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A Door to Door Mind Salesman

by Stephen Pressman

from the book Outrageous Betrayal published by St. Martin's Press
Copyright 1993 Stephen Pressman


Even as he continued to explore with Erhard the intricacies of Scientology, Peter Monk read with curiosity a local newspaper ad in the fall of 1970 for a lecture that was to be given about a program called Mind Dynamics. He tore out the ad and showed it to Erhard, who instantly seemed interested. Mind Dynamics, as it turned out, was about to lead to a much more rewarding opportunity than Scientology for an ambitious and charismatic salesman named Werner Erhard.

Launched in the Bay Area only a few months earlier, Mind Dynamics was the hybrid creation of Alexander Everett, a former English schoolmaster whose own fascination with mind-cure principles had begun in the 1950s, when he worked in Kansas City for one of the Unity Schools of Christianity, a mind-cure offshoot. From there Everett had wandered down to Texas, where he found work as an assistant principal at an exclusive private school in Fort Worth. It was in Texas that Everett ran across a man named Jose Silva who years earlier had concocted something called Mind Control that purported to teach its adherents over the course of four twelve-hour sessions how to relax and harness the power of their minds. By controlling the brain's alpha waves, Mind Control held out the promise of extraordinary results, from waking up without an alarm clock to ridding the body of dangerously addictive habits. 

By the late 1960s Everett had created a similar mental exercise program called Mind Dynamics. After offering a few courses in Texas, he soon realized that California, with its free-spirited environment, might provide a more hospitable climate for his metaphysical theories about brain waves. Everett settled in San Francisco in the early spring of 1970. Not long after he began selling for $200 a thirty-two-hour course on controlling the brain's alpha waves. By mastering Mind Dynamics, students supposedly could achieve almost any goal they set, from improving their IQs and ending insomnia to curing cancer while learning to avoid other life-threatening illnesses.

To reach more people, Everett needed a better marketing plan than simply the promise of untapped human potential. He found one in William Penn Patrick, a ruggedly handsome and self-confident master salesman, who presided at the time over a worldwide pyramidsales network of companies that sold products ranging from motor oil additives to banana-flavored body lotion. Patrick, a former door-to-door salesman in Illinois, was impressed with Everett's seeming ability to motivate people and quickly realized that Mind Dynamics could play a part in expanding his own business empire. Together he and Everett created the unlikely marriage of mass-marketing sales techniques and the human potential movement.

Six years earlier, at the age of thirty-three, Patrick had begun a pyramid-sales company called Holiday Magic that ostensibly sold a line of fruit-flavored cosmetics. Holding out the tantalizing promise of handsome profits, Patrick sold distribution franchises to thousands of men and women from coast to coast. More often than not, the hapless distributors ended up with basements or garages stacked to the ceilings with jars of avocado face cream or cases of Sta-Pro motor oil additive while they vainly searched for other "distributors" to keep the endless chain letter of marketing in motion. At the top of the pyramid stood Patrick, who amassed a fortune estimated at $200 million and lived on a 6,000-acre ranch north of San Francisco, where he pursued his hobby of restoring and flying vintage military airplanes. 

Patrick's decision in 1970 to add Mind Dynamics to his stable of pyramid-sales companies came at a time when other pieces of his enterprise were coming under increasing legal attack. By then the California attorney general's office had received a rash of complaints about Patrick's business methods at Holiday Magic. Around the time he met Alexander Everett, Patrick had added an even more bizarre new program called Leadership Dynamics, which eventually created additional legal headaches. The four-day "sensitivity" course put participants through a physically and mentally abusive regimen in the name of offering them a "more creative and constructive life."

While Patrick and Everett were mapping plans to bring Mind Dynamics into the Patrick empire, an energetic red-headed housewife named Charlene Afremow was in the process of divorcing her husband and moving herself and two young sons from a Chicago suburb to the San Francisco area. A few years earlier Afremow had scraped together $5,000 to become a local Holiday Magic distributor, eventually rising to the top of the pyramid in the Chicago region. From there she eagerly accepted yet another promotion to the company's main headquarters in San Rafael, a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. 

In California, Afremow found herself falling under the spell of Alexander Everett. He mesmerized her with his ideas about the amazing untapped powers of the brain that Mind Dynamics could help unlock. After learning the program, Afremow eagerly agreed to become a Mind Dynamics instructor, paying Everett $1,000 for a twoweek training course that would enable her to teach the same course to others. One of Everett's other students was a former East Coast life insurance salesman named Stewart Esposito, who had already become one of Patrick's Holiday Magic distributors. At the end of the course, Afremow was rewarded with a Mind Dynamics franchise of her own in Marin County. Esposito returned to the East Coast, where he began selling the franchises around New York and Boston. Before long both Afremow and Esposito would play major roles in the mind-expanding empire built by Werner Erhard.

Erhard started out as one of Charlene Afremow's students, enrolling in the second Mind Dynamics course she taught at San Rafael's Holiday Inn in December 1970. Erhard sat in the second row, hanging on every word Afremow uttered while intently studying her gestures and body language as she led the class through the mental exercises and long lectures that constituted the Mind Dynamics program. She had a feeling the man with the handsome face and dazzling smile somehow was destined to become one of her star pupils. 

Erhard wanted to learn as much as he could about Mind Dynamics and the way in which the program was marketed. After completing Afremow's two-weekend course, he began showing up at smaller follow-up workshops she conducted out of her home in San Rafael. One of Afremow's assistants led Mind Dynamics sessions for young children, and Erhard eagerly enrolled his two young daughters, Celeste and Adair, in the program. Afremow was impressed with Erhard's enthusiasm; after all, she had put her own two young sons through Mind Dynamics.

Erhard never failed to ooze plenty of sweet charm around Afremow. He was always eager to compliment her, to tell her how much he admired the work she was doing and how he so much wanted to learn everything he could from her. Afremow was flattered by Erhard's attention and noticed that he had even begun showing some outward signs of the kind of transformation promised by Mind Dynamics. An incessant cigarette smoker, Erhard announced to Afremow he had quit smoking and also had appeared to lose some excess weight. But Afremow noticed other quirky habits about Erhard that puzzled her about him. He never drove himself anywhere, but instead relied on one of his attractive female assistants from the book business to do the driving. To Afremow, they seemed like more than just dutiful employees. They worshiped Werner Erhard, hanging on to his every word and always quick to carry out any little order he barked at them. At first, Afremow couldn't understand why they were so devoted. Yet she had to admit there was something very appealing about the man. She sensed in him a raw, magnetic power that he held over people, but a power that could be harnessed to do good for others. She wondered whether her own destiny might intersect with his.

In January 1971, with Afremow's sponsorship, Erhard paid his $1,000 training fee to Everett and was given the Mind Dynamics San Francisco franchise. He taught his first class a month later. 

Erhard filled a room at the Holiday Inn near Fisherman's Wharf with thirty-two students, two of whom would come to play major roles in his burgeoning career. Gonneke Spits, an attractive and strongwilled native of Amsterdam, had first come to work for Erhard at Parents in 1966 and remained with him ever since. Laurel Scheaf, a statuesque former schoolteacher with short brown hair, joined Erhard's door-to-door staff about a year later. Now Erhard's "girls" were ready to take on their next assignment by filling up seats at his Mind Dynamics classes and recruiting others into the course.

Erhard wasted no time putting Afremow's Mind Dynamics recruiting concepts to work for himself. He began by hosting "guest seminars" in the homes of some of his employees. People who had already taken the Mind Dynamics course were invited to bring guests, who listened while the "graduates" praised the course. Afterward, the guests were treated to a far more aggressive sales pitch for the next monthly Mind Dynamics session Erhard was leading. At the end of the guest seminar, while Erhard chatted in the living room with some of his graduates, Gonneke Spits or Laurel Scheaf took up their posts in the bedroom, pressuring the new students into signing up for the $200 course. 

While William Penn Patrick's pyramid scheme spread Mind Dynamics around the country, no one was more successful at selling the program than Werner Erhard. Though most sessions attracted twenty or thirty students, Erhard was filling his own classes with sixty to a hundred people. As the course became more widely known, Erhard began renting out hotel -conference rooms, where he delivered free introductory lectures that always ended with the same high-pressure sales pitch he had used for years in the book business. Erhard used the lectures to hone his own skills as a showman, though one who still had some of the mannerisms of a slick-talking car salesman. After everyone had been seated, Erhard usually began the evening by running down the center aisle, bounding onto the stage, and launching into his presentation in a loud, high-pitched voice. A few minutes later, upon a prearranged cue, one of his employees often walked onto the stage to relieve Erhard of his sport jacket.

By early 1971 Erhard's part-time earnings as a Mind Dynamics instructor- he was still running the Grolier office -depended entirely on the commissions he received for each new student who enrolled in the course. To boost the number of students who signed up, Erhard added his own new marketing twist to the program. Only through their willingness to introduce others to the program, Erhard told his "graduates," could they really expect to gain its full results. "Graduates who take on the responsibility of telling others about the benefits of Mind Dynamics always increase their ability to apply the principles in their own lives," Erhard wrote in the group's monthly newsletter in April 1971. "You can insure your own continuing results by participating in the success of Mind Dynamics." 

Erhard pressed each student for a firm commitment to bring five new people into the program. "Be especially alive and in tune with these people," said Erhard. "Make it your responsibility to talk to them about Mind Dynamics in such a way that they actually become interested in sharing the experience. Take them to the next available workshop or lecture." Above all else, Erhard told his students, do whatever was necessary to sell them on the merits of Mind Dynamics "so that these people are able to overcome their obstacles and actually be in the course."

A month after taking Erhard's Mind Dynamics course, one of his enthusiastic new adherents quickly recruited other friends into the next session. A few weeks later, still flushed with excitement about Erhard and Mind Dynamics, the same young woman appeared at Erhard's office on Kearny Street. Though she had not announced her arrival in advance, no one at the office seemed surprised to see her. 

"Oh yeah, Werner said you'd be here," Laurel Scheaf said in a matter-of-fact tone. "He wants you in the field. So I'll see you Monday morning at eight o'clock." The woman spent the weekend wondering what Scheaf meant by "the field." To her utter astonishment, she arrived bright and early Monday morning only to be sent back out on the street immediately as the newest member of one of Erhard's door-to-door book-selling teams. Until that moment, she had no idea that her inspiring Mind Dynamics instructor really sold books for a living.

As he had been doing for years, Erhard still began each new day of selling with a rousing pep talk and a round of hand-clapping and singing among the sales teams, who belted out Beatles' songs and other current tunes before hitting the streets. Always Erhard stressed the need to achieve good sales results. The goal was all that mattered. Sometimes he handed the women small acorns, which they had to place inside their bras or in their panties so that, as he told them, "when you sit down, you won't ever forget the goal." 

There was a constant buzz of activity in the office above Enrico's. During the day, the book teams fanned out across the city ringing doorbells and meeting sales quotas. They returned in the afternoon to hit the phones, calling people to invite them to Erhard's lectures for Mind Dynamics. In the evenings, there was still more work to doattending Erhard's guest lectures and signing up students for his next course.

In the late summer of 1971, Erhard assigned a new task to his loyal staff. For several nights he had them copying the names, addresses, and phone numbers of everyone who had taken his Mind Dynamics course or showed up at one of the introductory lectures. He was making plans, he told his staff, to invite everyone on the list to a very special lecture he was going to give in September. He confided to them that he was going to leave Mind Dynamics and begin his own program. "I want you to make me famous," Erhard told his excited staff members.

By then Erhard already had come across an interesting name for his soon-to-be announced new venture. Earlier in the year, a friend had handed Erhard a science fiction novel called est: The Steersman Handbook, written by an author named L. Clark Stevens. In his book, Stevens wrote that "est" stood for "electronic social transformation," and heralded the arrival of "est people" bent on transforming society. Erhard was excited about Stevens's message and made sure other staff members read the book. It wouldn't be long before he borrowed "est" to fit his own needs. 

Although Erhard already had decided to start his own organization, he waited for several weeks before telling Alexander Everett and William Penn Patrick. Impressed with his sales results for Mind Dynamics, the two men during the summer had asked Erhard to become a partner, offering him a slice of the profits if he agreed to train new instructors around the country. Erhard had no interest in becoming partners with anyone. At the same time, he tried to recruit to his own staff a witty and spritely irreverent Australian named Stewart Emery, who also worked for Mind Dynamics.

Emery, a former advertising official in Australia with a full head of prematurely graying hair, first went to work for Holiday Magic in his native country in the late 1960s. He arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1971 for further training and to discuss plans to export Mind Dynamics back to Australia. 

When Emery attended one of Alexander Everett's Mind Dynamics lectures, somebody got up and began to ramble on about something Everett had said. An impatient Emery, annoyed at the interruption, stood up and yelled "Bullshit!" loudly across the room.

Word about the scrappy Australian quickly filtered back to Erhard, who made a point during the summer of introducing himself to Emery. The two hit it off immediately. With his impish grin and irreverent wit, Stewart Emery recognized immediately that Werner Erhard was something of a bullshitter, as talented salesmen often are. But there was also that energetic smile, ribald sense of humor, and air of self-promoting confidence that took over whenever Erhard was around. Emery figured that Werner Erhard was definitely somebody to watch.

Toward the end of August, Erhard asked Emery to come up and see him at the Grolier office in North Beach. After Emery arrived, Erhard told him Laurel Scheaf had heard in one of the Mind Dynamics courses that Emery had had some experience with "encounter sessions" in Australia. Emery replied that he had gone through the harsh Leadership Dynamics course that William Penn Patrick had begun earlier for his Holiday Magic employees. Erhard wondered if Emery might be willing to lead a private encounter session with him and his staff. Emery agreed, particularly after Erhard told him he was willing to pay $1,000 for the intensive weekend-long session. It was scheduled to take place the first weekend in September, in a small room Erhard had rented at the Canterbury Hotel in San Francisco. 

By the time Erhard gathered his staff together for the session with Emery, the Leadership Dynamics course had become the target of lawsuits brought by participants who had signed up only to find themselves the unwitting victims of cruel physical and emotional abuse during the sessions. In some cases instructors ordered participants into closed coffins. Others were hung onto large wooden crosses for hours at a time. Still others were forced to take off all their clothes while fellow participants taunted them with cruel insults. In one session, a man was forced to perform fellatio on an artificial penis while women attending a separate Leadership Dynamics class were brought in to watch. *

*In depositions and other court documents, Patrick and other Leadership Dynamics officials acknowledged the accuracy of some of the charges leveled against them in several lawsuits that stemmed from the brutality of the courses. Asked about simulated sex with an artificial penis, Patrick responded: "Well, to put it bluntly, there are a lot of men that come to class that have forgotten how to use theirs in their marriage." Patrick also admitted that it was common practice to hit people during the sessions. "I slap my children from time to time. It serves a useful function," he told lawyers during his deposition. The lawsuits eventually settled out of court, and Leadership Dynamics soon after went out of business.

Emery did not bring in coffins or crosses into the Canterbury Hotel. Nor did he conduct the session in the same bizarre manner that marked the Leadership Dynamics course. But the absence of the weird features of Leadership Dynamics did not prevent the weekend session from turning ugly and violent at one point. In asking Emery to lead the session, Erhard wanted to learn more about the hardhitting "sensitivity" techniques William Penn Patrick had incorporated into his own company. Another one of Erhard's probable objectives was to measure the loyalty and commitment of his own staff. Sitting around a U-shaped table, Erhard decided to put Gonneke Spits to the test. He began shouting at her, deliberately trying to provoke her into betraying even the slightest doubts that she might have toward him. While he continued to shout at her, Erhard slapped her hard across the face. She staggered backward but still insisted that her loyalties belonged to Erhard. Others in the room watched in stony silence, hoping they would not be the recipients of Erhard's strange method of determining their own loyalties.

The dark moment of violence ended almost as abruptly as it had begun, and by the end of the marathon session, on Sunday morning, everyone in the room seemed to be in giddy and jovial spirits. Only the blackened eye and bruises clearly visible on Gonneke Spits's face betrayed some of the demons that lurked inside Werner Erhard. 

Later that day Emery joined the others on Erhard's staff to celebrate Erhard's thirty-sixth birthday at his Marin County home. The festive atmosphere was heightened by a delicious lunch of fresh crab, salad, and sourdough bread, with plenty of white wine for everyone. Somebody was playing the guitar and Erhard was in a buoyant mood. Pulling Emery aside that afternoon, Erhard confided his plan to leave Mind Dynamics and start his own training course.

"We'd welcome you as a part of the staff," Erhard told Emery that afternoon. "And I want you to know that's very unusual because people usually have to go a very long route to be invited to be on staff. But your contribution to us these last few days has been of such a magnitude that you have earned the right in just two days to be part of the staff." 

As Emery pondered his response, Erhard quietly added another inducement. "There's enough money in this thing," he told the Australian, "for us all to become millionaires."

To Erhard's surprise, Emery declined the offer. He explained how he felt obliged to remain with Mind Dynamics, and how it would not have felt right to leave Everett and Patrick after the support they had given him in Australia and in the United States. He thanked Erhard for the offer and politely asked if he could take a raincheck. Erhard assured Emery he could call anytime he changed his mind.

 A few miles away, another birthday celebration was taking place on that same Sunday. It was Alexander Everett's fiftieth birthday, and his staff was honoring him with a party set up in the parking lot outside the Mind Dynamics office in San Rafael. Toward the end of the afternoon, Erhard appeared at the party but remained in the background, standing at the edge of the parking lot amid the balloons and the bunting and the gaily wrapped gifts that many had brought for Everett. Erhard had yet to tell Everett that he had definitely decided to leave Mind Dynamics to launch his own business. Finally Erhard walked up to Everett, handing him the present he had brought. Everett wished Erhard a happy birthday himself, but the two exchanged no other words.

 Erhard's formal break occurred a little more than a week later. Even then, Erhard made sure to take full advantage of his popular standing within Mind Dynamics when it came to unveiling his new plans. He had earlier scheduled one of his regular Mind Dynamics lectures for the evening of September 13 in a ballroom at the Mark Hopkins Hotel atop San Francisco's Nob Hill. Hundreds showed up to hear him, many of them guests of Erhard's Mind Dynamics students. But that night Erhard was no longer interested, financially or otherwise, in touting the miracles and wonders of Alexander Everett's course on controlling the brain's alpha waves. At the appointed hour, he launched into his lecture, but without any of the usual theatrics that had always accompanied an Erhard performance. After finishing his obligatory remarks about Mind Dynamics, he revealed the real purpose of the night's session. He announced that he was quitting Mind Dynamics to begin his own self-awareness program. He had decided to call it Erhard Seminars Training, though he preferred that it be known only as est. He never mentioned that the word "est" had originated in an obscure science fiction novel.

 As Erhard spoke, many in the audience began to realize that Everett himself was sitting in the ballroom, listening calmly and with a faint smile on his face while Erhard made his dramatic announcement. When Erhard finished, he turned toward Everett and motioned him forward toward the microphone. A few days earlier, after Erhard had finally broken the news directly to Everett, he invited Alexander to send a representative to the Mark Hopkins "to express whatever views you wish." Erhard had not expected to see Everett himself that evening.

"I want everyone here to know that Werner has worked with me for some time," Everett told the audience. "And I want everyone to know that he's a great person. I'm sorry that he wants to leave but that's his choice. And so I want you to know that I'm supporting him in anything that he does. And I back him all the way in creating his own organization." 

Privately, Everett was furious with Erhard for working behind his back for months while he planned his break. But Everett knew there was little he could do to stop Erhard from going through with his plans. By then he knew enough about Erhard's past-and about how hard Erhard pushed his own staff-to realize that in Werner Erhard's world, things either had to be run his way or not at all.

A week after the evening at the Mark Hopkins, the San Francisco Chronicle published a four-column ad that featured a dramatic photograph of Erhard, dressed in a dark jacket and tie, his upraised hands framing a serious face that seemed to stare at newspaper readers with a hypnotic gaze. The ad announced the first course to be held later that October by "Erhard Seminars Training." The ad announced a new course to train people to "know and understand yourself and others. " 

For Werner Erhard, his big moment had finally arrived. For years he had been selling, but always for others. Now it was time to take center stage, with a new product to sell-a course that bore his own name. Erhard closed down his Grolier office at the same time that he announced his break from Mind Dynamics. In their place est was born, and was about to grow up very quickly.