The beginning...

We met Robert Burton in July 1970, after having attended several talks by J. Krishnamurti, and Stella having spent time with Alex Horn (whom Burton had studied with for a short while, claiming to have "passed his teacher"), and of course having read a few good books.

Left: Harold's more formal portrait. Typical look, very casual, very friendly - the frown is squinting in the sun, not anger, wearing a valour shirt, open collar, living in a Volkswagon van and "house sitting" in Berkeley. Formerly a 4th grade teacher in a nearby grammar school.

Right: One of Harold's early caricatures of Burton.


At the beginning, when everything is new (and the group is very small), one becomes "friends" with the people who meet every week or every few days around a kitchen table.

How young we looked (in our mid-30s at the time)! Burton is just a few years younger than we are.

(All those pictured above are NOT in FOF today.)

Usually the expression is that cult members are "brainwashed." This is a wrong term for it! At the beginning we mostly "wash our own brains." We want to believe we have found something special. Isn't this Camelot? Eutopia? The "safe haven" we want? If not, maybe we can imagine it is. (The Work says imagination can satisfy all parts of us.)

We observed the phenomenon like this: A small compromise here, and little compromise there, saying "Oh, that's all right," when it is not really "all right," but too small to fuss about. This activity seems to take on a life of its own, mostly from the inattention to details as one goes along.

An analogy that comes to mind that gives a good example of this phenomenon is the story of the boiling frog. I have read that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, he will jump out immediately. If you put him in cold water and s-l-o-w-l-y bring it to a boil, the frog will stay in the pot and boil to death! Sounds right (I didn't really want to try this, so will take it with a grain of salt from wherever it was I read it!)

The small start-up group gathered a few more members around them, and then it was decided that a non-profit organization should be established, a name given the group, and that it should be registered as a "church."

Those of us who were at the meetings to establish all this knew the group was not intended to really be a church per se. The Fourth Way is not a "religion" and has nothing of the sort to be "followed," as it is without "faith" or "belief." The Fourth Way is not the way of the monk.

The Fourth Way is a "finger, pointing." Each person has to know this kind of work is an internal effort, not an external display, and not "pray in the street." The work is practical only when actualized individually and personally for oneself.

In a few years, however, a majority of the members liked the idea of a church, although there is no "worship" or "prayers" or hymn singing, for that matter (unless one counts the blind worship of the teacher, and praying one has enough money to keep up with the tithes)!

Being a "church" encompassed the group as a group, and "belonging to something." The members, then, become more and more separated from people who are not in the group (such as other family members, parents, and old friends "outside"). The teacher discouraged mingling with people who were not members (soon with rules against it), and certainly do not mingle with former members!

In 1980, the teacher decided that he should be obeyed completely. He was ticked off because he told everyone to stop smoking, and quite a few people didn't do as he asked. So he started levying fines on people caught smoking (or "turned in" by fellow members). (The fines were rather costly -- $1,500 and up).

Another way to control people is to keep them financially strapped. It is hard to be independent and individual if one's attention is held on the next required donation, as well as not having enough money to leave the group, or too embarrassed to ask family for help.

After the no smoking task, students, as usual, hugged one another when they met, with one added activity: they "sniffed" each other to see if they could smell smoke! (One person we knew actually went into someone's car late at night and checked the ashtrays!) The group was divided quickly into to camps with this idea, suddenly nobody knew who they could trust.

This turn of events made Harold rather testy. He telephoned the leader and asked about necessity for obedience and many other things.

The leader said that from now on members would have to OBEY him without question.

Harold remarked, "The Gurdjieff teaching does not have faith, belief or obedience in it". This is one of the aspects we liked about the ideas. We had heard about "cults" before and erroneously thought this basic admonition would protect everyone. We should have read a book written many years before, "Words to the Wise," by Manly P. Hall!

The teacher was not happy to hear Harold's challenge, and said in an even tone of growl, "This is not Mr. Gurdjieff's school. This is not Mr. Ouspensky's school. This is Mr. Burton's school." Harold said that last sentence sounded as if it came through clenched teeth.

Oh. Well, in that case not much could be discussed about the ideas we had studied, as the leader kept changing them! He had made it quite clear he wanted total obedience from students, which seemed ridiculous to us. Of course, when we commented about this, the more loyal members would tell us we were in a "willfulness feature" and our "false personality" was controlling us! If one is susceptible to peer pressure, this is a very strong aspect of a blossoming cult.

At one point, Guinivere (Helga Fenn when joined) admonished me to take a trip to the farm and stay a while so as to have my "thinking realigned."

It seemed to us that common sense turned out to not be very common.

The demand for obedience made Harold so angry, he used the energy of the anger to create the "Task/Exercise/Suggestion" list you will find at the link below, using actual information! What is on the "WirkSheet" is not invented by Harold!

Some of the things on the list are totally ridiculous, of course, and yet these are *exactly* what the tasks, suggestions and exercises were in 1980. Most of the members *believed* and agreed with them, as well as followed them!

We did not "agree" or "disagree" openly, and rather went around with like-minded students trying to keep each other sane. We also knew Burton was capable of lying and had lied to us several times (proved out later, and too long a story for here at this time). One thing Gurdjieff had said about this kind of work was "You cannot work with anybody who lies."

The one thing that holds "true believers" together was and is that they believe Burton to be "sent" by "higher forces" -- a "man of God." They believe he is what he says he is ("second only to Jesus Christ"). As long as they hold this belief, they cannot be persuaded that something is definitely amiss. People *want* to believe this so much, they will imagine it is true and think their imagination is real. Thus, for them, Burton can "do no wrong."

If he lies to them, "it is for my own good," and so everything is justified because "the lower cannot understand the higher." Somehow they forgot "By their fruits ye shall know them."

Also, the group provides nearly "everything" for a good life, although frugal by comparison to the teacher's standard of living. Concerts, museum trips, and various highly cultural activities are encouraged, as well as some of these things being presented at the California headquarters (the 'farm') in the Town Hall there.

Thus, what one reads, the music one listens to, the weekly meetings, offer activities aplenty decreed by an outside source among people who have become close friends. There is no need to go into "life" and mingle with non-members. For some people, the group becomes a "safe house."

Peter Ouspensky had written about this also, when he remarked that many a group begins with the basic principles and starts in the right direction, but that at a certain stage the original aim is forgotten (self discovery, etc.) and the aim that unconsciously replaces it is the preservation of the group. This is when students "work on each other" to keep everyone in the group. Ouspensky said that this is when the group has a collective imagination they are scaling the heights when, in fact, they are falling into a pit. [His remarks about this are in the Preface of his book "New Model of the Universe."]

Leaders of other groups, more closely working with original ideas and referred to as "legitimate schools," have a different view of the Fellowship. The late Lord John Pentland of the Gurdjieff Foundation, one of the largest schools, told Stella and Harold in the mid-1980s that Burton is "making his students into children." That is, making them dependent on him (the "father figure"). Therefore, nobody has to "grow up." Pentland thought of the situation as very unfortunate.

In discussion one time with other members, the ranch manager was asked to define what he thought Burton meant by "total obedience," and he replied, "If Robert asked me to set fire to the Lincoln Lodge (student dining room) during dinner hour, I would do it."

FOF is externally different from "Jonestown," or "Heaven's Gate" cults but the influence and establishment of cult-like behavior in members is the same.

Burton did say in about 1979, "There are 200 members now who would go with me to the death." We assumed at that time he meant there were that many students who would stay with him until he or they died. Maybe that is what he meant.

We think that FOF will not end up as a "suicide cult." At least we hope not! Actually, we think the leader enjoys his comforts too much; he lives like a potentate, enjoys the best of fine dining, and creature comforts -- not usually the combination of a suicidal type. Ah, and there are no guarantees.

(On September 25, 1981, Stella wrote a sincere four-page letter to Robert Burton about these matters. See link for "Letter to Burton" and follow-up comments at that time, select link at bottom of page for this item.)

The WirkSheet says a lot about what people will actually do! For instance, in the upper right hand corner of the sheet are things said about pets. Some people actually had their non-pedigree pets of several years destroyed in order to purchase thoroughbred animals, as they easily accepted the idea that Burton should be obeyed without question.

Well, we did it, too. We had two little dogs, one was a Hungarian Puli sheep dog named "Banjo," and the other was a scruffy little guy named "Bill" (breed unknown). Naturally, Burton put the pressure on, and reminded us that we would have to end the "dog octave." One day when we came home, we discovered the dogs had gotten out through the fence. We didn't look for them.

A few days later, I received a call from the dog pound, describing the dogs, both Banjo and Bill, and (alas, I still get choked up when I remind myself of this) my response was to say I didn't know what the guy was talking about! Ack! I felt so guilty about it, I could not even tell any of my friends that I had done this, and to this day I still feel remorse for having done it.

Interference into people's sex lives began early on. When speaking with us, Burton frequently mentioned how women can "drain" a man's energy by wishing too much sex, and would ask Harold if I was demanding too much! (Hardly, Burton kept people much too busy for that. haha) He did hint around this subject a lot.

We spent time at Lake Tahoe and Reno with Robert, because Harold worked there a lot. One time when I was there, too, Robert looked at one of the scantily clad cocktail waitresses and mused, "Such a pretty woman, and yet just under her skin are blood vessels, a heart beating, a liver, kidneys, and several feet of intestines, filled with..." You get the idea.

When occasionally denouncing the human sex act as a waste of precious psychic energy, he also remarked one time, "It is interesting that the sex organs are or are near to the organs of elimination." (Uh, thanks a lot for the image, Bob.)

On one visit to our home, he asked to see the bedroom and while looking around he muttered under his breath but loud enough for us to hear, "Hmmm. Smells organic in here." What he actually meant we didn't ask, but it added to other odd comments he made about sex.

In the first year or so the group gained a reputation for wrecking marriages. Of the first batch of couples who joined 37 of them split up within a few months!

Rules about children caused a lot of emotional trouble. Burton's suggestion was to wait 5 years after marriage to have children, and sometimes that's a nice idea that doesn't work. Burton told the hierarcy of the group to tell these people to have abortions if the "timing" was wrong! They did, and women had abortions!


Linda who worked closely with the teacher told us in Amsterdam in 1980 that she was "only following orders" when she told women members to have abortions! (She was a member since the early 1970s, and still is as far as we know.)

Burton wanted children to be a certain age at Armageddon, for which he claimed, "I will bridge the gap for humanity at Armageddon." Ack! People were believing this! If one *believes* this, one MUST obey. Fear of "higher forces" was instilled in members, and most easily introduced into people who did not actualize the Work ideas within themselves by personal observation so they could see what was going on and avoid the pitfalls.

Children were frequently spoken of as being a considerable waste of "higher energies," and some women were convinced to give their children away!

The "no wit" exercise (a new task) was awful. One old timer (Girard Haven) when asked at a meeting, "What is wit?" seriously replied, "If I hear laughter, I consider it suspect."

Arraauugghh. In a short time, the atmosphere among members was lugubrious.

The "highest students" were considered to be those who were the most serious acting and stern. New people to join the group quickly learned to imitate this behavior, thinking they were "being good students."

As early as the mid-1970s student acts began to take on what Ouspensky described as "artificially somber meeting faces." Being serious was at the top of the unwritten list. Perhaps this stems from the influences of our Puritan ethic in our heritage. "If one is having fun, it must be a sin."

One huge masterstroke of division among members was when the teacher told everyone they would have to change their names!

He said he wanted no "ethnic sounding names" in the "New Civilization" that the group would be founding at Armageddon. This served to effectively split apart everyone, as weekly journals of USA meetings became emotional "duds" when we didn't know anybody's name in them anymore. At a distance in Holland, there was no way to recognize anybody, and have that emotional "tweak" - "Oh, so-and-so still is in the group!"

Having gotten out in 1982, we also are aware that a possibility exists that the "poisonous atmosphere at Renaissance" (old phrase for FOF HQ and vineyard/winery complex by the more liberal students) has been alleviated somewhat. We hope so. Still, it holds on tightly to members.

In 1980 Burton said at a dinner in Paris that the group was second only to the teachings of Christ. In a published interview in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 1980), the article finished with the reporter asking Burton if he thought HE was Christ, and Burton humbly replied, "Thou sayest it."

Start with WirkSheet link below. The page will take a few moments to load. The farm page also offers time for a break while it loads.

OTHER CULT LINKS

[WirkSheet!] [Letter to Burton] [FOF Farm HQ]
["The Hell Letter"] [About Bookmark]
[Sam Sanders Ltr] [Letters of Discontent]
[Some Lawsuits]

[Underground Humor]

[E-Mail!] comments or questions!

We hasten to add that we are not sorry for the experience. We had more positive events occur than negative (through no fault of FOF) and had an opportunity to live and travel in Europe (which is an education in itself), and were put out* at the right time (for us).
(*We refused to pay another big fine for smoking, $3,000!, and were unceremoniously removed, after 12 years to the month. Goodbye, end, fini, no contact, other than a pile of "hate mail." The latter was the hardest to take from people who had been our friends.)

Copyright Stella Wirk, April 1997


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Stella Wirk passed away on December 29, 2001. This site is being maintained by her friends in the hope that it will continue to provide the guidance that it has in the past. There is a Stella Wirk memorial site here: http://web.archive.org/web/20021129030627/http://stella.wirk.org/.

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