The Sorrows Of Werner

In the 1970s, when war-weary Americans began turning to thoughts of self-improvement, along came just the vehicle they seemed to be looking for: the human-potential movement. The movement's smashing success story was something called est (Erhard Seminars Training), run by a former used-car salesman named Werner Erhard. For a few hundred dollars plus a lot of verbal abuse and physical deprivation, est offered a "transforming experience," designed to "get rid of old baggage" and provide a fresh slant on things. "Your life doesn't work," a trainer might bellow for openers at one of est's marathon encounter sessions. "Wipe that stupid smile off your face, you a-hole." It was heady stuff, and most of the estimated 700,000 paying customers who signed up (at $250 to $625 a head) for est or its Yuppified 1980s version, The Forum, agreed they'd been transformed - or something.

Most, but not all. Over the last 10 years, Erhard has found himself under an increasing barrage of allegations that he was running not so much an enlightenment program as an authoritarian cult. Former disciples have come forward with stories of violence and intimidation by Erhard and his staff. Last year, after a longtime member of Erhard's inner circle sued for wrongful discharge, several people filed supporting declarations, charging Erhard with using abusive tactics to enforce obedience. This year alone, three lawsuits - involving allegations of wrongful discharge, wrongful death and fraud - are expected to go to trial. Now, two of Erhard's daughters, Adair, 26, and Celeste, 28, have spilled their own harrowing tale of alleged physical and emotional abuse inflicted, they say, on them and their mother, Ellen.

The problem about life with father, the daughters told the Marin Independent Journal last month, was that he tended to bring his work home with him. Instead of family get-togethers, he held monthly "meetings," complete with agendas and time sheets. Sometimes he forgot their names, they said, and often he threatened them. At one family meeting, the women told the paper, staff members kicked and choked Ellen after Erhard accused her of infidelity. Then, they say, he put her on a rehabilitation regimen that required her to scrub floors. "We were petrified of him," Adair told the paper. "He was," added Celeste, "a total control monster."

Erhard acknowledged, in a deposition for their divorce proceedings, slapping his wife once and said that at another time, he shook her and pushed her. He had pushed her, he said, to shake her out of what he called "an hysteria of lying." In response to his daughters' charges, Erhard issued a statement to NEWSWEEK, saying: "The only adequate response is healing, which is my intention. To say anything more would only further exploit my family." Ellen Erhard has declined comment on the story because of a 1988 divorce agreement to remain silent about her ex-husband.

Erhard's drill-sergeant tactics have been controversial almost from the beginning. Amid the shocks of Vietnam and Watergate, est was an idea ripe for the times. It enjoyed a huge vogue in the '70s, enrolling well-known names like Diana Ross, Yoko Ono and John Denver. Even some psychiatrists had good things to say about it. As est's luster dimmed, Erhard updated it with The Forum. Six years ago, he formed a management-consulting firm called Transformational Technologies that brought his ideas to corporate America as well as the Soviet Union - earning him the title "Guru to the Gulag." But just when his enterprise seemed poised to go global, a memo leaked last year claiming Werner Erhard and Associates (WE&A) was in serious financial trouble, losing up to $100,000 a week. The memo, written by a senior executive in one of Erhard's companies, recommended that he consider financial reorganization.

It was in 1988 that Charlene Afremow, one of Erhard's closest associates, filed a $2 million wrongful-discharge suit against Erhard and WE&A, claiming she was fired when she opposed such policies as making employees work in excess of 12 hours per day and six days a week. Because trainers were overworked, she said, some of their clients suffered psychotic episodes. Erhard has called the suit "frivolous and malicious." In sworn testimony on behalf of Afremow, Michael Breard, a former Erhard aide, claimed part of his job was to massage his boss's feet every morning. He said Erhard screamed obscenities at him if he didn't perform his tasks to Erhard's liking. Afremow's suit is set for trial this year. Two other suits are also headed for court, one by the family of a client, claiming he suffered a fatal heart attack during a training session, the other by a man who claims he suffered a manic episode after taking an advanced est course. In both cases, the defendants deny responsibility.

Once lionized, Erhard now finds himself embattled on all sides. This week, it was announced that major parts of his empire had been sold to a group of former employees, who chose the interim name Transnational Education Corporation. According to spokesperson Ann Overton, they will continue to run The Forum and other programs that had been run by WE&A.

Whether that means the end of the Erhard era isn't clear. "It's all so sad," says writer George Leonard, perhaps the granddaddy of the consciousness movement and a former est participant. "If half the things they're saying are true, it's disillusioning for everyone."