Large Group Awareness Training in popular culture

Large Group Awareness Training has been depicted in fiction and popular culture virtually since the phenomenon began. Some fictional works take a humorous tack – poking fun at or spoofing various forms of large group awareness training. However, other representations of large group awareness training in fiction take a more sinister route, and compare the methodology to dangerous cults and destructive sects.

Below is a list of some of the more obvious examples of spoofs or mentions of various forms of large group awareness training in fictional works.

See also a similar list, at List of BestsLarge Group Awareness Training in fiction.

1977
Semi-Tough – A film starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and Jill Clayburgh. In the film, all three characters end up attending a self-improvement seminar called Bismark Earthwalk Action Training, or B.E.A.T., led by charismatic leader Friedrich Bismark. Friedrich Bismark is played by Bert Convy. The film was based on the novel Semi-Tough, by Dan Jenkins. There are thinly veiled references to Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training / EST throughout the movie. Friedrich Bismark enters the self-improvement seminar initially shouting: “Assholes. Assholes! You’re all assholes every one of you. Your lives don’t work!” At one time Werner Erhard owned a Mercedes-Benz with the license plate: “SO WUT”, and in the film, Friedrich Bismark has a limosine with a license plate that reads: “BEAT IT.”

1979
Mork and Mindy – Episode 18, Season 1, titled: “Mork goes Erk.” In this episode, the characters are encouraged by a friend to join ERK, a self-help program called Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning. This is most likely a parody of Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training / EST. David Letterman played the character Ellsworth, the leader of Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning. Robert Goldman analyzed ERK and compared it with EST, in his article
Hegemony and Managed Critique in Prime-Time Television: A Critical Reading of “Mork and Mindy” that appeared in Theory and Society, 11 (May 1982): pp.363-388, Part 4. Goldman wrote: “Like est, ERK also endorses submission to the “humiliation and abuse” of the authoritarian leader as a legitimate therapeutic device for solving personal problems. Ellsworth is depicted as greedy, manipulative, hypocritical, and callous, whereas his followers are shown as indiscriminant consumers passively seeking commodified panaceas for their personal troubles. The episode carries a moment of middle-class moral indignation as it lays bare the deceitful and authoritarian features of this con-man’s approach to problem-solving.”

1980
Howard the Duck – In magazine #4 in March 1980, the character “Werner Blowhard” is introduced, along with other members of the organization B.E.S.T., which stands for “Bozoes Eagerly Serving Tyrants.” This is most likely a spoof on Werner Erhard, and the other members of B.E.S.T. were most probably parodies of charismatic leaders of other controversial groups of the time period.

1983
Circle of Power – also known as Brainwash, Mystique, and The Naked Weekend, this film directed by Bobby Roth was based on the true story of a participant in Leadership Dynamics/Mind Dynamics, described in the book The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled, written by Gene Church and Conrad D. Carnes.

1990
The Spirit of ’76 – In this film, a group of Americans from the future decide to time-travel back to 1776 and visit the period. However, they accidentally travel back in time to the year 1976. The time travellers still think they are in 1776, and decide to study the time period. A character named Heinz-57 played by Geoff Hoyle gets trapped in an encounter seminar called “Be, Inc. Seminars”, that is most likely a spoof of Erhard Seminars Training / EST. Rob Reiner plays the leader of the encounter seminar attended by Heinz-57, a character named “Doctor Cash.” Dr. Cash refers to Heinz-57 as “Heinz Asshole.”

1996
Fight ClubChuck Palahniuk, a graduate of “The Forum“, today known as The Landmark Forum, is the author of the novel Fight Club upon which the 1999 movie was based. (Grigoriadis, Vanessa. “Pay Money, Be Happy: For thousands of new yorkers, happiness is a $375, three-day self-help Seminar. Welcome to EST: The Next Generation“, New York Magazine, July 9, 2001.) In his review of the film Fight Club, Roger Ebert compared the character Tyler Durden to Werner Erhard, writing: “He’s a bully–Werner Erhard plus S & M, a leather club operator without the decor.” (Ebert, Roger. “Review, Fight Club)”, Chicago Sun-Times, October 15, 1999.)

1999
Death du jour – a novel by Kathy D. Reichs – in the novel a description of the methods used in large group awareness training is given, on page 311. A destructive cult used large group awareness training methods to lure participants into their group, then kept them beholden to the group through coercive methods.

2001
Pressure Points – a novel by Larry Brooks, describes the experiences of three senior executives that must spend a week-long retreat at “The Seminar”, in an isolated location in Northern California. The novel takes the reader through the first 60 hours of “The Seminar”, until the story takes a turn involving suicide and sex games. The Seminar is at referred to in the book as both a business seminars, and a “middle-class cult”, page 129. On page 77, a character in the book states that the programs developed by William Penn Patrick, Alexander Everett and Werner Erhard had common origins.

2002
Six Feet Under – Episode 3 of season 2, “The Plan“, first aired on HBO March 17, 2002. This episode is most likely a parody of The Landmark Forum, a course delivered by the for-profit, privately owned company Landmark Education. Actress Alice Krige plays the part of the controlling seminar leader, who teaches Ruth, Robbie and the other students of “The Plan” a new jargon using metaphors involved with building a house. The seminar leader singles out Ruth and berates her for “tiptoeing around her own house like she’s afraid of waking someone up.” The seminar leader encourages participants to use their time during the break from the course to go out to the waiting banks of phones, call their relatives, and tell them how they want to “rennovate their homes” together.

2004
The Program – by Gregg Hurwitz, this novel is part of a series involving U.S. Marshal Tim Rackley. In this work, Rackley investigates a dangerous cult that uses a mixture of large group awareness training methods and love bombing and isolation of new members from their friends, to lure members into the group. The cult members are then kept in check through violence, by loyalists to a totalitarian cult leader. Incidentally, a quote is given from Werner Erhard, prior to the opening of the book’s prologue. Large Group Awareness Training is explained to character Tim Rackley by a psychologist he consults, on page 176.

2006
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law – In the episode “Mufti Trouble,” which aired October 2, 2006, the character Mentok the Mindtaker remarks to Harvey Birdman that he had once been an EST instructor, stating: “I was also a sex worker, a cossack, and an Est instructor for a summer in Marin.”

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