As seminar rooms go, you can't get more nondescript than the eighth-floor number at the Front Street Offices of Landmark Education Corp. The walls are off-white and entirely blank. The carpeting is grey. The ceiling hangs low. The only natural light to speak of sneaks in around the edges of the vertical blinds (again grey) drawn tightly over three large windows on the far wall.
The close confines are enough to make your anxiety level rise with each flicker of the fluorescents above.
It's here that 150 of us will be ensconced to take part in the Landmark Forum, a marathon self-help seminar that promises everything from better health to "breakthroughs" that will transform our lives.
That it has its seeds in EST the controversial 70s-era seminars developed by self-help guru Werner Erhard,
has made it the subject of much controversy in the U.S. and abroad, where its critics have called the Forum
everything from a moneymaking scheme to an exercise in mind control.
I've been sitting here for almost three hours now, feeling like I'm floating in a cocoon above the waterfront. And someone's dicking around with the heat.
One minute it's hot, the next you can hear the whir of the air conditioner, even though it's freezing outside. People are constantly taking off and putting on clothes.
We must stay in this room at all times during the Forum, virtually locked up from 9 am to midnight over the next three days, in order to attain the coveted and ever-elusive "result."
It's a roller-coaster ride. More than a few will want to jump off. When I try, I discover it's not so easy to walk away.
In its 70s heyday, EST, for Erhard Seminar Training, attracted thousands of adherents, including celebrities, to its confrontational and controversial group encounters.
After a bout of negative publicity, EST founder Erhard, a.k.a. John Paul Rosenberg, decided to sell his self-help "technology" to a group of his employees in 1991. Landmark Education Corporation was born.
Today, with his brother Harry Rosenberg at the helm, the company boasts 59 offices in 16 countries and annual gross revenues in 1998 of about $54 million (U.S.).
Landmark's "curriculum for living," a four-part set of self-help courses, starts at $425 a pop. The Landmark Wisdom Unlimited Program, a year-long course in which participants see their life as "a work of art," goes for $2,000.
The Forum is described in company literature as a "philosophical inquiry... (that) allows people who are successful... to create something truly extraordinary.
"A new freedom and spontaneity in your actions...enhanced vitality... heightened performance" are promised. Read the finer print on the Landmark Web site and you discover that the "unexpected" benefits include "an ability to control weight."
Our Forum leader will tell us that past participants have reported relief from persistent headaches and backaches -- poof, just like that. Their food tastes better, they can sleep fewer hours and wake up feeling more refreshed.
Max Konigsberg, a Montreal businessman whose glowing testimonial to the Forum appears in Landmark brochures, says the Forum helped him become reconciled with his dead father. For him, the moment of self-realization came as if through a cloud.
"Everybody that I've had an association with has come out with a better understanding of who they
are," he says.
Landmark's Toronto offices opened in 94. There are also locations in Vancouver and Montreal. In the U.S., where Landmark has 33 locations, the Forum has played to very mixed reviews.
"Soul training" is the way one daily described the Forum. Other self-help experts, psychologists and psychiatrists among them, are less flattering.
Kevin Garvey, a former EST disciple and counselor who's been studying groups like the Forum for 25 years, says the techniques at the "conceptual core" of the Forum are similar to the thought reform techniques employed by North Koreans in the 1950s on U.S. prisoners of war. It's a charge rejected as "ridiculous" by a Landmark spokesperson.
But, says Garvey, "there are (similar) patterns of information control, language control, disorientation through altering food and sleep patterns, (and) the manipulation of the environment through praise and discouragement. The outcome for some people is very extreme."
Our Forum leader is Roger Armstrong, a tough-talking Robert Duvall look-alike with a Texas accent and Cheshire Cat grin.
He graduated from Yale Divinity School in 64 and can quote Socrates and ancient Hindu teachings lickety-split.
He's read the goals set out in our registration forms, and tells us we're shooting way too low. He figures there's gotta be another Galileo in the room. Ah. The infinite possibilities. But first, the rules.
No drugs, not even an aspirin, or alcohol for the duration. That doesn't mean you can't take prescription drugs, but Forum organizers prefer you don't, because "drugs and medications interfere with fully participating in and receiving all the value available to you." One woman tells me she was only grudgingly allowed permission to take her asthma medication after she threatened to leave, period.
There'll be no note taking. Landmark, though, does reserve the right to record the proceedings for use in training Forum leaders. When you sign up, you also waive the right to sue [Landmark has bee sued].
You can leave the room. But if you do, the promised "result" cannot be guaranteed.
There will be three half-hour breaks a day and a one-and-a-half-hour break for dinner, but with all the "assignments" and "exercises" we're told to do, there's hardly time to go to the washroom, let alone eat. Don't be late getting back from the breaks. You may find the door locked and have to explain yourself. There's no clock on the wall, but time-- tick, tick, tick -- is of the essence.
Welcome to the Landmark Forum. Are you willing to "enroll in the possibility of being"? Armstrong wants to know.
Here he goes again on one of his incomprehensible tangents. "This is one," he says, holding up his index finger. "Can you see two?" This is supposed to be an exercise in making distinctions, seeing how the space around objects defines matter. See what I mean?
It's at these times that he'll say something like, "Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi beat his wife? It's true."
Sprinkle in a few diagrams on the board to make some point about how all our lives are caught up in a vicious circle, and -- presto -- we're beginning to unlock the keys to "living more powerfully."
I'm not getting "it," but judging by the nodding, others in the room seem to be.
The Forum, we will learn, is not about what we know, but about letting go of what we know. The confusion is hypnotic. Slowly, the psychological springs that keep you grounded begin to loosen. Ping.
We're encouraged to go up to the microphones and "share" [confessions?] our feelings. This is a pretty tame crowd, so Armstrong offers the testimonials of past Forum participants to get everyone's juices flowing.
The story of the Vietnam vet haunted by the face of the Viet Cong soldier he offed in a foxhole long ago draws gasps. "These things happen, people," Armstrong says, his voice rising.
It all has the effect of creating a strange synergy in the room. The sadder the tales -- the mother-son, Father-daughter schism is a recurring theme--the longer the lines at the mikes.
You begin to think, "Compared to my measly problems..." And before you know it, you're raising your hand in response to questions, telling how your father neglected you, your mother didn't love you, you screwed around on your partner.
Deep wounds will be exposed. There'll be laughing, crying, all of it in front of a roomful of perfect strangers.
We're barely two hours in, and it seems rather sudden, but the dark-haired woman has already had a "breakthrough."
"I've always considered myself a very honest person, but now I realize I've been a complete liar," she says. We clap to "acknowledge" her "commitment" [loaded language?].
Art's at the mike. He's still stuck on what Armstrong said about people being motivated to do things not because they believe in them, but because they want to "look good."
As in: Martin Luther King Jr. did what he did to look good. So did Mother Teresa. Ditto for Gandhi.
So you mean those who protested the Vietnam War were doing it to look good? "Yep," says Armstrong without elaborating. "Are we clear?" Art's still not getting "it."
"Trust me," Armstrong says.
Another woman is not so sure she wants to. "I certainly don't help old people because I want to look good. I do it because I care."
"No, you don't," says Armstrong.
"Look, people, stick with me here. All will be revealed in due time." Armstrong says this mostly when he's losing his grip on the group.
He reminds us that we must forget the past. This will be difficult to grasp for the woman who tells us she was sexually abused as a child.
We'll be encouraged during breaks to "complete" with people we've been "inauthentic" with. And don't forget to invite them to "graduation" night Tuesday.
Anthony has a more practical concern. He has to go to the bathroom and wants to know if the next break is really two hours away. Armstrong moves the time up another hour. But then we break at the prescribed time anyway.
The leader giveth and the leader taketh away.
Birds can't see air, Armstrong tells us. Fish can't see water. The stars are out during the day, but we don't see them because they're wrapped in our unconsciousness.
That's because we're "already always listening" through that filter in our head. Got it? Are we clear?
I just want to scream. The confusion is disorienting. The air conditioner spins overhead.
During a break, Keith comes up to "share." He seems a little antsy.
"I like who I am," he says. "I hope I'll be able to recognize myself when I walk out the door." I won't be seeing Keith at "graduation."
Its critics aside, Landmark has some influential people in its corner, including Raymond D. Fowler, executive vice-president and CEO of the American Psychological Association.
Fowler, on a leave of absence, is unavailable and did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.
But a letter he wrote for Landmark after sitting in on a Forum last May concludes that "there was nothing in the Forum, either in its content or the way it was conducted, that could be considered harmful. It was not much different in depth, intensity and self-disclosure than the conversations among close friends or family might be."
Daniel Yankelovich, a Connecticut-based researcher, conducted a survey of 1,300 Forum participants. Seven out of 10 he surveyed found the Forum to be "one of their life's most rewarding experiences."
Others used by Landmark to pump its credentials don't want to be drawn into the controversy.
Harvard University had Landmark sign an agreement to stop distributing publicly a glowing marketing study of the Forum by two of its business school professors.
Some in the mental health field say the idea pushed by marathon self-help groups like the Forum--that you can purchase a "peak," or psycho-shop for prepackaged life experiences -- is more about making money than human growth.
And for some, they say, the psychological fallout can be harmful.
Carol Giambalvo, director of the American Family Foundation recovery program based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was in EST for five years. She says people who sign up for the Forum are not making an informed choice.
"They don't tell you they're going to be using confrontational methods to break down the way you're relating to reality. What they're trying to do is attack the way you think."
Rick Ross, an intervention specialist from Phoenix, Arizona, says once people are in the Forum circle, it's very difficult to get out.
"They say you can leave when you want, but there's so much peer pressure and bombardment that it's very difficult to walk out."
Kay, a former Forum participant in Toronto, knows this all too well. She says Forum staffers pressured her every day with phone calls, trying to get her to sign up for the advanced course.
"What they were really pushing was for you to get your friends to sign up," she says.
Leo Murphy, a psychiatrist and expert in group psychotherapy at U of T who has recently treated two patients who experienced what he describes as mental fallout after the Forum, says group encounters aren't for everyone.
"When people get into groups, they generally want to belong," Murphy says. "It's very seductive. It gives people a chance to idealize a goal that they can reach, (but) somehow or other there's always a devaluation of the others who have not 'seen' yet.''
The "milieu control," use of "loaded language" and "organized peer pressure," former EST disciple Kevin Garvey says, are all part of "a patterned exercise designed and orchestrated to undercut any comprehensible discussion, all behind the facade of being this profound self-exploration."
New Jersey-based psychiatrist Edward Lowell, whose experience includes a residency at a U.S. Army hospital where he was trained in "thought reform" techniques, disagrees.
He has sat in on the Forum and says he "has seen nothing that would lead me to the conclusion that the Forum attempts to engage in any kind of thought modification whatsoever." Lowell acts as a consultant to Landmark from time to time.
Landmark has been quick to sue its critics--sometimes too quick.
A $10-million libel suit filed against Elle Magazine with some fanfare in 98 was ultimately dropped without the apology [about this article] Landmark was looking for.
It takes the company's lawyer, Art Schreiber, no time to fax a letter to NOW threatening legal action.
Mark Kamin, Landmark's fast-talking PR head, has as many questions as I do when he calls from Houston. He's tape-recording our conversation.
What of those who've reported breakdowns after participating in the Forum? Kamin says they're lying, out to make a buck.
"You know there are people who say, 'You hit me from behind in your car,' even though they stopped in the middle of the freeway."
Kamin says Landmark takes pains to screen people. The Forum's registration form itself warns that the experience may be "difficult and unsettling,'' and that people with a history of mental illness may be more susceptible to the stress.
The "screening" Kamin talks about is done mostly over the telephone by a staff person who relies on a manual to make assessments.
Kamin does get defensive at times, but makes no apologies for the "high-pressure" sales pitch some past Forum participants have reported. He says Landmark is a for-profit company that's in business to stay in business and has something valuable to sell.
"It's not some nefarious, weird thing going on here," he says.
I'm tired. I'm hungry. I'm feeling like someone has taken a trowel and scraped the top off my head.
It's Friday night, some 12 hours into this odyssey, and I've got a major case of the heebie-jeebies.
My plan was to check out on Sunday for my uncle's 50th-wedding- anniversary bash. Larry Pearson, Armstrong's second-in-command, has already told me to send flowers or a gift instead, and to make plans to be here. He says this standing 2 inches away from my face.
But the control is proving too much for me.
I guess I'm not willing to "commit to the possibility of being." The further away I get from Landmark's offices, the faster I'm walking. I decide not to return.
I get a phone call Saturday morning. It's Pearson, and he's pissed. "What happened? You disappeared."
I unload. He backs down. He could actually lose this customer.
He says he would "welcome" me back. But I have to be there in half an hour. Tick. Tick.
The next time I see Pearson, it's at "graduation" night at the Colony Hotel, but he's ignoring me.
The grand ballroom is alight. The high ceiling, crystal chandeliers and deep-blue velvet drapes feel like Heaven compared to that cocoon of a space on Front Street.
The "graduates" have brought friends and family to hear about their "breakthroughs," which are all pretty banal
The aspiring athlete's is none too clear. We all applaud anyway.
Roger Armstrong is onstage telling the assembled that nothing would make the "graduates" happier than for their guests to sign up for the next Forum.
"It will make their hearts leap up with joy," he says, sighing audibly and looking into the distance as if some wonderful wave of inspiration is washing over him.
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