You never hear the term anymore, but when my former husband and I first moved here in the 1970s, encounter groups were in full swing. For those who may have arrived in Southern California later, encounter groups were generally weekend or week-long unstructured group meetings of eight to 12 people plus a leader/facilitator with the alleged intent of increasing emotional expressiveness and communication, and promoting personal growth.
Brochures abounded promising the opportunity to explore one’s sexuality, improve marital relationships, stop smoking/drinking/eating, explore one’s sexuality, unclog one’s arrested development, and explore one’s sexuality. Overcoming sexual hang-ups was very popular then.
There were nude encounter groups and even marathon encounter groups in which the participants would meet continuously for 24 hours on the theory that a lack of sleep would break down defenses and allow the real you to emerge. Apparently, the real you often ended up naked, exploring his or her sexuality.
Curious to experience the encounter group phenomenon that was so different from our former, far-less-explored East Coast lives, and frankly, clueless as to what we were getting into, we signed up for a weeklong series of workshops at an idyllic but isolated setting that featured only organic vegetarian food grown on site without harming bugs. If nothing else, I thought, this would be a good opportunity to withdraw from what had become a dismaying over-indulgence in Mounds bars.There wasn’t a cube of white sugar for 50 miles.
The first thing we discovered was that the encounter movement had its own dialect. On Day One, the group facilitator sat us on the floor in a circle and told us that while things would get “heavy,” we were there to “nourish” ourselves. It made me think of lunch, preferably a burger, which I was already missing.
We went around the circle to introduce ourselves. Most of our group claimed to be there to “release some old tapes.” It took me a few minutes to catch on that this had nothing to do with the music industry.
We were obviously in a group with some seriously experienced encounterees. They wanted to get right to it.
“We’ve been here 10 f-ing minutes already,” grumped the guy to my right, “and nobody has said anything deep.”
“I can relate to that,” said the girl next to him. She turned to my ex. “I feel close to you.”
“Thank you,” said Ex politely.
“You’re grateful to Sarah because she feels close to you,” reiterated the leader for no reason I could figure out.
The group quickly zoned in on my Ex and me, clearly the weakest members of the herd. “Was that your parent or your child speaking? I mean, what’s your script?” queried another girl.
“Um, do I need a script?” said Ex.
“You’re wondering if you need a script,” observed the leader.
“I hear where you’re coming from,” said another guy to Ex. “And I really feel your pain. But hey, man, you’re here to self-actualize.”
Ex: “Um, I’m not sure —
“Put your hesitation on the hot seat and talk to it,” suggested the guy next to me. “Look, I’ve been in a bad place myself. It’s a bummer. Just let it all hang out. Beat your fists on the cushion. Scream. But stay in the here and now.”
Meanwhile, a girl across the circle gave me a huge smile. “I want to experience you,” she said.
“Bathroom break!” I said.
I don’t remember too much about the other workshops that week, except for one about choice. The premise was that everything that happens in life is our own choice. If you’re sad, you chose to be sad. “You have to agree to it!” the two group facilitators kept admonishing us.
Sick people choose to be sick. Poor people choose to be poor. I just couldn’t bring myself to blame all poor people for being poor. If one were to do a “Where are they now?” I’m guessing these guys are running the Tea Party.
The choice workshop was definitely my least favorite. But that time I had been without both Mounds bars and cheeseburgers for a week and was getting surly. Besides, our room had black widow spiders, which are not my favorite, but which the facilitators insisted had just as much right to live as I did. I chose to squash them.
When we got home, both my Ex and I agreed that it had been an intense, thought-provoking, provocative, sometimes enlightening week full of more arachnids and naked people than we had ever seen at one time. Meanwhile, all the daisies in our garden had succumbed in particularly hot weather. “Well,” shrugged my husband, “I guess the daisies didn’t choose to live.”—
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