the last cult of England
Staff of Programmes Ltd, London, England. Dateline: mid-1980's.
Programmes Ltd. was the UK's sales sensation of its time. These people could sell anyone practically anything, legal or not: they worked insanely hard and made their company the industry leader in about two years. No wonder they quickly won Britain's top phone marketing award.
Never mind marketing – this is about a phenomenal group of people whose story has never been told. If a history of cults in modern Britain were to be written, these people would be in it. Fact: all or almost all the staff seen here are graduates of the controversial - some would say notorious - Exegesis Seminar. Without Exegesis, Programmes would never have existed. It was these men and women who launched Programmes in Bristol and later London. They quickly proceeded to revolutionize telephone marketing in the UK. The year was 1981.
Founded, inspired and controlled by the charismatic Robert D'Aubigny, a master trainer, Exegesis copied the style and content of Werner Erhard's est training – and pushed further. Exegesis seminars were much smaller, more intense and confrontational than est trainings. Once the seminar commenced its four long days in a hotel room, you quickly realized the trainer was not like anyone you had ever met. He, or she, was ruthless. It was as if your game was up. You could not hide. Nothing had prepared me for it.
Was it disturbing? Absolutely. Was it abusive? Did it go 'too far'? I never witnessed that. The British media were extremely prejudiced about Exegesis and slammed it as a scam and worse. I cheerfully disagree.
A man needs a little madness or else he never dares to cut the rope and be free.
If anything, I thought Exegesis did not go far enough; still, of what use would the most brilliant training be if it was so shocking that the authorities banned it?
Active in England and Wales from the late-70s to the mid-80s, with headquarters in Bristol and London, whoever was lucky - or doomed - enough to do the Exegesis Seminar, and had the nerve to endure it to the end either went through hell and came out transformed, as we used to say, or merely wasted time, money and the opportunity of a lifetime – and didn't. By normal, conventional standards it was a rash and scary thing to do.
Given Exegesis' damn-the-torpedoes brand of full-frontal experiential education, toxic media reportage and ensuing notoriety were all but guaranteed. In fact, Exegesis got such lousy press it led to hostile questions in the UK Parliament. Thus, from Hansard:
Full disclosure: I never worked for Programmes. I took part actively in Exegesis. Did I like it? No. I loved it. I hated it. I was fascinated by it, and at times disgusted as well. I wanted to get out, I wanted to stay in. It was as if we were being cooked in a cauldron of ever increasing commitment to be fully here now. My time in Exegesis was priceless, unforgettable. It invited me to experience passion, excellence, total commitment, trauma, grace, and enlightenment. If you could stand it, Exegesis was the shock treatment of your life (those barf bags under every chair in the seminar? They weren't props). Every moment was wake-up time: take full responsibility - no excuses! now! now! now! Committed exegesis graduates were like warriors without a war – or rather the war Robert had us fighting was no less than the age-old spiritual war against our own copping out, against apathy, against the fear-driven betrayal of life, truth and of love.
Your greatest gift lies beyond the door named 'fear.'
“The need for truth is more sacred than any other need.”
Well, that was what fired me up. Other graduates responded differently. For many, the power they discovered in the seminar was promptly deployed in business; in this, Exegesis' series of communication, and other-themed, seminars were very successful. The applications for sales were obvious, and in Programmes they were put to full use.
Reality check: if Exegesis sounds implausibly gruelling, idealistic and too good to be true, well, it was. Personal integrity was hammered into us at seminars; yet, outside, the Exegesis ethic was to go for results by whatever, uh, worked. Morality was irrelevant: ends justified the means. Even healthy and creative criticism was angrily rejected: unquestioning trust in Robert's directives and appointees trumped all other considerations. Dysfunctionality shadowed enlightenment in a weird duet. Largely as a result, project after project was launched with high hopes only to go nowhere.
Away from the seminar – only, there was no 'away' from the seminar – there was no escape from the in-your-face demands by staff for more sacrifice, more commitment and most of all, more registrations. We grunts, called gaspers (graduate assistant seminar programme: an ultra-committed corps of unpaid employees) were not allowed to forget that Job One was to get people, thousands, millions of people, the whole freaking world! to do the Exegesis Seminar.
"Hello, I want to offer you this unique opportunity to be humiliated, taken apart and turned inside-out in front of strangers. This is your once in a lifetime chance to totally transform your life and get enlightened."
I mean, come on. You had to be crazy, right? We were!
Yes, I took part in the drive, in 1981, to swing an election in a heavily Labour constituency of London to our very own candidate, a respectable lawyer. Unknown to the public, not to mention the dear old oblivious Liberal Party, she was in fact an exegesis staff-member taking orders from Robert. In the weeks before election day, busloads of well-dressed graduates from Bristol joined London graduates in canvassing the entire borough, door to door, clipboards in hand, scripts memorised, getting the answers we wanted.
Using my deafness as an excuse I had at first not wanted to do it, then changed my mind. It turned out beautifully, blowing away yet another old limiting belief: "I can't do canvassing because I'm deaf". Going door to door meeting all kinds of people (years later I recall how kind they were to give me their time) and asking for their vote, and often getting it, was when I first realised my being deaf is, paradoxically, a gift, also an exquisite joke, opening me to total listening, without prejudice, a listening that transcends communication and opens to – whoa! – communion. Nothing else but total listening was – is – the answer to the koan of my deafness. How perfect it was. My world was rocked! Could I have learned this by following social norms and having a conventional education? Fat chance.
“The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.” —Thomas Merton
How grateful I am that Exegesis was almost nothing like Aum Shinrikyo, or Heaven's Gate, or People's Temple, of "drinking the Kool Aid" infamy.
Being unreasonable, risking yourself and doing the impossible was the Exegesis way. That was what I got from my encounter with Robert D'Aubigny and his students.
Incidentally, in that election the Liberal Party, the Labour Party and even MI5 never knew who we were until the votes were in and it was too late. Exegesis' candidate came second, almost winning the seat against all the odds.
Ah, memories. Yes, I witnessed the rise and fall of Microlight Engineering Ltd. (made hang-glider-like planes from imported kits), an Exegesis front company in the heart of Bristol's old industrial district. All the employees were exegesis graduates, including - fatally - its management. Its too-trusting graduate founder was soon financially ruined... Yes, I was in at the beginning of the powerplays called the Bristol Project (aim: to recruit key people in the city, and grow Robert's influence there) and the Glastonbury University project (aim: a university teaching enlightenment or whatever else Robert wanted)
Dodgiest of all – or perhaps not – was the 'Money Seminar' (Bristol, 1981) in which Robert raked in serious cash from us suckers running a one-game casino, week after week... until we wised up and clammed up. How it worked: every graduate in the room wrote down their high bid in secret and handed it to a staff-person. The highest bidder won half the total pool. To this day I remember the awful look on the face of neophyte graduate D_ R_ as he learned that he had won that night's bout with his huge wager – and that after the organization had skimmed off its hefty cut he'd actually get back about half his stake. We all cheered for the winning loser!
While not as unfortunate as my hapless cultmate I too was taken for a tidy sum before catching on. Ouch!
The wackiest Exegesis project of them all? No contest: the Total Transformation of Society – yes, this includes you, dear reader – in 4 years. Or was it two? Launched at a much-heralded gathering of all exegesis graduates, led by Robert himself, in a city-owned hall at the foot of Park Street, Bristol in 1981, it was to begin with us 'transforming' the city, and go viral from there. If I recall aright, Robert declared the project a success after two years.
Or was it one? Whatever.
Anyway, every Exegesis project more or less failed, with the glittering exception of Programmes. It made Robert D'Aubigny extremely wealthy.
In 1986 Exegesis ceased operations, having transformed itself into Britain's top telephone marketing firm: Programmes.
The people I trained with in Exegesis still have a place in my heart – you never forget your first time! I wanted more, and became somewhat of a glutton for seminars and groupwork in the 1980s. Pursuing my passion for enlightenment, I went to a zen monastery in California, then on to Esalen Institute, and did the est training and its various graduate seminars. At the last est training and the first Forum in San Francisco, I assisted Werner Erhard. Curious about Werner and est? Check out:
At the same time, I volunteered at The Breakthrough Foundation, an est offshoot, as also the Hunger Project, and the simply transcendent Holiday Project, and as my decade of crunchy cult goodness came to a close, Ron Kennedy's 'Man Woman Training'. The last of these I did, in Russia, afforded us western participants the eerie realization that we were doing a seminar peppered with KGB agents (Moscow, then-USSR, 1989).
No, they did not exactly get into the groove.