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.”
I had been informed early on that “nobody learns in a vacuum. Hence the encounter group.” At the time I had wondered at this statement—wondered, e.g., how anybody could be in a vacuum, but I knew I was being niggling and Mr. C. was merely using a figure of speech. In time he illuminated me. And yes, as I read on, in a section of the book called “Distortions,” I came upon the subheading, “The Plenum of Presence.”
To see whom we are with, in this moment, in this place, to stop for now the frantic pace of daily activity and daily deciding, to be silent if necessary, to look around and to notice who is here—this is the powerful plenum in which the encounter group operates, the here and the now. This is where persons become present to one another.
As they are not present to one another, I gather, when they are playing strip poker or bidding on the same stallion at a horse sale.
Mr. Coulson continues: “Can you render plenum by a pea? Apparently so, for the gimmicists have succeeded in trivializing the here and now….” And he goes on to illustrate ways in which charlatans have perpetrated this mysterious outrage. He feels that “gimmicks are not necessary…so it bothers me when groupers haul them in.” What bothers me is that hypothetical rendering of a plenum by a pea. Is he making an oblique reference to Mendel, and if so, why? Could he have substituted eggplant?
Are encounter groups effective?” asks Mr. Coulson:
In terms of immediate process changes, unequivocally yes. Typical of results with the process scale used on recordings of individual psychotherapy is van der Veen’s finding that the average amount of process movement from the first session to the last is 0.9 on the seven-point scale for clients whose therapy was judged successful on other criteria. This is for a course of therapy sessions averaging approximately a year in length. For Jerry’s group…averaged across the eight members of the group, process change from the first hour to the last was two full points out of seven. This in a weekend!
Mr. Coulson, may I ask you a few questions? Who is van der Veen? What was the process scale he used? What is a process scale anyway? What therapy was being practiced? What were the “other criteria” in which the clients got passing marks? What inspires your Corybantic cry, “This in a weekend!”?
Dear reader, do you know that there are encounter bums? Well, there are—going from one mare’s nest to another hurting total strangers’ gut-level feelings, punching that old sensitivity-training dummy tackle to a fare-thee-well, relating it up like hell’s angels. It seems an odd hobby. Indeed, it seems the oddest hobby I have ever heard of. Now you take old ladies who make the round of funerals every day, weather permitting: that makes some sense—gives them a reason to fix their hair and dress up and get a little exercise by walking to the mortuary parlors. But packing a valise and going off to pay money to encounter a collection of malcontents or self-improvement buffs seems about as profitable as dead-heading back to the car-barn just for the ride.
We do not learn in a vacuum. No, we do not. We learn in schools and we learn in the natural world and in society. In school, we have friends and enemies, rivals and heroes. If we are fortunate in our teachers, we learn manners if we have been unfortunate at home and have not learned them there. Mr. Coulson says, “A school is a place that puts a high premium on saying things well.” (And why not, pray tell?) “On this dimension, an encounter group is the opposite of a school. It is a place in which it comes to feel safe to say the things that can never be said well, a place in which one comes to feel that it is okay to say things rather badly if necessary.” He is not talking, of course, about felicity of speech but rather of being, as he would probably put it, “brutally frank.”
As an example of things that can’t be said very well, he cites a statement made by one teacher to another during an encounter meeting at a school; the two men had been on the same faculty for a number of years: ” ‘Well, I don’t really want to say this, but I guess I might as well. You have never been an easy person to like!’ ” Mr. Coulson does not report the consequence of this gratuitous effrontery. If the speaker didn’t “really want to say this,” then why did he? Why should such a nasty little truth be plucked out of the blue to unsettle and to cause pain?
“A better name for an encounter group is a person group…. Rarely do we schedule opportunities to relate to one another in groups just as persons. Most often when we arrange a meeting we must have a topic to discuss, an agenda to meet, and roles to fulfill.” Come off it! Do persons (individuals) in the wonderland of Southern California no longer have parties? Are cook-outs “structured” and does a hostess plan her menu so that it will be appropriate to the topic to be discussed? A goose if fund-raising for a gubernatorial candidate is on the agenda? Venison if the matter at hand is conservation? “Do come to relate on Thursday next at half-past seven,” says the putative hostess. “We’re serving sitting ducks.”
The benefits realized by participants of these jamborees are by and large glossed over: of course we have Mr. Coulson’s thrilled testimony that in Jerry’s group the “process change from the first hour to the last was two full points out of seven,” but since we are not privy to the nature of the measurements and since we’re given no statistics to show that incomes were increased, psychosomatic eczema was cured, the orgasm rate shot up, and life in general became a bed of roses for the encountered ones, we have no way of knowing whether the initiates did blossom, or whether they returned to their accustomed ruts and became even more unattractive to their wives, husbands, and associates, and were more often bitten by normally friendly dogs.
Mr. Coulson’s sermon makes one wish to wash the taste of treacle out of one’s mouth with a good dollop of “Captain Billy’s Whizbang.” In the absence of that, it is possible to spend another wooden nickel and take a look at The Pit, subtitled “A Group Encounter Defiled,” written by Gene Church and Conrad D. Carnes. Mr. Church was violently disenchanted by his experience in an encounter group and he writes with rage so demented that he has to be taken with a grain or two—but not many more—of salt. Mr. Coulson would argue that he had fallen into the hands of “gimmicists,” and I daresay he would be right, but the carryings-on of tyrannical totalitarians make much livelier reading than those of pious totalitarians, and of the two books, I prefer Mr. Church’s, revolting as it is.
Mr. Church was associated with a cosmetics and house-care products concern called Holiday Magic, Inc., which, besides distributing vanishing cream and maquillage, floor wax and sudsy ammonia, operates the Leadership Dynamics Institute, aimed to better the sales pitch of the purveyors of its merchandise. “Though not then employed by Holiday Magic,” he writes,
I was involved in another Holiday Magic affiliate, Mind Dynamics. It had been made clear to me by my superiors within Mind Dynamics that Leadership Dynamics Institute would be an important rung in my ladder of success.
Practical as well as ambitious, he signed up for a four-day course to be held at a motel in Palo Alto. The fee, not returnable if measles or early disaffection set in, was $1,000. The room in which the meetings were held was furnished with a coffin, a cage, a cross, and a hangman’s noose, and in the course of the sensitivity training all these props were used to knock some sense of interpersonal relations into the barbaric finks. The instructors, who carried swagger sticks and used the cant and tones of drill sergeants, let it be known at the outset that they were “on a first name basis with all of the attendants in the E.R. at the Palo Alto Hospital.”
The first session lasted for thirty-nine hours; hot meals were served the trainers while the students ate C-rations with their fingers. A fat man was required to strip off his clothes and reveal himself in all his unseemly accumulations of flesh, forced to admit that he ate like a hog, and then was forced to eat garbage like a hog—he was also put into the coffin with the lid shut for a criminal length of time. “If” was recited in unison and a record of the opening commentary on the film Patton was frequently played. Such were the injuries, physical, moral, emotional, sustained during this travesty of uplift that seven of the participants filed suit against Leadership Dynamics Institute, some of them represented by the theatrical Mr. Melvin Belli.
It is not likely that such obscene and violent physical practices are common. Perhaps a soul damaged close to death by such horrifying tactics could be resuscitated by joining a Person Group. It is the emphasis on the importance of the Group that is essentially so offensive. Mr. Coulson, chiding the frauds, says that some of them begin reassuringly by announcing that “no one should be forced to do any exercise of which he is shy.” And he goes on, “But it is hard to pull that off, not to participate when everyone else seems, to be doing so easily. A person who had enough strength to say No when everyone else was saying Yes wouldn’t need an encounter group.” My young friends working for the state of California did not need an encounter group, but to keep their jobs they were compelled to join, and they followed the leader because it was simpler than kicking up a row even though their disgust was deep and lasting.
My knowledge of the movement stems not only from reading and from hearing of it through my young friends: one time, several years ago, badly misled by a magazine whose editors had also been badly misled, I attended a brief part of a week-long T-group session. It was conducted by the National Training Laboratories—“National” always lends an air of respectability to the name of an organization and “Training Laboratories” sounds as serious as the Atomic Energy Commission. I was there to observe and to report, but since none of my fellow-inmates knew this, my failure to “open up” was looked on as bad sportsmanship. Within two hours of my introduction to our leader and to my nine companions, I came to be regarded as a Fault which might prove to be the site of an earthquake that would demolish the Group. My dark glasses were a source of collective suspicion although I explained that my eyes are acutely sensitive to light and the rooms in which we met were uncurtained so that the blazing summer sun glanced cruelly on white formica and on glass table tops.
Was I hiding scorn, and if so, out with it! Because I had never clapped eyes on her before, I was unable to tell Teacher whether I thought Gladys was “A Friendly Helper,” “A Strong Achiever,” or “A Logical Thinker.” Nor was I able to say which of these ladies I would like to have as my next door neighbor and which one I wished would go jump in the lake. I declined to take part in games of post office.
When, after thirty-six hours, I said that I was leaving, a furious outcry went up: I would destroy the harmony of the group! I pointed out that I had been nothing but a wet blanket, and while this was conceded (and elaborated upon), I was told that all the same I was essential to the integer. Our leaded had some sonorous things to say about loyalty and cooperation; Marcia, who had at one time demanded that I take my glasses off, cajoled; Dot said in her opinion I really wanted to be one of the girls, and if I’d just give myself the chance and would stay, in the future I would get along much better with my husband and my business associates.
I replied that I was a widow and was self-employed. One limp and sad-eyed woman whose dress and shoes were the same color as her hair gave me the pleading look of a homeless dog: she was as unhappy, poor soul, as she could be, but she had been sent here by her company (at her own expense, to be sure, and the expense was considerable) and could not leave until the bitter end. It took me a good three-quarters of an hour to extricate myself, but I finally managed, and on the train going home I read Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa, which I always carry with me when I venture into terra incognita. This is one of the most satisfactory books I know; even when it isn’t bowling along like a tumble-weed in a twister, it is perky: ” ‘Well, I’ll take a glass of your fifty cent cider and go,’ ” says the bad boy, “and soon the grocery man looked out of the window and found somebody had added a cipher to the ‘Sweet Cider, only five cents a glass,’ making it an expensive drink, considering it was made of sour apples.”
April 5, 1973