Encountering Werner Erhard

Washington Post/April 14, 1979

By Megan Rosenfeld

Torrents of words, cascades of clauses, sentences without ends springing up like dust devils, then settling and springing up again . . .Buckminster Fuller, 83, talks of alloys and Magellan and lawyers, and Werner Erhard, 42, talks about getting clear and taking responsibility and having a purpose in life . . .

Fuller, the indomitable inventor of the geodesic dome and all-purpose thinker, and Erhard, inventor of a self-help philosophy called est and ex-used car salesman, have teamed up for a six-hour audio-visual event to be held today at the Sheraton Park hotel.

In a joint interview yesterday they warmed up for the session, which will address the humble question: "Can an ordinary individual make difference in the world?"

Fuller tells you quite quickly that Erhard is donating all the proceeds from the $35-a-ticket event to his work, and that, no, he has not taken the est training."Werner said I probably went through my own sort of est 52 years ago. In 1927 I reorganized my life when I was 32 years of age, the year [his daughter] Allegra was born."

And what does Werner get out of it? Whoops, dumb question. "Ha!ha!" he laughs in two staccato bursts.

"I think he gets great joy," interrupts Fuller.

"The question," says Erhard, "already presupposes an answer that I would have to get something out of it in the ordinary sense of getting something out of it. In the context you're asking the question it's not possible to do something out of unmotivated behavior. So if I tell you I'm doing it because I'm doing it, you'd say THAT'S NONSENSE! But the fact of the matter is I don't expect anything out of it, or I expect to get myself out of it."

But. . . what's wrong with getting something out of something?

"I didn't say there was anything wrong with it. Those are your words. Megan, you're not getting it. If you're not getting it, you're not getting it."

Or, as Erhard's mother, Dorothy, was quoted in his biography after taking the training herself: "What is is; what ain't ain't."

Est, a two-day program that has now been taken by about 200,000 people, is aimed at "helping you take responsibility for your own life." It now costs $350, and its devotees sweat it has helped them to cope with their lives and aims more effectively. It is a synthesis of Erhard internal investigations of Dale Carnegie, Zen, Scientology, Gestalt, Encounter groups, Mind Dynamics, and his upbringing by a Jewish father who later turned Baptist and an Episcopalian mother. Or, as Erhard is quoted in a book titled "est - making life work":

"I had to separate the bull ---- from the gunsmoke."

Detractors think it's weird, another expensive mind-programming routine cashing in on the vulnerabilities of confused people and dosing them with a message that is a combination of gobbledygook and common sense. It has attracted its share of celebrities, and Fuller says that he checked out the financial side of the operation thoroughly before joining hands with Erhard, "It's anything but a cult," he says. "It's more a school."

Erhard, a lean, blue-eyed man with just a blush of tan, also has started The Hunger Project, which has enrolled about 350,000 volunteers dedicated to eradicating hunger from the plante by the year 2000. The project raises money to raise awareness of the plight of the hunger but does not spend money on food for starving people, an aspect that has prompted several journalistic exposes. But that is not the subject of today's discussion. There was a curious misprint in one of the press releases about today's event. People are not narcissistic, it said, rather they are affected with "a kind of social impudence."

"Social impotence," was the way the other notice put it.

"Maybe that's a Freudian typo," says Erhard, laughing. "It could mean thinking for yoursel, and- . . ."

And speaking up," interjects Fuller.

Fuller has never been one to hide his light under a bushel. The essence of his message - one hesitates to summarize what will be delivered in four hours of talk - is that man can make the world work, and he can prove it.

He met Erhard through his grandson, Jaime Snyder, who travels with him and works on the video aspects of the event.

There is something about Erhard that has attracted legions of hero-worshiping followers who speak about him as though he were some sort of deity.

He's a handsome, well-kept man who dresses casually in tan slacks, cardigan and a light blue shirt that accents his eyes.

In 1960, Erhard, who was then named Jack Rosenberg, left his wife and four children in Philadelphia and disappeared for 12 years, getting back into contact with his family only fater he had starred West in 1971.

According to the biography, his abrupt departure caused his family great pain and confusion. Now everyone in his immediate family has taken the "training" and some of them work for him.

After deserting his family and changing his name so his police captain uncle couldn't track him down, Erhard held a series of jobs. He sold encyclopedias for the Grolier Society Inc., and worked in perssonel for the Parents Magazine Cultural Institute. Meanwhile he began to dabble in various human-potential philosophies, and started developing est after he had a flash of insight while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge that his life had "stopped working."

Est sessions started in a friend's apartment in 1971 and grew to a multimillion dollar enterprise within four years. It headquarters is in San Francisco, with other offices in about a dozen other cities, including Washington.

Erhard today communcates a sense of serenity, and arrogance as well. His voice is well-modulated and pleasant; you get the sense he's said everything he's saying hundreds of times before.

In his introduction to the biography, he wrote that the quotation from the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard that author Bill Bartley used to open one chapter "seems to pierce to the heart of what happened (in his life)."

"What our age needs is education. And so this is what happened: God chose a man who also needed to be educated, and educated him privatissime, so he might be able to teach others from him own experience."

One of the mysterious things about est is that its graduates seem unable to describe just what the "training" is. It's an all-day, two-day process, which involves listening to lectures, "sharing" intimate experiences with 400 or so strangers, and other group-encounter techniques. It is not true, one graduate reports, that your are not allowed to go to the bathroom for eight hours. You are allowed to go after four hours.

In "est-making life work," the author describes his training. The first day ended at 3 a.m., he reports, and the next began at 9 a.m., with the trainer comparing the experience of life to "Grandma's Vermont Stew."

They were asked to "get in touch" with one item in the "stew." A body sensation, an emotion, an attitude toward life" were all possible stew ingredients. Then the trainees were told to "grab hold of the substance of the experience" and then take their "fingers off the repress button."

"I want to say something kind of personal," says Werner Erhard earnestly, "I think that the things that are worth telling people are difficult to tell them, the truth just doesn't work that way. . .

"A word that's synonymous with the truth is The Whole complete-the word completion. . ."

Fuller interrupts: "You know that wonderful quote, "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,' people don't really listen to it. . ."

"Yes," Erhard continues, "they want rules for life and rules and not the truth about life."

The public relations man keeps a beeper to signal that the interview is over. "I'll be finished in a minute, Vincent," Erhard says firmly.

"I want to be clear I'm not looking for agreement.Because the truth has its own potency."

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