KAREN STEVENSON was the student who reread every chapter of the biology book before taking the test and getting the highest grade. From Evarts Street in Northeast Washington, she blazed through high school, won a Morehead scholarship to the University of North Carolina, set college records in hurdles and the 400-meter dash and, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa, left for England, a Rhodes scholar.
She was the first American black woman to join the world of academe once reserved for white males of the upper class.
At Oxford she studied English history from the Norman Conquest to the 20th century. She spent one Christmas on a kibbutz in Israel and a summer on a solo bike trip through England, Scotland and Wales. She ran the 26.2-mile Paris marathon, and her crew team won four "bumps," an outstanding honor. Her Oxford tutor, Angus Macintyre, says she had "a tremendous appetite for intellectual inquiry." She told everyone she wanted to be a corporate lawyer.
Today, two years after she finished her Rhodes, she is living on a commune in Epping, N.H. It is called Green Pastures and is run by the Emissaries of Divine Light, a spiritual group that has left the competitive world to live, as its leader puts it, "in harmony and creativity" on a 235-acre farm in New England. Karen Stevenson cooks nut loaf, picks rhubarb from the garden, milks the cows, teaches aerobics exercise classes and runs three miles a day through the woods of pine and fern.
"I used to think that winning was everything," she says, sitting cross-legged by the Green Pastures pond one cool summer evening. "And I won it all." She laughs, shaking her head. "But I just don't want to do that anymore."
It would be easy to say that her "transition," as she calls it, is just another case of an overachiever burning out. But it is more complicated than that. Karen Stevenson had a willful mother who pushed on her daughter both her self-discipline and her dreams, yet she was a mother who quit her job a few years before she died of cancer to search for something of her own.
Karen Stevenson also had the experience of Oxford, a world of sherry, gray stone and dark afternoons, one that bred introspection in students who had spent the first 22 years of their lives jumping through the right hoops. It was at Oxford that she fell into est, the controversial group therapy invented and marketed by Werner Erhard, a former car salesman who says it improves self-esteem. But Karen Stevenson was already looking for a new direction, and if it hadn't been est, it would have been something else.
Most of all, Karen Stevenson's story reflects the enormous pressures, especially those self-induced, that are placed on a talented young black woman. Her accomplishments were always larger than she was, representing what was possible for other young blacks like herself. In a sense, her "transition" is larger than she is, too. When a white student drops out, it's a phase. If this is a phase for Karen Stevenson, it's also a stigma for a woman who is expected to fulfil other people's expectations. She may be pausing to take stock of her life, but it's a pause not indulged.
"I think she's wasting everything," says her younger sister, Keely.
"We're all anguishing a little," says Lance Odden, her former headmaster.
"Why isn't she trying to do something with her brain?" asks Nan Kinlow, a family friend.
Stevenson has a simple answer. "I just sensed things were backwards," she says. "I just sensed that somehow, in spite of all those outer achievements, there was something unfulfilled."
She is 26, a tall, graceful and striking woman. She has a short Afro, almond-shaped eyes and impeccable manners. There is a southern graciousness about her, and she is always careful to ask acquaintances polite questions about family and health. She answers her phone calls with a bright "Good morning, this is Karen." But even though she says est gave her "a quality of openness," she still keeps a wall up. Sometimes she stares off into space, mired in thought. She no longer seems interested in impressing people with intellectual brilliance, but instead talks in a soft voice about the "integrity," "honesty" and "wholeness" of Green Pastures.
"I was running in a five-mile race in town," she says, "and I could have won. I was ahead the first three miles. Then this woman passed me. And I thought: 'Do you really want to do this?' And I didn't. That's been the real change in me."
To really understand the change in Karen Stevenson, you have to begin on Evarts Street. The Road to the Rhodes
Karen Stevenson grew up in a household of women. The only role model was a tough, uncompromising mother who taught her daughters early that there wasn't anything they couldn't do. "There was always an acceptance in her, and a willingness, to let me expand as far and as wide as possible," Stevenson says. She didn't know her father, a man her mother never married.
Friends remember Clara Stevenson as a private but outspoken woman who worked as a clinical psychologist for the D.C. public schools. At age 44, she got a doctorate in special education, eventually becoming the coordinator of all psychologists and social workers at schools in the Anacostia area. In 1978 she abruptly quit.
"She just said she was going to hang it up," remembers Reuben Pierce, her supervisor. "It was nothing specific."
"She was looking for something more," says her daughter. "But I don't think she ever found it." Her mother tried starting her own business, failed and then was rescued by Eugene Kinlow, Nan Kinlow's husband and a school board member, who hired her to run his campaign. "Clara would give people hell if they didn't do something they said they were going to do," he says. "She would just jump all over them, and they took it. They'd say: 'That's Clara.' "
The relationship between Clara and Karen Stevenson was extraordinarily close. "Clara just spit her out," says Nan Kinlow, a woman who probably knew Clara better than anyone but Karen. "They seemed to think alike and talk alike." Keely, the more stubborn daughter who bumped right up against her mother's demands, was a good student who went to the University of Florida but never got the high grades of her sister. "It was very difficult for me to live there," she says.
Karen Stevenson attended Slowe Elementary School and Taft Junior High, but at 14, she was pulled out by her mother and sent off to prep school. "In Washington, she was an achievement-oriented kid who wasn't respected or liked for it," says Lance Odden, the headmaster at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. "She was at sea."
Not at Taft, a boarding school for the sons and daughters of the East Coast's well-to-do. If she felt awkward as one of 25 blacks in a school of 500, she never let on. "I've never been concerned about being black," she says. "I've always been concerned just to be myself."
"She was the kid who would always devote the extra hour to her studies, or run the extra mile in track, but might not devote that extra time to her friendships," Odden says. "She had about her the maturity of ambition, which we all respected--but you had to sense it was at some personal cost."
She was accepted at Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, but it was at the University of North Carolina that she won the Morehead Award, an all-expenses-paid four-year scholarship. Stevenson didn't want to go there, but her mother insisted because of the money. "We had a monumental fight over Chapel Hill," Clara Stevenson told a reporter in 1979. And Clara Stevenson won.
At North Carolina, Karen Stevenson excelled as usual. "But she wasn't a nerd about her books," says Jenny Burns, her best friend from college. "She'd go out and do stuff, or go out and drink beer." For a short time she had a boyfriend, but it didn't work out. "That was one of the things that used to worry her a lot, that nobody loved her," says Burns. Burns recalls that Stevenson had a large circle of acquaintances, but only one or two friends she really let in.
She was also captain of the track team, a runner who, in the words of her old coach, Hubert West, "could do any event. She was phenomenal. She was a very hard worker."
She sees it differently now. "Running was just a joyous release of the spirit," she says. "There was always an experience of letting go, of relaxing." Karen Stevenson may have left the competitive world behind, but she still doesn't admit even the most mundane of her vulnerabilities--like the intense physical pain that comes with running track.
"I never thought about it," she insists.
She won her Rhodes near the end of 1978. "She tried to be real cool about it," says Burns, "but it was obvious she was really excited. It was big news."
Her future seemed certain. Being Nice, Being Best
"You're just in time for dinner," Karen Stevenson says brightly, leading a visitor into the Green Pastures dining hall for a meal of pork, tofu rice, pea pods and fresh milk from the cows. It looks like summer camp. The food is served buffet-style, and people eat at round tables decorated with wildflowers from the surrounding fields.
There is nothing cult-like about these people, although they do seem relentlessly cheerful. The atmosphere is a mix of college life and religious retreat. Many of the 70 there hold jobs outside the farm, but in the evenings they get together over popcorn and beer in somebody's room, or they go into town for movies. Sometimes they take walks to the small beach by the pond. On a recent night, one Emissary was sitting cross-legged in the sand as she paid her Macy's bill. The leader of the group is Bill Becker, a 36-year-old graduate of the University of Southern Colorado. He has a degree in business management, and he wears khaki pants and pink oxford cloth shirts.
The Emissaries live by a vague set of principles borrowed from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred Hindu text. Through the "art of living" classes held in a small schoolroom on the farm each morning, Emissaries learn about the "acceptance of absolute personal responsibility," how to "let integrity and honesty be present in all our thoughts and ways" and "not letting our feelings determine our behavior." They spend a lot of time working on being nice to each other.
"The ability to relate with this kind of clarity and depth is very rare in the world," says Stevenson.
The farm produces much of its own food but is not self-supporting. Money comes from the room and board that members pay, fees from outsiders for the "art of living" classes, and donations, particularly those from three chiropractors who live on the farm and run a clinic in the neighboring town of Derry. "This is not a community where everybody throws their money into the pot," says Becker. Green Pastures has been in existence 20 years. The Emissaries group was founded in 1932--the year that Lloyd Meeker, whom Becker calls "a man with a certain vision and purpose," began lecturing around the country about personal responsibility. Now there are 13 similar communities, including one called Mickleton in Chipping Camden, England.
After dinner, Stevenson gives a tour of the farm's livestock barns, stopping to scratch the goats. It's that peaceful time of day, just before dusk, when life slows down. But as Stevenson walks through a field of onions, heading toward the pond, you can still feel the intensity in her. It's as if she has taken all the drive she once applied to academics and sports and redirected it toward achieving the perfect spiritual life.
"I always want to do things in the best way I can," she says. "If I'm in charge of cooking dinner, I want it to be an outrageous meal. If I have to clean the toilets, I want them to be wonderful." She tells a story about how she helped wire one of the houses on the farm, even though she'd never done any electrical work before. But she learned. "I wanted to do it perfectly," she says.
She heads back to her small room to get ready to teach her evening class, a spiritual self-help/aerobics exercise session that's part of a program called "Winning for Women." One of the women on the farm started it, and now she and Stevenson have begun taking it on the road for seminars at small colleges. "I've learned to translate my competitiveness another way," she says. "Rather than using it to defeat somebody else, or put somebody down, I use it to just be best." She pauses, adding quickly: "Or to assist somebody else."
About 20 women, all from the farm, come to her class. "So much of a woman's identity is inextricably linked with her physical appearance," she instructs them, occasionally referring to notes. "But we are not our bodies. Our bodies are our instruments." Next is an aerobics exercise session, and then each woman is asked to pair off with another. "Now," says Stevenson, "move your body in a way that expresses what you feel about your partner." As the women spin, dip and wave their arms, "Chariots of Fire" blares from a tape deck. When it's over, Stevenson has them all join hands in a circle. "What did you feel?" she asks.
"A real communion," says one.
"A joy," says another.
"This was beautiful," says a third. Oxford and est
In the fall of 1979, Stevenson began her studies in England at Magdalen, the conservative college that is one of the oldest, richest and most academically rigorous at Oxford. Friends remember her as bright and vivacious. She joined a women's crew team, went out for dinner and dancing with friends, and generally settled in.
"I loved it," she says. "I loved the independence of it, and I loved the sense of assurance. I worked hard and I rowed hard. And I found a release of a sense of identity of either being American or black or even female."
But there was also a slowing down. It gets dark early at Oxford, sometimes at 3:30 in the afternoon, and it rains a lot. Former students say they often remember it in black and white, a foggy, genteel environment where they live in single rooms, freed from any schedule but the one they set themselves. "I often wondered, when I came back," says William Crowley, one of Stevenson's friends at Oxford, "if the Rhodes experience wasn't just putting very driven, competitive people alone with themselves for two years." As some say: Rhodes scholars are people with great futures behind them.
Stevenson didn't slack off at Oxford, as some American Rhodes scholars have been known to do. She received a high "second" for her work in history, and Angus Macintyre, her tutor, says that "if she hadn't been asked to do a three-year course in two years, I think she would have got a first." "Firsts" at Oxford are exceptionally rare and equivalent to graduating summa cum laude.
"What was impressive about her," says Macintyre, "was how quickly and deeply she moved into the history of a country that was quite foreign to her. Given that she didn't know anything about the subject to start with, one could see she was going to be very original indeed. She had a very creative mind."
It was also the beginning of the change in her. "One of the things that happened to her was what happens to all Rhodes scholars," says Crowley. "Which is: 'What do I do now?' " For the first time in her life, there were no grades, just final exams at the end of two years. Her mother was 3,000 miles away. All her life she had responded to awards and diplomas; now, what was there to motivate her? She looked inward. Friends say she stopped going out as much. During Christmas break of her second year, she called up the Israeli Embassy in London and asked, "How do I get to go on a kibbutz?" The embassy gave her a number to call.
"I had been at Oxford for a while," she says, "and I had a certain level of mental maturity, and I had developed a certain level of physical maturity, but this other element of where the real value is--the spiritual capacity--I hadn't developed that at all."
At the kibbutz, she made valves in a factory. "And I thought, 'Here I am, in a factory, six hours a day, having such a rich experience of relating with people. Something's happening here that's different from anything else I've experienced.' "
When she returned to Oxford, she started meeting with 10 or 15 students each morning, an informal "breakfast group." They took turns cooking in their rooms. "We talked about "personal values, personal growth and spirituality," says Dan Case, a Rhodes scholar who is now a San Francisco venture capitalist. Sometimes they read from Emerson, other times from the Bhagavad-Gita.
Then in April, at the urging of a close male friend from the breakfast group, Karen Stevenson took a course in est. It stands for Erhard Seminars Training, and is a 60-hour, two-weekend synthesis of Dale Carnegie, Zen, Scientology, Gestalt, encounter groups, Mind Dynamics and founder Werner Erhard's experiences as a salesman of cars and encyclopedias. Devotees say it has helped them cope more effectively; detractors says it's another mind-programming routine making money off the vulnerabilities of the confused. In the United States, it now costs $425.
Karen Stevenson is a devotee. "Before est," she says, "I hadn't really realized I was totally responsible for my own experience. I hadn't really thought before that about the way I was living my life. The things I did were acceptable and successful, but I wasn't thinking about what was behind them."
It was around then that she decided to run the Paris marathon because, she says, someone asked her if she was going to run a marathon and she said "yes" without thinking. "I knew something had come forth from inside me," she says. She was a sprinter who had never run more than six miles. But in two months, increasing her distances two miles each week, she was ready for 26. It was a crash program, against all established wisdom in the running manuals. She finished in three hours and 54 minutes.
"It was easy," she insists. "I felt like I was on air."
She took her exams and then, at the advice of some friends in the breakfast group, spent a week at Mickleton, the Emissary community in Chipping Camden. She helped clear a garden, but also met one of the leaders of Green Pastures. He invited her to visit back in the States.
She came back to Washington that summer, and learned that her mother was dying of cancer. One of the motivating forces in her life would be missing.
Stevenson doesn't see it that way. "You come to recognize that you are that force yourself," she says. "You don't need an external stimulus to maintain your life energy." But when she entered the University of North Carolina's law school that fall of 1981, again on a full Morehead fellowship, she dropped out after one day.
"It was apparent to me that that wasn't what I needed to do, right then," she says.
"It was a little unusual," says Kenneth Broun, the dean of the law school. "Number one, we've never had it happen with a Morehead fellow before. And two, she dropped out before she'd really gone to any classes. I guess I still don't understand it. We were just enormously impressed with her. She had about as good a Morehead interview as anyone I've seen in five years."
Her fellowship is still there, for now. "I'm still perhaps naively thinking, 'Well, she's going through what a lot of people do,' " says Mebane Pritchett, executive director of the Morehead Foundation. "She never closed the door with me, anyway. But I guess we're approaching the point where it's not very professional to hold out forever."
After quitting law school, Stevenson found a job working the counter at a Western Sizzlin' steakhouse. She wore a western outfit and worked behind the counter serving salads, or rang up meals on the cash register. "It's part of a desire to get away from academics and a need to experience living and hanging out," she told a reporter at the time. Her friends were bewildered. She also worked as a teacher's aide at a Chapel Hill school during the day, and took at least two trips to est-related conferences in Colorado and Canada. She paid for the trips with her small savings, and when that ran out, a friend says, she asked her and others for money. Friends say she was completely absorbed by est, which was certainly in character. Almost everything Karen Stevenson has done, she has done passionately. "If you know you've given 100 percent--great," she says.
Was she happy then?
"Always," Stevenson says.
She wasn't at all confused?
"I felt that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing right then."
"She just wanted to forget about her brain," says her friend Jenny Burns. "Academics just weren't important to her."
Stevenson came back to Washington at Christmas, persuaded her mother to take an est course with her here, then returned to Oxford to see some close male friends from the breakfast group. "The quality I saw in them had been a catalyst," she says. Dan Case, the venture capitalist, paid her plane fare. "I thought Karen was a good investment," he says. In the meantime, her mother became an avid est fan, and spent her last days trying to convince others of its merits. "She tried to convert everyone she put her eyes on," remembers Myra Johnson, one of her close friends. "She was very persistent."
Her daughter was back from Oxford in four months. "I think she went to capture and rebuild," says Case. "But I think England was not a successful experience the second time around."
Stevenson spent the summer of 1982 caring for her mother in Washington. In September, when her sister left for college, she headed for Green Pastures. Keely was angry, and says her sister walked out; Karen Stevenson says she thought her mother was getting better, and could be left for a while.
Clara Stevenson died in October. Karen came down from New Hampshire for the funeral, stayed a week, then immediately went back. Friends in Washington say they never saw her cry.
"I've lost a friend," she says now, quietly. "But the quality of what we shared is forever a part of me. Certainly, I miss her. And yet I'm so appreciative, and so thankful, of what we shared. I'm so thankful she was my mother." The Yearning
At 6 a.m. Stevenson is up for her daily three-mile run, through the woods and along a creek, with a fast finish up the last hill. Panting, she heads for the shower, joins the other Emissaries for breakfast, attends an "art of living" class, then sees a friend at lunch. He's Frank Reale, a 47-year-old chiropractor. They go for an ice cream cone in Exeter, the neighboring town, then decide to make the 45-minute drive north to Maine for the afternoon. Reale's Oldsmobile heads up Route 1, past beautiful summer houses that overlook the ocean.
Stevenson doesn't know exactly when her transition started. "It's hard to pinpoint," she says. "It was kind of a yearning, a yearning for something. You aren't really sure what it is. You think, 'Boy, if I get this job, then that'll be it. Or gee, if I get into this law school, that'll do it. Or gee, when I get to this firm, that'll do it. It was a putting off, and a putting off, and none of the stuff out there that I was trying to get to fill it was actually filling it. It was a shift in the heart."
She and Reale stop in Ogunquit, an expensive hamlet of white frame houses, chic bookstores and hotels with names like the Lemon Tree Inn. Stevenson looks at the people wandering through the streets in polo shirts. "All these people have led such stressful lives to get rich enough to enjoy them," she says. "But where were they when their lives were happening?"
Reale parks the car, and they get out for a walk. Stevenson wanders into a bookstore, flips through a book on Gandhi, looks idly at some clothes, then finally settles down on a grassy knoll overlooking the ocean. It has turned into a beautiful day: blue sky, puffy white clouds, a warm breeze. On a nearby court, a fat man in a red T-shirt is playing a bad game of tennis.
Stevenson looks over at him, annoyed. "I can't stand it when people piddle around with tennis," she says. "If you're going to play, you should play. It's such a beautiful game, such a powerful game." The Road Ahead
Karen Stevenson says she has found what she was looking for, which is success in "the quality of my living." She says she is happy, but at the same time, she thinks she might move on.
"I don't see her staying here over any long period of time," says Reale. "That's not the purpose of the place. The purpose is to learn something and go out and do it."
"I think she is very contentedly deciding there is no big rush," says her friend Dan Case. "And I think she is very actively thinking and learning and reflecting. For 23 years of her life, there was a big rush . . . She doesn't have to be the first black woman senator, but if that's what she wants--she still might do it."
She herself says:
"I still haven't ruled out law school."