"Big Brother was indeed watching"


February 9, 1999
By a Forum participant

We decided that we would attend, eyes-open, primarily to maintain good relationships with my family and because we really wanted to improve our own relationships.

Being cynical, I was immediately suspicious of the disclaimers we had to sign--not just to maintain the confidentiality of the program and the others in the forum, but the physical, mental, and emotional disclaimers.

When we were properly signed in and name-tagged, we were directed down a hallway past volunteers with gold name tags, plastic smiles, and glazed eyes, all of whom greeted us with friendly words and reminded us to always wear our name tags.

The conference room, in Landmark's offices by the LA Airport, was arranged so that the 120 Forum victims, excuse me participants, were in the front half of the room--leaving the back half open for the 8 to 10 gold-tagged volunteers who sat arrayed at conference tables at our backs. From there, they could count us, take note of who was and was not participating, and pass notes to one another and to the forum leader.

Big Brother was indeed watching.

In fact, a sign on one of the blackboards directed me to inform the course supervisor that my fiancé and I both had back injuries that might have us standing to stretch at various points in the day. Like a good sheep, I even told him that I'd have to take medication during the day.

"Really? Any particular kind?" he asked in a cheerful, politely curious manner.

Suspicion and cynicism are rooted deep in my soul - they've kept me alive and happy (even if the Forum didn't think I was happy) for years. "No," I told him, even though there was nothing confidential about birth control pills and Imitrex for migraines, neither of which had been prescribed by a psychiatrist. None of their damned business, I thought.

We barely survived the first day of carefully planned manipulations. Building on a foundation of half-truths and everyone's desire to be part of the group, [our leader] had the crowd primed for their form of subtle brainwashing [sic]. None of us were "living" - we were "surviving," along with the rest of the planet, surviving through a life of interpretations, rackets, and deceptions.

Sent home after midnight with homework assignments, we were firmly ordered back before 9 am. We were expected to obey unquestioningly, having had a two plus hour discussion on "integrity" and "the power of our word."

[Our group leader] even interrupted the session around 10:30 p.m. to scold the people who were standing in the back of the room--the "unauthorized" participants who were on their feet to stretch and try to wake up after a long, uncomfortable, exhausting day. "Get back in your seats. You're not standing to stretch --you're standing to avoid dealing with what's in your seats," they were told.

Note that our choices were to either remain seated at one point on Friday evening, thereby giving our word by implication that we would complete the forum in its entirety, or walk out, get a refund, and never learn what this great mystery of self-improvement would be. Then came the guilt of the mere thought of breaking our word, that we would be forever denied the happiness and fulfillment we were offered.

Saturday morning, my fiancé left me in the hotel room at 8:30 am to walk the 200 yards to the Forum so he wouldn't be late. So he could maintain his integrity.

I almost left right then and there.

After a solid night of nightmares of [the group leader] badgering us about "enrollment," "possibility," and "rackets," I was ready to run screaming. Everything he'd said yesterday that had once made such sense now struck me as fundamentally wrong. Built on a foundation of sweet sugary promises with no substance, the balancing act, the house of cards that was the Forum--was crumbling fast.

But I went back. Not for me, but for my fiancé, having made my own promise to stand with him--even after he abandoned me, or so I perceived. Besides, factoring in the cost of plane tickets, the hotel, and the days off for both of us, the house sitter and the forum itself--we were looking at an investment of $1,500.00. Why not give it a try?

I went to the center and did my homework, a letter about my "possibility"--there in my seat. My fiancé and I didn't talk, didn't even look at each other.

That morning, I was lost - completely disconnected. Because the house of cards had fallen, every word [our Forum leader] said had me baffled. The flaws in logic were so blatant that I couldn't believe he'd even try feeding us such bull. One poor girl, obviously having come to much the same conclusion, took the microphone and tried valiantly to do battle with the [slick Forum guy], but he was well prepared. Ten years of training were his weapons; the poor girl's confusion and exhaustion left gaping holes in her own logical defense.

Finally she fell to the onslaught and agreed that yes, he was right, as was his logic.

Then we were told to do an exercise in sharing, and we broke into partnerships - A's and B's. I nearly didn't turn to my fiancé, but he turned to me. [The Forum guy] held us silent, "coached" us some more, then declared, "A's to B's, two minutes sharing!"

I looked at my fiancé, saw his exhaustion, his desperation and realized with a faint glimmer of hope that his enthusiastic participation, his laughter and clapping--had been a sham. He'd been trying to hang onto the false magic of the Forum with teeth and nails, but it was gone.

"I'm not here," I told him. It seems illogical, but I truly wasn't, except in the most basic physical sense. Yes, I sat in that uncomfortable chair, but I'd escaped from the Forum's mental traps, and nothing Slick [guy in front] said could get me back into the pen with the other cattle waiting for the trip to the slaughterhouse.

"Neither am I," he told me, and my heart sang. We finished out the exercise without ever discussing anything. The only time we fell silent was when the course supervisor, doing his rounds, came up behind our chairs to listen in. I stared at him until he went away.

We went on break, then, dismissed like good schoolchildren by the course supervisor who read from his clipboard, "I have messages for the following people…It is now 11:02 am. We will take a 30-minute break. Be back in your seats promptly at 11:35. The break begins now."

The room emptied. Prepared for a strategic retreat, I took my pocketbook and jacket. My fiancé took his note pad. We cried for an hour in the courtyard, long after our authorized 30-minute break. How could these Forum people dare tell us that we weren't okay?

Their logic was that either you're 100% okay, or you're not okay. 99% okay and 1% not okay means flat-out that you are NOT okay.

As 99% okay people (okay, maybe 90%), we took great offense to being told we were actually 100% NOT okay.

And so our discussion went, as the lies of the forum shattered like glass. "Leap and you'll make your breakthrough," [the Forum supervisor] had told us. The eagle doesn't study Flight 101; the child doesn't learn the physics of riding a bicycle. The eagle's mother lures the eaglet out of the nest with food, and the eagle learns to fly as it plummets to the earth. The child just gets on his bike and tries, falling and falling until he suddenly gets his balance and rides.

I don't leap. I had training wheels on my bike until I was confident. And I've seen National Geographic often enough to have seen eagles leaping in their nest, flapping and flapping, finding their strength and balance long before they fling themselves into the wild skies.

Those who throw themselves from the nest without learning and preparing tend to be eliminated from the species per Darwin's law. Darwin apparently never heard of the Forum--thankfully!

"I'll fly on my own, when I'm damned well ready," I told my fiancé, standing from my cold seat in the courtyard. I held out my hand and led him away, but still the Forum was clawing at him inside, forcing him to question his integrity at breaking his word. "What about my word to myself?" I challenged him. "Don't I have an implied promise, an implied oath to myself--that I won't deliberately harm myself? That's harmful in there! If my willingness to see what they had to offer was an implied promise, so be it! I break it!" I declared. "My willingness to try something new ends the instant that new thing harms me. My oath to myself supersedes all others."

He saw my point, and I saw that he agreed, but he wanted to share his unwillingness with the rest of the group. Then, he promised he would meet me back at the hotel. Now, he'd been to dozens of timeshare presentations, been to different churches throughout his life, bought enough cars to resist the hard sell. He doesn't own a timeshare, doesn't belong to any church and still has his faithful 88 Dodge Ramcharger. Nervously, I agreed, and walked away.

He walked back into hell.

He was stopped, though, by the cheerful gold-badges - the Stepford [as in the movie "Stepford Wives] volunteers. They called the course supervisor out of the room and sat my fiancé down with him to discuss what had happened. All my fiancé wanted to do was go back inside, take the mike for the first time, and tell everyone why he was leaving. The course supervisor grilled him like [some "Grand Inquisitor"] from the Inquisition, though, under a sugary-sweet coating of concern and polite friendship. He wanted to know why my fiancé had taken so long getting back from break. Where was I? Was I coming back? Could he call me to get me to come back?

Before my fiancé could wrap up the interrogation and get back inside, a gold-tag brought a note out from the seminar room. My fiancé caught a glimpse of it, and the Forum's spell was forever broken. "This is taking too long. Get him back inside," the note read.

My fiancé rose to his feet, politely thanked the course supervisor, and walked away. Together, we fended off the course supervisor's subsequent phone call to the hotel. We ordered pizza, relaxed in comfortable chairs, and were on a 3:30 plane back--thanks to the nice people at [the] Airlines who never once questioned why we desperately wanted to escape.

I told my father that night that we'd thrown away $1500 for nothing, that it was the most illogical, paradoxical tripe I'd ever seen. My relationship with my family is probably ruined - the prodigal daughter, forever lost to the darkness. But I have my sanity, my mind, my logic, and my fiancé.

And if I'm not 100% okay, then I'll be happy with my 90%, and I'll accept the 10% not okay as a fact of life on earth.

Copyright © 1999 Rick Ross

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