messing with my head

close up

The instructions went something like this: The first row goes first. The people stand up, walk single file onto the stage, stop, and turn to face the rest of the group. They will stand at the front edge of the stage without speaking, moving, averting their face, or closing their eyes for five minutes: five minutes exposed on stage, without a script or a role or a job to perform, five full minutes of being observed without distraction, after which they will file off the stage and return to their seats while the second row rises. Every person in the 200+ member audience gets a turn being on stage. The only other instructions were to “be present” and “see what came up.”

I took the est training, a self-help seminar that promised personal transformation, at least four times between the ages of 10 and 17, and each time I sat there in my vinyl seat in the windowless conference room of the Jack Tar Hotel on Van Ness in San Francisco, watching as row after row of people lined up for their turn, I was stunned with the economy and impact of this exercise. What a cheap and effective way to shake people up, one that doesn’t require plane tickets or hot coals or parachutes or prescriptions or meditation or years and years of therapy. Just stick them on stage and watch them fall apart: that’s a lot of bang for your buck.

Each group contained about twenty people whose reactions ran the gamut. I watched while practiced smiles slowly hardened into grimaces and then finally dissolved to reveal a multitude of surprises. Some spontaneously combusted, weeping and quivering like open wounds for the duration, while others stood still and stiff as petrified trees. Some pulled a disappearing act, psychically retreating to some other dimension, while others blossomed, and others held it together until the sound of someone else’s sobbing took them down. Many simply spent the entire time trying to figure out what to do with their eyes and their hands while the trainers paced up and down the aisles, barking stock phrases: “Your entire life has been spent trying to look good or avoid looking bad. What a waste of life.” “Ask yourself this question: Who are you trying to impress?” “Listen to the voice in your head, that smug little voice, always judging everyone and everything. You are an asshole.” “Drop the act, for once in your life. Get over yourself. Get off it.” “You are inauthentic. But even worse, you are inauthentic about being inauthentic.” It was a fascinating spectacle and never before or since have I witnessed such panic or seen grown men and women weeping openly and perfectly sane-looking strangers become so unhinged.

The people barking at us were missing/hiding an important point: the sad, beautiful fact that we are all unique and that even in the harshest environments, some people will adapt and perhaps actually flourish while others will get hurt; others will always be hurt. Still others will escape without being touched at all. You might get paid a lot of money to put on your “Marine Life Rescue” uniform, gather up all the creatures you find and plop them into a saltwater tank, but you can’t take credit for teaching a fish how to swim, you can’t blame the garden slug for not “getting it.”  Fish swim. But the slug is just not the right character for this story.

We were all there together, trying simultaneously to be seen and to hide, but when it was my turn, even though I was on the stage with 19 other people, even though when I had sat in that audience I had felt nothing but empathetic curiosity, on stage I felt alone. I fully understood the effect of contrived intimacy and the relativity of truth and realized that even in a room full of people, with 400 eyeballs turned in my direction, I might never be recognized, not even by my self.

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. It’s amazing how hard it can be for someone to look another person in the eye and hold their gaze. Trainings like these are such a great opportunity for growth.

  2. This is an amazing experience. It sounds like boot camp in basic training…but for kids as young as 10? Incredible. Just the standing there would be hard enough to bear, but being yelled at and demeaned as well? Torture. Glad you survived and found such a great way to put it into a useable context.

  3. Karin Baer

    I like that you were resilient and recognized the artificiality of the exercise.

  4. There are a number of things that I am grateful for in life. I just learned one more: I’m grateful no one ever made me go to an est training seminar. My brother was in the Marines. Boot camp sounded a lot like that.

  5. The 70s were crazy times. And, is it just me or does that photo have a 70s vibe? I’m trying to figure out what it is.

    • I’m guessing it’s an eye. REALLY close up.

      My sister-in-law used to be into stuff like that seminar (they called it Training), and she tried to rope us in with her (at $3000 a pop). She said it changed her life. But she seemed exactly the same to me afterward.

  6. That sounds crazy!
    At that age I would have melted into the floor, or wanted to…

  7. sounds like a nightmare – lucky you were together enough to survive – not sure all the participants would have left unscathed.

  8. I think being observed is different then just being .. so while I don’t really care what others think about how I loo … I don’t want to be scrutinized either … thanks for the late night thought after a few glasses of wine 🙂

  9. Ouch. It reminds me of a small theatre production I saw once. The actors were barely 6 feet away. I’m not sure how comfortable they found it, but it was excruciating for me in the audience. I couldn’t decide where to look, and the thought that my gaze might unnerve them just made it worse…

  10. Todd

    I like it! Sounds like a good exercise to shake out the cobwebs of self consciousness. Seems like a good way to hold up a mirror to expose your self-image to yourself. Really, if you can’t just stand still in front of other human beings for five minutes without crumpling you do have self-perception issues you need to deal with. It also seems like a demonstration of the “power of suggestion”. Someone told the 20 that they were on display to the 180. They believed it and assumed that position. But you were also staring back at the larger group, were they not on display to your 40 peering eyeballs too? Why weren’t they the ones quivering? Don Juan (via Carlos Casteneda) used the term “internal dialogue” to describe the constant talk running inside our heads. He taught that perception starts when you turn off the chatter spigot, and just observe in mental silence.

    • Mind over matter, mind over matter. Oh no, wait: matter over mind, matter over mind….
      You’re right, though. The whole thing was in my mind. I was the one who interpreted that reality: the crowd and the trainers were ancillary.

  11. Yawn. The nuns at my grade school were so much better at this sort of thing. Est should “get over itself.”

  12. So that was EST. I never really knew. Like Mr. Skele, I see a connection to religion-based guilt. Make people feel that bad and then they can be molded into whatever shape we choose. A shame they did this to children too.

  13. I remember doing research on both EST and transcendental meditation and “primal scream therapy” for something I was writing a few years back. What I took from both was thinking that people seemed like they needed to feel something that made them feel “different,” but it really just sounded like another high-profile con game. Screaming your feelings out so you can put yourself back into some “primal” state, and be free of pain and trauma? Yeah, it sounded more like a way to shred your larynx and make yourself feel more screwed up than before.

  14. How about this: contrived intimacies are meeting places for superficialities, collectivized. What happens to the individual? What is really being exposed? Not anyone’s true self, surely. There’s no time or space for that in contrived intimacies. It seems the sensible response to such an ironic set of circumstances would be the one you had: loneliness and a lack of recognition (or misrecognition). Isn’t that a big part of our social existence, contrived intimacy, but with an avoidance of the loneliness it fosters, an avoidance of what you recognized?

  15. Yes, I can relate to this based on my own phase of personal growth immersion (which arguably I’m still in) — in fact, I will never fully understand who my “authentic self” is, because its nature is constantly shifting and perhaps even ineffable. But that recognition gives me more compassion for myself and others, which is perhaps the goal of “the work” to begin with, or a goal at least.

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