Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The “Me” Decade and the Third Great Awakening

It was remarkable enough that ordinary folks now had enough money to take it and run off and alter the circumstances of their lives and create new roles for themselves, such as Trailer Sailor or Gerontoid Cowboy. But, simultaneously, still others decided to go . . . all the way. They plunged straight toward what has become the alchemical dream of the Me Decade.

The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!) This had always been an aristocratic luxury, confined throughout most of history to the life of the courts, since only the very wealthiest classes had the free time and the surplus income to dwell upon this sweetest and vainest of pastimes. It smacked so much of vanity, in fact, that the noble folk involved in it always took care to call it quite something else.

Much of the satisfaction well-born people got from what is known historically as the “chivalric tradition” was precisely that: dwelling upon Me and every delicious nuance of my conduct and personality. At Versailles, Louis XIV founded a school for the daughters of impoverished noblemen, called L’Ecole Saint-Cyr. At the time most schools for girls were in convents. Louis had quite something else in mind, a secular school that would develop womenfolk suitable for the superior race guerrière that he believed himself to be creating in France. Saint-Cyr was the forerunner of what was known up until a few years ago as the finishing school. And what was the finishing school? Why, a school in which the personality was to be shaped and buffed like a piece of high-class psychological cabinetry. For centuries most of upper-class college education in France and England has been fashioned in the same manner: with an eye toward sculpting the personality as carefully as the intellectual faculties.

At Yale the students on the outside wondered for 80 years what went on inside the fabled secret senior societies, such as Skull and Bones. On Thursday nights one would see the secret-society members walking silently and single file, in black flannel suits, white shirts, and black knit ties with gold pins on them, toward their great Greek Revival temples on the campus, buildings whose mystery was doubled by the fact that they had no windows. What in the name of God or Mammon went on in those 30-odd Thursday nights during the senior years of these happy few? What went on was . . . lemon sessions!—a regularly scheduled series of lemon sessions, just like the ones that occurred informally in girls’ finishing schools.

In the girls’ schools these lemon sessions tended to take place at random on nights when a dozen or so girls might end up in someone’s dormitory room. One girl would become “it,” and the others would light into her personality, pulling it to pieces to analyze every defect . . . her spitefulness, her awkwardness, her bad breath, embarrassing clothes, ridiculous laugh, her suck-up fawning, latent lesbianism, or whatever. The poor creature might be reduced to tears. She might blurt out the most terrible confessions, hatreds, and primordial fears. But, it was presumed, she would be the stronger for it afterward. She would be on her way toward a new personality. Likewise, in the secret societies: They held lemon sessions for boys. Is masturbation your problem? Out with the truth, you ridiculous weenie! And Thursday night after Thursday night the awful truths would out, as he who was It stood up before them and answered the most horrible questions. Yes! I do it! I whack whack whack it! I’m afraid of women! I’m afraid of you! And I get my shirts at Rosenberg’s instead of Press! (Oh, you dreary turkey, you wet smack, you little shit!) . . . But out of the fire and the heap of ashes would come a better man, a brother, of good blood and good bone, for the American race guerrière. And what was more . . . they loved it. No matter how dreary the soap opera, the star was Me.

By the mid-1960s this service, this luxury, had become available for one and all, i.e., the middle classes. Lemon Session Central was the Esalen Institute, a lodge perched on a cliff over-looking the Pacific in Big Sur, California, Esalen’s specialty was lube jobs for the personality. Businessmen, businesswomen, housewives—anyone who could afford it, and by now many could—paid $220 a week to come to Esalen to learn about themselves and loosen themselves up and wiggle their fannies a bit, in keeping with methods developed by William C. Schutz and Frederick Perls. Fritz Perls, as he was known, was a remarkable figure, a psychologist who had a gray beard and went about in a blue terry-cloth jump suit and looked like a great blue grizzled father bear. His lemon sessions sprang not out of the manly virtues and cold showers Protestant-prep-school tradition of Yale but out of psychoanalysis. His sessions were a variety of the “marathon encounter.”* He put the various candidates for personality change in groups, and they met in close quarters day after day. They were encouraged to bare their own souls and to strip away one another’s defensive facades. Everyone was to face his own emotions squarely for the first time.

*The real “marathons,” in which the group stayed in the same room for 24 hours or longer, were developed by George R. Bach and Frederick Stoller of Los Angeles.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift