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[This is part one of two parts. Click here to read part two.
Also Related: Family Affairs: Werner Erhard’s Daughters Speak Out]
By Nikki Meredith
Many idolized the est guru, but did he mistreat them?
Werner Erhard got rich from a two-weekend pop psychology course known as est. Now some former followers are saying they’re getting it at last: the emperor has no clothes.
TO SOME people, Werner Erhard was always a bit of a cosmic joke.
It was amusing that educated adults flocked to a program called est where they paid substantial sums of money to sit interminably in uncomfortable chairs in hotel ballrooms, where they were told their lives didn’t work and, what’s more, they couldn’t use the bathroom until their “trainer” said they could.
It was amusing that educated adults would pay money to enroll in a campaign that promised to end world hunger in this century just by thinking about it…
It was amusing that esteemed philosophers and scientists revered a former used car salesman who got enlightenment in his wife’s Ford Mustang somewhere between Corte Madera and the Golden Gate Bridge…
But Werner Erhard doesn’t seem so amusing anymore.
Picture the king of personal transformation, a man who has been described as “radiating a power of love,” getting up close to a man’s face and screaming that he is not just worthless but a worthless piece of excrement.
Picture the international expert on employee management shoving his own employee in anger because he didn’t massage him correctly.
Picture the promoter of freedom from self-imposed limits demanding that employees pledge eternal subordination to him, Werner Erhard, otherwise known as “Source.”
These accusations and more have surfaced in recent months because a Warner Erhard & Associates (WE&A) executive fired a popular employee in April 1988. Since then, the employee, Charlene Afremow, has filed a wrongful termination suit (see below) that has prompted several other former employees and volunteer staff to speak out against the organization and, in some cases, sign court affidavits alleging mistreatment by Erhard.
WE&A has responded to the attacks by issuing a statement denying the accusations, maintaining they were made by a few disgruntled employees. According to the organization, “virtually all” of the thousands of employees who have worked for Erhard’s various enterprises have been satisfied with their employment.
The intensity of the anger felt by those who are not satisfied is equally matched by the intensity of the attraction they once felt for Erhard. Not only were his courses — est (Erhard Seminar Training) and then later the Forum — emotionally powerful, he was personally charismatic and produced a never-ending supply of “break-through ideas” that had, they believed, international significance.
“We felt like we were on the cutting edge,” says Becky Carter, a former staff volunteer whose husband, Landon, was an est trainer. “We believed we were a part of something important in our time.”
Indeed, Erhard arranged symposiums with world-class philosophers, scientists and writers and he attracted an array of politicians and entertainers. Valerie Harper called him “the most extraordinary man I know”; Raul Julia said Erhard had “found out what it takes to make a life work”; John Denver said “Werner epitomizes for me what it is to be a human being.”
“He encouraged us to think as big as we could. He asked us to commit as much as possible to go for everything, not just what we thought was possible,” says Wendy Drucker of San Anselmo, a former volunteer and wife of one of Erhard’s top ex-ecutives during the ’70s.
Erhard’s employees and volunteers became committed to extending this high-on-life-and-human-possibility to the whole world. “Werner can make a difference on the planet” became the refrain.
The staff devoted their lives to implementing Erhard’s vision. In addition to leading courses, they produced events and relentlessly recruited people for Erhard’s various programs. They even provided Erhard with personal care.
“I felt like it was an opportunity to work for someone who was like a Zen master.” says “Drew,” a Marin County man who asked that his real name not be used because he is now embarrassed about the kind of treatment he tolerated from Erhard.
Once people got immersed in the organization, however, they found the Zen master was also a formidable taskmaster.
According to court affidavits, they worked extraordinarily long hours — paid staff were expected to 12 hours a day, six days a week although most people interviewed for this article say they typically worked much more than that; volunteers report working between 40 hours and 80 hours a week.
Many of those hours were spent “getting things right for Werner,” as described by insiders.
His fanatic perfectionism was applied to everything from arranging furniture for a event to lining up the toiletries in his bathroom.
This side of his personality was no secret. In Erhard’s authorized biography, “The Transformation of a Man,” by W. W. Bartley (Clarkson N. Potter Inc., New York, 1978) Randy McNamara, a senior employee who still works for the organization, gave an example of his employer’s exactitude when he described how Erhard insisted the 60 pillows in a meeting room be placed:
“Each pillow had an exact place in the room. A pillow could not be off by two inches. And it wasn’t legitimate to ask what two inches mattered to a pillow. You got to be enlightened from Werner’s handling of pillows: you either did it exactly right or you didn’t get to assist Werner with the pillows anymore.”
Into the closet
Kassy Adams, a Novato woman who worked for Erhard in the mid-80s, got a taste of his compulsiveness when she worked on a team of 30 assistants involved in overseeing his “closet” — actually a section of aSausalito warehouse.
She was given a manual on how to iron his clothes and was instructed on how to maintain the order of his shirts which were cataloged, by label, color and where acquired.
“There was a tracking system so if there was a flaw of any kind like a button missing or a thread hanging, it could be determined who last handled it, whose responsibility it was.”
Adams was also instructed on how to polish and align his more than 150 pairs of shoes.
When tasks didn’t meet Erhard’s specifications, former employees say he often became enraged. “It wasn’t just that he got angry,” recalls Drew, a former member of Erhard’s personal staff, “he would get up close to you, right in your face and scream, ‘You a–, you worthless piece of s—.'”
Drew also recalls Erhard pushing him “roughly” after he failed to massage his back properly. On another occasion, he says he saw Erhard strike an employee and, in a separate incident, witnessed him putting his hands around someone’s throat in anger.
Others say Erhard often overreacted to criticism. In an affidavit in support of Afremow’s lawsuit, Irving Bernstein, a former est trainer and Forum leader from 1977 to 1985 and now a certified public accountant in Mill Valley, says Erhard threatened his wife when she complained that Erhard was having an affair with an employee. According to Bernstein’s court declaration, Erhard stated that he would “squash her like a bug” if she didn’t stop “being a problem for him…”
“The cause of this behavior,” says Bernstein, “was that Mr. Erhard had been carrying on a relationship with a staff member who had confided in my wife her mixed emotions about the affair. When Erhard learned of this, he became extremely angry…”
What loyalists say
Werner Erhard, who lives on a million-dollar yacht in Sausalito, declined to be interviewed for this article through his spokesman Bill Barnes. However, his media office arranged for interviews with Erhard loyalists.
Bob Curtis, chief executive officer of Werner Erhard & Associates International, has been associated with Erhard for 16 years. He says “stories such as these are inconsistent with my experience.” He acknowledges that Erhard once yelled at people, “but I haven’t heard him do it in eight years.”
Art Schuller, a physician who worked first as an est trainer and then as a Forum leader, says he heard more yelling when he was on staff at the University of California Medical Center at Davis than he did working for Erhard.
How can the discrepancies in these observations be explained? The answer may have been unwittingly supplied by Gary Grace, who served on Erhard’s staff from 1974 to 1979 in a variety of executive positions. “Werner is a person who relates to everyone individually,” he says.
Grace, who now owns a string of Supercuts stores in which Erhard is an investor, adds that Erhard is “totally different with everyone he’s with.”
The Mantos incident
For those who have become disenchanted with Werner Erhard, disillusionment came at different times and for different reasons but almost all former devotees mention the “Jack Mantos incident” as being pivotal in their reappraisal of his true nature.
Mantos, a physician by training was Erhard’s right-hand man and, according to people who knew him, was fiercely loyal and devoted to his boss. In February 1988, Mantos died of a massive coronary.
At the time, Erhard was on a yacht in the Bahamas and did not return home for either the West Coast funeral or the East Coast memorial service a couple of weeks later. Mantos was immensely well-liked, and many were stunned by Erhard’s behavior.
A month later, at a meeting called the March Forum Leader Days, Erhard addressed the reaction to Jack Mantos’ death. The following is an excerpt from a transcript of that meeting (all such meetings were recorded):
“…I want to take to task those of you who used Jack’s death as a f—— signal to produce some kind of s— in the space because you could f—— get away with it. Because nobody has got the b—s to get up in your face when somebody dies. I am not one of those people. Jack is a lot less important to me at the moment than you are. And I don’t have to be nice to Jack. I was nice to Jack when he was alive. I don’t need to be nice to him when he’s dead. I don’t need to honor his memory either. I may choose to do that, but I don’t need to do it…”
The dark side
Drew says few people in the organization ever see all of the aspects of Erhard’s “dark side.” “A lot of people had different pieces of the puzzle,” he says, “but unless you worked with him every day, you didn’t have the whole picture.
Even those who had the whole picture say that they had ways of explaining Erhard’s behavior. One man likens it to a Zen master who whacks his students when they doze during instruction; another says he told himself that Erhard was like a tough coach who exacts total commitment from his athletes. Others say they tolerated mistreatment because they felt utterly dependent on him and his power.
Within the organization, Erhard was referred to as Source. “Source started out to mean that Werner was the source of the training and the organization,” says Becky Carter, “but what it came to imply was that he was the source of each individual’s personal success.”
In his court declaration Irving Bernstein says that within the organization “Source” was “akin to God.”
The halo effect
There are more than a few clues that Werner Erhard sees himself as someone with transcendent powers. At a December 1987 meeting, Forum leader Vic Gioscia quoted Erhard: “When you get to a field of open snow, on which you have never walked before, and which no one has ever walked before, and which you don’t think that it is possible to walk, look for my footprints.”
One former volunteer even remembers people describing the aura of light encircling Erhard.
“People gave their power away to Werner,” says Becky Carter. “As long as you were in the organization, you would be powerful too because you got your power from ‘Source,’ and we were grateful to him for that.”
If a person was ill or had an accident, it was assumed that the cause was being “incomplete with Werner” — meaning there was something amiss in one’s relationship with Erhard.
When people did leave, those still working for Erhard claimed the defectors even looked different. “We used to say we could see it in their eyes,” recalls Landon Carter, a former est trainer.
The elevated position Erhard held in people’s hearts and minds was nowhere better reflected than in the relationship he had with the trainers — the organization’s high priests. When est trainers and then Forum leaders were “designated” — a sort of swearing-in ritual — they essentially promised eternal servitude.
(According to an affidavit filed in the Afremow lawsuit by Berkeley sociologist Richard Offshe, this designation ritual is very similar to a Scientology practice in which volunteers sign a contract which obliges them to a “billion years” of service to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.)
As Bernstein says in his court declaration, “I gave my word that I had a word to give; gave my word that I would do what Werner asked; gave my word that I would do what Werner asked forever.”
The following lists Werner Gerhard’s enterprises:
Continue reading “Werner, dearest (Part two)“…