Marketing Muckraking a podcast by Rachael Kay Albers

Episode 8. FREE SCHOOL and Why the Cult of Online Business Made Me Burn It All Down

This is my story of FREE SCHOOL: how I burned out, why I burned it all down, and how the cult of online business pushed me into a mental breakdown.

You want to know the true story — my story — of what really happened with FREE SCHOOL? And where I am a year later? Well, here it is.

You might have heard about this from others or even from me and not known the whole story. And I’m finally ready to tell you.

I also want to tell you about what this means about my work now, the book that I’m writing, and how I’m slowly pulling myself out from the darkness and rebuilding.

Last year I had a very public meltdown.

I burned out badly within the cult of online business — and I shared it on Instagram in real time. I was on my stories each and every day, which was part of an experiment I was doing that I called FREE SCHOOL. Yes, I branded my own breakdown.

In May 2021, when FREE SCHOOL came to a head, I said that you were watching a phoenix rising and rebuilding after burning down her life. This is the next chapter of that story.

And this is ultimately what I’m writing my book about and I’m excited to share more with you soon.

A few weeks into FREE SCHOOL, I sent a letter to my whole family about the 40 years of abuse that me, my siblings, my mother and stepmother experienced at the hands of my father. And I was completely ignored. This explains some of the fire that I brought to FREE SCHOOL.

A few weeks later, I finally gave myself permission to admit to myself that I didn’t want to be married anymore, which is especially hard because...

Speaking of branding, I had branded my marriage.

Attorney Daniel Paul Albers, Dan Albers, Broken Home, Domestic Violence
His name is Dan Albers and he abused me, my mother, my stepmother, his two fiances, and my three siblings and he blames us for all of it
The One Year Wedding - 365 Weddings a Year

My husband and I did something called the One Year Wedding, where we got married 365 times. We were all over the Internet, mostly people making fun of us. Jimmy Fallon even made us a punchline on The Tonight Show. So, for years, I felt trapped in my own branded marriage.

How the hell could I divorce a man I married 365 times? 

In the marketing space, everyone’s always telling you to write a book so you can position yourself as an expert and get more speaking gigs, etc.

I always knew I had a book in me, but I was waiting for that book to show up and tell me it was ready to be written.

Then, one day, my book showed up! I was in the shower, thinking about how I was going to break it to the world — who saw my husband and I as “couple goals” — that we were getting a divorce. And I thought about Rachel Hollis and how she had blindsided her audience when she announced her divorce and her book, Didn't See That Coming and I said — aha!

That’s my book!

I’m going to tell the world about my divorce and how a woman marries the wrong man 365 times and arrives at this place in her life and business. So, I announced that I was getting a divorce with a funny book cover that parodied Rachel’s — Saw This Coming A Mile Away — and that I was writing a memoir.

Saw This Coming A Mile Away: book cover with RKA in yellow hat, making fun of life coaches

This is when shit heated up — because at the very same time, I was doing a ton of industry whistleblowing in my Instagram stories and people started to come out of the woodwork to tell me that they believed I was manic and delusional and not in my right mind and needed to be medicated or forcibly hospitalized.

I had friends from my local women’s networking group calling the cops on me to come to my house for “wellness checks,” which anyone who knows the slightest thing about mental health knows is one of the worst things you can do. The police are not trained or equipped to support someone in a mental health crisis. Calling them is dangerous.

What exactly was FREE SCHOOL, by the way?

When you talk to people who were there, they'll all tell you wildly different stories.

People who experienced FREE SCHOOL saw it through their own lens, which I understand — some saw it as a story about family estrangement, some thought it was about my divorce, some thought it was about industry whistleblowing, and some thought I was just totally and utterly insane or just a whiner and a complainer who was “jealous” or “negative.”

FREE SCHOOL: The greatest business art experiment of all time
FREE SCHOOL why the cult of online business made me burn down my life rachael kay albers

But FREE SCHOOL didn’t start as whistleblowing. It began as a “business art experiment.”

I was looking around at all of these industry gatekeepers holding the info about business under lock and key and I asked myself, “What would happen if I just showed up in my Instagram stories and taught everything I know about business there?”

And suddenly, after years of creating some of the best content in the game and being ignored by the “cool kids” of the club, I was in the DMs with all these celebrity personal brands that had never before given me the time of day.

And it made me finally put the pieces together and realize things that I had been noticing, but couldn’t quite prove were true.

Things I didn’t want to be true — like how our loneliness and desire for connection are weaponized and exploited by celebrity personal brands like Rachel Hollis and Jenna Kutcher who build mega platforms on their “relatability,” all to send us to an affiliate link for Tony Robbins’ latest grift.

I realized that speaking in vague generalizations about the harms of online business and refusing to name the names of these corporations masquerading as people to sell us more shit wasn’t helping anyone.

So that’s why FREE SCHOOL turned into whistleblowing.

Of course, this all felt connected to my abuse history and my troubled marriage.

Because the tie that binds in all these cases is that “good girls” don’t do it this way.

Good girls don’t get angry.

Good girls don’t speak the truth — they whisper it.

We like our victims weak and fragile so that we can “rescue” them and imagine that their problems aren’t systemic, but individual.

And the other tie that binds is when you speak the truth — you get punished, cut out, blacklisted, blocked. You get told that you’re manic and delusional.

Rachael Kay Albers is a good girl but her father Dan Albers is an abuser
Dan Albers Abused His Wife and Children

This was true in my family, where almost no one is speaking to me and everyone decides to believe that what I shared about the 40 years and 8 people my father abused was a lie and that it was my fault and I am doing this for…attention???

This was also true here in the online business industry where, the more I spoke up, the more my friends ghosted me, blocked me, whispered to each other about how I was nuts — when in reality, we all had conversations for years about the things I discussed in FREE SCHOOL behind closed doors.

My online business friends knew I was not delusional. They knew I was telling the truth. I know because they told me so before FREE SCHOOL ever began.

Was I upset? Yes.

Was my mental health in a bad place? Yes.

Was I “insane” or “manic” or “delusional” — did I need forcible intervention by the police? ABSOLUTELY NOT.

I ended up taking FREE SCHOOL off the Internet, one because I’m going through a divorce and I wanted to protect myself and didn’t want FREE SCHOOL to be used against me.

And the truth is, I also took it down because there came a point in the darkness that followed FREE SCHOOL falling down around me, where I also believed I was crazy.

The gaslighting worked.

It was last summer, after FREE SCHOOL came to a head, the cops had been called so many times on me by various people — they even tried to have my child taken away, which is how I ended up being hospitalized against my will, based on the claim from someone who didn't even know me personally that I might be manic.

It took days for me to even see a doctor — that’s how bad the mental health system is right now. There was no psychiatrist in the state available to speak to me and evaluate my mental fitness.

And I kid you not, as soon as I saw one, he moved heaven and earth to get me out of there as soon as possible. I was out that day.

The nurses at the hospital told me they had never seen someone released so quickly, after they had repeatedly wagged their finger at me and gloated that I'd likely be held against my will for days or weeks.

During that time, my civil rights were violated, I was treated like a criminal, mocked and threatened by nearly every person at the hospital. I was strip searched and infantilized and the nurses and doctors treated me like I was less than human and deserved no dignity.

No one, regardless of their mental state, deserves to be treated how they treated me.

It was traumatizing in a way I cannot even begin to explain. Our mental health system is devastatingly broken.

I had never made statements about hurting myself or others, I was taking good care of my daughter, myself — and what happened to me was unspeakable.

But was I upset? Absolutely. Who wouldn’t be with what I was going through?

Someone having a hard time in their life does not mean you should shut them away and throw away the key. Hospitals like this are not where people go to heal.

I can see why folks would theorize that I was manic, especially because of the stigma we have around mental health.

I was on the Internet all day.

I was talking a lot.

I was very high energy.

I wasn’t sleeping well.

But I have a long history of mental health treatment and, while I do struggle with anxiety and depression and the effects of trauma from childhood and adulthood abuse, bipolar disorder is not my diagnosis.

Yet, when I was hospitalized against my will, it almost felt like everyone who said I was crazy had won — they had ammunition to say they were right all along.

In the year since FREE SCHOOL, I have observed how every time someone behaves outside of social norms on the Internet, the first comments are nearly always accusing them of being "manic" and "delusional."

"This person needs to get help."

What they mean is, this person is making me uncomfortable and I'd rather they go away so I don't have to deal with their bullshit.

And yet the same people who armchair diagnose strangers on the Internet, post memes about "checking on your strong friends" and how "you shouldn't be afraid to share your authentic truth." As long as that truth is cool, calm, and collected.

Anger, it seems, is a free pass to lock someone away.

One of my "friends" said,

“I loved R and considered her a friend but she is NOT well.”

First of all WTF, you loved me until I became unwell and now I’m not deserving of love?

No one will argue that I wasn’t well.

But it also doesn’t mean I was wrong.

"I loved Rachael and considered her a friend but she is NOT well."
One of these people is a friend. One of these people is not.

Now, in some cases, I did lash out at people. I was in a place where I was being attacked from all sides.

I was alone.
I had no support system.
I was going through a divorce.
I was a single mom for the first time.
My friends weren’t talking to me.
My family wasn’t talking to me.

The only people talking to me were the folks on Instagram (and strangers coming out of the woodwork to insist that I was delusional and needed to be stopped.)

So when all of this crashed down on me last summer, I was completely and utterly alone. During a pandemic.

There would be days and days at a time where I didn’t see another human being other than my 3 year old daughter.

So I came to a point last summer in this deep deep darkness, where I started to believe I deserved this.

That I was being punished.

That I was crazy.

That I didn’t deserve friends or family.

That I had made a horrible mistake.

You know those nightmares where you wake up and breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Thank God that was just a dream!”

Well, I woke up and realized my life was the nightmare. I wanted to go back. I wanted my old life.

I took down a bunch of videos and posts and couldn’t bear to look at them because I was embarrassed by myself.

I started to wonder if maybe everyone was right about me.

Maybe this was all my fault.

And that’s how they getcha.

This is the literal definition of gaslighting.

Earlier in FREE SCHOOL, some accused me of "having an agenda" and doing this for personal gain. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, other than my desire to finally stand up to my father's abuse, reclaim the story around my marriage, and share what I knew about online business.

But personal gain? I lost everything.

I took a massive financial hit during this time. I lost contracts and folks who referred to me. I made so little money last year that, this year, when I tried to sign us up for marketplace insurance as I always do because I'm self-employed, my daughter wasn't even eligible for marketplace insurance based on my earnings. She had to go on Medicaid.

Daniel Albers abused his wife and kids

I was the sole breadwinner in my family — and my earnings took such a nosedive, the only way I got through that time financially was that I used the money I had saved for taxes to pay my bills. So now, I have a huge tax bill with the government and I am slowly rebuilding financially so I can stay in our home and continue paying the bills.

If I did this for my agenda — I failed.

I lost friends, I lost financial stability, I lost my family.

And finally, when it all crashed down, I was traumatized and barely able to function as a business owner — the best I could do was simply take care of me and my daughter. And that’s what I did.

I focused on being a mommy to Alice. It kind of felt like a late maternity leave because I had not taken one — I literally worked in the hospital when I had her. That’s how deep I was in hustle culture and also the pressure of being the sole provider and not having a safety net or a way to simply take a luxurious break from my business.

During this time, I had nothing else to do but drink. I was drinking at night and I would wake up in the morning and ask myself, “How long until its acceptable to have a glass of wine?”

And then I read this book called Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska in one sitting while Alice slept next to me — it is a deeply troubling memoir about a woman in the depths of alcoholism— and I knew that my answers werent at the bottom of a bottle and if I didnt stop numbing myself with alcohol, this book was in my future.

So I would wake up at the buttcrack of dawn and just start walking.

It kept me sober.

I loaded up a stroller with snacks and diapers for the day and we would walk, sometimes for 7 or 8 hours at a time, going to every park in a 10 mile radius.

And during my walks, I would listen to audio books about the history of branding and advertising

Because here’s where I was at — I had branded myself so effectively, I became someone else. I became a product. I had turned myself into a commodified version of myself that wasn’t really me.

long FREE SChool walks

People would tell me,

“Rachael, I love you because you’re such a happy ray of sunshine who always puts a positive spin on things!”

And I’d be like, “They don’t know me AT ALL!”

People would look at my marriage and say, “OMG Rachael, you and your husband are COUPLE GOALS!”

I had backed myself into a branded corner.

And then I burned it down.

And I truly didn’t know who I was anymore.

I felt completely lost.

And so I started looking at the history of branding.

And that was the light in the darkness. A pinprick of hope that got me out of the darkest place I’ve ever been in.

The funny thing about brands is that during the time when I was completely and utterly alone, I would get in the car with Alice and drive and cry because I had nowhere to go and no one to see.

So I would go to Target or Wal-Mart and walk the aisles with Alice and it was soothing to me. It was like I was spending time with family and friends.

The logos comforted me — the Cheez-Its, the Coca Cola, the Barbie labels — it felt like I was going to visit dear friends.

This research that I started doing ended up showing me the book I really needed to write first. Yes, there is a part of my story in this book — but this isn't a book about me.

It is one part history, one part cultural criticism, with a little splash of RKA narrative to boot.

My research has shown me that what happened to me is a feature, not a glitch.

Consumer culture was engineered to get us to find our worth and value in what we buy.

Brands were designed to feel like friends, members of the family, to give us a sense of community and belonging so we keep buying from them.

The early days of consumer capitalism were about turning us towards OURSELVES — how we can buy our way to being better people — and away from the COMMUNITY and what industrialization was doing to the world and its people.

It’s a feature, not a glitch.

Now it is the one year anniversary of FREE SCHOOL and I’ve started letting myself re-watch everything that happened again.

Expecting to see a totally insane woman who was out of her mind.

And instead finding that the only "crazy" thing was how long it took me to realize what was really going on here.

Now, did I always express myself in the best ways? No.

There are conversations I had during that time where I reacted in anger to people who didn’t deserve it. I have sent many apology letters because I know they were coming from a place of love and I responded with pain.

And yet, I also have to forgive myself and be gentle with myself. I didn’t act like the woman I want to be. But I was also doing my best in a terrible situation.

Rachael Kay Albers, rainbow stairs
Free School, May 10, 2021

I didn’t do what I did as an act of cruelty — I was hurting and overwhelmed and being attacked and I was honestly terrified.

The fact that neighbors and local people were weaponizing the police and mental illness to take away my rights and deny me agency over my own life did put me in a paranoid place.

I truly did not know who to trust other than myself.

So when folks came out of the woodwork to tell me I was manic or should be medicated or asked if I had ever considered therapy (yes, I've been in and out of therapy since I was 8, dealing with the trauma of my abusive home) I was like:

STOP RIGHT THERE. 
GO NO FURTHER.
TURN BACK NOW. 

Because, while good intentioned, these folks were deciding for me what the "real problem was."

“Rachael, the problem isn’t that you have good reason to be upset — the problem is that you’re manic.”

“Rachael, the problem isn’t your father’s abuse — the problem is that you’re insane and need to be locked away.”

“Rachael, the problem isn’t that you’re burned out and suffering from the harms of this industry and consumer capitalism, the problem is you’re unmedicated. I loved you and considered you a friend until you did this. Get help.”

The message was, there's a right way, a good girl way to express your pain or to call things out and THIS AIN’T IT.

I find it interesting that Tyler J. McCall did a podcast a few weeks back on "The Dark Side of Online Business" according to the rules of how you're supposed to talk about the harms of an industry.

No names, just vague generalizations.

A friend sent me a post last week where Tyler vaguely references how badly a high ticket coach harmed him and his mental health and the years of work it took for him to untangle himself.

What I’m told is that in the comments of that post, people were asking who this was, so they could protect themselves.

Tyler responded that he doesn’t “owe” anyone anything and to “google parasocial relationships” instead.

Free School, April 6, 2021
Free School, April 6, 2021

But I disagree.

When you're a leader who has led thousands of people to purchase programs and invest immense amounts of of money and emotional energy into the very programs you’re now calling out as harmful, and that you spent over a year in therapy to overcome — a solution that is itself incredibly costly...

I do think it’s a responsibility to help protect others from that harm.

Tyler J. McCall was a lynchpin for me, personally, in my own collapse last year because, despite knowing that I was speaking the truth, he, too, pinned me as crazy and unhinged in my desire to name names.

But here’s why I named names.

I didn’t just name any old names.

I didn't name small business owners.

I named corporations masquerading as people to deflect responsibility.

Because vague generalizations about “bro marketing” aren’t helping people.

Tony Robbins
Marie Forleo
Dean Graziosi
Russell Brunson
Jenna Kutcher
Rachel Hollis
Sophia Amoruso

All of these people literally sell their programs based on how they make between 10s or 100s of millions of dollars.

Here is text from GirlBoss Sophia Amoruso's sales page for her Business Class program:

Named “One of the most inspiring entrepreneurs in America” by the Huffington Post, Sophia made her mark when she founded fashion retailer Nasty Gal, bootstrapping it to $12 million in annual revenue and eventually scaling the business to over $100 million.

Their immense revenue is their #1 selling point.

These are not the girl bosses and boy bosses next door.

They are corporations with human faces.

Yet, then they want to hide behind “just being people.” The problematic business models that made them millions aren't a reflection of systemic exploitation, it's just “people making mistakes.” Whoops!

I named names because when we talk about the harms of this industry in generalities, it doesn’t help people.

I don’t want people to spend tens of thousands of dollars before they find the truth.

My final problem with the approach of folks like Tyler J. McCall is that he is still selling the capitalist dream, which is ultimately at the crux of all these problems.

He cosigns the concept that “everyone should be a millionaire,” when that statement is actually impossible within capitalism.

Why advocate for a system that relies on the exploitation of billions of people to thrive?

These folks are peddling a mythology that if you can just become a millionaire, you can solve the world’s problems.

That the solution is making more money — the “right” way.

That is more of the same.

An “ethical” or “conscious” approach to business that refuses to acknowledge the harms of capitalism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

And this is ultimately what I’m writing my book about — it’s about a whole lot of things and you’ll have to wait a bit longer to hear more about that but…

This book honestly saved my life.

It helped me ungaslight myself.

It helped me see my problems as part of a larger systemic issue.

It helped me see that my branded self was something engineered by consumer capitalism.

I thought, all these years, that I was doing the right thing because I help small business owners free themselves from The Man’s clutches.

But it’s just not that simple.

We can’t buy our way to a better world.

We can’t make millions and solve the world’s problems.

We must see our businesses today as interim measures, while the greater goal is building consciousness and investing in the collective so we can fashion new, non-capitalist solutions.

Yes, I believe that we should be able to live meaningful, enriching lives now, so this is not about glamorizing poverty or discouraging people from making money. That helps no one.

People need to make enough money so they can rest, be with family, enjoy their lives.

But there’s a huge asterisks on that — making money is not the end goal. The end goal is creating a system where ALL needs can be provided for.

And capitalism ain’t it.

I don’t have The Answer, — that’s what I say on my show Marketing Muckraking — I have more questions that I want to explore.
And I think before I try to suggest I have some shiny solution, I need to keep “plumbing the depths” of the problem as Anand Giridharadas writes about in Winners Take All.

That’s my book.

That’s my work today.

And yes, I am still working with brands who want to figure out a way to build brands more ethically. But I am only able to do this 1:1 — because every person has different needs and different core values.

I do not have a “scaled” solution I can offer you on how to make an easy swap. If only it were as easy as offering you, “5 simple ways to be more ethical in your business.”

My true passion is the muckraking. That’s my side hustle, if you will.

And that’s what you’ll mostly find here in this space.

Because it’s important.

Because I don’t want someone else thinking they’re "crazy" because of the emotional toll this takes on their lives.

Because people deserve the truth, not the sanitized version of “the dark side of online business” that is actually more of the same.

If you do want to support my work, you can go to BuyMeARobe.com.

But you don’t have to. You can support my work by sharing it, by commenting, but most importantly, by talking about these topics with your friends, doing your own research and muckraking about it, putting it on the record, as I often said in FREE SCHOOL.

Because “my” work is really a contribution to “OUR” work. It’s not just about me. It’s about US. I can’t do this alone.

The world needs more muckrakers.

Will you join me?

Business comedian Rachael Kay Albesr, woman doing stand up

WTF is FREE SCHOOL? Comedian and court jester of the royal shit show that is online marketing burns it all down in her Instagram stories. It's the biggest biz art experiment of all time!

My name is Rachael Kay Albers and the kids call me the One Woman SNL of Business Comedy (because I tell 'em to). I'm a brand strategist, business comedian, and a helluva good time.

I started FREE SCHOOL as a free business school and creativity university on Instagram. But then I followed Ranchard Branson into a rabbit hole shaped funnel and found myself muckraking my way into the madhouse. Literally. Muckrake with me here. It's a wild ride.

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