Defending Your Life

The Landmark Forum is a self-help program that offers to make you anew, more powerful dude. The catch? Try three days of scant sleep, humiliating revelations, and verbal abuse. So why are people signing up by the thousands?

GQ Magazine/May, 2005
By James O’Brien

The leader’s pale face has gone paler. Hi voice is taut with urgency. I think I see spit flying. He is a master of dispersed eye contact, and it is as if he is speaking to everyone and no one. Throughout this harangue, he repeatedly insists that none of us, not a single one of us, has even a shred of integrity. Our word is worthless. We are dishonest. His voice rising, he says, again, "You have no integrity!"

I sit in anxious silence with a hundred other hopeful souls as the leader berates us for an impressive two hours straight. I must be some sort of masochist, because even though I haven’t done a damn thing wrong in all the time I’ve sat in the hard plastic chair, I’m thrilled with this chastisement—no doubt meant to urge me, to urge all of us, toward some kind of life breakthrough. It is indeed a crazy new world inside this brightly-lit ballroom.

At first, the Landmark Forum and its marathon group-encounter sessions seemed marginal to me, a thin hippie residue like the stringy-haired septuagenarian Deadhead I’d see at my local grocery every so often. But then the veterans of the seminar began popping up everywhere in my life.

The Landmark Forum is the streamlined, slightly gentler offspring of that pinnacle of the 70’s encounter movement, EST. In EST’s heyday, large groups of groovy seekers were reportedly locked in rooms for as long as twenty hours a day over two consecutive weekends and subjected to fascistic group pressure, verbal abuse and brutal honesty, all in the name of self-empowerment, personal transformation, and the ego of EST’s creator, a onetime car salesman turned publisher named Jack Rosenberg a.k.a. Werner Erhard. In 1991, with lawsuits pending and a potentially damning 60 Minutes exposé about to create loads of bad publicity, Erhard sold the technology of transformation to a group of his former employees and split the country.

His followers eventually formed a company called Landmark Education. Landmark now has over 400 employees in twenty-one countries. Its 2003 revenues were approximately $67 million. The Landmark Forum is the flagship seminar, a $400 three-day public/personal inquisition through which participants seek a transformation, a breakthrough to "living powerfully."

Landmark Education does very little advertising and relies on the example and persuasiveness of its transformed army to attract new generations. I’d heard that its adherents invited supportive friends to ballrooms to celebrate their completion of the Landmark Forum, only to abandon their guests to a wide-eyed hard sell in a faraway room.

Many succumb. Nearly 75,000 people take the Forum each year. In fact, many then go on to take the increasingly expensive and intense courses in Landmark Education’s "Curriculum for Living." Each devotee is no doubt attracted to the promise that, through the teachings of Landmark, you can have "anything you want for yourself or your life." In my own bleak moments, that promise could sound awfully sweet.

So I took a Forum veteran (Identifying details and actions of all Landmark Forum participants have been changed to protect their anonymity) to coffee and asked her what I was all about. She was not a true believer, but like others I’d met, she could talk about the experience at length while revealing little.

She used words like energy and self-discovery. "The brain," she’d learned, "functions to make assumptions prior to fact." The Forum helps you kick that habit. Even in a room with a couple of hundred people, she said, the experience was very personal and had caused her to deal with a long held grudge against her beloved mother. But how? "I don’t know. You talk to the person sitting next to you." The obscurity was frustrating but also tantalizing. How could something so substantial, so life-altering remain so ethereal?

Then I heard about a couple, friends of friends, who’d taken the Forum and soon separated, then divorced. One day they were seemingly happy in their little suburban home with their adorable child. The next day: separate houses, shared custody, lonely lives. Even though I knew them only casually, their dramatic reaction to whatever they seemed to have learned about themselves in the Landmark Forum shocked me; every time I ran into someone who knew them, I’d ask anxiously if they had reconciled. The answer was always no.

And it scared the sh-t out of me. Especially as it became increasingly clear that if I were ever going to understand Landmark’s enduring, defiant appeal, I’d have to go in myself.

After all, who was a better candidate for a new and powerful life than me? I was just on the sinister side of 40, with a floundering career, a tiny cluttered apartment, a dented car, a gloomy demeanor, and an illegible inner palimpsest of failed friendships and estranged siblings: It was very much the grim season of my own discontent. I worried I’d be susceptible to whatever it was Landmark was selling, but I had to know. This enigma that in a weekend could so profoundly change a life was calling me.

My ballroom of transformation is the heart of Oakland’s intense little Chinatown, where I am surrounded by a group composed of the weepy, the wounded, the self-help sluts, and bublegum Buddhists who populate this wonderful part of the world in which I live (and where first EST, and now Landmark is based), Northern California. I’d say there are a few more women than men. We range in age from late teens to nearly 70. We are a great American mix of white and black and Asian and Latino. We are grizzled and coifed, urban and suburban, dorky and hip.

There are rigid rules of Landmark Forum behavior, circa 2005: The three days go from 9 AM to around midnight. Always have your name badge visible. Do not eat in the room (Water is okay.) Do not speak unless called on. Stand when you speak. Otherwise, sit. There will be occasional half-hour breaks and one longer dinner break each evening. Otherwise, do not leave the room if you absolutely must leave, we go ahead, but you thereby forfeit your right to expect transformation. Do not be one second late in the morning or when returning from a break. Do not take notes. And if you really are committed to this thing, refrain from aspirin or alcohol until we’re done.

The conduit to our dreams of a powerful life—our Landmark Forum leader—is 56-year-old Richard Condon. Small, dapper, and strident, with a sparse goatee and an oxford shirt, Condon is a combination arrogant professor, soulful father confessor, hysterical drill instructor, and Boys in the Band bitch. (Not the gay part, just the occasional downright withering nastiness.)

He takes the stage late in the morning on day one, like a headlining rock star, after his mild-mannered cohort, Barry, has warmed us up with various warnings of how emotional and mentally rigorous this long weekend will be.

Apparently, some participants have concerns that Landmark might be a cult. When these concerns come from the group the first morning. When these concerns come from the group the first morning, Condon swats them away like gnats on a summer night. Yes, back in the ‘90’s, Werner Erhard sold his business to a group of employees, but this is not est. No we are not a cult: we are not a religion. We are not asking you to follow us, and if you do we’ll call the cops. When someone asks who Werner Erhard is, Condon is dismissive. Don’t worry about Werner Erhard. Worry about yourselves.

"You are living lives of sham and illusion," Condon assures us from his director’s chair. "Everything you do in life is meant to make you look good or to avoid looking bad. Everything. You are inauthentic. You have no integrity. Your word is worthless."

I suspect that his pessimistic appraisals are a shock to many in the group accustomed to being validated in their expensive self-help seminars. But this is me to a tee, and early on I find myself both agreeing with him and wishing he would tell me something I didn’t already know. At some point, we turn to our neighbors and share, I’m ready.

My discussion partner is an earth local well into his forties. I like him immediately for his openness and his untrimmed bear stained with tobacco and some other things I’d rather not mention. He goes first and says he’s been afraid to tell his wife about how angry he is that she doesn’t share his views on politics and UFOs. I’m dying to find out what he knows about the aliens, but we have only two minutes, so I go. I tell him I’ve been inauthentic with some of my friends for fear they will learn that just because I’ve published occasional magazine articles, it doesn’t mean I’m successful. I tell him that I go to bed at night because I am afraid to stay up too late, that I get up in the morning because I am afraid to sleep in. I clean house because I am afraid people will know I’m a slob; I keep most of my opinions to myself for fear of being wrong or hurting someone; I fear hurting people because God might exist. I pray for fear

S/He does. (And yes, I add an S to He for fear God’s a woman.) I’m prepared to go on, but our time is up, and we thank each other for sharing. He looks relieved.

My fear that the Landmark Forum will mine some deep-seated catastrophic truth or weakness in me leaves my nerves on edge. I am afraid to speak before the group, but many participants frequent the microphones placed around the room. One woman, a petite, earnest, wiry brunet, comes to the microphone to profess her integrity. She is so prideful, so cheery, so thin and self-confident that I wonder why she is here at all. She declared to the room that through her work she is changing the world.

Condon is unimpressed and smacks her delusions back into her upheld chin, splat, like a ripe tomato. "Listen," he says, "I don’t know what your bag is, but you’ve never changed anything." I couldn’t agree more.

But Condon’s not finished. You harbor persistent complaints and resentments in life, in relationships, he tells her, tells all of us. These complaints, along with fear, rule how you behave, how you interact, even with people you say you love. They make you inauthentic; they make your life a lie. And then he uses a brilliant Landmarkian term: These are your "rackets," he says, and henceforth rackets will refer not to some dubious business practices but to our stubborn need to be right, to gain the upper hand in every relationship. You think this gives you power, Condon implies, but it drains power—and every time you argue with me, every time you insist on being right, you’re running a racket.

If you want power back, Condon says, then during the upcoming break I want you to call someone you’ve been running a racket on, and tell them you are "inventing a new possibility for yourself and your life and ask them to join you in that possibility" Join you? Are we already recruiting?

This is an emblematic Landmark moment, when we fire up our cell phones and call those sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and friends we’ve been running rackets on and them that we’re going to stop blaming them for our pathetic lives.

It’s a nice sentiment, but it seems to me that this is a pretty loaded announcement to make to someone who might only just be learning of your debilitating grievances. And so while the group enthusiastically takes its cell phones to the hallways and stairwells to drive in, I hesitate. I try to look inconspicuous, try not to trip over the tearful callers strewn about, until finally I can’t take it; I don’t want to be seen not calling.

So I dial up one of my sister. Until about five years ago, she was the person I would always turn to for advice. When her husband’s drinking spun out of control, her life fell apart and she became needy completely absorbed in her own survival. Despite deep wells of sympathy for her situation, I’ve been harboring resentments for the bad decisions she’s made, for her unrelenting inertia, and for how this has affected our relationship. But I was afraid to tell her this, and long ago I pulled back lessening the frequency and depth—and honesty—of our communications. Still, she is the most supportive person I know. I’m sure I can call her and find a way to dump the Forum dump on her and we’ll still come out okay. So I pull out my phone, spread my little Landmarkian wings, and try to fly.

She’s glad to hear from me, and I say, "Listen, uh, I think I’ve been inauthentic with you." And she says, "No you haven’t." And I say, "Whew! Great! Talk to you later. Love you!" Now I feel like a bad Landmarkian and a bad brother.

Giving me the impetus to come clean with my sister is admirable, but I’m troubled by something else: the effect the group has had on me. I hadn’t even known there was a group until, cell phone still in pocket, I realized I wasn’t part of it. I begin to sense the group congealing, becoming monolithic. Suddenly there is a magnetic core, and all those not yet attached to it are being sucked in. Then it gets worse.

Back in the ballroom, a dark-haired woman in her early thirties tells us about a phone call she’s just made to here father, during which, right as she was in the middle of spelling out for him all the lifelong complaints she was now prepared to forgo thanks to the Landmark Forum, he interrupted her to ask for her password to an Internet site. He was Web surfing.

Tears begin falling. She says this means her father doesn’t love her, just like when she was little and he failed to show up for her school play because he was drunk. All around the room people are making sympathetic noises. Even me.

Condon comes down from his platform and approaches the microphone and I think he’s maybe going to giver her a hug or something. Instead, he says, "That never happened."

Never happened? How does he know?

He grabs some chalk and draws tow circles on the board. One represents the day her father failed to show; the other represents her interpretation of it. "They have nothing to do with each other," he says. His failing to show did not hurt you, he tells her. How you perceived it hurt you. You go around blaming your father for your problems when really it’s your view that has created a barrier. You need to stop running this racket. You need to go call him again and "get complete" with him. Unyielding in his belief in her father’s cosmic innocence, stern Condon is interested only in the facts.

It’s a new story now, apparently more appealing, because enlightened nodding spreads across the room like contagion. I cannot fathom the great eagerness with which everyone has received the leader’s perverse psychology lesson. (I suppose those two circles he drew on the board really drove it home.) All I can think is that although this woman seems like a perfectly nice person, her father really didn’t love her very much and she’s right to be sad.

Mine is a singularly dissenting opinion. I feel painfully self-conscious. It’s cold outside the core. By the end of day one, the Landmark Forum has become not so much a test of how much bad news I can take but how much loneliness. The Landmark method is working.

Condon raises the emotional stakes early the next morning when catches a woman taking notes. She denies her transgression and squirms in her chair.

Why do you deny it? he asks, and then turns his attention to all of us. You behave in this room just like you run your lives. You cheat; you don’t keep your word. You eat in your chairs. You leave the room during sessions. You come back late from breaks. You speak out of turn. And the rest of you let this happen. The message is clear: Who will police the group if not its members?

I decide that Condon is the greatest teacher/facilitator I have ever encountered, and watching him work is almost worth the price I’ve paid in exhaustion and stress and dollars.

My admiration for Condon’s abilities grows even as my opinion of the ever more adhesive group diminishes. His morning vigilante challenge inspires a handful of core participants, including my UFO friend, to begin monitoring our integrity. "People," they yell into the atrium as our break time dwindles. "Five minutes! Don’t be late, people!" And it hits me how much I hate people who use the word people to address large groups.

To transform, to live your life powerfully, you must move into a realm without fear and so we talk a lot about what frightens us.

Near the end of an endless day, Barry leads us in a visualization exercise about fear that goes something like this: We are told to close our eyes as he reads to us from what sounds like a bizarro relaxation script. "Imagine that are afraid of the person next to you," he says. "Very afraid."

He’s quiet a minute, lets the anxiety he’s inspired percolate. I start to hear uneasy emotion-suppressing sighs.

"Now…imagine that you are afraid of everyone in the room. Imagine that you are afraid of every single person in the city of Oakland, hundreds of thousands of people."

I’m sitting near the front of the room, and behind me, off to the left, I hear whimpering.

"Imagine you are afraid of every person in the United States." The whimpering intensifies. "Imagine you are afraid of every single person, all 6 billion people in the world." The whimpering becomes sobbing: further behind me someone might be hyperventilating.

"Don’t go unconscious!" he yells. "That’s just your way of checking out!"

The sobbing becomes wailing. And then, from right behind me, some lets rip a wild, primal, angst-ridden, high-decibel growl, like I once heard from my dog when she having a wild dream.

Then Barry says, "Just wait! There’s a surprise on the other side of this. Something absurd!" Sobbing, growling, and whimpering fill the air.

"Now, are you ready for the surprise? Imagine the person next to you is—guess what?—afraid of you." Barry breaks into a giggle just the side of maniacal.

"Now imagine everyone in the room, in Oakland, in America, in the world, is afraid of you!"

The sobbing begins to turn to laughter. We open our eyes onto a world in which we are powerful because we don’t feel fear, we instill it. I guess. I’m not particularly moved by the exercise. But Barry’s performance has provoked in the group a hasty swing of the emotional pendulum that reveals an ever-growing willingness to be led. I know everyone is tired, but their mutability disgusts me. I’d thought we were supposed to become more powerful here.

Apparently, Condon is aware of the chronic bleeding of the group’s self-will. Shortly, he begins to drill into our heads the essential nature of spreading the Landmark word, or "enrolling," which in Forumspeak refers to our urgent obligation to share our transformation with everyone whom we meet so they are "touched, moved, and inspired," but which I take to mean our obligation to market the curriculum relentlessly for the rest of our lives.

A guy called his father the night before to "get complete" with him, and overall it ahs gone well. Unfortunately, he neglected to ask him to come to our graduation night, when we are supposed to bring new recruits.

Condon is furious.

Not only are you not getting it, he tells us, but now you are really running short on time. It’s the fourth quarter and are down 50-0, he says, and I’m thinking about refusing to coach you.

Looking naked and defenseless at the microphone, the guy who failed to invite his father to graduation tries to explain why, but Condon won’t hear it. Excuses are rackets.

The seemingly impromptu speech, which begins from the director’s chair but ends with the circulating leader a mere—a thrilling—three feet from my chair, seems to go on for hours. For long periods, Condon is silent. Fear of failure hangs in the air. This man who has tried to free us from is scaring us straight.

The tension becomes unbearable, and core participants begin to stand and ask Condon not to give up on us, to please coach us, to believe that we will "get it." Many have fallen enthusiastically into Landmark Forumspeak, and they say things like, "Richard, I have been out of my integrity, but now I am creating for myself and my life the possibility of being transformed and enrolling others in my transformation."

After nearly forty desperate hours, scant sleep, ragged emotions, aching heads and bodies hungry for Advil, after all this magnetic sucking in, I think most of us, even those careering happily toward a breakthrough, would accept anything the leader tells us, if this thing would just end. Thus, we are ready. As evening falls outside the ballroom, the imparting of the final, the essential, the transforming message of the Landmark Forum is upon us. Condon writes it on a chalkboard.

Life is empty and meaningless, and that life is empty and meaningless is empty and meaningless.

As you might imagine, with this quasi-existentialist pronouncement the room erupts in jubilation. The group is infused with energy and is acting as if the crappy past as we knew it won’t hurt us anymore, because, we’ve been told, it never really happened. Before the Forum, we were "meaning-making machines," like all the other untransformed humans. Now we are free of that affliction.

People are laughing again. Everyone is nodding like bobbleheads Condon has just flicked. There are bright beaming smiles all around me.

I’ve rarely felt more alone, but I hide my bitterness behind a wildly inauthentic smile. I actually applaud along with the group as people go to the microphone to say that they are finally free.

By the third testimonial, I can’t take it anyone. I turn to the woman next to me, point to where Condon has written the meaningless message, and say, "You really believe that?" She turns dark, crosses her legs, folds her arms, and appears to regret having invited me to join her and her Landmarkian boyfriend for dinner. I am not cooperating. The group and I have officially rejected each other. I am an outlier and always will be.

I’d though I wanted change as much as anyone else in this room. And like any good American, I though I wanted it in a weekend. But these breakthroughs I’m witnessing here seem too sudden, too arbitrary, too much in line with somebody else’s idea of who or how we ought to be. They seem far too dependent on our weaknesses and our currently weakened state.

Most of those I meet at the Landmark Forum tell me they came at the unrelenting appeals of their recruiters. Nevertheless, I’d say a good 75 percent from my group sign up for the next seminar of their own free will. (Indeed, many will go on to host Landmark Forum recruitment meetings in their homes or to become trainees who keep the chairs lined up sharply, monitor the ballroom doors, pass mysterious notes to the leader, and are generous with hugs, warm smiles, and advice for Landmark neophytes.) I’m bewildered by their desire to spend four more interminable days staring at themselves. By now I am so sick of myself and my rackets that all I want to do is go home and read tragic biographies of complete strangers or help old people I’ve never met cross busy streets. Anything to take my mind off of me.

During the frenzy of enrollment, those of us who’ve remained steadfast are paired up for one final sharing exercise. My partner is a young man with a laid-back Jimmy Steward drawl. We’ve been instructed to discuss how we are going to live a life of integrity, or something. But he’s got a problem. The night before the course started, back when he had no integrity, he got laid. "By a really great girl," he says. Now he’s wondering if he needs to tell his girlfriend about it. I’m not sure what to tell him at first, but then I make a suggestion. "Maybe you should go ask Richard what to do."

"But …we’re supposed to go on vacation next week," he says. "I don’t want to ruin it."

Jimmy Stewart has stuck it out, but he doesn’t really want to change. I feel the same way. I don’t want to be what they want me to be. Maybe, as Condon has told us, this makes me "cynical and resigned." Maybe. It’s a strange but enduring contradiction in me, and perhaps in you, too: Much as I hate myself sometimes, much as I crave change, I really don’t want to be anybody else.

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