THE BLOG
03/05/2008 12:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Inside The Landmark Forum

"You're lying. You don't love your daughter. You just wanted her to keep away from men because you were rejected by men. You ruined her life, admit it, for your own selfish purposes. If you want to help her now, you can go kill yourself. No, that's not good enough. Get cancer. Make it last for 29 years so you suffer and die."

The woman on the stand bursts into tears--"Yes, I am a bitch," she admits--and the leader of the Landmark Forum, Alain Roth, leans forth in victory on the stage. She has "cracked": a breakthrough moment.

This scene begins the 2004 French Channel Three report on the Landmark Education Forum in Paris. Reporters hiding secret cameras had snuck into the Landmark, a self-help program launched in 1991 as the successor to Est, after Werner Erhard, the founder of the organization, escaped from the United States a millionaire, to avoid possible imprisonment for tax evasion. It was this TV program that closed down the Landmark in France, leaving it only 24 other countries in which to spread its word.

Seeing this TV program, I was curious whether the French reporters had themselves manipulated the presentation of the Landmark or whether this organization, revered as "life changing" by so many professionals and associates I knew in the US, was truly the amazing fix they claimed: a three day seminar that can jump-start a new life. One woman in the US said it made her confront her mother, who had beat her, after 20 years of avoiding all contact. Another woman claimed that if I had only participated in the Landmark Forum, my relationship with my partner would have been saved.

There was a reason to give the Landmark the benefit of the doubt. The Channel Three program--which circulated on YouTube, until the Landmark subpoenaed the site and got it suppressed--seemed to carefully select its scenes of abuse and brainwashing, out of context. It was edited with racy soundtrack music that made it sound like a spy investigation. And it also reflected a French bias: that radical self-confrontation was always already a suspect activity. Quite frankly, it did seem true that the woman on the stand had manipulated her daughter. What could be at stake was a re-evaluation of the meaning of "parental love", unsettling cherished French clichés about how relationships worked.

I arranged with the Landmark Education Forum to take the seminar in London with Sophie McLean, a charismatic 47 year old French Moroccan, self-proclaimed to have once been a socialite, jet-setting from party to party until she too, at age 33, took the Landmark course and realized she wanted "to contribute to society." Sophie would be the ideal leader to learn from: she is the official spokeswoman for the Forum.

The first day was inspiring enough. 150 participants sat in a pleasant room in downtown London and listened to Sophie give a humorous lively presentation of the Landmark's key tenets. We learn that most people perceive their future in terms of their past, using past traumas to interpret and predict what will happen to them in the future. "The problem with most people is that they put their past where their future should be," smiles Sophie, elegantly dressed in a ruffled green shirt and midriff blazer. She draws three circles on the board, with past, present, future, and adds arrows to show the absurd reversal of time: a distortion the Landmark claims to solve by day three. She brings up Citizen Kane as an example of a man who lived his future in the wrong direction, ending his life back where he started, obsessed with his childhood sled.

Already it seemed that Channel Three had unfairly presented the program as a cult using brainwashing techniques à la Taliban in Afghan internment camps. The TV announcers had said the room was purposefully darkened with no windows, that people were not allowed to go to the bathroom except on a limited break during the entirety of each twelve hour day of the three day weekend, and that eating, except for one evening meal, was prohibited. I had come ready with candy bars in my pockets and a small flashlight for light recuperation, to avoid my own brainwashing.

The truth was that we had breaks every two hours, at which point I stuffed myself with delicacies at various local London diners. Having a restless syndrome, I also excused myself to the bathroom every half-hour. While the shades were drawn behind Sophie, giving the focus on her form, behind us the London daylight, or its simulacrum, kept us aglow.

Perhaps the Forum had changed its Draconian techniques since that TV program. But it had not changed its method. Participants were invited to the microphone to present their problems, and while speaking, Sophie would begin to smile, circle closer to the participant, look them up and down with a steady glance, keeping her two feet firm on the ground, a rather effective theater technique, and then suggest: "tell me what happened to you when you were seven. What happened that is similar to the way you are treating your husband now?"

One by one, participants who had been complaining about their husbands, mothers, employers, children, began to realize how unfairly they were dumping their resentments from childhood onto everyone around them. Without exception, each participant would burst into tears and realize what a "worm" she or he was. Sophie teased them humorously. "When you die, the tombstone will read, X was abandoned at a school one afternoon by her parents, and her life has been a revenge on that moment ever since. The end. What a worm you are." The smile would disarm the participant with its evocation of tough love, and the concluding statement was always a heartfelt: "thank you."

How could one argue with these basic tenets of the Landmark Forum? We all know how we approach new situations with prejudices of the past. Many theorists have even developed whole systems of thought from this premise: Freud, for example. Besides Sophie's interrogation at the stand had none of Alain Roth's nasty brutality in the TV program: no suggestions to throw oneself over a bridge or get cancer. This was a lot milder than I expected, and even helpful.

The tenets are prologue to practice. The main activity of the Landmark is to make--not urge--participants to apologize to the people around them for the "rackets" they have dumped on them. A racket is a state of being, Sophie explained, a story one tells oneself where one is a victim in a permanent state of complaint. We are constantly affixing "stories" to events rather than seeing the separation between "event" and "interpretation," and these stories are usually based in our self-righteous feeling of being wronged. Homework assignments were to call our loved ones and apologize for the years of victimology; coffee breaks became the cherished moment to make phone calls to parents and friends. By Sunday, participants tearfully explained in testimonies how they had made breakthroughs with family members they had not spoken to for years. One husband of a participant even came to an evening session to thank the leader for giving him back his wife.

There was nothing too objectionable about a program that has as a result reconciliation in relationships, as well as a new commitment to responsibility for one's present. Philosophically, the concepts are too sensible to be controversial. Forgiveness is a key feature of most of the world religions; so is living for a clean present. The idea reiterated by Sophie throughout the program, that one must have integrity and honor one's word, cannot help but make anyone feel like a better person.

So where is the rub? Why has the Landmark been subject to so many lawsuits and claims of being a cult?

The most criminal aspect of the Landmark Forum's insistence on its methodology is precisely that: its insistence on its methodology. I clocked two hours the first day devoted to "spreading the word" of the Landmark forum as a sign of the participants' "integrity." If they had integrity, they would, like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, take courage to spread the beliefs of the Landmark Forum to all their friends, enroll them in the program, get them to come to the famed Tuesday night ending ceremony for their free introductory session. I clocked four hours devoted to this subject on Saturday. I clocked the first three hours of the Sunday session to the subject: including suggestions to bring our children for special youth landmark forums geared to get them started early in the Landmark, at age fifteen (alone) or at age eight (if accompanied by a parent). Yes even little ones have rackets.

Participants, having heard the argument drone in their ears for 9 hours in a period of 72, began to cheer and smile as they raised their hands to say they too had the courage to stand for the Forum.

This was brainwashing. I began to clench my fists in the back as I heard the conflation of Martin Luther King, integrity and the Landmark Forum. I now went to the microphone, and asked my question. I had noticed that all questions objecting to the Forum were turned into problems of the self: the ad hominem argumentative strategy seemingly working on all 150 participants, who cheered as any person with an objection was pushed to confront the fact that their own lives were a wreck, from whence came their question. A woman objected to what I considered the most objectionable exercise: the participants had been asked to close their eyes and imagine being afraid of their neighboring participants, then the entire group of 150, then all 7 million of London and finally the 6 billion fellow creatures on the planet, an exercise that had turned into mass hysteria of crying, sobbing, calling out "mommy mommy!" in regressed childhood voices, this until Sophie invited them to laugh, to reach the conclusion that while these 6 billion were frightening, imagine how afraid people were of you! Think of the bombed people in Iraq--aren't they afraid of us? The crowd, on command, burst into hysterical howls of laughter, aching belly howls that went on and on and on, an event which frightened me far more than my 6 billion co-inhabitants, as a demonstration of how easily mass emotion can be created, just by urging one to recall primordial fears.

The woman who objected to the hysteria was asked if there was "something behind her question": perhaps a further disagreement with her estranged husband? Perhaps her own inability to stand up to her beliefs, or honor her breakthrough in the previous session about how she was being a worm in her marriage? The woman burst into tears and thankfully agreed: a new breakthrough!

I snuck into the stall next to this woman when she took a bathroom break and told her I thought she had been manipulated. The woman said she did not care. The insights she had gotten about her relationship were far more important.

Then I went to the stand. I noted I agreed with the basic tenets of the program, but I questioned the slippery propagation of these tenets: the idea that these tenets were original to the Forum, rather than an intelligent hodgepodge of the best of East and Western philosophy; the evangelical emphasis on telling our friends; the insistence that integrity should be applied to us spreading the word of the Forum, rather than to beliefs we already had developed in our lives and professions. Finally, I questioned the odd apolitical bias of the program. Martin Luther King and Ghandi were not just victors of positive thinking: they had a radical political agenda to re-adjust political inequality. Their belief system was based in believing in something more than ourselves.

Why were we being compared to Gandhi and King if we could stand up to our husbands and get a more successful career?

Let us say the participants were not on my side. I was being a party-pooper. If the stakes were higher, I might have been stoned. As it was, I was just asked by Sophie what was "behind my question."

"Nothing is behind my question besides my question," I noted. (Note: as a journalist I had to sign a form that I could not quote or paraphrase any participants in my article; I would hope that my own words are admissible.)

"Are you always so arrogant? Are you always such a know it all?" Sophie moved closed, circled to me next to the mike, and looked deeply into my eyes. "Tell me Karin, do your friends run away from you? Do you know how self-righteous you seem to them?"

I had been prepared and curious to see what ad hominen approach she would come up with me. I was--as many people--inherently egotistical and vulnerable to judgment--so was intrigued to see what I could learn about myself. I had an intelligent woman's cunning attention. Someone was finally telling me how it was, daring to sum up my personality in a way that most of my friends would not dare to. I experienced for myself the allure, the thrill, each participant had experienced before the attack on stage. It is intoxicating to get full attention in front of l50 people from someone who is truly gifted, as many fortune tellers are, with the power of quickly sizing up and reading one's personality.

Also as a professor, I am used to manipulation from students who have not done their homework and risk failing a course: they will use any method to get me to "weaken" my stand. Such as reminding me of my own faults in a course, or using a charming smile, or, as Sophie was doing, sidling up and standing two inches away from me as she asked me if people did not like me.

I quickly ran through my appallingly brief list of friends and wondered if she was right. Was I self-righteous? Had people run? If they had, I concluded, I would not even know: they were long gone down the jogging trail.

"No," I said. The crowd snickered. I was not breaking. What an ass I was not to admit my faults. I felt like offering up some other of my defects--of which there were plenty I already knew about before this moment of enlightenment--to win people to my side, to have their looks of empathy after the session, as everyone else who had sobbed about their faults had as well. What is worse than a know-it-all who could not admit she was a know-it-all?

Sophie seemed exhausted as I just repeated my question, and repeated again that behind my question was just intellectual curiosity about how the Forum worked. Not my break-up with my boyfriend, my miscarriages, my mother speaking with an accent when I was five years old in a New Jersey kindergarten.

"Okay you win," Sophie said. "You win but you have won nothing. This is why your life is a wreck. This is why nothing works for you. Go on, continue. But I urge you to spend the weekend questioning your integrity."

"A lifelong project," I said.

"Arrogant," Sophie said. "Rebellious child who has to get the last word."

We stood in silence in a truce. Sophie froze with an icy smile. I realized I would probably not be able to get the private interview I wanted with her for my article. I would be shunned.

The extent of my unpopularity was revealed when I sat down, and all the participants avoided my eyes, except three people who came and put their hands on my shoulder, as if I needed comfort for my "humiliation." One man eagerly told me: "We were all waiting to see when your armor would break, but no you stayed composed."

Why were they all waiting in gleeful anticipation for me to break? What does this say about group psychology?

Sophie announced a break herself right after our conversation, as if she too was disoriented, as revealed by the uncharacteristic lack of charisma in her face and her stiff shoulders. But when she came back, she was ready. She pointed her finger at me and said: "Karin is a journalist."

The crowd nodded. She could have substituted "communist" or "non-patriot". The effect would have been the same.

The irony was that I had no problem with the Forum. I did experience my own breakthroughs. I was glad I went. I did see how I used my past in my future; I did contemplate the rackets I laid on my friends and family. I thought overall this was a healthy experience.

I just did not see any reason to 1) prevent critical thinking and 2) make evangelism the marketing strategy of the Forum.

It also disgusted me to see people unwilling to have their transformative weekend tampered with by critical thinking. One participant at the break said he objected to my critique of the Luther and Gandhi references. True my point was valid, but couldn't I accept that a mass of average people might get so much mileage out of the inspiration of being compared to these great leaders that I was spoiling their fun if I was too logical and "intelligent" about it? Another thought I was being needlessly picky when I pointed out that using Sarkozy as an example of integrity (he sticks to his word; he admits his Carla Bruni affair in public) pointed out a rather shallow rightwing prejudice.

The last hours of the Forum were thankfully devoted back to the life lessons of the Forum, rather than the push to call every last friend we knew to come on Tuesday night, so that one day the world could be "transformed" and we would live in a community of the Forum--an urging that inspired one woman from Slovenia to vow to open the Forum in her country, as well as a man from Spain to do the same. Instead, Sophie gave a brilliant, truly brilliant, performance of how human beings are like donkeys (this said, running around the stage following an imaginary carrot at her nose), who are always pursuing an imaginary "someday" of satisfaction. She repeated the most original philosophy of the Forum, one that I was quite taken by: don't change your life, transform it. Change is based on adjusting, modifying, always having the past dragging behind you (like the chair she dragged behind her, in demonstration). Transformation is simply deciding and declaring a new way of being, tout court.

She also gave a mini-lecture on existentialism, citing Shakespeare's "sound and fury signifying nothing" as well as a little known poem by e.e. cummings on "nothingness". Create your meaning; there is none inherent in the world. Do not live in hope, but in action. As throughout the Forum, she sprinkled her lecture with an inspiring array of quotes, including my favorite: "A successful person goes from failure to failure with enthusiasm" (Churchill) and concluded, per forma, with moving descriptions of Gandhi and King.

Sophie was a gifted speaker, who kept our attention and enthusiasm during each twelve hour day, making her speeches seem original, with personal anecdotes; only later, searching the web, do I find the same speeches cited by other landmark leaders: the "nothingness" argument, the "Citizen Kane". It is a script.

The concluding remarks were powerful. Sophie had tears in her eyes as she thanked us for letting her serve us. (I found the same speech on the web). She also mentioned her personal life again, how upset she had been when on her honeymoon, as a young girl married to an elderly millionaire, the man sadly had an aneurism and died (leaving her millions), and how she would have continued to live in disappointment, with rackets, but the Landmark convinced her to leave the past behind.

At the end of the day, I found the Forum innocuous. No cult, no radical religion: an inspiring, entertaining introduction of good solid techniques of self-reflection, with an appropriate emphasis on action and transformation (not change). Yes, they urge us to proselytize, which rather than a cult technique, might just be an unfortunate mistake in marketing strategy: I would never urge anyone to do the Forum precisely because they urged me to do the Forum. Such methods backfire on me.

No, the problem with the Forum is the participants. Why do they willingly put critical thinking aside, not wanting anything to disturb their pleasure? Why does no one flinch when we are told to enjoy the fact, in a joke, that the Iraqis after all are afraid of us? Why did they not raise eyebrows when Sophie compared herself, obliquely, to Mother Teresa, generously devoting her time to us (she claimed not to need the salary) because she "loved us" and wanted (hands pressed to chest) our "transformation"?

It was particularly shocking how quickly every participant adopted the vocabulary, kit and caboodle. Nobody seemed to find it troubling that the Landmark vision was delivered as if it were absolute truth, sui generis. Gandhi, the hero of our seminar, would have objected. His most urgent philosophy, repeated throughout his speeches, is that one must have a commitment to truth without ever presuming its absolute nature. In his words: "When the symbol (of any given religion) is made into a fetish and an instrument of proving the superiority of one's religion over others, it is fit only to be discarded."

In contrast, most of my fellow participants threw out whatever value system or philosophy they had ever had and began speaking of everything in their lives as either "rackets" or "strong points." At the testimony session on the last day, each contestant reported the same sort of "breakthrough", a trauma at age seven and a subsequent script, as if dutifully following a blueprint. One chatty young woman turned to me as I was looking over her shoulder for a friend and announced (self-righteously): "Hey, you're racketing with me! You're not listening! You've got some racket going on!" "I'm not racketing," I said. "I'm looking for my friend Roy. Excuse me." Another young man began repeating verbatim the "nothingness" argument, as if finding no contradiction with his earlier avowed dedication to serve Christ.

People are desperate, it seems, for any supportive positive value system to sustain them--for any peak experience to give them hope--which says less about the Forum than the communities we live in. The tenets of the Forum are those fundamental to any healthy close-knit community: work on your relationships, be positive, don't dwell on the past and stop being a pill. Its own strong point is what was--and still is, in many parts of the world--the fabric for faith and celebration of life. Why the Landmark is so popular, attracting l million participants annually, with an 86 million dollar revenue and 3 million dollar profit (divided among only 400 employees, as the Landmark relies on obsessed volunteers to run it), why it inspires upper middle class people around the world (at 700 dollars a weekend, it is only for those with means) not only to enroll, but to continue taking classes (which oddly enough, get more expensive, as one gets more "advanced") is that our industrialized societies have apparently led to a breakdown in values beyond individualism and capitalist gain. "There is no meaning but what you give to it," explained Sophie for us, drawing a new empty circle.

Interestingly, the only way to get these individualists back on track--to feeling some sense of "religious" duty and inspiration--is to appeal to their individualism. This program will make YOU transform, as well as enhance your bank account (we are told in the closing remarks, that Landmark Forum participants tend to make 30 percent more money after taking the Forum). We transform to be more powerful in our individual lives, not to change social structures, not injustices, nor to reach truth (there is none). Our aim is freedom to be, the end of any marketing campaign, and like a chain letter that must not be stopped, we must continue to spread the word. Perhaps the hope is that someday those letters asking forgiveness will reach us as well.