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FIRST PERSON -- A Cult of Two

A reporter sifts through the ashes of what she once believed was an ideal relationship

Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

continued from Front Page

powerful with confidence and skepticism. I've challenged many of them, from Governor Wilson to guru Shirley MacLaine, and never felt intimidated.

As I waded through life in the months that followed my boyfriend's stunning announcement, I came to see that I had indeed been intimidated, even used, by the man I had loved so much. His explanation kept ringing in my ears: "There's imbalance in our relationship. You don't know enough about science and technology."

He was right. Our relationship did have imbalance -- but not because I lacked expertise in physics, astronomy or his field, artificial intelligence. It was because he had set the rules that we lived by: when and how often we'd see each other, whether we would marry and have children, with whom we would socialize and what we would do. He called it our "agreement," and I had agreed.

It wasn't hard to do. No one else I knew had an "agreement" with her boyfriend, and I liked it. People who kept agreements were trustworthy and honest, and my boyfriend never broke his word. From the time we met, when I was 23 and he was 28, he made the agreement sound like the jackpot. He said that most other people, especially men, had "rackets" going on: They cheated on their wives or habitually lied. But he believed in"personal responsibility" for us and for the world.

He believed that nations, schools, businesses and even people facing terrorists or totalitarianism underestimated their ability to help themselves. Thus he kept a rifle in case of robbers or Nazis. People also bore some responsibility for their illnesses, he said, so he ate no meat, took fistfuls of vitamins and exercised vigorously. Things were "extraordinary" or "increasingly clear." The word "upset" was a noun, as in "please don't have one." Arguments were diffused by "acknowledging" my points, although I should not "make him wrong." He never said, "I think" or "I feel that . . ." He said, "There's a sense in which . . ."

Personal responsibility kept him working at least 60 to 80 hours a week. When we met, he'd been a researcher with the environmentalist Barry Commoner in New York, but he soon joined a computer firm in Silicon Valley. I moved, too, having been hired at The San Francisco Chronicle.

heart.JPGWithin nine years he became company president and had high-level government security clearance. I had a principal beat on the paper, and we were no longer kids. He said marriage was possible but that he would love me more if I were patient and could "think long-term."

So I was patient. I loved my work but lived for the weekends. We saw his favorite movies and ate at his favorite restaurants. We exercised together and planned the new house he was designing for himself. And he told me he loved me every day.

I never looked beyond his smooth words, happy childhood and summa cum laude credentials to ask myself what kind of person could design such a lopsided and self-serving "agreement." Only when it was severed and the sugar- coated explanations melted away did I begin to really see. That nagging feeling of cultishness provided the first clue.

My boyfriend had taken Werner Erhard's "est training" shortly before we met but had sworn me to secrecy because, he said, people misunderstood est. He had also quietly participated in the most recent version of est, called "the Forum."

On a hunch I returned to Dr. Singer, the cult expert with the University of California at Berkeley. She prescribed a book: "Outrageous Betrayal" by Steven Pressman, an expose of Erhard and the"trainings" he had begun in San Francisco in 1971.

My boyfriend had scoffed when it was published in 1993, saying, "Someone's always taking a potshot at Werner Erhard." Erhard, it turned out, had est participants operating on strict "agreements" -- they were not even allowed to use the bathroom except at designated times. His trainers barked at people to drop their "rackets" and take "personal responsibility" for their lives. They swore at people and belittled them, only to build them up in a crescendo of loving approval toward the end of the four-day training.

The Pressman book and other articles revealed that Erhard ridiculed people for saying "I think" or "I feel." Erhard used "upset" as a noun and "acknowledged" what others said. He called people "machines," as my boyfriend did. He described them as "merely tubes," as my boyfriend did ("in one end and out the other"). To Erhard, things were"extraordinary" and "increasingly clear," and he became angry if anyone "made him wrong." Trainers were ordered to "re- create Werner" as they worked. No innovation, deviation or dissention was permitted. Lifetime loyalty oaths were signed.

It was with astonishment that I began to peel back the curtain that had once concealed Oz. But instead of finding a good man behind bad wizardry, I discovered a narcissistic empire that employed sophisticated mind-control techniques designed to further the needs of the leader. My boyfriend had been the leader in our relationship, and it was apparentnow who his teacher had been.

Former employees have accused Erhard of beating and humiliating his wife in their presence. When she divorced him, she agreed never to tell her story. But Erhard's womanizing was no secret; nor were the accusations of two of his daughters, who accused him of raping and molesting them. He denied their charges. All the while, Erhard led seminars he called "Celebrating Your Relationships."

I might have appreciated the irony in all of this had it not appeared that my boyfriend learned his own relationship skills from this man -- and turned them on me. Unlike hundreds of thousands of est "graduates," my boyfriend did not worship Erhard. He emulated him. He never beat me or humiliated me, but like Erhard he knew how to take control.

Perhaps there was no better example than on the last day of our relationship when he complained for the first time about my lack of science credentials. A decade earlier, science writing had been my major in graduate school. The Los Angeles Times had run a piece I'd written on the inability of sophisticated robots to tie a shoelace, and I had been thrilled. My boyfriend had been furious. I had ventured onto his turf, and he told me never to write about science again.

Nor was I to write about our relationship, he said -- then or ever.

[reprinted with permission by the author, copyright Nanette Asimov 1995, first appearing in San Francisco Chronicle "First Person: A Cult of Two", San Francisco, CA]

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Have you or someone you know ever experienced the following by a boyfriend, husband or intimate partner?

  • name-calling or put-downs

  • isolation from family or friends

  • withholding of money

  • actual or threatened physical harm

  • sexual assault

These are examples of domestic violence, which includes partner violence, family violence, spouse abuse, child abuse, battering, and wife beating.

This violence takes many forms, and can happen once in a while or all the time. Although each situation is different, there are common warning signs - "red flag" behaviors - to look out for, including those behaviors listed above (see Section 4 for a list). Knowing these signs is an important step in preventing and stopping violence.

In this booklet, we will focus on domestic violence as partner violence, defined as violent or controlling behavior by a person toward a partner, usually a wife, girlfriend, or lover. Although the partner is the primary target, violence is often directed toward children as well, and sometimes toward family members, friends, and even bystanders in attempts to control their partner.

Approximately 95 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women. However, violence also happens in both gay and lesbian relationships. and in a small number of cases, by women against men. 4. Warning List This list identifies a series of behaviors typically demonstrated by batterers and abusive people. All of these forms of abuse, psychological, economic, and physical - come from the batterer's desire for power and control. The list can help you recognize if you or someone you know is in a violent relationship. check off those behaviors that apply to the relationship. The more checks on the page, the more dangerous the situation may be. Emotional and Economic Attacks *Destructive Criticism/Verbal Abuse: Name-calling; mocking; accusing; blaming; yelling; swearing; making humiliating remarks or gestures. *Pressure Tactics: Rushing you to make decisions through "guilt-tripping" and other forms of intimidation; sulking; threatening to withhold money; manipulating the children; telling you what to do. *Abusing Authority: Always claiming to be right (insisting statements are "the truth"); telling you what to do; making big decisions; using "logic." *Disrespect: Interrupting; changing topics; not listening or responding; twisting your words; putting you down in front of other people; saying bad things about your friends and family. *Abusing Trust: Lying; withholding information; cheating on you; being overly jealous. *Breaking Promises: Not following through on agreements; not taking a fair share of responsibility; refusing to help with child care or housework. *Emotional Withholding: Not expressing feelings; not giving support, attention, or compliments; not respecting feelings, rights, or opinions. *Minimizing, Denying & Blaming: Making Light of behavior and not taking your concerns about it seriously; saying the abuse didn't happen; shifting responsibility for abusive behavior; saying you caused it. *Economic Control: Interfering with your work or not letting you work; refusing to give you or taking your money; taking your car keys or otherwise preventing you from using the car; threatening to report you to welfare or other social service agencies. * Self-Destructive Behavior: Abusing drugs or alcohol; threatening suicide or other forms of self-harm; deliberately saying or doing things that will have negative consequences (e.g., telling off the boss).. * Isolation: Preventing or making it difficult for you to see friends or relatives; monitoring phone calls; telling you where you can and cannot go.. * Harassment: Making uninvited visits or calls; following you; checking up on you; embarrassing you in public; refusing to leave when asked.. Acts of Violence * Intimidation: Making angry or threatening gestures; use of physical size to intimidate; standing in doorway during arguments; out shouting you; driving recklessly.. * Destruction: Destroying your possessions (e.g., furniture); punching walls; throwing and/or breaking things.. * Threats: Making and/or carrying out threats to hurt you or others.. * Sexual Violence: Degrading treatment based on your sex or sexual orientation; using force or coercion to obtain sex or perform sexual acts.. * Physical Violence: Being violent to you, your children, household pets or others; Slapping; punching; grabbing; kicking; choking; pushing; biting; burning; stabbing; shoots; etc.. * Weapons: Use of weapons, keeping weapons around which frighten you; threatening or attempting to kill you or those you love.. from "Domestic Violence: The Facts" - A Handbook to STOP violence (courtesy of Peace At Home (formerly Battered Women Fighting Back), Boston)

Cults come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Categories of cults that are recruiting successfully today include:

Eastern meditation: characterized by belief in God-consciousness, becoming one with God. The leader usually distorts and Eastern-based philosophy or religion. Members sometimes learn to disregard worldly possessions and may take on an ascetic lifestyle. Techniques used: meditation, repeated mantras, altered states of consciousness, trance states.

Religious: marked by belief in salvation, afterlife, sometimes combined with an apocalyptic view. The leader reinterprets the Scriptures and often claims to be a prophet if not the messiah. Often the group is strict, sometimes using physical punishments such as paddling and birching, especially on children. Members are encouraged to spend a great deal of time proselytizing. (Note: included here are Bible-based neo-Christian and other religious cults, many considered syncretic since they combine beliefs and practices). Techniques used: speaking in tongues, chanting, praying, isolation, lengthy study sessions, many hours spent evangelizing, "struggle" (or criticism) and confession sessions.

Political, racist, terrorist: fueled by belief in changing society, revolution, overthrowing the "enemy" or getting rid of evil forces. The leader professes to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Often the group is armed and meets in secret with coded language, handshakes, and other ritualized practices. Members consider themselves an elite cadre ready to go to battle. Techniques used: paramilitary training, reporting on one another, guilt, fear, struggle sessions, instilled paranoia, long hours of indoctrination. -- Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Lalich and Tobias, Hunter House, 1993.