Ex-member disillusioned


San Fransisco Examiner/October 12, 1997
By Katherine Seligman

Robert Burton's ideas sounded good to Stella Wirk when she went to her first meeting at Denny's restaurant in the early'70s. He was a tall, energetic, man with luminous eyes.

"Burton would read something and we'd discuss and make observations," said Wirk. "I felt it was pretty good stuff. Burton had a good act in the beginning."

Wirk quit her job as postmaster of Alamo, she said, to help build the fledgling Fellowship of Friends, serving as a director of a teaching center in Carmel, then at one in Amsterdam. But gradually, her faith in Burton began to waiver.

She recalls the conformity required-all teaching centers had to play the same music, Pachelbel, and have the same kind of classic oil paintings.

There were also the exercises that included having students omit certain words from their speech, Wirk said. One week it might be "Oh," the next "I."

"We'd go to a restaurant and we'd have to say, 'This person will have eggs over easy,' or 'It will have another cup of coffee,"' said Wirk. "The waitress would say, 'It would, would it?'"

At one point, Burton told Wirk and her husband to change their names to West, an Anglicized name that would be better suited for anonymity after a world economic collapse he'd predicted would occur.

Then there was the order to stop playing ping-pong. (" 'End the ping-pong octave,' Robert said. Everything was always an octave," said Wirk, referring to the term borrowed from Ouspensky.) And the directive to get rid of her mongrel dogs, Bill and Banjo.

"Burton told me we should end the Bill and Banjo octave," said, Wirk, who still, at 64, cries when she remembers taking her beloved pets to the pound.

The arbitrary rules grated on Wirk, but it was the no-smoking requirement that eventually precipitated her departure from the fellowship. Wirk and her husband once paid $1,500 each for violating the no-smoking rule.

Burton was so adamant about no smoking that he told members to sniff while greeting each other to catch renegades, Wirk said.

In 1982, 12 years after joining Wirk was fined a second time for smoking. She refused to pay and was subsequently kicked out.

Wirk now operates a Web page on the Fellowship, hoping to help those in the process of leaving Though she says much of what she got from her association with Burton was positive-the chance to travel and friends she cherished- she feels he changed.

"He's gotten so sequestered,' she said. "I think he's become like Howard Hughes of The Fourth Way."


BORN: North Little Rock, Ark., in 1939. Within a few years he moves to Berkeley with his parents (his father was a butcher), two sisters and a brother.

GRADUATED: 1968 from San Jose State University and later becomes a fourth-grade teacher in the Lafayette public schools.

FOUNDER: Starts the Fellowship of Friends in 1970 while he's living intermittently in a volkswagon bus in Berkeley and housesitting.

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