Nat Segnit in MIL:
Brian is telling a young Asian-American woman about the five-day workshop he’s here to attend. “It’s called ‘Bio-hacking the Language of Intimacy’,” he says. “Uh-huh,” says the Asian-American woman. She directs this less at Brian than at the kelp forest floating offshore. Brian presses on. What he particularly appreciates is the ability to talk about stuff he can’t talk about at work. Relationships and so forth. “You know,” he says, “really make that human connection.” The Asian-American woman gives him the sort of bright, dead-eyed smile Californians deploy when they’re about to violently disagree with you. “I find I can make human connections in lots of different contexts.” Brian goes quiet. In all but one sense it’s a typically, even touchingly American courtship ritual: the clean-cut young man, no less diffident nor deferential than his grandfather might have been; the young woman off-handedly wielding her power over him, yet to be impressed. The crucial difference is that both parties are naked – not only naked, in the woman’s case, but standing up in the water, exposing herself in full-frontal immodesty to Brian and the cool Pacific breezes. We are in the outdoor sulphur springs that cling to the cliffside at the Esalen Institute, a spiritual retreat centre in Big Sur, California. Here naked sharing is commonplace and as sapped of erotic charge as it would be in a naturist campsite – which is just as well, as I’m naked too, the gooseberry in the hot tub, desperately aiming for an air of easygoing self-composure as I try not to look at Brian’s thighs.
It is thought that the hot springs on this rocky but beautiful stretch of the central Californian coast have been in ritual or therapeutic use, in one form or another, for at least 6,000 years, when the Esselen, the Native American tribe that inspired the institute’s name, migrated south from the Bay Area. They saw in the confluence of waters a fitting place to worship and bury their dead. In 1962 a local landowner, “Bunnie” MacDonald Murphy, agreed to lease the property – by then a down-at-heel resort frequented by gay men from San Francisco – to her grandson Michael Murphy. With his fellow Stanford psychology graduate, Dick Price, Murphy founded the Esalen Institute as a centre for the new “Human Potential Movement”. Their intention was to hold a series of gently countercultural seminars and “experiential sessions”. The gentleness was short-lived.