They have come from all over New England, from as far away as Vermont's Canadian border to nearby South Boston. But the 132 souls huddling on chairs in a windowless conference room in Dorchester don't look particularly lost. They are physicians, engineers, software consultants, house painters, store owners, lawyers, students, single mothers, and an Episcopal priest, and they belong to a group sociologists might call "the worried well."
They have come to the Forum because they sense something is amiss in their lives, and they've heard that the program's 3 1/2 days of intense self-examination might help them smooth out the cracks in their relationships with families, friends, and co-workers.
They are people like Paula Houghton, 50, who runs a gift shop on the coast of Maine and says she "hasn't touched" her husband in years, even though they run the business together.
Or Marisa Reilly, 39, who owns a body spa in Waltham and is struggling to raise a 4-year-old daughter amid the turmoil of a difficult divorce.
Or Ray Barrieau, 42, a general contractor from Rockland, who lost the will to love when his teenage son died in a car accident in 1997.
Many in this mostly white and middle-class group had heard about the Forum from someone in their lives who had already taken the program. (In Houghton's case, it was her daughter; in Barrieau's, several friends.)
But quite a few had also heard about the controversial roots of the Forum, which reached about 68,000 people worldwide in 1998. Indeed, the very first question asked by a plaid-shirted woman in the audience is: "Is this a cult?"
"No, we're not a cult," replies the Forum leader, a 39-year-old former New Yorker named Beth Handel, who addresses the concern head-on. Handel explains that the Forum is the reincarnation of est, the self-help movement started in 1971 by a former car salesman from Philadelphia who left his family and changed his name from John Paul Rosenberg to Werner Erhard. In 1985, Handel says, Erhard "retired" est and retooled it as the Forum.
Before leaving the United States for parts unknown, he sold the "technology" of the Forum in 1991 to his employees, who formed a new company known as the Landmark Education Co., headquartered in San Francisco, with Erhard's younger brother, Harry Rosenberg, as its president. What Handel leaves out is that est was widely criticized in its heyday for fostering an authoritarian atmosphere, with reports of est leaders humiliating participants and refusing to let them go to the bathroom.
The Forum, one participant later jokes, seems to be a "kinder, gentler est." Anyone can leave at any time, and if people leave before midafternoon on the first day of the workshop (which takes place over three 14-hour days and one evening), they get their $325 entrance fee back.
Two people actually take advantage of that offer. The rest stay planted in their chairs, waiting impatiently for the "transformation" that Handel says she has "produced ... in thousands and thousands of people's lives." (Among the attendees is a Globe reporter whom Forum officials and participants know is there).
At the core of the Forum
It isn't until late in the afternoon, after seemingly endless plugs for other Landmark courses and a rambling lecture on linguistics, that Handel gets down to the guts of the session. She says that all human beings listen through a prism of judgment, deciding whether what they hear is right or wrong, to be agreed with or not.
"This way of listening will never disappear, but I notice it now when I do it," says Handel, a pixieish, dark-haired woman whose hands and face are in constant motion.
Another fundamental aspect of human nature, she adds, is that we all want to look good in front of others. "Everything you do is to look good," she says, with the comedic timing of Joan Rivers. "That's what it will say on your tombstone: `looked real good."'
The audience laughs, but a woman in the back row, with coifed gray hair, looks thunderstruck. A few minutes later, she makes her way to one of the three microphones set up around the room. (At regular intervals during the 43-hour-long ride along self-transformation lane, Handel encourages people to come up and share their thoughts, revelations, and questions with her and the group.)
"I have a 26-year-old son who is a drug addict and an alcoholic," the gray-haired woman says haltingly. "And we have no relationship, because I'm too busy looking good."
A homework assignment
At each break, participants are encouraged to find someone they don't know and share something they have just learned about themselves. And late that evening, before Handel dismisses the weary group for the day, she gives everyone a homework assignment: Go and write a letter to someone in your life whom you have "run a racket on." A racket, she already explained, is a mind-set that compels people to respond negatively to others. After you write the letter, she says, call the person and ask for forgiveness.
As it turns out, calling the ghosts in one's life - people you have unfinished business with, whether a present or former spouse, a parent, sibling, or child - is a key ingredient in the Forum's dynamic. By the next day, the phones in the Forum office are jammed with participants dialing loved ones and asking forgiveness.
Judie, a flight attendant in her 50s who lives in Quincy, did her homework the first night. She called her ex-husband to apologize for blaming him for everything that had gone wrong in their marriage. "Our divorce was so bitter that my kids got caught in the crossfire," Judie tells the group the next day, tears on her cheeks. "What I've realized is that I had a part in it. My biggest racket was being a victim, and what I lost was not just my marriage, my house and my husband, but I lost my girls."
When she called Friday night, Judie says, her ex wasn't home, and the person who answered the phone was her youngest daughter, who is 17.
"I knew then that she was the person I needed to talk to. I told her that I knew the divorce had caused her a lot of pain and that I avoided responsibility by acting like it was all Dad's fault. And I asked for her forgiveness."Judie pauses and the silence is deafening. "My daughter said, `I've waited two years to hear this. I forgive you."'
A sigh like a balloon releasing air can be heard around the room.
By evening of the second day, many participants are sharing tissues and crying openly as the painful, most intimate details of people's lives crash up against them like waves, each more powerful than the next. And the stories, the awakenings, the tears, flow all weekend.
"I haven't seen such good theater in a long time," marvels Linda Kellay, 40, of Charlton, during one break. Not everyone, however, is achieving breakthroughs. At one point, an emigrant from India gets up and tries to talk about how people discriminate against him because of his skin color and accent. Handel lights into him. "You haven't owned up to your racket, which is that people discriminate against you," she says. "You're not taking responsibility for it. You keep pointing your finger at others. You need to own up to your racket."
The man, a health professional who asked not to be identified, persists, saying that a lot of his problems with people at work and elsewhere had to do with racism. "You are one of the most uncoachable people in the Forum," Handel replies calmly. "It's been two full days and you haven't looked at yourself yet. All you see is people stepping on you."
A bombshell drops
After a short break (during which the man finds himself surrounded by sympathetic participants telling him to hang in there), Handel unloads what some would later say is the biggest bombshell of the weekend: "Consider that life is empty and meaningless," she says. "There is no meaning; life just is."
At first, people's faces crumple with bewilderment. Paula Houghton, the gift-shop owner from Maine, is one of the first to get the point. "If life is empty and meaningless, you can create anything you want," she says triumphantly.
Marisa Reilly follows her to the microphone.
"I feel so powerful," Reilly says. "I don't need to be a victim anymore. This is better than church; it's almost better than sex."
And that's when Ray Barrieau, the general contractor from Rockland, raises his leonine head. Barrieau has been slumped in the back row of the room, eyes half-closed, shoulders bowed. But on the afternoon of the third day, he strides to the mike.
In a choking voice, Barrieau reads a letter he had written to his son, who died 18 months ago in a car accident at age 16. Barrieau says he now realizes that even though his son is dead, he can still have a relationship with him. "You were an extraordinary person, and I miss you terribly," Barrieau reads to an audience as silent as stone. "But what I realize now is that although my relationship with you is different, I can continue to give you 100 percent of my love."
When he finishes, Handel asks, "Is there anything else you need to do?"
"Forgive myself?" Barrieau replies softly. "I think I just did."
On the last day of the Forum, Tuesday evening, Barrieau walks into the room smiling. His back is straight, his blue eyes wide and peaceful. Other participants also pour in with big smiles on their faces, hugging people they met only five days before and talking about the changes in their behavior in the last two days.
One of the huggers is Joan Hathaway, a real estate broker from Marlborough. The first day of the Forum, Hathaway, when asked what she thought, had put a finger in her mouth as if to throw up.
On Tuesday night, she had a different response.
"I'm always skeptical of these self-help things," said Hathaway. "But I couldn't deny what was going on in front of my eyes. I could see the transformations taking place right in front of me."
Reached a month later, Barrieau and other participants also say their lives and attitudes remain altered.
"In my line of work, I deal with people who don't always have a handle on reality, and I notice that I deal with it differently now," says Barrieau, who is working on restoring a huge farmhouse north of Boston. "For instance, if something goes wrong, one crew is always ready to point the finger at another crew, and in the past I might have gotten involved in that. Now I just say, jeez, this is their racket, and I'm not going there."
It's not as if Barrieau or others don't have lapses; it's an imperfect world out there. Marisa Reilly, who shares custody of her daughter with her ex-husband, says she still finds herself drawn into arguments with him over past "insults." But instead of getting angry and marching off in resentment as she used to, Reilly says that she was able to defuse their latest squabble.
"I took a deep breath, went outside, came back in, and made a request. I said, `You don't have to respect or like me, but I just want you to respect me as Gwendolyn's mother,"' she recalls. "And that was the end of it."
Reilly adds, "Experiences like that weekend could be like a bubble - you get it for the moment and then poof it's gone. But this has had a lasting effect on me."