Head Shrinker

Ben Winters gets lost and found again in the world of transformation training.

NewCity Chicago/1999
By Ben Winters

''Know thyself'' - Socrates, circa 400 B.C.

''All I know is that I don't know / All I know is that I don't know nothin' '' - Operation Ivy, 1991

My name is Ben, and I'm a cynic.

I'm skeptical, dismissive and stubbornly rational. As both a Gen X-er and journalist, I've got two strikes against me in the old faith-and-trust department, and I've played my part to the hilt: scoffing at self-actualization, mocking mysticism, pooh-poohing the paranormal, rolling my eyes at the mere mention of souls, spirits, saints and deities.

Thus it was with a rush of devilish glee that I read a bright orange pamphlet, lettered in bold black, from The Humanus Institute [a Lifespring offshoot], a Highland Park-based not-for-profit organization. The pamphlet touted a three-day seminar called the Discovery Course, price tag $395. Listed among the ''promises'' of the Discovery Course are some vague but heady ideas, stuff like ''discover[ing] what is of vital importance... so that the choices in your life are truly aligned with your purposes,'' and ''experience[ing] a profound shift in relating to yourself and others, thus allowing you to pursue your heartfelt commitments with joy and passion.''

Visions of misaligned chakras and inner children danced in my head. My little journalistic imp rubbed his hands together, preparing to wade into a weekend of self-help jargon and touchy-feely schmaltz and do some serious mocking. But in the weeks approaching the course, as I read again the literature suggesting that I'd be soon be able to ''act on my true commitments'' and ''make my life... more successful, loving, vital and fulfilling,'' another voice developed inside me, plaintive and insistent.

''My God,'' this new voice was saying. ''What if it works?''

At 10 am on a Friday, I am among twenty-four untutored aspirants to personal growth being stewarded into a modestly appointed seminar room at the Blackstone, a Michigan Avenue hotel with cranky elevators and Greco-Roman statuary in the lobby. Inside the second floor Blackstone Room, we sit in rows on stiff plastic chairs, listening to loud New Age music, nervously greeting one another and perusing inspirational quotes - posted on easels around the room - from the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein.

We are a disparate group, black and white, ranging from twenty-somethings to 50 and beyond. There are school teachers, medical professionals, business people, graduate students and college professors. Roughly a third are from out of town and staying at the Blackstone. There are couples, and those who have come on the recommendation of their husbands or wives; nearly all have been urged to take the course by someone close, a lover or family member or friend. And they're all incredibly regular - no New Age groupies or alien worshippers here. They're like anyone you might see at the grocery store, out for coffee or in church. A few of the attendees have taken the course, or ones like it, before; these are the people who are into it from the beginning, who nod and smile at every word, acolytes to actualization, teacher's pets.

Our teacher is a professional-looking woman in conservative business attire, seated on a high stool at the front of the room, a lavaliere microphone pinned to her chest. Like all of us, she wears a name tag; hers reads ''Marlene,'' and she is our trainer. Behind us, sitting quietly with beatific smiles, is a row of six staff members, volunteers and Discovery Course graduates, who will give us microphones when we want to share and Kleenex when we're ready to cry - and provide Marlene with throat drops and the mugs of boiling hot water she drinks ceaselessly. This is Marlene's ball game, her universe. It is Marlene who will take us, for some forty hours over the next few days, into the world of ''transformational training.''

It is, first and foremost, a world of confrontation: I had expected touchy-feely, but on day one I was spending time with the least touchy, least feely woman I'd ever met. As we stand up to explain what's fucked up in our lives, Marlene tears in, telling us one by one and over and over that our failings are our responsibility, that it's time to stop blaming the world, stop blaming friends and family, stop blaming circumstances. If someone says their father is distant or uncaring, Marlene will say, ''That's your opinion.'' If someone says they're shy, she says that shyness is nothing but a ''racket'' we use to stifle ourselves. When one participant, a college professor who's come in from out of town for this, explains that he's about to be divorced, Marlene says, ''No wonder. You're impossible to be around.''

Later, when the same man explains the trouble he's been having getting the approval of his coworkers, Marlene blasts him for his need for approval. ''But I need their approval to get grant money,'' he says. Marlene rolls her eyes, looks at the rest of us with disbelief, tells him there's a difference between approval and what he thinks of as approval, and that his need for grant money is nothing but a racket that keeps him from getting the job done. Finally the man sits down, baffled, no closer to knowing how to finance his research.

Later in the weekend, a younger woman tells the group that she is deeply in debt, and it's created a stressful situation. After Marlene wheedles the woman into telling us exactly how much is owed, she contends brashly that if she really wanted to pay back the money, she would do it. ''I've already paid back some, though.'' ''God! You are so defensive. Do you know that? Can you all see that? Hello? Hello?'' ''The good news is, we've found the problem,'' Marlene announces to us more than once. ''The bad news is, the problem is you.'' We need to learn to live in the moment, give up all that baggage, stop letting ourselves be weighed down by a lifetime of ''stories,'' all the meanings we've decided to assign to the things that have happened around us. This is the lesson Marlene is determined to make us see, and every time we don't we're interrupted, told to stop being resistant, told to drop the B.S. and just ''get off it.''

I take the microphone after one exercise - in which staff members holler in our faces like New Age drill sergeants, demanding we tell them honestly what we want from life - and complained about being badgered. ''No,'' Marlene explains. ''They were talking, and you were listening. The rest you made up.''

Slowly but surely, as the hours go by, I become immersed in the atmosphere, all the bombardment and intense passion of it, and my guts begin to churn. I feel moved to take the microphone several times. I tell Marlene and everyone present about my occasional struggle with depression, and I'm pushed to find its roots in my childhood. Marlene pinpoints the move my family made when I was four. ''Did you have friends there?'' she asks.

''I don't remember. I was four.''

''You had to give a lot up. It was traumatizing.'' Somehow it makes perfect sense, with Marlene staring unwaveringly back at me, with all those new friends looking up expectantly and excitedly. It rang with truth. I'm not a stranger to my inner self. I've thought about my sadness and fears before, I've sought professional help, I've read philosophy and psychology and religion. There are things I've reconciled myself to living with as part of who I am, but now Marlene was telling me that all I need to do is ''get off it,'' choose to move forward. It seemed like such a marvelous and obvious idea. With this background, it's somewhere in day two I ''realize'' that my constant joking around with people is nothing but a racket, what I use to keep from revealing my true self. My instinct to help other people, to do them favors, is nothing but another racket, and it's sabotaging my relationships.

I stand there choking on tears of realization, the microphone dangling limply in my hand while Marlene explains to the group: ''See? There's energy there.'' She is never wrong. She does not brook discussion: Her insights are truth. If people challenge one of her observations about their personalities - which, remember, she's only known for a day - they are told they're being resistant, not allowing themselves to change. As part of my ''homework'' on Friday night, I call an ex-girlfriend and assure her that I take 100 percent responsibility for what happened between us. She has no idea what I'm talking about and probably thinks I'm drunk. And I'm still up in the wee hours of Saturday morning, completing my homework, listing people I use my rackets on, considering how I ''let my effectiveness break down in the areas of greatest importance.''

My cynical journalistic imp has taken a powder.

The program protocol is brutal, painful and awkward, but it is also transfixing: Marlene's bluntness is fascinating, even intoxicating. By stepping on our emotional toes, she proves herself confident and charismatic, a woman unafraid to step outside the bounds of the acceptable, showing us how honest a life can really be. It's almost as if we come to love her. Those hugs I'd been anticipating materialize with fervor on the end of day two. Sometime on day three, one course member stands to praise Marlene: ''I think you're incredible. I'm ready to pack my bags and follow you around like Jesus.'' ''You're right,'' says Marlene. ''I am great.''

''I was whole and complete as I was, and now I could accept the whole truth about myself... I found enlightenment, truth and true self all at once.'' - Werner Erhard

It is hard to explain what happened to me in there; impossible to describe something I don't think I'll ever totally understand. It was a combination of influences, a perfect mixture of charismatic leader, waves of intense peer pressure and what amounted to three-day isolation from the world outside the group. Marlene told us that there are miracles every day, and this was hers: a magic act, alchemy, transformation. I disappeared, I folded, I became as susceptible as I've ever been, and Marlene and Humanus were there, for thirty-five hours they were there, ready to fill in the newly-created gaping holes in my understanding of self and world with their vision, their ideology.

This process is known as ''transformational training'' or ''large group awareness training,'' a concept that dates back to 1971, when Werner Erhard led the first Erhard Seminar Training (aka est) event in San Francisco, kick-starting the ''human potential movement.'' Erhard (a former used-car salesman who left behind a family - and the name John Rosenberg - in Philadelphia when he headed west for guru-dom) was influenced by everything from Zen Buddhism to Sigmund Freud to the Scientologists, who, he once claimed, tried to kill him.

Like Humanus now, est then promised clients that their limitations and problems were all in their minds, and a psychological rewiring, for a nominal fee, was all that was required to be set free. Since its seventies heyday, est has gone through several transformations of its own. In the early eighties, it was reorganized into a company called Landmark, and some of the more notorious aspects of the program (est had been criticized for not allowing participants to communicate or go to the bathroom) were eliminated. In 1991, under a cloud of fraud allegations, and after a messy public divorce, Erhard left the country, but not before selling Landmark Education Corporation to a consortium of employees, including his brother, Harry Rosenberg.

According to a 1992 London Times article, there are now three main tributaries of est's mighty transformational river: The Landmark Forum, running what's been described as a ''kinder, gentler'' version of est; Transformational Technologies, Inc., which specializes in corporate seminars; and ''a clutch of non-profit-making humanitarian agencies - formally independent but based on Erhard's theories.''

Executive Director James Lynch contends that Humanus ''has no affiliation with any other seminar company,'' despite the similarities in content and delivery. He also points out what makes Humanus unique: They stress ''experiential'' work over straight lecturing, and, he says, ''our commitment is to creating leadership in community service.'' Humanus grads, Lynch explains, are encouraged to sign up for a variety of public service projects, ranging from litter clean-ups to making sandwiches for the homeless.

Another distinguishing mark is that Humanus is a registered non-profit; however, their schedule of fees is similar to that of Landmark, a for-profit company that pulls in upwards of $45 million a year. Lynch was reluctant to provide specific numbers, but says their earnings are spent on his own salary and that of two other staffers (one establishing a branch office in Florida), various administrative costs, and the costs of the seminars, such as renting space and paying the trainers.

All this history I discover later, after the weekend is over, when, reeling from the emotional tides of it all, I sit down to figure out what the hell went on in there: I've narrowed it down to either a beautiful, powerful but disturbing experience, or a total mindfuck. Either way, I'm a wreck: I'm disjointed, upset, excited, confused, angry, teetering on the verge of tears. I have a vague sense of something momentous but nonspecific having occurred in my psyche somewhere, an elusive epiphany that won't reveal itself and feels untrustworthy. Magnets tug at my moral compass; I feel the rug of a lifetime of rational consideration pulled out from under me.

Reading other accounts of weekends like this, led by other ''transformational training'' companies - including Landmark Forum - I begin to find startling similarities. All the drill sergeanting, the unceasing intensity (during our one meal break each day, we were divided into small groups, with a ''team leader'' assigned to make sure we talked about the course), the ''homework'' we were given after each day's twelve-hour class to keep our minds on the task at hand. One description of a Landmark Forum course paralleled my experience down to the clothes the trainer was wearing and the small bowl of flowers placed on the front table.

Some of the reports are disturbing, indeed. A 1992 news item from the Washington Post tells of Stephanie Ney, a woman from Silver Spring, Maryland, who sued Landmark in 1992 after suffering a nervous breakdown in her seminar. And the London Times writes about ''senior managers [who] have lost their jobs, experienced nervous breakdowns or been unable to continue with personal relationships after taking the course.'' I check into Internet chat rooms where the enthusiastically transformed get into it with skeptics. ''I said I love you to my mother for the first time in years,'' says one Forum enthusiast. Decriers say it's a bunch of brainwashing, a money-making scam, ''more of a pastiche of ideas than an actual system.'' There's also a damning 1986 report from the American Psychiatric Association, and a snippet from The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, asserting that the claims of huge success made by transformational programs can be correlated not to the effectiveness of the programs, but to the type of people who would choose to go into them in the first place. I encounter the concept of ''loaded language'' - like Humanus' phrases ''speak yourself'' and ''get off it'' - common sense ideas that, simply rephrased and obsessively repeated, take on an irresistible, shamanistic quality. My skeptical imp, lifeless upon my shoulder, begins to stir.

Underlying it all - est, the Forum, and now Humanus, Chicago's homegrown offshoot of the transformational training movement - is a basic philosophical notion, which dates back not to Werner Erhard but to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. Reality is not reality, the line goes, but a construct. Absolute freedom is available, but only if you assume total freedom over your life, admit that all meaning is meaning that you invent and then choose to make happy meanings. It is a seductive idea, and one that is made tremendously easy to accept by the whole atmosphere of the Discovery Course. Lifted out of context, separated from any discussion of its philosophical evolution and influences, presented not scientifically but religiously, as a revealed truth, and in that intensely charged emotional atmosphere - it is, after all, much easier to have a ''breakthrough'' when you're surrounded by other people who are very openly and obviously having ''breakthroughs'' - this very specific, historically-evolved bit of ideology takes on the appearance of absolute truth: Not a, but the, way to achieve your potential. ''This is not The Truth, not The Way,'' Marlene tells us, trying to hammer in the idea that we need - like Nietzsche - to get beyond right and wrong, but the implication of the whole thing is clear. If you know what's good for you, you'll take this advice to heart. You'll ''get off it.''

Dr. Robert Lipgar, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago who specializes in group therapy, characterizes transformational training as ''an exploitative caricature of depth psychology, a bringing together of some of the techniques that have been used responsibly elsewhere.'' Lipgar won't say that transformational training doesn't work, only that people should think carefully, and get as much information as they can, before entering. ''When consumers do something like that, they ought to exercise as much thought as possible. I'm shy and conservative about offering opinions on what people should spend their money on, but it's very much buyer beware.

''I'm deeply concerned that it does amount to a kind of pyramid scheme that exploits vulnerability,'' Lipgar says. It's buyer beware because, like psychology or any other form of ''coursework'' involving one's inner life, transformational training can bring up some painful stuff: In fact, it's supposed to. But unlike psychology - or psychiatry, or dentistry for that matter - training courses are entirely unregulated by any system of licensing or peer review. Lipgar says that for forty years transformational groups have been resistant to doing any sort of empirical studies of their graduates. I ask Lynch if he's aware of any studies of participants in courses like these, proving their efficacy. ''I don't have the source,'' he says, ''But one of the transformational groups conducted a study, five years [after their program] - 88 percent of the people said it was one of the top three life events, right up there with marriage and having children. I know another transformational company did it. I don't know who did the research for them.''

On Monday night, after twenty-four hours back in the real world, the Discovery Course participants are reassembled at the hotel for our Advanced Living Interviews. Sitting one on one with Humanus volunteers, we discuss the commitments to authentic living we've made over the last few days and we share with our interlocutor how our first day as a new person went down. Last, but certainly not least, we are firmly encouraged to sign up for the next level of the Humanus Curriculum, the five-day Advanced Living Seminar that begins in ten days. We've been warned that if we don't continue with the program, all might be for naught.

''We've opened up a hole for you, through which you can see a real life for yourself. But you know what happens when a cut opens on your body? It closes back up again,'' Marlene says. Of course, there are plenty of openings that never close, but speaking of opened windows, drawn curtains, or holes punched in walls wouldn't go too far towards getting our $200 down-payment for Humanus' level two.

I explain to my interviewer that I will be out of town that weekend, visiting friends in Los Angeles. I've made plans. ''Change them,'' comes the answer. All around me my fellow Discovery students are shuffling plans, reorganizing lives and getting out checkbooks. The Advanced Living Seminar costs $995 - although if we sign up right now, it's $100 off. This discount, Marlene had explained to us, has to do with postage costs and so forth. I don't sign up for Advanced Living, though most of my fellow participants do, and I skip out on the remaining parts of Discovery: I don't get up at 6:20 the next morning, as I had promised, and make the first of three scheduled phone calls to my Team Leader to discuss my commitments. I don't return on Tuesday night with my friends and family, where they would - I am told later by fellow participants - have been separated from me, gotten a taste of the Humanus program, and been encouraged to sign up for the Discovery Course.

Bottom line, Humanus wanted me to get out of my head, but I like my head: It's where I keep all my stuff. Sure, it's cluttered with received ideas and emotional wiring, the dictates of society and my own fears, but also my ideas, my opinions, my judgments and wariness. You can say that a guy who was emotionally abused or abandoned by his parents, and suffers as a result, is simply ''making up a story,'' being a ''meaning-making machine,'' but what happened is still true. Just as it's true that my parents, thank the Lord, are upstanding, moral people who taught me to think, to develop my opinions and stick by them, and, yes, even to be skeptical, skeptical of easy answers and quick fixes - and anyone that asks you for money when you're crying. As much as I'd love to be self-actualized, fulfilled, complete, free - or whatever you want to call it - as much I'd love to discover my ''humanness,'' I'm not continuing with the Humanus Program. I won't be paying $995 for the Advanced Living Seminar nor moving on the Leading Edge and the Leadership Initiative. I'm just going to muddle along with my slightly battered sense of what's real and what isn't, keep feeding my skeptical imp, and try to find happiness the hard way.

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