Pay Money, Be Happy

For thousands of new yorkers, happiness is a $375, three-day self-help Seminar. Welcome to EST: The Next Generation

New York Magazine/July 9, 2001
By Vanessa Grigoriadis

With her platform sandals clacking against the pavement, 25-year-old freelance TV producer Tootsie Olan made her way through the empty canyons of Wall Street at midnight on a recent Sunday. She descended into the uptown IRT station and pulled out her cell phone. Meandering down the platform, she began to tell her best friend from Cornell about her weekend, which she considered among the most important of her life. Then she stopped short.

"There's something I have to do," Tootsie said. "I'll call you back." Leaning against a subway column about twenty feet away was a young black man in a black leather jacket. He wore a gold chain around his neck and had a scar on his right cheek. To Tootsie, he looked like the kind of guy she normally tries to "get as far away from as possible, especially in the subway late at night."

"Hello," Tootsie said, breaking into a wide, toothy smile. "Can I talk to you?" Then Tootsie told him about the weekend that had changed her life. It had cost her several hundred dollars, involved 200-odd strangers, and taken three days, though it can sometimes stretch into a lifetime commitment. About 125,000 people participate annually, in cities as far away as Paris and Cape Town, and companies from Reebok to even foot the bill. This is the Landmark Forum -- called "the Forum" for short -- and they say it will change your life.

"It's weird to think about how skeptical I was when I first went to the Forum," says Chuck Palahniuk, 39, author of Fight Club. "I brought a book with me in case I was bored. I immediately started railing against the leader about how they were just using me for my money. Then, when I was walking out, it struck me that I was 26 years old and I was never going to take another risk in my life. I was the one being an asshole! So I went back and said, 'Okay, I'd like to take a risk, where do I sign?' After that, I bought a word processor. That was my first step to being a writer."

That's what it's all about, Tootsie says over a lunch of tuna niçoise at L'Express on Park Avenue South. It's about change. It's about transformation. It's about taking your self-esteem, self-hate, and self-destructiveness; your desires, depressions, and frustrations; your passions, envies, and anxieties -- everything you have come to feel makes you you -- and having it all just disappear, like a train pulling out of a station. The past is past, the Forum says, and has no bearing on the future, which is yours to invent. "I saw," says Carole Vaporean, a financial reporter for Reuters, "that I could create, over time, the world that I wanted for myself."

"Living life powerfully and living a life you love" is the promise of the Forum, and Tootsie, an attractive brunette from East Brunswick, New Jersey, talks about it with the confidence of a sports fan and at a volume that makes the people at the next table start to listen. When she gets to the part about "transformation," she raises her delicate fingers in air quotes, which she calls "bunny ears." "I have to stop doing that," she cries. "This is serious! But there's something about it that's so absurd."

She takes a deep breath. "My transformation," she says, sitting on her hands, "was a result of one realization: My whole life has been about being special. In high school, I was always an A student, but I felt special because I was also in a semi-professional dance troupe. After college, I went to Barcelona because I wasn't just going to move to the city like everyone else." Her neatly lipsticked mouth purses into a self-amused smirk. "I mean, my name is Tootsie, for God's sake!"

Ever since that weekend, all that has changed. "I no longer have to be the person of the past," she says. "I can be any Tootsie I choose to be!" To this end, she paid for the man in the subway to take the Forum. With its emphasis on self-examination, self-revelation, and sharing both with a roomful of strangers, the Forum seems more appropriate for seventies softies than aughties urban warriors. Yet for upwardly mobile twentysomethings like Tootsie -- the generation that talks sex with the callousness of Samantha on Sex and the City but armors up with irony to discuss the meaning of life -- the Forum offers a chance to explore their innermost hopes and dreams. In New York, the company recently moved out of its offices in a walk-up across from Macy's. Now it leases an entire floor of One World Trade Center.

Unlike other New Age staples that have been reified as expensive indulgences -- aromatherapy, bindis, Balinese end tables -- the Forum isn't remotely exotic. Nor does it offer enlightenment and a better body at the same time, like yoga. Held in a bright, antiseptic conference room, the Forum is run as a shades-drawn, no-whispering class moderated by one of 50 certified Forum leaders. Leaving during the three fifteen-hour days is discouraged -- a posterboard sign warns, "If you leave the room for any reason, even for a few minutes, you may get the result but have no right to expect it."

The Forum is only the beginning: Seven out of ten people who take the Forum go on to a higher level of Landmark's "Curriculum for Living," which includes the ten-session "Forum in Action" seminar series, the four-day advanced course ($700), and the five-day "Self-Expression and Leadership" seminar ($200) -- about 250 hours in total. In addition, Landmark offers seminars on "Sex & Intimacy" and "Being Extraordinary" and a $1,900 "Wisdom Program." (Landmark also offers courses for children and teens.)

Any of the 60-odd courses can be repeated, or, in Landmark terms, "reviewed." "I was very involved about five years ago," says former Rent star Anthony Rapp, who was turned on to Landmark by actor Andy Dick, a childhood friend. "A couple months ago, I decided to review the Forum. I just loved it: It was like going to see your favorite band in concert, the familiarity so comforting and empowering."

Some Landmark graduates also volunteer for the company, which has approximately 500 employees and a reported 7,500 unpaid "assistants" (though Landmark puts this number much lower) who answer phones, sign up recruits, and cater to the Forum leaders. "They have a person designated to make them lunches," says Laura White, a former volunteer at the Washington, D.C., Forum office. "Someone makes sure they have a clean pair of socks after the second break."

For some, it's almost a second career. "I've been assisting and then leading the 'Self-Expression and Leadership' course for about seven years," says Larry Panish, who owns the Tomato Restaurant in Chelsea and just sold the Moondance Diner. "To me, it's a fair trade: Landmark may get my time for free, but I get to continue in the process of self-realization for free."

Since Landmark doesn't advertise its courses, it relies solely on satisfied customers to spread the word, and much of the initial course is spent exhorting participants to tell their friends, family, and anyone they might see on the subway. People often talk about it with their co-workers; at CNN, Landmark has been popular among on-air talent and upper management, including former executive vice-president Gail Evans. Devotees can even hold three-hour introductions to the Forum in their homes, à la Amway. At hers, attorney Linda Howard served punch. "The wine we had after, because this is a serious conversation," she says. "It's a conversation about your life."

Tootsie has done her part for Landmark, too, bringing about a dozen people to the center and signing up four friends from college. "There's a bunch of us from Cornell who are still a tight-knit group," says Tootsie. "So it's funny now because someone's always missing when we hang out because they're at the Forum. The couple girls who haven't done it are always rolling their eyes, saying, 'God, is So-and-so in the cult, too?' "

Though Tootsie and her friends have seen the Forum's light, many of them don't realize the program is older than they are. It goes back to a used-car salesman named Jack Rosenberg, who in 1960 left his wife and four children in rural Pennsylvania and took off with a new wife for the West Coast. On the plane, he read an Esquire article about atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg and economics minister Ludwig Erhard, and decided to change his name. He landed in California as Werner Erhard.

Erhard spent the next decade kicking around the West Coast self-improvement scene, first in the then burgeoning "human-potential movement" centered around the Esalen retreat in Big Sur, where he explored Gestalt therapy and Alan Watts's interpretation of Zen; then in more structured groups like the Church of Scientology and Mind Dynamics, which tried to help its adherents harness the power of the brain's alpha waves. Unlike most of his fellow seekers, however, Erhard meant business: In 1971, he quit his job with an encyclopedia-sales company and synthesized his explorations into est. Promoting his course with an advertisement featuring his photo and a pitch tailored to the times -- "Know and understand yourself and others" -- Erhard soon had a hit on his hands.

Thousands gathered in auditoriums to hear the koans he said would unlock the secrets of self-knowledge: "What is, is, what ain't, ain't"; "If you let a tree be a tree, you get a tree, not a jackass"; and "The sound of one hand clapping is just that -- one hand clapping." Est became the basis for Tom Wolfe's article for this magazine on "The ME Decade," and it attracted more than a half-million people, including John Denver, Yoko Ono, and enough employees of one film company to earn it the nickname "Werner Brothers." Erhard also founded the Hunger Project, which pledged to end world hunger simply by raising awareness of the issue -- which could be why, according to Mother Jones, only $2 million of the $67 million it raised was given to relief organizations.

As the company grew, Erhard also began to know and understand Monte Cristo cigars, a Mercedes with the license plate so wut, and a Pacific Heights mansion with the bedroom walls painted black. Assistants shined his shoes, cleaned his Sausalito houseboat, and cared for his Great Dane, Polo. Asked whether he was the Messiah, according to Steven Pressman's Outrageous Betrayal, Erhard replied that he wasn't -- "I am he who sent him."

By 1991, however, after a scathing 60 Minutes exposé, Erhard disappeared. These days, Landmark says Erhard has no role in its business, although their courses are based on his "technology" -- the structure, style, and system of beliefs he used in est and later in the Forum, which he created in 1985 when est enrollment started to dip. Landmark's Forum is shorter than est and has fewer rules (in est, attendees weren't just warned they might miss something if they went to the bathroom -- they weren't allowed to go at all), but it retains some similar exercises and the same tortured relationship to grammar. People aren't in the room; they are "present."

One is not "committed to" something; he's simply "committed." A typical Forum phrase might read "The listening you are does not allow for the possibility of being committed that you are extraordinary." Then there are the slogans written on the chalkboard by Forum leaders: change causes persistence; you must create a new way of being, but you are perfect just as you are. Even while Landmark teaches its truth, leaders repeatedly assert that "none of this is true"; participants need to "get it," but there's "nothing to get."

Consider the way one Forum leader compares the program with est: "The est training was based on experiencing your experience. The idea was that if you really, truly experienced your feelings, emotions, anxieties, all of those problems in your life would miraculously clear up. But that doesn't quite get to where the bad feeling came from. What's unique and powerful about the Forum is that it gives you the tools to get to the source."

The source, of course, is you. "You!" shouts the tall man perched on a director's chair raised on a dais at the front of the room. "You are a loyal viewer of your own soap opera. You love it! You couldn't deal with life without it. Your friends are the people who watch it." He pauses for dramatic effect. "Well, guess what? It's going off the air."

The man is Jeff Willmore, a 41-year-old former entrepreneur with a Seinfeldian drawl and a dry sense of humor. Over the next three days, Willmore lectures about the principles of the Forum, introduces the vocabulary behind them, and calls up dozens of people to standing microphones to "share." Though most of the people at the Forum I attended were white and in their twenties or early thirties, there were also fiftyish black attorneys, Pakistani secretaries, and a miniskirted senior from the Ross School in the Hamptons. "Everyone says high school is where you're supposed to figure it all out," she said. "But I haven't! So that's why I'm here."

The Forum runs from 9 a.m. to midnight each day, with only a 90-minute dinner recess that attendees are told to spend with other attendees. There are two other half-hour breaks, which don't always offer enough time to catch the elevator downstairs to the subterranean World Trade Center mall and scarf down a bagel; then you're late and one of the assistants with an orange name tag -- not one of the white ones students wear -- will ask why. The right answer isn't "I was having a snack"; it's simply "Yes."

At the beginning of the Forum on Friday morning, we all agree to be on time with a show of hands. We agree to raise our hands before speaking, which we also agree to with a show of hands. We agree to wear our name tags; not whisper; not use drugs, alcohol, or aspirin over the course of the weekend; and not bring in any food or drink. "People say that you can't have anything to eat because we're trying to brainwash you," says Willmore, who has pinned his name tag squarely on his tie. "Um, I don't think so. We just don't want spilling on the carpet."

Once all the agreements are made -- and we've all agreed again that we made them -- Willmore introduces the idea of separating "what happened" from "the story about what happened." A 51-year-old advertising copywriter steps up to a microphone and says, weeping, that her father died when she was 10, her husband left her, and she thinks the two are related. "That never happened," says Willmore, handing her a Kleenex. "Well," she says nervously, "yes, it did."

"What are the facts here?" he asks, pacing the stage. "Your father died when you were 10. Fact. Now men always leave you. That's the story, the soap opera -- the part that never happened! Get it?" Then we applaud. We always applaud after someone shares. Up at the microphones, people announce things that they've never told anyone. A slender thirtysomething aid worker for Eastern European refugees confesses that she doesn't care about her clients and she took the job only because she was tired of corporate law. An Indian woman admits she doesn't really love her husband. A 28-year-old attorney tells her deepest secret.

"I moved from Somalia to London when I was 6, and my English was quite bad," she says, a tremulous murmur in her voice. "The nuns at the new school told me to bring in money for lunch or to bring a lunch from home. I didn't understand, so I brought both, every day. The nun kept asking, 'Why aren't you eating the lunch you paid for?' This went on for a month or so. One day, she made me stay after the other kids left. She put the school lunch in front of me, and even though I'd already eaten my lunch from home, she made me eat it. I got so sick to my stomach that I threw up in the plate. And she made me eat that, too."

"I'm loving this," confides a woman next to me, breaking the no-whispering rule. " 'Cause it's just like Oprah, and I love Oprah." In each case, Willmore exhorts people to let go of their anger toward those who have hurt them. This is "getting complete," which involves calling up those who wronged you and asking them for forgiveness (a bank of phones are provided for this purpose). "Don't say, 'I forgive you even though you were a bastard to me,' " says Willmore. "Getting complete is the kind of forgiving where you say, 'Hey, I just wanted you to know I'm okay with you.'"

After you get complete, explains Willmore, it's time to have an "enrollment conversation," as in "I'm calling because I want to enroll you in the possibility of me having an extraordinary life." That's followed by the "invitation conversation," in which you ask those close to you to attend your Forum "graduation" on Tuesday night ("because it would mean a lot to me"), and the "registration conversation," in which you ask them to take the Forum themselves ("because I think it would be good for you"). "There's also a bonus assignment," says Willmore. "Who thinks they can bring three or more people to their introductory Forum?"

By the last night, people are pledging to invite everyone they know. At the end, Willmore scrawls on the board the phrase "life is empty and meaningless, and it's empty and meaningless that it's empty and meaningless" on the board, and the room goes nuts. Everyone's getting it, even a brunette publicist who complained earlier that she felt like the "bullshit police" -- though, as Willmore says, "there's nothing to get."

Much of what the Forum teaches comes down to the Nike slogan -- "Just Do It." But after three days of homework assignments and rigorous exercises like the "fear conversation" -- in which everyone is encouraged to look around them, be afraid, and then conquer that -- participants walk away with a catharsis and an unholy confidence in what they can accomplish. Whatever people come in wanting to do but are afraid to follow through on they tend to leave seeing as their destiny revealed, whether it's getting a divorce or getting off the grid.

"You could die tomorrow," Willmore declares repeatedly. "There is no someday to do this stuff -- the time is now." By the end of my Forum, a gay 30-year-old has come out to his parents and a septuagenarian has proposed to his longtime girlfriend. "It's hard, especially when you get really deep, but it's a complete transformation," says Lavinia Errico, the co-founder of the Equinox gym chain who sold it for a reported $150 million in December and took the course months ago. "Before, I was this tragically hip girl -- nails, feet, outfits, everything had to be perfect. I was always like, 'I'm moving, I'm shaking, I've got no time for you.' I was freely expressed, but I was freely expressed as a bitch! Now sometimes I hear myself talking, and I'm like, 'God, I'm such a cornball!' But I'm closer to who I really want to be."

At the back of the room, Robin Quivers is watching the proceedings intently -- Willmore was her Forum leader, and she sometimes comes by when he's in town. Though Quivers wrote a book about her unhappy childhood (her mother was physically abusive and her father molested her), it's the Forum that helped her truly put away the past. "I called up my mother and asked, 'Mom, will you come spend my birthday with me?' " says Quivers. "When I said that, she was so frightened. My mother was scared of me because I had spent my whole life making her wrong! Once I got that, I called her back and said, 'You know what, Mom? I really want you to come, and bring the whole family!' And they all came, to my apartment for the first time, to the radio station, just all over." She pauses. "My father died the following year. So it really was an amazing opportunity."

During one of the half-hour breaks, I run down to America's Coffee with Alex Kuscher, a petite blonde registered by Tootsie's best friend. After we discover that the guy pouring our coffee had also signed up for a Forum, Alex tells me that the man Tootsie met on the subway is in our course, wearing an old pair of eyeglasses Tootsie asked her to give him. "You can't miss Jerry," she laughs. "He's the guy wearing women's glasses." Sure enough, there he is in the front row, looking up words like authentic and meaningless in a French-English dictionary, wearing glasses with arms that only reach his temples.

Jerry left his own glasses in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After his father was murdered before his eyes, Jerry became more active in an opposition party. One day the house where he lived was set on fire and he was taken captive. Months later, he escaped in the back of a truck to a town where he was able to contact his uncle, who sent Jerry his passport, a plane ticket to New York, and $100, most of which he spent on the taxi from JFK.

He slept on the street, then stayed at a shelter until he found room and board at a synagogue in Williamsburg, where he works as a maintenance man and Shabbos goy. Then he met Tootsie and he learned how to tune out his soap opera. Sprawling over an entire floor of a skyscraper in San Francisco's financial district, with a half-dozen clocks for various time zones hanging over the receptionist's desk, the world headquarters of Landmark looks every bit the office of an information-age global corporation. Which, of course, it is.

"We're all over, as you can see," says Landmark's CEO, Harry Rosenberg, his gold Neiman Marcus tie swinging as he extends an arm to a world map marked with tiny red dots. "Next, we're thinking Korea, Hong Kong, China, Singapore. We're already in two cities in Japan. Japan is ridiculous!" A chatty father of two who likes to golf, Rosenberg has a salesman's tendency to overuse names and a self-deprecating, me, a CEO? kind of laugh.

He's been the head of Landmark Education Corporation since 1991, when he and a handful of employees bought "the technology" from Erhard, who, as it happens, is Rosenberg's older brother. Rosenberg was 10 when Erhard left Pennsylvania, and, along with the rest of his family, heard nothing from him for twelve years -- "Literally, we didn't know if he was dead or alive." One day, Erhard appeared on the Rosenbergs' doorstep, and soon Harry moved to San Francisco to work for est. "The healing process that happened there was great," says Rosenberg, nodding. His own 8-year-old daughter just completed the children's Forum.

Though it was rumored that Erhard sold his system for $1, it was later revealed that he received an initial payment of $3 million in addition to an eighteen-year licensing fee that was not to exceed $15 million; Erhard kept the Mexican and Japanese branches of the operation. By then, est had fallen out of favor: At best, it was seen as a seventies fad; at worst, a successful scam. Even as Erhard planned to sell his company and leave the U.S., the 60 Minutes segment reported that est had an elaborate series of offshore tax shelters, and two of Erhard's daughters were accusing him of sexual abuse. (His daughters later recanted.)

To Erhard's supporters it was a setup, engineered by disgruntled ex-esties and the Church of Scientology. According to 60 Minutes and the Assassination of Werner Erhard, a Landmark-approved book on the subject by Dr. Jane Self, Scientology considered Erhard a traitor for what the church considered the liberal use of its techniques. "Werner made some very, very powerful enemies," says Rosenberg. "They really got him."

The exposé only reinforced the group's persecution complex; details of the company's operations are closely guarded. "No one in the organization gossips," says Suzie Simmons, a professional coach. "Gossip kills organizations." Convinced the company is misunderstood, Landmark diehards tend to close ranks. "Anyone who wasn't a part of Landmark was basically to be looked down upon, like an enemy," says White, a former volunteer. Eventually, "I really didn't have any friends outside of Landmark. And other people really didn't like me after a while."

When Landmark is challenged, it sometimes responds in court. It's brought libel suits against Berkeley professor Margaret Singer for her book Cults in Our Midst, and against the Cult Awareness Network, which had provided information about the organization to concerned callers. Both cases were settled out of court, and CAN stated that it "does not hold, and has never held . . . that Landmark is a cult or sect." (A bankrupt CAN was purchased by a Scientologist shortly before the settlement.)

Landmark often justifies the value of its courses by citing a 1997 Harvard Business School case study, "Landmark Education Corporation: Selling a Paradigm Shift," which outlines the company's business practices and underlying message in glowing terms but doesn't cover the psychological aspects or effectiveness of Landmark's programs. As of this year, Harvard is no longer printing the study, teaching from it in courses, or keeping it in its library. "Landmark ordered 75,000 copies of the study," says a source at the school. "That's when we knew we had a problem." (Landmark's spokesman, Mark Kamin, calls this figure "grossly inaccurate.")

Last year, Landmark had revenues of $58 million, and Rosenberg says the company has bought outright Erhard's license and his rights to Japan and Mexico. Entirely employee-owned and run by a board of directors elected by the staff, Landmark also draws on the expertise of successful devotees like Mick Leavitt, producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who works part-time in Landmark's business-development department. Eventually, says Rosenberg, that development might even include leaving behind some of the hard sell associated with Landmark's courses. "We've been accused of pressuring people in terms of our, quote, 'sales,' and we're out to avoid any of that," he says. Instead, "I'd like to experiment with advertising," he continues. "We're coming out with an audiotape. We'll probably do a book." Rosenberg is also "committed" that within five years Landmark will have an IPO.

The big question, of course, is, what exactly is the Forum selling? "There's no question that the combination of examination, encouragement, and the act of speaking out has been shown to have the psychological benefit of freeing people up to see things about themselves that they never have before," says analyst Kevin Garvey. "My problem is that there's an amount of control going on that Landmark's not honest about. People are being put into a state where they are -- here's the bogey word -- hypnotizable. So I don't care if they can screw better or make more money -- their freedom is being taken away. Can you have freedom without knowledge? I think the answer is no."

Along with his handful of peers in "exit counseling" -- a gentler version of "cult deprogramming" -- Garvey believes that Landmark employs a kind of thought reform similar to conditioning used by other Large Group Awareness Trainings, some cults, and the U.S. Marines. Like those organizations, the Forum drives its points home with loaded language, relentless repetition, and a carefully constructed environment. "We controlled even subtle things like the quality of light and the sound that came out of the microphones," says White. "The style of lettering on all the signs had to be exactly the same or it was a really big deal. We covered the mirrors. We put all the chairs in a specific order."

Landmark refutes such claims, citing studies the company has requested from such experts as Dr. Raymond Fowler, the CEO of the American Psychological Association (who conducted the study independent of the association's auspices), and Dr. Edward Lowell, a specialist in mind-control techniques, who interviewed thousands of people involved with Landmark's programs and concluded that claims of brainwashing are "ridiculous." "I've also got this letter from Bishop Otis Charles," says Kamin -- " 'By no definition I know of can the Forum or Landmark programs constitute a cult or sect.' An Episcopal bishop! Does that seem like someone who would be supportive of a cult?"

"Although there's a perception that people who get involved with such organizations are simply stupid, lonely, mentally ill, whatever, the dependence on such groups is very real," says Paul Martin, director of the country's only recovery center for such groups, Ohio's Wellspring Retreat. "For some people, life becomes living for the next seminar. It becomes, in a sense, a person's religion." Put a different way, "people become Landmark junkies," says exit counselor Rick Ross, who says he gets more calls about Landmark than about any other group. "They start to take courses, and they just don't stop."

"For six months, I was just hooked," says a recently counseled Landmark participant from Denver, Colorado. "My parents kept pushing me to do it, and I thought, 'My God! If everyone did this, there would be no need for drugs, 'cause the euphoria is just so . . . euphoric!' I took the whole 'Curriculum for Living,' assisted constantly, and even dropped out of school because being a medical assistant wasn't 'extraordinary' enough for me. Then I had a miscarriage. I missed a seminar because I was grieving for my baby. When I showed up the next week, the leader said, 'The good news is the loss of your baby doesn't mean shit. What does mean shit is that you have gone outside your integrity because you missed your seminar.' "

For many disillusioned dropouts, what seems to replace an obsession with Landmark is . . . an obsession with Landmark. There are dozens of anti-Landmark sites on the Internet, one of which, presumably for inspirational purposes, quotes the lyrics to Edie Brickell's "What I Am": "Philosophy is a walk on slippery rocks / Religion is a light in the fog / I'm not aware of too many things / I know what I know, if you know what I mean." On most of them, the million-dollar question is: Where's Werner? Kamin initially said he didn't know where Erhard was and later said that while Erhard plays no role at all in Landmark's operations, he and his brother have remained in contact. "Besides the fact that he's my brother, the company considers Werner a friend," says Rosenberg. In fact, Erhard has appeared at company functions, including a program in Toronto and a seminar in Japan.

"From time to time, Werner might be at a program that Landmark is hosting if he happens to be in that city," says Kamin. "It's very natural that we would invite him. We respect the guy, and feel that he made not only a big contribution to us but to billions of people around the world."

Though his whereabouts have been shrouded in mystery since 1991, it turns out that Erhard has been living at least part of the time in Georgetown, the capital of the Cayman Islands, with Gonneke (pronounced "Hanukkah") Spits, his assistant during his encyclopedia-selling days and later a key executive in est. Changing his surname yet again -- he goes by Werner Spits -- Erhard has joined an eating club called Chaîne des Rotisseurs, which holds formal themed dinners several times a year. One eleven-course feast (roasted squab, peaches in chartreuse jelly) re-created the last dinner on the Titanic. For Jerry, the forum was "the best present anyone ever gave to me.

Before I came, I could not sleep at night because I could not forget what had happened to me." Sitting on the ground outside the World Trade Center, he cradles his head in his hands. "Now I know that nothing happens by accident. I am committed I will make a new life in America." Jerry wanted to take the Advanced Forum very badly, so he started saving whatever money he didn't need to live on for the $700 registration fee.

Meanwhile, he met with Tootsie nearly every week to work on his application for political asylum; she also lent him her laptop so he could write his life story. The week after he took the Forum, Jerry went to a bar called Calico Jack's for Alex's going-away party -- she had to have a bunion on her foot removed and was planning to recuperate out of town -- and Alex asked him to sign her crutches. "I want to have a party for my birthday," said Jerry, sipping a Corona. He would turn 29 the following week. "Maybe you all can come?"

A couple of weeks later, the money that Jerry was going to spend on the Advanced Forum was stolen out of his apartment, along with his passport, his application for asylum, and Tootsie's computer. "I can't believe someone did this," says Jerry. "It makes me so mad!" He was bored with his job at the synagogue and was having a hard time "making new possibilities." He had tried to call the Congo, but he couldn't reach his family. "But the people from Landmark call me all the time," he says.

"Jerry," says Tootsie, in her singsong voice. "They do that to everyone." "Well, they said they wanted me to assist, something about a weekend for the teenagers -- " "God!" says Tootsie. "This is so not the guy who has time to go volunteer at the Forum." In the month since she took the Advanced Forum, Tootsie has started to have doubts about Landmark. "I really believe in the work," she says, "but I think there are some things that aren't so great -- what's up with all this volunteering? The longer it gets without me going down to the World Trade Center . . . I don't know. I mean, I'm committed to Jerry, but it just feels like, 'What was I doing?' "

Other Forum graduates are picking up where Tootsie left off. Six weeks after the Forum I attended, I received an e-mail from a technical designer who had taken the Forum when I was there. She was now in the advanced course and she had told two strangers about it on her way home. She also wrote: I am inviting you to my completion of the advanced course. Please take this opportunity to find out if the advanced course can be of benefit to you and your life.

Bring your calendars and money (could be in form of cash, check, or a credit card), in an event that you decide that you want to take it you have everything is available. For those who are very sure they do not want to do the advanced course, bring it anyway. If you are sure you are not taking it, it is completely safe in your pocket.

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