A central plot point on this season of The Americans has been Philip’s dalliance with with Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, which means the committed viewer may be wondering: What, exactly, is Erhard Seminars Training? Writing for Slate this week, Ruth Graham has provided a sort of primer on the 1970s-era movement, which promised to “tear you down and put you back together” with two intensive, $250 weekend-long seminars.
Founded by Werner Erhard (born John Paul Rosenberg and with a previous life as an encyclopedia salesman), EST capitalized on the basic human desire to improve oneself. Maybe not so surprisingly, Erhard seems to have picked up his magnetic persona after poking around in Scientology and delving into something called “Mind Dynamics” before developing EST, Graham reports. At the seminars, leaders would entreat participants to dig deep and try to be who they really were, encouraging them to break free from the role society had imposed on them in the past. This often involved mental exercises, sometimes confessional in nature, with leaders prying painful and personal details from participants’ pasts in an effort to figure out their “true selves.”
So far, it all sounds rather self-reflective, if a bit intense. But some observers found the seminars sinister and “zombie-like,” as writer Mark Brewer profiled in a fascinating Psychology Today piece from 1975:
While the assistants sternly patrolled the ranks of seated ”assholes” to make sure they were quiet and attentive and suitably fearful of their own turn on the line, Tony strutted back and forth shouting in his best voice that this was it — none of that ”bullshit” they always used to get along in life could help them now, they were going to be seen as they really were.”Wipe that smile off, ” Tony snarled at one young man. ”We don’t think you’re funny we think you’re pathetic.” To another: ”Stop trying to look so cool. They can see right through that. And there’s NOTHING behind it!”
There’s a tendency to laugh at people who join movements like these as weak, weird, stupid, and lacking direction; just look at how Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt teases the title character’s wonderment at the world and lampoons her experience. But as Science of Us has noted before, the people who join are often more than blind believers: They, too, often question their leaders, and go through some cognitive dissonance in trying to figure out what exactly is right. The Americans respects that notion, Graham notes. “It’s easy to sneer at the opium of the people,” she writes. “But it’s far more interesting to ask why the masses are lighting up.”