The Return of Werner Erhard: Guru II


Los Angeles Magazine/May, 1988
By Mark MacNamara

His face, now just inches from mine, became unrecognizable: all eyes and mouth, no shape, no topography, the way a face becomes when it looks at itself too closely in a mirror. For a moment there was complete silence, and then out of the mouth came the scent of a fine cigar and these words:

"Breakthroughs are created when people are willing to live out of their commitments rather than out of their feelings and their thoughts and their attitudes -- or, if you like to use one word for all that, their beliefs. Listen, this is extraordinarily exciting. You have no idea how exciting this stuff is. Man, this gets you up in the morning, keeps you up at night. This'll give you the kind of energy you need to work 12-, 15-hour days, day after day, without getting tired: this possibility of a breakthrough -- and what it means to be human."

The face pulled back and became distinguishable again. It was Werner Erhard's, all right. It had watery, faded blue eyes and pockmarked skin, well tanned and glistening with oil or lotion. It was a narrow, rectangular face with thin, dry lips and, inside, a row of narrow, huddled teeth. Clearly, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and no question the whole suggested sincerity, intelligence, imagination. Yet, there was something else about this face, something off-putting.

"I can say that to you after two or three hours together," Werner continued in his characteristic tone that suggested a question mark with every pause -- an inflection he said he picked up from working with R. Buckminster Fuller -- "and I know that you know what I'm talking about. I know that you get the flavor of what I'm talking about. Now, it's damned tough to put it into clear prose. Damn tough. That's why we've got poetry. That's why we have fiction."

What Werner Erhard was having such a devil of a time explaining, as he sat in the offices of Transformational Technologies, located just north of San Francisco, was why he had devoted so much of his life to developing "breakthroughs." The difficulty he was having is ironic because this is a subject he had certainly given much thought to and ironic also because in some circles he is regarded as one of the great communicators of the era.

Indeed, the name Erhard has become synonymous with that desperate effort of the "Me" generation of the 1970s to articulate its identity. He was the one who taught masses of the middle class to communicate with themselves. He was perhaps the first American guru, a salesman turned spiritualist, a clever craftsman who understood how to combine pop philosophies, Eastern religions and the Puritan work ethic into an effective way to motivate people.

But having created something, Erhard himself has always remained just out of reach. The media has hounded him for years, particularly the press, and in the last year he has evaded magazines and newspapers. Now he's making still another attempt to meet the press, partly because he wants to stimulate enrollment in the Forum (the next generation of est training) and partly to try once again to erase an image fostered by critics -- that of a West Coast Svengali using psychobabble to con people who don't know any better.

His strategy is to open up his organizations to scrutiny. To help with public relations, he has hired McGuire Barnes, Inc., the small San Francisco company that handled the pope's dramatic masses in Los Angeles and that may represent Jerry Brown in a political comeback. His hope is that if the public remembers only one thing, it is that Werner Erhard's work "has touched the lives of almost a million people and, by their own report and by the report of 22 independent studies, has touched those lives positively."

Despite his reluctance to grant interviews to the print media -- which he accuses of relying on old clips for the basis of stories -- he has continued to do TV and radio interviews where "people can make up their own minds because they've been there with you." But even then, as he himself admits, he is often misunderstood or not believed.

Myths and rumors follow Erhard, now 53. Always there are the stories -- stories about making millions from est; about tax problems and lawsuits; about the Sausalito yacht he lives on; about lavish dinner parties with a celebrity guest list ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to Mike Wallace; about going to the Soviet Union and coming back from Ethiopia; about his divorce and about his management-consulting firm, Transformational Technologies. Old stories about studying Zen and taking Dale Carnegie courses and going through five levels of Scientology. And still older stories about Werner before Werner, when he was an anonymous salesman named Jack Frost who sold Fords for a Norristown, Pennsylvania, dealership under the general management of somebody named Lee Iacocca. And, finally, the oldest stories, about a boy named Jack Rosenberg, son of an Episcopalian named Dorothy and a Jew turned fundamentalist Christian named Joe.

The lobby of the Ambassador Hotel was dead. At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, even the night porter had stepped away, and there was a haunted quality to the place reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's eerie Colorado resort in The Shining. That image had a particularly pejorative connotation in this context, perhaps an unfair connotation, but the suggestion of madness was accurate, because, of course, this is the place where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. And it's in the Grand Ballroom -- where the senator stood 20 years ago next month, reveling in his victory in the Democratic primary -- that Werner Erhard's Forum in Los Angeles sometimes takes place.

Indeed, on this night, while the lobby was empty, the ballroom was filled. Some 250 people sat waiting for the Forum leader to begin the evening -- another in a series of seminars for Forum graduates. Commitment, excellence, money, vitality, sex and intimacy are among the topics. Tonight it was creativity.

The mood was jovial. "Glad to see you again," people said to each other. A baby wailed. The look was young professional; the look underneath was confidence mixed with nervous energy. Everybody wore a name tag. Pretty girls called "microphone runners" stood ready in the aisles waiting for the sharing to begin.

After 17 years "the inquiry" continues.

From October 1971 to December 1984 it was known as est training, and the purpose was to get people to move, see themselves in a new way, disregard all the old tapes and start life over again. Then Werner Erhard came up with another idea, one for the '80s: The goal --stimulating performance -- is the same, but the method is softer, less emotional, more intellectual, and the emphasis is on commitment, on the notion of breakthroughs.

If one had understood one's identity after est, the aim now is to do something with it, leave the interior and achieve, go beyond mere understanding and people moving to the realm of being -- being whatever one wants to be. An anecdote Erhard tells is that of a physics professor trying to teach his students more than simply the meaning of pi and how to use it in a formula; instead, the professor's goal is to turn his students into true physicists able to create pi themselves.

The effect of est -- and now of the Forum -- has been substantial, if often subtle. In 1980, one Erhard publication estimated that as many as one in 900 Americans had taken the training, and whether or not that figure is accurate, graduates have influenced -- at least briefly -- not only government agencies and corporations but also the very language of commercial culture. According to Werner Erhard and Associates -- the umbrella company for all of Werner Erhard's projects except Transformational Technologies, a separate management-consulting company -- "Master the Possibilities" for MasterCard and "Commitment, Integrity, Vision" for Shearson-Lehman were all thought up by people who took either est or the Forum or worked for Erhard at one time.

The number of participants who have taken either est or the Forum worldwide is about 600,000. In Los Angeles, as of November 1987, 5,000 people had taken the Forum in the two and a half years it has been offered, and nearly 50,000 people had taken its predecessor in the 13 years it was offered. As for why est itself was discontinued, Erhard insists it had nothing to do with market response: "We began the development of the Forum at a real sacrifice."

In addition to the 600,000 who have taken est and the Forum, 300,000 more people have taken other Erhard courses, including those offered as part of the Hunger Project, the Holiday Project, the Breakthrough Foundation, the Werner Erhard Foundation and the Education Network. In 1986, WE&A, which is headquartered in the old L.A. est Center in Santa Monica, had revenues of $ 35 million. In 1987, WE&A offered 32 programs given in

139 cities throughout the world.

Of all Erhard's creations, certainly est was the most widely recognized. It has also been the most controversial. At the height of its popularity, in 1983, the training was offered in some 20 American cities. More than 50,000 people took est that year alone.

"From the beginning," explained the late Dr. Jack Mantos, president of WE&A until he suffered a fatal heart attack in February, at age 43, "the training was about achievement and performance and about the superstitions surrounding performance. It did not produce its result through psychological analysis or psychological methods."

Not everyone has perceived it that way, particularly critics who have condemned both the est training and the Forum on grounds that the methods are psychologically manipulative. In this country, the most consistent Erhard critic has been the Cult Awareness Network, a 10-year-old organizations with headquarters in Chicago and affiliate organizations in 25 states. The organization claims some 2,000 members nationally.


[Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

"We classify est, the Forum and the Hunger Project as destructive cults," says the organization's executive director, Cynthia Kisser. Among the many dozens of other blacklisted cults are Scientology, Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation, the Unification Church and, at the top of the list for the last several months by a large margin, Satanism.

The network's decision to put a cult on its list is based on complaints by parents, police, social workers and some cult members as well as newspaper and magazine articles and, occasionally, well-publicized studies. The information on a cult suspected of being dangerous is virtually all secondhand and rarely, if ever, checked.

"But we've gotten a lot of complaints," says Henrietta Crampton, coordinator of the network in Los Angeles. "Most were from husbands or wives who said their spouse's personality had completely changed. The biggest complaint was that after going to these seminars their spouse seemed more dedicated to Werner Erhard than to the marriage. There was a sense they'd been programmed."

"I would say the single most damaging thing about est and the Forum, " insists Kisser, "is that they are able to market themselves to businesses and consumers as self-awareness programs when, in fact, they are slipping in mind-control techniques without the consent or knowledge of the people who sign up. We assume the purpose is to build a financially lucrative enterprise and bring in a loyal body of people who will donate hours and hours of

their time to ensure the organization's growth and financial security."

The mind-control techniques at issue have now become part of the lore of est training: long hours; criticism, even humiliation, in front of the group; foul language; and, of course, the famous bathroom prohibition.

Erhard himself waves aside the subject of bathrooms, arguing that people always had a choice, that indeed the reason some people who wanted to leave the room during a session but instead found themselves having a dialogue with a trainer was that "people often avoid things by getting hungry or going to the bathroom, and most people don't know that. When you find out that's true, it alters your sense of yourself."

Moreover, according to WE&A exit polls, very few people who actually took the training ever complained about the bathroom issue. A more pressing question, however, was the tenacity with which Erhard's staff tried to keep graduates coming to follow-up seminars. Though Erhard apparently didn't endorse the practice, a form of proselytizing was widespread.

Donald Strauss was 25 when he took the training in Los Angeles in 1977. He found it to be a profound experience and volunteered to work at the L.A. est center. Eventually, he earned a staff position, was paid $ 700 a month and was put in charge of 45 part-time volunteers. His boss was Joan Rosenberg, Erhard's sister. His job was to oversee efforts to encourage graduates to stay with the program. Part-time volunteers would phone graduates, and if the graduates "were bailing out of a seminar, you were supposed to get tough and get them to stay with the schedule.

"The problem," says Strauss, whose mother, father and one sister took the training, "was that many people in the organization became little demagogic characters thinking they could do anything and feeling they were imbued with such integrity. There was an enormous arrogance on the part of some of the higher-level assistants, including myself. The positive side was, you were often using your power for a good purpose, which was the intent."

As for the training techniques used in est -- which have been largely removed from the Forum -- the question often raised among critics is whether they were harmful. According to WE&A records, there have been 22 independent studies done of est training, and none of the Forum, though one is in progress. One est study, by three Stanford University doctors in 1982, explored the effects of certain grouplike trainings such as est and Lifespring. The study, based not on formal interviews with graduates but on various writings about the training and anecdoted information, concluded that despite claims to the contrary, est definitely involved a form of therapy, which had both positive and negative effects, depending upon the individual.

"Our purpose was to write a balanced article and not to dismiss it," explains Dr. Peter Finkelstein, one of the authors. "We found that two kinds of harm may be associated with the est training. The more dramatic but less frequent harm involves people who were more disturbed than they appeared to be and decompensated in certain extreme situations of stress. The more subtle harm was that some people tended to abandon certain psychological defenses important to stability."

But Finkelstein believes that the very thing that makes rapid-consciousness-raising experiences stressful may also have a positive effect: "There is something quite real for many people that is to be valued. It's completely plausible that some people have been able to use this experience and catch a glimpse of another way of living. It's important not to dismiss this 'technology.'"

Perhaps the most extraordinary implication of his study, says Finkelstein, is that in some cases "you can teach humanitarianism using totalitarian techniques."

Since 1971, 10 lawsuits related to the seminars have been filed against Erhard. Seven were either dismissed or withdrawn; three remain. Of those, one suit alleges psychological damage. In the other two cases, one man suffered a stroke during the training and died, and another man died from unexplained causes during the second week of the training. Because of the enormous cost of insurance these days, WE&A has gone for the last three years without any insurance.

Questions of therapy and technique aside, the only other serious criticisms of Werner Erhard's work come from academics who have doubts about New Age values in general.

" Werner Erhard has developed one of the most successful marketing tools of New Age consciousness-raising ever developed," says Carl Raschke, professor of religion at the University of Denver. "est has had quite a bit of influence from Jerry Rubin to John Denver. It's a combination of behavioral-psychology techniques and the manipulation of language that we find in Zen Buddhism, and it has also been a fairly successful means of generating a commitment to a new style of political expression.

"It is good or bad? If you believe that the preservation of traditional American social values and religious ideals and commitment is a good thing, then what Erhard has done is utterly disastrous because the whole purpose of est was to disengage you from hang-ups, from loyalties to groups, individuals and institutions and make you responsible utterly and thoroughly to yourself. In that sense, Erhard has done as much to advance what Christopher Lasch called The Culture of Narcissism as televangelicals have done to advance evangelism.

"On the other hand, if you believe America suffers from an encrusted and obsolete set of moral-authoritarian values and that the whole nature of traditional religious expression, patriotism, philanthropy and personal allegiance is keeping American society from moving into the New Age millennium, then Erhard has done a good thing."

Dr. Olin Robison, president of Vermont's Middlebury College, met Werner Erhard in 1980 during dinner at a Soviet official's home in Washington, D.C. A longtime Russian scholar with many connections in the Soviet Union, Robison became an intermediary between the Russians and Erhard, a relationship that led to a trip in June 1986, during which Erhard tried out some of his techniques in an adult-education program for middle-level Soviet managers.

"The Soviets have had very serious problems in the workplace," explains Robison. "There's a high rate of alcoholism, low productivity, poor quality control, high absenteeism and a bad attitude in general about work. In the early '80s, the Soviets started looking around for ways to solve these problems. They looked at both conventional and non-conventional approaches and became interested in Werner Erhard because they had heard he had had some success dealing with these kinds of problems, in particular how to motivate people. A part of their appeal was that they couldn't place his work on any particular spot on the ideological spectrum."

Robison went along with Erhard during part of the trip and recounts that initially language was a big problem. "I have teased Werner," he says, "that he doesn't speak English. At least the English he uses is not the English I use. It's not only California that's the difference, it's his particular version of California. The vocabulary of the training really comes through, and at first he had serious problems with the Soviets: translation problems, transliteration problems. They were very skeptical in the beginning. But in the end he had them with him."

Robison has serious concerns about the whole question of language and the effects of jargon and not having a "vocabulary we all agree on"; nevertheless he thinks that Erhard has found a niche for himself in society that's useful.

Another scholar who knows Erhard well is Warren Bennis, professor of business administration at USC. Bennis took the est training in 1979 in London: "It gave me a good sense of who I was at a critical period in my life. I had just ended my time as university president, and I was looking around for new directions."

Bennis, who during the early 1980s served as a consultant to Erhard, giving advice on organizational design and leadership techniques, felt that what the training provided in those years was a "restoration of the self": "I'm sort of a loner among my colleagues. The people I know have profited from it. I don't think it deserved the bad press it has gotten. Personally, I haven't met a person who has gone through it and not profited."

But Bennis adds that there were problems: "The bad part is the proselytizing, the phone calls you get, the language; there's something missing in the aesthetic of it. And another problem has been the dependence upon Werner himself. Which is not his problem. If you're in that kind of position, sometimes you get disciples as opposed to students."

"I have to say," adds Bennis, "that it's an incredible puzzle for me that he has acquired such a negative image among so many people. I detect a lot of hostility, and I don't understand it. A lot of my friends are Jewish, and I'm Jewish, and often they see est as a quick fix for making money from losers.

"But many of my colleagues who criticize Erhard have grown up in a deterministic environment. The world they know was created by Freud, Darwin and Marx -- all men who believed in limits. I think Erhard is talking from a different perspective, and sometimes that's threatening to people who are resigned to the death-on-the-installment plan."

The midafternoon light from a January sun reflected off the inlet water passed through the tinted office windows of Transformational Technologies and cast a weak glow on Werner Erhard's face. The light and the charcoal gray suit he wore and the cigar he lighted and relighted all suggested a portrait of an early-20th-century tycoon. There's something distinctly old-fashioned about the man, a white-buttoned-down-cloth-shirt conservatism that contrasts sharply with the image of a laid-back Marin County squire of the New Age.

"I made a very deliberate decision," Erhard was saying, "to structure the enterprise (the est training) as a business. From the beginning I was not interested in the awards of proprietorship. I was interested in the discipline of a business. If you've got the discipline of having to provide value in the marketplace for people's money, it's real hard to fool yourself for too long that what you're doing is valid. People will tell you it's valid. People who participate in the programs and the support and their willingness to exchange their money for that value is a very honest transaction.

"Now people are honestly going to conclude you're in it for the money. And I don't know how to stop them from that conclusion."

It's a curious thing about Erhard that no matter how many nonprofit organizations he creates and no matter how open he is about his personal mistakes -- running away from a wife and four children at the top of the list -- the cleaners still can't get all the spots out of his image.

He told this anecdote about an appearance on a TV talk show: "Charlie Rose, on NightWatch. The last question he asked me was, 'You made a lot of money, haven't you?' And he said something that said, 'You're lying to me.' And that was the end of the show. But when the camera stopped and the lights went out, I said to him, 'You're really thinking I'm not telling you the truth.' And he said, 'Sure, I don't think you're telling me the truth.' I said, 'Okay, I just wanted to be clear that what you were doing was not mere television, that you genuinely think I'm lying to you.' This is a guy that doesn't know me from Adam."

Ironically, Erhard thinks that he gets his best exposure from the electronic media --because that's where he can be seen unfiltered -- and yet one wonders whether he's aware of how he's perceived. "Larry's a tough interviewer," he says about a recent appearance on Mutual Broadcasting's The Larry King Show.

"It was very, very interesting. That was one of the best interviews I've ever done. I love that kind of conversation."

It was so good in Erhard's mind that his staff recently tried to get a return engagement. But, perhaps unbeknownst to Erhard, after the show King and the producer were shaking their heads. Pat Piper, King's producer, puts it this way: "After Erhard hard was on the show, Larry and I talked about it. He says things that sound terrific, but you don't know what the hell he's talking about."

"I made the mistake in the first five years of not translating what I was doing," explained Werner. "I would speak like I spoke in the training in an interview. That was a mistake. I would say that in the last 10 years I've learned a lot more about how to be effective with that. In the last five years, I think I have been more effective by explaining, by describing, by defining."

But having said that, he also admitted a more fundamental truth: "I am difficult to understand. But I know how to talk. I can talk like you're supposed to talk if what you want to do is to be understood. But I don't care about being understood when I'm working. I care about giving people access to the thing that concerns them, and not explanations or descriptive access but action access, being access . . .

"The rub is, if what you're trying to do is understand what I'm talking about and you listen to a conversation designed to give people access to what I'm talking about, it doesn't make sense when you're listening for an explanation, when you're listening for the description, when you're listening for understanding.

"If you understand how to ride a bicycle and you get on a bicycle, you fall off. The language that I use is designed to give people access to balancing on the bicycle, access to riding the bicycle -- not giving them access to understanding how to ride a bicycle. People don't pay me to go out on a clear understanding. When people pay their $ 525 for the Forum, they pay it to go out enabled, empowered."

Part of the reason Werner Erhard has problems communicating, at least with people who don't speak his language, is not only his jargon but the fact that he doesn't work out what he wants to say beforehand. He's an inventor, not a thinker. He's interested in coming up with new products, not in rehearsing what he'll say as a salesman at the door.

And he knows it: "That's how I work, in dialogue. I don't sit down and figure it out. That's not the way it comes. I do it in dialogue. I do it in action."

One can understand why people might dislike Erhard for what he says or the way he says it, but there seems to be a visceral dislike as well. "Have you ever noticed," remarks actor Nicholas Pryor, a regular on NBC's The Bronx Zoo and a Forum graduate, "that once in a while you'll be driving along and you pass alongside somebody, you look at him, and you think, What a creep! Well, here's this guy called Werner Erhard, with this high-school accent, and you don't understand him so you don't like it and you don't like him."

The irony is that Erhard has been so open about himself. Indeed, he has built a business on that openness. More than that, he says all the things about the importance of being open and accessible that you would expect from such a person.

"When you take responsibility for a mistake," he says, talking about Gary Hart's handling of public scrutiny, "there's a possibility beyond the mistake. When you hide the mistake, defend the mistake, you're stuck with the mistake. I'm a guy who's an expert in that field, both personally and in my work. Had I not woken up to who I had been being and been able to take a really honest look at myself, I could not have done the work I've done."

The most dramatic awakening took place on a midweek morning in March 1971 while Erhard was driving into San Francisco to his job as a division manager for the Grolier Society, a subsidiary of the Grolier Corporation. Somewhere on the road between Corte Madera and the Golden Gate Bridge, he had a revelation that led to a period of personal enlightenment.

In his 1978 biography, Werner Erhard, W. W. Bartley III quoted Erhard on what came from that revelation. A brief part of what he said was, "I had to 'clean up' my life. I had to acknowledge and correct the lies in my life. I saw that the lies that I told about others -- my wanting my family, or Ellen (his second wife), or anyone else, to be different from the way that they are -- came from lies that I told about myself -- my wanting to be different from the way that I was."

Erhard explained to me the difference between the way he thinks he is and the way he is perceived as the difference between an image and a reputation: "An image is built out of: I meet you. With me you've got a reputation. I tell Barbara about you. Barbara tells Bobbie about you, and with Bobbie you've got an image. No reputation. So I make the distinction between those who had their own access to a person and those who had an interpretation or an interpretation-of-an-interpretation access to a person. I would be very willing to stand or fall on my reputation. I've never been very good at shaping an image. In fact, I've been terrible."

He went on to talk about some of the stories that had grown out of that image: The stories that a company called Erhard Seminars Training owes more than $ 3.3 million in back taxes and penalties is true, but he points out that he never owned that company nor directed it. That the IRS has no claim against him or any of his companies.

On the subject of wealth, he claimed he was not a wealthy man. He owns two profit-making ventures: One is Transformational Technologies, of which he is the sole proprietor. The other profit-making venture is Werner Erhard and Associates, from which he received no money until last fall, when he began receiving $ 25,000 a month. He claimed he was not a millionaire, that the bulk of his wealth has been derived largely through the efforts of a skillful financial adviser.

Moreover, he took out a $ 15-million loan in 1982 to start WE&A. That, along with the other obligations, including the mortgage on his mother's house, add up to a sizable amount of liabilities. He admitted he has a "great income" but only to pay for all the liabilities.

As for his personal life, he has been married twice and has four children from his first marriage and three from his second. Both wives and his mother live in the Bay Area. His father died in 1973. He has been separated for five years from his second wife, Ellen, the woman for whom he left his first wife. It was Ellen, whose real name was June Bryde, who ran away with a man named Jack Frost on May 25, 1960.

"The divorce is not final," said Werner. "If you're talking about operationally, Ellen and I are divorced. If you're talking about a legal document, that has not been whatever they do to it . . . I guess, signed it." The divorce is expected to be finalized in the fall.

Has Werner Erhard become everything Jack Rosenberg ever wanted to be?

"It's really not, like, grounded that way," he said, retreating into his labyrinth of jargon and personal syntax. "Obviously, you have certain aspirations, or dreams, if you want, as a youngster, and my aspirations and dreams as a youngster were, as I recall them, materially different from my commitments of, say, the last 17 years. You know, for me there was a fundamental transformation, which means that I literally altered my system of values, my system of commitments, and I would say that there is a fulfilling of the values that I generated out of that transformation, albeit with mistakes and breakdowns."

At the end of the interview, Erhard was driven away by a chauffeur in a green Chrysler van with heavily tinted windows and a phone antenna. A secretary was barely visible in the rear seat. Werner sat up front.

The van was heading toward San Francisco, and as that was where I was going, I found myself following it. It was on the Golden Gate Bridge that I ended up almost alongside the van. Erhard was leaning back, his head against the headrest, looking off the west, away from the city, toward that spectacular view of the ocean and the last of the sun.

I had just a glimpse of the man as the van moved ahead in traffic, but there was the suggestion of a man in flight, not in the sense of fleeing something, but of simply moving above everything, removed from what he had created and involved in some personal odyssey.

Talking about destiny, which may one day become the theme of still another generation of his training, Werner commented: "It interests me whether a person is stuck with destiny that kind of got built up over time, as they were growing up, or whether they can really create and invent their own destiny, and what the interplay is between the two."

Perhaps the man's true dilemma is whether Jack could ever became Werner after all. The Guru's Reach

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