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Touch and Go

Groups, Gimmicks, and Instant Gurus

by William R. Coulson
Harper & Row, 181 pp., $5.95

The Pit

by Gene Church, by Conrad D. Carnes
Outerbridge & Lazard, 168 pp., $6.95

The banner of the second section of The New York Times on Thursday, March 26, 1970, read, American Churches Are Turning to Sensitivity Training, and in the article, the Rev. Gerald J. Judd, “director of Christian Education for the 2-million member United Church of Christ,” was quoted as saying, “It’s a way of helping members get in touch with their feelings and learn to love. I predict it will be for us what revivalism was for religion on the frontier.” Some columns further on, the Times man, Edward B. Fiske, wrote,

Churches…have been careful to avoid caressing, nudity and other practices that have brought criticism to some secular centers. “I would be extremely hesitant,” said Dr. Judd, “to introduce nude bathing to the Scarsdale United Church of Christ.”

We can see a tiny unilateral smile and a merry twinkle of the eye in the countenance of the Reverend Mr. Judd as he treats us to this levity.

Sensitivity training: what a phrase to conjure with! And what large sums of legal tender the conjurers have realized with their presto-chango. If the subjects of these training courses (they meet in “Encounter Groups” or, more chummily, “T-Groups,” presided over by “facilitators”) were to learn ways of sharpening or refining their five physical senses, their time and money might be well spent: if, let us say, a clerk in the dry-goods department of a big store couldn’t feel the difference between sateen and serge but could learn how to do so at a marathon sensitivity session held in a motel over a weekend, he might improve his fortunes and in middle life be advanced to section manager.

But that is not the aim of this new-style personality improvement. In the “here and now,” the subjects are to disengage themselves from inhibitions (and discretion and shackling courtesy) and to act upon “gut-level feelings” so that thereafter they will be able to give the boss a great big bear hug if they feel like it or to tell him in no uncertain terms that he has bad breath and ought to use Scope. This will improve relations between labor and management, will solidify shaky marriages, and make veritable Edens out of offices, factories, pro hockey teams, and local chapters of the Audobon society. Come hell or high water, sensitivity will save the day.

This curious movement, curiously enough, got its start in Bethel, Maine, in the late 1940s, but, needless to say, it sprang fully to life in Southern California. The hydra-headed pioneer, Esalen in Big Sur, inspired hundreds of its initiates to go forth and establish “growth centers” throughout the country. To these neoplasms, big business, police forces, schools, government agencies, and the Reverend Mr. Judd sent their employees to sit around in groups of ten or twelve for hours and days and sometimes weeks, learning how to “relate.” In very many cases attendance was not optional, and in very many the results were disastrous. A young married couple, friends of mine, who work for the state of California were several times obliged to subject themselves to the boredom, the humiliation, and the absurdities of these get-togethers. They are a sensible and a sensitive pair, and since they were thus protected, they suffered little more than embarrassment and resentment at the waste of their time. Others, less surefooted, stumbled into hidden pitfalls.

In one of his letters to me, the young man wrote,

Sensitivity sessions ultimately degenerated into name-calling sessions. Grievances, real or imagined, that had long ago been buried were unearthed with such intensity that they were intensified. Two female executives who had worked together for twenty-five years were far from friendly, but they had been able to sheathe their claws sufficiently to work together and each made a substantial contribution to the Department. They were scheduled for the same sensitivity session, and during it, it was revealed that one of the women years before had been hospitalized and the other had failed to send her a get-well card.

Baring this wound and probing it before their colleagues did not heal it. Rather, the passive dislike became hatred, and the result was that shortly after the session, one of them voluntarily retired at the age of fifty, thereby depriving the taxpayers of many productive years of superior service….

One phase of the sensitivity cycle was to train those new employees and journeymen who would be working with the “disadvantaged”…. We began with an exercise in trust and in the utilization of the sense of feel—we were to select a partner and lead each other around the room blindfolded. The object was to learn to rely on others when we felt our own “person” to be inadequate. The next phase involved forming groups of four and expressing our love for one another with only gestures, smiles, and eye movements. Most of us, while employees of the same department, had met only the day before and had not had the time or the opportunity to like or dislike, let alone love one another.

The movement flourished in the Sixties and the press paid considerable heed to it. I had heard nothing of it for some time—now that the female orgasm is in the ascendancy and sex has made its debut. So I was surprised to learn, with the appearance of two new books, that the movement is apparently still actively wriggling, at any rate in Southern California.

William R. Coulson, a member of the “Center for Studies of the Person” in La Jolla, in Groups, Gimmicks, and Instant Gurus quotes a bluff and successful businessman named Jerry (that isn’t his real name, of course: it’s Herb) who is attending his first encounter group,

We have tremendous fears of insecurity and many times these same things which you are so insecure about you look back weeks, months, even years, and what you were insecure about—thank heavens, you cannot remember, and you would like to, at least in my case, would like to get an honest feeling about myself period, and act this way in all cases…but in a group such as this it seems I have been noticing it is a difficult thing to open up and you wonder why. Why are we like this and why are we reluctant to open up?”

What Jerry says would need a translator to be understood,” says Mr. Coulson, but with infinite patience and understanding. “…One will notice as the group goes on that translation becomes less necessary. Later, Jerry begins to speak not from what he guesses will be acceptable but from his own experience.”

Jerry (Herb) and Mr. Coulson seem to be in the same boat, and finding a translator for either would be a tough proposition since it is so difficult to get a purchase on their syntax. In point of fact, amorphous as Jerry’s maundering is, it is somewhat less obfuscating than Mr. Coulson’s. In a general way, we get the impression that poor Jerry is trying to be pals with these folks, and when, in the middle of the eleventh hour (!) of the session, he commences to cry (“…and Jerry cried and Jerry sobbed like a baby and Roz just cradled him”), the reader surmises that even if he never learns to speak in complete sentences, he may, through this catharsis, be able to “open up” with his colleagues and neighbors. They will be able to “communicate” and therefore to “relate.”

But what about Mr. Coulson, whose book has been brought out by the trade department of Harper & Row and who is presumably informing me, a layman, about the serious worth of encounter groups? How is he going to fetch me if he persists in using such obscure language? Lay it on the line, Mister, in plain English.

After the “encountered one” or the “encountered individual” leaves the group with whom he has been living for several days or weeks (freely touching and hugging, freely insulting, freely blabbing, picking his nose if he’s a mind to), he goes through three phases:

First, having perhaps several days to bathe in the afterglow of the workshop experience, the individual wants to cause some of that glow in his own life. For a while, somewhat self-consciously, he begins to live by a new norm, in contrast to what likely was his old norm of caution. The new norm is one of revealingness [italics mine]…. Open or just loving, the encounter participant’s behavior may look phony to an observer at home at this early point. At the least it will be lumpy: the seams will show as the encountered one tries out his group learnings in the less permissive world of day-to-day living and as, sorting and discarding, he makes up his mind about what is useful in the encounter experience beyond the group setting.

But in this first phase, if the encountered one perseveres, he will make himself take risks (he will kiss the girl at the check-out counter in the A & P, perhaps, or chew bubble gum at a PTA meeting) and this—not really surprisingly—will lead to a crisis.

Crisis is the second phase: “People threaten to walk out on him, or he on them. The crisis eventuates because in dissatisfaction over the disparity between what-he-learned-in-the-group-was-possible and how-the-world-continues-to-be, the world resists both tactics and a crisis occurs.” (The check-out girl at the A & P slaps Mr. Sensitivity in the puss.) But Mr. Coulson, assiduous Student of the Person, is an optimistic man, and he assures us that “the life crisis ordinarily dissipates the first-phase compulsivity, the lumpy learning trial period…and what you are left with is…in-chargeness in your own life and of your potential kinship with other human beings.” (I do not find “compulsivity” in any of my dictionaries. Of all the new barnacles that have attached themselves to the sinking language, “in-chargeness,” for my money, takes the cake, beats the band, and beats the Dutch.)

So far as being “in charge” is concerned, Mr. Coulson has earlier commented:

A participant wrote of her reentry at home after a particularly intense encounter experience: “I reach out to hug the people I love, and they quickly hug back and move away. I want to hold them, but they’re embarrassed and uncomfortable. I want to look in their eyes while we talk and their eyes dart away and glance and dart away again. …The hardest thing is to try to share my encounter experience.”

The ideal encounter group is a “compact experience in living,” and it will be conducted with a minimum of “structuredness.” In the free group, “the individual gives himself his own permissions, silently, and paces his growth trials in accord with his own assessment of his readiness and his need to retain his defenses, an assessment that can only be well made organismically from inside his experience.” The second italics is Facilitator Coulson’s. The first is mine: I have a rough idea of what organismically means because, in the preceding paragraph, I was told, “For personal growth to be solid, the body and the head have to grow in tandem.”

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