Building from the momentum generated by the youth counter-culture in the sixties, the human potential movement burst upon the scene in the seventies and found its most vocal expression in a training known as est (derived from the Latin verb meaning "to be). The training, created by Werner Erhard in 1971, promised to transform the quality of the lives of 200 to 250 participants in two weekends, spent in a hotel ballroom. People enrolled in est because they were looking for something they considered to be missing in their life, be it expansion, clarity, definition, or a new direction. What they received was much, much more - a multi-level introduction to self-realization and a new definition of reality that pioneered what is generally known as New Age Spirituality.
Shown at the Atlanta Film Festival, Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard, a documentary by two-time Emmy Award winner Robyn Symons looks at est and its creator, showing rare clips from inside the training as well as interviews with est graduates and staff members. Symons brings the story up-to-date, interviewing Werner, now aged 70, talking about the infamous "60 Minutes" broadcast of 1991, his reconciliation with his family thirteen years after he had abandoned them in his twenties, and his activities during the last fifteen years. Werner, considerably mellowed by the passing years, comes across as still dynamic, yet somewhat worn down. For those who participated in either the est training or est's successor, The Landmark Forum, the film will be a validation of the contribution that Werner has made and will restore some balance in the public mind as to how his legacy is perceived. Unfortunately however, because it is so limited in its time (62 minutes), and lacking in fuller exploration and depth of its topics, it may have limited appeal to those who know little or nothing about est or Werner's history.
The film traces the beginnings of est to an epiphany Werner had while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco when he realized that, contrary to all that he had been taught, the individual is responsible for the content and decisions that make up his or her life. While est in the seventies engendered a strong positive reaction from the majority of people who finished the course, it also became a source of controversy. Stories circulated about fainting, peeing, vomiting, and sobbing, painting a scene that, taken out of context, seemed frightening. However, the meaning and purpose of the training was lost in these horror stories and Werner's attempt to explain est to the media was singularly unsuccessful. It also spurred a negative reaction from the psychiatric and academic establishment, unwilling to believe that people could alter the quality of their life in the space of sixty hours, contrary to the deeply ingrained notion that progress had to take months, years, and even decades to be achieved. Consequently, est was labeled "pop psychology", "brainwashing", and "a boot-camp approach to psychology".
Werner's reputation also took a hit in 1991 with an "expose" on "60 Minutes" in which associates and family members accused him of unsavory acts, all of which were later denied and subsequently recanted by the accusers. Werner, however, left the U.S. shortly thereafter, claiming on a Larry King broadcast that he was being targeted by Scientology. He has not returned in the last fifteen years and, though he has carried on his work abroad, has become largely forgotten in the U.S. While the film attempts to set the record straight about his life and about common misconceptions about the training - its language, physical environment, and whether or not people were prevented from going to the bathroom, the film does very little to clarify the methodology or the true purpose of the training.
Also some clips from inside the training, may actually reinforce the notion in some people's minds that trainees were being victimized. For example, the film shows a young woman being told by Werner that her experience in foster homes was simply her "story" and her "racket". In the context of a sixty-hour training, these labels are precisely defined and have a great deal of meaning, and were intended to allow the young woman to realize that her experiences, as painful as they were, do not have to define her life. Outside of that context, however, their meaning is not clear and Werner's tone comes across as being less than compassionate. Additionally, clips seem to be selected more for shock value than as instructional tools about the meaning and purpose of the training.
While the film does add perspective to his recent trials, it has a "stagy" quality that doesn't truly capture the excitement and inspiration of those early days when it looked as if est could one day be incorporated into public education. While spokespersons for Werner in the film (mostly former est staff members) are articulate in supporting the goals of the training, the film could have benefited greatly from the comments of those who were outside the organization, perhaps insights from poets such as Allen Ginsberg or psychologists as to why the training was able to produce the kind of results it did in a short period of time. In spite of the film's shortcomings, however, it is an important first step in acquainting the world with the contributions of this man who dedicated his life to making others great.
Words and phrases such as "transformation", "empowerment", "making a difference", "getting it" and so forth have become part of the vocabulary of the culture, even to the extent that they have been pre-empted by advertising agencies who seek to use them to make a profit. Werner did not write books or go out on the lecture circuit to great applause from true believers and functioned in an atmosphere of non-agreement and non-acceptance. His genius did not lie in any concepts or ideas but in the enormous contribution his programs made to people's lives (including my own). Although the training, now The Landmark Forum, in recent years has moved away from the fringes and closer to the mainstream, Werner's programs, in my view, are still extremely valuable tools to deepen our self-awareness and Symon's film Transformation is a fitting beginning to the acknowledgment of his true greatness.
©2006 Howard Schumann