Family Affairs: Werner Erhard’s Daughters Speak Out

Marin Independent Journal
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[Related: Werner, dearest (part one) & Werner, dearest (part two)]

By Nikki Meredith

“We were petrified of (our father). It was the kind of fear that you feel in your stomach. The only way I can describe it is to say that it’s the feeling that you might lose your life.”

Adair and Celeste say they feel an obligation to themselves and to the public to tell the truth.

On June 17 and 18, 1990, the Marin Independent Journal published a two-part series on est founder Werner Erhard, detailing the dissatisfactions and defections of former staff members and volunteers in his various programs. Many of these people claimed that Wermer Erhard & Associates (now the name of his primary enterprise) operates more like a cult than the educational operation it claims to be.

In connection with a lawsuit brought by a former employee, several people filed court declarations accusing Erhard and his organization of abusing them emotionally and physically.

Although Erhard refused to be interviewed for the article, he paid for a full page ad in the IJ, refuting the claims.

Since then, an increasing number of former associates have made their disillusionment public, and the Erhard story has been or will be taken up by other publications. A crew from “60 Minutes recently was in the Bay Area” interviewing and filming many of those with ties to Erhard.

Now two of his daughter’s, Celeste and Adair, have come forth to give a candid view of Erhard as father and husband.

Werner Erhard refused to be interviewed for this article also.


CELESTE AND ADAIR Erhard say it is still a vivid memory, a nightmare that haunts their adult lives and, in many ways characterizes their childhood.

The year is 1977 and the occasion is a dinner at Franklin House, the Pacific Heights mansion their father, Werner Erhard, then owned. Celeste is 14, Adair is 13, their brother, St. John, is nine. Their mother, Ellen Erhard, is lying in a fetal position on the floor. She has been knocked out of her chair. One of their father’s staff members pulls her hair, another kicks her. Erhard, his own hands unsullied, watches while his devotees brutalize her. The purpose is to get her to confess to an infidelity he suspects.

She does not confess and the violence escalates the following night. Celeste and Adair, their presence mandatory, watch while one of Erhard’s “lieutenants” chokes their mother. They watch as her face turns blue and her eyes bulge. Celeste screams for him to stop.

This might seem like a bad dream if it wasn’t for the fact that the man who did the choking says it wasn’t a dream. Bob Larzelere says he felt Ellen Erhard’s body go limp as he cut off the air to her windpipe. “I knew then that I would do anything that Werner asked, I would do anything for his love and approval,” says the former physician who worked in the upper echelon of Erhard’s organization. “This was how low I had sunk in terms of giving Werner my power.”

To understand how this could happen and why Werner Erhard’s daughters are now willing to talk about it, it’s important to understand the nature of this family.

While Erhard presented himself as the embodiment of love to the world (“I love you” was his routine sign-off, whether it was in a staff memo or to an audience of hundreds) and offered courses on relationships and communication, he expressed no such love within his own family, say his daughters. (As part of her divorce agreement from Werner, Ellen Erhard is not free to talk about her marriage. Celeste and Adair, however, were interviewed by the Independent Journal in early December.)

“Our relationship with our father was based on fear,” says Adair, who is now 26. “We were petrified of him. It was the kind of fear that you feel in your stomach. The only way I can describe it is to say that it’s the feeling that you might lose your life.”

“Any good memory I might have of my father,” says Celeste, 28, “is completely overshadowed by fear.”

They recall no semblance of a normal family life. They and their brother lived in San Rafael with their mother while their father lived at Franklin House.

“He didn’t know us at all,” says Adair, “he’d even forget our names.”

Much of their interaction with their father took place at scheduled meetings where agendas, reports and time sheets — the various ways he and his staff kept track of the children’s activities– were reviewed.

They do not remember a single pleasurable family event — no dinners at home, no days at the beach, no family picnics. The one exception was a football game that they say was staged for photos for a book about their father.

‘We were puppets’

What they do remember is being treated like props in their father’s life. “We were puppets, used to promote his image,” says Celeste.

(According to Adair, a recent example of this was her father’s request, that she “drop in” for a visit on his yacht in Sausalito while he was being interviewed by Jesse Kornbluth, a writer from Vanity Fair. “I would never drop in to see my father, that’s not the kind of relationship we ever had. But he wanted to make it look like a normal family.”)

Most of their contact with their father took place at monthly “family” meetings at Franklin House which also included staff members. It was at such a meeting that their mother was brutalized.

They say it started out the way most of them did: Dinner was prepared by Erhard’s chef and served by his assistants — volunteers who worked for Erhard’s organization. Celeste and Adair say their four half-siblings were there, their father’s brother, Harry Rosenberg, and several Erhard staff members.

“At those meetings we would go around the room and each of us would have to say something about our lives, sort of like a big encounter group,” says Adair. “That night, after dinner, when it got to the talking part, Dad accused Mom of having an affair and asked, ‘What are you withholding?’ (According to Adair, Erhard had a special category called “perpetrations and withholds.” Infidelity came under this category — other people’s infidelity, that is. Although Erhard’s own infidelity is discussed in court documents filed by former staff members, it was never a topic that was open for group discussion.)

“He accused her of undermining him, of gathering allies against him.” says Adair.

A matter of control

“He wanted her to surrender to him, to commit herself to him completely,” says Celeste. “But she never completely surrendered. She kept back something of herself and he couldn’t tolerate it.

“He was a control god, a total control monster,” says Celeste. Adair and Celeste say that when their mother didn’t respond, Harry Rosenberg pushed her off her chair “It wasn’t that my father said directly, ‘hit her,’ says Celeste, “it was more like, ‘handle this Harry.'”

(Rosenberg, through Erhard’s media representative Bill Barnes, declined to comment on these allegations.)

At this point, they recall their older half-sister, Clare, saying, “Please stop doing this,” and their father saying something like, “Shut up or the same thing will happen to you.”

With Ellen lying on the floor, curled into a ball, they remember Gonneke Spits, one of Erhard’s closest aides, pulling her hair.

(Spits also declined, through Barnes, to comment on these allegations.)

Adair and Celeste then remember another aide, Raz Ingrasci, kicking and smacking their mother.

(When contacted, Ingrasci, who left the organization eight years ago, denied ever hurting Ellen Erhard, but said, “It is unfortunately true that I witnessed things that I am ashamed of and it is also true that I was treated in ways that I am ashamed of, but I never hurt anybody, I never kicked anyone.”)

That night, Ellen stayed at Franklin House while the children were brought back to their home in San Rafael by an Erhard appointed female “guardian.”

The second night the guardian drove them back to Franklin House. They were ushered into the same room where they had dined the previous night, but this time the chairs were set in a circle, encounter-group style. Once again Ellen Erhard was pushed out of her chair. “Dad made her get down on her knees and he yelled at her to stop withholding,” says Celeste.

Then Bob Larzelere started to strangle her. Clare tried to hide St. John’s eyes.

“I was in shock,” says Celeste, “I screamed, ‘Stop it, you’re going to kill her.’ I remember my father saying, ‘Sit down or you’re going to get it.'”

He wanted volunteers

Larzelere doesn’t recall the exact words Erhard used but he does remember, in essence, how he came to choke Ellen. “Werner was accusing her of infidelity, and he wanted somebody other than himself to make her tell the truth. Werner didn’t ask me to hurt Ellen, he asked for volunteers. I was acting as his lieutenant. That’s what Werner did, he got other people to do his dirty work so his hands would be clean.

“When I volunteered, there wasn’t any question about what I was going to do. The idea was to choke her until she told the truth. I knew I wasn’t going to permanently damage her, the idea was to scare her, but it was unbelievably scary. Usually, people whose breath is cut off struggle, but she didn’t. She sort of fainted and collapsed to the floor.”

Larzelere says it is frightening to him that no adult present, including Erhard, at any point, told him to stop. Presumably, I could have killed her, and no one would have intervened.

“What I did to Ellen was such a horrible thing. Werner didn’t make me do it, it was my choice and I wasn’t able to forgive myself for a long time. I’m incredibly ashamed of what I did, but I wasn’t the only person who gave up my power to Werner.”

“I was numb for two or three days, and then it finally dawned on me to ask the question, ‘How did I get to the place where I could do such a thing?’

“I allowed myself to do things I would never do now or would never have done before.”

(According to Berkeley sociologist Richard Offshe, leaders of cults or “high control” organizations are able to get otherwise law-abiding individuals to perform violent acts because they have established a morality that is higher and more powerful than secular law. “These people still know what’s right in the secular world, but it doesn’t stop them from responding to the special world in which they are enmeshed.”)

Although Larzelere saw Ellen Erhard after that incident, he doesn’t recall ever talking to her directly about it. “I think Ellen and I both had an understanding that we were both powerless. We shared a mutual powerlessness.”

Larzelere says the way Erhard treated Ellen was a reflection of the chauvinistic tenor of the organization, although the public stance was egalitarian. “The organization was all masculine energy — even the women trainers were macho women. There was little respect for women. The feminine side of human experience, like love, like compassion, was not important. What motivated people was fear, fear of punishment and fear of losing Werner’s approval.”

For him, the night he choked Ellen was the beginning of a drawn-out decision to leave Erhard and, in 1979, he finally did.

Two-year separation

The night of the choking incident, Erhard told Celeste and Adair that their mother would no longer be living with them because she could no longer “trust herself to tell the truth.” They aren’t sure of the exact dates, but they believe they were separated from their mother for two years while the “guardian” took care of them.

During this period, Adair and Celeste recall, their mother was put on what sounds like a Stepford Wives inspired “rehabilitation” program. Erhard appointed someone to be with her at all times. Her weight was watched, her “withholds” monitored and her contact with her children restricted. She was not allowed to have money or to drive a car. Part of her rehabilitation was to be the family maid.

“I came home from school one day, and Mom was scrubbing the kitchen floor,” says Celeste. “I said ‘Hi, Mom,’ but she didn’t look up, she just kept scrubbing. The guardian said, ‘Your mother is not allowed to talk to you.'”

Why did her mother submit to this treatment? “She was typical of abused wives,” says Adair. “She didn’t feel that she had a choice.”

“She was brainwashed,” says Celeste, “and so were we. Most of the time, we felt like he was right and we were crazy.”

Celeste and Adair say there was never anyone they trusted when they were growing up because they believed that everything always got back to their father. “We were even afraid to tell Mom because he could always beat the information out of her,” says Celeste.

Using E meters

Their lives were managed by Erhard’s staff. If it was ever suspected that they were lying, they were forced to take a type of “lie detector” test. The device used is made from a tin can and is called an E meter. It originated with the Scientology movement, and is said to measure an individual’s true emotional reactions.

“At the time, I don’t think we realized how crazy our lives were,” says Celeste. “After all, it was normal for us.”

Celeste and Adair both admit to having had emotional problems for which they have sought therapy. Adair, who was divorced last year, now lives in Novato with her mother and her 15-month-old daughter and is learning to be a personal fitness trainer. Celeste is married and working in a clothing store in San Rafael. They say their brother, who is married, lives in Marin and works at a lumber company.

One of their motivations for seeking help has been to ensure that they don’t repeat the abusive patterns established by their father. As part of that goal, both have tried to get him acknowledge the ways he mistreated them and their mother. “I confronted him about a year ago,” says Celeste. “I wanted him to admit that he had affairs, that he physically and emotionally abused our mother and emotionally abused us.

“His reply was ‘How could I emotionally abuse you, I wasn’t even there?’ I said, ‘Dad, you have an awful long reach.'”

Adair says after she finished college, he went to see him to talk about what he had done to their mother, “He said what happened to her was a nurturing experience.”

For Celeste, his refusal to acknowledge what he did was instrumental in her decision to go public with her story. “He would have had to do so little. Any little gesture would have been enough.”

“We’re never going to be his daughters,” says Adair. “I finally had to admit that to myself.”

Given that, they say they feel an obligation to themselves and to the public to tell the truth.

Because he has presented himself to the world as a great humanitarian and an expert on human relations and because he made a of profit from this “perpetration,” they feel people have a right to know who Werner Erhard really is.

“I think public figures have a responsibility to be who they say they are and he isn’t,” says Celeste. “I’m not after revenge, just exposure.

“I won’t lie for him anymore. I’m not going to embellish his image or keep his secrets any more.”

“His whole way of living is a farce,” says Adair. “My Dad did this damage and now he has to take responsibility for it.”

Both Celeste and Adair say that telling the truth about their father is “a purge, a cleansing.”

“This is not about getting him, this is about ending something for ourselves,” says Celeste.

In talking about the fear Celeste and Adair grew up with, Bob Larzelere says, “We were all frightened but the difference is that those kids didn’t have any choice about whether to be there. The rest of us did.”



Werner Erhard under siege is not new.

Since the early 1970s, the “King of Transformation” has been the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper articles, much of it criticizing his simplistic answers to complex human problems, his lavish lifestyle and questionable tax practices.

But accusations in a recent barrage of media attention have been much more serious.

In the Marin Independent Journal’s two part series in June, former devotees described Werner Erhard as an authoritarian figure who presided over an organization that had many characteristics of a cult.

They said he was considered god-like and referred to as “Source” and that he required a pledge of eternal servitude from those who became trainers within the organization.

One man talked of being hit by Erhard while many others talked about verbal assaults by Erhard and others in the organization. In a paid advertisement that he subsequently placed in the IJ, Erhard countered that hundreds of current and former employees deny the accusations of abuse. The ad included a statement by a Catholic priest disputing the claim that Erhard wanted to appear god-like.

In November, San Francisco Focus Magazine printed an article which centered on Erhard’s failed attempts to win acceptance by San Francisco’s high society. It also included accusations of abusive employee practices. In response, “friends of Werner Erhard& Associates” placed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle maintaining that the Focus article’s characterization of company treatment of employees was false.

In November, West, the San Jose Mercury News Sunday magazine, published a two-part article which included interviews alleging that Erhard forced his wife to participate in group sex and also that he generally mistreated his family.

The CBS program, “60 Minutes” plans to air a segment later this month which, reportedly, takes a critical look at the man, his personal relationships and his enterprises.

The story of how Erhard has transformed himself again and again has become a familiar New Age legend: He was once a car salesman named Jack Rosenberg who lived in Philadelphia with a wife and four children. In 1960 he deserted that family and ran away to California with a woman named June Bryde. He changed his name to Werner Hans Erhard and she changed hers to Ellen Erhard. (Somewhere along the line he has also called himself Jack Frost as well as Kurt Von Savage.) Werner and Ellen had three children: Celeste, Adair and St. John.

In California, Erhard sold encyclopedias, got “enlightened” and then in 1971, founded est (Erhard Seminar Training) — self-improvement seminars that combined a variety of teachings including Scientology, Mind Dynamics, Dale Carnegie and Zen.

The original est organization has had several transformations of its own, one of them occurring in 1985 when, in response to declining enrollments he abandoned est and created the Forum. It was hoped that the Forum, a watered down version of est that stresses personal effectiveness over enlightenment, would be more attractive in the success-driven ’80s. But enrollments in the program have continued to decline. Erhard has also established various other profit and non-profit enterprises.

Meanwhile, relationships in his personal life continued to reconfigure. In 1973, he reconciled with his first family and hired his first wife as his employee.

Ellen and Werner separated in 1982, but the bitter divorce did not become final until 1988. One of the conditions of the divorce agreement was that Ellen not discuss their marriage. According to Adair Erhard, her mother was willing to agree to keep silent because she was so eager to resolve the situation.



Charlene Afremow first met Werner Erhard in 1971 when she was involved with Mind Dynamics — one of the earliest enlightenment en masse programs in the Bay Area.

Erhard took a Mind Dynamics course and soon was leading seminars himself.

Later that year, Erhard founded Erhard Seminar Training, more commonly known as est. In 1975, he hired Afremow who became an est trainer and then a leader of the Forum, a subsequent version of est.

To become an est trainer, Afremow had to promise that she would work for Erhard “forever.” Although she believed her relationship with Erhard and the organization was everlasting, she was fired in 1988.

On Dec. 22, 1988, she filed a $2 million wrongful termination lawsuit against the organization.

“Charlene was fired because she openly challenged policies that she felt were exploitive and detrimental to the health and well being of the staff,” says her attorney, Andrew Wilson.

In court affidavits Afremow, 54, claims that the work and travel schedules were exhausting, and, as a result, in the beginning of 1988, many members of the staff were getting ill. She also says she and other women staff members had complained about the fact that women were not promoted to executive positions within the organization.

On April 28, 1988, at a Forum Leaders meeting, Afremow raised the issue of demanding schedules. She said she wouldn’t continue following policies that were harmful to the well-being of staff and wouldn’t support other people following them either. She was fired by Steve Zaffron, the head of the Forum leaders, at that meeting.

“At the time of that meeting, Charlene had worked more than 12 hours a day for 25 consecutive days,” says Wilson. “In essence she was fired because she was saying you’ve got to stop working us so hard that we can’t do our jobs right.”

Werner Erhard & Associates, through its media consultant, refused to comment on the case, but in court affidavits the organization claims that Afremow provoked her own firing, had a volatile temper, used abusive language and needed “rehabilitative counseling.”

In addition to wrongful termination, Afremow is also claiming age and sex discrimination and the intentional infliction of emotional stress. The trial is set for Oct. 9.



Werner Erhard under siege is not new. Since beginning his reign as the king of personal transformation in the early 1970s, his entrepreneurial packaging of New Age philosophies has been criticized.

The first mind-altering program Erhard developed, est, was a combination of a variety of teachings including Scientology, Mind Dynamics, Dale Carnegie and Zen.

It promoted the ideas, among others, that we are all responsible for our own experiences and human beings are entities separate from their thoughts, beliefs and emotions.

In 1985, he abandoned est which was suffering from declining enrollment and created the Forum, a watered-down version that stressed personal effectiveness over personal enlightenment.

The sessions of both est and the Forum often produced strong emotional reactions, and Erhard has been frequently assailed by some mental health professionals who believe his programs apply manipulative techniques that, at best, produce intense, peak experiences with no lasting gains and, at worst, psychotic episodes.

As a result, several law suits have been brought against him alleging such things as emotional harm from “educational” programs. Erhard has denied any connection between his courses and emotional or psychological damage. To date, these cases have been settled out of court.

For years, the press delighted in recounting Erhard’s earlier life as Jack Rosenberg, used car salesman who abandoned a wife and four children for another woman. Then his second wife sued for divorce. Before the case was settled, Ellen Erhard told the media that “Werner’s ego and public image are the most important thing in the world to him.”

For the last 15 years, his lifestyle — the enormous motor yacht he lives on in Sausalito, the fine wines, the Cuban cigars, the collections of art and Japanese antiquities — have reinforced the belief that he has already amassed a personal fortune while claiming that he hasn’t.

(At the time of his second divorce, Ellen Erhard’s lawyer, Verna Adams, was quoted as saying, “I’d like to buy Werner for what he says he’s worth and sell him for what I think he’s worth.”)

In 1985, Forbes magazine published an article suggesting that Erhard’s for-profit “educational” enterprises were employing questionable tax schemes and that his non-profit endeavors, like the Hunger Project with its end-hunger-in-this-century promise, were long on grandiosity and short on accomplishments.

Between 1971 and 1979, the companies that preceded Werner Erhard & Associates – first Erhard Seminar Training which became est, “an educational corporation” — depreciated what they called the “body of knowledge” in their corporate tax returns.

The IRS reportedly found the write-off excessive. Erhard’s lawyers took the IRS to court. A spokesperson for the company says the case is still pending.

Return to the original article: Werner, dearest (part one)