"Book World - Erhard, From est To Worst"

"Outrageous Betrayal--The Dark Journey of Werner Erhard From est to Exile" By Steven Pressman

The Washington Post/December 9, 1993

By Paul Boyer

Remember est? In the 1970s, Werner Erhard won fame and notoriety as the founder of Erhard Seminars Training Inc. (est), which promised a new life for $ 250. (Eventually the ante rose to $ 475.) Thousands responded as est leaders offered "seminars" across America.

"Outrageous Betrayal" tells the story of "Erhard" - in reality a Philadelphia used-car salesman named Jack Rosenberg, who abandoned a wife and four children in 1960 and moved to St. Louis with one June Bryde (her real name, apparently, though with Erhard one can never be sure). Reading an Esquire article on Germany, he came across references to physicist Werner Heisenberg and politician Ludwig Erhard, and melded them into a new name and a new identity. Bryde went along with the charade, becoming "Ellen Erhard." After another stint selling used cars, Erhard pushed on west in a Buick stolen from his employer. In San Francisco he turned to door-to-door book promotion, managing a sales force that he energized with rousing motivational speeches and group singing. Meanwhile he fathered four more children by June/Ellen while seducing many other women drawn by his charm and dazzling smile.

Sensing the commercial possibilities of the "human potential" movement pioneered by Michael Murphy of Esalen Institute and others, Erhard first peddled a program called Mind Dynamics and then in 1971 launched est. The message was a mishmash borrowed from earlier motivators like Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, a large dose of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology, blended with Erhard's own Delphic exhortations. Converts included entertainment celebrities such as John Denver, Valerie Harper and Raul Julia, and corporate figures such as Bill Millard, founder of the ComputerLand chain. Est graduates idolized "Werner" as "the Source" of life-transforming insights.

The empire unraveled in the 1980s amid a nasty divorce battle, bitter disputes in est's inner circles, tales of Erhard's Sybaritic lifestyle and unsavory past, and charges of wife abuse and incest-rape. As est graduates who experienced psychotic episodes filed lawsuits, the government pursued Erhard and his lawyer, Harry Margolis, for tax fraud. (Margolis had created a maze of fake Panamanian and Swiss corporations to shield est from the IRS.) By the early 1990s, with the Source in exile in Mexico - or was it Switzerland? - lieutenants carried on under a new name, the Forum.

Steven Pressman, a legal journalist, nicely recounts the bizarre tale, partly known already from muckraking magazine articles and a 1991 "60 Minutes" expose'. Particularly good on Erhard's Byzantine financial and legal affairs, he also conveys Erhard's callous egomania and the nastiness of the est seminars, where "body catchers" and barf bags were available for people who fainted or vomited under the trainers' brutal, foul-mouthed harangues. The strategy was to destroy participants' sense of self-worth through techniques of deprivation and boot-camp intimidation and then encourage them to construct a new "self" free of the guilt and errors of the past. To demonstrate their transformation, "graduates" were pressured to recruit friends and associates for future est sessions.

Even in a field not noted for clarity of language, est-speak was exceptionally leaden and jargon-clogged. Erhard offered banalities and the thuggish tactics of the schoolyard bully as a path to personal renewal, and a million Americans ultimately responded, generating $ 430 million in revenue - eloquent testimony to the longing for meaning and authority in contemporary society. "I was trying to find the fastest way to God," recalled one recruit. "Meditation was slow. Werner put things together in a way that went bing, bing, bing."

Though Erhard briefly campaigned against world hunger as a recruitment gimmick, he preached essentially a narcissistic preoccupation with the self, devoid of social connectedness apart from the ersatz "community" of est enthusiasts.

Pressman tells his fascinating story well. Yet ironically - since he rightly criticizes est's "culture of amnesia" - he offers only the sketchiest historical context. Est flourished in a specific cultural-political milieu (post-'60s, pre-Reagan), but it also had deep roots in the national experience. Erhard's brutally individualistic message was warmed-over social Darwinism as espoused by William Graham Sumner in the 1880s - and again by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Indeed, Erhard was a kind of John the Baptist of Reaganism. In an allegedly secular age, he offered the "New Birth" proclaimed by countless evangelical revivalists since Colonial days - though the evangelists offered rebirth without the $ 250 price tag.

And est's premise that one can simply walk away from the past and reinvent oneself by an act of will tapped into the oldest American myth. It is the theme of Herman Melville's "The Confidence Man," whose chameleon-like protagonist assumes endlessly changing identities. Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" described Americans' love of moving on and starting over. In the haunting conclusion of "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald evoked the seductive lure of new beginnings, from the Dutch sailors who first encountered the "fresh green breast" of a New World to the novel's self-created, high-living hero - poverty-stricken Jimmy Gatz of North Dakota. But as Jay Gatsby and Werner Erhard both learned, history has a way of reasserting its claim: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Bizarre as his saga may seem, "Werner Erhard" remains an authentic American whose story has more to tell us about ourselves and our culture than we may wish to know.

Paul Boyer, Merle Curti professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of "When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture."

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