A Silver Spring woman testified yesterday that, as she sat in silent reflection with more than 100 other students in a self-improvement course, she was overcome by "a terrible frightening feeling" that gave way to "a tremendous sense of sadness."
Stephanie Ney, 45, said in federal court in Alexandria that her two-day attendance at a group workshop in Alexandria known as the Forum stripped her of her natural psychological defenses and unleashed the specter of a failed relationship with her father.
Three days after attending the Forum, according to testimony, Ney suffered a breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric institute in Montgomery County. She was held there for two weeks, at times heavily drugged and strapped to a bed to prevent her from harming herself.
Ney's testimony came on the first day of trial in her $ 2 million civil suit against Landmark Education Corp., which sponsored the Forum, and Ron Zeller, the man who led her weekend session in September 1989.
Ney alleges that Landmark, based in San Francisco with 21 offices scattered across the United States, recklessly employed sophisticated psychological techniques that it knew could endanger the well-being of its participants, in part because group leaders had no training.
Ney, an artist with two sons, asserted that her experience with the Forum forever damaged her professional and home life.
Though the case is the first of its kind against Landmark, it is one of several brought in recent years against similar self-improvement groups, including the Forum's predecessor, EST. The Forum and est were designed by Werner Erhard, who said that the Erhard Seminar Training he unveiled in 1971 could significantly increase human potential.
Erhard has not been seen publicly for several months, having disappeared after one of his daughters accused him in a televised interview on "60 Minutes" of molesting her. Shortly before Erhard disappeared, the IRS seized $ 7 million of his property, al leging that he had claimed phony income tax deductions.
Through a spokesman, Erhard has denied both allegations.
The Forum, one of several properties Erhard sold in the last few years, was bought by Landmark, according to a spokeswoman. Landmark offers Forum sessions in Alexandria about every six weeks, a spokeswoman said.
Gerald F. Ragland Jr., an Alexandria lawyer who has brought personal and psychological injury cases against so-called New Age groups during the last decade, said it was an outrage that the Forum organizers would "conduct what is in effect therapy without training, without therapists in the room."
Robert P. Trout, an attorney for Landmark and Zeller, said that more than 250,000 people have participated in the Forum and that it provided a voluntary philosophical setting for "people who are well . . . who want to gain greater effectiveness."
Trout said that Ney, who had once participated in a women's therapy group, failed to heed the Forum's warnings that "if you're coming here for therapy, go someplace else."
Trout also pointed out to the jury that in the three days between her experience with the Forum and her commitment, Ney learned that her husband had had two affairs earlier in their marriage.
Ney, who told the jury that she likely will require psychological care for the rest of her life, said that she was shocked and disappointed by her husband's revelations, but "burst out laughing, because I had been so worried about my infatuation [with a fellow art student] and he had gone and had this affair."
Ney said that her troubles began when her father came to mind during an exercise in which the Forum leader instructed participants to close their eyes and focus on fear. During the next three days, she said, she got virtually no sleep, alternating be tween bouts of euphoria and anxiety.