, although they won't admit to that, and they are not qualified to do group therapy. They are not licensed and they are not accountable."

Norris Lang, who chairs the anthropology department at the University of Houston and is a former therapist, agrees. He took part in an initiation retreat in 1997 and then attended several Integration Group meetings before deciding to leave the organization.

"Some of the exercises that they had us engage in," he says, "were fairly traumatic and normally, as a psychotherapist, I would have only engaged in some of those activities...in the security of a hospital or psychiatric facility. If you get somebody to get in touch with their feelings from, say, 30 years ago, a time when they were abused as children, that can be fairly dangerous territory for an unprofessional. It's kind of group therapy without any professionals involved."

Sinclair insists the training is not ­therapy.

"It's therapeutic," he says, "in that it's healing, and we have a lot of therapists who come, but we don't do therapy. What we do have is a very powerful process that men get involved in and they start to peel away, like an onion, and break down their armor or shield to get down to their core and who they are. We confront men to wake up and to stop with the BS, to stop telling lies and tell the truth and trust one another."

Although members claim they don't do therapy, The ManKind Project has been recognized by the American Psychological Association, which bestowed an award on Christopher Burke for his 2004 dissertation that looks at the impact The ManKind Project has had on men.

Ross says The ManKind Project appears to use coercive mind-control tactics. These include limiting participants' sleep and diet, cutting them off from the outside world, forcing members to keep secrets, and using intimidation.

Critics such as Ross have additional concerns as well, including the targeting of 12-step communities and what they say is an inadequate vetting system to determine who can and cannot withstand the stresses of the program.

"What they have is one size fits all," says Ross, "and that's the problem. So, the net result is you get people with issues and troubles, and the pressures of the program can crack them and cause them to have emotional distress. And that's why they have waivers you have to sign. They don't require waivers because everything is fine; they want them because everything has not always been fine and they don't want the legal liability. The bottom line is, I wouldn't recommend MKP to anyone under any circumstances."

Several years ago, "Bob" — who does not want his real name used because he says he fears retaliation — began hearing whispers about The ManKind Project in the hallways outside his 12-step group meeting room. Men were huddled in the corner, he says, quietly discussing the program. Soon, Bob noticed more and more members of his group began attending the "Warrior" weekends.

"They don't recruit in the classic sense," says Bob. "It's more subtle. They don't push it, but they reintroduce it to you every time they talk to you and suggest that you might want to try it. Members tell you it helped them clear up things from their past and allowed them to trust other men. And that's the hook. "

After researching the program on the Internet, Bob decided it wasn't for him. But that didn't mean he was free and clear of the group.

Bob was friends with a man attending his 12-step group who he considered extremely fragile. Members of The ManKind Project began "honing in" on him, says Bob, and he warned the man not to attend, fearing he might suffer psychological damage from the stressful program. When members of The ManKind Project learned of Bob's warning, they became angry.

"They went after me in subtle ways," says Bob. "People started gossiping about me in a negative way behind my back, and it became very uncomfortable to attend my (12-step) meetings. I had to change meetings, but even that wasn't very effective because members are in all the meetings. It's scary because they know all your secrets, and physical and emotional retaliation or blackmail is possible. It's like a virus here in Houston."

There are no rules regulating what members of Alcoholics Anonymous can or cannot discuss once they are outside of the meeting room, says the public information coordinator of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York City. Furthermore, there are no written rules prohibiting a sponsor from trying to get their sponsee to join an outside organization.

However, doing so "doesn't seem to be in the spirit of AA," says the public information coordinator. "Though people have outside interests, they are usually careful not to bring them into their AA relationships. We could certainly see how people might find it problematic, though, and a new person in AA who is enthusiastically approached by someone about another organization may not know it has nothing to do with AA."

"Mary," another person who says she doesn't want her name used because she is afraid of retaliation, has watched both her husband and her son get sucked into The ManKind Project through their 12-step groups. In both cases, their sponsors pressured them to attend, she says.

"They start out with a lie," she says, "because they tell you that you have to carpool because there's not enough parking. Well, it's way out in the country and they have acres of land, so there's plenty of parking. I think they say that so it makes it much harder to leave. And then I saw the covenant that they faxed for my husband to sign saying he will never discuss anything that happens with anyone ever. And I felt, why? What's going on here that needs to be a secret?"

Les Sinclair says the secrecy is for the men's benefit.

"We ask men not to reveal the process because it would be like going to a movie where you hear what the story is about and what the ending is," he says. "We don't want anything revealed because each man's journey is different and every man should have the opportunity to have their own experience."

All weekend long while her husband was at the retreat, Mary was worried. At that point, she did not know initiates are stripped of all their possessions, including cell phones, and was expecting a call. Finally late Sunday night, her husband returned.

"He said that there were some good things," recalls Mary, "but he did not care for the intimidation, especially while you check in. He said they're screaming at you, their faces are painted black, and if you arrive five minutes early or five minutes late, they humiliate you even more."

During the weekend, men are subjected to mandatory cold showers in the morning, about four hours of sleep at night and very little food. Mary's husband did not eat Friday night. On Saturday he was fed small amounts of trail mix and fruit. "They also ate something called 'chicken broth,'" says Mary, "but it was just clear broth with nothing in it. And he only got a tiny cap's worth."

According to the 1998 protocol manual obtained by the Press, leaders are told the exact language they are to use when talking to initiates, right down to when they are supposed to pause in the middle of a sentence. When greeting a new member, the staff is told to "get in his face, hard and clear," and to "hold it for 15 to 30 seconds." Some training centers use buckets instead of toilets, which have "more therapeutic value in terms of dealing with shame." Activities include feelings exercises where the men are encouraged to growl and shove each other's shoulders. "Cock Talk" is when the men put on their "dancing clothes," meaning get naked, and pass around an erect phallus made of wood. Whoever holds the penis gets to share his sexual past or issues. The "Chicken Carving" is a ritual involving a cooked chicken. According to the 1998 protocol handbook, the ritual "has gotten distorted into a sophomoric, semi-sadistic, 'let's get 'em' sort of energy so frequently that some centers have dropped it."

At one point, says Mary, her husband and the other men were blindfolded and marched into a large room, where they were told to take off their clothes. Drums were beating in the background, and when the men were told to remove their blindfolds, "he saw 50 or 60 naked men dancing on a stage in a circle," she says. "They call this 'The Dance,' and my husband said they started playing rock and roll music and some of the men were just dancing like they were obsessed."

This moment, however, paled in comparison to how uncomfortable Mary's husband felt the following day.

"They were all in the sweat lodge on Sunday," she says, "which he actually enjoyed. It was the first moment he had to relax in days after going through such a high-drama weekend where they pound you to reveal your deep, dark stuff. So, everyone was sitting Indian-style in a big circle in the lodge when the man leading the group said, 'If you wish, you may reach over and grab your brother's dick. If your brother doesn't want your hand there, he can remove it.' Well, my husband told me he just froze. And from that point on, he just wanted out."

When asked about the incident that Mary says happened to her husband in the sweat lodge, spokesman Les Sinclair says, "That would never ever happen on a weekend. I can swear on my mother's grave that that would never happen. That's a vindictive comment and whoever told it to you has an agenda. We are very respectful of men and there's none of that sort of juvenile stuff. It would not be tolerated."

Mary says even though her husband didn't want anything further to do with the group, it wasn't that easy to get away. The following week, she says they received "umpteen phone calls asking if he'd signed up for the Integration Group meetings. He kept telling them 'No.' It's been a few years now since my husband attended the weekend, but we still get several e-mails a week, every week, asking for money, either for donations or to attend another training. It never ends."

It truly did not end for Mary, because her son's 12-step sponsor was in the process of pressuring him to attend an initiation weekend, just like the one that had so disturbed his father.

Three years ago, Mary's then-17-year-old son got involved with drugs. And like so many people, he went to rehab and entered a 12-step program.

"My son has always had severe emotional problems," Mary says, "and they just kept hammering him at AA to go do the weekend. They told him, 'You won't need meds, you won't need psychologists, you won't need anything else.'"

Less than a year ago, Mary's son attended the weekend and is honoring the confidentiality agreement down to the letter, refusing to discuss it with even his mother or father. He has completed the first eight weeks of Integration Group meetings and plans to remain an active member.

As far as Mary is concerned, her son's experience represents all that she sees is wrong with the organization: a poor vetting system and unlicensed men staffing the weekend retreat.

"Let me tell you," she says. "When you talk about unstable, you're talking about my poor son. If they had truly interviewed him and looked at the list of meds he takes, which he did include on the medical questionnaire they make you fill out, which is one of the ways they say they screen, they shouldn't have allowed him to participate. They should have looked at his medical history and said, 'This kid has a lot of problems and there is no way we can know how he is going to react to the stuff we do.' They say they screen the men, but I don't think they screen them at all. I think if they have the money, they let them come."

What's more, she says, is that they are practicing unlicensed therapy.

"They are getting deep into people's personal issues," she says. "I mean, my son is in his early 20s, takes all sorts of medications and now that he's finished with the Integration Groups, he could staff a weekend and work it. He's supposed to help someone and is supposed to know when to stop and start and how far to push a man? It's ridiculous and it's really scary."

Since her son became involved with The ManKind Project, Mary has not seen any real change in him. At least no positive change. Her son is more secretive now and spends much of his time with older men — many members are over 40 — which makes Mary uncomfortable.

"Believe me," says Mary," I'd kiss these guys if they could perform a miracle with my son. When he decided to go do the weekend, I was scared to death. But I was relieved when he came home, because the fact that he didn't come back and commit suicide means they didn't do him any serious harm."

It was about 5 o'clock on a Monday night when Ralph Scinto received a phone call from his son Michael's employer saying Michael had not shown up for work that day. Immediately, Ralph began to panic.

He knew his son had gone to The ManKind Project retreat two weeks earlier and returned terrified. Michael had told him about the threats, and that he'd fired his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Kim Sawyer. Michael also told his father he'd consulted an attorney to get a restraining order against Sawyer, who he said had been hounding him with phone calls ever since the retreat.

Ralph called his daughter, Becky, and told her he was going to drive over to Michael's apartment in Webster to check on him. Becky said she wanted to go too, and drove over to her dad's house.

Half an hour later, they pulled up next to Michael Scinto's building. Ralph and Becky rushed over to the apartment's front door and began banging on it. When Ralph turned the knob, the door opened.

Ralph Scinto started screaming.

The police arrived shortly after and were hit by the unmistakable stench of decay as soon as they entered the apartment. Blood was everywhere, on the ceiling and on the floor. And there was Michael Scinto, sprawled out on the carpet, a shotgun laying beside him.

Weeks after finding her brother, Becky took several months off from work. A friend had moved Michael's computer from his apartment and gave it to Becky because he could not crack the password. Becky figured it out, and it was then, almost a month after her brother's death, that she first discovered the letter Michael had written to the Madison County sheriff's office.

Becky launched into a two-month research binge. She went on the Internet, reading and printing out countless articles about The ManKind Project. She found chat rooms where people were talking about their negative experiences with the group and where to find crucial insider documents. Becky tracked down every lead. She used Michael's password to get into the restricted members-only section of The ManKind Project Houston's Web site and downloaded internal papers, including the full membership roster. She did not know it at the time, but she was compiling most of the material that would later be the backbone of the family's ­lawsuit.

"Thank God Michael wrote the letter and thank God we found it," says Becky.

Family members describe Michael as quiet, calm and shy. He was "the type of guy who always left a few dollars more than he needed to as a tip at a restaurant," says his mother Kathy. Michael was not seeing a therapist, and as far she knows, had never tried to harm himself before.

"He was always the strength in our family," remembers Kathy.

Even so, in the years leading up to Michael's suicide, the 29-year-old plumber had been struggling with cocaine and alcohol. As far as his family knew, he had been clean for almost a year and a half up until the week of his death and was putting his life back together after a rocky 2004 during which Michael had bought a boat and a townhouse, only to have the bank foreclose because he was spending money on partying instead of making payments.

"He had psychological problems like anyone has who goes to AA," says Ralph. "He was drinking and drugging. He'd earn $5,000 and spend $10,000."

By the early part of 2005, it looked as though Michael had turned a corner. He was well into the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and had registered his new plumbing company with the Better Business Bureau, bought a new company truck, started a Web site, and had company pens and T-shirts printed up. Michael was forced to rent a less expensive apartment in Webster, but the upshot was it was closer to the Pearland Regional Airport, where Michael indulged his true passion in life, flying.

"He loved flying planes on the weekends," says Kathy, "and he was so optimistic, trying so hard to get his business going. But after the MKP weekend, it was all over. Something had changed."

Two days after Scinto returned from the retreat, he sought psychiatric help at Ben Taub Hospital, complaining of nightmares and painful memories since attending a men's workshop. According to the hospital report released by his family to the Press, Scinto began feeling better soon after checking in. The doctor wrote that Scinto claimed to have been sober for 16 months, but that he requested a tranquilizer. The doctor then scribbled the phrase "drug seeking" at the bottom of the report.

The Harris County Medical Examiner conducted Michael Scinto's autopsy, and concluded that his thoracic blood-alcohol level was 0.24, three times the legal limit to drive, and that he had used cocaine within an hour of his death. Kathy says that her son only began drinking again one week after returning from the retreat.

Three days after Michael Scinto left the hospital, he dated his letter to the Madison County Sheriff's Office attempting to file a complaint about The ManKind Project retreat. He sent the letter, in which he detailed the weekend, including allegations of kidnapping, to former Deputy Larry Adams. But the deputy never filed a complaint. According to a Webster police report, Adams said he reviewed Scinto's letter as well as The ManKind Project contracts he signed. A portion of the contract stipulated that Scinto agreed to remain on the retreat's grounds the entire weekend. The sheriff's office decided that the matter was best suited for a civil court and not a criminal investigation.

Houston contract attorney Dayle Pugh says this decision might have been an error.

"Even if you've contractually agreed to stay," he says, "you can leave any time you damn well please. And if they don't let you go, it really is kidnapping."

Marc Young, attorney for The ManKind Project Houston and Sawyer, says the kidnapping allegation has no merit.

"I really do feel sorry for Michael's parents having to go through this," he says. "Michael had a troubled adult life and obviously he was seeking some answers that he didn't find. But I think the evidence is going to show that at the time, (Michael) requested to stay and that he fully participated when he wanted to and when he didn't, he didn't."

Still, Kathy Scinto believes the last words of her son, penned in the letter to Adams.

"It breaks our heart," she says, "to know that Michael tried so hard to get help and everybody turned him away."

The last time Kathy ever saw her son was two days after he had secretly sent the letter to the sheriff's office. It was also eight days before she would learn of his death. Scinto was supposed to serve as best man at his brother's wedding in two weeks, and went to meet his mother at a Schlotzsky's for lunch to discuss the upcoming event.

But that Sunday, she says, "Michael told me something he had never told me before. He said he thought he was sexually abused by several boys when he was about six years old."

Kathy Scinto had been in the dark about this, but apparently Sawyer was not. According to the police report, Sawyer said that during the retreat Scinto told him about the abuse. It was then that Sawyer told Scinto it would be best to share his recently unearthed memory with the group. Sawyer also told Scinto there was a licensed psychologist on hand that could help him if he wished. Sawyer told police that Scinto made the decision then to remain at the retreat.

But Ralph Scinto doesn't buy any of that.

"Michael felt anxiety after being forced to give over some deep secret in front of all those men," he says. "He couldn't handle it, or thought he shouldn't have told all those strangers. He was embarrassed and ashamed to divulge his secret. It made him feel bad, and he left there feeling even worse about himself."

It is not easy getting people who have attended The ManKind Project initiation weekend to talk about it. The Press contacted dozens of men who said they could not discuss it because of the confidentiality agreement they signed, or because they were scared of retaliation.

Real estate developer David Ward is an exception, perhaps because he views the retreat in a positive light.

"It's a chance for a man to walk through his life and see some of the places that he's stuck," he says. "I don't know if I would have done it the way they did, but the concept and their goal, I believe, is a good and important one."

Ward is no longer an active member. He moved from Houston to Sealy and says it's too far a drive to remain in the group. Ward attended the same weekend as Scinto in July 2005, but doesn't remember him. But like Scinto, Ward knew very little about what he was getting himself into beforehand.

"I was told about it by a friend and thought it would be a men's retreat with challenging events," he says. "The reality was different than I thought."

Ward is careful to walk a fine line in describing the weekend.

"I believe that they are digging deep to try to get emotion from people," he says. "And sometimes you have to do that to get someone to unearth things that are down deep. So I understand the reasoning. There may be a way to process this over several weekends as opposed to the way they do it all at once...without demanding the right response and saying, 'We're not going to stop until you get to the other side of this.' It is easy to be skeptical, but I understand what they are trying to do and where they are trying to go. But they really don't want you to reveal too much about what happened."

Brad Emel, mayor of El Lago, says he attended one of the retreats several years ago, but decided not to stick with the organization.

"It's cool, you know, I enjoyed it," he says. However, "I felt like I just didn't need the type of reinforcement they offer."

When asked why, Emel said, "Because my life's not that fucked up. I've got a pretty good deal going."

When asked specifically about the nudity and rituals, Emel denied knowing anything about it and then said, "I don't know that I'm really that comfortable talking about that."

Cult tracker Ross and an anonymous man who attended the training years ago set up chat rooms for men and their families who feel victimized by the ManKind ­organization.

Ross began his ManKind Project thread in November 2005, and the anonymous man, who calls himself Warrior X, began his on Yahoo in August 2004. At one point, The ManKind Project's entire protocol manual (running more than 100 pages) was posted on Ross's site. Ross says he doesn't know who put it there. Soon after, the organization's attorneys contacted Ross demanding that he remove the copyrighted information. Ross complied, but was allowed to keep portions of the manual on his site under the fair-use laws, he says.

"I became outraged when I found out what MKP really did to me at the NWTA [New Warrior Training Adventure] and the I-groups," writes Warrior X. "I got even more pissed off when they used their standard lines 'you could have always said no' or 'you could have left at any time' to cover their asses. A man without adequate sleep and food doesn't have the strength to resist MKP, and that's exactly what they want. I was outraged that MKP performed Jungian and gestalt psychological processes on me without telling me ahead of time by unlicensed individuals. And most of all, I was outraged for the hurt that MKP caused me. They did psychological processes on me that unlocked a Pandora's Box of pain and hurt within me that I couldn't deal with. I started the Yahoo group so that my story could be told and so that I could help and support others who were hurt by MKP like myself."

People have posted thousands of messages over the years on the two sites, comfortable in their anonymity.

Writes Dannyjoerocks on the Yahoo site: "On another carpet another man was all wrapped up in ducted[sic] tape on the floor screaming as another man was yelling you can't get out of that, On another carpet a young man was screaming I fucking hate you I fucking hate you look what you did to me. It was like people didn't know what was going on they were in some trance...I felt like I was regressing. I was being taken back to a place where I no longer want to be. A life of chaos where I had no control. The cold shower reminded me of when I didn't pay my bills. Sitting on the cold floor in the shack (after arriving and checking in) reminded me of the holding cell where I waited before going to jail. All the yelling reminded me of my father...I just kept thinking this was very inhumane very very strange stuff. Something is not right."

Writes a person calling himself Henntsp: "Much bullying and abuse goes on simultaneously which I argue can easily cancel out any healing. Amateurs helping amateurs in such an important and vulnerable area as emotional pain is wide open to abuse...as an organization and as individual members they sometimes function with extremely questionable ethics."

Several days after Ralph Scinto buried his son, he began flipping through The ManKind Project's Houston membership roster, filled with names, phone numbers and addresses. Suddenly, he saw an address he recognized. It was a Roman Catholic church. As a Catholic himself, Ralph was stunned. Michael's entire family then began searching all 2,904 entries on the 2005 list to find out who it was that belonged to this secretive group.

They discovered that dozens upon dozens of priests, ministers, therapists, heads of companies, doctors, lawyers and people involved with addiction rehabilitation all had at one point attended The New Warrior Training Adventure.

"We said, 'Oh my God,'" recalls Kathy Scinto. "We couldn't believe it. All these people who belonged were in powerful positions. And they all deal with vulnerable people who could be convinced to go to this thing. It was really scary."

Kathy Scinto then went to speak with a priest who was initiated the same weekend as her son.

"I asked him, 'If I told everyone that you were dancing around naked, what do you think people would say?'" she recalls. "I asked him, 'How can a Catholic priest who is supposed to serve God go into the woods and do these pagan rituals?' He said he was invited to attend and that he doesn't have anything to do with it ­anymore."

The Press contacted several priests who were on the roster, all of whom declined to comment, referring questions to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Bishop Joe Vasquez then issued a statement condemning the organization. In an e-mail, he wrote that the archdiocese became aware in late 2005 that priests were members of The ManKind Project. The then-archbishop, Joseph A. Fiorenza, "was concerned that elements of The ManKind Project and its New Warrior Training weekends seemed to reflect a New Age philosophy and were not in harmony with traditional Roman Catholic belief and practices," Vasquez wrote. "Archbishop Fiorenza issued a letter in January 2006 asking priests to refrain from being actively involved in the group or promoting" it. Vasquez says the current archbishop, Daniel N. DiNardo, maintains the same stance as his ­predecessor.

Mel Taylor, president and CEO of The Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston, a publicly funded organization providing resources to people adversely affected by drugs and alcohol, is listed as a member. He did not return phone calls requesting comment; however, attorney Wade Quinn, also a member, speaking on Taylor's behalf, said the Council has no connection with the activities of The ManKind Project.

However, some therapists and ad­diction specialists actively recommend the organization to patients and ­clients.

George Joseph is a licensed chemical dependency counselor and founder of The Right Step drug rehab center, with locations in Texas, New Mexico and Louisiana. He says he has recommended The ManKind Project to many people.

"If you have any kind of desire to know more about yourself and how to be a better man, then I think it's awesome," he says.

Joseph attended one of the very first Houston initiation weekends in 1992 and is no longer active. However, his company pays for half of the fee should his employees decide to attend the weekend. And looking through the 2005 roster, many have.

When asked if he is concerned about the effect a psychologically stressful retreat could have on someone struggling with addiction, Joseph says that The ManKind Project is not his first recommendation for patients leaving his rehab centers; however, he does refer some people to it once they are out on their own and sober.

"I guess there are two types of people who should be excluded," he says, "if you have no sense of adventure and you think your life is already perfect. (But) I don't see that many people would need to be excluded from it."

Psychotherapist Michael Butera attended the retreat in 2001 and says he also refers patients to the program. He feels it can help men discover they have a connection with other men if they are feeling like outsiders and unconnected to the world.

"I could never do what The ManKind Project does in my office," he says, "because there's no way to give the person feedback like that. I can tell him something, but I'm a therapist. But if he has ordinary guys tell him, it's the kind of validation you cannot get in psychotherapy."

In a way, Butera answers some of the questions that plague critics of The ManKind Project. He admits the weekend is analogous to therapy and that the processes used are powerful enough to cause some men real trauma.

"There are people who would be too fragile to go through it," he says. "And MKP themselves do not want people who are actively psychotic because it may be too overwhelming to them. I think (they) do the best they can with the screening process, but that doesn't mean someone can't get through that might be too fragile. I've never had any difficulty with anyone I've ever referred, but I can appreciate, like in a 12-step program, those are not all professional people who are referring. So, mistakes will be made...and perhaps some people are referred who should not be."

Dr. John Hochman, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, says he has seen a few patients who attended the retreat. One, he says, would not talk about it; another was scared to death.

"Some people can't deal with it," he says. "It rings of bad therapy and doesn't pass the smell test to me. The refrain of all these groups is that they're not therapy groups, they're something else. They're education, yeah, that's a good one."

He gets a chuckle out of the fact The ManKind Project uses parts of Jung and other well-known psychologists.

"What this does is give it a patina of credibility because there's a philosophy behind it and it's not just some mean bully," he says. "It's like, 'We've got this philosophy,' Jung's 'Shadow,' so they're really sensitive and thinking people, (while) putting you through this psychological wringer."

There seems to be a gray area in Texas law as to whether or not practicing techniques such as the ones utilized on the retreats is lawful. There are numerous licensing boards depending on whether you are a psychologist or a counselor. And there does not seem to be a consensus among them.

The Texas Department of State Health Services licenses social workers, counselors, and marriage and family therapists. Spokeswoman Emily Palmer says that so long as the people conducting the activity do not bill themselves as licensed practitioners during the activity, there are no rules against practicing techniques traditionally used by a licensed counselor.

Sherry Lee, executive director of the State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, says sanctions can be imposed.

"If someone is not licensed by our act and they either claim to be a psychologist or to provide psychological services, or if the very nature of what they're doing is psychological services, in other words, if it smells of psychological services, then we would issue them a cease-and-desist order," she says. "There is also an incumbency on anyone who holds a state license that you can't just do something that's in violation of the act or rules. So, if you're a licensed psychologist and you're out there saying, hypothetically, 'I'm doing therapy to reduce your tendency to want to kill yourself,' clearly that is practicing therapy, even though you may call it something else."

About five months after the suicide, Ralph Scinto says he became short-tempered and difficult to live with, so he separated from his second wife and moved into a motel near Bush Intercontinental Airport. He is still there, as if frozen in time.

"I'm just floating, just existing," he says, chain-smoking menthol cigarettes inside an office at the motel. "I try every day not to think about it."

Kathy Scinto still cries at the mere mention of her son, apologizing profusely, as though two years later she should be well and done mourning the loss. But these days, for the first time in what feels like a lifetime, she senses a glimmer of hope: the lawsuit.

"I'm so stressed out I feel like I'm having a heart attack getting all this together," she says. "My family really needs a rest, a break, but we can't rest until The ManKind Project is exposed. Michael tried to expose them by going to the police, and it breaks my heart that no one would listen, but I'm so thankful that his words will finally be able to be heard in court because what happened to him can happen to other people."

She says she will not settle the case. But there is a long way to go before any trial.

For one thing, there is the matter of the contract her son signed before attending the retreat. It clearly stipulates that both Scinto and his heirs surrender their right to sue on grounds of wrongful death and strict liability, two of the allegations in the lawsuit, and if a claim is made, it must first go through arbitration as opposed to litigation in civil court.

"They've actually filed in the wrong area," says Young, attorney for The ManKind Project Houston and Sawyer, "so I don't know what's going to happen with the lawsuit. There are some procedural issues the court is going to have to deal with."

The Scintos' lawyer, George Kelley, says this won't be a problem.

"The court requires that both parties go to mediation in every case before trial anyway," he says. "It's just less formal than arbitration, so I'm not worried about it at all."

Of course, as in any lawsuit, the Scintos are suing for money. But Kathy Scinto insists that's not her primary concern.

"I've told my family that if we get any money," she says, "it's Michael's money and we will put it toward something he would have wanted. The main purpose of the lawsuit is to expose MKP. I mean, in this huge city, how many people have heard of them? Not many. And how many people have problems with drugs and alcohol or see a therapist for whatever reason and are vulnerable and may be convinced to go? Too many. It really scares me."

Ralph Scinto thinks less about the next wave of potential recruits. He seems solely fixated on his pain and those who he believes caused it.

"I try not to talk about Michael too much because it hurts too much," he says. "I get flashes of the way we found him in his apartment, sometimes daily. And they will never go away. I don't feel joy or happiness anymore. I just am. But now that we've initiated this lawsuit, they'll have to look me in the eye and defend what they did. They murdered his spirit. It was the worst kind of murder."

chris.vogel@houstonpress.com

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5 comments
t.ariel.terry
t.ariel.terry

There are many other programs like this, including in the realm of evangelical christianity: 

twentyfourseven worldwide

24-7 leadership academy

teen mania honour academy

They fulfill most all the conditions for cult-status, and while they promise to be a launching pad to a great life, there are many silent sufferers(myself included) who spiral off in to greater depression and woundedness...secrecy as to the process, complete misrepresentation, or lack of representation of what is involved in the process, a fanatical devotion to leadership, mind and body control..usage of trauma to invoke change etc...very dangerous so please be warned

Colospgs_xplant
Colospgs_xplant

A shot in the dark here, since this post is older...I, too, am familiar with 24/7 and its many dysfunctions. If you need to speak to someone about it, I can help.

t.ariel.terry
t.ariel.terry

@Colospgs_xplant E-mail is nerds 'five two' @ hotmail.com ....substitute the words for   numbers in there and you have my address. 

Colospgs_xplant
Colospgs_xplant

Ariel, I shot you an email; hope I got the address correct.

 
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