By now it’s no spoiler secret that Don Draper finally got in touch with his feelings at an old-fashioned encounter group in 1970 at what looks like the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Esalen was founded in 1962 as a spiritual retreat and educational center where East and West could meet. Though Buddhist teachings, meditation and various forms of “body work” were its mainstays, Esalen quickly became famous for those marathon small group experiences. In an interview Mad Men’s Matt Weiner said that his writers watched old films about Esalen while preparing the script. They might also have watched the encounter group scene in Paul Mazursky’s parody of Esalen, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969).
But Esalen was only one of many sites for these experiences, which started in the late 1940s as T-groups (T for training) in major U.S. companies like American Airlines and General Mills. T-groups – also known as sensitivity groups -- emerged from group therapy for World War II veterans who came home with “battle fatigue,” now known as PTSD. By the mid-1960s some T-groups were getting pretty kinky, including nude encounter groups that were widely reported in magazines like Newsweek. They were part of the human potential movement that was an offshoot of humanistic psychology, a kind of group therapy for people who weren’t mental patients. Today T-groups survive in corporate training practices and especially in diversity training.
Don’s encounter experience included an emotional catharsis as he identified with the pain and loneliness of another man in the group. The group scene in the last episode starts with a typical exercise in which the participants wordlessly interact, language being a game that helps us hide our true selves and feelings. Don gets a well -deserved push from an older woman who seems to perceive his resistance to facing himself. Part of the idea of encounter was to strip away the false fronts we put up for others (made into an art form at advertising firms like Sterling Cooper), and to accept others as they are. In that way we ultimately come to accept ourselves with all our faults and limitations.
Yet the idea of an authentic encounter in which we see ourselves through another wasn’t original in the 1960s, or even the 1940s. In 1914 my father, the psychiatrist J.L. Moreno, published an expressionist manifesto in Vienna called “Invitation to an Encounter”. From there he took the idea of “a meeting of two, eye to eye, face to face” into experimental theater, psychotherapy, role playing and education. As told in my book Impromptu Man, the fully realized encounter took place in what he called psychodrama, with techniques like role reversal, the double and the mirror, all familiar tropes in popular culture.
By a nice coincidence, the first Coca-Cola soda fountain is also said to have opened around that time, as did the classic bottle design. Buy them or not, Don Draper’s encounter group and his iconic client are among the century-old roots of our time.