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The EST in Me

By
November 15, 2011

On a mother’s embrace of the teachings of 1970s self-help guru Warner Erhard.

dominic-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by zophos

In 1975, my mother moved our family to New York City to be a fashion model. I was nine; my sister, Jill, eleven.

We came to New York to remake ourselves; the times were that way. Transformation was a word you heard a lot in those days. “You don’t change the belief, you change the believer,” Burt Reynolds said in Semi-Tough, a film that spoofed the ethos, in which he played a football player who had “gotten it.” You were in, or you were out, people also said. Reynolds was lampooning Joe Namath, who had publicly announced his adherence to the self-improvement mod. Even a scene in Annie Hall, in which a girl asks Alvy Singer if they weren’t “in a training” together, featured the swell.

The most visible symbol of the current was Werner Erhard, a tall and charismatic any-man with a Dry Look haircut, plaid sports jacket and vaguely East Coast manner of inflecting his words. Erhard was big, the leader of that messianic tide in the human potential stream called EST. My mother, Namath, the girl in the Allen film—they were all acolytes.

In Erhard’s philosophy, one could enact personal change only by understanding that there was no such thing as circumstance. “Own it,” he said. Every element of your existence was something for which you must take personal responsibility. Once you did, you would become the master of your own experience. No one could control you.

Being a child, for instance, was really just a state of mind. One afternoon during that summer when we moved to New York, my mother said to me, “You are not a child.” We were entering our new high-rise apartment building through its rear service entrance and greeting the super. “You don’t want to be a kid anymore, do you?” my mother asked me. “Kid, that’s a box. You don’t want to be in that box. I think of you as an adult. Wouldn’t you rather be an adult?”

I recall this as a consensual moment. Of course I want to be an adult.

One way we three remade ourselves was by choosing our names. Until she defected to New York from both our stepfather and the suburbs, our mother had been living under our stepfather’s McKee. She’d kept the name after the divorce. Raised French Catholic, a convert to Judaism for her first marriage, she’d had a lot of unpronounceable names in her life—Langelier, Kadetsky, Michèle. As a McKee, she could walk through the world a WASP. I think she saw the name as a neutral, the kind that could fit anything inside of it.

Jill and I had been going by McKee as well, but that summer while we were signing up for the public pool, Jill changed it. Surname, asked the form; Kadetsky, she wrote without pause: our father’s name. Her movements were matter of fact, unthinking. As easy as that, she transformed us into Kadetskys again.

This was the kind of remaking we saw everywhere then. Jill tried to change my name too—or its spelling at least—from Lizzy to Lizzie. She wrote it that way for weeks. I told her it was wrong, she told me I was wrong. I prevailed.

My mother had always been a shape-shifter. Raised in a working class, French-Canadian enclave of central Maine, she’d shed many things in her life by this point. She’d lost her first language—French—and then later the broad-voweled and clucky accent of her relatives, a manner of speaking one part Maine, two parts Québec. She’d cast aside two husbands, three religions and the whole conceit of being married, suburban and a housewife. Now with our new tony, Upper East Side address and my mother’s long and elegant ankles and wrists and painted nails, her Winston 100s cigarettes and fashionable and yet unprepossessing men’s jeans and T-shirts and luxurious black hair, she arrived in Manhattan giving every appearance of privilege, provenance, and sophistication. No one could have divined we were broke.

Perhaps because Jill, a little older, was less susceptible, it was I whom my mother saw as the subject on which to apply her own alchemies. Erhard’s techniques involved trust games, and she taught me several. We enacted the stare-down, in which we peered into each others’ faces until we learned to think about seeing and not being seen. We lay on the ground and visualized feelings of anger and feelings of love and then exhaled them in screams and shouts. There was a “truth process,” a “danger process,” a “headache cure.” For this one, we lay on the ground and imagined the ache as a floating object, drifting away from us. We also fixed our concentration at a point on the wall and led each other into trance-like journeys on which we met wise beings in caves. Who is the wise being? What is the wise being telling you? we asked.

I was my mother’s pupil, but we participated in these exercises as equals. Often, our mystical probings revealed me as my mother’s mentor. One time the cave-bound oracle told my mother to follow any guidance she might receive from me; I’d been her teacher in a past life, the oracle told her.

Paradoxically, as the teachings encouraged my mother to regain a sense of play and discovery lost during her years as a housewife, they taught me to eschew my role as child. Reading an EST glossary that we kept on our coffee table, I learned that family roles imprisoned people in cages made of ideas. People were blinded by “beliefs” on particular subjects such as love, success, mother. Belief was “a non-experiential way of knowing… [something that] keeps you from seeing what’s going on right now.” A belief system was a myth. Speaking the “truth” was lying. “Kid, you’re stuck in bad stories, but they’re only stories,” Erhard was known to have said, or, “Your feelings, real or not, are unrelated to the rest of reality necessarily.”

“Mason looked at me calmly and said, ‘I don’t really need you.’” The mother expressed hurt, only to hear back from her son, “You’re being the victim, Mom.”

Erhard’s vehicle for his message was a course of expensive “training seminars” held at convention centers across the country. Standing up front with a microphone, he held an audience of several hundred—later, several thousand—over forty-eight hours of rigorous confrontation and dialog. When my mother met him face to face at a training at the Midtown Hyatt, she was up close for just a matter of minutes, but those were electric, she reported to Jill and me. He was, she said, “powerful.” It occurred to her also that the people around him were very smart, and that if one wanted to find a way in New York City, one would do well to stay close to them.

I never attended a seminar, though the organization did hold them specifically for children, and my mother had encouraged me to attend. They trained people my age to liberate ourselves from the categories. Kid, friend, teacher—everything was open to interpretation. Kids, by defining ourselves in terms of our lack of power in the world of adults, became lulled into dependencies that led to reckless acting out such as blowing off homework, sulking or having meltdowns at school. I was too independent for that kind of behavior—I believe that my mother’s impulse was not to reform me but to share with me this adult wisdom. I did read in the EST monthly newsletter about a mother reporting on her son’s newfound sense of independence after taking a kids’ seminar. The mother described her son’s response to a question about what he’d learned: “Mason just looked at me calmly and said, ‘I don’t really need you.’” The mother then expressed hurt, only to hear back from her son, “You’re being the victim, Mom.”

At the seminars, my mother acquired a set of friends who spoke in the lexicon invented by Erhard. A young woman named Christine, who worked as a buyer at Henri Bendel, one of the vogue department stores, began spending time around our apartment. She and my mother wore buttons that read: I got it, did you?

By this time, Erhard’s message was being translated in our home as, more or less, Whatever you think is, might not be. Or, Whoever someone else thinks you are, you don’t have to be. Reality was a moving target, impossible to pin down.

Another word, trip, suddenly filled in for most any concept and context. Chris and my mother said What a trip (a good thing, a bad thing, a weird thing); she/he’s a trip (beguiling, annoying, psychologically unstable, a piece of work [aka POW]); get off your trip (stop doing whatever it is you’re doing right now that’s annoying to me); she/he’s on a trip (being manipulative or otherwise egoistic); he/she/this is laying a real trip on me (causing me to feel I should do things owing to expectations that I never agreed to [aka signed up for]).

But neologisms were not limited to Erhard then—there were a lot of new words in the air. POW was a contribution by Jill and my father, who in phone calls and during our bi-monthly custody visits to Boston often spoke in acronyms: t.t.f.n. (tata for now), he’d say or he’d refer to a person as a b.o. (a bon oeuf, aka good egg). His favorite new expression of the ’70s was ragtime, a term he employed often to describe most anything going on in our apartment in New York City.

A typical ragtime scene took place there one night. Our sink overflowed with dishes. There had been no meal, as cooking went against not only our mother’s model’s diet, but her sense that creating one’s own reality included avoiding tasks that one was apt to feel resentment about after the fact. She could exist on cigarettes, coffee, and sweets. As for Jill and me, we could learn something by managing our own hunger.

She, Jill, Christine and I sat around our coffee table going through a package of Stella d’Oro anisette toasts dunked in instant cafés au lait from a General Foods powder. My mother had already chain-smoked one pack of cigarettes. Her favorite red-crystal ashtray overflowed with lipstick-stained butts, and another cigarette dangled from her fingers. A long cylinder of ash accumulated at its end, accentuating the line of her fingers, wrist and arm. She wore faded, light-blue men’s jeans, low slung and belted near waist-less hips, with a white men’s T-shirt and white men’s tennis shoes. Her thick hair cascaded around her cheekbones so as to call attention to their arresting size.

Chris was staying with us, on hiatus from an aggressive, heavy-accented family of cops back in Queens. They’d been “laying a trip” on her this week, or month, and for Chris to go home would be to willingly inflame her own sense of victimhood.

Irksome to Jill was how, all evening, Chris had been doing a thing she did, which was to praise our mother in her presence—her beauty and charms as singer, actress, painter, writer, artist: really any persona at all that our mother felt like assuming at any particular moment. Jill was huffing around the apartment muttering, “Prima donna, prima donna.”

Chris, my mother and I began discussing Erhard’s new vocabulary—at which point, Jill, a prodigy pianist, sat at the piano and played, fed up with us all.

I acknowledge that, my mother was explaining, was something you said when you disagreed with someone but didn’t want to argue about it.

Chris nodded her head in assent.

“I acknowledge,” said my mother, “that this might not be what you signed up for. You might not be getting the yama-yama, the dada-dada, that you expected.”

“If one person says the evening gown is more appropriate for the opera, and I say jeans are fine, we don’t have to argue,” my mother went on.

Jill banged a little harder in a difficult passage of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, “The Emperor.”

“Each can allow the other her opinion,” my mother went on. “It’s civilized. It’s really not worth your time to argue. Your opponent’s opinion, it’s her trip.”

“Being an asshole isn’t a bad thing to be. It’s just another way of being,” Chris elaborated, adding, “You create your own reality.”

“Don’t let anyone define your space,” said my mother.

After a while, Jill pointed out that after all this heady talk, we should maybe eat some dinner. It was ten or eleven.

“Are you hungry?” my mother asked Jill.

“I’m staying out of this,” said Chris.

“Well, yeah,” said Jill.

My mother peered at me, making a question face.

“I don’t know,” I recused myself. I aimed for neutrality.

“Are you hungry, or do you just think you should eat?” she continued, addressing Jill again.

“She’s pushing your buttons,” Chris said to Jill.

“I acknowledge that,” said my mother, seeming to reverse herself. “I acknowledge that this might not be what you signed up for. You might not be getting the yama-yama, the dada-dada, that you expected.”

“That doesn’t mean she agrees with you,” Chris clarified.

“I don’t know what you mean by yama or dada,” said Jill. “Those aren’t words.”

Yama-yama,” said my mother. “Dada-dada. The bullshit. The racket. The story you tell yourself about what you think is. It’s a winning formula, but it isn’t necessarily true.”

“I just think we should have some food,” pointed out Jill. She stalked to the kitchen and rattled the dishes in the sink, making an echo-y clatter. “And how come you never do dishes?” She peeked her head back out through the hallway and into the living room. “I do dishes. Lizzy does dishes. You never do dishes. So I decide I’m not going to do the dishes, I’m going to wait to see how long it takes for them to pile up before someone else gets the idea to do the dishes. And no. No one does them. No one. No one ever does dishes.”

Chris looked at her lap. My mother stared at the wall that separated the kitchen and living room.

On the other side of this wall lay a stack of dishes, in long-ago chilled soapsuds, with specks of food floating on top. Jill was right. Not one of us had a plan to wash them.

“I acknowledge you feel the dishes should get done,” our mother shouted across the room. “But I am almost forty years old.”

I’d earlier had the realization that the phrase I acknowledge… was often followed by the disqualifier but.

“Who said you have to eat dinner at night?”

Jill came back around from the galley and stood with her fists clenched at her hips.

“I’ve spent my whole life in this act. I don’t have to play this game,” my mother said.

“What game?”

“It’s an act. It’s someone else’s act. Who said you have to eat dinner at night? Don’t let other people’s expectations rule your life. We don’t have to. We don’t have to do anything.”

“But I’m hungry.” Jill paced to the piano and with all ten fingers made a dissonant crash. “And dishes have to get done.” She pounded again. Then she stormed out our front door and into the hallway. Slamming, the door reverberated with a metallic, wobble-and-ring sound. It continued to shudder until silence descended.

My mother shrugged.

Chris shrugged.

“It’s true there’s no food in the cupboard,” I said, after a while.

“Yes there is,” said my mother. “You just think there’s no food.”

“But there isn’t.” I showed her an open cupboard in the kitchen. There were cereal bowls that had once contained plastic sleeves of restaurant condiments but now contained only crumbed remains from sugar packets.

“You haven’t looked here.” She opened a higher cabinet and a lower one and assembled the following: a can, half-filled, of General Foods powdered café au lait; half and half from the fridge; coffee grounds from the freezer; butter; and, from a high cabinet, dry noodles and Chinese restaurant soy sauce, mustard and hot sauce packets.

I made us egg noodles with butter.

After we moved to New York City, my mother secured interviews with several top designers, and was soon installed as a runway or showroom model to a handful of industry names—for instance Paulene Trigère, Geoffrey Beene. The work was erratic, and photography was, if not her preference, also somewhat out of reach given her 35 years. She was, though, by any standard, successful.

Erhard provided not just a means to find “me,” but what New York has always offered the newcomer, a Horatio Alger-esque freedom of self-creation.

It was this work on Seventh Avenue that put her in the way of Erhard’s movement. Fashion was a costume, her vehicle for shifting shape. She was a manipulator of forms. In the ’60s, at just that moment Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy became our culture’s emblem of style, my mother and her agency aptly identified her French-ness as an entrée into the world of modeling—Michelé, her handlers called her, mis-accenting Michèle. I am certain that my mother enjoyed the mistaken impression that she was the Parisian kind of French and not the New England kind.

By the time we moved to New York she’d shed the grave accent and became Michele. She was cultivating that sort of an unfixed identity onto which people might project whatever it was they were inclined to believe. If you were beautiful and dressed in vogue, as she unfailingly was, this was likely to be good.

Erhard emphasized personal change, but his version also involved such donning and shedding of skins—a constant self-reinvention. Perhaps this was why critics in the media called Erhard a snake. He was equal parts shapeshifter and impresario—pseudonymed (Jack Rosenberg by birth), and in his style and speech essentially nondescript, a man without qualities. “I could not place him—socially or intellectually,” wrote a follower, William Warren Bartley III. “He came without trappings, without white coat, long flowing robe, or three-piece suit.” Bartley also noted there was something unearthly about the man’s unassuming presence. “At midnight he seemed as clean and well pressed, and as fresh, as he had been at eight o’clock.”

His detractors fixated less on Erhard’s person-creating magicianship than on the solipsism inherent in his style of self-searching. In a cover story in Harper’s subtitled “Follies of the Human Potential Movement,” Erhard’s EST was described as a linchpin of a “new narcissism.” Tom Wolfe singled out Erhard specifically in his landmark 1976 essay in New York magazine coining the term “The ‘Me’ Decade”: “The new alchemical dream is changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self,” he wrote. “I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess baggage of society and my upbringing in order to find the Real Me.”

By focusing on “me,” Wolfe may have missed Erhard’s more lasting—in fact timeless—message about persona. For people like my mother, Erhard provided not just a means to find “me,” but what New York has always offered the newcomer, a Horatio Alger-esque freedom of self-creation. This message was not new; Erhard was simply its newest messenger.

That fashion provided its denizens a vehicle for self-creation also wasn’t new. Around this time, my mother got serious about instating “new looks” for herself—one-outfit-suits-every-occasion ensembles settled upon during a single strategy session in front of the mirror. A look, like a name or an accent, was a tool to enable a sliding between social cracks.

She was eager to help me with mine. One morning, Jill’s hands stuttered up and down the keyboard in her idiosyncratic rendition of “Emperor.” I stood, facing the mirror. The music was building, building, amassing energy and fervor. The air itself was nervous. My skin was anxious. I would be late to school. I already was. I was always late, for this reason. I had nothing, nothing, to wear.

“I have nothing to wear,” I stated to no one. I was in sixth grade now.

My mother did not notice this or clean it up, as she also did not notice that she had poured in more water than the mug could contain.

My mother gazed at me impassively. Jill’s music registered no reaction to this bleat of pain. My mother stood inside our galley kitchen making coffee with a plastic Melitta cone and a makeshift filter jury-rigged from paper towels—we were always out of everything. The paper towel curled over the edge of the plastic cone as my mother poured water such that there were brown drips spilling downward out of the curl making a trail to the floor. My mother did not notice this or clean it up, as she also did not notice that she had poured in more water than the mug could contain. The coffee was leaking out of her cup at the thin line at which filter cone met rim. When she did finally notice, she peered at it all for several seconds before muttering, “Shit.”

Then, she looked back to observe my trial before the mirror. She watched with the same refracted gaze she’d used to study the leaking coffee, such that I wasn’t sure she’d even heard me. Today was not special, except that it was today and therefore urgent.

Finally, she broke her concentration. “How do you want to look?”

I stared back at her.

“What do you want people to think?”

“That I look good?”

“Oh, honey. Decide what you want to look like. Not how.” This, I see now, was a lesson in persona.

Her own first look had been those blue jeans and men’s white sneakers, later modified to include designer tennis shoes by Geoffrey Beene acquired on a runway job—Jill and I got matching pairs as well. Not so long after, her look shifted to all black. About this, she announced in a revelatory tone, “Everything always matches!”

Such statements were generally uttered alongside the phrase Can you believe it? I can do whatever I want. Why don’t people ever get to just do what they want?

If my mother seemed a child then and I an adult, our roles eventually got fixed like that. Child-as-parent was a position she groomed me for. Recently, I called Christine, our old family friend, to give her an update about my mother. My mother was diagnosed with early-to-middle-stage Alzheimer’s four years ago; she is seventy-one now.

Chris said to me, “Your mother always had Alzheimer’s.”

I manage my mother’s finances now, and Jill is living with her, still in New York City. “Isn’t it ironic,” Jill likes to say now, “that I am taking care of our mother, feeding her, ministering to her every need, when she couldn’t bother to make a meal for us when we were growing up?”

Jill says that our mother is also still inhabiting personas, still a prima donna. She is hiding her memory condition, faking it to everyone. Faking it means putting on a brave face, or covering for lapses, such as when someone says to our mother, It was so nice to see you yesterday and she responds without missing a beat, Yes, it was lovely. Jill maintains that our mother hides her condition even from me. She hides it from everyone except Jill.

It is true that our mother appears very competent. She strikes a stunning figure still; slim, graceful, and elegantly dressed, she appears nearly twenty years younger than her age. She evokes such competence that when we apply for social services—for instance, a home-care attendant who might assist Jill in cooking or directing her showering or accompanying our mother on walks so she doesn’t get lost alone—our mother performs too well on the assessment interview that invariably she gets rejected for aid. “You should tell your mother to tone it down,” an intake worker told me good-naturedly after one, commenting in particular on my mother’s fine posture. “Someone is going to look at your poised and confident mother and say she doesn’t need the service.”

Erhard’s message remains a part of her in broad outlines. She retains a sense of acceptance and wonder at the horror of her memory condition; she refuses to play the victim; she is indignant about the oppressive social rules that she endured during her pre-1970s coming of age.

My mother also still says, Why don’t people ever get to just do what they want?—and says it with the same childlike note of elation, the same sense of discovery. She says this when she and I are ordering dinner, for instance, and I suggest a smattering of appetizers to share versus two entrees.

Right, she says. We can do whatever we want. Why don’t people just get to do what they want? We’re paying for this. Why do we have to order an entrée?

Every time she says this, I respond matter-of-factly, We don’t. And then invariably I think of the vast difference between her roots and mine, and what it really means to be raised by someone who intended to eradicate all sense of propriety, a person who deliberately unlearned all preconceived social expectations and conventions. She was raised with a lot of those—in Catholicism before Vatican II, in a marriage before feminism. If as a child I received my own, albeit quirky and EST-inflected rules, built into them was the idea that I could abandon them at any moment.

I sometimes think of a movie we saw then, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, set in a white-brick high-rise nearly identical to ours, in our same neighborhood on the Upper East Side. Written by Neil Simon, it features Jack Lemmon as a tenant beset by an existential angst. He is a cog in a robotic system, and that system doesn’t work. He opts to opt out. He wonders why anyone should do anything other than what they want to do. Who made the rules? Why am I following them?

The blankness enabled a freedom, as long as you took control of the impression you conveyed.

EST’s critics used to interpret the movement’s intolerance for the old rules as a dodging of the social contract. This inflamed their sense of personal responsibility. Tom Wolfe identified the cultural space for his “Me” decade as arising out of a postwar vacuum of self-pity. The EST acolyte, satirized in his essay, was paralyzed by self-inflicted neuroses borne from reservoirs of self-pity: “my inability to communicate, my self-hatred, self-destructiveness, craven fears, puling weakness, primordial horrors, premature ejaculation, impotence, frigidity, subserviences, laziness, alcoholism, major vices, grim habits, twisted psyches, tortured souls…” EST and the human potential movement, he wrote, essentially comprised a much-needed religious revival.

Peter Marin, in “The New Narcissism,” an essay on the human potential movement in general and EST that was published in the October 1975 issue of Harper’s, drew a link to the “moral vacuum” of the postwar moment: “[W]e inhabit an age of catastrophe,” he wrote, “…we struggle mightily to convince ourselves that our privilege is earned or deserved, rather than (as we must often feel unconsciously) a form of murder or theft. Our therapies… provide their adherents with a way to avoid the demands of the world, to smother the tug of conscience.”

For the people like my mother, however, the movement was about something else, I think: fluidity, slipperiness, the power of staying silent and letting others impose desires or fears on you. The blankness enabled a freedom, as long as you took control of the impression you conveyed. You could be what you seemed to be. If you looked good, people trusted you and sought you out. Erhard was important because he taught a kind of smarts—tricks for getting by.

This perhaps explains why my mother also still holds the belief that I too need a persona. At lunch this week, she dotes over my boots. She dotes over not just what I’m wearing but how I wear it, and not whether I look good or bad, but what the look is. “That dress,” she says. “It’s very nice.” She peers thoughtfully just like she used to. “The whole look.” She breaks off and moves her eyes up and down, touches my shoulder, holds me back from her so she can see the entire sweep of me in a single gaze. “What that look says to me, it says—” She pauses again. “Money. That look says money. The dress. No, it’s not just the dress.” I’m also wearing a scarf, opaque stockings, simple jewelry—nothing expensive. Generally, as she instructed, I opt for a simple look, the kind one might project wealth or success or confidence on.

“That looks like something, when you see it, you say, this is what a rich person wears.” This means classy to her, graceful. We both smile at this, this conspiracy of presentation. If people think you’re rich, they start to give you things, she used to say.

Werner Erhard’s character became fixed eventually too, a caricature. In 1994 he fled the U.S. facing charges for tax evasion amid rumors of incest. The corporation that headed EST went out of business—it was actually named Transformational Technologies. His followers founded the New Age self-help enterprise called Landmark Education, which still exists.

Erhard had a short-lived but widespread burst of influence on our culture, and then became essentially forgotten. After a certain point, I heard people using terms like act and trip and space and create your own reality without ever having heard the name Werner Erhard. Erhard copyrighted the terms racket and winning formula, but you can’t trademark culture. His moment was short, but lasting in its way.

This was also true of another old cult that we used to see downtown—the Rajneeshis. In my family, we always noticed, first, their bad fashion. They wore uniforms of red-on-red with a hanging mala holding a picture of their hairy, messy-looking guru. After that, Jill, my mother or I would never risk two un-matching shades of red. “You look like a Rajneeshi,” one of us would say, and the wearer would promptly change to a different outfit. We still never wear red on red.

The superficial can also go deep, though. Fashion is a costume, but if you wear it long enough, you can really become that thing. Did we change deeply? I think we did. My mother never got back the New England accent she’d once worked so hard to get rid of, and she also deeply internalized Erhard’s message.

Then as now, it’s easy to dismiss, and disparage, EST—yes, it’s narcissism; yes, it’s hypocritical flouting of social responsibility on the one hand while making claims to “own” one’s choices, and one’s destiny, on the other. Yes, it was a pain to act the adult to my mother’s play as child.

But EST was the air I breathed—there was no other choice—and in the end I’m glad I breathed it. Perhaps I took its teachings along a different course from my mother’s. From her, I learned that you can control how people perceive you, and that in this emptiness lies a thrilling freedom.

I also learned something about possibility, about imagining a thing and then projecting myself into it. How often, today, I find myself performing a familiar old sleight of hand: I pretend I can do a thing, someone believes me, and I do it. Increasingly, these magical acts involve procuring a service or finessing an impossible task for my mother. Or it involves actually functioning in my life and at my job amid an overpowering sense of crisis, chaos, and grief while my mother’s cognitive health declines daily, declines almost minute by minute.

Every success seems an act of grace—mystical and yet also tangible, an act of looking the part, playing the part. Somewhere between the pretending and the doing, I convince even myself.

G

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and as “distinguished” in The Best American Short Stories 2010. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, Santa Monica Review, The Antioch Review, and elsewhere. A 25-year practitioner of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, she lived in India as a Fulbright Scholar and wrote a memoir about her studies with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There is a Mountain (Little, Brown, 2004; Dzanc rEprint series, 2011). She is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing in fiction and nonfiction in Penn State’s MFA program.

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5 comments for The EST in Me

  1. Comment by Chris L. on November 15, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Breathtaking. Thank you so much for its clarity and poetry.

    A friend of mine in grad school grew up with a mom who was into Primal Scream, which was apparently its own cult. Her stories and yours above made me think of “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.”

  2. Comment by William C. on November 19, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Terrific essay. I remember EST as a spinoff of the various Sixties movements chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip, the way Maude was a spinoff of All in the Family. It was another way people were trying to break out of the stultifying mainstream mode, to be something new and more interesting. It’s happening now, too, in a different way, with perhaps more anger and outrage, with the Occupy Wall Street movement, disgust with the failure of consumerism/bankerism to do little more than make a few wealthy at the expense of the many poor.

  3. Comment by Pamela Erens on November 25, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    This is wonderful, Elizabeth.

  4. Comment by MeiMei on December 3, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    What a fantastically written and insightful piece. I’m impressed. It’s challenging to examine one’s childhood with such depth and wisdom.

  5. Comment by Scott on January 24, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Elizabeth,

    You wrote this a few years ago and I don’t know if you’ll see this. Let me start from a reference point of commonality. I have three EST parents. My father went after he divorced my mother. He liked it so much that he paid for my mother to go, where she met her future husband (my step father). I was sent to kids EST. And if that wasn’t enough I met my wife at work and we knew we were meant to be together when we realized both of us had EST parents.

    So, pretty good understanding of that world. With that said, we have done our best to NOT expose our daughter to the teaching because we want to honor her childhood and all research shows how important a stable base is for developing a balanced adult. Certainly EST had some positive impacts on our parents (taking responsibility) but it cannot be understated how important it is to NEVER NEVER NEVER use the teaching on kids. Going to kids EST for me was a horrific experience, one that to this day I still deplore. My parents think it was good and changed me, but in reality I just never wanted to be sent back to such a thing again. It’s not meant to be for children – it robs them of the time when their brains require parental guidance. They simply do not (factually) have the processing power to conceptualize or leverage EST ideas.

    My positive on EST is the creation of my own internal voice charging me with being responsible for the interpretation and processing of external inputs. But, I have had to fight hard to re-introduce empathy into my processing. To step back and understand the motives and state of the person I’m interacting with – to better yield a dialog that is constructive, honest and can mend. EST would have me discount empathy and replace it with, as you point out, approved narcissism.

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