AFTER nearly 14 hours of sitting in an uncomfortably hot conference room, a man in the next row stood up, took the microphone and poured out his problems to the other 200 people who had each paid Pounds150 to experience The Forum, a self-improvement course run by Landmark Education.
It was embarrassing, pathetic, and sad to see this man reduced to a mumbling wreck by the subtle mind tricks used. He described how he had tried for a decade to sort out his life, get married, settle down and start a family. He ran his own business, was worried about being financially secure and found he could not commit himself.
''If this course can help me sort out my little problem it will be worth its weight in gold,'' he said. I realised, with some horror, that here was an ordinary man with normal difficulties changing into a confused person and being persuaded that the answer to all his troubles was an advanced course costing Pounds 495.
The day had started like any other conference. I arrived at the Cumberland Hotel in central London at 8.45am and went down the stairs to the Carlisle suite. I collected my name badge and went into the main room. The curtains were drawn. Chairs were laid out neatly in rows so close to each other that when you sat down it was almost impossible not to be touching the next person.
A coach, the term used to describe volunteers who help run the course, asked me to sit in the front row. I refused, choosing a seat instead near one of the portable air conditioners at the end of a row so that I could stretch out my legs. Angelo arrived on the small stage set up at the front of the room. He introduced himself as ''the leader'' and strutted up and down like a peacock. He even squawked and screeched at times, his New Jersey accent penetrating and irritating.
He asked anyone who had been put under pressure to attend to stand. A dozen did so. He gave his definition of ''pressured'' and one by one they all sat down, except for one man. He was asked how he had been put under pressure and he said by his wife. Angelo asked him what happened. The man said she had been on the course, had got a lot out of it and told him he should go. ''She indicated that if I did not, life at home would be decidedly cool,'' he said.
Angelo drew two circles on a blackboard. Above one he wrote ''on the court'' and on the other ''in the stands''. He said the man's version of what happened was ''a story'' and came under the ''in the stands'' heading. He again asked what happened and persuaded the man that his ''story'' was ''an interpretation of the facts'' and the facts were that his wife had asked him to go, he had agreed and he had turned up; therefore there was no pressure. The man sat down.
Angelo talked, sometimes shouted, about how we were all living ''in the stands'' and that was preventing us ''empowering'' ourselves so that we could take control of our lives. He seemed to want to destroy our beliefs and although he never said ''this is right, that is wrong'', he suggested, through the clever choice of words, that everything we had done since being born was somehow incorrect and our past was destroying our future.
I soon realised that there were course converts in the room. Half an hour into the course a man sitting close to one of the air conditioners stood up and asked if it could be turned off because he was too cold. There were protests from people sitting in the middle of the room who were too hot. Angelo appeared to conduct a debate on the question but the result was that all the air conditioners were turned down. Later in the day they were turned off. More and more people helped themselves to the iced water that was provided free.
Angelo set out the rules. We must not talk to each other during The Forum. We could leave the room only during the breaks, every three hours. He advised us not to eat except at the meal break at 6pm. We were encouraged to tell our families and friends and even invite them along to a special evening session so that they could sign up. We were free to leave at any time.
''If you feel The Forum is not for you, stand up and walk to the back and you will be given a full refund, even your deposit,'' he said. No one moved.
The morning was taken up by persuading people to talk about their problems. One girl in her 20s explained that she felt she was suffering all the time, a businesswoman in her mid-30s said she was burdened by her childhood. The first tears came after the midday break. A course convert stood up and described how she had experienced ''a breakthrough'' during the morning session. When she was a child she had regarded her mother as an interfering busybody but now she realised that it had been ''a story'' rather than ''the facts'' and her mother had been concerned, not meddling.
The woman next to her raised her hand. In a broken voice she said she too had experienced a breakthrough. She wiped tears from her face as she talked about her ''story'', about her relationships with her mother, husband and stepchildren.
Hands were raised all over the place. One young man described his breakthrough. He disliked his father because he had not been taken out for a big celebration when he achieved good A-level results. Now he realised that he had invented ''a story'' that his father was uncaring. ''Have you had your Pounds 150 worth,'' shouted Angelo. ''Yes, oh yes,'' was the joyful reply.
A businesswoman took the microphone with tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked at her son, 15, sitting two seats away and described how she had made her ex-husband out to be a horrible person when in fact he was quite decent. She said she had persuaded her son to attend the course but she felt they had both had their money's worth. ''You've had Pounds 1,000 worth haven't you,'' said Angelo.
I struggled to work out the purpose of The Forum. When one man stood up and said he had experienced his breakthrough two weeks before coming on the course I started to understand. After having several conversations with a friend who had persuaded him to sign up for The Forum he had visited his mother and been able to talk to her in a new way. ''I had my breakthrough then, I had my money's worth before I even came here today,'' he said, yet he had come for more.
Throughout the 14 hours, anyone who suggested that they were happy with their life was questioned further about what it meant to be happy. Happiness was the carrot being dangled. By convincing people that they can be happy all the time, The Forum skillfully plants seeds in the mind so that they are searching for the secret to happiness, the answer for all their worries.
Angelo said he had no medical training but refused to reveal anything else about himself. The whole day was orientated towards persuading people to sign up for more courses and to take their family and friends along too.
By the evening session it had become unbearably hot. People had headaches, numb bottoms from sitting on uncomfortable chairs and were tired from concentrating for hours on end. I had not expected to be affected by such conditions. But by 10pm my eyes were dry and my contact lenses uncomfortable. I even found myself wondering if what Angelo was saying might be true.
Fortunately I had one advantage over most people in the room I had arrived a happy person without difficulties in my life at that time. At 11pm it ended. With a huge sigh of relief I handed in my badge and went home to my normal flat, my ordinary life and hugged my husband before falling asleep exhausted.
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