Suzanne Snider

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Singer-songwriter John Denver, who was always seeking, never quite finding, was a proponent of the controversial self-help movement, the Erhard Seminar Training. When Denver substituted for vacationing host Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1973, it was natural that he would invite the man behind the verbally abusive est workshops, Werner Erhard.

The footage is shaky and black-and-white, but worth watching. Oh, and that’s puppeteer Shari Lewis of Lamb Chop fame to Erhard’s right.

Suzanne Snider recalls the origins of est in a 2003 Believer magazine:

“Born John Paul Rosenberg in 1935, Werner Erhard changed his name in 1960 and left his wife and three children in Philadelphia to fly West with his mistress June Bryde. The two cobbled together a conspicuously Teutonic moniker for the nice Jewish boy from Pennsylvania (inspired by two different people—German finance minister Ludwig Erhard and atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg—both mentioned in an in-flight article on Germany’s economic recovery). Erhard resumed his career in sales when he reached San Francisco, working for Encyclopedia Britannica, Parents magazine, and Great Books, while experiencing a wide range of what the Human Potential Movement had to offer: Gestalt therapy, Zen Buddhism, Mind Dynamics, Dale Carnegie, Scientology, and a book by Napoleon Hill called Think and Grow Rich. In 1971, Erhard had his infamous epiphany while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. He said in his biography, ‘…after I realized that I knew nothing—I realized that I knew everything… everything was just the way that it is, and that I was already all right… I realized I was not my motions or thoughts. I was not my ideas, my intellect, my perceptions, my beliefs…I became Self.’ His revelation became the basis for est workshops, his shrewdest business scheme to date.

Erhard’s new view on life, which treads a fine line between Zen Buddhism and mild psychosis, would appear a hard sell. It wasn’t lucid on an intellectual level, if at all, and other parties would have to comprehend it through means, admittedly, other than reason and logic. Nonetheless, est (which stands for Erhard Seminars Training, and also means ‘it is’ in Latin) began in the ballroom of the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco, and became the singularly most influential group to emerge from the Human Potential Movement. Understandably, this strange new program, consisting of heady imagery, emotional confessions, est-specific jargon (‘racket,’ ‘asshole,’ ‘barrier’) and aphorisms (‘I know that you know that I love you, what I want you to know is that I know you love me’ or ‘If God told you exactly what it was you were to do, you would be happy doing it no matter what it was. What you’re doing is what God wants you to do. Be happy.’), captured the imagination of men and women across the United States. Between 1971 and 1984, 700,000 people enrolled in the est workshop to ‘get it.’ Participants who approached their est workshops and the elusive ‘it’ with good sense and literalism were rebuffed. One est trainer responded to a participant’s thoughts with ‘Don’t give me your goddamn belief system, you dumb motherfucker.'”

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According to this Q&A, Mailer never interviewed Gary Gilmore for "The Executioner's Song." He worked from Schiller's extensive interviews. (Image from MDCarchives.)

For someone so accomplished, Lawrence Schiller isn’t exactly a household name. A photographer, a filmmaker, a writer and an interviewer extraordinaire, Schiller has been a Playboy shutterbug, an Oscar winner in the Documentary category, a collaborator with Norman Mailer and other literary lights and an author of books about O.J. and JonBenet. The Believer‘s Suzanne Snider has outdone herself with an outstanding interview with Schiller. You should read the whole thing, but I present you with an excerpt about how Schiller became an acclaimed photographer at a young age:

The Believer: But then you became a photographer….

Lawrence Schiller: But that was because I couldn’t read. I grew up not knowing I was very seriously dyslexic (I grew out of it a little bit). I was unable to read properly as a young child. I was unable to read at all. I ran away from classes because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. At the same time, my father was in the retail end of selling sporting goods, appliances, and cameras. He was a portrait photographer prior to that, during World War II. So about the tenth grade, he gave me an East German camera called an Exakta.

Exakta camera. (Image by Rama.)

My brother and I were accomplished tennis players at a very young age (I was skinny at the time). When my brother beat me in the eleven-and-unders, I gave up sports (he went on to be a nationally ranked tennis player). I went toward photography, and I became an accomplished sports photographer at a very young age.

I was self-taught. By the age of fourteen I had won second, third, fourth, and fifth in the national Graflex Awards, which allowed me to work in summer of eleventh grade with Andy Lopez of the Acme News Service.

I took some pictures at the death march of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from Union Square to Knickerbocker Village and I started to publish at a young age through high school and college.… I started to get a big head and a very big ego. I hid my age from all the big magazines around the world. Jacob Deschin, a writer for the New York Times, called me a “pro at sixteen,” when I was still in high school. By the time I graduated from college I won the National Press Photographers Picture of the Year award.

The Believer: What was the photograph?

Lawrence Schiller: It was Nixon losing to Kennedy with a teardrop in his wife’s eye. I never considered myself a good photographer. I still don’t. I thought of myself as a hard worker. My camera was a sponge and I had an instinct that athletes have—anticipation. Photography really represents an enormous amount of anticipation—understanding what might be there the next moment and being prepared for it.”

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