By Robert Farr
Argus Magazine, December 1980
(Argus was a monthly student magazine at the University of Maryland, College Park.)
Once upon a time in the West, after Howard Hawks had driven cattle through the Rio Grande, but before Gary Cooper pitched his spit-shined badge into the dust, there lived a man named John Paul Rosenberg. Born in 1935 to Jewish-parents-turned-Christian and baptized in the Episcopalian church, Rosenberg was no ordinary fellow.
When 1960 rolled around, cutting through the complacency of the San Francisco Beats, Rosenberg had surreptitiously denied his polite schoolboy upbringing, defied the best in Judeo-Chirstian tradition and quietly folded his napkin before ditching his wife and kids.
By the time he reached age 30, after losing his golden boy look and shying away from public beaches, John was emulating the propagandists who had been exerting an undue influence on the world since the second World War. The likes of Leni Reinfenstahl, D.W. Griffith and Ticktockman were established propagandists, but Rosenberg saw room at the top.
It was some five years later that Rosenberg, who had changed his name to Werner Erhard while fleeing his family, founded est (for Erhard Seminars Training), just one of a string of California positive-thinking growth experience fads.
An ex-encyclopedia salesman, failed used-car dealer and resident of California's posh Marin county (where, reports have it, there are over 20 pages of hot tub listings in the county Yellow Pages), Erhard says he discovered est one day while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, down on his luck and smoking his last Lucky Strike.
Inspired by the mistaken and potentially dangerous notion that everyone has an intrinsic value, Erhard developed est from a mixture of Socratic rhetoric and the westernized Zen Buddhism he had latched onto in San Francisco. Est is a theory based on what Erhard refers to as "dogshit metaphysics," the purpose of which is for graduates to "get It," the organization's term for realizing the virtue of the self. Or, as the est Credo so artfully states: "The purpose of est is to transform your ability to experience living, so that the situations you have been putting up with or trying to change clear up just in the process of life itself."
* * *
"There's a sucker born every minute...! You just happened to be comin' along at the right time!" -- Tom Waits.
* * *
Est has training centers all over the United States in most major cities, and the organization even maintains one overseas for those foreigners who crave an injection of fast-food therapy. Since its inception in 1971, est has produced nearly 250,000 graduates, most of whom regularly extol the virtues of self-enlightenment. Est does not advertise. The organization instead relies on its graduates to prosletyze the virtues of the four-day, two-weekend training by word-of-mouth. Est has been aided in this venture by numerous celebrities, including the likes of Valerie Harper and John Denver, who believe that the program has changed their lives.
Erhard claims that the success of the training has not made him or the est organization particularly wealthy, though its financial status belies this. Est operates under tax-exempt laws, as a group based in the British Isles, and charges $350 for its 50 to 70 hour indocrination. Since the organization trains approximately $250 people during each session, est stands to pocket $87,500 each time it opens its rented hotel doors. Certainly, Erhard is not a poor man.
There is reason to believe, according to several people who have infiltrated the est organization in California, that Erhard rules his self-help group like a dictator. Controls are placed on all those foolish enough to surround him as he acts the parental disciplinarian to his multitudes. Those at the heart of the est corps are required to turn in "Notes to Werner" at specified times during the week, outlining exactly what they have done recently. If anyone in the crew (on-call 24 hours a day) decides he does not want to be disturbed, he must pay a $5.00 fine. Esties are also charged $100.00 every time they work more than six days a week for Werner, something the organization claims is a major problem.
No mere propagandist could command such loyalty with simple celluloid and projector. Somehow, there is wizardry in the air.
* * *
"The training is a precisely articulated series of manipulations carefully designed to produce the desired effects. One of the effects is dependency, a dependency that approaches infantilization. The trainer tells you when to talk, when to eat, when to drink, when to applaud, when to sit and when to stand.
The authoritarianism of the training is a beginners course in the totalitarianism you will be subject to if you join the est organization. According to [Jesse] Kornbluth [New Times, March 1976], staff members report their sexual activities to Erhard as though he were an investigator from the Board of Health, trying to limit the spread of VD." -- Dr. Sheridan Fenwick, psychologist, Getting It: The Psychology of est, 1976.
* * *
The major objection raised by those who have found the training offensive is that the organization relies so heavily on coercion. Trainees are gathered into groups of 250 so that the West Coast voodoo may work its "magic" -- it is harder to object to curious goings-on in a crowded hall, harder yet to escape the pressure of the eupohric cooperation of some of the more enthusiastic. Trainers urge conformity by roundly praising the toothy exuberance of the most obviously happy.
Other objections are raised by those concerned with est's quasi-psychological leanings. Though the organization claims it does not incorporate psychological techniques into each four-day session, there is reason to suspect those in the upper echelon may not be telling the entire truth. Since the goal of the training is to "change" or "transform," as stated in the est Credo, and in so doing to jog the trainee through the gamut of emotion, insisting that est is not psychotherapy is like following Columbus on a flat tour of the world. You may want to believe that the seas will tumble off the edge, but it simply isn't true.
Est has been repeatedly sued by graduates claiming that their psyche has been threatened, that harmony has been irreverantly and irrevocably damaged by the mind-control methods employed in the training. Still the est wizards wield the sometimes awesome power of the amateur psychologist, emerging as veritable witch-doctors of mental hygiene.
* * *
"An estie asked me, 'What is standing between you and the training?' Common sense, I though to myself as I ran, completely turned off, for the nearest exit." -- B.H. Krispien, Penthouse Magazine, September 1976.
* * *
I began est training on August 30, at Thomas Circle's International Inn. Common sense had not kept me away, though after spending 13 hours with the positive-thinking set, I wished that it had.
I arrived at the Inn at 9:15, nearly 45 minutes after the training was scheduled to begin, expecting bleary-eyed paper pushers to abuse me with punctual est dogma or yawning annoyance. I did not expect the fierce welcome with which I was greeted.
Before being admitted to the training room, a spartan lecture hall of straight-backed chairs and flourescent chandeliers, all trainees are required to complete the est training questionnaire. Trainees are asked about their physical and psychological health, though a disclaimer at the top of the form proclaims that est is not psychotherapy.
"We just want to make sure that everyone in therapy has alerted their therapist that they're doing est," explained one of the trainers. Closer to the truth, perhaps, is the fact that the est organization wishes to weed out those participants considered even mildly unstable. The best way to beat lawsuits is to avoid them.
Est training rooms are strange things. Guarded by potential est thugs on either side, tardy trainees are admitted only after a note announcing their delayed arrival has been passed through the space between two closed doors. Even then, admission is only guaranteed after a lengthy interrogation, during which the guilty party must renounce his mistaken ways - trainees are required to "acknowledge the fact that you are late," "recreate the agreement to be on time," and promise not to yawn while being spoken to.
The lucky trainee will compromise his position, agreeing to anything the thin-lipped trainer may suggest; the unlucky fellow will engage the trainer in a philosophical discussion, from which honorable extraction is difficult if not downright impossible. Remember: the trainee cannot possibly win. Winning is guaranteed only to those who have graduated from est.
* * *
"... questionable financial arrangement, 15 page security memos, the hiring of private detectives to 'interview' people who've talked with reporters. An internal memo from a staff member to the president of the est psychologists and psychiatrists who have been publicly critical of est ... It may well be satisfaction and aliveness that such activities are intended to serve; it clearly is not candor or freedom." -- Dr. Sheridan Fenwick.
* * *
Freedom is the least of est's concerns. Before the actual training can begin, trainees must pledge to uphold a series of "groundrules," limitations imposed by the trainers to ensure that the training "works." Trainees are instructed to avoid drugs not prescribed by a physician (including alcohol); transcendental meditation or other forms of "consciousness altering;" busywork, note-taking, smoking or eating inside the training room; tardiness; or snacking during bathroom breaks. All trainees must agree to eat only during the assigned meal break, which usually occurs close to midnight, and to urinate only during assigned bathroom breaks, of which there are few.
During my training, the rules were read by a neo-victorian, gravely-voiced woman named Jane, who scurried back and forth across the wooden stage like a caged animal. Impressive as she was in her domination - she seemed to get an almost orgasmic thrill confronting an annoyed male trainee - she was most impressive when she hurled insults at the stunned crowd. "YOU'RE ALL ASSHOLES!" she screamed. "YOUR LIVES DON'T WORK! YOUR LIVES ARE SHIT!!!!!"
The first two hours of the training were composed of similar insults, as the trainers, Jane and an olive-skinned balding fellow named Dave, attempted to bully the audience into submission. Confused trainees questioning the validity of the groundrules were informed that the reason they didn't understand was because they were assholes - and would in fact be assholes until the training was completed. "The rules are not rational," intoned Dave. "They do not make sense! But you still have to follow them..." Those refusing to follow the rules were asked to leave - one fellow, a reporter who objected to the no note-taking rule, did actually leave, but was talked back into the room by swarming est volunteers. There was never any mention of refunds.
The next several hours were spent discussing the trainees' role in est. Jane and Dave, both wearing cumbersome remote microphones, scuttled like cockroaches through the crowd as they took turns delineating the difference between "Knowing" and "Not Knowing."
"What you must do to fully experience est," said Jane, "is to know that you don't know anything! Only then will you be able to throw away your belief systems and start to experience life!"
One of Erhard's major contentions is that we fail to enjoy life because we don't actually experience it, that our belief get in the way of our happiness. The trainers use the metaphor of a silver box, in which we treasure our most exciting sexual adventure. Every time we have another experience, we hold out the one in the box to see if it was as good.
Est also contends that we "fail to experience people." Jane and Dave both agreed that we were all assholes because we "merely jam people into your belief systems, and don't experience them!"
The basic problem with this sort of "I'm o.k. you're o.k." West Coast mentality is that it is itself a belief system. It is the same kind of paradoxical mumbo-jumbo that at one time caused Erhard to exclaim, "boredom is a very high state."
* * *
"Obviously this - the yelling, the insults, the temperature changes and the crowding - was designed to get us to a point of sheer vexation; it was like a brainwashing technique in which the victim is rendered so exhausted, frustrated and helpless that he is ready to embrace any ideology, heresy or commercial whatever."" -- B.H. Krispien.
* * *
Perhaps the other participants were more vexing than the training itself. Predominantly young, white and Jewish, the most offensive trainees were the ones too eager to please - those who tattled on their neighbors for talking, chewing gum or wearing watches, all verboten by the est hierarchy.
The most determined brown nosing of the day occurred during a process called "sharing." Willing trainees were asked to relate any experience relevant to the est training, though often the sharing involved nothing more than mere braggadaccio. Talkative trainees giggled trite tales of colloquial stupidity as they told of the niggling activities of their lives. All tales were met with the same exuberant applause, as the trainers urged us to "acknowledge" the courage of fellow trainees.
Jane explained that there were three people we had to experience on the rocky road to enlightenment: the person we pretended to be; the person we feared we were; and the person we really were. The first persona was discarded during sharing, as mustacioed gentlemen were cowed into weak-kneed submission by a vociferous Jane. Persona number two was to be explored on the following night. And we were not to discover our true identity, tucked somewhere safely between yesterday's cherry pie and last week's faux pas, until night four, when the moon would be full and werewolves would circle around a ring of fire.
* * *
"A few minutes into the process I began to hear moans and whimpering on all sides of me, then crying, laughing, screaming, shrieking and sounds of people puking their guts out. It is very surreal, very frightening, like suddenly finding yourself in the middle of an insane asylum." -- Dan Greenburg.
"I felt I was the only normal in the place. I sat up and saw hundreds of people writhing and flailing the air. I was in a snake pit and I wanted out... Suddenly, a man shouted from across the room, 'Somebody get these fucking nuts off my beach!'" -- B.H. Krispien.
* * *
We began the trip into the depths of our psyche after the evening bathroom break. The first journey lasted but 20 miutes, the latter one nearly an hour and a half, as we mentally explored first one part of our body, than another, in a perverse ritual designed to get us "in touch" with our feelings.
The first journey was fairly innocuous, a far cry from the preposterous canterings of earlier hours. We were required to sit straight up in our chairs, hands flat on our knees and eyes closed. Jane, both dominatrix and conductress, guided us on our mental voyage with the skill of a stewardess, helping many of the befuddled trainees through their psychological turbulence with her kind words.
"TAKE OFF THE SUPPRESS BUTTON," she yelled, "DON'T BE ASSHOLES! LET YOUR EMOTIONS GO!!!!! EXPERIENCE WHAT'S HAPPENING!" A furtive glance around the room proved that several of us, annoyed, and dreadfully hungry, would have liked a shotgun to help us "experience" our festering anger.
The psychological journey, called a "process" in est lingo, began at our feet. "Experience a point in your ankle," growled Jane. "Thaaaank you. Now experience another point in your ankle. Thaaaaank you."
This continued until we had reached our waist, at which time we began our descent. A few muffled sobs or an occasional nervous cough were heard during the process, as people dredged up forgotten emotions or incidents from the past, but the lunatics had yet to emerge.
It was during the second process, a lengthier version of process one, that insanity rose to the surface. As Jane guided us on another voyage from ankle to calf, to thigh, to waist, people began to weep uncontrollably, sobbing like banshees or homeless buzzards. An occasional manical laugh punctuated the oppression but could not break through the misery hanging like a shroud over the rented room.
As the process contineud, framed by an embryonic tape of a California surf, est flunkies distributed air-sickness bags to those whose guild came forcefully bubbling to the surface. Suddenly, the room reverberated with the sounds of hysteria, as we sprinted through the world of neglected emotion. I glanced cautiously at the wailing women behind me, certain that I was to be covered with whatever did not reach the vomit bags.
The denouement came as abruptly as the cries had begun. Those it was a unique request, one laced with subtle hints of infantile eroticization, there was precious little time for mental preparation when Jane asked us to "experience a point in your rectum." Setting my signts on the tightly guarded exit, I overruled even the slightest compliance and impatiently awaited the dinner break. After Dave had mounted the stage to run down the list of fast food enterprises located near Thomas Circle, an urban industrial center renowned for its other hit-and-run entrepreneurial ventures, I pocketed my name tag and ducked through the crowd of therapeutic junkies.
I did not return.
The next day, I was awakened by an est volunteer, who demanded to know why I had resigned from the training. Informing her that est was run by neo-Nazis, fascists and perverse oddballs, I ecame involved in a lengthy discussion of est's merits, which terminated only after she became noisily belligerent.
"You mean you left because of boredom?" she whined. "Do you find that when you're screwing someone, you just get up and leave?" No, I admitted, curiously pondering the queer correlation between est and sex. I have honestly never been that bored.
* * *
"The more I envision the goosestepping corps at the center of the est organization, the more virtue I see in anarchy. The last person who made the trains run on time participated in the creation of a nightmare. The only way to stop a nightmare is to wake up." -- Dr. Sheridan Fenwick.
* * *
The est organization claims that those who have not completed the training - the assholes, the cowards or the mindless - shall remain voiceless, insignificant beings, content to try and drive through life's barriers rather than around them. If that is actually the case, then I shall remain secure in my role as an offensive driver, wheeling my Mack truck through the skinny entrances to businesses or bars. Psychotherapy will come in small doses, 12 ounces at a time, and mental masturbation will lead only to the discovery of tainted paltriness. If any of my friends wish to join hands with the est forces, I shall kill them, assured that death is the proper alternative to mellowness. And if Werner Erhard should ever cross my path, I will make no attempt to step on the brakes.