The Con-Forumists

Everyone has the potential to be extraordinary. Everyone, that is, who's willing to buy into the self-improvement package peddled by the Landmark Forum, a three-and-a-half-day seminar concocted by the mastermind behind the 1970s favorite encounter group, est.

Swing Generation/November 1998
By Jana Martin

It's a gorgeous Friday morning in June, and 150 of us sit in a windowless conference room on bent-steel chairs, arranged in a dense semicircle. On a small, wooden platform in front of us sits a small man on a high director's chair. His silver nametag reads "Brian."

It's our first day of The Landmark Forum, a self-help seminar held at the Landmark Center in Edison, New Jersey. Brian is our course leader. Before beginning, he tilts his head as if to consider us all: teachers, secretaries, football coaches, social workers, singers, graphic artists; all colors and ages, some from the suburbs, some from the inner city. There are more women than men, many in our late 20s to mid-30s. We wear the initiates' pale green nametags: first name big. We breathe the same canned air.

Brian is quiet looking. But when he speaks through his cordless mike, he fills the room. "You're all here," he says, "because something isn't right in your life, right?" He scans the room as we nod. "And unlike so many other people, you have taken the first step because you know you can be different." As he says this, a mother and daughter, both heavy and swaddled in gray sweat suits, push their lower lips forward in a gesture of introspection.

"In so many ways we mess up our lives," he continues. "But we can be 'extraordinary, powerfully self-expressed--Like Gandhi, Galileo. They may have lived before The Forum was invented. But they embody what it is about.

The Forum promises to help you turn your life around in just a few days. For $325, you are immersed in a three-and-a-half-day language and belief-system seminar. This involves freeing the good parts of yourself (joy, enthusiasm) from the bad (excuses, destructive habits, emotional baggage), so that you can have a whole new life. It's a promise that has lured about half a million people, from Texas to Zurich, about one-third of them between the ages of 25 and 34, to enroll in its group-therapy-style training. You attend seminars for 15 hours a day, including breaks and meals, during which you are instructed to "go with two or three other folks, just to talk about how things have gone so far." Finally, after taking a day off to test reentering the world, you return to celebrate your metamorphosis on graduation night.

In fact, this is only the first course in a "curriculum" of seminars offered by the San Francisco-based Landmark Education Corporation. After you graduate, you're encouraged to go on to "Communication: Access to Power" and "Self-expression and Leadership." With seminar tuition ranging up to $900 per class, Landmark took in $48 million in 1997.

The Forum advertises solely by word-of-mouth, so you don't hear much about it unless one of its graduates decides you, too, should go through it. Five years ago, when I was living my happy, riot-girl life in Tucson, a small-talk friend invited me for dinner. Around her table were a group of girls my age with Stepford wife smiles and obedient hair, held in place with headbands and bobby pins. As they passed a bowl of sticky potato salad, they introduced each other: "This is Sandy. We met in the leadership intro."

No one ever said the word "Forum," though later I found out they were all recent graduates. I'd naively taken them for young Christians. A few years later in New York, I met a singer-songwriter whose enthusiasm for building his career seemed oddly over-the-top. Turned out he'd done The Forum, too, and credited it with his growing success, though he rarely mentioned it by name.

If you do hear rumblings about The Forum from non-members though, they're likely to be ringed with suspicion-that Forum people stick together like one happy family; that once they decide to recruit you, they transcend the meaning of "persistent"; that there's something cult-like about the group although Landmark insists that it's not a cult (for one thing, followers are not cut off from the outside world, one of the key defining factors of a cult). Maybe all the skepticism stems from the rumor that The Forum is just a '90s mask for the '70s slash-and-burn encounter group est. notorious for slamming egos and forbidding bathroom breaks. Actually, EST's controversial founder Werner Erhard did modify EST into The Forum in the mid-'80s. In 1991, before he disappeared amid damning press reports ranging from child abuse to tax evasion, he transferred control to a group of loyal employees led by his brother Harry Rosenberg, who retooled Erhard's multimillion-dollar empire into the Landmark Education Corporation.

When I bought my first car, the salesman let me in on a secret. There were five "selling boxes" he needed to move me through in order to clinch the deal. Box one: Get them into the showroom. Box two: Pique their interest. Box three: Make them think they're making the choice. Box four: Clinch the deal. Box five: Be sure to sell them the maintenance plan. It's worth noting here that Werner Erhard began his career as a car salesman. And when I asked Forum graduates to describe the course, I got the inevitable answer: Come see for yourself.

BOX ONE: Get Them Into the Showroom [see "Milieu Control"]

We sit patiently in our rigid chairs, watching Brian move around the platform in his blue sweater vest, part Charlie Chaplin, part Mister Rogers. "I promise you," he says. "This'll be a roller coaster. You're going to feel awful. Then, great! You'll go down," he says, trucking his hand low. "You'll go up." As his hand soars he bends backward, the fluorescent lights dancing in his wire-rimmed glasses. "And what happens when you're on a moving roller coaster and you try to get off?" He mimes falling from a great height, arms and legs flailing, then flops still. "Don't forget," he says from his rag-doll squat. "You paid for it. So promise you won t get off until it stops."

Brian tells us that once we accept our past as our past, and nothing more, then we can live in our future. We can be our future! He pantomimes sad sacks, moping along as they dwell on their past. "Those were the days," he laments in a Joe-palooka voice. Then he's Brian again, cheerful and transformed. "See what I mean?" He shakes his arms and shoulders as if tossing off a great weight. "The past is so heavy."

Behind us are three earnest-faced course assistants-two volunteers named Sean, one named Anne-dressed casual Friday. "Here all weekend," Brian explains as he calls them up to the platform to introduce them, "because they're committed to you having a powerful Forum."

"Committed." "Powerful." We hear those words a lot over the course of the weekend, along with "share," "support," "authentic." The Forum relies heavily on lingo [see "Loaded Language"]. Once-ordinary words start to glimmer with new meaning. To "share," for example, means to tell "significant" listeners (a parent, a fellow forum-goer) something, and expect their undivided attention. In other words, they "support" your sharing. People in your Forum not only listen to our sharing, they are "present in it," which means that they are "powerfully" listening. The understanding of one term often hinges on another.

Brian jumps back on the platform. "You can stay where you are and be the function of your past and your 'story,'" he says. "Or you can draw a line in the sand and step into a whole new life."

He tells us that we analyze too much, and that "it kills the growth process." We should stop trying to find reasons for everything, he says. My head spins its wheels in the loose dirt of his foundational argument. I find it frightening. In my mind I have a picture: on one side, a scrap-metal waste …where people in rags jabber about the past; on the other, a shimmering desert of possibility. To cross over we have to Scoop the debris of our messy past into the big net of Landmark logic, and toss it off the edge of the earth.

If we stay on the ride, Brian promises (as if he senses my doubts), we'll experience a "breakthrough"-an unpredictable, amazing moment in which we're projected right into a future of fulfillment and power. "Your life, he says, "will never be the same."

Near me slouches Travis; a 17-year-old dressed in skater-wear, fingering the stud in his ear as Brian pontificates. If talking were allowed, I'd ask him what he thought of this grave promise. Instead I reach for my water bottle, and the green carpet gives off the same fake-lemon scent as the carpet in my chain hotel room. Brian has told us that he travels the country leading seminars. On his quest to help us become better humans, this man spends half his life in franchise hotels and conference centers. If anything can make you believe humanity needs to change, I imagine it's the smell of all those carpets, stretched for miles across the heartland.

A woman across the room from me raises her hand and heads to the microphone: "Isn't The Forum just EST repackaged?" she asks. "Isn't Werner Erhard still involved?"

"Two entirely separate technologies," Brian responds, "just like Edison's. Edison invented the lightbulb. He invented the telephone. But you wouldn't come home in the dark and turn on the telephone. Or pick up a lightbulb to call your mother."

Some of us, though, remember our grade-school lessons. At the microphone, a silver-haired woman in a sweater set and pearls smiles graciously. "I must beg your pardon," she says sweetly. "But Thomas Alva Edison didn't invent the telephone, it was Alexander Graham Bell."

"Edison invented a lot of things," replies Brian without skipping a beat, his voice clipped, annoyed. "You can substitute another invention if you'd like. It still makes sense."

It's no wonder Brian evaded the Erhard question, though. Landmark Education Corporation has worked hard to cast off the shadow of Erhard, who was a magnet for bad press. Born John Paul Rosenberg in Philadelphia, he rebirthed himself at 25, when, as a used-car salesman with four kids and a wife, he disappeared. He surfaced in San Francisco, rechristened with German-intellectual panache as Werner Erhard, and began to search the fledgling human potential movement. With a salesman's instincts, Erhard recognized the appeal his approach to self-help would have for this paisley-coated city, and held the first "EST" seminar (Erhard Seminars Training and "it is" in Latin) in 1971 for nearly a thousand people. EST came to epitomize the '70s encounter group, attended by hundreds of thousands including John Denver, Valerie Harper, Cher, and Yoko Ono. In 1985, he replaced EST with the less confrontational, slightly shorter, more user-friendly Forum.

In true '90s fashion, Erhard's public demise is attributed to the media: 60 Minutes featured some of his children asserting abuse in 1992; newspapers reported he cheated on taxes. One of his daughters later confessed that she had gotten $2 million "from an unknown source" to slander Dad; the IRS admitted that it illegally released false tax information, and Erhard was awarded a $200,000 judgment. Erhard handed the reins to a core of employees headed by his brother Harry. When he disappeared again, reportedly to a mansion in Hawaii, he dropped out of public life. But some say that the father's not only watching he's still raising the son.

BOX TWO: Pique Their Interest

By the second day, we're beginning to break off into little clusters, divided mostly by age. I've made friends with Mary Guzzo, 27, an auburn-haired firecracker with the biceps of a bodybuilder. She says she has a crazy family-they talk about the past obsessively-and she's trying to separate herself from all their drama. When she mentions them, she swats at her hair as if she's trying to shoo them away. A few of the guys in the room have their eye on her, but she's unfazed. "I'm here for me," she says. "I have some things I want to work on"-though, like almost everyone here, she won't say what those things are. We are private among strangers, a little cautious, a little scared.

At lunch time, she and I sit on a small hill in the sun joined by shy Steven Watson, a slight 25-year-old with nothing remarkable about him except enormous, Greek-God-on-a-vase eyes. He lives with his parents. And he hangs on Mary's words, thrilled by her energy. "I take care of everyone but myself," she says, then turns to him.

"What about you?"

"I mostly stay in my room," he says.

Returning to the seminar, we run the gauntlet of smiling course assistants-who bear forms, reminders of courses, warnings about being late- and find our seats. Brian is diagramming three ovals on the green chalkboard. "Huh?" he says, mimicking our curiosity. To disarm us, he imitates. Not what we say, but what he knows we are thinking. He dances around, then writes a few words. Over the first oval: "WHAT HAPPENED. " The second: "INTERPRETATION."

So this is the lesson on stories.

"This is important," he cautions. "You need to find out where what happened became your interpretation, which took over to become your story of what happened. " He waits for a spark.

We fidget. It's all a bit abstract.

We spin single events into epic stories that we cling to, he continues, "because being damaged is a great excuse." He acts it out, dangling one arm. "See?" he says. "I'm damaged. Ten years ago I broke my arm. It was so traumatic! I still can't do anything with it.

"If I can't blame anyone else for my broken arm," he adds, "then I'll blame my broken arm for the rest of my life!"

He invites people to step up to the microphone to share their experiences [see "Cult of Confession"]. A few head to the standing microphones to offer meandering accounts of bad marriages, average childhoods. "My parents always fought," confesses a slender black man in a crisply pressed polo shirt, "so I hate arguing with my wife." "I never had a childhood," a largish, redheaded woman laments. But we're unmoved: It's all so undramatic. Brian sits on his director's chair, tilting his head toward the fluorescent fixtures way above us. "So," he tells the woman, "this stops you from enjoying your life." She cocks her head, looks attentive.

"Because without a childhood, how could you know how to have fun?"

"O.K.," she says from the microphone, "I'm beginning to get it."

Others offer stories, trying to make them stronger, but they're working too hard. A crew-cut younger man looks crestfallen when he finishes his tale of getting fired from his first job, and Brian is straightening a cuff.

Then a large man sitting near the back of the room raises his hand in the air like a thick white flag.

"Please," says Brian, gesturing him to a microphone.

He has a beautiful Italian-opera face. He could be 30, 40. Stooping over the dwarfed mike, he cracks a sob. "I've been living with this," he starts, breaking a sweat.

At this point, you can hear shifting in chairs, people trying to make themselves listen. Then he drops it.

"Years ago, my family was murdered. "


"I was the one who found them, " he continues, breathing in sharply. "I came home. They were all dead."

The room is completely silent.

"I could've been there to stop it," he says, his voice cracking with grief "But I wasn't. I didn't stop it. Now they're dead."

If television cameras swept the room, they'd find a mother lode of emotion, 150 people shaking their heads, bursting into tears. I look across the room to Mary. As our tearing eyes meet, she mouths, "Wow." Even the most resistant of us crumble, all hammered, I imagine, by the same thought: What right do we have to complain about our lives in the face of such tragedy?

So this is it. The breakthrough. The Moment. One man's testimony has plunged everyone into turmoil and grief. And our objections, our nagging private opinions, disappear.

Brian quietly gets off his chair. Unlike the rest of us, he isn't weepy and it's a relief. He walks down to the giant man, who is frozen at the mike. He brings him a box of tissues. He does not reach to clap a fakely reassuring hand on his back. Instead he begins to cast his tale in The Forum's perspective.

"Can you accept this happened?" he gently asks.

The man stares down at the green carpet.

"It happened. No one would argue with that, or forgive who did it.

"Yes," says the man.

"But you didn't make it happen."

The man rolls his head.

"You did lose your family," says Brian.

The man keeps his eyes on the carpet.

Brian perseveres. "Can you accept that it happened? If you can, you can leave it behind."

Between the two of them, there is a cord. Neither one moves, not wanting to break it.

Brian repeats the question.

Around the room, I can almost hear our heavy hearts beating.

The man shifts. He bites his lip and frowns. Perhaps he is turning over the idea of acceptance in his mind, or considering his life so far. Then he squares himself. Stands up straight.

"Well," he says. He looks up, unfocused.

We hold our breaths.

"Stay where you are, full of grief, " says Brian. "Or get on with your life. "

The man shifts. "I can," he says finally, and there's light in his face.

The room breaks into low cheers, laughter, clapping. When the man sits back down, he rubs his eyes and opens them wide, looking straight ahead, as if no one ever gave him a good set of glasses before. We watch Brian walk calmly back to his chair. If he's feeling triumphant, he contains it.

Even Travis looks impressed.

Nine hours later Mary, Steven, and I are at the Crowne Plaza Hotel's cocktail lounge, toasting the rule we're breaking-earlier, assistant Sean told us that drinking was forbidden during The Forum's three days. But we need to shake off the day, its jargon, and the stale smell of that room. We have homework, which, since it's already midnight and we start tomorrow at 9 A.M., we have to think about. The assignment: Write a letter to someone you haven't been straight with, come clean. We procrastinate with jokes, twisting Forum terms into good-time lines.

Mary: "Can you commit yourself to this beer?"

Steven: "I'm enrolled in the possibility."

Buzzed on cognac, I sense this is the last time we'll be acting our old selves, still resisting the shiny new skin Brian's encouraging us to slip into. "Don't go back," my brain clangs, but I can't listen. I'm too far into the roller-coaster ride [see "Mystical Manipulation"]. I've witnessed a man's tragic story, been swept up in the tidal wave of emotion that ran the room; I've even started framing my life in this odd, new context [see "Sacred Science"], unwittingly. For better or worse, I have to see this through. After all, I have a job to do.

Reminding us of the homework, Mary says her letter is to an ex-best friend she used to feel mistreated her, excluding Mary from her wedding. "I ran a racket on her," she says, using correct Forum terminology.

"Who are you writing to?" I ask Steven.

"Not sure," he says, his giant eyes blinking. "You?"

"Not sure," I say. Honestly, I know: "Dear Forum Leader, I haven't been straight with you because I don't believe you, " the letter would start. But how would it end?

BOX THREE: Make Them Think They're Making the Choice

Sunday. I've hit the wall of Forum logic one too many times. From Brian's purposefully vague answers when he doesn't like a question to the room's cheerful, unblinking embrace of them, I am raging. The man who told his tragic story seems more at peace, but at lunch I watch him devour an enormous meal and have the eerie sense that all is not well as he numbly takes bite after bite. Mary is boasting newfound self-acceptance; Travis, it turns out, is the son of Forum-trained parents. Everyone's getting it, and I still don't know what "it" is.

During Brian's segment on how we are "meaning-making machines"- the world has no intrinsic meaning, we just impose our own-I lose it. I think of all I hold dear: memories, dreams, stories, and the rich fabrics we weave around our lives. What would The Forum's world be like? Poets silencing themselves for drawing too much from the past? Painters set down their brushes because they keep painting their first love?

After I tussle with Brian over the subject of brain injury ("What if your problem is you have a brain injury that chemically makes you nuts," I asked, thinking of a close friend. "You are letting yourself be injured," he answered) [see "Doctrine over Person"], he won't call on me. So I race for the double doors to escape into the dusk, fighting tears, a million voices roaring in my head.

From the periphery comes a blur of pink floral. A volunteer.

I turn to her in my despair.

"Are you O.K.?" she asks sweetly.

"No," I say. "I am really pissed off and afraid for the world."

"Then you need to go back in," she says.

I ask why.

"Because Brian will be covering what you need to know [see "Demand for Purity"]."

I challenge her. "How do you know what I need to know? I need to talk. I thought you were here for us."

"You really need to go inside [see "Milieu Control"]," she says softly. "Brian will be covering this. That's the best way I can support you."

"I need to go back in because I need to go back in?"

"By being outside you disturb everyone else's Forum," she says.

I feel like a 2-year-old in the grip of temper tantrum.

But you can only fight for so long. During the next break, right after I throw up my hands at Brian's sales pitch: "Be unreasonable," he says. "Tell your family to come Tuesday night and bring their checkbook!" I get into a scrap with course assistant Anne over my Personal Information form. They want to know where we are so they can "remind" us of upcoming courses. But I don't want to fill it out. Then the silver-haired woman says to me kindly, "Such a fighter. Why don't you calm down?"

"I can't," I say. "So much doesn't make sense. Like the Edison thing."

"That's nothing," she says. "Brian said it wouldn't all make sense." Her soothing ribbon of a voice waves in front of me, promising peace if I would just stop trying to analyze. She hands me a Tylenol.

Oh, the taste of sugar when all you've been eating is salt. I melt. I can't explain it. But it happens. I go back into the room with no more fight.

Everyone looks lovely. The carpet's lush as a summer's lawn, the white walls bright with possibility. I fill out that form. Give it to Anne. She blows me a kiss, an abruptly intimate gesture.

That night, when the former graduates come to congratulate us, I cheer too. When a woman dripping in African beads proclaims, "God Bless Werner Erhard," and Brian claps his hands, I beam. Sure, Monday, our day off, is uncomfortable back among the ordinary people. But then I'm at Tuesday night's celebration and everything is great again. There are so many volunteers, all smiling, silver and blue and green nametags decorating us like ornaments on a tree. So many guests who came to see what we did all weekend. So much joy! So much enrolling in courses! When Brian asks, "How many of us had a breakthrough?" I don't hesitate. I raise my hand with everyone else. Suddenly, I realize I'm in box four: Clinch the deal.

Life After The Forum

That night, while the guests were introduced to The Forum in other rooms Brian gave us a parting pep talk. "It'll be weird out there," he said. "Because the rest of the world [see "Dispensing of Existence"]," he mimed paranoid glances, "is still the same."

He was right. Back home, every interaction was loaded. When someone brought up their past, I winced. Vacillating on whether to go out, I wanted to hit myself. Hadn't The Forum taught me to be decisive, and happily so? Therein, I realized, was the price of a three-day cure. The world was whirring and metallic, and I was a gnat, stuck in the works. I felt the opposite of those Forum terms: "Powerful?" "Effective?" Try confused.

"How are you?" I asked Mary a few weeks later. I had to talk to someone who'd been through what I had. Maybe there's a reason Forum people stick together [see "Milieu Control"]: still tender, we need sympathetic ears; ever struggling, we need others to help us stay on the path.

Mary said she'd felt so exhilarated that she signed up for the next course, "Communication." She wasn't letting her family snare her [see "Dispensing of Existence"] into rehashing history, was taking care of herself, even had a new boyfriend-whom she'd brought along with her to the seminar.

"That's great," I told her, feeling unsettled.

If I'm so disillusioned, I wondered why do so many people hook into The Forum every year and not let go? It could be, in part; that there are a lot of people with broken lives out there looking for any kind of glue. The Forum provides it-in a streamlined package that depends on only a handful of words. It's an easy formula, so long as you don't analyze too much. And some people don't want to. "I just want to feel better," the mother in the gray sweatpants had told me. "I don't care about why's and how's anymore. I've been divorced, I've been sick; I've broken down. So now I'm all about just doing it. Tell me what to do."

Maybe another angle of The Forum's appeal is that Erhard, long ago, knew that whatever excuses we give for our troubles, deep down, we blame ourselves. Damage? My fault. Loss? My fault. "If only I," the anguished, family-less man had started. And The Forum doesn't try to deny it. It just shifts the meaning into the future, not the past. To be responsible is not to be regretful, it's to be optimistic: You are the architect of your own destiny; you can change your own life.

"All these years," the woman with no childhood said, "I've thought I was a victim! But I'm not, am 1?" The entire room had shaken our heads: no. Then it's simple," she said, gleeful. "I'm a winner!"

What a relief! How great it feels to have someone tell you that if you'd get back into the driver's seat and stop checking in the rearview mirror, you would actually get where you want to go.

The only problem is, we're not cars. Brian described The Forum as a "technology," a mechanism for transformation [see "Sacred Science"]. But we're not machines. What do we do once we've consciously decided the past just happened and means nothing, when our unconscious won't accept that? "Like most therapies," says a New York psychotherapist who wished not to be named, "The Forum tries to get you to tell everything [see "Cult of Confession"], which you have to do before you can start working on what's inside. " But, she warns, it doesn't give you the support to deal with the resulting shock to your system. "Without support," she adds, "depression and anxiety can set in."

"It's like being shot out of a cannon, " says another New York psychologist (who also asked to remain anonymous), who has worked with patients who've been through The Forum. "It's a tremendous high chat can last as long as a month or two. But you have no way to stay up: They don't provide the foundation to do so."

Which brings me to box five: The maintenance plan. Mary, who'd gone on to chat seminar, found herself deadlocked with a teacher who tried to give her boyfriend the hard sell, and she decided she'd had enough. I, having felt my brain crumble after a relentless, no-privacy weekend-despite the fact chat so much of Forum logic never made sense to me-felt like I'd had a breakthrough just from all the stress. But I had no idea what to do with the few tools I remembered. Instead of helping me envision my future, Forum-ated life, I was told to take another $700 course. "You should really try it," course volunteer Anne said.

"Why?" I countered.

"Aren't you committed? [See "Loaded Language"]" she challenged me.

I suppose not. Had I been willing to be converted, then I would have been willing to take another course; I would have been able to keep growing within the Landmark context [see "Demand for Purity"]. I suppose that's a form of maintenance, but I wonder. Mary was willing, but she wasn't willing to keep shelling out tuition money and getting a hard sell in return. Now she's back out in the world, like me. Unlike me, she feels like it worked. But she knew she would from the beginning. "I'll take what I can use," she had said that Friday morning. To that extent, she was converted before she even walked in.

And that, as my salesman friend would say, is the easiest kind of person to sell a car to.


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