Erhard's Life After Est
Common Boundary, published March/April 1994
By Dan Wakefield
ERHARD IN EXILE
One of the most controversial figures of the Me Decade, est founder Werner Erhard has been out of the country for years. Is the self-help guru on the run? Or is he learning what it’s like to be free?
A hush came over the conference room as Father John Cullen, a priest from County Roscommon, Ireland, stood up to thank the man who had just led a week-long workshop on ministry for 28 people in Dublin, most of them priests and nuns.
“Reference was made last night,” Father Cullen said, “to a phrase that’s been used as a title in Ireland: ‘on the run.’” Some of their fathers had been “on the run,” Father Cullen explained, from the Black and Tans, the hated British occupiers, and “the phrase touches the Irish in our deepest psyche.”
It also touched on the problems of the visiting American workshop leader, who had left his country under clouds of scandal and threats to his personal safety, and who now lives in various hotel rooms around the world.
“But we don’t see you as ‘on the run,’” Father Cullen told the exile. “We see you as totally free. We hope you have found in our presence, in our hearts especially, a safe house, and there will always be that safe house for you in Ireland. Thank you for creating a safe space in us to discover endless possibilities.”
The priests, nuns, and lay religious leaders applauded. Some had tears in their eyes. The man they thanked for helping them “make a difference in their ministry” told them, “I don’t minister – I don’t know anything about it.” He said the occupation listed on his passport is “race-car driver” and on his visas “retired race-car driver,” but he earns his living as a consultant. He’s the last person most of the public would expect to be honored by priests and nuns. But he’s the man who sold more than a million people on the idea that “at all times, under all circumstances, we have the power to transform the quality of our lives.” Werner Erhard was back in action.
Once described by Newsweek as “a celebrity guru who retails enlightenment,” Werner Erhard founded the controversial programs of personal growth called “est” (an intensive, two-weekend seminar of transformation” that swept the country in the ’70s) and its milder current offshoot called “The Forum.” He had left the U.S. in 1991 following a since discredited 60 Minutes that featured charges by family and former associates.
Before the segment aired, Werner Erhard, who had set up his programs as a business, sold the firm that produced The Forum to the men and women who lead it (they renamed the company Landmark Education), divested himself of his properties, most of which were put under lien to the government in a tax dispute, and went abroad with the press reporting (inaccurately) that he was on the lam from the IRS. There were rumors that he had settled in Costa Rica or was giving seminars in Japan. The San Francisco Examiner reported: “Werner Erhard, almost like Elvis, seems to be everywhere and nowhere.”
Yet he came out of Asia last summer to lead the seminar in Ireland, where, as an aide put it, Werner Erhard didn’t have “that baggage” of scandal. The American religious leaders involved in sponsoring the workshop knew the charges, of course. Father Gerald O’Rourke, a Roman Catholic priest from San Francisco who left his vocation in 1973 and credits Erhard and his programs with enabling him to “begin again” as a priest in 1979, said, “Werner’s made mistakes in life, like the rest of us, and he’s made efforts to try to correct them and bring harmony. His willingness to forgive under colossal fire and not retaliate, especially with family members, is heroic – it’s the kind of stuff saints are made of.”
This is the man branded as “a monster of selfishness,” “Park Avenue illusionist,” “pop guru,” and “failed used-car dealer”; few have evoked such powerful reactions from reverence to revilement.
Werner Erhard disclaims both extremes. He told the priests and nuns, “My friend Gerry [O'Rourke] knows I’m more interested in being authentic and straightforward than looking like an angel. He knows I’m a rascal and knows I need his prayers.”
A tall, well-built, black-haired man, sharply dressed in a gray tweed jacket, gray slacks, and black shirt buttoned at the neck without a tie, Erhard is handsome. He’s also surprisingly fit at 58, although he smokes cigarettes (after giving up cigars), loves fine wine and gourmet food, and doesn’t work out. He told the workshop participants, “In Zen, they say there’s the high road to enlightenment and the low road. I took the low road. On the low road, you do everything that doesn’t work.”
Werner Erhard has done a lot that “doesn’t work” in the rollercoaster course of his life, which has had enough twists of plot and identity for a John le Carre spy novel. Born John Paul Rosenberg to an Episcopal mother and a Jewish father who became an evangelical Christian convert (Erhard was raised in the Episcopal Church), he sold used cars in Philadelphia as Jack Rosenberg, married his high-school sweetheart, then abandoned her and four children for a blonde named (stranger than fiction) June Bryde. On a plane fleeing west he read an article on the “New Germany” and picked names from physicist Werner Heisenberg and economics minister Ludwig Erhard, transforming himself into Werner Erhard.
Successful as a manager for encyclopedia sales, Erhard was also cramming for enlightenment by studying Gestalt and Zen; Plato; Freud; Jung; Heidegger; and Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Fritz Perls (theorists of the human-potential movement). He participated in encounter groups and took courses from Dale Carnegie, Scientology, and Mind Dynamics, plucking ideas he’d later use in his programs.
Driving to work on the freeway to San Francisco in March 1971, Werner Erhard underwent a “peak experience,” or what Zen calls satori (“I saw that everything is just the way it is – and the way it isn’t”), and that September he launched est, his own crash course in transformation. He publicly apologized to his first wife and family and made “completing” relationships one of the bedrocks of his programs, which drew not only Hollywood stars like Raul Julia and Ted Danson and studio executives (one studio was dubbed “Werner Brothers”) but also Buzz Aldrin, Joe Namath, Yoko Ono, John Denver, and Harvard professor of psychiatry John Mack, whose Biography of Lawrence of Arabia, A Prince of Our Disorder, won a National Book Award. Many participants had “breakthroughs,” like Henry Hampton, who was stuck in his efforts to produce a documentary on civil rights. At a friend’s urging, he went into est “with absolute “disbelief” and “came out with a new energy” that resulted in Eyes on the Prize, his Emmy-winning PBS series.
Werner Erhard was also making enemies, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard, who was angry that the upstart salesman had taken Scientology courses and lifted some of its methodology. Abrasive as well as unconventional, with no academic credentials beyond a high-school diploma, Erhard managed to alienate roomfuls of strangers with a single talk. One memory that still rankles MIT professors is of Erhard’s telling a faculty audience, including Nobel Prize winners, that they were assholes. “You can’t speak that way to such people!” one recently steamed. But Erhard did – and earned their enmity.
These kinds of shock tactics,, perceived as arrogance, along with Werner Erhard’s use of jargon (what he calls “languaging”) and the cultlike zeal of graduates who eagerly attempted to enroll friends, family, and fellow workers, helped create an abominable media image. (Erhard told the Dublin seminar, “The only good press I got was when I was driving race cars – a sportswriter named me ‘Rookie of the Year.’”)
The press has called est everything from a “rip-off” to “gobbledygook,” and The Forum “a mishmash of self-help theories, common-sense psychology, and dime-store ideas of motivation.” A rule against bathroom breaks in the early days of est (dramatized comically in the movie Semi-Tough), long hours between meals, and little time for sleep led to charges of “brainwashing” through deprivation and “fascism” because of strict enforcement of the rules. (The Forum has regular hours and breaks.)
Yet over the past 22 years more than a million people around the globe – including business executives, NASA officials, juvenile delinquents, government bureaucrats, federal prisoners, and mainstream religious leaders – have done Erhard’s seminars, and 16 independent studies have reported a high rate of satisfaction.
Public-opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich expressed “surprise” over the results of his own investigation, which reported that “more than seven out of ten participants found The Landmark Forum to be one of their life’s most rewarding experiences.” The study reported that 95 percent of Forum graduates believe it has had “specific, practical value” for many aspects of their lives, and 86 percent of those surveyed say that it helped them “cope with a particular challenge or problem.”
I am one of them. I did the est training in Boston in 1984 and found it exhilarating and liberating. It helped me resolve issues left hanging from a six-year, five-day-a-week Freudian psychoanalysis that had brought on a hallucinatory breakdown and almost killed me. (Even AMA-approved programs can be dangerous.) In a follow-up seminar to est I experience a “shift” in my 25-year habit of excessive drinking, moving from “control” of the problem by teeth-grinding willpower to a loss of the desire to drink. When people told me I must have been brainwashed to speak well of Erhard’s work, I said it was a funny kind of brainwashing since I didn’t come out of it believing anything different than I had before. I went back to my work, church, and community with greater enthusiasm. In a seminar I took with Erhard, he emphasized that “people get in trouble with this work when they try to make it a ’substitute’ for something else in their lives. This work is not a substitute for anything; it’s not a substitute for religion or therapy or politics or philosophy. It’s meant to empower you in whatever you’re already committed to in those realms.”
I had been deeply involved in my own return to church and Christianity before doing est, and rumors of brainwashing and cults raised fears that my faith might be undermined. I was reassured to learn that the Trappist monk Basil Pennington, author of the classic book Centering Prayer, had done “the work.” He was away on a lecture trip, but I spoke with a monk from his community at St. Joseph Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, who had done est and who told me, “Whatever genuine spirituality you bring to the program will be deepened by it.”
Father Pennington had done Erhard’s work after meeting an MIT student who had read Centering Prayer and started a group to practice it. Pennington learned that she had left her home and religion at age 12. Two years prior to their meeting she had done the est training, and she said it opened up her life. She reconciled with her family and her church. In fact, she decided to become a Trappist nun. “I’d never heard of est – in a monastery you miss a lot,” said Pennington, “but five weeks later I went to hear Werner Erhard talk about his Hunger Project. I was impressed by his approach, and he asked me to be on the advisory board of the Hunger Project, which I agreed to if I could see everything they did, and he said okay. I did est as Werner’s guest and heard about the Center for Contextual Study, which came out of his work to help therapists gain mastery in their profession. It was extremely effective, and I thought, “Why don’t we capture this approach for ministry?”
Bishop Otis Charles, who retired last June as dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also wanted “to make the ‘technology of transformation’ available to people in the Church, many of whom found est to be a stumbling block.” Bishop Charles, who did est in 1977, considers Werner Erhard and Ignatius of Loyola “the two individuals most influential in shaping my manner of grappling with work and life in the last 15 years,” because although “the two are separated by about 400 years, each had a gift of being able to put together a way of creating a space in which your own life and gifts were able to be clearly manifested.”
In 1983 Bishop Charles met with Father Pennington, Father Gerry O’Rourke, and other ministers, priests, and rabbis in New York to form the Mastery Foundation; they conceived a program for clergy that combined Erhard’s “technology” with Pennington’s teaching of “centering prayer.”
Father Pennington and Werner Erhard led the first workshop the next year in Massachusetts, creating the course as they went along. “We agreed he’d stay out of ‘the God talk’ and there’d be no theology,” explains Pennington, because the program was meant for men and women of all religious backgrounds. “I taught Werner centering prayer, and he saw that as fulfillment of what he was aiming at-being at peace with yourself and at one with God.”
Centering prayer is a modern term given to the contemplative practice begun in the second or third century in the Christian tradition, a form that novice monks learned as “the prayer of the heart.” It is like the form described in The Cloud of Unknowing, an emptying of the mind to stillness, using a “loving word” like “God” or “Jesus” to return to when thoughts enter to distract us from the “center of being. The silent meditative state ends when a leader quietly begins a spoken prayer like the Lord’s Prayer and others join in. The practice is recommended for 20 minutes twice a day, morning and evening.
I spoke with Pennington on the phone at a monastery in Hong Kong where since 1991 he’s been helping a small community of old Chinese monks who need care. I asked him how he felt Erhard’s work related to ministry.
“When Pope Paul VI asked us to help the Church reform the contemplative dimension in 1972, I found that the hardest people to reach were the clergy; they’re so stuck in their heads after years of theology. I thought Werner’s work was a way of getting people out of their heads and into reality.”
According to Pennington, while a high percentage of those who have done the workshop feel it helped their ministry and personal life, the Mastery Foundation has had to fight many prejudices: against Erhard, who is not part of the Mastery Foundation; against the contemplative dimension; and against the ecumenical nature of the Foundation’s work.
“Some critics say our workshop is ‘New Age.’ We Trappist monks say we’re the New Age. The New Age came when Jesus Christ was born.” He added, “It’s tragic the way the American press works, accenting the negative and eliminating the positive.”
When the 60 Minutes storm broke, Father Pennington wrote in the Mastery Foundation newletter, "Let us keep him in our prayers. Werner…generously gave us his help in designing the Mastery Foundation course…We workshop leaders commit ourselves …to be with you [participants] in a way that acknowledges your commitment to ministry is greater than your frailties. We acknowledge the same to be true of Werner…"
When I heard about the Dublin seminar, I was determined to go and see “what’s happened to Werner.” He gave me his first interview since the 60 Minutes segment. (Larry King has since interviewed him for a live broadcast aired last December.) Mastery Foundation executive director Ann Overton told me that Erhard had answered the invitation to lead the ministry workshop in Ireland faster than anything she’d known him to do, so I asked him if religious contacts were especially important because of his recent difficulties.
“My relationship with what we would call religion has been important to me throughout my life,” he said, “both in situations that were demanding or difficult and in situations where there was a big opportunity – and just as important where there’s nothing real at stake. It’s an aspect of being that one cheats oneself of if one’s not open to it. It’s kind of like closing your eyes at an art gallery. You can go around and feel the pictures maybe, but you’ve cheated yourself in terms of appreciating life, of experiencing a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment – of joy – and in terms of empowering yourself.”
Asked if he belonged to a denomination, Erhard said, “I was brought up as an Episcopalian, confirmed as an Episcopalian, and I’ve been a member of the Episcopal Church all my life. It was High Church, and we had confession. The first thing I ever wrote that was any good was about my experience at confession. I remember the confessional booth down to the thumbtack on the card that had the words you said, the lamp that was clipped on the stand, and the priest breathing on the other side of the curtain. It’s one of my most vivid memories.”
One of the most serious criticisms of Erhard is the charge that his religious impulse is really devoted to his own role not only as a “guru” but as a “god.” Robert Larzalere, who headed Erhard’s counseling staff for seven years in the 1970s, said on the 60 Minutes expose that Erhard spoke of himself as “the source of est” with the implication that “the message was: ‘I am God.’” When pressed, Larzalere said, “I would not sign a statement saying he said exactly that.”
Veteran Erhard aide Brian Regnier, an executive of Landmark, told me that the jargon then was acknowledgment of Erhard as “the source of the space in my life,” meaning the work he created to give people a greater sense of freedom. I’ve heard seminar leaders ask for acknowledgment of Werner Erhard as “the source of the work,” meaning the program we’d done. I never heard Erhard ask for more than respect for his work. For example, at the end of a Forum in Boston, he told participants, “If people know you met me, and ask who I am, don’t say I’m a guru; say I’m a friend.”
Joan Goldsmith – an educator and management consultant who was on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, founded a graduate school for mid-career professionals, and worked with Erhard as an in-house consultant from 1980 to 1982 – recalled. “When people looked to Werner as Source, he fed into it, enjoyed it, but he tried to get people not to use him that way – it was a double signal.”
Werner Erhard told me that the term “guru” simply didn’t apply to him. I asked if he felt he had capacities others don’t have, and he responded, “It’s clear to me that each of us is extraordinary in certain ways, and I probably am also. Over time I’ve developed an ability to relate to people in the work I do so they usually benefit in an extraordinary way. But others who’ve invested the time and energy also have developed that ability – a surgeon, sports coach, business consultant. So in that sense there’s nothing extraordinary about it.”
John Mack, the Harvard professor and author who did est in 1981, said, “Werner’s a powerful figure…He was encouraging people to challenge assumptions, to think for themselves, to choose freely, be responsible for their choices. I never felt he was conscripting me and people around him to his ‘way.’ I didn’t even get the sense there was a ‘way’ other than challenging and questioning, seeing things in a new context. Does that mean there aren’t a lot of people who seem to worship everything he says and cling to him? It’s how you respond to the karma.”
The karma at the workshop in Dublin was one of mutual respect between Erhard and his audience. Speaking in his firm, stare-you-down style as the seminar began. Erhard expressed deep respect for people who choose the religious life, “which isn’t the easy road.” He warned them, however, “This is not going to be a pleasant experience; it’s not going to be fun – though the centering prayer you do twice a day may be a solace.”
Explained Father Gerald O’Rourke, whose San Francisco years have not diminished his brogue and whose strong-featured face topped with white hair suggests Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan: “Centering prayer and the ‘technology of transformation’ are the two tracks of the course, and they merge and dovetail beautifully. My life would be meager if I didn’t have centering prayer. It’s like drilling a well. When you go through that darkness, you get to ‘oil,’ reach the spirit of God. The valuable thing is to go through darkness, bleakness, effort, to be with God.”
Every morning and afternoon Father O’Rourke or another facilitator led a 20-minute session of centering prayer, followed by discussion of “what came up,” and reassurance that anything from “monkey mind” chatter to sleep was okay. there were also breaks for coffee or strolls in the flower-filled inner courtyard of the Marino Institute of Education, a former monastery still operated by the monks. The building rests on spacious grounds on the outskirts of Dublin, providing a spiritually resonant setting and good, plain food in a cafeteria that became a lively center for discussion at meals. All of this was respite from the intensity of Erhard’s”inquiry” into ministry.
He told these clergy: “I’m privately very religious, since I was small – I sit in church and tears roll down my eyes – but its personal; I don’t have expertise; I’m not a theologian. I’m going to find out what ministry is through you.”
The participants – including a school principal, a retired Sister of Mercy nun, a fifth-grade schoolteacher, the priest of a small country parish, a teacher of neuromuscular medicine, a curate, and the director of an anti-famine project – came up with definitions of ministry as “a kind of touching between people…a whole attitude to life…a way of being and relating to people, not a series of jobs…more a process than a product.”
After many definitions were offered, Erhard said, “There’s no such thing as ministry. It’s not fixed, so you can’t ‘get it right.’ It’s generative, so you are free to create, invent, constitute, generate your ministry…You can create it as something ennobling, empowering.” He urged them to try on his ideas “like a jacket,” rather than “believe” them, to see things in a new context, and to “take with you only what fits, which means it came from you, not me, anyway.”
Werner Erhard didn’t call this audience assholes, but he challenged, provoked, and, yes, even yelled at the priests and nuns: “I try to treat people with ruthless compassion because I don’t see them as frail or weak. I have no love for suffering and don’t want to elevate it to any glory. If you want to be ‘heartfelt’ about something, be heartfelt about something meaningful, like the opportunity of your ministry – not the difficulties you suffered in life.” He stopped and shouted: “You’re church mice about your ministry – and powerfully expressive about the terrible things that have happened to you. It’s fine for the Irish poets and playwrights to celebrate the misery life can hold – the rest of you, cut it out!”
He treated them as others in his seminars, which means not only confronting but also praising with equal zeal: “Don, thank you for sharing. I mean, really, it took a big person to do that…Liz, you’re a beautiful, powerful woman. Use your power!” Observing this, Father O’Rourke said, “was like watching the people seem to grow larger before your eyes.”
At a break, Father Frankie Murray said, “For someone they call a guru, Werner’s not bad – he’s an okay guy. The Irish don’t go for gurus; I’d have been uncomfortable with that. He’s not trying to empower people to be what they’re not – but to be who they are.”
But who is he, this Jack-turned-Werner, called both monster and saint? Joan Goldsmith told me, “For people who needed certainty, he was ‘the source of all sources.’ There’s nobody who’s all that. The Werner we fantasized is in each of us. that’s his message – if you meet the Buddha, cut his head off.”
Indeed, many other associates and est graduates realized over time just how human Erhard really was. Journalist Marcia Seligson, who had done est to expose it as a scam for New Times magazine in 1974 but ended up writing that it was “one of the truly powerful experiences of my life,” said that after 18 years as a friend and supporter of Erhard she felt “a great sense of personal betrayal.” Although Erhard made statements on his departure to staff and program participants, Seligson feels that “he should have sent a letter to every graduate of est and The Forum, taking responsibility for the scandal. We were owed something beyond ‘I’m outa here.’ I think Werner had a huge contribution left to make. It’s tragic he blew it.” She added, “Even if you question, as I do, how much of the accusations on 60 Minutes are true, the guy’s got an enormous dark side. I’ve seen it with every guru who’s come down the pike.”
John Mack, who served on the board of the est Foundation, told me, “the 60 Minutes program so demolished Werner because it showed all the worst things and did nothing to put it in any context. It was probably not all the way they said it was, but there’s something there.” Mack wrestles with trying to balance the accusations against the fact that Erhard was a transformational force in his life. “He started me on a path of questioning a lot of damaging assumptions about myself and my culture. The commercial aspect of his work I’ve always found aggravating and disgusting, but I continue to use what I learned from him. How do I reconcile this with his destructive side? It’s a rage-filled side, obviously. I know people who’ve seen those rages.”
One who saw his anger as well as his brilliance was Joan Goldsmith. “To do what he’s done is incredible. Maybe the price he paid is the dark side, the anger,” she said. “I think it came out of his impatience at the gap between his vision of how the world could ‘work’ and the reality. I’ve worked around a lot of CEOs and seen temper and anger very similar to Werner’s. He drank a lot of wine, stayed up till all hours, pushing himself, and the next day kept going on coffee. He had a lot of unprocessed rage. I think it went back to his parents, rage about his father. I knew his father – he was an evangelical guy who pushed his form of salvation – and his mother was very judgmental. He said once that with all he’d accomplished, ‘my mother didn’t believe I did any of it.’ He was never good enough, and he was scared of his family. He never knew how to have a family.”
Maybe that’s why he conducted family meetings like encounter groups and treated his wife and children as if they were doing the est training, requiring them to report on their progress, holding them “accountable” to their “commitments.”
Dr. Mack said, “Often people who change things in some transformational way in their field – Robert Frost, Picasso, Lillian Hellman – are kind of bastards with people close to them, because they put their own issues ahead of more accepted values of society. My role is to try to understand how the most loving, creative, and transformational forces and the destructive, dark, hurtful forces can exist in the same person and that one does not negate the other.”
Does Werner Erhard recognize what seem to be his own “dark, hurtful forces” as well as the “loving, creative” side of his nature, and feel the need to reconcile them? He didn’t address that issue directly, but he told the priests and nuns. “I’m not proud of the way I am, nor am I ashamed. This is who I am, and I’ve learned to accept myself as I am and not try to fix myself. Most people are horrified when I say that, because they recognize we can all improve and therefore I ought to be interested in changing myself. But I’m not – I spent more than half my life working on changing myself, and I got very successful at it. Man, I really knew principles of change. But as the old French proverb goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ve learned it’s more empowering simply to accept yourself as you are, not narcissistically loving yourself, but a simple being at peace with yourself. When I’m able to be fully responsible for the way I am, without justification or rationalization, new possibilities for being come into existence. I find myself growing naturally, without effort.”
I also asked what his future plans were. “My commitment is to complete the threads of the past which haven’t yet been tied down,” he said, “and then to devote the next period of my life to writing, though I’ll continue to consult and develop material…instead of making the work available on an oral basis, now I want to see if I can do it in print and maybe electronic media.
“I think one reason for the misunderstanding of this work is that oral traditions are much more subject to misinterpretations than traditions which can be represented in writing. I don’t mean writing can’t get you in trouble – people like Galileo and Spinoza are good examples that it can. The excommunication document against Spinoza is very skillfully written. He wouldn’t have been more fully vilified in his own time.”
Asked if he’d created any new work, Erhard said, “One of the greatest values of the last two years has been in developing the ability to give up whatever I might be trying to protect. I’ve had a clear breakthrough in that area, a whole new level of ‘freedom to be.’ Also a lot of insight about being owned by what you create and losing your freedom to be, by virtue of being captured by your career, your commitments. The very things that give you life often then take it away. I’m interested in how one creates something without being owned by it. I’ve divested myself of the things I created that kind of owned me, so now I have both sides of that coin to look at. It’s hard to imagine not being owned by what you create, but I say it’s possible. I want to see if I’m able to generate a breakthrough there that can be shared with other people.”
Werner Erhard recently had a shot at reaching the people in an interview on Larry King Live via satellite from Moscow last December. King, calling his guest “one of the major influences in American life for two decades,” asked Erhard hard questions about the charges raised by 60 Minutes but accepted his answers without trying to nail him to the wall, mainly pressing him on why he wouldn’t come back to the States. Erhard said he didn’t want to put up with the “harassment” he charged Scientology with conducting. King asked whether he would come back if a leader from Scientology phoned to make peace. Erhard said yes – but that call didn’t come.
In a subsequent program with King, the president of the Church of Scientology, Heber Jentszch, denying any harassment of Erhard, told the host he had tried to call, “but the line was busy.”
Erhard Answers Charges
In July 1993 Werner Erhard had not yet responded publicly to the charges, nor had he countered press claims that he had fled the country because of tax problems. But because I had done “the work,” he gave me his first interview since the 60 Minutes show of March 3, 1991. He required nothing other than a promise to show him direct quotes, a courtesy I’ve granted to other public figures. We plugged in our tape recorders in his Dublin hotel suite, and I asked if reports that he had left the country to avoid the Internal Revenue Service were true.
“I am not ‘on the run’ from the IRS or the law or anybody else,” he said. “The IRS is not looking for me. I’m not wanted by the IRS. If I walked into an IRS office and said, ‘Here I am,” they would say, “Well, what do you want?’ I see things in print that say I evaded taxes. Tax evasion is a crime. The IRS has never even intimated that I might be guilty of tax evasion or any other crime; only the media has. The IRS has directly said in court records that I did not evade taxes.”
The IRS disallowed deductions claimed under a complex tax structure set up by Erhard’s former attorney, Harry Margolis, who was later indicted for tax fraud involving other clients. Michael Salzman, Erhard’s current tax attorney, said, “His problems are attributable to his former tax attorney. In 1981 he was represented by reputable lawyers to separate himself and his business from [Margolis], and he did so.” He is left with a $6.9 million lien, under appeal.
A spokesman for the IRS Office of Public Information, who is allowed to report only what’s on the public record, said in regard to Erhard, “There is a lien outstanding. There are no criminal charges.”
Erhard explained that he is out of the U.S. because attorneys warned him of the threat of physical harm, advising that he “keep [his] whereabouts confidential.” One had been a leading criminal attorney in California, and “it’s pretty gruesome when he describes the kind of harm one can put oneself in the way of when you’re dealing with the kind of people who’d vow to destroy you, and whose public statements allow them to use any means to do it. The Church of Scientology has this thing called ‘fair game,’ and their published ‘fair game’ policy is ‘by any means.’”
Werner Erhard was declared “fair game” by Scientology in 1973.
The Fair Game Law was described in a 1990 series on Scientology in the Los Angeles Times: “Written by Hubbard in the mid-1960s, it states that anyone who impedes Scientology is fair game and can be ‘deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist…may be tricked, sued, or lied to or destroyed …’ Church spokesmen maintain that Hubbard rescinded the policy three years after it was written because its meaning had been twisted…But various judges and juries have concluded that while the actual labeling of persons as ‘fair game’ was abandoned, the harassment continued unabated.”
In 1983 Erhard’s attorney, Art Schreiber, informed him of a phone call from a Boston attorney who was representing clients suing the Church of Scientology. The attorney said he’d been informed of someone involved in “having a contract” put out on Erhard’s life. As part of the lawsuit’s settlement, that attorney had to turn over his files to the Church of Scientology. Because the evidence wasn’t seen, Erhard dismissed the threat until an attorney’s letter in 1991 warned, “It is easy for those of us having grown up in a civilized society to think that thugs and hit men only happen in the movies…Recent articles about your enemies suggest that they would not be above such tactics.”
Erhard said, “The danger is more extreme in the U.S. and it’s much more difficult to keep my whereabouts confidential there.”
Erhard’s enemies must have thought they’d heard the last of him after the 60 Minutes expose. On that program, three of Erhard’s seven children appeared making charges against him. One daughter's statements were repudiated by Maxine Forbes, a former assistant to Erhard. Forbes was on the trip during which an incident supposedly occurred, and she swore in a 1992 affidavit that there surely would have been some change in the relationship between daughter and father if such an event had taken place, but “there was no change.”
Erhard did not respond to the charges because “at the time of the broadcast, I thought anything I would say would only exacerbate the situation, and any denial would only further damage my family. I would have had to publicly call some of my children liars, and I was and am unwilling to do that. There’s been some significant improvement since then – though certainly in no way complete – in making the family whole again, so there’s a little more room for me to say things which set the record straight.”
He was referring in part to his reconciliation with his daughter, Celeste, who has since denied the allegations made on 60 Minutes, saying they had all been pressured by her mother, Erhard’s second wife, to turn against their father, and that she also had been lured by promises of sharing royalties from a book expose.
“With regard to the serious accusations made on 60 Minutes by a small group of my family and former associates, they are all untrue,” Erhard told me. “Even most of the minor accusations are false.”
What about the charges by his daughters?
“They’re simply untrue. They’re not almost true or partially true or somewhat true; there isn’t something there that got twisted into what was said. There’s simply nothing. Those accusations are completely groundless.” Erhard also denies accusations that he struck his son St. John in anger over poor grades.
I asked him, “In reconciling with your first wife and children, whom you left, you asked for their forgiveness. Have you done that now?”
“If someone makes up something about you which isn’t true, you can be sure that, at least in their own mind, they feel they have a justification. In the case of my children who were involved in the attack on me, while I have some speculations, I just don’t know what they felt warranted the attack, but I asked them to forgive me for whatever it was. Maybe they felt I hadn’t been enough of a father, and too much of a teacher. While I always saw that there was time in my schedule for my family, I didn’t spend the amount of time with my children rather than using a softer psychological approach. I think I was a different sort of parent than what they saw in the parents of their friends. Maybe they thought life in the other families was more like the storybooks and they resented that ours wasn’t. Maybe with all this they felt I didn’t love them.”
“One of the misrepresentations of me is my relationship with my family. It’s true that I’m estranged from a few members of my family, but it’s also true that I have an extraordinary relationship with almost all my family. We get together – in fact, we were recently together in Mexico: my mother, three of my children, my brothers, my sister, and a lot of extended family. We had a wonderful time being together.”
Erhard’s only response on 60 Minutes was a written statement that was edited without his knowledge.
“I was probably stupid in not looking at how they could twist the meaning of my brief statement,” he told me. “It was only four sentences long, but they chose to read on the air only three of the sentences and made it appear I had said no more. They left out ‘I reserve the right to set the record straight at a future date.’ By not reading the last sentence, 60 Minutes cleverly left their viewers with the impression that I might be admitting that the accusations were true.”
When I called David Gelber, producer of the segment, and asked why the sentence was omitted, he said, “I can’t see that it matters.” Before the show, Gelber had written to William E. Barnes, public-relations representative for Erhard’s company, saying he wanted to produce “an important story about a fascinating man” and was interested in “shedding some light on the new phases of his work – rather than simply concentrating on his past.”
When I asked Gelber why the show never mentioned new work or positive contributions, he said, “That’s not what the show was about.” Gelber interviewed former Look magazine editor-writer George Leonard, a well-known workshop leader in the human-potential movement as well as an Erhard critic. Leonard said, “After I told [Gelber] I thought Werner’s work had done more good than harm, he lost interest.”
A statement was read at the end of 60 Minutes that “this week Erhard’s lawyers sent us affidavits from Erhard’s sister and brother and from a few of his close associates disputing some of the stories we heard from his children and denying that Erhard ever harmed his wife.” When I asked Gelber why nothing from the affidavits was read on the air, or why it wasn’t mentioned that one came from Erhard’s daughter Lynn, he charged that Erhard’s attorneys had played “a cynical game” by sending the affidavits too late for the broadcast. But Charles O. Morgan, the libel attorney who won the suit by psychiatrist Jeffrey Masson against Janet Malcolm and the New Yorker, told me, “That’s absolutely incorrect. We sent them a number of affidavits over a period of time. I am the one who sent them.”
No mention was made by 60 Minutes that Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who had done work for the show in the past, informed them that the Church of Scientology provided material for the segment as part of a long campaign against the est founder. Complaints by Erhard and his supporters that Scientology played a role in the press attacks on him sounded spurious until they were documented by Robert Welkos in the Los Angeles Times in December 1991. The Times reported that the Church of Scientology had run a “media blitz” to discredit Erhard, hiring private detectives to find damaging material. Private investigator Ted Heisig said he had been shown files that Scientology kept on Erhard dating to his early years: “Since Werner started his est program, he took potential customers…away from the Church.” Heisig said he reported every morning to a Scientology official to discuss the day’s “plan of attack.” Another private investigator, Alan Clow, was “told to dig up dirt” on Erhard and “gave ‘background’ information to 60 Minutes.”
An account of Scientology’s efforts was compiled in 60 Minutes and the Assassination of Werner Erhard, by Jane Self, a reporter for the Macon, Georgia, Telegraph. Self told me, “Gelber called our Podunk paper after the book came out, saying he represented 60 Minutes, asked if we were going to write on the Werner piece, and tried to discredit me.” Gelber said Self’s book was “an embarrassing piece of crap. I only read a few pages.”
I asked Gelber why 60 Minutes hadn’t mentioned Erhard’s lie-detector test results and his offer to take another under CBS’s supervision with anyone of their choice, and why there was no mention of Scientology’s campaign to discredit him. Gelber (now at ABC News) then said he was speaking off the record and he’d get back to me, but he never returned my call.
Fortune magazine's 40th Anniversary issue (May 15, 1995), in examining the major contributions to management thinking, recognized Werner Erhard’s creation of est as the major innovation of the 1970s in shaping modern management thinking toward empowering people.