The Cult Leaders’ Nemesis

You can probably name at least a half dozen cult leaders and famous gurus, but how many of the investigators who defrocked them ever get credited? Paul Morantz died Oct 23 in Los Angeles and his remarkable life’s work was acknowledged in a NY Times obit by Clay Risen. (Dayla Hepting must know about Morantz. He was the relentless critic of Synanon who Chuck Dederich tried to murder by having his henchmen put a rattlesnake in Morantz’s mailbox.)

As recounted by Risen, Synanon began “as a last-chance drug rehabilitation program in the late 1950s but had, by the early ’70s, become an insular, oppressive organization.” In 1977 Morantz, a 33-year old  journalist with a law degree, received a call from a man whose wife had joined Synanon in Santa Monica and then was “whisked away to one of the group’s communities in the Bay Area. They shaved her head and refused to let her leave… Mr. Morantz negotiated Mrs. Winn’s release, then sued Synanon on the couple’s behalf. He won a $300,000 judgment…

“On Oct. 10, 1978, he met with police officers to discuss next steps against Synanon.” He then drove home, and “as he walked in the door, he reached his left hand into his mailbox. As he did, he noticed a dark, lumpy shape. He didn’t have time to pull back before the object, a four-and-a-half-foot diamondback rattlesnake, bit him on his wrist.

“He screamed for help. Neighbors came running. One applied a tourniquet. Another brought ice. A third called 911. Mr. Morantz remained in the hospital for six days. Doctors said he was lucky to survive…

“The judge, calling the attack on Mr. Morantz an ‘aberration,’ went easy on the two assailants, owing, he said, to the group’s history of helping addicts. Each was sentenced to a year in prison, while Mr. Dederich received five years’ probation.

“By then Mr. Morantz had taken on other cases. He learned that the self-help guru Werner Erhard, the founder of Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, was lobbying a small California town to let him ‘train’ its employees. Mr. Morantz intervened and turned the town against him.”

“In 1978, he tried unsuccessfully to win the release of a client’s son from the People’s Temple, whose leader, Jim Jones, later led several hundred of his followers in a mass suicide in Guyana…

“All the while he continued his fight against Synanon. Working with the federal authorities in the 1980s, he managed to get its tax-exempt status revoked, essentially shuttering the organization.”

It was gratifying to see Werner Erhard’s scam listed among such infamous rackets –and in capital letters, not their preferred lower-case presentation. A key component of EST’s ambitious business plan was to sell their “training” to corporations and government agencies. They had begun giving “training” sessions to Los Angeles Police Department officers when Morantz exposed the relationship

Erhard’s message was that you can be a “winner” in this society, it’s all a matter of motivation and marketing. The thousands of unpaid est volunteers making recruiting calls with a script in the form of a flowchart (showing how to respond if the person on the other end says “I’m in the middle of cooking dinner…”) were pioneers in telemarketing, the employment today of six million Americans. Quotas were imposed on the sales force and relentless pressure was exerted to make sure they were met.

Erhard provided a model for sales managers everywhere. His staff was motivated to produce “results” (i.e., revenues from new recruits and enlistments into the “graduate” programs) by methods ranging from coercion to romance. Unpaid labor was extracted to the max; est employed 100 volunteers for every one paid staff member. Vague, pseudo-political goals were invoked in the pursuit of private power and profit. EST staffers were expected to serve Werner as if he were a king (he was compulsively fastidious).

Everything about the man, from his Wilkes Bashford leisure suits to his Vitalis-dry-look hair, personified the cultural rollback we were living through, the repressive, counter-political mood of the ’70s. It is easy to make fun of his jargon, but the jargon had a subtext, and the subtext had a specific political content. It was all about marketing, striving, making it, dressing for success, obedience to the higher-ups, seeking private solutions, serving (your trainer and Werner within est, your supervisor and employer in the outside world).

In this period I provided Morantz with some info about EST that I had uncovered while working for a San Francisco detective agency. The racket had been controlled not by Erhard but by a leftwing tax attorney named Harry Margolis. When EST wanted to block Dell Publishers from bringing out a book summarizing the est “training” (because it might cut into sales of the book Werner might write), the law firm hired to suppress publication was Boudin & Rabinowitz, the leading lights of the civil liberties bar!  I knew that they were sexual predators but I had no idea they would ever work for Werner Erhard.

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at