Soul Revival at the Forum

No one calls it est or mentions Werner Erhard anymore, but the New Age movement he founded is still hawking personal transformation to the masses

San Francisco Chronicle/January 16, 1994

By Steven Pressman

In the spring of 1960 a young Philadelphia car salesman named Jack Rosenberg walked out on his job, his wife and their four young children, heading west with a woman he had secretly married two months earlier. On the flight out of Philadelphia, Rosenberg selected a strange new name for himself, Werner Hans Erhard, which he pieced together from a magazine article that profiled prominent West German officials.

Erhard sold used cars in St. Louis before drifting to the Pacific Northwest, where he took a job selling books door-to-door. By the mid-1960s, he had relocated his bookselling operation in San Francisco and began studying a variety of motivational and self- awareness techniques popular at the time. To increase sales, Erhard pressed upon his employees everything from Scientology to Dale Carnegie, but also began laying plans for making his mark in what a friend described as the "mind busines" movement, which began at such places as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Starting in San Francisco, est expanded to other parts of the country and attracted everyone from curious housewives to celebrities, including Diana Ross, Valerie Harper and John Denver.participants at the top of their lungs.

At its peak in the late 1970s, est was attracting more than 50,000 new customers each year and generating tens of millions of dollars in revenues for Erhard. Est's popularity also brought fame and celebrity status to Erhard, who lived like a king in a Pacific Heights townhouse and was waited on hand and foot by a contingent of aides and volunteers only too willing to serve "Werner" anyway they could.

In 1985, after est's popularity had begun to wane, Erhard replaced it with a new, though similar, program called the Forum.

While the Forum continued to be a commercial success, Erhard's reputation suffered in the early 1990s in the wake of ongoing tax disputes with the Internal Revenue Service and allegations in the media that he had physically abused his second wife, Ellen Erhard, and sexually abused two of his daughters (no criminal charges have ever been made against him). Erhard left the United States in February 1991, a few weeks before the CBS program "60 Minutes" aired a segment that highlighted the accusations against him.

Before leaving the country, Erhard sold his company to a group of longtime associates in a deal that promised to bring him as much as $15 million in licensing fees from the Forum and other courses. The new company, Landmark Education Corporation, is based in San Francisco and operates the Forum locally and in dozens of cities around the country. Erhard's name, however, is no longer publicly associated with either Landmark or the Forum.

Erhard has remained outside the country, appearing from time to time in places such as Hong Kong and Moscow, where he reportedly has been conducting management seminars. During an interview last month on CNN's "Larry King Live" program, Erhard said he hoped to return soon to the United States.

The accompanying excerpt from " Outrageous Betrayal : The Dark Journey of Werner Erhard from est to Exile" is a firsthand account of a Forum seminar at the ANA Hotel in San Francisco one three-day weekend in April 1992.

Laurel Scheaf planted her statuesque frame within a couple of feet of the slim, middle-age woman in the audience and stared into her eyes for several moments. At first, the woman returned Scheaf's glare with her own blank gaze, but then she averted her eyes completely, as if she could hide from Scheaf's relentless stare simply by focusing on some other object in the room.

There were a few nervous coughs scattered around the hotel conference room, but mostly there was only awkward silence as everyone else watched the tense moment unfold before them. After a few more moments of staring, Scheaf turned away from the woman and took a few steps toward the raised dais at the front of the room.

Suddenly she wheeled around and glared again at the diminutive woman still standing at her chair and gripping a microphone that she held at her mouth but not saying anything. Scheaf's face contorted into a deep scowl, and you could tell she was about to rip into the woman with the ferociousness of a Marine drill sergeant laying into a raw contingent of boot camp recruits.

"Who are you kidding?" she yelled, her eyes ablaze in anger. "Don't you see what's happening in your life?"

The woman gripped the microphone a little more tightly but otherwise remained frozen as she stood there bearing the brunt of Scheaf's outburst. Her lips were pursed, and for just a moment it looked as if she would either break down in tears or lunge at Scheaf in desperation, like a trapped, helpless animal backed into a corner by a dangerous predator.

"Are you listening to me? You have a daughter who doesn't want to talk to you! YOu have a daughter who doesn't even want to see your face!"

Scheaf was yelling even louder now, and the cords in her neck bulged out, accenting the rigidity of her at-attention posture as she stood in the middle of the room and bore further into the silent woman's eyes. There were a few more coughs around the room and then silence again. Finally Scheaf was ready to finish her high-decibel analysis of the woman's problem. Once again came the throaty scream, as the muscles in Scheaf's face went taut.

"Do you know what your problem is? You are not a loving mother!"

Scheaf turned back toward the dais, swiveling away from the woman, who looked paralyzed. Still clutching the microphone tightly, the woman managed to find a few words that she now muttered softly in Scheaf's direction. "I hear what you're saying," she almost whispered into the microphone. "I think you might be right."

She might have expected the accommodating words to bring a gentle response from Scheaf, who now stood just at the edge of the dais, not looking at the woman anymore but instead appearing annoyed and perplexed by the woman's meek, almost apologetic tone. The scowl on Scheaf's face let everyone know that she was not about to let the woman off the hook that easily. After all, there was some tough business to conduct in this hotel conference room on this cool spring night.

A few minutes earlier Scheaf and the woman had been talking almost like two old friends would talk about things going on in their lives. There was compassion in Scheaf's voice as she gently questioned the woman about a problem she was having in her strained relationship with a grown daughter. After all, it was one of the reasons why the woman had enrolled in the Forum in the first place, since the weekend program was designed, among other purposes, to help its participants improve their relations with others.

Scheaf stood at the edge of the podium and shot a glance at one of several volunteer assistants scattered around the room, nodding her head slightly before turning back to stare at the woman standing in the middle of the room. Then the angry scowl returned, and with it came another torrent of verbal abuse flung at the hapless woman holding the microphone. This time Scheaf shouted so loudly that her screams strained the clarity of the wireless mike she wore clipped to the lapel of her blouse.

"I think I do hear you," the woman replied in her muted voice.

"You don't hear me! Just like you never hear your own daughter. Now listen to me! You just have to get off it! Now!"

There was dead silence, not even a nervous cough or a bit of awkward laughter to break the tense mood that permeated the room. Scheaf held the woman in her boot-camp gaze for several seconds, while the woman managed only the slightest nod of her head -- the barest acknowledgment that she accepted what Scheaf had told her. After another moment or two, she blankly yielded the microphone to one of the assistants, who by then was at her elbow, waiting to snatch it away so that it could be handed quickly to someone else waiting to "share" something about his or her life in front of Scheaf and 150 other people seated in the straight-backed chairs in the hotel conference room.

When she spoke next, the feverish pitch in Scheaf's voice had vanished. She had walked back to the podium and settled into a director's chair, reaching over to a small table to sip tea from a stainless steel beaker that one of the assistants kept refilled. The harshness and yelling were replaced now with a schoolteacher's gentle and reassuring tone.

"I think you know what you need to do," Scheaf told the woman from her perch. A broad smile had erased the menacing scowl, and the cords in her neck had relaxed.

From the audience, the woman nodded her head a bit more confidently, even returning a faint version of Scheaf's wide smile. "OK, that's great. That's really great," said Scheaf.

Everyone in the room responded with a polite round of applause, just as they had been instructed to do at the beginning of the Forum whenever people got up to share something about their lives, something about their reasons for enrolling in the Forum. As the applause continued, Scheaf sat back for a moment and took another sip from the beaker of tea. She was still smiling as the applause died down and the woman took her seat. Scheaf winked at her and the woman answered with a thin smile. It was time for Scheaf to turn her attention to someone else in the room. It was time for someone else to benefit from the "extraordinary results" promised to those who signed up for the Forum.

It had been nearly 21 years since Werner Erhard first stepped forward as the founder of est, one of America's most successful mass-marketed self- awareness programs, ultimately selling more than $430 million worth of gauzy transformation to more than 1 million customers. Before Erhard vanished into exile, his instruction courses in enlightenment and take-charge-of- your-life lessons were offered in more than 100 cities around the world.

Erhard was hardly the first self-appointed sage promising heady results to those seeking personal transformation. He will not be the last, for America's social history has been filled with authoritarian figures -- some very silly, others downright deadly -- offering sustenance to those hungering for spiritual or motivational nourishment.

But Erhard certainly led the way in applying mass-marketing techniques to transformation. He hit his stride at the beginning of the New Age era, and his ideas have been studied and copied by other New Age purveyors. Today's self-help landscape features an array of courses similar to est, offered by organizations such as Lifespring, PSI World and Insight.

With his charisma and self-assured salesmanship, Erhard also paved the way for other New Age promoters to achieve their own celebrity status. His fame was boosted by a bevy of Hollywood stars rushing into est training sessions and emerging to sing his praises. Indeed, he stirred up Hollywood in a way no other self- help master had done before, and the town has never been the same. Twenty years after Erhard appeared on the scene, America's glitterati fetes a new generation of gurus -- flocking to lectures by the likes of a former nightclub singer named Marianne Williamson and workshops led by a onetime drug company salesman named John Bradshaw.

The harsh tones of est have vanished, replaced with soothing hymns about "a course in miracles" and "reclaiming your inner child." Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Oprah Winfrey, Peter Guber and Elizabeth Taylor are only a few of the marquee names who have sought enlightenment from the latest versions of America's long-running self- help extravaganza.

There were no celebrities in the second-floor conference room at the ANA Hotel that weekend. Erhard himself was only a ghost, now that he no longer officially had anything to do with the Forum. Even his name, once so revered among the legions who looked to "Werner" for transformational guidance, had been expunged from the slick brochures that advertised the Forum and other self-awareness courses sold by Landmark Education Corporation. But the words and phrases bore his imprint, for they had hardly changed from the days when Erhard was in control.

"The Forum," read the brochure, "provides a breakthrough in the technology of living powerfully, living effectively, living an extraordinary life. It is a penetrating, challenging and practical inquiry into the issues at the heart of our lives -- communication, relationship, happiness and satisfaction. It results in an extraordinary advantage in performance, creativity and self-expression."

For more than two decades, Erhard had taught Laurel Scheaf, a former Ohio schoolteacher, how to sell. First it had been books, and there seemed no harder way to sell them than by walking door to door throughout the hilly streets of San Francisco. Next came Mind Dynamics. Finally there was est -- and with it, Scheaf became more attached than ever to her mentor, the Svengali figure to whom she felt she owed everything in her life. How many years had she sat on one of the Erhard-trademark high-legged director's chairs and sipped from the Erhard-trademark stainless steel beaker? How many years had it been since she had first memorized the words and phrases Erhard taught her and his other disciples to repeat over and over again in front of the customers?

On this weekend in San Francisco, Erhard lurked in the corners of the room like a fallen spirit. Scheaf felt his presence and sat in his signature chair and sipped from a similar beaker of tea. And then she went about the business of the day -- selling human transformation to yet another group of willing buyers.

The chairs were lined up in perfectly straight rows. A black ball point pen was centered underneath each chair, its tip pointed toward the front of the room. Outside the room, rows of name tags were arranged on a table, first names printed in large black letters.

Smiling assistants ushered the Forum participants into the conference room, which quieted down as soon as a dour-faced woman named Kirsten marched to the podium to explain the rules that everyone had to agree to follow in order to participate in the Forum. There would be one meal break during the 15-hour session, plus a few short breaks throughout the day. No talking, no standing up and strolling about the room. Always wear your name tag. No sitting next to someone you know. A few people dozed off while Kirsten read the rules. When she finished, she asked everyone to pick up the pen beneath his or her chair and sign an agreement form that was being handed out. When the assistants collected the forms, they retrieved the pens as well. There was no note-taking permitted.

A few minutes later Scheaf emerged from the back of the room to loud applause, much of which came from the assistants now gathered around the doors. After walking briskly to the dais, Scheaf picked up a piece of thick yellow chalk and began drawing a pie chart on one of the two chalkboards at either side of the stage.

"There are things that we know that we know," she said as she marked off one small slice of the pie. "There are things that we know we don't know." She marked off another quarter slice. What was left, she said, as her hand swept across the remaining half of the pie, was everything "that we don't know that we don't know." That, concluded Scheaf, is "what the Forum is about."

For the next three days, Scheaf treated the 150 transformation seekers to a steady dose of mystifying phrases and mental exercises that had the participants tied up in knots as they made valiant efforts to attach even a shred of logical meaning to the strange language and bizarre goings-on in the room. "Languaging is the house of being, " Scheaf declared at one point. Moments later, she announced that the weekend was all about "dancing with the listening in a conversation for possibility."

At one of the dinner breaks, a gentle-faced Asian man in his early 60s explained to a few other Forum participants eating at a nearby restaurant how surprised he had been to learn that the course used to be connected to Werner Erhard. "I had no idea that this had anything to do with est or with Erhard," he said. "They never volunteered any of that information when I signed up."

Of course they didn't. For Erhard, the past had always been something to run away from, to render invisible by pretending that it barely even existed. Erhard and est for years advocated a convenient culture of amnesia, which served the needs of thousands of his most loyal followers. In their zeal to discover the innocence of enlightenment, they savored his message of "completing" the past by casting it into a dark abyss. Many of Erhard's followers also cheered est's rejection of traditional psycho-therapy for similar reasons. Most forms of therapy aim for transformation by mining the individual's past. Erhard's own experiences in life were reflected in est's formula for transformation by avoiding the past.

"That's not an issue," Scheaf replied curtly when one Forum participant wondered what he should tell others if asked about the Forum's connection to est. "Est no longer exists," she added. The only reason to mention it "is if you like talking about the past."

Scheaf no longer mentioned having served as est's first president when Erhard first turned his booksellers into mind-sellers. Instead, she vaguely boasted two decades later only of having served as president "when this work was first presented" without going into any details. Years ago Scheaf talked proudly about enrolling her solidly Midwestern parents in a 1973 est session and how their lives were forever changed by the experience. Now, in the aftermath of Erhard's fall from grace, she simply switched course names, telling 150 participants inside the San Francisco hotel about her parents' "incredible" experience in a course -- the Forum -- that did not even exist then.

By Saturday evening, more than midway through the three-day Forum, the conference room inside the ANA Hotel reverberated with the sounds of transformation. One by one, dozens of participants reached for the microphones to announce their pending rebirth, triggered by Scheaf's probing questions into the intimate details of their lives. Though she had made it clear earlier that she held no therapy credentials and that Landmark Education Corporation was not in the therapy business, Scheaf worked th e room like a talk-show psychiatrist, digging up all those repressed emotions and burrowing deep into individual psyches in order, she insisted, to rip out the weeds of the past and clear the way for a transformed future. Sheaf responded to some of the participants with loud and angry outbursts while treating others more gently and with soothing tones.

All through the evening the stories of people's lives continued. A young woman rose with a gut-wrenching story of being abused as a child. Another woman recounted how her father often beat her over the head with a rolled-up newspaper, calling her a "s------d" who never would amount to anything.

"That's just the way he was," counseled Scheaf. "He was being an a-----e." As if to offer some comfort, she reminded those in the room that everyone does things "that make us a------s every day of our lives." Throughout the Forum, Scheaf dropped references to parents who abuse and molest their children, reminding everyone how common such incidents are. Though she acknowledged that such parental behavior "never works," Scheaf made it clear that such abuse certainly did not prevent a mother or a father from being a loving parent. The veiled reference to Erhard's own alleged behavior as a father served as a cryptic reminder that she, in her own way, was intent still on protecting Erhard's image.

There were more tears, and more tissues from the director's chair. More applause after each dark secret was laid bare. After five or 10 minutes, it was time to move on to the next case, since there were so many hands raised around the room. The smiling assistants scampered among the rows of chairs, thrusting microphones into the hands of the participants so quickly that Scheaf barely had time to pause after each new round of applause before turning her attention to the next confession.

On Sunday evening, a mood of gaiety and celebration filled the conference room as previous Forum graduates streamed inside to congratulate the latest group of customers, who had paid $290 to enter into the transformational fold. There were balloons and flowers and hugs and smiles, everyone wearing name tags coded with colored strips to identify the wearer's status (graduates, assistants, staff). For most of the evening, Scheaf delivered a sales pitch for the Forum's advanced course, normal ly priced at $700 but available with a $100 "scholarship" for any Forum graduate who signed up that evening.

The remainder of the evening reflected Erhard's aggressive approach to marketing his self- awareness courses. Now that the Forum had "empowered" their lives, Scheaf reminded everyone that it was time to "live that empowerment" by introducing others to the Forum.

"Take a stand in the possibility that your life is," she urged, by making a commitment to bring 10 guests to the "guest evening" two nights later at the ANA Hotel. As the assistants scribbled down names, a handful of new Forum enthusiasts announced their intention to round up guests for the midweek session. Every time a new person stood up, the room broke into applause.

The guest evening began with a quick introduction to the Forum by Scheaf. Largely free of the confusing jargon that marked much of the Forum, Scheaf's remarks were followed by applause-filled testimonials delivered by several new Forum graduates. After an hour or so, the guests were divided into smaller groups and directed to other rooms, where they were urged to sign themselves up for the next session of the Forum. Back inside the conference room, Scheaf continued with her aggressive sales pitch for the advanced course. The $100 scholarship was still available, but only until the end of the evening.

Scheaf was all smiles as the session came to a close, basking in the applause that echoed around the room. How many times had she savored such a moment, knowing always who deserved the real credit for the cheers and the clapping? But now, on this night and on other nights to come, it was up to Scheaf and a few dozen other disciples of Werner Erhard to accept the applause they knew belonged to him. They would continue to serve him as they always had -- by imitating him, copying his gestures a nd his style, subtly planting in the mind of each new customer a defense for the dark acts that Erhard had been so publicly accused of. A defense for allegedly humiliating and beating his wife and abusing his children, while claiming to invent a world- changing "technology" of personal transformation.

Finally the demons had caught up with the man, and he no longer was able to accept the delicious applause that had once greeted his name wherever he went. On a cool spring weekend in San Francisco, no one even wondered whatever happened to Werner Erhard.

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