On the early morning train to London I am scared. I've signed up for a weekend course that promises to change my life. I'm told that in about 40 hours it will break me and remake me. Called The Forum and run by an organisation called Landmark Education, it promises to alter my reality radically and transform my relationships. Some say such courses are brainwashing, but I want to keep an open mind.
The Forum was developed by Werner Erhard (nee Jack Rosenberg), a former Scientologist and used car salesman who founded the controversial 'est' (Erhard Seminar Training) in 1971. Est was an encounter group made up of a mixture of self-help, Scientology, Zen Buddhism and other psychotherapeutic techniques.
It grew dramatically, spreading around the world, attracting notoriety when people spoke of abusive and controlling behaviour in seminars.
Erhard's empire unravelled in the Eighties as the U.S. tax service made allegations, and several employees brought lawsuits against him - all of which he denied. Erhard went into exile and devised a new course The Forum, which bears a resemblance to est, though experts say it is not as extreme.
In the early Nineties he was bought out by his employees who formed Landmark Education and paid him for using his technology. It is unclear whether he still has an influence on the organisation. I arrive at an anonymous looking five-storey office near Euston station at 8.45am. Scores of people are signing in and picking up name tags. Inside the plain white and grey auditorium are about 200 participants, 20 helpers and David Sherman, our leader.
Though there are a smattering of elderly people and one or two 18- year-olds, most are between 20 and 40, with slightly more women than men. The majority appear to be educated professionals (doctors, lawyers, advertising executives, lecturers and teachers, people in business or the media); others are in sales or the caring professions; there are a few musicians and artists; and a couple of people who are unemployed or retired.
AT 9am, precisely, the doors to the auditorium are closed and David strides down a central aisle to the slightly raised podium at the front. He sits in a director-style chair in the centre, flanked by two blackboards. The window blinds behind the podium are closed. The participants sit in cramped chairs in a semicircle 12 rows deep.
That is the situation for three days from 9am until about midnight. We have short breaks every three hours and a 90-minute meal break at about 6pm. We are given homework tasks for the breaks and the end of the day. At night I got five hours sleep.
Everything is oppressively featureless and bland. Nothing is allowed to distract from what the leader is saying. But what occurs during those three days is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. It is impossible not to be affected by it. David, a former hairdresser, is fortysomething, dressed in a powder blue cotton shirt, patent leather shoes and smart trousers.
He sits at the front and smiles over steel-rimmed glasses. He explains that for the duration of the Forum he will be taking us on a rollercoaster ride and that he is committed to improving the quality of our relationships, our communication and our effectiveness in all areas of our life.
He is personable, powerful and articulate and has a no-nonsense manner: 'I'm committed to you having breakthroughs - to do that I'm willing to be unreasonable. 'Why? I'm committed to being unreasonable because I'm committed to extraordinary relationships. I think it's worth it. I'm committed to everyone doing the Forum, I believe in it.' THIS zealous commitment is used to justify Forum rules.
We are discouraged from going to the toilet during the three-hour sessions in case we lose the 'narrative'. We are not allowed to take notes, eat or talk (unless instructed to).
The doors are closed on the minute at the end of 40-minute breaks and to re- enter the room we have to apologise for breaking our word. We promise not to drink alcohol or to take non-prescribed drugs (such as paracetamol). It is made clear to us that we will be made accountable for these commitments.
David pre-empts any doubts we have and assures us that this is fine, natural even, but if we want to achieve the benefits of the Forum we must banish these doubts. 'Otherwise you're wasting your 235,' he says. He describes himself as coach and us as athletes.
David assures us that the Forum is not psychotherapy or neurolinguistic programming (a new brain programming technique). He reads out a passage from a whiteboard, which seems to be a disclaimer.
Clearly the Forum does not want to be held responsible for participants who may be emotionally or mentally unstable: hence we are told that it is not appropriate for them to take part. At about this stage, David announces that if the Forum is not for you, then you can leave and receive a full refund. A couple leave.
The philosophy of Landmark is then outlined to us in a kind of Forumspeak which touches on personal responsibility for our lives, deep self-honesty and a need to sort out unresolved issues with others. What we would normally call a 'hidden agenda' is described as 'running a racket'. We are told to see our everyday complaints as 'rackets'.
David then invites people to the microphone to describe their complaints and explains how these are just mental devices for blaming others. The payoff, he explains, is our feeling of self- righteousness. Several people go up to the microphone and talk about their 'rackets'. Some are petty gripes between couples.
Others are more substantial. A woman says she is running a racket in relation to her husband who left her and took her children. Thin-lipped, she admits she is furious with him and has been 'living off' this fury. David suggests she had been running a racket before her husband left. She nods guiltily.
He pushes her further: 'You're responsible for your husband leaving you.' He says the 'payoff' from this racket is 'making him wrong'. She is tearful but he senses some resistance and says that she's still holding on to her racket. She nods. 'Quit complaining then,' he says.
'You're a disgusting racketeer.' She sits down, resolved to face up to her racket and 'grow up'. Other course members seem to be uneasy about this confrontation, but remain silent. David goes on to tell us how our past experiences affect our lives.
The interpretations we put on them are merely our 'story' and this can influence our view of reality. One woman says her past left her feeling completely unlovable. She was the love child of an Irish Catholic mother who had placed her in an orphanage at birth. Years later her adoptive parents had disowned her because she got pregnant outside marriage. Now she finds commitment difficult.
She smiles with new hope as David tells her that abandonment is her 'story'. 'Don't blame your mother, she loved you totally. In her society, she was doing what she had to do. So did your adoptive parents when they kicked you out. I'm abandoned is your story, your invention.
You weren't abandoned,' he explains. She sits down to uproarious applause. But it is only on the second day when a young man comes to the microphone that my misgivings turn to anger. He tells us with tears streaming down his face that he had been raped by his brother for most of his childhood. He had taken David's advice the day before and phoned his brother to create a breakthrough.
'I was willing to give up the pain for a good relationship,' he says. His brother had put down the phone. David urges him to phone again. 'Rape is interpretation. Brutality is interpretation,' he says. He had to forgive him. 'Get off your guilt and grow up,' he snaps.
Others were told that they were 'disgusting', that they had hidden agendas in the most innocent of transactions and that they had clearings for abuse (Forumspeak for an openness to things, which somehow means they will happen). In Forum psychobabble, women were deserted by their husbands because they had a clearing, even a desire, for this. One woman was told that she was attacked in a six-hour attempted rape ordeal because she had a clearing in her psyche for men not to be trustworthy.
Why did we allow this to happen? Partly because challenging David was difficult since we had to speak in Forum jargon and he was more adept at using it. But the main reason, I suspect, was that what David was saying was true in part: personal responsibility is good, and we do have hidden agendas.
It was also because we were reaching deep inside ourselves in these transactions and, therefore, had an 'emotional investment' in the process. A senior surgeon tearfully told of how he bullied a junior doctor because of her inefficiencies. He promised to write to her and 'complete' (apologise and resolve the issue).
A young woman had spoken to her alcoholic father for the first time in years after ostracising him following years of abusive behaviour. They had arranged to meet for coffee.
A chief executive had written a 'breakthrough letter' to a colleague to apologise for sidelining and mar-ginalising him within the company. He promised him a new beginning.
David billed himself (or Landmark Education) as our saviour. 'I'm more on your side than you are,' he said. Before we left that night, David took us on an eyes-closed visualisation where we faced and became comfortable with our fears of others.
We were to imagine that everyone in the room, then the country, then the world, hated us. I'm sure I've got some fears but this seemed too silly to take seriously and, by that stage, I was resisting the idea of giving my mind to the Forum. Others had no such misgivings. Within ten minutes the room was full of strangled whimpers and cries which soon became piercing banshee wails, screams and full-throated sobbing.
Then David led people to what he said was on the other side of the fear. Some started laughing hysterically.
The next morning I woke exhausted. For the previous two nights I had fallen asleep at about 2am and woken with palpitations (which I have never had before or since) at about 6am. It was deeply reassuring being in my friend's house where life was simple and good.
I decided to challenge David. I would write a breakthrough letter in which, according to the Forum jargon, I was enrolled in the possibility of openness and self-expression. But the letter was going to be to David. It was a crisp Sunday morning as I set off. Heading down London's Caledonian Road, I got into the familiar and reassuring rhythms of a run.
About 25 minutes later as I passed Euston station at 8.55am I had a shock. The whole street was jogging with me.
About 20 adults were scuttling along beside me. Then I realised that these were adults, frightened of the confrontation that would occur if they were late for the Forum. I resolved to be late. When I entered the lift an out-of-breath man told me that his train had been cancelled but still it was his responsibility. The doors to the auditorium were closed and I was interrogated by a Forum helper before being escorted like a naughty child to a seat near the front.
About half way through the session, David asks for any breakthrough letters. I raise my hand and am picked.
'Dear Dave,' I start, 'I'm on this course called the Forum. I'm enrolled in the possibility of self-expression and honesty,' I continue in faultless Forums-peak, 'and I believe you are disrupting our thought patterns.' I say that it is deliberately manipulative. 'The Forum has been one long attempt to undermine identity, which creates dependence. Forum junkies.' By the end, 200 jaws were on the ground. David's wasn't. Cool as a cucumber he said: 'Are you open to coaching?' I was, I said, so long as it didn't mean I had to agree with him. He told me that everything I had written was 'interpretation'.
I suggested that this was just as true of him, except that I wasn't in a position to earn rather a lot of money out of it. He started shouting at me but, feeling rather cross, I stood my ground. He continued shouting, glaring down at me from the dais, trying to drown me out.
I asked what he was afraid of. I pointed out that he had spoken for 40 hours, so why was he unwilling for me to speak for five minutes?
Next he invited me to leave the course. I declined and sat down. People's reactions at the next break were interesting. Several who had misgivings of their own thanked me for my contribution. Those who felt that they had benefited from the course were extremely hostile.
Later that day, most people signed up for the Advanced Forum. When I left I was so disorientated and exhausted that I got lost on the Tube and smoked my first cigarettes in years. I felt 'hyperactive' for days and the Forum language took even longer to wear off.
I was shaken by the power of the weekend. As I got the midnight train out of London, I realised that well over 100 people had experienced a transformation in three days.
The sense of euphoria that such an experience of accelerated community brings was remarkable. Perhaps this is why such groups thrive in cities where intelligent, rational people are lonely and socially isolated. Somehow a shared confessional experience such as Forum brings a sense of community.
Rarely do we delve so deep into ourselves, even in front of our families. No wonder people go back for more - and pay hundreds of pounds for the privilege.