John Chmela says one long weekend in a Chicago conference room changed his life.
Seven months ago, Chmela attended the Landmark Forum, an educational seminar that has drawn rave reviews from many participants, as well as unease from some observers.
The program - based on the EST training that made headlines in the 1970s for its 60-hour obscenity- and abuse-filled seminars where participants were trained to get "it" - helps people "create breakthroughs in aspects of their life that are important to them," says one of the course leaders, Jeff Wilmore.
"It was completely different than what I thought it would be," Chmela says. "I thought it would be a motivational seminar."
Chmela learned about Landmark while doing research for his Internet business, a Web site called Top100Expo.com, which ranks activities and products.
After taking the course, he decided to rate the Landmark Forum as the No. 2 top adventure, just below a company that plans to offer tourists trips into space.
He may have stumbled upon Landmark by accident, but Chmela speaks of it now in the language of a true believer.
"It transforms your entire life," says Chmela. He says since taking the course he's been able to act on many of his life's goals, including writing a book, a screenplay and expanding his Web business.
Landmark says it teaches people how to recognize and break behavior patterns and take responsibility for their selves and their actions. It teaches people not to simply do what others expect them to do.
"You may discover that why you are the way you are is the result of some decision you made and you never saw you made the decision," Wilmore says. He agrees that Landmark isn't the first to preach taking control of one's life, but he insists the course is different and vastly more effective than reading a self-help book.
"You're not just doing it with anyone - I mean this is a particular field we've developed expertise in," he says.
But Wilmore and others involved in Landmark say it's difficult to fully explain the Forum to people who haven't taken course.
"I was skeptical before I did it," Wilmore notes.
Troy Beyer, an actress and director in Los Angeles, took the Forum three months ago and says it transformed her life by showing her that she had been unknowingly holding herself back.
"What I didn't know was that I had something in my past that was determining what was in my present," she says. Her success helped convince her parents and grandmother to do the course, but she also admits it may all seem a little mysterious.
"It's so hard to explain," she says.
Mostly through word-of-mouth, Landmark has overcome skepticism to reach thousands every year.
The company says 125,000 people take its courses every year - a total of more than 600,000 since 1985 - with only minimal advertising. They have offices in 22 states and 18 countries outside the United States.
Landmark's low-profile approach, plus the enthusiasm of participants, has led some to wonder if the the program is coercive or manipulative.
Company officials emphatically deny that.
They stress that the Forum does not espouse a particular philosophy or religious worldview, nor does it treat its leaders as gurus or sages. Landmark does not encourage participants to cut ties with the outside world, or tell them their lives were empty or unsuccessful before taking the course, they say.
Landmark officials insist they simply teach people to take control of their lives. They point to a sheaf of letters from prominent psychiatrists, religious officials, academics and others attesting to the safety and effectiveness of the program.
"There isn't anything cult-like about us," says Mark Kamen, a company spokesman. "You don't join Landmark; there's no religion; people don't separate from their families & there's no leader to believe in."
Landmark's roots in EST - the company bought the rights to EST's methodology and is run by the brother of EST founder Werner Erhard - have also made some people uneasy.
Directed by Erhard, EST drew thousands with its promise of "transformation" through grueling 60-hour-long seminars known for their extreme methods. EST moderators often screamed at participants and forbade sleep, food, or bathroom breaks during the course.
Erhard retreated into seclusion after being accused of tax fraud and incest. His daughter later recanted her allegations of abuse, and the U.S. government ultimately paid Erhard $200,000 over the tax dispute. EST accused the Church of Scientology of masterminding a smear campaign against Erhard, a charge which Scientology rejects.
Landmark officials say that Erhard has no ownership or management role in the company today. The company is owned by its roughly 400 employees, with no individual holding more than 2.5 percent. Landmark says its courses - which cost from about $400 to $1,000 - brought in earnings of $58 million in 2000, but officials insist no one is getting rich.
"It's a myth that there's somebody raking in money hand over fist," says Kamen.
Some people familiar with Landmark agree that it isn't dangerous, but are skeptical that it can transform virtually anyone's life for the better.
Gary Toub, a psychologist who is a director at the CG Jung Institute in Colorado, said a personal experience left him uneasy about the Forum, though he hadn't studied the group extensively or participated in it himself.
An estranged family member placed a highly emotional phone call apologizing to him while at a Landmark Forum workshop, he said.
"It just didn't feel real to me at the time," he said. "I accepted her apology but I really didn't trust it." His relative later asked him to attend a graduation ceremony with her, which he said turned out to be a Forum event encouraging people to take the course.
"I experienced it as a recruitment program," he said. "It didn't feel good."
Toub also said he knew people who had positive experiences with the Forum.
"I would say the same thing [about] any shrink - anyone in this business: consumer beware."
Simon Crosby, a psychotherapist in East Sussex, England, is an enthusiastic Forum graduate, but he also cautions it is not for everyone.
He worries that people in poor mental health could be harmed by the Forum (which does attempt to screen out unsuitable participants).
"I think it's important to screen people out," he says. He also believes the course can lead to some degree of ego-inflation and make people more outspoken in their views and opinions.
He also notes that the jargon used by the Forum - the material is referred to as a "technology," participants talk about "clearing the past" and "running rackets" - may turn some people off.
"It does sound weird. It is weird," he admits.
But overall, Crosby believes the Forum is not a gimmick.
"I think you'd also be astonished, frankly, at what is possible in this setting."
There is no denying that many Forum graduates believe it has changed their lives.
"I've always thought of myself as a nice guy but who always kind of sat on the sidelines," says Mike Dean, another Forum participant, who took the Forum on the recommendation of his wife's boss.
Now he says he's working harder and relating better to his wife and family.
"It was just an excellent thing for me."