In 1971, when I was 18, I took part in the filming of a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) documentary about an experimental marathon group-encounter session. I was invited to participate because the psychologist teaching the Rogerian psychology course I was taking at Humber College was also the producer of the piece. She decided, based entirely on my tendency to wear black to class, that I suffered from a deep-seated morbidity, and that the encounter group would bring about a cure, causing me to renounce black forever.
A dramatic moment for her career, and all caught on camera.
I tried explaining that this was highly unlikely, since I wore black for perfectly logical reasons having nothing to do with morbidity, but she wouldn’t hear it. The symbolism was plain to everyone, she said (except the Chinese, I pointed out, who associate death with the colour white).
But really, there was nothing either dark or morbid in my choice of wardrobe colours. In my early high school years back in Wainfleet, I’d tried simplifying the confusing and time-consuming problem of what-goes-with-what by having separate, colour-matched outfits. While this worked on a practical level, an unfortunate side-effect was that wearing an all-burgundy outfit (even if only once a week) got you talked about. And not in a good way.
By the time we moved to Malton, I’d settled on black. It was great. Everything went with everything and it doesn’t readily show dirt.
Plus, I could lose that whole “Little Lord Fauntleroy” tag.
In any event, on the evening of the appointed day I showed up at a large house outside of Toronto. Part of the experimental feature of this encounter group would be its “marathon” nature, lasting a full 12 hours from dusk till dawn.
Or was it from dawn to dusk, and I showed up in the early morning?
I can’t remember. It was dark when I arrived and dark when I left.
Anyhow, there were about a dozen other people there, along with the producer/therapist, who had specifically insisted that I wear black. (“Now don’t go getting converted before the taping.”)
A circle of chairs had been set up in the extensive living room, along with an inordinate number of lights on stands. A man with a camera on his shoulder hovered around the edges. This, of course, was the cameraman.
Or as I came to know him, my Nemesis.
We began by formally introducing ourselves, then tried to recite everyone’s names by memory. I’ve always been absolute rubbish with names, but I’d just finished reading a book on the subject (the first of many — all equally useless) and one of its techniques allowed me to briefly remember the names of almost every person in the room.
Yay me! I was a star.
Fifteen minutes later, of course, I couldn’t remember more than three names, and had no idea to whom they belonged.
We next engaged in various psychological exercises to improve trust, intimacy, and openness: falling backwards into someone’s arms, looking into the eyes of another person for a set length of time, touching someone’s face — that kind of thing. They were meant to be “cutting edge,” but even back in 1971 they were getting a bit long in the tooth.
There was one interesting bit, however, in which we were lifted by turns and supported on our backs by the hands of everyone below. It felt like lying on the surface of a gently-heaving lake. Years later I was surprised to see audiences at rock concerts doing the same thing, although they’d added a jumping-from-the-stage element that seemed needlessly dangerous.
Beyond that I don’t remember many specifics. People revealed past childhood traumas, telling their stories with a competitive zeal to see who could reach the greatest disconnection between the insignificance of the trauma, and the operatic outpouring brought about by its recollection.
To help the afflicted deal with their emotional traumas — most of which sounded to me like standard run-ins between children and parents — various tactics were used; but by far the most popular was role-play. Unsurprisingly, the sight of one adult sitting on another adult’s knee while talking like a ten-year-old did little to inspire my confidence.
And nothing to change my fashion sense.
On the other hand, I was impressed by the power and nature of the group mind. Much like a vampire, it has to be invited in, but once there, it drains the victim of any individuality. What angers the group mind angers each of its members. What pleases the group mind pleases each of its members.
As best as I could theorise, the role-play, which catered to the psyche’s most infantile wish-fulfilment fantasies, served to “short circuit” higher levels of cognition, leaving behind a child-like emotional state. The group leader was then able to guide them through a gamut of emotions as easily as a kindergarten teacher reading fairy tales to her wide-eyed students. Rages, tears, laughter, all were induced to near-manic levels by the dictates of the group mind.
It was eye-opening.
It was also kind of scary.
I was pretty new to the whole “adult” thing myself, but the rapidly disintegrating maturity I witnessed around me seemed neither necessary nor healthy. I did my best to react appropriately, partly out of politeness, partly out of fear, but perhaps my responses were a bit slower than the others. Certainly my emotional displays were less histrionic. After a while, the others began to sense that something was amiss. Not good, since whatever threatens the group mind threatens each of its members.
I was placed in the centre of the room on a chair while the rest of the group gathered in front, asking various personal, but weirdly irrelevant questions as the cameraman (remember him?) circled around me in a constant quest for the best shots. The purported aim of all this was to root out my problem, which had something to do with a lack of commitment to the “genuine” emotions I should have been expressing.
For a while it was more irritating than scary. While there were signs of real anger (well — of real induced anger), I became convinced that the threat of actual violence was remote, although the potential was thick in the air. I tried to answer truthfully, and after the initial anxiety wore off, I felt capable of answering their questions for as long as they wanted to ask them — provided they continued to let me sit. (I’ve always tired easily standing up.)
But then one increasingly indignant man swung my chair around so I was just inches from his face, shoved a hand-mirror in front of me, and yelled, “Tell me what you see!”
Once again, I answered truthfully.
“The cameraman behind me,” I said.
The indignant man hit me.
Well, to be honest, he really just slapped me. But still, it came as a surprise. And it was pretty hard. It took me back to the first time I’d been punched in high school — another baffling social interaction.
After that I don’t remember much. I asked why he’d done that, but if he gave an answer I can no longer recall what it was, and very shortly afterwards the focus passed on to some other, more willing, participant.
At the end of the 12 hours the whole thing mercifully ended.
We had some kind of refreshments; I think it was breakfast — but it could just as easily have been a late night snack. We were all friends again, and everyone was hyped about what a gruelling (“but real…wasn’t it real?”) experience we’d been through. Someone suggested that because this had taken place on a Sunday, and had been such an ordeal, we should call it “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” after the new British movie of that name. Since the film was about a husband and wife who share the same male lover, its relevance was lost on me; but I knew enough by then to go along with whatever they came up with.
Anyway, we said our goodbyes, agreed one last time with each other that it had been both “real” and “authentic,” and that was the end of it.
I never did see the documentary.
A few years later, however, I was working for a social service agency and ran across a woman from the encounter group. Fortunately, she recognised me, or I would have passed her by. (Sadly, I’m not one of those people who “can’t remember names, but never forgets a face.”) She called me into her office to reminisce.
She said she had seen the finished documentary and was quite pleased with it, but was sorry to tell me that, aside from a few background shots, I had been completely eliminated from the film because I didn’t fit in.
I’ve seldom felt more honoured.