[This is the eleventh installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]
I left the guru Gulliver in 1976, quitting my job at the alternative bookshop Dulcinea and moving to Massachusetts. There I lived with my brother, who had found another teacher of the Gurdjieff Work, a spiritual system I still believed could lead me to a higher state of consciousness, hence happiness. In leaving Gulliver, I thought I had separated the man from the system, leaving the man behind. It didn’t quite work out that way, however.
Although more than two hundred miles separated me in Massachusetts from Gulliver in upstate New York, I soon learned that he remained as close to me as my own dreams. At least once a week, for my first few years after leaving, I dreamed of the bookshop Dulcinea. I was staying in touch with old friends there, who told me that finances were not robust. They filled me in on other details of group life, which seemed to be coming apart. Thus Dulcinea and Gulliver frequently impinged on my daytime thoughts.
Likewise at night. In my recurring dream I was late for work at Dulcinea. As I have written, we worked in costume at that strangest of all antiquarian bookshops, and in my dream I could not find my costume. In fact, I was not only without my costume, I was buck naked. I dashed around feverishly—in the apartment I shared with my brother, or more commonly in back rooms at Dulcinea—hunting madly for my outfit. The nine o’clock chime rang, time to open the shop; the giant chandelier flashed on overhead like a galaxy; and I suddenly was standing beneath it naked. Sometimes I dreamed that the shop had an enormous gold contour curtain hanging over the entrance, like a stage instead of a storefront. The curtain rippled up, and I saw that there was a line outside and everyone staring at me, the star attraction in a skin show.
Gulliver did not appear in these dreams usually, but he was a lurking invisible presence: the boss who might appear in a doorway at any moment and dress me down for being undressed. Needless to say, this qualified as a nightmare.
It might have been worse. Although I was naked in my dream, the nightmare never turned overtly sexual. I learned many years later from other young men who had known Gulliver in those days that they too had dreamed of him. One told me he had dreamed “at least once a week” of Gulliver walking naked toward him, brandishing a massive erection. Perhaps my unconscious, or my better angel, was shielding me from such a strongly sexualized vision. My sexual relationship with Gulliver had ended in 1975, and I had buried the memory of it. I had no sensual recall of intimate moments with him now, and I all but ceased to think that such moments ever had taken place.
Then sometime in the early 1980s, I learned that Dulcinea had suffered massive attrition. This exodus had occurred as if choreographed. One worker after another left with his or her family. A group of seventy or more was reduced to less than two dozen in six months. I knew enough about Gulliver and his ways to believe that he had provoked this exodus, and I made it my business to find out what had happened. I would conclude that the exodus had resulted from shearing internal forces that Gulliver himself had created.
Men held most positions of importance at Dulcinea: president, treasurer, corporate secretary, marketing director, store manager. One woman notably muscled her way into this leadership group, at considerable cost to her relationships with other women. The rest of the ladies, when they weren’t posed statically at ends of book aisles beneath massive costuming, were most commonly found shelving books in street clothes or gathered around the coffee pot in the backroom. While they later denied talking scandal among themselves, it is not hard to see these women, especially the mothers, as a simmering pot of discontent. Their objections, voiced to me years later, addressed two central issues: Work and family.
Regarding our Gurdjieffian raison d’etre, the women I talked with believed that Gulliver ignored the Work more and more once the bookshop gained national notoriety. “After we went to the White House,” one told me, “I saw a part of him change, and it seemed to me the whole enterprise was a sham, no longer in service of the Work ideas, but in service of his ego.”
A second said: “Gulliver clearly was not faithful to the Work and its principles. Lust for acclaim had taken over.”
A third: “I felt betrayed by his devotion to ambition couched in a web of power and secrecy. The ideal of a school for self development was lost.”
A fourth: “I felt that the experience was no longer feeding when balanced against the efforts I was putting into it. And I felt that Gulliver had somehow lost his ability for pointing the way.”
Women felt keenly the damage being done to the fabric of their families, most obviously by the relentless over-scheduling. The shop was open seven days a week, with only Christmas and Easter off. Vacations had to be pre-approved by Gulliver, often grudgingly. The indiscriminate use of both parents’ volunteer labor left some dads and moms without a single night together at home with their little ones. The nuclear family was marginalized and ridiculed. The family was shit, Gulliver used to tell me. Family, like sex, was a societal construct and therefore arbitrary. What mattered was our Work family, our esoteric community.
One woman told me: “It was impossible for us as a family to make any advance plans for vacations or visiting grandparents. I was no longer able to justify to myself the deceptions I had to undertake to reconcile my work at the shop and even remotely honoring my values as a mother.”
Another reflected on Gulliver’s efforts to control her family’s life, even in her own backyard: “I remember when he fired me from answering the phone at the front desk because [my husband] and I had bought a swing set for our children with a small amount of money that I inherited from my grandfather. He tried to control the minutest details of our lives.”
A third mother told me at the time that she and her husband had left Dulcinea because she had not wanted Gulliver raising her newborn son.
Mothers couldn’t take it any longer. And so the exodus. Once logs started rolling, the pile lost its coherence and collapsed.
Still, Gulliver soldiered on stubbornly. After all, a bookshop can run with fewer than forty staffers costumed like performers in a Radio City Christmas show. By the late 1980s, a stripped-down Dulcinea was being dragged along by a team of holdouts, what I called the true believers. Then in the 1990s, the community collapsed altogether and Dulcinea closed.
That wasn’t the last I would hear of Gulliver, however.
NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.
To read the next excerpt, “Needled: Why I Left the Work,” click here.