Talk show host Rosie O'Donnell's recent televised outrage on hearing allegations that the Sharon Gans-led 'Fourth Way' group barred gays and African Americans from its membership was understandable. Rosie, who had only recently "outed" herself, had earlier narrated a film for the Gans group. While her reaction to what she termed "cults" could be expected, it was unfortunate in that she condemned all Fourth Way groups in the name of one.
It's not unusual that a group not in conformity with contemporary mainstream culture be branded a cult. Originally, the word was neutral and simply descriptive. It referred to the worship of a deity, as in ancient Egypt where the various gods had their cults - their group of believers. However, like the word myth, which once meant wisdom and now means lie or illusion, the word cult has undergone a similar deterioration. It's a smear against any group one does not like or understand. One could as easily talk about a money cult for those who work and give their lives to money, or a fame cult, or a war cult. The word is simply a propaganda tool.
If the McCarthyesque brandings of earlier times are not to be unintentionally repeated, a crucial distinction between authentic mainstream and faux Fourth Way groups must be recognized and emphasized. Authentic mainstream groups have a genuine connection with the ancient teaching of the Fourth Way. That is, those who take the role of teachers stand in a direct lineage that begins with G.I. Gurdjieff, who in 1912 introduced the teaching to the West. In contrast, faux group leaders not having this direct connection and the accompanying transmission necessary for inner understanding can at best have only 'book knowledge.' Their 'teaching' is composed of bits and pieces of the Fourth Way gleaned from books and other secondary sources. Discarding what doesn't suit them, they take what they will from other teachings, salt in, knowingly or not, their own peculiarities and biases, and so concoct an eclectic and distorted stew that is Fourth Way in name only.
That all scandals attributed to the Fourth Way are entirely due to the excesses of faux groups is therefore not surprising. But in the public mind all Fourth Way groups are blackened with the same brush. The public can't be expected to distinguish between the genuine Fourth Way and faux Fourth Way. The news media, harried as they are for profits, pushing reporters for maximum production, honing and spinning their own slant, can't be expected to do so either. Rapacious for controversy and whatever easily gets attention, the media serve the secular and corporate culture and oppose and ridicule all that does not (especially the esoteric).
That the authentic Fourth Way has not defended itself, that its policy has been to remain silent however specious the charge or attack, is understandable. Unfortunately, in doing so it has allowed itself to be defined by those operating at its margins. What is risked is if wrong views are allowed to crystallize in society, then the teaching will be forever stained and scorned. The necessary result will be that the Fourth Way will go the way of the Shakers. Thus it is time to speak out.
To begin with, whether Sharon Gans does or does not accept blacks and gays into her groups isn't known. What is known is that Sharon Cans was never a member of an authentic Fourth Way group. A stage actress with one film credit - she played Valencia Merble in the film version of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five - Gans' only connection with the Fourth Way is through her former husband, Alex Horn, who also was never a member. Horn's first wife, Anne Burridge, as a teenager, is said to have attended one of John Bennett's groups in England for about three years. Three years or not, her training can at best only have been preparatory as no deep understanding can be assimilated in such a short time. Vanity and self-love are simply too strong. During her time with Bennett, sometime in the 1960s, Anne met Alex Horn who had come to England in the hopes of working with Bennett. Bennett refused and warned Anne against any involvement with the American.
Horn, a charismatic personality with a strong stage presence and an uncanny knack for spotting people's weaknesses, convinced her to marry him. He then apparently took what he learned of the teaching from Anne, combined it with what he understood from books and started his 'school,' The Theatre of All Possibilities (the name derived from Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf), first in New York City and later in San Francisco's Mission District. As a former student recalled:
He could intimidate people easily and would alternate bullying tactics with warm and friendly demeanor. He knew how to instinctively play on a person's soft spots to get control over people. There was a lot of male 'challenging' and emotional bullying at the meetings and occasionally it would break out physically - usually between students. Although Alex intimidated people physically, he would always step aside and let someone else get physical for him. We seemed to be learning how to be 'Alex,' and he liked that. One of his regular themes was 'feminine influence' and how we had to avoid being dominated by women. He encouraged men to take advantage of women and tried to get the less adventurous of us to 'sleep around' as a way of freeing ourselves psychologically. I think Alex was an imposter who used the Work to con people out of much money and energy.
Remembered another student of those early years:
Alex was definitely not a simple man, but a very intelligent Solar type, i.e., incredibly charismatic and smart. He had a vast knowledge of not only many Work books but seemingly much of the philosophical and poetic works of the Western world and plays going back to the Greeks. His teaching used Fourth Way terminology and also quotes from Ibsen, Whitman, Blake, Hal Shem Tov and others.
On weekends we would go up to a ranch his wife had bought up in Sonoma. I remember the camaraderie and laughter but in large part most of what I remember is Horn talking, talking and talking. He often spoke in sexual terms. People would feel loose and often meetings ended with much hugging and effusiveness.
Horn said this was due to 'C Influence. We worked at preparing and planting a vineyard, building a sauna and staging plays. Besides this we also went on a fifty-mile hike through the Nevada Desert that was cut short to probably thirty miles and ended with a ride on a Greyhound bus to a brothel. There were a lot of rich experiences but there was no daily practice of any kind taught, and behind all the philosophical quotations there was something important missing.
It's not clear whether Sharon Gans appeared before or after Anne divorced Alex - the divorce was in 1969 or 1970 - but afterward Horn and Gans married and she became involved in his school and starred in its plays. After the divorce, Anne said that "Alex had never really been in the Work or submitted himself to a teacher." She said she felt some responsibility for the damage that Alex had done in the name of the Work and so began to teach herself. She took back the ranch in Sonoma and many of his pupils. Horn was able to recover and he lived quite well, as his school had a gross income of $40,000 a month. That changed on December 23, 1978. That was the day the San Francisco Chronicle published a front-page article, "Strange School: Real-Life Drama in SF Theater Group". It alleged financial exploitation of students and beatings for students not selling enough tickets to the plays. With the Jim Jones' Guyana massacre still hanging heavy and apparently not thinking they could get a fair hearing, Horn and Gans left town for a ranch he had bought in Condon, Montana. Later the two started groups in New York City. However, by the end of 1988, Horn's abusive behavior became a problem. A coup was staged and Horn was removed as the group's leader in favor of Sharon Cans. Horn's fear of "feminine influence" had again played out. It is said that he continues to lead groups in New York City.
One of Horn's students in the early 1970s was a tall, handsome young man with an Arkansas accent, Robert Earl Burton. After a year or so, Horn asked Burton to leave because he could not "stay on task." The task was not to chase the other young men. Unabashed, Burton presented himself as a "budding man number five," according to one of his earliest students. Burton had picked up from Horn the knack of spotting and pointing out the weaknesses of others. This power of observation, along with his quiet and contained manner, and his promise to start The Fellowship of Friends, a 'Fourth Way School,' attracted students.
Understanding the idealism that perpetuates many seekers' search, Burton refocused the teaching's challenge to self-love and vanity to a stress on living like a person of the Renaissance, cultivating impressions of beauty, the arts, music, poetry and fine living. Apparently influenced by Warren Miller's best-selling book of the time, Canticle for Liebowitz. depicting a ravaged world after the world catastrophe, Burton made a number of prophecies, one of which was that California would fall into the sea on April 12, 1998 at 11 A.M. Those with him, being the elect of Christianity, would not perish. Like Liebowitz in the book, eight years after starting his school and now known as "The Teacher," Burton stopped teaching to travel the globe to amass - he would no doubt say "salvage" - a large collection of art work as a kind of cultural ark in the coming Armageddon. (A recent auction of Burton's collection of rare antique Chinese furniture at Christie's in New York City brought in $11.2 million.). When the day passed for California to fall into the sea, Burton explained it with, "The Higher Powers [he claims to speak to 44 discarnate beings] have humiliated me."
Going Horn one better, Burton warned of "female dominance" and moved to the country, where he bought property he named Renaissance, now known as Apollo, created a vineyard, built a theater and a museum to house his various collections. Having caught the crest of the great wave of spiritual interest of the 1970s, Burton built a spiritual empire of sorts that is now worldwide.
Though a fourth grade school teacher by profession, Burton had a knack for merchandising. Recognizing that every reader of a Fourth Way book was a potential student, he had his students insert bookmarks in the books advertising his "Gurdjieff-Ouspensky Centres." When the film Meetings with Remarkable Men was launched, Burton's students stood outside theaters handing out pamphlets and recruiting people for his school. The ethics of Burton and his 'school' having nothing to do with the books or the film wasn't of concern.
Rumors kept surfacing over the years of Burton having sexual relations with his male students, all necessarily heterosexual (from the first he had outlawed homosexuals as members, probably to keep his own interests hidden and to have no rivals). His students' reluctance and repulsion he countered by telling them "I promise you I am an angel in a man's body" and declaring that he represented C Influence. Overwhelmed with lawsuits in the 1990s, Burton finally admitted his homosexuality. Following this admission and charges of sexual and financial exploitation, the Fellowship lost a great many American students, but its membership is said to be growing quickly in South America, Japan and Russia. A number of offshoots led by former Burton students have sprung up, such as The New American Wing.
Having made the crucial discrimination between authentic and faux Fourth Way groups, let's examine the issues that arose out of Rosie's reaction. African Americans, or any other people, are not barred from the Fourth Way and never have been. At the very beginning of Gurdjieff's introduction of the teaching to America in 1924, the celebrated African American novelist Jean Toomer was a member. He worked closely with Gurdjieff and A.R. Orage, Gurdjieff's chief deputy in America. Toomer organized and led groups in Harlem and later was appointed to found and lead groups in the Midwest.
Gurdjieff, as a Greek-Armenian born and raised in the Caucasus, understood first-hand the perils of discrimination, as his beloved father was killed defending his home against the Turks during the infamous Armenian massacres. Thus, any group barring African Americans - or any racial or ethnic group - would certainly not be in line with Gurdjieff's thinking. He was also strongly opposed to caste systems of any kind.
In his writings Gurdjieff took the traditional religious position regarding homosexuality. However, it is also true that several gays and lesbians lived at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, one of whom, Jane Heap, he later asked to lead groups. Initially, her groups were composed of all women, but later, when Gurdjieff sent her to London to teach, membership included both men and women. Fritz Peters, a bisexual, lived at the Institute as a young boy. Gurdjieff and he developed a very close relationship. When Peters visited Gurdjieff at the end of World War II, Gurdjieff greeted him as "My son!"
In 1935, believing that a group of women, almost all lesbians, had "something special," Gurdjieff formed them into a women's group called "the Rope" which he led until the outbreak of the Second World War. The women were all dynamic and highly accomplished. The two most well-known in the group were Kathryn Hulme, author of The Nun 's Story and Undiscovered Country: and Margaret Anderson, founder of the Little Review, the avant-garde literary magazine of its day, the first to publish James Joyce's Ulysses. The writer and editor Solita Solano, companion of The New Yorker writer Janet Flanner who wrote as Genêt, was Gurdjieff's personal secretary for many years. The women of the Rope proved to be among Gurdjieff's most devoted students, both before and after his death in 1949.
Hopefully, the foregoing will give a broader and more nuanced view that puts in question the attitudes and judgments that have piled up over the years about the Fourth Way. That faux versions exist is apparently necessary, for as Gurdjieff said: