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[This is the second of two parts. Click here to read part one.
Also Related: Family Affairs: Werner Erhard’s Daughters Speak Out]
By Nikki Meredith
Some former employees say Werner Erhard & Associates operated more like a cult than the educational enterprise it claims to be.
Safe Space: A place to call home — Werner Gerhard’s million-dollar yacht in Sausalito. A former staffer reports having to clean the bilge with a toothpaste and Q-tips.
THEY ARE entrepreneurial types in business suits who spend their days promoting corporate and personal effectiveness, talk about breaking out of paradigms and have a penchant for marathon conference calls. But some former employees say Werner Erhard & Associates (WE&A) operates more like a cult than the educational enterprise it claims to be.
Since the term “cult” is often applied to cloistered groups with chanting, blissed-out acolytes in saffron robes, it seems a bit of a reach. Descriptions of WE&A seminars, symposiums and networks are decidedly unspiritual, while their hardball sales tactics are reminiscent of encyclopedia peddlers.
Whether or not the organization qualifies as a cult, many former staff members and volunteers contend that Erhard’s enterprise is totalitarian in nature and exploits people in the name of personal and global transformation.
“It had a humane facade while it was a highly abusive place,” says one former executive.
Those who are now disenchanted say the experiences that hooked them in the first place, while initially liberating and “transforming,” became emotionally crippling. The principles were extremely valuable,” says Kassy Adams of Novato, a former staff member who worked as a volunteer and a paid staff member in both Michigan and California, “but the organization took the work and bastardized it.”
The Work, which refers to Erhard’s teachings, includes two key ingredients: one, the need to break through to new possibilities by shedding self-imposed limits; two, the importance of making commitments. In Wernerspeak, the former has to do with effectiveness and productivity; the latter concerns a concept they term “living your word.” According to people who have worked for Erhard’s organizations, both are used to bully people into devoting an inordinate amount of time and energy to his enterprises.
“They say, the only way your life is going to work, is to give your word,” says Carol Giambalvo, of Oceanside, N.Y., a volunteer with the Hunger Project for five years, who worked more than 80 hours a week. “Then they say you’ve got to give whatever it takes, no matter how many hours it takes – 24 people are dying of hunger every minute and you’re letting it happen.”
Giambalvo, who is now the national coordinator for FOCUS, a support group for former cult members, left the Hunger Project after she and her husband could no longer tolerate the organization’s practices. They say the program was used to spread “Werner’s message” rather than as a genuine effort to resolve the complex issues of hunger.
Kassy Adams experienced the same kind of pressure in working for WE&A. She was responsible for getting people already enrolled in programs to follow through.
“Every morning I went into work, they would ask me how many people I could contact that day,” she says. “I would calculate, given the number of hours in the day, what was possible. They would say ‘That’s insufficient.’ So they would ‘process me,’ scream at me, intimidate me until I increased my promise, but it would be impossible to keep, so then they would berate me for not keeping my word.”
Keeping your word was used as a rationale to intrude into almost every aspect of people’s lives. Staff members were expected to be available to Erhard 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Stu Ludlow, of Novato, who worked in various staff training, recruitment and personnel positions for est and then for WE&A.
It wasn’t enough to just put in the hours — one had to get results, Ludlow says. If, at the end of a 13-hour day, a staff member hadn’t met his “production promise” (producing a specified number of enrollments), he often couldn’t go home until he had. Comings and goings were monitored, and staff had to sign out even to go to the bathroom.
If a person asked for a day off, even after working many consecutive days, Ludlow says the response would be: “What are you committed to? Are you committed to relaxing, to luxury. or are you committed to Werner’s work and keeping your word?”
People who didn’t keep their word were berated and screamed at, says Keith Torgan who worked for est in New York for three years. He says his first exposure to the organization’s management style occurred one evening when a manager let out a violent scream after a group of volunteers working the phones failed to meet their target number of enrollments.
According to Ludlow these incidents reflected a pattern of abuse that started at the top and cascaded down through all levels of the organization and often included threats.
He remembers a manager once banging the phone down hard on his desk and then saying, “Did you hear that? I wish it was your head.”
Others talk about having objects like pens or stacks of enrollment cards thrown at them when they weren’t “living their word.”
Not living one’s word led to being “out of integrity” — issues in the integrity category included not only keeping one’s word to recruit as many people as one said, but involved details of a worker’s personal life. Kassy Adams says she was given an “integrity check list” which made her promise, among other things, to balance her check book, pay her bills on time, keep her car cleaned and straighten her drawers.
Part of being “in integrity” was acknowledging that you were responsible for everything that happened to you. Adams recalls that, at first, this idea was appealing because for the first time people stopped blaming circumstances for their problems. “They started to feel they truly had choices.” But the number of areas that a worker had to assume responsibility for were infinite.
Torgan remembers a time when he was quite ill and unable to work. He was required to call in every day and talk to “consulting services” where he would have to review the moment he got sick, the choices he made that resulted in his getting sick and to answer the question, “Are you willing to be well yet?”
“Consulting services” were set up for the purpose of “clearing one’s head.” But according to Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe, the utilization of consulting services within WE&A serves a similar function as the practice of “security checking” in Scientology. “The purpose of these practices is to identify persons who have thoughts that are critical of the organization or its leader.”
“These consultants were sort of analyst-priests hearing confessions,” says one man who worked on Erhard’s personal staff.
“What you said was supposed to be confidential, but there were things that I talked about that got to me from other people.”
Throwing objects, screaming insults and hounding all led to a phenomenon known within the organization as “bolting.” When someone bolted, he wasn’t just leaving for the day — he was leaving for life, hoping never to be found, says Ludlow. “One woman signed out to go to the dentist and left the state,” he says. “That sort of thing was not at all unusual.”
Given the working conditions what’s amazing is not that people bolted but that they stayed at all.
“Fear was used as a tool,” says one former est trainer. “People were told if they left the organization, they would lose ‘it.'” “It” referred to a mysterious essence of Erhard enlightenment.
Those who worked for Erhard for a number of years also say that the experience of being in the organization eroded their common sense and made them distrust their “normal” reactions.
A cornerstone of Erhard’s ideology is that people are enslaved by their past experiences, condemned to a lifetime of self-defeating constraints. Est and the Forum encouraged people to throw off these shackles and begin anew. This often produced a powerful feeling of renewal and rebirth.
But it also meant that people no longer had any internal which to judge situations. All they had were the dictates of the organization. “Since it was all the things in the past that made you unhappy, the organization assaulted your prior belief systems and moral judgments,” says Carol Giambalvo.
“When my manager called me a f—— idiot because I didn’t have a banner ready for an event, it never occurred to me to protest,” she says.
“Now I think, ‘I was devoting my whole life to that organization. I didn’t deserve to be treated that way.’ But at the time, I thought she was right. I hadn’t kept my word.”
People also say that there was no way to share their concerns with peers in the organization because there were both explicit and implicit sanctions against complaining. Employees and volunteers had to sign a document promising that they wouldn’t gossip or “natter” and they would take complaints they had to superiors (or consulting services) not to peers.
The warning not to complain was taken very seriously. “If people tried to complain to friends, they would be chilled out.” says Wendy Drucker of San Anselmo, who served on the volunteer staff. “I chilled people out too. Being critical was not acceptable behavior.”
When the Forum was launched in 1985, Steven Hassan, of Boston, the author of the book Cult Mind Control (Park Street Press. 1988), attended a lecture Erhard gave in Boston to promote the new program. Hassan, a former member of Rev. Moon’s Unification Church and a deprogrammer, went with a friend who was also a former Moonie. Both were awed by Erhard’s persuasive powers and the effectiveness of his do-you-really-want-to-close-the-door-on your-own-possibilities challenge to the audience.
They were also amazed at how tenacious the staff was in their attempts to enroll people in the Forum. “As soon as I indicated I wasn’t interested, they started in on me,” says Hassan. “How is your relationship with your wife? Don’t you want to improve it? How about your mother? Your father? How’s your work going? Don’t you want to do better at work?
“What is it about you that you’re not open to the possibility of growth? Is your mind closed?” If I didn’t have the background I had, I’m sure I would have signed up.” he says.
Later that evening, after everyone had left the meeting but Erhard’s devotees, Hassan and his friend hid in the back and listened to Erhard address his followers. “The speech was right out of the Moonies. He didn’t talk specifically about God the way they do, but the flavor was exactly the same. I said to my friend “Holy Mackerel, he really does believe he’s the Messiah.”
WE&A IN TROUBLE: REASONS FOR THE HARD SELL
When Werner Erhard retired est in 1985, the reason given was that “the training got its work done” and it was time to do something new.
The something new was the Forum.
The Forum turned out to be a kinder, gentler version of est, a marketing strategy critics say was inspired by waning est enrollments.
Apparently, the new incarnation didn’t prove to be the hoped-for draw. According to Stu Ludlow, who was involved in recruitments for both est and the Forum during his seven year tenure, when he left the organization in 1987 the Forum was only getting about 200 enrollments a week.
In comparison, about 1,000 people took the $450 est training each week at its peak.
One of the responses to the Forum’s poor showing was an escalation of the hard sell.
The company does no advertising and relies on word-of-mouth to get people to guest lectures. Typically est and Forum graduates invite friends to attend a special evening,” sometimes telling them it’s connected to Werner Erhard, sometimes not.
The last part of the guest lecture is devoted to getting people to sign up for the Forum — which now costs $625 for the two weekend course — and that’s when the pressure starts.
“If a guy said he couldn’t sign up because he didn’t have his checkbook, we’d follow him home — even if it was midnight,” recall Ludlow. “If he said he didn’t have enough money in his checking account, we’d say we’d take Visa, Mastercard or American Express. If he said he didn’t have enough margin on his credit cards, we would turn to the friend who brought him and say, “Well, you don’t mind lending him the money do you?”
The same kind of pressure was used on people who enrolled for other kinds of seminars after they had “graduated” from the Forum.
“If people decided not to take any more seminars, we were told to do anything to talk them back into the program,” says Ludlow. “We called and called. If they hung up, we’d call back. Sometimes they’d get angry but we’d call back anyway. We were told to keep trying up to the time they mentioned the police or the Better Business Bureau and then we were to back off.”
The hard sell may not be paying off. According to inside sources enrollments for the Forum are dwindling and the organization is in financial trouble.
THE FORUM: DOES IT WORK?
What the Forum seminar offers, Werner Erhard has said, is a “new possibility of living.”
“The Forum gives you the key to shaping action, performance and results. Here you find the actual source of ability, competence and productivity,” claims one of the brochures.
However, research published in 1989 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology demonstrated “a lack of substantial positive effects” for people who take the course.
Between 1986 and 1988, a team of research psychologists headed by Jeffrey Fisher of the University of Connecticut administered detailed questionnaires to 135 participants four to six weeks before they took the Forum; four to six weeks after; and one and a half years later. The researchers administered similar questionnaires to a control group.
Forum outcome was evaluated on several dimensions including perceived power life satisfaction, daily life, social functioning, positive and negative feelings, self esteem and physical health.
The short-term outcome analyses revealed only one difference: Forum participants perceived that they had more control over their lives after the course. But even this difference disappeared after a year and a half.
Researchers concluded, “The more rigorous analyses revealed no demonstrable long-term beneficial or harmful psychological effects of participation in the Forum.”
Interestingly, one of Erhard’s non-profit foundations funded the study. But, by prior agreement, Erhard’s organization had no control over the results.
Continue reading “Family Affairs: Werner Gerhard’s Daughters Speak Out“…