NewDayNews Recovery Forum
est: Part 15: There’s No Place Like Home
Date: Sunday, 11 June 2006, at 5:31 p.m.
In the summer of 1980 I participated in the large group awareness training called “est”. I went on to become obsessed with est philosophies and ideas to the point where every thing I did, thought, or said was filtered though my est experience.
I spent many hours as an unpaid salesman for est, selling graduate seminars, and enrolling friends and relatives in the training by the dozen.
I ran my Roadshow Players traveling theatre troupe like an est seminar, demanding more from my volunteer actors and crew people than they gave at their paid jobs
I was the model est graduate, and everything about my life worked. I had miracles, and gushed on about them to my est friends. If someone came to me to tell me about a problem they were having, I could come up with an answer in seconds. I was like one of those radio shrinks who can tell you how to fix your life in a two-minute spot between commercials. I really thought I knew everything, and strangely, I had a large and loyal following who apparently bought into it. I had so much influence over my own little sub-cult at the time, that I’m still not sure how far out on a limb they would have gone for me.
Then my 18 year old brother accidentally drove off a cliff and died. Seven months after that our chronically ill 3 year old daughter ended up brain dead on a respirator, and we had to make the agonizing decision to withdraw the machines and allow the rest of her body to die.
In July of 1983, exactly three years after I had taken the est training, I finally manifested upsets that est didn’t have a quick easy answer for. When you were as deeply involved in est as I was, you developed a magic bag of tricks. The philosophy of est was a mish-mash of “whatever worked”. From long processes that looked to some like hypnotism, to positive thinking techniques. None of these worked.
Jimmy’s death was bad enough, but Gretchen’s was off the scale. To this day, when something bad happens in my life, I ask my self if it was as bad as that, and I always come up with the answer, “no”. Whatever is worse than that, I really don’t want to know about it.
I began to wonder what was the difference between people like me who became totally obsessed with est, and people like my Mother who did not. She had taken the training, and said it was one of the most valuable experiences of her life. But, she didn’t do graduate seminars, and only talked about it on occasion. Bobby, the guy who went with me to Barbara’s Graduation took est and acted like it never existed. He was neutral about est. I don’t think he took a single graduate seminar, even though all of his best friends were taking them like crazy.
Perhaps the difference between them and me was that they actually had experienced problems and upsets that the pop psychology of est could not instantly solve. I had lead a wonderful life, and most of my upsets were of the common every day variety. When I did have something big happen, like breaking up with my girlfriend from high school, I reacted by not dating for two solid years from age 18-20. For a person with real problems, a breakup is upsetting, but it doesn’t cause them to put their entire lives on hold. I began to see that my universe had been so tiny all my life, that when adult problems surfaced, even with est, I still lacked the tools and life experience to deal with them.
At home, Jane and I adjusted to life without Gretchen. When you are a caretaker of a chronically ill person, your life revolves around the illness. This mostly fell on Jane, but it had an effect on everything we did as a family. When Gretchen was suddenly gone from our lives, we couldn’t figure out what to do with our time.
Jane reminded me that the reason we had never gotten married was because of my fear of losing my health insurance with a very sick person to care for. I told her that whenever she felt up to getting married, we would do it. She told me she was ready right then.
We drove to Burbank City Hall and bought our marriage license. At that time, you could get what was called a “Confidential Marriage License” if you already lived together for at least a year. Then you didn’t have to go and get blood tests.
After getting the license, all we had to do was find someone to do the ceremony. Jane remembered that our friend Marshall Ho’o was some sort of Minister. At least she had heard about him conducting weddings. Marshall was an elderly Chinese man who owned the house Jane was taking care of when we first met. He was a master of Tai Chi, and was a celebrity in the martial arts community. He was also a Doctor of Acupuncture.
Marshall’s much younger wife was named Jill, and she and Jane were very close friends. We drove over to their house and knocked on the door. Marshall was sitting in the living room in a tank top t-shirts and some shorts watching a sports event.
We told him that we wanted to get married. He congratulated us. We told him that we would like for him to perform the ceremony. He told us we needed to get a marriage license. We pulled it out and showed it to him. We told him that we just wanted to be married, and didn’t want to do anything fancy about it. If he just wanted to sign the certificate right there and pronounce us married, that was fine with us.
He looked at us kind of disapprovingly. Then he said, “Come back tomorrow. Bring your parents, and I’ll marry you”. We told him that we preferred privacy, and that we had been living like a married couple for three years, so all we wanted was to be legally married. He looked at us again and said, “Bring your parents”.
We went home and called my Mom and Dad, and Jane’s Mom and Step-Father. They were surprised to hear that we were going to get married so suddenly, but it wasn’t like we just met.
The next day we arrived over at Jill and Marshall’s house. Jill was barbequing, which was very nice of her. Jane had gone out with her sister Donna and bought a nice outfit with a hat. I dressed in slacks and a somewhat nice shirt that at least didn’t have ink on it from the sign shop. Our parents came; we brought Christian who sat up on a wall with Jill and Marshall’s young sons. Mary came, and so did Donna.
We really would have been fine with Marshall just signing the license, but he did an entire ceremony for us. It was very Zen in nature, which was somewhat appropriate considering that most of what was any good about est came from Zen philosophy.
At one point, Marshall pulled these sticks with rolled up paper towels around them out of his jacket and gave one to each of us. Then he produced a cigarette lighter and lit them on fire, and instructed us to draw the symbols of the Yin and the Yang with the fire.
Then, standing on the edge of his pool, Marshall almost stepped back and fell in, but caught himself at the last moment.
Even with all of our sad events, our wedding did seem pretty humorous, there in the back yard of the house in Shadow Hills where Jane and I first got to know each other four years before. It was perfect.
It seemed unbelievable to me that inside of the month of July 1983, we not only lost one of our kids, but we were finally married. I think that we both just craved for some kind of goodness and light from all the darkness. Given that we had been trained that we had to create our own goodness, cutting all the red tape and getting married at poolside by a world famous Chinese Tai Chi an Acupuncture expert fit right in.
I thought that what Marshall had done for us was so cool, that I ended up sending a donation to the Universal Life Church who instantly ordained me as a Minister. I didn’t even think I believed in God at the time, but they will ordain anybody. I started flashing my credentials around showing friends, but I never thought anything would come of it.
Not long after we were married, Jane told me that she wanted to have another baby. We had always been very strict about our use of birth control, so we decided to stop using it and see what would happen. The next month Jane was pregnant Erin.
A few months into the pregnancy when Jane was really starting to show, one of the cast members from Roadshow Players called me out of the blue. Her named was Keeli. She asked me if I was still an ordained Minister. I shot back, “Once ordained, always ordained, my child. What can I do for you?”. She said that she wanted to get married, and needed someone to perform the ceremony.
Now, last time I checked, Keeli was gay. So, I asked her if she was going to marry a girl or a guy. She said a girl, Nancy. I told her that same-sex marriages were not recognized by the state, but if they wanted, I could do a ceremony for them anyway. There would be no marriage license to sign. I also told them that they had to come over and help me write a script so I would know what to say. I would memorize the script, and we would perform it like a play.
They rented out a gay church in Hollywood, and filled the pews with guests. Keeli’s dad walked her down the aisle and gave her away to Nancy. I stood up and gave one heck of a dignified performance, talking on about commitment and love, more or less ignoring the fact that it was too women. This was pretty edgy stuff in 1984.
After the wedding I circulated among the guests, who assumed I was a gay minister. Then I would introduce them to my obviously pregnant wife, and they just didn’t know what to think.
I know that many people disapprove of gay marriage, I have no problem with two people who want to make a commitment to each other in domestic partnership.
I felt that by doing this, I also passed on the favor that Marshall did for us. Some people just want to be married and don’t want to deal with all that crap.
Keeli and Nancy lasted longer than most of our heterosexual friends. The last time I heard from them they were still together.
And, I have the story about the time I was a Lesbian Minister. What could be better? I can’t tell that story to everybody I meet, but it does give me something to say 22 years later now that same-sex marriage is a hot topic.
I have gone on to marry other people legally. Anybody who just wants to get married without all the expense and planning is welcome to ask me, and I’m happy to do anything from an actual ceremony to just signing the paper and letting them leave. I always insist on mailing the certificate myself, just like Marshall did.
Years later, after Marshall died, we went to see Jill. We sat around the table and drank tea and talked about Marshall. I told Jill that I had always appreciated how nice Marshall had been to marry us when we were so desperate for something happy in our lives.
Then, I asked Jill what church had ordained Marshall. “Universal Life Church”, she said back. My jaw dropped, and I clutched the pearls. I had been married by the same kind of mail-order minister that I was. All those years, I had believed that he was into some kind of organized far eastern religion, but Marshall was ULC just like me. I asked Jill, a legal secretary, if she thought these marriages were really legal.
“Did you send in the license?”, she asked. “Yes”, I replied. “Did it come back recorded and stamped?”, she asked. “Yes”, I replied. “Well, then you are legally married. If you still don’t believe it, one of you file for divorce, and the other try to claim your marriage wasn’t legal. You’ll see.”
I’m not sure exactly what year it was that I went to my last est seminar. I do know that it was after they changed est to “Werner Erhard and Associates”, and closed down the San Fernando Valley Center. When the announcement came in a seminar that Jane and I were taking, she leaned into me and said, “I’ve seen all this before. The Children of God did the same thing when they became The Family of Love, and things were never the same after that”. She looked frightened by it.
Soon they completely dropped the est name. “The est Training” became The Training”, and later, “The Forum”. It wasn’t just a name change. They pretty much dumped the old training. They got rid of most of the vulgar language, and the long hours. They started giving frequent pee breaks, and shortened it from four days to three. It seemed like an attempt to make it more commercial. For all the publicity est generated, less than a million people actually took the training. I think they felt that if they were going to train millions of people, they needed a new image.
One thing didn’t change, the hard sell. They started to pressure graduates like myself to take The Forum. I refused thinking that it was just a sales ploy. We had been told “This is it! There’s nothing to get!”. Now there was something else to get?
Jane decided to enroll in the Forum, and of course, I supported her in that. She came away from it saying that they had taken all the fun stuff out of it. Now it was mostly breaking into groups and doing face-to-face stuff with other trainees under the direction of a trainer. There was no longer a Danger Process, and no Presenters. No “Assholes”.
There were also attempts to get rid of the est jargon. We were no longer “graduates”, we were “people who had taken the training”. Someone you brought to a guest seminar was “a person who had not yet taken the training”. They stopped saying “I got that” all the time. There was very little cursing anymore. The San Fernando Valley est Center was closed, and the Los Angeles est Center became the Los Angeles Area Center.
After they closed the Center in our area, we were expected to take seminars out of L.A.. L.A. and the Valley are two different worlds, but the powers that be in San Francisco didn’t see it that way. All of my friends stopped taking seminars because of the long drive. I stopped assisting.
I did hear that Randy McNamara was going to lead the “Experience of Integrity” seminar out of L.A., and it seemed too interesting to pass up. My original second weekend trainer, leading what was known at the time as est’s most intense seminar!
I took the seminar alone, because nobody else wanted to drive all the way to a hotel near LAX every Wednesday night. The traffic really was murder every week. Randy was entertaining as ever, and had a hard time not cursing, he had been one of est’s most profane trainers.
The seminar was about integrity as being whole, complete, and true to your word. We were told that when we break our word, we aren’t being our true selves.
I got something out of that seminar that they probably didn’t figure on. I got that I was just taking est seminars at that point so everyone wouldn’t figure out that I had lost it. I was finished with est, and my continued participation had become a lie. To stop telling the lie, I would have to stop participating with est.
I stopped participating with est, and then a real miracle happened. I started to be myself again.
After years of being an est robot, I didn’t have to do that anymore. I just had to be myself.
When people would call me to sign up for a new seminar, I could just tell them, “No thanks!”. When they would ask me why, I’d just tell them that I had made a choice not to be in a seminar. All they could say then was, “Okay! Thanks!” (click).
After a while, they just stopped calling. I was kind of disappointed, since I knew exactly how they were trained, because I used to train them. I knew how to tell them no, and telling them no was a true expression of my own integrity.
It was kind of like that part in “The Wizard of Oz” where the Wizard runs out of trinkets in the bag. The Scarecrow already has his degree from the university; the Tin Woodsman has his heart necklace, the Lion his badge of courage. Dorothy has already missed the hot air balloon that carries the Wizard away. She’s left with Glenda the Good Witch, who tells her she’s had the power to go home all along. All she has to do is click her heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like home. There’s not place like home. There’s no place like home”.
It was simple like that. I was home again. I was myself, but better than before. I had some real life experience under my belt. I was a grown-up, who had survived terrible things. I didn’t need to speak in jargon, or go to seminars and bring guests. I could just be myself.
It’s never a good thing to be obsessed with anything. However, there were some good things I learned there, and most were stolen from other philosophies, but they were packaged so a 22 year old kid like me could access them: Keeping your word. Making agreements with others that you will keep. Being on time. Taking responsibility for your own life. This is all good stuff.
The bad stuff about est was mostly the selling. The difference between est and Roadshow Players was that I didn’t have to hard sell anybody to be in the show, or to book the show, or come watch the show. People knew it was good, and they demanded to be part of it.
I know now that anything that has to be hard sold is probably crap. All those get rich quick schemes are brought to you by a friend or neighbor who’s just as broke as you are.
They are brainwashed by a guy at the top who really is rich, by taking the money of the poor dumb sap who is trying to convince you.
The trainer told us on day four that est was a scam. We had been “had”. They ripped us off for our $350, and got nothing in return. That to “get it” was to “get the joke”.
Apparently, it took me about four years to really get the joke. That was the difference between people like me and people like my Mom or Bobby. They got the joke and moved on. I had to keep going back, because I didn’t really get it. I might have been having some peak experiences, but the evidence that I didn’t get it was that I was still going back.
As long as I kept going back and spending money on more seminars, I was a sucker. I thought I was the smartest guy in the world, and they agreed with me, and the more they made me think that, the more money I paid out. The more friends I brought in, and the more they paid out. It was a scam, they told me it was a scam, and I kept going back because I thought I was special. What 22 year old doesn’t want to be special?
I’m glad I did est. I learned how to get things done. I learned how to stop making excuses. I learned how to keep my word.
But, isn’t that what grown-ups do anyway?
I’m still sad that Jimmy and Gretchen died. We love our siblings and our kids and our parents and our friends. When they die, it hurts worse than anything else.
That we experience grief is proof that we aren’t machines. It’s part of the human condition. I’m so glad that I didn’t let some seminar leader handle my case about those deaths, and convince me to plaster on a phony smile and act like it was okay. It wasn’t okay, it was a rip-off, and I was being perfectly human to feel the way I did for as long as I did, and listen to dark music, and make up morbid music videos in my head.
With time, I got better. Getting married and making another baby with Jane were our first steps into a new life. A life of really being responsible, and not just talking about it.
Thank you for reading my story. It’s been hard to write, but in doing it I’ve remembered some things I haven’t though about in over twenty years. I hope this helps people realize how easy anyone can get sucked into a high demand group.
In closing I want to describe my favorite cartoon. I clipped it out of a magazine. For years I had it taped to the wall of my closet and I’d look at it every morning while I dressed. It must have finally disintegrated due to age.
There is a mountain. On top of the mountain sits a dog. The dog looks regal with a crown on top of its head. A man is climbing the mountain on a quest for the truth. He is almost to the top and he sees the dog. The dog says to him:
“What did you expect? Life is a royal bitch”.