Eighteen People In The Nude -And Why They Matter To You
THE HUMAN CONDITION
THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS probably had a lot to do with the way it hit me. First there was the party.
Three rooms full of smoke, booze and careful faces. Carefully they smiled, and carefully chose their sparring partners for each tight little exchange of careful words. Once in a while, when it was safe, when they could be absolutely sure they wouldn’t lose any points, they laughed. But very carefully.
They argued a lot, sometimes with vehemence and angry profanities, but even as they cursed their eyes were straying. It was all old stuff, including the ready-mix, easy-pour anger.
Most of them got drunk fairly early on, which gave them the courage to (a) make fawning compliments to people who counted; (b) stick the needle into people who counted less, to make up for the fawning; (c) make passes at other men's women and other women’s men, having first exchanged pleasantries with
the spouse to show it was all in fun; (d) pretend that their own stiff-faced spouses, with their bright, suffering eyes, did not exist; (e) drink more, because no matter what happens you can always say you were drunk.
That was Sunday night. We stayed very late, because we were having such a good time.
Monday morning I went into a screening room, tired and hungover, to watch a movie. And I sat there in the dark, with a dozen other people, and after a few minutes I wanted to run out. The others did, too. But we sat there, hour after hour, shredding Kleenex and empty cardboard coffee cups, chain-smoking. And quietly crying.
It wasn’t a movie in the usual sense, although the plan is to make it into one — a three-hour feature called Out Of Touch, to open this month on the regular movie-house circuit. What we saw that morning, and in the next four days, was the uncut version. An entire weekend marathon encounter on film. Forty-five hours of it.
Encounter groups are those get-togethers where people let their hair down, peel back the layers of self-protection and try to get back to some kind of basic, honest human contact. At least 3,000 people will attend sessions in Montreal this year, and this winter the expected attendance at various groups in the Vancouver area is close to 2,000. In Toronto, 15,000. The sessions may last anywhere from an evening to a month. Proponents of the continent-wide “growth movement” see it as a solution to the problems of alienation: today the individual, tomorrow the world.
Attacking encounter groups has become almost as popular as going to them, but they are significant nonetheless. They exist because many thousands of people are apparently unhappy about the quality of their lives, sensing, however vaguely, a condition described by a U.S. writer in a recent book: “We often don’t express what we really feel. Sometimes we don’t even know what we really feel. We waste our energies building elaborate facades to deceive ourselves and each other. As a result we suffer, and so do our social institutions.”
Encounters are far from the intellectual orgies of popular imagination. In fact, they’re almost anti-intellectual. They discourage the use of “why.” The contention is that we are already using our minds too much, or at least in the wrong way, and that’s part of the trouble. Feelings are the thing. The ,group is a vehicle to create, in isolation from the rest of the world, an environment of mutual trust, a mini-society, where people can feel free to engage in personto-person honesty. The theory is that selfhonesty follows.
In the session we saw on film, methods that I found offensive were used to speed the relaxing process. But it was hard to argue with some of the results. Even for the skeptics among the spectators — cameramen, technicians, businessmen — it raised real questions about how we all live.
This was a nude encounter, a weekend marathon led by California psychologist Paul Bindrim. Bindrim is the best-known exponent of nudity as a vital factor in what he calls “intimacy training.” He came to Toronto to lead the filmed session in the hope that he could use the movie to spread his methods around the world (he thinks they could change it), and for 50% of the profits.
The film was made at a specially built set in a Toronto film studio — a living room and swimming pool connected by a short corridor. There were 20 microphones hidden around the set, and nine hidden cameras manned by three shifts of cinematographers.
The participants were 18 Toronto people between roughly 20 and 40, mostly paid actors, because the original intention had been to build a fictional movie around the real-life action in a nude encounter. Most of the actors were not there out of any feeling of need but, as one of them put it, “for the 170 bucks.”
They were a pretty wary-looking bunch when they first strolled into the room. Still fully clothed, in every sense, they sat in a self-conscious circle, got out their cigarettes, and eyed one another. Everybody’s cool was turned up full strength.
Enter Bindrim. Stocky, balding, about 45, with strange blue eyes coming at you with relentless penetration one minute, overflowing sympathy the next. Bindrim suggested they all introduce themselves and state briefly what they hoped they
might get out of the session. They all promptly spoke of The System, the “plastic people” they had to contend with in their lives, the “phonyness” in the acting business, the painting that wouldn’t come any more. External complaints. Then one young man with a beard and a sharply planed, sensitive face, said: “I’m all screwed up. Inside. I have been for years.”
It was a signal. The first layer was coming off, and they couldn’t go back. The beautiful young girl with tangled black eyelashes, when her turn came, found herself looking mutely around the group, tears coursing down her cheeks. What she said, when she was able to speak, was one strangled childlike sentence: “I feel scared.”
She was 23. Already she felt that she had made a mess of her life. When very young she had submitted to sexual advances from adults, because she thought that “to be loved, you know, was to do what people wanted.” At 16 she had had a baby, which she had not kept. She seemed a very young 23. The stage name she had chosen was Bambi. She was one of the last to take her clothes off. Her body, she said, was ugly. Ever since the baby.
The others listened with sympathy and protective words. Several cried. Later, when they had peeled off many more layers and the criteria for honesty got tougher, they would turn on Bambi and berate her for her “little-girl act.” Not real, they would call it. Not her. Later still, she would prove them right with the sudden dramatic emergence of an angry, powerful and decidedly full-grown woman. An Anna Magnani, hiding behind a Mia Farrow.
But that was much, much later. It seemed at times like years, so compressed was the progression of events. Bindrim used gimmick after gimmick in a process that was painstaking, orderly, and structured to the point of ritual. “Eyeballing,” where people in pairs engage one another in silent, unswerving, nose-to-nose scrutiny. The pool session, with the rigidly controlled water heat, the carefully chosen piped-in music, underwater strobe lights, a recording of a thundering heartbeat, and even dry ice to produce a swirling fog. The business of the “trust exercises,” various forms of touch stimulation, the use of water and pressure-point thumb pressing to induce relaxation. Candlelight and wine, chanting, something called “ohming” where the men circle one of their number and make droning, masculine noises to exorcize fears of homosexuality, and a final grotesque fillip called, graphically enough, “crotcjj eyeballing.” There seemed no end to Bindrim’s little bag of tricks.
And yet, and yet . . . The faces changed, and the voices. The walls came
tumbling down, in tiny painful chinks and in great, crashing avalanches. And there was no mistaking the agony, up there on that screen. Or the stupendous relief of unloading it.
They took their clothes off after about six hours. Bud, the 40-year-old ex-salesman who-kept losing jobs, who felt victimized by his peers, and who felt enormously grateful to have this “wonderful woman” for a wife, was the first to undress. She spent almost the entire marathon session curled up in the fetal position.
The others undressed fairly quickly, except for three holdouts. Bambi, Bonnie, the young mother who kept saying how much her husband worshipped her. And then there was Lisa. My attention came back again and again to Lisa, as I watched the fading character actress of the 1,000 faces struggling with all that naked honesty surrounding her. She had thought it would be another role, to play by ear. But it turned out to be reality they were after; nothing in her repertoire would do for a substitute. Lisa was lost.
They told her she couldn’t distinguish acting from truth. She refused to strip beyond her underwear, even though the bra was see-through and the pants semisheer. She became more and more withdrawn, until finally it seemed the session had become, for her, a test of sheer endurance. Almost invariably she stood rigidly apart, her face expressionless, her posture saying: I cannot afford to see this, or hear it, so I will not.
The first dramatic “break” of the session came in the pool when a fortyish spinster artist named Rita spontaneously regressed to the age of one year, and hence was able to re-live the pain of a baby’s broken leg and her anger at her parents for not preventing it. Moments later a 27-year-old divorcé, John, who had blamed his troubles initially on the “plastic world,” regressed to the age of 10, when he had been sexually molested.
Everyone, it seemed, had something he’d been carrying around for a long time and wanted desperately to get rid of. Bud, the job-losing ex-salesman who was such a sport about taking his clothes off, didn’t break until the session was officially over and they were in the “evaluation period.” In the middle of his ultracasual appraisal, he caved in.
The most moving break involved David and Sarie, the group’s only married couple. David, 31, a Scottish-born actor with thinning hair, came into the session cocky, assured, even smug. His only problems stemmed from The System. Sarie, his beautiful 23-year-old artist bride of less than a year, first spoke only of being bogged down in her painting style.
The marriage? Idyllic, according to David. “I deliberately waited until I was 30 to get married, because I wanted to be sure, to find the ideal woman. We
communicate, we share things, we’re very happy — no hang-ups at all.” Sarie smiled, and looked wifely.
On the last day, Sarie erupted. Sweet, submissive Sarie stood on one side of the pool and screamed profanities across the water at her husband. “I hate tobacco! I hate the goddam people who make tobacco! I’m tired of cleaning up your goddam, smelly ashtrays. I hate it!”
The perfect husband screamed back. “You never had to clean up any goddam ashtrays for me! I’ll smoke as many cigarettes as I damn well please. Listen, it may be a marriage, but you don’t live my life for me. It’s my bloody trip. Mine! Not yours!”
Gradually, through Bindrim’s probing and the group’s taunting and pouncing from the sidelines, the real issue became clear. David was afraid of losing Sarie, chosen so carefully for his ideal union. He dared not show her any vulnerabilities. Sarie, shut out, resentful, and at the same time accepting her nice-little-wife role, knew that one of the rules was: Don’t bug me.
The pressure was on to get David to break, there in the pool while the facade was down. It was a long scene. Bindrim baited. David, standing in the water, fought to keep his self-control, and Sarie stood on the deck a few feet away, quivering.
“There’s a pool full of people here who would like to go to bed with her, you know,” said Bindrim. “How do you feel about that?”
“Fine, man. She’s free to do what she likes. She knows that. Just so long as she doesn’t get hurt.”
“She gets hurt? What about you?”
“Listen, man, I told you. She’s free. I just don’t want her to get hurt.”
“David, David. You can hurt, just like everybody else. You do hurt. You’re scared, just like the rest of us. You want to cry, right now. Go ahead.”
“I . . . can’t.”
He did, though. It seemed to take for ever. At first, it sounded like somebody being strangled to death. It went on and on. The group went back to the living room. Bindrim cradled David’s head on his shoulder. Ten feet away on the far side of the pool, Sarie stood like a statue, tears dripping off her chin.
Suddenly, she gave a little moan and rushed around the pool. Squatting, she held out her arms. Bindrim gave David a little push, and he reeled, unseeing, in Sarie’s direction. Both seemed to find their sense of direction at once. Sarie came part way down the pool ladder, and David lunged. He never raised his head. Sarie held it in both her hands, kissed his hair, and they both cried soundlessly. They stayed that way long after Bindrim had left the pool.
In the screening room, no one spoke. Even after the reel ended and the lights went on, there was a silence of several
moments. John, the director, whose marriage had broken up several months before, had told me when the reel started: “This is the scene that gets to me.” Now he sat beside me, smoking, saying nothing. The publicity man and his fiancée sat on my other side, holding hands, tears in their eyes. Even the executive producer — a cool, young lawyer who had spent those days in the screening room bustling about with coffee and doughnuts and clean ashtrays to hang on to his detachment — even Irv Abrams seemed temporarily glued to his chair.
And I remembered what he’d told me about the things that happened to the crew during filming. The cameraman who was found in a trance; the sound assistant so transported by the heartbeat recording that when he noticed his boss yawning, he attacked him in a rage; the moment in the control room when Irv and his scriptwriter exchanged looks. Irv’s look said: This is too real. There’s no way we can weave a fictional story around this. We can’t touch it. And the writer’s expression, as he watched his four-figure fee go down the drain, said: No. No way.
The last reel ended at eight o’clock Friday night. I was due at a party at nine. I arrived at midnight. I didn’t feel like drinking, so I got a ginger ale and stood in the kitchen, which was full of smoke, booze and those careful, masklike faces.
“What’s the matter with you, for God’s sake?” someone said. “Have a drink!”
“Well, I've just been to this . . .”
“Will someone get this girl a drink? God, George gives great parties, but you can never get to the bar. Hey AÍ, get this girl a drink . . .”
After an hour, I went home.
The group still gets together regularly for parties. Bud, the job-loser, says his career has picked up spectacularly because of his new confidence. Mike, the actor who considered himself a bit player — and was one — was given a script to read for a bit role and told the director, “I should have the lead.” He got it. Lisa, the character actress who managed to remain aloof, is still suspicious of what went on in the session, but is considering group therapy in a more traditional, gradual form. Vance, the black actor who never broke, says that it confirmed for him the extent of prejudice in whites — they saw him first as black, then as a man. But it was a profound experience, he says, and made him more tolerant of “their hang-ups.” David and Sarie have made their basement into a studio for Sarie’s now prolific painting. They have acquired a black kitten, which they named Vance, and an inability to tell anybody about their marriage in analytical terms. They just keep looking at one another and saying, “Beautiful.” □