Sallie Ann Robbins belongs in House Beautiful. Her home, just off Foxhall Road in real life, is done in Lilly Pulitzer pinks and yellows, meticulously decorated down to the dried baby's breath that accents the coffee table. She herself serves as a decorative accent, a silky pillow of expensive blond hair and filmy white clothes.
Sallie Ann Robbins is tanned, striking and very social. She looks as if she plays tennis, does publicity for the Junior League, gives soft-lit dinners and has lunch out a lot.
She does. Or did.
Two years ago, she got a little tired of life on the circuit.The dinners became stale and meaningless, conventient ways of exchanging Washington political gossip. The volunteer work seemed routine, and many of her friends, superficial.
"I kept feeling," she says now, "there can be more to this." Besides, even the circuit was making a seemingly confident but essentially insecure woman even more so at parties, her hands would sweat until they dripped, and her neck would break out in blotches. She took to wearing high-collared dresses.
But then in the spring of 1977, at the urging of a close friend Sallie Ann Robbins paid $250 for five days of "basic training" with Lifespring. It was a new self-awareness program that to many smacked of mysticism at best, cultism at worst.
A lot of her friends thought she was crazy, and afterward, a lot of those friends dropped her. But Sallie Ann Robbins says she's never been happier in her life.
Lifespring, Inc., has been in Washington for more than two years now, springing California culture as did many of the other self-enlightenment, "I'm Okay, You're Okay" cure-alls of the Me Decade. It was born in San Francisco five years ago, prospered, then made the migration east for a tryout in the great, grey establishment cities. Would the principles of Zen Buddhism, packaged in sales techniques like those used by Encyclopedia Britannica, work in the nation's capital? Would they ever.
Since February 1977, 3,392 Washingtonians have "graduated" from this five-day, 60-hour self-analysis training. Of 11 Lifespring cities, the Washington program is now the biggest and most successful in terms of numbers: Monthly classes have grown from 25 to 30 to more than 200. The trainings are held in the ballrooms and banquet halls of Ramada Inns, and the program, relying solely on word of mouth, continues to grow.
"What we're about here," says Royce Gardner, a senior basic trainer, "is assisting people to look at their lives from a different point of view. We spend about 50 hours looking at different intellectual concepts and then incorporating them with a lot of exercises.
"For example, accountability -- you know, "I am accountable for my life and what happens and what doesn't happen. We talk about it intellectually, and then we do exercises where people get a feeling of that."
What they're also about is money. The basic training now costs $300, and a second, more intense series -- which graduates are always strongly urged to take -- has a price tag of $650. "The expense is outrageous," says a young woman whose relationship with her boyfriend deteriorated after he took the courses. "They suckered him right into it. They never make a big deal out of how much it's going to cost you when they try to get you to come to the sessions."
Groups like Lifespring tend to do very well here," says a Washington psychiatric social worker "It can be a very lonely city. My patients often ask me: 'Wahy in this city do people want to know what I do before they want to know my name' It's a town of workaholics, a town where cynicism often runs people into feeling there's no meaning in their lives, no purpose."
With groups like Lifespring, she says, "people can find out that they also have a self beyond the roles that they play. They can find out that by God, 'I'm more than just a GS 14."
Not everyone agrees:
"The fact that people feel good coming out of Lifespring is of no importance whatsoever," says Irvin Yalom, the Stanford psychiatry professor who wrote the standard textbook on group psychotherapy. "There's a long history of people getting together where they're asked to be intimate with their feelings about one another, when masks are dropped. When that happens invariably, people come out of these groups feeling high. It's always like that."
Yalom, who has studied group psychotherapy for 20 years, says there's probably little harm in organizations like Lifespring "other than it rips $300 from the pockets of middle-class people who can probably afford it."
But what exactly does Lifespring do? Anybody who asks rarely gets a direct or specific answer; vague generalities like "it changed my life" or "it built my self-confidence" or "it made me fall in love with myself" are common. John Hanley, the 33-year-old founder of Lifespring, isn't much help either. His definition: "It just provides an environment for people to let out what's already there.
People, perhaps, like Fred Cole, a reserved and formal State Department bureaucrat. Two summers ago, a time when, he says, he was feeling unmotivated and depressed, he first heard of this thing called Lifespring. It was at the neighborholld Chesterbrook Swimming Club, where half a dozen couples who had taken the training were spending poolside weekends talking up the program and the changes in their lives. Cole signed up quickly, but his wife, Whitney, refused. She says now that Lifespring almost destroyed their marriage.
"He'd come in at all hours and do all sorts of strange things," Whitney Cole remembers. "I grew to hate Lifespring."
Six Jobs in 23 Years
Fred Cole is a quiet, intense man whom friends describe as shy compared to his talkative wife. He wears button-down oxford shirts and uses crutches, the result of a recent hip operation. He claims to be happy these days.
"I resented her attitude," he says of his wife as he sits in his Agency for International Development Office at the State Department, a good six miles from the attitude, the wife and the treeshaded home in McLean. "She reacted, from the beginning, very poorly."
He met Whitney at a party in New York City after he'd just quit the first of six different jobs he would hold in 23 years. Lifespring came toward the end of the fifth, an administrative position in the same office he now inhabits as a disaster preparedness officer.
"It sounded as though it would be good for me," he says. "It was a low period and I wasn't moving anywhere, particularly, in the job. I didn't have much ambition to do anything."
To Whitney, it was a period of jealousy and loneliness. Lifespring sessions are confidential, and trainees are told to keep everything that happens secret, even from spouses. "It was a very insecure time for me," she says. "I had to work hard to hold on to myself."
Hanley, the Lifespring founder, is used to the Whitney Coles and talk of his organization as marriage-wrecker. "Yeah, I hear that," he says from the San Francisco home office. "I don't really feel like we can claim to have done that. Maybe people just weren't clear on what they wanted."
A social science major from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Hanley graduated in 1971 and went to work teaching meditation techniques for Mind Dynamics. In 1973 he was transferred to San Francisco, where, he says, he started "futzing around with" the Lifespring idea.
The futzing turned into a nationwide profitmaking corporation that grossed $7 million in 1978. Hanley, who owns 92 percent of the company's stock, says he will pay himself $75,000 this year.
Hanley's Lifespring program is considered by several experts to be yet another copy of the highly popular and highly profitable est trainings run by Werner Erhard. "It's one of the offshoots of a long series of encounter group phenomena," says Dr. Morris Parloff, chief of the psychotherapy section at the National Institute of Mental Health. "Recently, it's taken off from the success of est." In Washington, Lifespring now trains slightly more people per month than does est; taken together, the two groups represent a large portion of the hundreds of other alternative therapies -- among them aikido, rolfing, bioenergetics and reflexology -- that have sprung up in Washington during the last decade.
The personal growth movement itself took root nationally in the late '50s and apparently has been wellnourished by 20 years of modern ills. "The groups are hitting something that's very real in the society in terms of lack of meaning," says the Washington psychiatric social worker.
But unlike a lot of these groups, Lifespring insists on complete secrecy. What happens behind the closed doors is confidential, prompting people who haven't taken the training to surmise all sorts of religious or spiritual rites.
'It's nothing like that at all, the trainees insist. Amost all of the exercises, they say, can be found in human growth and human potential handbooks. Like this one, used at the one-night "guest sessions" that Lifespring holds to entice trainees:
Two trainees who have chosen each other as partners sit eye to eye across a table. A trainer asks them questions like "why did you choose this person?" Were you the picker or pickee?" "What is it about the person sitting across from you that you would never tell them?" And, "What is there about you that you'd never want this person to know?" The trainees answer the questions silently to themselves then talk about them after it's over.
All of the other exercises, Lifespringers say, fall along the same general lines. Nothing weird, nothing cultish.So why is it all so secret?
"We don't want folks to be anticipating and thinking about how they'll behave in the training," says Harley. "The way we put it together provides a really nifty excitement that wouldn't be there if we had a course outline."
Still, Whitney Cole says she often wondered what really went on during the marathon sessions. She remembers that lots of the trainees dressed a bit oddly. Qiana shirts. Gold chains. Leisure suits. Sorts who hang out in airport bars and date stewardesses. "To me, she says. "That was the typical Lifespring man."
The Nagging Sister
There are gold chains, but just as many LaCoste shirts, at the first session of a Lifespring training one night this summer. It's in Rosslyn, at the Ramada Inn, and more than 200 people are signing up for the session that will start in an hour.
There are lawyers, students night stock boys are grocery stores, legal secretaries, waitresses, even one trade union president who doesn't want his name in print. He is sheepish: what would his associates think if they knew he was here?
A lot of the others are sheepish, too. "I've never done anything like this before," says a 29-year-old legal secretary. "Please don't print my name in the paper."
No one has any idea what's about to happen and a lot have been dragged to the session by well meaning friends and relatives.
"A nagging sister -- that's about what did it for me," says Mike Farson, a night stock boy at a Safeway supermarket. "She took the course, explained it, and I said okay. So here I am."
Farson takes his place in one of 10 lines leading up to a long table where Lifespring employes are taking names and money. Cash, checks even VISA cards are just fine for alternative therapy.
It's Farson's turn now. He pulls a wad of money from his jeans pocket and plunks down $270 in cash; he made a $30 deposit earlier. Taken together, it represents more than a week's take-home pay.
And then the word goes out. It's 7:30 p.m., almost exactly, and time for the training to start. Everybody stops milling and trails into the second-floor "Rosslyn Room," which is a Ramada Inn version of a grand ballroom: blue flowered wallpaper and hundreds of blue plastic chairs arranged in front of a director's chair and two easels. Tables and 27 "training assistants" sitting behind them line the back wall.
At 7:40 p.m. this day, a Wednesday, the doors close. They won't open again until midnight or 1 a.m., and the schedule will stay the same Thursday and Friday. Reporters and photographers are refused entrance unless they pay the $300 and agree to participate, not observe.
The sessions will continue all weekend until Sunday night, when the program culminates in a final exercise that some Lifespring graduates vaguely call "a climax."
What happens during "the climax" is top secret. Lifespring graduates have promised not to talk, and by and large they don't. The few who do, however, reveal a ceremony that varies from time to time but really isn't much different from your basic college sorority rite.
On Sunday night, the trainer tells his students to close their eyes. Meanwhile, the friends and relatives who dragged the Lifespringers to the session in the first place sneak into the room. The eyes are opened and usually, the trainees feel moved to hug, kiss and say they love each other.
The lights are turned off and the trainer ignites a single candle used to touch off those held by each student. One by one, the candles come to life until the room is a soft, flickering yellow. The symbolism is standard: See, says the trainer, see how much strength there is in a single candle and/or individual like yourself?
"The last exercise on Sunday," says Wayne Black, a communications lawyer, "reveals to people that all of us have lots of power and reserve that we seldom, if ever, use." It was not Black who described the final exercise.
Success in a Dark Suit
Wayne Black, a communications lawyer, is a Lifespring graduate, but he doesn't wear gold chains and Qiana. Instead, it's crisp white shirts and expensive dark suits paid for with a six-figure income. He exudes success.
Two years ago, the success had problems.
"I wasn't down or depressed, but I knew some things were out of balance in my life," he says. "There was too much dedication to work. Somehow, I felt real good about working long hours, 7 days a week, 31 days a month, if that's what it took to get the job done. I was making lots of commitments to clients like, 'of course, we'll have that done and out to you this afternoon.'
"So when I went home in the evening, I wouldn't have completed all the things I said to the client or myself that I was going to do during the day. I'd come home with all that heavy work stuff in my head." His family life, understandably, suffered.
In June 1977, he signed up for Lifespring.
The Converts and the Id
Now, in the summer of 1979, Wayne Black, Fred Cole and Sallie Ann Robbins are devoted converts to the tenets of Lifespring. A gentle nudge and they're off, off on the proselytizing about the great transformation. Robbins dropped from the party circuit, Black cut back his hours, Cole attacked the shyness and motivation problems.
Lifespring changed me, they all say, made me more aware, more honest, more open. A panacea, if you will, for all that was wrong with the id and ego, the wife or the husband, the kids and the car.
"For me, everything in life had to be hard to be good," says Robbins. I made everything real complicated. So when I got stuck in traffic, I used to say, 'Oh my god, the whole world is against me.' Now when I get stuck in traffic, I'm stuck in traffic.
"Lifespring was probably the only thing in my life that made me feel self-confident. Before I had certainly gone through life with an outward appearance of confidence, but I didn't feel it on the inside."
Robbins became so enamored of Lifespring that she took the second, more intense course ( $650) and then a third, which enabled her to become a Lifespring trainer. It took hours and days of her time. A lot of her friends, startled by her initial interest and then annoyed by her Lifespring chatter, finally just left her alone.
"My very good friends remained my very good friends," says Robbins. "Others withdrew. I wasn't available enough, I wasn't able to keep up enough, and they just didn't have a place for it. It was a good way of sorting out the real friends from those that weren't so real."
Life as a trainer eventually took too much time from her family, and Robbins quit. "It was a tremendous experience," she says. "But the hours just got to be too much. I felt I was more needed at home." Not so with Wayne Black, who also took the second and third courses. He now assists in the trainings periodically and talks up the program constantly.
"I think it's an excellent training for attorneys," he says. "Particularly in this city, where attorneys tend to specialize and are experts in their fields. They're nearly always right about what their opinion is on any given issue, but that doesn't necessarily make them experts in every field.
"Often," he adds, "they forget to draw the line between their professional and their personal lives. I've seen a lot of attorneys who have blown their marriages because of that.
"Lifespring didn't tell me anything. But what I decided for myself was that I'd like to make more room in my life for relaxation and fun and play. I'm not as overcommitted as I used to be, and I'm very careful about saying, "We'll have that one out this afternoon.' It's a way of being more honest with myself."
"He was able to put his job in perspective," says his wife, Ilze. "He used to work on the weekends, on Saturdays, and he doesn't do that anymore. Now he's got more time to spend with us."
As for Fred Cole, he claims to be less withdrawn, more loving and much happier than he's been in years. After Lifespring, he says, "I felt good about the family, better about the family than I had in a long time. I think I was really unhappy before I went into Lifespring; it was something that had been slowly progressing."
His wife remains unimpressed. "I think Fred became more self aware, but it didn't change him," says Whitney Cole. "It was like the communication opened up and then it shut again. In the overall view, at the end of my life, I would not remember Lifespring. To me, it was just, ah . . . I keep thinking of words like momentary aggravation. It was just something that happened one summer."