The marriage guru
Justin Sterling became a millionaire preaching sexist ideology. Here’s why his kind is doing better than ever.
And then out came the penises.
There had to be more than 200 of them, all sorts, not standing at attention so much as listlessly wanging there, like underfed POWs too exhausted to protest this latest indignity.
Bob avoided looking directly at the withered army. Did he pay $500 for this? To drop trou inside a hotel by the Oakland International Airport in front of an egalitarian group of strangers? This weekend had already been unpleasant. Now it was scary.
“At that point the thought that went through my head was, ‘Oh my God, this entire thing is an effing cult,'” Bob recalled. “Now I'm really worried. Now I'm seriously thinking that I want to find a way to bolt out of here.”
But Bob didn’t bolt. He reluctantly climbed out of his trousers. Tubes of Halloween makeup made the rounds. Drums thrummed. The man in charge told the disrobed horde to paint each other for war and chant tribal gobbledygook. Then he ordered his volunteers to bring up the blindfolded nonbelievers from the basement.
Welcome to “Men's Weekend.” For almost 40 years, the Sterling Institute of Relationship has lured both men and women to these top-secret, nonrefundable retreats with the promise of unlocking their true potential.
Founder and CEO A. Justin Sterling didn't respond to multiple attempts to reach him, but a consistent portrait of his seminars has emerged in news coverage, on message boards and from former attendees who spoke to SN&R. It's not a very flattering one.
According to Sterling, men are only capable of rage and fear, and must be unconditionally loved and obeyed. He's like Andrew Dice Clay without the self-awareness. And after two straight days of mansplaining how relationships worked better in the caveman days, Sterling cranks the knob to weird.
Men strip naked and work themselves into a lather. Women curl into fetal balls and cry themselves hoarse. Black-clad volunteers film the “breakthroughs,” yet the participants have to pledge they won't divulge what happened. The whole thing is exploitative, coercive, even cult-like.But it's not technically a cult, says cult specialist Rick Alan Ross.
“Now, why is it not a cult? Because Sterling really isn't an object of worship,” Ross explained. “He's more of a con man.”
While the number of men who stick with Sterling after their weekends has dwindled down to fewer than 40 members across Northern California, that may not matter to the aging guru. Now 77, Sterling still draws hundreds to his pricey weekend retreats and pockets the proceeds thanks to an entirely volunteer labor force.
If he is running a pyramid scheme, it's one in which only the man at the top profits. As for the people below, it can be a different story.
A Sacramento woman says her husband came out of a Men's Weekend this year changed for the worse—forsaking his sobriety, alienating their children and all but running their finances into the ground. Their marriage is stuck in a nosedive, but she can't bring herself to eject.
“I know we won't last very long if we continue with the Sterling [Institute],” said Haley, who, like Bob, asked that their names be changed or withheld because they said they fear reprisals. “I don't think he'll get out.”
Instead, she's decided to follow her husband deeper into Sterling's world, one that has a foothold here in Sacramento. Meanwhile, hustlers like Sterling have never done better.
Trust the process
Haley shut her eyes and pretended to sleep for the six-hour red-eye ride to Los Angeles. Everything had come together last minute for her Women's Weekend. Her husband returned home that night from his men's group with enough cash to cover the registration and late admission fee. The guys all chipped in. She would leave tonight. She would finally understand.
It had been nearly a year since someone mentioned the local men's group and Haley suggested her husband check it out.
It seemed harmless at the time—a bunch of guys hanging out once a week to play cards and shoot the breeze. She and her husband—let's call him “Phil”—were having problems, and his guys' nights seemed to better his mood.
But the weekly bonding sessions soon subsumed their lives. If Phil and Haley had people over, it was his men's group buddies and their wives. If they went to a birthday party or barbecue, it was at these people's homes. Conversations at these get-togethers often turned to “the weekend,” spoken of in reverent, vague tones. Phil signed on first. That's when Haley learned this group had a name. His registration paperwork said “Sterling Institute of Relationship.” She Googled it and saw the word “cult” repeated.
Phil had already left for Oakland. Three nights later, Haley hopped on the freeway to watch him “graduate.” A queasy feeling rode shotgun.
She parked outside a rundown hotel near the airport. Inside, she saw shirtless men, panting and oozing weird body paint. They were all keyed up. Women in black evinced poker faces and moved like chess pieces.
“It was a really strange energy,” Haley remembered.
An hour passed without explanation. Finally, the doors of the conference room swung open, releasing a rank odor. She followed the other wives and well-wishers inside to find a couple hundred men piled onto bleachers stacked against the walls. They were bare-chested and sweating. There was her husband. She looked away.
A low rumble filled the room as Justin Sterling appeared. Haley didn't think he looked like his picture. He said something into his microphone headset, then left. He made no speech. The big moment already happened behind closed doors. Instead of diplomas, the new Sterling men got nuts, the metal kind, 2-inch bolts spooled around necklaces, clunky metaphors for their reclaimed manhood.
The Sterling wives grinned like jackals. They'd been telling Haley for weeks to wait until her man completed his weekend. Best sex they would ever have. She and Phil drove home separately. There was no second honeymoon.
Phil had always been grounded, family-minded, Haley says. But there was a chink in his armor, an exploitable vulnerability.
“He always wanted to fit in somewhere,” she said. “I think that's how they got him. They made him feel like he belonged.”
Phil now had his brothers. He asked for a divorce. The other Sterling husbands interceded. Divorce is for quitters. Phil returned, but only after Haley agreed to his terms: He wanted final say over all their decisions.
“I knew that was the whole Sterling concept so I just went with it,” Haley said.
A month passed. Phil still spurned sobriety. He continued to ghost his kids. Bills went unpaid. Only his fellow Sterling men mattered.
“It's crashing down faster,” Haley said of their marriage.
The other Sterling husbands said Phil learned the wrong lessons from the weekend. The other Sterling wives told Haley she needed to do her weekend, so that man and wife could finally be on the same page. Phil had already talked about finding “a Sterling woman,” so what else did she have to lose?
But it wasn't just a last-ditch effort to save the marriage. Haley was also curious about Sterling's mysterious spell. How does he make a good man turn up the contrast on his darker traits, she wondered. And will the same thing happen to her?
They arrived in Los Angeles around 2 a.m. that Friday and crashed. Around noon, she walked into a much nicer venue than where her husband spent his weekend. The poker-faced women in black were everywhere. No one smiled. Their shtick vibed grim and avant garde.
“It did feel very cultish at that point,” Haley said.
She followed a line into a room divided by a folding wall. Forty-five minutes later, the wall receded. The recruits migrated. Four female volunteers took flanking positions by the stage and sound equipment. They wore headsets and pointed video cameras. But nothing happened. That nothing expanded for two hours.
The recruits stewed. This was part of it, someone grumbled. It's how they break you. Haley heard the word “cult” circulate. She guessed half the room was skeptical. Women griped, but no one walked. They had already coughed up $600 and may have felt indebted to the “big sisters” who recruited them. Plus, the sponsors had dropped them off, so how would they get home?
After an interminable wait, a 50-ish woman dressed in business attire strode to the front and robotically welcomed them. She instructed everyone to surrender their cellphones and outlawed food, even gum or mints, while the retreat was in session. There would be a single meal break during an unspecified hour.
The woman gave the same spiel each morning. Hunger, isolation, deprivation—these became the underpinnings of the weekend. And then she introduced Justin Sterling. He emerged from the double doors in the back and climbed into a director's chair placed on the stage.
“Like he was God,” Haley recalled.
The female recruits, even the skeptics, burst into applause. Their weekend had finally begun.
Cult of personality
A. Justin Sterling didn't start life under that name.
According to earlier reporting and a background check, Sterling was born Arthur Kasarjian, circa 1942, in Brookline, Mass., to Jewish-Armenian parents. By the 1970s, he had landed on the warm West Coast and settled in loosey-goosey San Francisco. In a 1999 profile, Details Magazine reported that Kasarjian was convicted of grand theft and impersonation around that time, snagging three years on probation. Bad start in the counterculture capital.
According to IMDb, an actor by the name of Arthur Kasarjian booked bit TV parts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Forgettable roles as “Card Player #3” in the anthology series Police Story and as unnamed guest star in the short-lived Rock Hudson vehicle The Devlin Connection didn’t prophesy fatter roles. Tinsel Town cold-shouldered Artie K. A federal arrest warrant issued in Los Angeles in 1989 belied a third reinvention.
Kasarjian had already rechristened himself “A. Justin Sterling” by 1979, the San Jose Mercury News reported in 1996. The Sterling Institute of Relationship was born two years later.
According to cult specialist Ross and former Mercury News reporter Sarah Lubman, Kasarjian got the idea from a self-help seminar he attended years earlier. It was called EST, an acronym for Erhard Seminars Training. EST revolved around the bombastic personality of its founder, Werner Erhard, a former Philadelphia car salesman who deserted his wife and four children, teutonized his given name and remade himself out West as a General Patton for personal epiphanies. Everything Sterling would do—down to using deprivation and humiliation to erode people's defenses—Erhard did first, Ross said. Ross called Erhard “the granddaddy” of what's known as large group awareness training, or LGAT, an unsexy term for a potentially harmful model.
Kasarjian modeled his version off the master's. The struggling actor created the biggest role of his life. “A. Justin Sterling” sounded stuffy and important. He charged women for the privilege of his advice, then moved onto men. The Sterling Institute formally incorporated in 1981. It became a road show, packing hotel conference rooms across the country.
The 5-foot-7 Sterling stomped across stages in raised black boots. He espoused tough-guy clichés. His mantra was “fuck it,” at least for the men. For the women, it was to love and obey. His audiences sometimes pushed back. Sterling didn't debate his detractors so much as ridicule and exhaust them with circular logic, both Bob and Haley said.
By the second day, people were so starved for silver linings that Pyrrhic wisdom felt like real epiphanies. Sterling's corny jokes about the differences between men and women drew more laughs. He paired off his crowds and had them role-play angry outbursts. The men mostly savaged imaginary wives, said Bob, who did his weekend in 1995. The women vented mostly at unavailable husbands, remembered Haley, who went this year.
Ribald sex talks occurred. Attendees were kept awake and ordered to take cold showers. Sterling talked and talked and talked. He pitted the men against each other, having them compete to remain in his inner circle, Bob said. Only at that point does he challenge them to get naked. With the women, he primes them to strip down emotionally and grieve what they've lost, Haley said.
Ross said this process has many names—coercive persuasion, established influence techniques, thought reform, even brainwashing.
“First you break them, then you change them, then you lock them in,” Ross explained. “In that sense, it is somewhat cult-like.”
Sterling doesn't explicitly deny running a cult when he poses that very question to himself on his website. Here's what he says instead:
“Not being an expert on cults, I'm not really qualified to say. When I started doing these seminars, it was not with the intention of starting a cult. If what we do happens to fit into what some people consider is a cult, I can't debate that.”
So there you go. Cults are in the eyes of the beholder.
Where EST spread its 60-hour “training” course over a couple of weekends, Sterling packed it all into one three-day crush. But just like his mentor Erhard, who also went through nasty divorces, Sterling blew up his own marriages by practicing what he preached. His first wife accused him of domestic violence and divorced him. His second wife took out a temporary domestic violence restraining order against him in Alameda County in 2016, court records show.
Ross said Sterling's second wife called him a couple years back. What did she have to say?
“The same thing that I've heard from all the women that are exposed to men that believe his philosophy,” he said, “that he was abusive, controlling, dominating, had no respect for her. And was just a narcissistic, self-obsessed jerk.”
He sure is rich, though. According to property records obtained by SN&R, Sterling's real estate portfolio is valued at nearly $4.8 million. This includes a swanky estate in the East Bay enclave of Piedmont, another residence in the Oakland hills, a trio of condominiums in Rancho Mirage and another in New York.
But it hasn't been all financial windfalls. Creditors have successfully dogged Sterling for nearly $538,000 in civil judgments, background records show, most of that connected to two lawsuits in 2017 and 2018. The Franchise Tax Board also tagged him with a nearly $106,000 lien in 2017.
“When I was talking to Sterling’s [second] wife, which would’ve been about two years ago, she was talking like he was having financial difficulties,” Ross said.
Sterling's influence has waned over the two decades that Sacramento marriage counselor Alan Hill has been loyal to the program. In the '90s, Hill says, the institute benefited from the boom-and-bust popularity of Promise Keepers, an evangelical Christian organization that elevates men's status within their households and encourages “sexual purity” and recruitment.
“But then the Promise Keepers blew up when the women started picketing and talking bad about them,” Hill said.
Sterling's grip on Northern California is down to the Qun Men's Division, made up of four teams—two in Sacramento, one in Oakland (where the institute is based) and one in Santa Rosa. All together those teams are comprised of 39 members, Hill says.
That makes Sacramento Sterling's last stronghold.
The last stronghold
Alan Hill phoned his daughter, then his ex-wife, and said the words. Their brother, their son—his first son—was dead. He'd hanged himself in the garage.
Hill, a Native American Bear Dancer, sequestered himself inside his sweat lodge and wept. About 15 minutes later, two Sterling men entered and flanked him. One told Hill to follow his grief wherever it led. The other didn't let Hill out of his sight for the rest of the day.
“It was the men who held me up at the time,” Hill said.
Hill's son died in January. Eleven months later, the father said he's still standing thanks to the sacred bonds he's forged through Sterling.
“I'm committed to healing,” Hill said. “There's a huge healing component to the Men's Weekend—and I can't talk about it.”
Hill takes his secrecy oath seriously, and blames the controversy surrounding the Sterling Institute to weekend attendees blabbing online. “I attribute it to men being dishonorable. I attribute it to men being feminized and gossipy,” he said.
Now 63, Hill has been a Sterling man since he completed his weekend some 23 years ago. He has held various leadership positions within the division that encompasses Northern California, and believes he has sponsored about 125 Men's Weekend participants, including some patients he's seen as a licensed marriage and family therapist.
“Oh, absolutely,” Hill said. “One of the things we do as therapists is tell our clients about the resources available to them.”
Hill credits this particular resource with almost everything good in his life, including an 18-year marriage to a fellow Sterling graduate, 31 years of sobriety and obtaining his psychology degree.
In the Sterling bubble, men can be men without apology. Sterling tells them they don’t need to worry about society’s evolving standards. Men are perfect just the way they are. And women will be happier when they submit. It’s an incredibly binary view of gender, but one that resonates with men and even women of a certain age or upbringing, whom Sterling gives the intoxicating conceit of a bygone age where everything was in perfect alignment between the sexes. Sometimes it’s the 1950s, sometimes it’s a prehistoric cave, but it’s always better, easier, than the here and now.
Hill only wishes his son had embraced that message.
“My son was a graduate of the Men's Weekend, but he didn't incorporate the disciplines,” Hill said. “He was actually afraid of the power that he discovered that he had. It was really that fear that killed him.”
A boom time for coercive groups
At the height of his popularity, Sterling had his relationship institute, a nonprofit and, briefly, something called The Justin Sterling Show Inc.
But the Franchise Tax Board suspended that show in 2000 for failing to file tax returns. A year later, the FTB revoked his nonprofit's tax-exempt status, essentially putting the final nail in the coffin of an educational charity that had close ties to his institute.
The Sterling show still limps along, under the radar and in the shadows. Next year the price to attend his weekends goes up to $700. In lieu of advertising, past “graduates” are urged to spread the gospel wherever they can—even at their 12-step meetings, which is where Bob was recruited.
Lubman was one of the first journalists to dig into Sterling more than 20 years ago as an education reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Even though she filed numerous other stories and eventually left reporting behind, she still remembers the weird fog she managed to penetrate.
And why wouldn’t she? After her story about Sterling’s first divorce ran, she learned that someone tried to recruit a family member to attend a Men’s Weekend.
“I'm not surprised that he's still out there,” said Lubman, who is now a corporate communications partner with SoftBank Group International. “I mean, what else is he going to do?”
While Sterling will eventually fade out of favor, there will be more “large group awareness training” gurus to take his place, says Ross, who keeps a running tally of them on his website, Cult Education Institute.
“They have never done better than they're doing right now,” Ross said. “There are many more LGATs now than there ever had been before. And they've done a lot of damage.”
LGAT “granddaddy” Erhard has made a comeback, and there's a Sterling splinter group that's overtaken its inspiration. And while Ross recently participated in the criminal trial of the malevolent LGAT mastermind behind the alleged celebrity sex cult NXIVM, the internet has changed things. It's both easier to expose frauds and to perpetrate them.
“You can start an LGAT next week if you want. And nobody can do anything to stop you,” Ross said.
As for where the Sterling Institute falls on the spectrum of dangerous group-think seminars, Ross said he considers it a “destructive” one. “And it's very oftentimes more destructive for women because they're the ones that are expected to capitulate and subordinate themselves to male authority.”
It's a pretty infantilized view of masculinity, one in which men must believe they are in charge, yet remain totally unaccountable for their actions. Scrape away all the chest-thumping bluster, and what you're left with is Justin Sterling's true philosophy: Men are fragile creatures who cannot change. Just let them be.
Or, as Hill puts it, “We're not the brightest bulbs in the shed. We're just men.”
That dismal take on mankind has become Haley's current reality. At SN&R's request, she agreed to pen an open letter to the guru shilling it. For maybe the first time, Sterling will have to let a woman have the final word:
Justin Sterling (or whatever your real name is),
I have done your weekend. And based on how you treated us, I am sure you will dismiss this rather than look at the real issue at hand. But I hope you will take a moment to realize I only want what's best for all the vulnerable people you reach. And if your purpose is true, then so should you.
In your weekends, you use secrecy, sleep deprivation, tearing down and building up. Through it all you preach your sexist beliefs, but you mix in sprinkles of common sense so that the attendees don't see they are absorbing your destructive theories.
Our world already has so much hate and segregation, we cannot afford more. The reality is you are destroying good people and families. Truth is, this is why you keep things secret. If people knew what you teach, nobody would attend and you would be broke.
Most entrepreneurs love the free publicity, but because you use abusive mind control techniques to instill your sexist beliefs, you do not want people to know until you got your money. Sadly, then it is too late.
I started this letter wanting to question how you could sleep at night. The truth is there is no questioning you, because you will do just as you do in your weekends to the women who question you: gaslight what they said, belittle, disrespect and cause them to feel so confused it is easier to just accept what you say and move on.
I guess the question I want to leave with you is: Why not use your charisma to help people truly heal and be better humans based on research, education and human ethics? Otherwise, if you have nothing positive to say, maybe you shouldn't be saying anything at all, let alone trying to teach others.
A concerned Woman, Mother, Wife and Human