A Landmark Encounter

A long-overdue critical examination of Landmark "lifestyle training".

Rachel Jones is cajoled, threatened and bullied, and risks having her wages attached for the rest of her life in an attempt to find out the truth behind a purportedly life-changing training

Noseweek Magazine, South Africa/December, 2003
By Rachel Jones

I first ran into Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) in 1994, when a friend told me I had to do Life Training – it would change my life, give me insight, unlock my potential. She hinted at an end to our friendship if I didn't trust her on this. But it was only when I found myself at a Landmark recruiting session earlier this year that I began to be really intrigued. Here was an "education" system that was almost indistinguishable from its own marketing. And when I started to ask questions, I found Landmark using the same kinds of manipulations on me as it did on its clients.

When I questioned the R1495 fee, the recruiter tried to turn the subject to my pathology in asking such questions. Seminars typically start this way, I knew, so I was not deterred. I asked where all the money went. At the projected size of 300 attendees, the upcoming seminar would gross about R450,000. With business-class flights (later I was told that seminar leaders fly economy), a good hotel and a nice fee for the leader (later I was told the leaders are on salary), and a conference-type venue, only about R100,000 would be needed for expenses. "We don't make any secret about Landmark being a for-profit company," I was told, "but it doesn't pay out dividends. All of the profit goes into expanding the programme."

But this expansion was mainly through volunteers (like himself, who "didn't get paid anything") – how much could it cost?

Why was I so determined to "make him wrong"? was his response. But he understood: his way of "being" had once also been to be "right", but Landmark had helped him to see the way he "be-ed", and things could really open up for me if I could begin to see the way I "be."

I approached Landmark head-quarters in California (no Landmark people in South Africa would talk to me), asking in a brief email for a summary of the company's audited financial statements and a budget for the upcoming Cape Town seminar. I said I needed this information to understand the apparent wide gap between expenses and fees. The email caused big excitement.

On the phone, Sandy Bernasek, a spokesperson (and also a seminar leader) tried a number of moves to avoid giving me information. She swept through emotional appeal (why wouldn't I trust her?) to "begging the question" of my bias (insisting it was a fact we must both accept) to "poisoning the well" (how terrible a person I must be to attack such a useful and beloved company). When I wouldn't cave in, she began aggressively interrupting and changing the subject.

She finally threatened that Landmark would "take it very seriously" if I didn't include in my article the "information" they sent me, which turned out to be a hefty bundle of promotional material. She also set me up for the "compliance tactic" of "social proof": I was told there had been a "witness" to the conversation who agreed with Bernasek that I was being awful.

A day or two later a letter and half a kilo of documents arrived by courier from attorney Art Schreiber in San Fransisco. "I am providing you with all of the information set forth above [there was an itemised list] so you can ensure that your proposed article reflects the accurate facts regarding Landmark Education and the Landmark Forum," he wrote. The rest of the letter, with much emphasis and repetition, put me "on notice" of a possible lawsuit, with a judgment against my future wages if I thought (as I had said) I was too poor to worry about being sued.

I did get some financial information in the letter, but it wasn't anything close to what I'd asked for. And there was nothing to dispel the suspicion that Landmark participants in developing countries make sacrifices to pay the kind of American corporate compensation and other expenses that are a worldwide scandal.

I was told, for example, that Landmark is "an employee owned [sic] company with no employee owning more than 2% of the stock." And no dividends are paid out, remember? Profits go into "expanding the programme"? But I found out elsewhere that half of the company's pre-tax profits go to Werner Erhard, the brother of the CEO, for "licensing" of the Landmark seminars' "technology".

Landmark's links to Erhard are a BIG touchy point.

Werner Erhard (a name he assumed to dodge an abandoned wife and children), was an ex-used car and encyclopaedia salesman who, like Penn Patrick, did the self-actualisation rounds in California in the 1960s; he seems to have been most strongly influenced by his stint in Scientology. (The idea of a "technology" that promises to deal with all the maladjustments of life is familiar from there.)

According to a range of credible witnesses, Erhard was a violent, delusional despot in pre-Landmark enterprises called est (Erhard Seminar Trainings) and The Forum: calling himself God, and giving brutal beatings. His daughters said he had sexually abused them. (The girls later recanted, claiming they had been bribed and coerced to lie about their father - but their stories of abuse are widely regarded as more plausible than their later claims of bribery and coercion.)

Est (like Scientology) became a multi-million-dollar enterprise. The allegations from the American media against Erhard were, however, so devastating that from 1991 he went into hiding. (He is said to be living high somewhere in the Cayman Islands.) But, in the meantime, he had licenced the seminar "technology" to his brother. Methods were toned down. Leaders no longer screamed obscenities at participants in the "seminars" or forbade them to move from their chairs for any reason.

According to Adrian Perkel, a lecturer in psychology at the University of the Western Cape, recent years have seen an even less rough style in LGAT across the board; there used to be more psychological roadkill than now. But the basic structure of the seminars—very long hours, big crowds, high fees, strict rules, confrontation and confession—is the same.

But back to my discussions with Landmark in San Francisco: All in all, the nature of our exchange told me more than did the information I was allowed to have.

Our email exchanges continued for weeks, as I sorted through the information packet and tried to place it in context. Schreiber, Landmark's "General Counsel", must be one busy attorney. At first I was flattered by his rapt fear of an article I hadn't even thought out yet. But the more I looked, the more I saw myself as a mere part of his routine, perhaps like golf or flossing.

It seems that just about any journalist who takes an interest in Landmark gets a threatening letter and a collection of promotional materials purporting to state the indispensable "facts."

Landmark sued Elle magazine, apparently for nothing but not incorporating Schreiber's "package" into a 1995 article on Landmark. The lawyer cited "lack of research", "shoddy research", "irresponsible statements" and the "evident intent of the writer to denigrate the reputation of Landmark".

The article was about the author's personal experience of a Landmark seminar. She truthfully reported what happened there, and she came across as moderate in her comments. Was "research" into the package supposed to have stopped her from saying anything negative at all? Landmark dropped the suit with no reported concessions from Elle, but the company's approach to the media does not seem to have changed.

This may be because aggression often pays off. Landmark sued the Cult Awareness Network, for example, helping Scientology-associated groups bankrupt the organisation through litigation in 1997. (Scientology then bought the CAN and runs it through an affiliate. Anybody seeking help in exiting a cult should perhaps consider contacting some other hotline.)

Just the threat of a lawsuit by a large American corporation can terrify most people into submission. In 1999 Schreiber was able to list six magazines that had printed retractions of the accusation that Landmark was a cult (and I have copies of two more retractions since then).

Landmark treats the cult accusation as a straw man, as if knocking that down should end discussion of the company's practices. But here's the really cute part. You don't have to say that Landmark is a cult to get forced into a retraction of that statement.

Dr Margaret Singer, of the University of California at Berkeley, is the world's leading cult expert. She and the mainstream of her psychologist colleagues think that only organisations that routinely make big inroads into their members' well-being merit the name "cult". No one has ever accused Landmark of making its adherents panhandle in airports, wear stupid clothes, etc. So Singer obviously wouldn't ever call Landmark a cult, would she? In her book Cults in Our Midst (1995), as well as everywhere else, she hasn't.

But her research into cults has informed her concern about other, milder "deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control", some of which included Landmark practices, so she mentioned Landmark in her book, factually. Landmark sued her. It was because she had mentioned the organisation in a book about cults, Schreiber told me. So no less-harmful entity should ever be mentioned in the context of any more-harmful one, no matter how indisputable or relevant the relationship? That's evidently how Schreiber sees it.

I asked how the Singer lawsuit squared with the stated company policy. Which of Singer's statements were "inaccurate" "false" and "defamatory"? No answer.

Legal processes squeezed out of Singer a statement that Landmark was not a cult and didn't meet the criteria for a cult, and Landmark distributes this statement as if it is a retraction.

She now refuses to comment about Landmark's techniques, saying with admirable frankness to The Phoenix New Times, "The S.O.B.s have already sued me once." My own letter asking whether she would consider breaking her silence was answered in kind tones by her husband: she is too ill to correspond. (She is in her 70s.) He wished me luck.

With what kind of coverage, then, is Landmark satisfied? I got several approved newspaper articles in the information package. RuleNo.1 seems to be to write what Landmark wants you to write. In fairness, the journalists who cooperated seem to have been lazy and trusting rather than dishonest. "Facts" are simply repeated from Landmark's own material or its media progeny.

The September 2003 Fair Lady article on Landmark did not even comment on the arithmetic of the claim that Landmark is "owned by 200 individuals, each with a stake of about 3%". Several publications agree with Fair Lady in reporting that Werner Erhard "was eventually cleared of all tax charges". But it doesn't take much digging to find that Erhard was convicted of tax fraud involving $15m, and that the judgment was upheld on appeal. I asked whether Landmark disputed these facts or was unaware of them. No answer.

Another issue on which the "responsible" journalists have followed like sheep is that of Erhard and his programme est's relationship to the Landmark Forum. The rampaging, greedy guru must be kept as much out of the picture as possible. "The est Training was an educational programme that ceased being offered to the public in December, 1984, more than six years prior to, and unrelated to, the establishment of Landmark," fibs Schreiber on one essential point.

The truth: between est and Landmark, Erhard ran a somewhat toned-down version of est called The Forum. Landmark's basic course is called The Landmark Forum and sometimes The Forum. They didn't even bother to come up with a distinct name. And why would they? They have the licence to Erhard's "technology". Landmark CEO Harry Rosenberg, Erhard's brother, worked for est. Landmark seminars are indistinguishable in basic techniques, differing from est mainly in their being less harsh and aggressive.

Landmark's claim that the "research" in its information packet was "independent" truly beggared belief when applied to the work of The Talent Foundation, which was founded shortly after his first Landmark experiences by Sir Christopher Ball, an avowedly very enthusiastic Landmark adherent. (His testimonial compares Landmark to Shakespeare, Mozart and Turner and scarily records his mass recruiting efforts.).

Ball, in reporting on The Talent Foundation's study of Landmark, looked forward to "sponsoring" another study to confirm the amazingly positive findings.

But this is not as bad as professional authority selling out. Raymond Fowler, Ph.D., executive vice-president and CEO of the American Psychological Association, wrote a report declaring Landmark seminars harmless and having nothing to do with psychotherapy. (If they had, their unqualified purveyors could be arrested, not to mention having their pants sued off them.)

He compared the seminars to conversations with family and friends, invoking a rather horrifying picture of his home and social life but not a great deal of confidence in his professional judgment. Was Fowler "independent" as in not getting paid? I asked Landmark. No answer. I asked Fowler himself. No answer.

To validate Landmark commercially, there is the "Harvard study". My copy has on it the Harvard seal (Veritas ["Truth"]), the heading "Harvard Business School", a copyright attribution to The President and Fellows of Harvard College in one footnote, and a disclaimer in another: Harvard doesn't actually endorse this document. No wonder: it was only a business case study for classroom use.

Harvard forbids the promotional use of these studies. This is to prevent professors from purveying advertising in Harvard's name.

Landmark was found pretty swell in the case study. The main author, Professor Karen Wruck, seems not to have used information from any impartial or opposition sources, but only what Landmark gave her. Some passages read like a mere kissing of Landmark's butt:

"Enrollment is a conversation or series of conversations which create new possibilities and result in a commitment to take action to make those possibilities a reality. Landmark Education Corporation's leaders put it as follows: 'Enrollment is generating a possibility in another's listening, such that they step into that possibility committedly and act.' It is not, for example, persuading or coercing someone…."

I could find out nothing from the professor (now, perhaps not coincidentally, working not for Harvard, but for Ohio State University) about how the study came about. Harvard no longer teaches the case study, sells copies (Landmark reportedly bought tens of thousands) or keeps them in the library.

Harvard also made Landmark agree not to use the study for promotional purposes. I guess that means, to Landmark, that recruiters can still cite the study, and that journalists can still get copies they are told they need to assimilate in order to write "the facts" and not get sued.

The bulkiest promotional item in the bundle was an article from the Australian Financial Review of April 24-27, 2003, about Mark Waller, an Australian artist.

Author Paul Monk thinks Mark Waller's art is "in the great tradition of Raphael and Michelangelo". Citing Caravaggio, Rossetti, Rilke, William James and Nietzche—and the "mainstream American philosopher William W. Bartley III" (an est adherent who wrote a sycophantic biography of Werner Erhard)—Monk riffs for two pages on Mark Waller's paintings.

These concentrate on tall blonds in skimpy angel costumes and dolphins soaring up through plastic-blue oceans. But Waller dreamed of a New York exhibition, and he believed Landmark could help him.

Missing a day of the Australian seminar because of the birth of his child, he fulfilled his "undertaking" (standard for Landmark participants) to go anywhere in the world in order to complete the seminar, no matter what it took.

It took flying to New York (via Tokyo) ten days after September 11, 2001, to attend a seminar that had been booked to take place in the World Trade Center. Landmark was about being unstoppable and promised to make its graduates unstoppable.

He was a hero to his Landmark classmates. To keep the joyous momentum up, he planned to raise $1m through a New York charity fundraising exhibition of his and other work in June 2003.

I emailed him in early August to ask how much he had raised. He didn't say, but he said other stuff, including, "I am starting The Ripple Effect [sic] Foundation which will primarily promote the principle, 'the ripple effect' and as a by product [sic] will raise money for charity."

A by-product? I recalled Werner Erhard's Hunger Project to "raise awareness" about hunger— only $2m out of $67m raised went to relief organisations, according to Mother Jones magazine (the noseweek of America). How much money had Waller raised and for which charities? I persisted in asking. And if charity was a by-product, what was the main purpose of the foundation?

He answered that the aim of the foundation was to "have people become aware" of the ripple effect.

He didn't say anything about charitable donations, only that "very few paintings were sold in NY" and that he didn't have "up to date [sic] details about sales". The way he responded began to look familiar. Landmark courses, which he continued to take, had made a "profound difference" to him.

In line with the consumer come-on of LGAT (Get a new meaning for the past, new goals, a whole new life—in just a few hours!), measurable gains from Landmark 'life-training' tend to be fairly shallow. Meeting sales targets are the kind of real-life achievements attributed to LGAT inspiration. But the costs? As the analyst Kevin Garvey told New York Magazine, "I don't care if [the participants] can screw better or make more money—their freedom is being taken away."

The common outcomes of therapy—self-knowledge, compassion, change of mind about what is important in life—are not on offer. At best, LGAT is a tool to feel good fast and go straight for what you want: to test power in its raw form. At their high price, the leaders will teach you to be like them.

Don't Tibet on it

Some of the "graduates" of David Ure, once a Landmark seminar leader in Cape Town, have been firing up their recruiting with the story of "a seminar held for 300 monks and the Dalai Lama in the foothills of Tibet"; a seminar by which "Landmark took on transforming the political situation there". When we contacted Tibetan exile officialdom for comment, we got a very polite version of "What the @#%& are you talking about?" The UK Landmark office, where Ure is now based, promised that he would get back to us, but repeated reminders produced no contact. Indian Landmark offices were likewise unresponsive. Meanwhile, the story of the Dalai Lama as a Landmark graduate spreads via Landmark disciples. One confirmed that the Tibetan bulletin came straight from David Ure's mouth – but the disciple became nervous at the idea of my investigating the information and publishing the result. At this point it emerged that the facts might be "confidential."

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