"I'm telling you, everyone in real estate is honest, you have to be, they really watch you. I really help people."
I first heard about sensitivity groups when i was a junior in college. A friend of mine who had just returned from a weekend of "encounter" came up to me, grabbed men, stared intently into my eyes and blurted, "Frank! I really like you! You know that, don't you?" Having been raised in a white protestant, standoffish home where I got embarrassed when my mother kissed me in front of my friends, I was startled by my friend's sudden emotion. And somewhat suspicious of this encounter group business, especially as the days wore on and the trance and smile on my friend's face gradually wore off. Within two weeks we were back to our normal salutation. "Hey, shithead, what's up?"
But San Diego is the kind of place where you can't avoid encounter groups. Everywhere you go, the name Carl Rogers of Kairos or transactional analysis burden the everyday cocktail conversation. Or a perfect stranger will ask you out of the blue, "How do you really feel about me?"
I resisted and I resisted, telling myself that this group touchy, feely stuff was superficial, that the emotions one got in sitting around coaching other people and telling them his deepest feelings were short-lived and phony. I resisted until I saw the following ad one week:
SUNDAY NIGHT Singles. Creative relationships. Make friends fast in theis popular program. A variety of group experiences, including TORI encounter, body and self-awareness, nonverbal communications to help participants break through the usual barriers with others. Each evening is unique.
Not having the courage to go alone, I begged and pleaded a friend who finally said okay she'd go. But first she'd have to brush her teeth and put on pants and a heavy sweater. (You can never tell what's going to happen in the nonverbal communication part.)
We were fully half an hour late. bu the bearded young man sitting at the card table in the living room of a typically plain Clairemont home didn't seem to mind. He took our two dollars and told us to pin on a name tag. After everyone was seated on the floor, our eyes focused on the bearded man, who, from his supercilious look, was obviously the leader. Very carefully, almost gently, he asked what we would like to do tonight. One collegiate-looking man on the leader's right suggested yoga; a middle-aged, black-haired lady from Texas across the room said she thought it would be a good idea if we all explained why we had changed our first names. Who had changed his first name? over half the group raised their hands. A couple of people explained why they had changed their names ("My name was really Edgar," a man with an Oklahoma accent confessed. The rest of us broke into nervous laughter.) The leader, again very carefully and very gently, said he wanted each of us to pick someone else in the group each of us wanted to get to know and go sit by him. The group sat and waited. Finally, a pot-bellied, dark-haired man with a pleasant face crawled over to another middle-ager named Trish. Trish had been talking and laughing and making a big fuss about a wet spot on the carpet that was caused by Linda the hostess's dog. No one else moved. Several people began complaining about having to choose another person just arbitrarily. Finally, ignoring the leader's wishes, several groups of three or four broke off from the group and launched into typical cocktail party conversation.
I began to talk with a girl who introduced herself all in one breath. She sold real estate in Kearny Mesa but had majored in Mediterranean architecture at San Francisco State of course that was oh my goodness ten years ago but she really liked religion and philosophy and had I read the book Before Philosophy by Frankfurt of that was a wonderful book. Another person joined us, a young guy with wire rims and long, light brown hair. He said he was an engineer for the Navy at North Island. For some reason we spent 45 minutes listening to the girl defend her job as a real estate agent, "I'm telling you, everyone in real estate is honest, you have to be, they really watch you. I really help people. If I an find the right home for someone it makes me feel so good inside. If a house isn't right for someone, I can't sell it to them. Would you buy a house that you didn't want?"
Fortunately the group leader called half-time and we filed into the kitchen for cookies and a choice of coffee or Red Mountain. Leaning against the refrigerator, I listened to two recent divorcees exchange experiences. One was the hostess Linda, "Oh, these singles groups have been my salvation. i went to them every night for months after my divorce. And they've changed my whole life. Before, I was just Chuck's wife. I wouldn't talk to anyone. I was afraid. Chuck did all the talking. He talked so much.... He didn't wait even a month after the divorce to marry someone else. And I wish him and his new one all the luck in the world. I really do."
"You do, really? You do?" The pot-bellied man stirred.
"Yes, I do. I really do." Linda smiled broadly, but the cracks in her voice and the lines in her face suggested a deep, bitter sadness. The pot-bellied man said his experiences were similar. He had lived in the Bay Area, in San Mateo, and when he got divorced, he lost all of his married friends. "I didn't know San Diego had these groups. I'm so glad to find out what they do."
"Oh, yes. They've got them every night of the week. Let's see, Tuesday it's the Music Makers single who want to get together and play instruments. Wednesday, there's another group, Thursday, too, and Friday there's a singles dance."
Certainly after halftime, I thought, the real nonverbal excercises would begin. The girl I had come with had been telling me about this exercise at Kairos where they massage every orifice of the body, including tear duct muscles, and people break down and cry and tell all their experiences they had subconsciously wanted to cry about before....
I went back into the living room and sat down with some of the older people in the group. the lady from Texas, it turned out, sold real estate in La Mesa; another lady, in her late fifties, taught music at some San Diego junior high school; and the Oklahoma man, who wore a toupee, worked for local hypnotist-showman Michael Dean. The conversation drifted from Chryslers vs. Fords to income taxes to whether a millionaire was really happy, to hypnotism. Dr. Dean's assistant claimed that almost anything was possible through hypnotism. These people were encounter group regulars. Some of them were even regulars to this Sunday night group. They were all very interested in psychology. The words "rap" and "hang up" slipped off their tongues easily. They each posed the question of whether they had some sort of hang-up or problem and then went to great lengths denying any problem. They all seemed a little irritated that the group leader hadn't had them do physical exercises.
The girl I had come with found herself with the other half — the younger, seemingly better adjusted members of the group who seemed to have come just on a lark. A young engineer form Rohr who had driven up from Chula Vista, a young carpenter from Santee who lived in a house with a wood stove, an Iranian naval officer, about 30, who, when asked if he had personal problems, said he had dandruff and meant it, "I've tried everything." The carpenter suggested that he wash his hair every day.
The closest we got to touchy, feely was a kind of exhibition. The group leader Al and the Hostess Linda did kind of an acrobatic, back-rubbing exercise in the middle of the room. Then for about half an hour Linda massaged Al's bare feet, squeezing each one of his toes. perhaps this was supposed to be some kind of pedagogic ploy, but it didn't work. Everyone stayed in his little group and talked frantically about taxes, real estate, hypnotism, and what the last real encounter group he attended did. Like a small-scale cocktail party or church social. Nobody cried or said, "I love you." Maybe it would have been different on Wednesday or Thursday.