Aug 1, 2009

42 Hours, $500, 65 Breakdowns: My lost weekend with the trademark happy, bathroom-break hating, slightly spooky inheritors of est

Laura McClure
Mother Jones
Volume 34/August 2009

After nearly 40 hours inside the basement of Landmark Education's world headquarters, I have not Transformed. Nor have I "popped" like microwave popcorn, as the Forum Leader striding back and forth at the front of the windowless gray room has promised. In fact, by the time he starts yelling and stabbing the board with a piece of chalk around hour 36, it's become clear that I'll be the hard kernel left at the bottom of this three-and-a-half-day Landmark Forum. I have, however, Invented the Possibility of a Future in which I get a big, fat raise, a Future I'll Choose to Powerfully Enroll my bosses in, now that I am open to Miracles Around Money.

My reluctance to achieve Breakthrough Results is clearly not shared by many of my fellow Forum attendees. Even on day one, most seem positively elated to have plunked down 500 bucks for a more efficient, passionate, powerful life. "Hey, it's cheaper than therapy," a therapist-turned-real estate agent tells me. He ponders how to persuade one of his employees to pony up for the Forum. She's going through a rough patch, he explains - the recession, her marriage.

Not that being broke or brokenhearted would make her a minority in this room; several attendees talk about being between jobs, and one woman says she's on welfare. In the scribbled shorthand of my furtive notes, PW stands for "incidents of public weeping." I lose track after the PW count hits 65. Landmark Education, a for-profit "employee-owned" private company, took in $89 million last year offering leadership and development seminars (and cruises, and dating services, and courses for kids and teens). It claims that more than 1 million seekers have sat through its basic training, which is offered in seven languages in 20 countries. Its consulting firm, the Vanto Group, has coached employees from Apple, ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, and the Pentagon.

Though it's hardly a secret, Landmark does not advertise that it is the buttoned-down reincarnation of the ultimate '70's self-actualization philosophy, est. Erhard Seminars Training was founded by Werner Erhard, a former used car salesman who'd changed his name from Jack Rosenberg, moved to Northern California, and dabbled in Dale Carnegie, Zen, and Scientology before seizing upon the idea that you, and only you, are responsible for your own happiness or unhappiness, success or failure. Est's marathon Transformation sessions were legendary for their confrontational tactics (Erhard calling his students "assholes"), inscrutable platitudes ("What is, is, and what ain't, aint"), and the pressure put on participants to bring in new recruits for the next cycle of events.

In 1985, Erhard changed est's name to the innocuous-sounding The Forum. Amid controversy over his convoluted tax records, he left the country in 1991 and slid into obscurity. But before he did, he sold the company's "technology" to his former employees, who used it to create The Landmark Forum. Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, is Landmark's CEO.

Like a successful grad of its own program, Landmark has shed its past hang-ups and realized Breakthrough Results. "We are on the list of offerings in the human-resources departments in hundreds of companies around the world," boasts PR director Deborah Beroset. The company's language of personal productivity, confidence, and communication (much of it trademarked) has become white noise in corporate America - and possibly in your personal circle, too. "Authentic life," anyone? Landmark's corporate clients bring not just respectability but more warm bodies bearing checks. (Landmark relies entirely on word-of-mouth advertising.) The yoga apparel chain Lululemon pays for its employees to enroll in Landmark. Other firms have been sued by employees claiming they were pressured to attend the Forum: In 2007, a Virginia man accused his former employer of firing him for his "refusal to embrace Landmark religious beliefs." Not that Landmark itself condones such arm twisting. At the start of my session, we were asked to affirm that we were attending of our own free will. A couple of people who confessed otherwise were asked to leave. Still, I talked with several who'd been sent by their employers.

The profitable field Landmark helped pioneer is now crowded with life coaches, time-management gurus, and productivity bloggers. Like David Allen's Getting Things Done or Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Landmark is just one of dozes of quasi-philosophies that promise to empty your inbox and fulfill your personal goals. And maybe survive the recession. Since the Great Depression, when Dale Carnegie's seminars on how to win friends and influence people became popular, the personal development industry has bloomed under darkening economic skies. Forget work/ life balance; that's so 2008. How to do more in less time is today's hot productivity trend. (Landmark's website touts a survey in which one-third of Forum grads reported that their incomes rose at lest 25 percent after participating; 954 percent of those attributed it to the program.) Yet if Landmark is just another outpost in lifehacking country, why does it seem so insidious?

Part of it is the in-your-face, hard-sell ethos embedded in the corporate DNA it inherited from est. Forum grads are urged to stay involved and "invite" friends and family. After finishing the Forum, I received calls asking me to volunteer at the Landmark call center and come in for one-on-one coaching. The company also vigorously guards its reputation from critics. After I told Beroset I'd be writing an article on my mixed feelings about the Forum, she called several times and sent me an email that might be described as threatening - but in the most benign, centered kind of way.

I first heard about Landmark while working as a Peace Corps recruiter. Every now and again I'd see it listed at the end of someone's resume, occupying the same spot as, say, a Kiwanis leadership award, or a pastime like water polo. Applicants described it as a professional development seminar - most had been signed up by employers - and gave glowing reports. "You should try it," they invariably added. I forgot about the whole thing until a generally sane, well-meaning friend called me one weekend with a frog in his throat. He was at some time-management seminar, he'd really gotten a lot out of this thing, and would I want to come by and learn more next Tuesday night? It was hard to say no. But then I googled Landmark.

Eventually, as part of an ongoing attempt to hack my own overscheduled life, I did sign up for the Landmark Forum. I vowed to go in with an open mind and to follow the rules, no matter how restrictive. That meant taking just one meal break per 13-hour session, no Advil or other over-the-counter drugs, no speaking out unless called to the microphone by the Leader, and wearing my name tag at all times. I signed a six-page disclaimer in which I declared that I understood that after attending the Forum, people with no history of mental or emotional problems had experienced "brief, temporary episodes of emotional upset ranging from heightened activity ... to mild psychotic-like behavior."

At 9 a.m. on a Friday I find myself sardined into a basement room with 129 other people, listening to David Cunningham,j a boomer in a dark suit and bright purple shirt, whose first language seems to be Tent-Revival Baptist Preacher. (I later learn that he was raised a fundamentalist in Florida.) He informs us that he has personally led more than 50,000 people to Transformation. He's here to tell us that "anything you want for yourself and your life is available from being here this weekend." He starts by taking a few questions from the floor. A querulous man observes that the phrases carefully ruler-lined on the chalkboard seem like poor English. ("In the Landmark Forum you will bring forth the presence of a New Realm of Possibility for yourself and your life.") David agrees. "It's very poor English. You know why? Because the usual confines of language would not allow your Transformation this weekend."

Another man is called to the mic. He wants to know how Landmark is different from est. David sighs. "If I had to sum it up, here's what I'd say: They're both about Transformation, but est was very experiential. It was the '70s, okay? Your access was an experience. Your access this weekend is going to be just through conversation. We realized we could do it just through conversation." And that's the last we hear of that.

A slight, blond woman sitting next to me confides that she's here only because her boyfriend paid her way - with the subtext that this was an offer she couldn't refuse. She shows me a packet of notes tied with a bow. They're from a friend who attended a Forum and thought it was brainwashing. In the corner of the top sheet is written, "To be opened on 'breaks.'" Why "breaks" in quotes, I wonder?

I soon find out. "Break" is a misleading term at an all-day workshop that offers no snacks, no drinks other than Dixie cups of water, a single mealtime, and only loosely scheduled pauses to use the bathroom. Also, every break has a corresponding assignment. The first one: Call someone who'd like to hear from you and tell them where you are. I call my brother. "So, it's like the Hare Krishnas of time management," he says slowly. On the next break, I hid in a bathroom stall and read a Landmark flyer seemingly translated from Martian: "What would it be like if the San Francisco center was your center of being, and reflected in this, you were being your center? ... What if your way of being in the center gives the center its being and you are given your being from the space created in the center?"

By ten o'clock Friday night, 13 hours in, David is curing headaches with visualization techniques (an old Erhard trick) and redefining basic math. "How many items am I holding up?" he asks, holding up a Kleenex box and a chalkboard eraser. "Two," we say in unison. He puts the eraser down. "Now how many am I holding up?" he asks. One? "Two," he says. "The box and everything else." We repeat this until it makes sense - kind of. David promises that tomorrow, people will start to pop.

Indeed, some attendees have popped even before they return to the basement at nine the next morning. Others pop while tearfully offering "shares" about being molested or abandoned, about illnesses and divorces, their suicidal parents. There is applause for stories of calling loved ones and offering forgiveness, and David gently prods the storytellers to invite their family members to attend a Forum - or even pay for them to attend. A woman re-creates a beautiful conversation she had with her mother this morning and ends by singing "Wind Beneath My Wings."

Next, David calls up a woman - I'll call her Rose - who is estranged from her siblings. She reports that when she called her sister this morning, it did not go well. "I'm going to get a little intense now," David warns us with a smile, which he drops as soon as he turns to Rose. "You know the mod of celebration after the last share?" She nods. "What's the room in now?" David shakes his head ruefully. "You were 'screamed at' by your sister? There's no such thing as screaming." People start fidgeting and making for the door; there hasn't been a bathroom break in three hours. "You see, people are leaving," David says. "This is why people don't want to be around you, why your siblings don't want to be around you. You're too dead to feel," he says.

By now, tears are streaming down Rose's face. She asks to sit down; he says nothing. Finally, she thanks David, and he gives her a long hug before she takes a seat. Later, I walk over to tell her that I didn't like how David treated her. To my surprise, she disagrees. After being publicly humiliated, she phoned her sister again, and this time her sister listened. "I guess this is what I needed to hear," Rose tells me, smiling.

By Sunday, I'm in open rebellion. I come bearing contraband- a newspaper, coffee, snacks, and Advil. "How are you?" I ask the minder at the door as I slap on my name tag. "I'm truthful," he says, giving me the stink-eye. I Invent the Possibility of staying far away from Landmark seminars in the future. We get Monday off. When I take a hard seat in the basement for Tuesday's final Special Evening, I'm surprised to find I almost - almost - start crying. It's like seeing a room of beloved camp friends after a year apart. The air is festive and buzzing with chatter about our day and a half away from each other. I think, This is great! No wonder people have brought along dozens of friends to sign up.

David quiets the crowd and sends the friends away with a group of minders. Turning to the rest of us, he says, "You know how I wished you big Problems on Sunday? Well, now I wish you big Breakdowns. Because a Breakdown is nothing more than the gap between your life now and the life you're committed to living. Your job is to step into that gap." He smiles. "When you came in here Friday morning, you were so certain about who you were, weren't you? You walked in certain, and tonight you're walking out uncertain. It could take years to become certain about who you are again. That's what the rest of the Landmark Curriculum for Living is for: to help you resolve that uncertainty."

Suddenly, I want him to love me as his student, to make him smile, to hear him tell me I'm doing a good job in my life. There are more "shares"; David tears up for the third time in two hours. "I love you forever," he tells us. "If you ever wonder if someone loves you, the answer is yes. David loves you."

And then, without warning, he launches into the hard, hard sell. "I am committed to having every one of you register for the Advanced Course tonight," he says. He's no longer smiling. We can demonstrate our commitment to ourselves, to David, to Landmark - all for $650, a $200 discount - but only if we act now.

Before I get up and leave for good, I spot Rose. She's sitting in the front row, gazing expectantly at David, ready to take the next step toward Transformation, Possibility, and EnrollmentTM.

Sidebar Articles

The Hunger Artist

In 1977, est guru Werner Erhard had a vision: He was going to end world hunger by 1997. To that end, he started the Hunger Project, a nonprofit that quickly picked up celebrity sponsors including John Denver, Valerie Harper, and Jimmy Carter's son Chip. But, as Mother Jones reported in December 1978, the group had no intention of actually feeding the starving, just raising "awareness" of hunger - and est. The article also exposed Erhard's complicated web of offshore tax shelters. In response, est threatened to sue. It didn't, but participants in one seminar were instructed to "focus all your negative energy on the people responsible for this terrible slander." Twelve years after it was supposed to become obsolete, the Hunger Project now has only one former Erhard associate on its board and notes it has "no ties to Mr. Erhard or his interests."

Landmark Moments

1971 - Werner Erhard has breakthrough while driving across Golden Gate Bridge; founds est (Erhard Seminars Training)

1973 - Erhard drives a black Mercedes with the vanity plate "SO WUT."

1975 - Est claims to have trained 65,000 people; Erhard dreams of training 40 million.

1975 - John Denver releases "Looking for Space," about his est enlightenment. Later, he asks other est grads to stop sneaking backstage.

1976 - Ex-Yippie Jerry Rubin recounts Erhard's spiel: "He listened to people's miseries ... laughed in their faces and screamed, 'YOU ASSHOLE, YOU CAUSED IT!'"

1977 - Woody Allen encounters a defensive est acolyte in Annie Hall.

1979 - Mork & Mindy features David Letterman playing a guru name Ellsworth, founder of ERK (Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning).

1985 - Est changes its name to the Forum.

1988 - Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk attends the Forum; later credits it with his "big epiphany moment."

1989 - Nicolas Cage buys Erhard's palatial San Francisco pad, which one boasted a soundproof room, an elaborate security system, and a bedroom painted black.

1991 - Erhard goes into exile. Landmark buys est's "technology" and reportedly promises to pay Erhard a licensing fee for 18 years.

1993 - While in Moscow, Erhard appears on Larry King Liive; claims Scientologists are out to get him.

2002 - Six Feet Under's Ruth Fisher tries the Plan, "One of those '70's self-discovery clubs that yell at you and don't let you go to the bathroom for 12 hours."

2006 - Erhard breaks media silence in Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard, a film co-produced by his lawyer.

2007 - Erhard unveils new management philosophy coauthored with a Harvard Business School professor and the CEO of Landmark's consulting arm. Message: "integrity is the pathway to trust."

2009 - Landmark claims to have trained more than 1 million people.