At 7 am on a Friday, Ellie stood outside her apartment dressed like Joan of Arc. From her window upstairs the street had looked sunny and calm, but outside the cold wind from the San Francisco Bay pulled at her costume relentlessly. One half of her cardboard armor was now steadily unfurling from its neatly applied duct tape, and Ellie had to keep one arm clamped down to hold the sad broken thing in place. Her assignment was to speak to three strangers—more if she could manage it—and already it wasn’t going well.
Ellie’s girlfriend Mimi had convinced her to do the Workshop: three days in a conference room at the Hyatt Place Emeryville, just over the Bay Bridge. “It will change your life,” Mimi had said, her eyes glowing in a way that reminded Ellie of an anime character or a small forest creature, whole eyes dilated to blackness. Ellie liked the idea that maybe she could change. She liked the idea that whatever was wrong with her could be identified, quantified, and ultimately, fixed. But mostly she liked the idea of doing something nice for sweet, moldable Mimi. She liked the idea of behaving, for once, like a real girlfriend.
On the morning of Day 1, Mimi picked Ellie up at her apartment. Ellie had used the Workshop as an excuse not to spend the night. “You’re right, of course,” Mimi had said, her eyes glossy with feeling. “You don’t want to be tired on your first day.” Mimi knew all about how to prepare for the Workshop. She had attended the Workshop dozens of times, and now she was helping to run it, as a facilitator.
In the car, Ellie looked up the directions on her phone. “Shellmound Drive,” she said. “Have you heard why they call it that?”
“Why?” Mimi asked.
“It used to be an indigenous sacred ground. The Shellmound is where they buried their dead.”
“Wow,” Mimi said.
“That’s why that IKEA there is haunted.”
“The IKEA?” Mimi asked. “Haunted?”
“I mean, not really,” Ellie said. “I was just making a joke.”
“Oh,” Mimi said. “You’re so funny.”
The Hyatt Place Emeryville sat squished between the haunted IKEA and a possibly haunted Trader Joe’s. Inside, the Workshop participants gathered in the open space in front of a conference room on the second floor. Mimi went to join the other facilitators inside, whirring with anticipation as she gave Ellie a performative kiss goodbye. The other participants milled around outside, gravitating towards the walls as if they needed to keep their backs to something so that no one could sneak up behind them.
A young woman about Ellie’s age was sitting near the door. She had dark brown hair and a wide face. Her eyes were set too far apart, spanning her face so broadly that they threatened to wrap around the sides, which made her look a little like a lizard. Ellie went over to her.
“Can I sit with you?” Ellie asked.
The girl looked up from her spot on the floor and shrugged.
Ellie sat down. “I’m Ellie.”
“Magda,” said the other girl. She took her phone out of her bag and started to fiddle with it.
“Is this your first time at the Workshop?” Ellie asked.
“Yup.” Magda didn’t look up from her phone. Ellie sat beside her doing nothing until it was time to go inside.
In the conference room, twelve empty chairs were assembled in a semi-circle. “The arch,” one of the facilitators would later tell them, “is the strongest shape in the world.” The facilitators sat together at a long table at the back of the room, behind the arch, all facing forward like a painting of the Last Supper. Mimi was there, sitting somewhere in the middle. Ellie avoided looking at her as she filed in with the other participants.
Once they were seated, a large blonde woman approached the center of the arch. She was tall and fat and powerful-looking. Her face was square and solid; she made Ellie think of those mystery heads on Easter Island. Her eyes were small and bright and moved around fast. Her name was Janelle, and for the next three days, she would be their leader. Mimi had told Ellie all about her already. “She’s amazing,” Mimi had said. “She’s the wisest woman I know.”
Janelle asked each participant to stand and introduce themselves. As they spoke, Janelle eyed them angrily, accusingly, like they deserved to be bitten and she would gladly be the one to bite them. First down the line was a young man wearing a t-shirt that went down almost to his knees. “I’m Fady,” he said. “I’m from Redwood City.”
“What do you do for a living, Fady?” Janelle asked.
“I drive a limo. Mostly I pick people up from the airport.”
Janelle’s eyes went narrow, thin little slits, like she was sharpening her gaze down to a fine, fine point. “How’s that working out for you?”
“It’s good,” Fady said. “I mean, it’s a job.”
“Do you have a romantic partner, Fady?”
“Where is she today? Why is she not here with you?”
Fady coughed. “Um. It’s not really her thing.”
“She thought it sounded kind of cult-y. Like it has a cult vibe.”
Janelle laughed. “That’s a common misconception. But the Workshop is not a cult!” She turned to face the others in the arch. “If anything, it’s the opposite. Our purpose here is to teach you who you really are, underneath the masks you wear in daily life. Society has conditioned you—has conditioned all of us!—to internalize destructive beliefs about who we have the potential to be. The goal of the Workshop is to break through that conditioning. In the Workshop, you will learn how to live your truth.” A few people around the arch nodded. Ellie focused her attention on an oily spot on the wall.
When it was Ellie’s turn to speak, she stood and smoothed her black pencil skirt. “I’m Ellie,” she said. “I live in San Francisco. I graduated from Stanford last year and now I work in marketing at a startup.”
Janelle’s angry eyes bore down hard on Ellie. Ellie could feel their heat. It occurred to her that Janelle would make a good meme. She imagined doctoring Janelle’s face in photoshop, drawing lasers from her eyes and fire in her open mouth, scrawling in a blocky purple font across the screen: Janelle!
“How’s that working out for you?” Janelle asked.
Ellie shrugged. “It’s a good opportunity.” She shifted her focus to Janelle’s forehead to avoid meeting her gaze directly. Laser eyes, she thought. Purple font. Janelle!
“Do you have a romantic partner, Ellie?” Janelle asked.
Ellie could sense Mimi beaming from the table behind her. She could feel her anticipation, her eagerness, her desire to be recognized. She made Ellie think of a little needy puppy, of an overachieving ninth-grader just waiting to be called on. Pick me! Oh, pick me! It made Ellie want to lie and say no. Instead, she said, “Yeah, I do.”
“Where is he now?” Janelle spread her arms wide. “Why is he not here today?”
“It’s a she, actually,” Ellie said. A little twitch of surprise registered on Janelle’s giant face. Ha, ha, Janelle! Ellie thought. You thought you had me all figured out! Your laser eyes go weak in the face of me. I smite thee, Janelle! You have been smote.
“Well,” Janelle said. “Where is she? Why isn’t she here today?”
“She is here,” Ellie said. “She’s Mimi.” Everyone laughed. Ellie looked over her shoulder to see Mimi clapping and bouncing in her chair.
Janelle’s squinting eyes only grew smaller. “So you have a Stanford degree, a good job, a loving relationship. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “I guess I was curious.” Across the arch, Magda fidgeted and sighed. She hates me already, Ellie thought. Lizard girl.
Janelle let the silence between them balloon. She kept her eyes locked on Ellie as Ellie waited for permission to sit back down. Ellie could sense Janelle looking for the root of her, the unhealed wound, the festering sore Janelle could push and prod to open her up. The joke was on Janelle, Ellie thought because even she didn’t think there was anything there. That was the whole problem. That was what Janelle didn’t understand.
After the introductions, they took a break. There was a vending machine down the hall where they could buy water and snacks. Near the machine, a man named George was holding two fresh water bottles. George had two young daughters and a job in finance. He was one of those tall, large men who carried himself with grace no matter his size; whether fat or thin or somewhere in between he moved just as fluidly as if his body were miraculously designed to support an infinite amount of weight. Of all the participants, he struck Ellie as the most well-adjusted. He struck her as someone she could understand.
“It gave me two,” George said. He handed a water bottle to Ellie.
“Thanks,” Ellie said. George had a kind smile. Ellie imagined he was a great dad. She pictured him coming home from work at 5:30 pm every day and sitting down to help his daughters with their math homework. He would tell them how they used equations like these in his fancy finance job, how if they worked hard and learned math then they, too, could get good jobs, make a lot of money, and have fun besides. George was one of those guys who made life look easy. George seemed to have life figured out.
“So what do you think?” Ellie asked as she opened the water bottle.
“It’s something,” George said. “It’s really something.”
The Workshop operated like a nation-state, with its own rules and its own slipshod constitution. After the break, the facilitators went over the bylaws. The Workshop was confidential. There was to be no swearing in the Workshop. For the three days of the Workshop, no one was to drink alcohol or take drugs—yes, they said, that included marijuana! And most importantly, whether returning from a break or arriving first thing in the morning, everyone must be on time. Being on time was critical. “You have made a contract with each other,” said one of the facilitators, a thin wispy man with patchy facial hair. “You have made a promise to be here on time.” It wasn’t clear to Ellie what the consequences of breaking these rules would be, but everyone seemed to sense that the consequences would be bad. To agree to these rules, the participants were asked to stand. No one remained seated.
The facilitators led them through various exercises. In one, they walked around the room in two concentric circles. Whenever a facilitator called out “Stop!” they had to stop and make eye contact with a person in the opposing circle. After staring at each other for a while, they had the option to high-five each other or shake hands or hug.
In another exercise, they had to shout out the names of the things they wanted. Janelle said this shouting would help them to access their most suppressed desires. Ellie felt like she was getting the hang of these games. Still, she sensed that Janelle didn’t like her. Ellie was too collected, too competent, too capable of following the rules. Where the other participants seemed to get tripped up, stalled before the barriers the facilitators constructed in their paths, Ellie found it easy simply to move forward, climb over the barriers, and tell the person in charge what they wanted to hear. She suspected Janelle could tell her success was not authentic. She suspected Janelle could tell she was just playing along.
Throughout the exercises, Janelle would ask: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Ellie pondered this question. She wondered if fear was her problem, and what the object of that fear might be.
They took a break for lunch. When they came back they found the arch had been broken, the chairs scattered around the room, and turned to face the walls. “Everyone find a private corner in the room,” Janelle said. Ellie chose a chair facing the window. Mimi and another facilitator began handing out notebooks and pens. “This exercise is about fear,” Janelle said. “We’re going to take twenty minutes to do some journaling. I want you to write down what scares you. Think about your dreams, your goals, your highest aspirations, the things people in your life have told you are impossible to achieve. Why are they impossible? What’s stopping you? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
“What if we aren’t sure what to write?” an older woman named Meredith asked.
“Trust the process,” Janelle said. “Listen to what’s in your heart. Follow your intuition.”
“But—” Meredith said.
“No buts!” said Janelle. “Remember: Not But, but And.” This was one of the Workshop’s mantras.
Janelle started the timer. The lights in the room went dim. From the window, Ellie watched people walking in and out of the Trader Joe’s down below. A woman with a little boy hurried across the parking lot, holding the boy’s hand and dragging him behind her. When he tripped she swept him up and carried him the rest of the way to the car. What am I afraid of, Ellie thought. What do I want, why am I afraid. In her journal, she wrote: I worry that I’m not a real person.
When the twenty minutes were up, Janelle told everyone to find a partner and share what they had written. Ellie leaned over to Fady. “Partners?”
Fady pulled his chair up next to Ellie’s. “I guess my big thing,” he said, “is that I always feel stuck. Like, I can always come up with a reason why I can’t do what I really want to do. I’m my own worst enemy.”
“That makes sense,” Ellie said. Nearby, Meredith was saying “my dad” over and over. Were we supposed to write about our parents? Ellie wondered. It hadn’t even occurred to her to think of them.
“What did you put?” Fady asked.
“I don’t know if this makes sense,” Ellie said. “I wrote: I worry that I’m not a real person.”
Fady nodded. He leaned back in the rickety plastic chair, straining the back so that it bent awkwardly away from the seat. He clasped his hands behind his head. “I think I get it.”
“Like your life is like a video game. Like every time you pass one level, there’s another one to beat.”
“Maybe,” Ellie said. “I don’t know. It’s more like, I feel like things happen to other people, but they don’t happen to me.”
“But they do happen, don’t they? You seem functional. You seem like you function.”
“I guess so,” Ellie said. “But don’t other people do more than that?”
Fady leaned forward in his chair. The back stayed arched behind him, the plastic permanently warped. “Have you heard this theory about how we’re all really part of a computer simulation? The idea is, whoever built us is just testing things out. Our reality might not be the ultimate reality. It’s just one run of the game.” He smiled. “Maybe it’s true. Maybe that’s why you feel this way. Maybe you’re the only person who has figured it out.”
“Or maybe whoever coded me missed a few lines.”
“Nah,” said Fady. “I think you’re just fine.”
Ellie smiled. Fady wasn’t the kind of person she usually expected to like her. It was nice to talk this way, she thought. Maybe the Workshop was on to something. Maybe Janelle was right; maybe there was a whole world of possibility just waiting for Ellie to arrive, and all she had to do was crackdown and splinter the surface. Maybe the change was taking place, just like Mimi had promised. Maybe a real-life was possible after all.
Just before dinner, Janelle gave the group a large piece of white cardboard and a set of markers. “I want you all to collaborate on a design that sets your intention for the rest of the Workshop. We call it your Dreamboard: the emblem of what you want to achieve as a group here, together.”
Janelle and the other facilitators left them alone in the room. “How should we get started?” Meredith asked. “Fady, what do you think?” She had taken a special interest in Fady and was always going out of her way to talk to him.
“I don’t really get the point of it, honestly,” Fady said.
“Maybe we could draw, like, a picture together,” a young woman named Rachel said. She had driven down from Sacramento and had a little baby at home. “Like, it could be a picture of a mountain, and all of us are climbing the mountain.”
“Why would it be a mountain?” Fady said. “I don’t get that.”
“Because we’re like, all on this journey together,” Rachel said. “Like, we’re climbing a mountain.”
“I really don’t get that,” Fady said.
“What if we cut the cardboard up?” Ellie said. “We could each draw an image representing our individual goal, and then we could tape the whole thing back together. Like a patchwork quilt.”
“That’s a great idea,” George said.
From the corner of the room, Magda cleared her throat. “I like the mountain idea better.”
Of course you do, lizard girl, Ellie thought. Magda hadn’t said a thing all day—why did she have to start speaking up now? “I think either idea could work,” Ellie said.
“I don’t get the mountain,” Fady said. “I mean, I just don’t get the mountain idea at all.”
“We could vote,” George said. “Who likes the mountain?” Magda and Rachel raised their hands. “Who likes the patchwork quilt?” George, Fady, and Meredith raised their hands.
“Some of you didn’t vote,” George said.
“I’ll honestly do whatever,” Rachel said.
“The patchwork quilt won, by majority rule,” Meredith said.
“The Quilt of Dreams,” said Fady.
By the time the facilitators returned, they had the quilt assembled. Fady had drawn a pastoral landscape, with a sun shining down on a little red farmhouse. Meredith had drawn a giant, heavy-lidded eye. Magda had drawn a self-portrait—surprisingly well-rendered—with her hands at her temples, a golden glow emanating from where her fingers met her skin. Ellie had drawn a series of stars in rainbow colors, floating out over a vast ocean, shining far away against the night sky. “Nice work,” Janelle said. “Very nice work, everyone.” Ellie smiled, but somehow she felt Janelle meant: everyone but her.
Late in the evening, they assembled in the arch. “I’m going to assign each of you a role,” Janelle said. “Tomorrow morning you must go out into the world in character. You must put together a costume and wear it until you arrive back at the Workshop.”
“A costume?” Meredith asked. “But it’s after 8 pm. Where are we going to get costumes?”
“You are putting up blockers,” Janelle said. “You are inventing stumbling blocks that don’t really exist. This is just the kind of thinking that prevents you from reaching your full potential.”
Ellie took note of everyone’s character assignments. George was Superman. Meredith was Tinkerbell. Magda was Wonder Woman. Fady was the Pied Piper. Ellie was assigned Joan of Arc. “Your characters are based on who you really are,” Janelle said. “Underneath the masks you wear. Underneath the stories you’ve told yourselves.” Given all the comic book characters in the mix, Ellie thought Joan of Arc seemed like a huge compliment.