Over the years you may have received a phone call from someone completing the Landmark Forum, usually a friend, relative, or coworker. For those of you who aren't familiar with Landmark Education, here's a brief run-down: Werner Erhard is a businessman who, like many others, became interested in the counter-culture philosophy movements of the 1960s, including Scientology. After training with Mind Dynamics, Erhard branched off and created Erhard Seminar Training, or “est." By 1985 this transformed into Landmark Forum, a controversial self-help seminar designed to change your life over a long weekend. Millions of people worldwide have taken the Forum, with many reporting overwhelmingly positive results, but as with any Large-Group Awareness Training (LGAT), it's not without its critics, and I consider myself one of them.
I also found the experience valuable, and it turns out I'm not alone with this conflicting emotional response. There are countless websites detailing the Forum's ins and outs, and you’ll find reports ranging from positively life-changing to wallet/soul-draining. My experience left me somewhere in the middle, and much like my time with the SGI, I quickly realized that the end result rests largely on the participant. Read on to learn my history with Landmark.
When I was around 23 my buddy John told me he was commuting down to Manhattan over a long weekend; his wife Kiera was taking this 3-day seminar and he needed to kill some time until it let out. I was happy to oblige, since I didn't see much of John once he moved up to Rockland County. It was a Sunday night in a business district, so we had to walk a bit before finding a decent dinner place that was open. It's not like we were in a hurry, since Kiera's class was over twelve hours long. Each day. I did a double-take when he mentioned this.
"That sounds intense...is it for work?" I looked up at John, who was a foot taller than me. He walked looking straight ahead for a while, adjusting the collar on his black pea coat. John always wore black.
"Yeah, a few of her coworkers are with her, too. I'm not sure what to make of it," he said, glancing down at me. "It's this weird self-help thing. Kinda worries me." We entered a small diner, your standard burger-and-fries joint. It was cozy, and we sunk into a worn faux-leather booth.
"What's it about?" I asked, once we ordered.
"That's just it, I'm not really sure." John's dark brows furrowed. "It's this philosophy that you are directly control in your life, and that everything that bothers you is just a story you tell yourself."
That didn't sound so crazy to me. I took a sip of coffee and told him so.
“Maybe you just had to hear her on the phone. After that long class she had to call a bunch of people and try to get them to sign up to do it, too.”
“Oh, does she get a discount for recruiting others?” I asked, thinking back to a time when I attended a Cutco Knives sales seminar, where young people rent a set of knives for sales demonstrations. I ended up not taking the job because my mom threatened to stab herself in embarrassment if she heard me selling to friends or family members.
“No, that’s just it.” John fiddled with the ankh necklace he permanently wore. “There's no discount or a commission or anything.” I nodded, shoveling french fries into my mouth, all the while straining to think of an incentive to sell something without compensation. John lit up at this.
“Exactly! She said something about changing people’s lives once your life is changed. Like put your own mask on first, and then you can help others break through their walls.”
“Oh…” I remarked, pretty sure I knew what was up. “It’s an emotional pyramid scheme.” This is the best label I can apply to many self-help programs; they seem no different than selling cleaning supplies to all of your friends in order to “be your own boss!!” Smelled like bullshit to me. John agreed.
Thankfully his wife Kiera reached this same point once the course was over, despite finding the Forum moving and profound at times. When I got home that night I did a little research and concluded that Landmark Forum was a cult-like organization that could become dangerous in the wrong hands. I vowed to steer clear and largely forgot about it.
* * *
Seven years later I received a call from my friend Jess, who's been a good friend since high school. Jess and I used to hang out a lot and play guitar, shoot the breeze, drink a beer, watch queer indie films, you know, typical lesbo shit.
“Hey Liz, how are you?” Jess asked. We completed a brief catch-up before she divulged the real reason for her call. “I actually wanted to tell you about this class I took. It helped me, and I thought it would help you, too.” It turns out it was Landmark Forum.
So I listened as she told me that my misery stemmed from stories I was choosing to believe. Barring mental health issues, this is largely true, that the lens you choose to see the world through is in fact, your choice. I know this can be a hard concept to swallow because it puts the responsibility solely on YOU, and who the hell wants to think they’re choosing their own misery? Isn’t it easier to think you’re merely a victim of circumstance?
"Jess, I gotta tell you about this program..." I reiterated my past impressions of Landmark, citing the many web pages criticizing the institution. Jess listened very patiently and thanked me for my concern. There was no defense on her part, no attack on mine — I simply hoped Jess wouldn’t be taken advantage of. We hung up, with me being more than a little worried about what might happen to her if she continued with this Landmark place.
Regardless of how life-changing Jess claimed this to be, something didn’t quite feel right, and that feeling intensified with every minute. Just then I remembered Kiera. Do you recall earlier when John expressed concern over the Landmark phone calls Kiera had to make? This is exactly what he was referring to, and I matched his alarm: the person on the other line comes across as a concerned salesman, pitching you the ability to let go of anything you have been holding onto. All you need is around $600 and 40 hours crammed into 3 1/2 days.
The "half-day" is actually a 3-hour night that takes place the Tuesday following the weekend seminar. On your "completion" night you are encouraged to bring guests to witness the total transformation the Forum had on everyone (and to sign up, natch). Sure enough, Jess called to invite me one last time to attend. Now, Jess is not a zealot or anything; she did this because I was in a rut for a long time and she wanted to help. She's been in similar ruts, and it's understandable that she felt what worked for her may just work for me, too. Seeing as Jess knows me a long time, I trusted that she had my best interest at heart, so there were no hard feelings on either end when I politely declined.
Jess approached me right on the heels of me quitting the SGI due to manipulation, so I could not have been less open to the whole idea...
...but the road of life has never been a predictable one for me, so imagine my surprise just 4 years later when I found myself on the other end of a Landmark phone call.
Stay tuned for Part 2.