Most relationship experts are kindly souls who believe that men and women can lead better lives through good communications. Justin Sterling knows better. Barely pushing five feet seven, even in his thick-heeled black boot, Sterling is the gonzo guru who acts even tougher that the tough love he preaches. He appears before his followers in work shirts and black jeans, his belly protruding over a metal motorcycle belt. He doesn't walk, he struts. He doesn't speak, he wheezes out his words with the velocity of a moving bullet. And he puts down skeptics with a mighty hammer.
Last February, at a male-only reunion and recruitment open house in Oakland, where the Sterling Institute of Relationship is headquartered, he was pitching his special self-help sessions (known as "the Weekend") to a boisterous crowd when a thin, tweedy-looking man in his mid-twenties rose to speak.
Compared to Sterling's macho mainstays, with their ripped T-shirts and crusty jeans, this frail specimen was clearly in the wrong movie, but determined all the same. "I haven't heard one thing here tonight that would make me want to spend $600 for the Weekend," he announced to Sterling and the audience in a nasal, reedy voice.
A wall of hisses and curses greeted him immediately.
"Your agenda doesn't recognize the equal role of women," he continued, loud and proud. "It demeans the..." "You know what you are?" Sterling yelled back, shutting him off. The crowd hushed. The wanted to enjoy this. "You're a pussy! That's what you are. A big pussy! Of anybody here you need the Weekend most. But guess what? I don't want you in it! Get out of here. Be a pussy somewhere else. Go!"
Security guards in white shirts and black pants then materialized seizing the lone doubter and giving him a bumpy ride off the premises. "And guess what?" Sterling shouted after him. "It's too bad you don't get to take it, because your dick would have grown two inches!"
No. Sterling doesn't have a patent on a special penile growth serum, but he is all about helping men rediscover what he might call their spiritual manhood--their raw, essential masculinity, their inner Neanderthal. That's the only way, as he sees it, for men to find respect and contentment in a world gone haywire with ever-changing ideas about gender.
To Sterling, the notion of the sensitive man, the communicative and empathetic man, is really just a notion. It doesn't work--and what it does do is feminize and ultimately debase the men who try it. Women are hostile enemy territory, he tells men. Whatever you reveal to them, they'll eventually use against you. Men are dogs, he tells women. Any part of a relationship you trust to them, they'll screw up.
Because Sterling feels that men and women are genetically incapable of understanding one another's deepest feelings, he advises them to stop trying: Everyone would be a lot less frustrated. Instead, in his weekend courses, and in the cult like subculture that has grown up around him, he teaches men and women how to live together by, in essence, spending as little time together as possible--while spending a lot of time with their real friends: other people of the same sex.
Pretty demented stuff, right? But there are thousands of men--and women--who take it very seriously. Bolstered by an army of committed volunteers, Sterling has been running his successful relationship seminars since the early '80s, and tens of thousands of people from across the country, many of who are under 35, have forked over at least $500 to attend.
In these tow-day, sleep-depriving sessions, he segregates men from women and lays out an agenda that demolishes the communal gender mixing promoted by Friends and every other media guidepost. And strange things happen in sworn secrecy: Men run around naked wearing war paint, beating drums, and chanting, "I'm a jerk! I'm a jerk!" Women are confronted by hostile female aides shouting, "Do not speak! Touch nothing! Ask no question!"
You could think of the Sterling Institute as a kind of men's organization with a women's auxiliary. The group is predominantly focused on heterosexual men, but since these men can't have relationships without the cooperation of that other sex, women need to be oriented to the Sterling way of life as well. (Typically, a man will convince his wife or girlfriend to attend the seminars for the good of their relationship. Once you make it through a Weekend, you are pressured to join one of Sterling's men's groups in your local area (there are separate groups for women), and this becomes the center of your new social life. This is where you'll find your friends and comrades, where you can rant, rave, laugh, soar, whatever. For any of these guys, you'll leave your wife to run an errand at 3 A.M> But show up late for a meeting, even by a few seconds, and expect to 50 push-ups.
Over time, however, you'll discover that the Institute, like a lot of New Age quasi-spiritual movements, is a self-perpetuation machine and that a great deal of your group time will be devoted to finding fresh recruits. Refuse to become a part of Sterling's enrollment juggernaut, and you'll very quickly be the odd man--or woman--out. ("I was told to go sit in my own sack of shit, and then given the boot," says a former Sterling plebe who declined to troll for new members.)
Sterling demurs. "For 20 years all I've been doing is healing families and saving marriages and protecting children," he told a television reporter last February. The expose, which aired on the NBC affiliate in New York City, mentioned that the Sterling Institute had been a focus of a cult-awareness website where ex-believers duke it out with ardent zealots. "Sterling doesn't quite fit the mold of a cult figure," says the site's founder, Rick Ross. "Cults usually form around leaders who bill themselves as intermediaries between their band of devout followers and some higher being, as in Heaven's Gate."
Still, Ross sees Sterling as a different kind of pernicious authority figure: a cunning opportunist who subjects his followers to "pressure, coercion, and [thought reform]." Sterling who refused to be interviewed for this story, has scoffed at the idea that runs a cult. "I don't have followers. People don't five me their money...We don't have any sex. We don't do drugs. We discourage alcohol at our functions," he told NBC. "What kind of cult is this?"
If Sterling didn't exist, it would take a writer like Filmore Leonard to conjure him up: the hotheaded preacher of love by separation, who favors fancy cars. More than 60 Sterling Weekenders, true believers and disgruntled former members alike, were interviewed for this article, and many who support him say, yes, he's a little nutty, but he really does know something about men and women and how to help them. The disillusioned, on the other hand, talk of the monumental pain and confusion brought on by their association with him. Certainly there remain a lot of unanswered questions about the man, his business, and his life.
For one thing, Elmore Leonard probably couldn't do as good a job creating Sterling as Sterling has done himself. There is no A. Justin Sterling, as he is formally known--or at least not exactly. The name may smack of Waspish patriarchy and respectability, but it was actually requisitioned by a short, chubby man of Jewish-Armenian descent who was born one Arthur Kasarjian 57 years ago in Brookline, Massachusetts. Living in San Francisco in the 1970s, Kasarjian once got busted for grand theft and impersonation. (He was given 36 months probation.) Around that time he joined est, the era's hot personal-growth movement, where he admired the group's leader, a former Philadelphia car salesman named Jack Rosenberg who had transformed himself into master guru Werner Erhard. After similar cosmetic name surgery, Kasarjian--now Sterling--founded his Institute in 1981. By 1993, his net worth, according to a bank loan application, was $4.3 million. By then his weekend-seminar revenues were grossing more than $2 million a year and have reportedly been rising ever since.
Whatever his effect on others. Sterling doesn't seem to have done a very good job of bringing joy and peace to his own life. His ex-wife Alexandria Hill, divorced him in 1996 and in order to protect his only daughter from her hot tempered father, the courts have prohibited Sterling from visiting her without authorized supervision. Sterling can also be a harsh leader to his flocks. He allows few disagreements, yet also insists that many of them work exhausting hours for free as staffers for the Weekends. "There were several reasons I quit after three years," says Steve Fischer, a video game designer from the San Francisco area. "But a major factor was the recruitment issue. I found it dishonorable of Justin to be cleaning up financially on the slave labor of his volunteers."
Sterling meanwhile has taken home as much as $800,000 a year, owns a fleet of automobiles, including a red Viper and two DeLoreans, and more than a dozen real estate properties.
Unlike Robert Bly's Iron John Warrior Gatherings, which focused solely on reclaiming male identity, Sterling promotes a larger goal: lifelong partnership. First, you learn the strengths and limitations of your gender. Second, you embrace them as your own. Third, you and your partner fully honor the inherent differences in one another and fashion your union around them.
That's the theory. What does it look like in practice? At the most basic level, Sterling advises women that any part of their relationship they deem to be the man's responsibility will be the part that fails. Why? Because men aren't capable of making radical changes in personality and perspective. As hunters, they're programmed to be fiercely competitive and self-absorbed loners. Women need to focus on bringing out the hero in their men. Guys like to do a good job, and women should let them without being critical.
In sex, a woman should stop directing traffic and give her man what he wants. He says when; he says how. Most importantly, she should take her deep emotional issues to other women: she shouldn't expect her man to understand them. He'll try hard, but he won't.
As for men, Sterling says they should never ever expect to get along with women using logic alone. Why not? Because women tune into feelings and pay far less attention to analytical reasoning. (It must have something to do with knowing how to keep a happy cave.) So don't bother, for example, to try to convince her that you're about to hock your socks for that Harley in order to weave more efficiently through traffic. Instead, meet her female concerns head-on. Assure her you'll be safe. Ask for her trust, listen to her point of view, then go pour your heart out to your male buddies about how this throbbing hunk of Harley pumps you up big-time. Don't expect her to understand. She'll try, but she won't.
Many of the male Weekenders interviewed for this article spoke of a need--a longing--for trustworthy guidance and role models in their lives. They felt as though they didn't have a clue about what it meant to be the man in a healthy relationship. About one third of them said their baby-boomer fathers moved out of the house when they were still young, and they were basically reared by a single mother, sometimes in combination with an indifferent stepfather. And many of those who grew up with an adult man at home spoke of constant battles with their father, often a short-tempered, distant figure to be feared and avoided, not emulated.
It's this maw of emotional turmoil and personal need that Coach Sterling, game plan in hand, addresses. The Weekenders who seem to benefit most from his program however, are actually those who can see him less as a savior and more as a kind of quirky, imperfect visionary.
"He's a crazy gremlin, but he also fills a crucial cultural gap," says Greg Brown, a graphic designer from Marin County in northern California, who recently "retired" from the Institute. "We live in a time when boys are growing up without any kind of transition to real manhood. They have no idea what it means to be males...When I took the Weekend I was with woman who was having me for lunch. I got into arguments I had no way of winning. The guys in my team had pointed out to me I was always high on something when I argued with her. I had no balls, and she hated me for it. Finally, she completely ignored my birthday, not even a cupcake and I make the break."
A few years later he met Diane. Take the Sterling Weekend, he told her. Then you'll understand me. She did, and she does. "Be who you are, and work from there: that's the basic philosophy. Greg's much more responsive as a result of his involvement," she explains. Diane, with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, might be expected to take issue with Sterling's dogmatic approach, but she says it's respectful of the differences between men and women. That Brown used to hang out a lot with his Sterling buddies never really bothered her.
"We're both independent," she says. "if it got to be too much at times--the phone calls, the meetings, and more meetings--I'd tell him and he'd cut back. Usually he came away for his team events refreshed, feeling more virile. It's a place where he regained his strength."
The Sterling Institute's open house in Oakland last February was definitely a place to get a shot of virility. The rented auditorium teemed with rowdy guys who looked like refugees from a World Wrestling Federation match. About 400 of Sterling's grads brought their potential recruits to get a glimpse of the man--and Sterling gave them much more than that. He exhorted the needy wannabes to put their sensitive constitutions to a true test of manhood--and sign up for the Weekend. He challenged them "to reconnect with your own balls. Only when you become a man among men can you be a man to your woman!"
Yeah, they had heard all the rumors about the Weekend: garbage cans stuck in the corners of the room for urinals: Sterling brutally in your face, commanding you to strip down naked and scream, hug, chant, cry, moan, and shout your rage. They heard about how total exhaustion then turns into resurrection. "Feel the oneness we all share: make contact and share each other's intimate self," Sterling tells participants.
Most of the guys in the room that night had either missed or passed on the real boot camp. But the urge to test your mettle that way persists. It's tough love, served raw, and more: It's brotherhood. The guys beside you, and guys like them, are going to be your buddies for the rest of your life! You'll be a loved and admired part of a big extended society of real men.
Unfortunately for many, the program doesn't work out that way. Steve, the video game designer, who was in a Sterling men's group for three years, recalls that, at first, the guys were a kind of "collective mentor." But eventually he got turned off by Sterling's labor practices as well as by the group's dogmatic beliefs and rigid adherence to Sterling's rules. At one gathering, Steve asked Sterling why he'd never joined one of his own men's teams. Another member of the group then cornered Steve and said, "You'd better stow your opinions or they're gonna bury you."
Women who have left the Sterling Institute also complain of the relentless pressure to recruit. But their biggest criticism, shared by women who have been with Sterling men but haven't taken the program, is how the Institute destroyed their relationships.
"I can't talk long," Kelly, 28, an airline administrator, whispers into the receiver form her home in upstate New York. Behind closed doors, she anxiously wonders when her husband, Corbett, will return after an evening out with his Sterling team. "We've been together six years. He led me to believe that his Sterling buddies were like a bowling group or a bunch of guys that threw darts at a bar. But he would never, ever give them up. They've convinced him that that would be the same as throwing away his honor, his self-respect. He's taken his dreams, his hopes, everything that means anything, and trusted them to his buddies instead of me. 'Don't share with women; they'll use it against you,' he hears. The C word flies around all the time. He talks to them one or tow hours almost every day, I've had it. If he hears me talking I'm--I've got to go: there's steps on the stairs."
But that kind of disaster scenario was not on the horizon for any of the rowdy crowd at the open house. Sitting near Sterling, you could feel his strange, seductive power. Only a completely spineless, feminized worm would not take up his challenge.
"You're so busy trying to be liked by your woman you've lost the love and respect of other men," he tells them. "And guess what? That's not what she wants! She wants the man she first fell in love with, not the wuss she's turned you into."
He's onto something here, of course. We do like to please our women, sometimes to our detriment. But whether that makes us a nation of wusses is another matter. Sterling's mission is to bring us back to our male basics, and if you're a recruit who decides to take his training, the ritual of acceptance says it all. You don't raise a polite hand in the auditorium, tug your bottom lip thoughtful, and state, "Justin I think I'd like to give this Weekend thing a try."
Oh no. When you make the decision to go for it, pal, you jump up out of your chair, grab your balls with one strong hand, and--with 400 of your new best friends whooping, hollering, and stomping their approval--you yell with all the power in your lungs, "FUCK IT!"
Many that night took the plunge. You wonder, though, if they would have been so eager if the could have first spoken to someone like Daniel, a lawyer from New Jersey, who once, like them, grabbed his balls and thought that made him more of a man.
"I have come to believe that Sterling is someone who calls men sociopaths to promote his own self-interests. It's bullshit! We're not!" he says. "This abusive guy didn't know his ass from his elbow about the world, and didn't want to know. Does he have anything of value to say? Maybe, but sure as hell not to me."
It may be that, in the end, if you're all that interested grabbing your own balls, the best bet would be to try it in the privacy of your own home. Just watch your grip, he-man.