Nov 18, 2015

Landmark: Brainwashing cult or brainfixing not-a-cult?

Alice Rebekah Fraser
November 13, 2015

Landmark Education is one of those things that people have opinions about. It’s a company that sells self-help seminars, along a sliding scale of increasing expensiveness, and it promises to change your life. It explicitly denies being a cult, though France has put it on a list of ‘dangerous cults’, which I can’t really tell what that even means. (France’s list of cults which includes Landmark and Scientology: here.) Have you heard about Landmark? Is it a Cult or a game-changer, a dangerously effective technique for clearing out the rubbish of your life or a straight up waste of money?

Some people call Landmark the brainchild of a used car salesman who sold up his dubious techniques on to a an organisation which now passes them on in a watered down form for upwards of $500 a pop, but let’s not do that. I hear their trigger finger is pretty twitchy on the old ‘suing for defamation’ gun. It’s okay guys – I’m not worth suing. I don’t even have enough money to afford their entry-level course and do this report gonzo style. Now I’ve heard a few IRL stories about Landmark Seminars from different people, and they fall into two rough camps:

  1. I just did a Landmark Seminar and it changed my life, you should definitely do one too;
  2. I just did a Landmark Seminar and it was a horrendous weird money-grabbing snake-oil shouty bullying nightmare. All they want is your money, and they’ll never stop calling you once they have your number. (I asked and they were sure they weren’t talking about Fitness First)
Here’s a bit from the front page of their website:

I mean, that’s a hell of a promise. Positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life in just three days, with no mention of risk. I feel like anything that powerful needs a ‘side-effects’ bar somewhere. The only other risk-free promise I’ve met that offered so much speed and comprehensive life-improvement was a shonky boob-job salesman, and to be honest, I think he was lowballing the risk of nipple-loss (this happens, and is what it sounds like, and not to sound risk-averse but in my own life and in the absence of life-threat-level medical necessity, I feel any risk of nipple loss is probably too much risk of nipple-loss. Sorry to harp on it, but I like my nipples. I’d be sad to see them go just cause I’d been a shitty landlord trying to get reno on the cheap.)

Such a wide ‘change your life’ promise obviously invites some questions, among which ‘Is it a cult?’ is probably the foremost. I mean, by all accounts Landmark courses involve a lot more shouting and crying than legitimate enterprises normally do.

Landmark offers "transformative learning", which is basically, changing the way that you look at things, including yourself. Now, as everyone who has ever taken a selfie knows, there are many different ways to look at yourself, and the person who purses their lips in the mirror at you in the morning is also the one that looms fat-chinned out at you when you accidentally hit FaceTime instead of the call icon. Hence, the shouting and crying, I guess? There are stacks of forums sharing Landmark experiences, both positive and negative. Here’s an extract from one guy’s experience (you can read more here):

Look, if I want spend money to watch people cry and have a breakthrough, I’ll give them complimentary tickets to my comedy shows.

Also, many people online note, if you don’t seem into it, they call you names. Landmark uses the term ‘un-coachable’, as a euphemism for non-pliable, which unless it’s in a yoga class, feels to me like a compliment. I’d like to be non-pliable. I’m uncomfortable with any insistence you can’t benefit from something without throwing out your doubts. The first indicator of a pathological social arrangement is a lack of willingness to brook doubt or articulate, critical thinking. But how does it actually work? Here’s another extract from the Landmark website:

I enjoy the way they’ve used the word ‘technology’ here to mean ‘y’know…stuff’ rather than the classic meaning of ‘technology’, which is ‘technology’. Yes now you mention it, there are some similarities between Landmark and Scientology. According to the skeptic’s dictionary the two creators were pals for a bit before falling out in the late 70’s (“Cult fight! Cult fight! Cuuult fight! You’re not a real religion til you’ve had a proper war!!!”).

Landmark (nee. EST) is the sort of mash-up of eastern philosophies and grinning American optimism that was forged the self-awareness movement of the 1960s and '70s and like many things from the 70s, maybe hasn’t aged as well as it thinks it has. The creator of Landmark’s force-the-breakdown-you’ll-feel-better-after technique, Werner Erhard, originally used much rougher, more physical methods in his original model (known as EST). The EST method, like Landmark, was aimed at inducing those hysterically emotional moments of self-insight that are characterised as life-changing breakthroughs, and ended up selling the business to his brother and sister in the midst of a lot of nebulous legal claims, some of which were later withdrawn.

Landmark has tried to dodge the kind of legal trouble daddy Erhard got himself into after some complaints by the (apparently not insignificant number of) people who’ve suffered proper actual psychological medical breakdowns in response to their ‘let’s all have a breakdown’ technique. They require participants to sign a waiver asserting that they’re emotionally stable before they try to solve all their emotional problems with a self-help course.

Taking a step back, the long hours, no breaks, shouting and peer-bonding-cum-peer-pressure is a classic technique for forcing a ‘breakdown/breakthrough’. Everyone does it, from the army to NIDA, asserting that to deconstruct your ‘self’ is the key to a stronger, more aware and resilient ‘self’ (often one who is more ‘assertive’, though the misconception that you have to be ‘more selfish’/a douche to get somewhere in the world is one of the most pernicious manifestations of many modern self-help rhetoric). ‘Break it so it gets stronger’ may be true for the ‘self’, though in my experience it doesn’t work so good for furniture, hipbones or relationships.
Better than new.

Certainly Landmark benefits from the thrill of having a big ole confront-and-cry at your own weakness; it delivers the kind of euphoric ‘life changing’ endorphin kick you get when you finally stand up to the school bully (but YOUR BULLY WAS YOU ALL ALONG). The act of breaking down in tears can feel like you’re achieving something significant, and feeling like you’re achieving something is an addictive thing. Look at twitter. Look at any reality TV show. Look at yourself in the mirror for too long.

I’m sounding cynical, but I feel a lot like ‘it changed my life’ is often a euphemism for ‘it changed my feelings’, which, to be honest, happens to me every time I read Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson’s twitter feed, and that doesn’t cost me hundreds of dollars. I’ve always been cynical about self-help marketing. I’ve always felt like self-help is a crock of … at very least a paradox.

Help requires a second party. Why compartmentalise ‘the self’, which is already a pretty shifty and arguable concept (I think therefore I am?) into a soap opera evil twin scenario of ‘true self’ and ‘naughty self that’s getting in the way’. I mean, I guess if it’s a useful conceptual placebo, go for your life, but I feel like the people who write self-help programs are mainly people who became successful by writing self help programs, so the only truly sincere advice they can give is “Have you tried writing a self-help program? It worked for me.”

A good idea for a self help book would be 'How to write a successful self help book', it'd be a real seller.
Also, though I’m pointing out the problems with Landmark, the thing is, much like capitalism, it works. People do find Landmark useful. At least for some, Landmark’s near $600 entry-level fee is a worthwhile expense for a genuine improvement in their sense of control over life. The quick-burn group-therapy break-through is an effective technique for some, whether because it’s a mash-up of manipulative psychotherapy techniques on speed, or because a shakeup is as good as a holiday, or because old Werner hit the nail on the head. My cynicism at what feels like the greasily money-grabbing and bullying-for-your-own-good elements of the enterprise aside, it genuinely helps some people get over some of their stuff, at least for a while.

So it’s either something really cool that everyone should try or a fungal bloom of rapacious capitalism overlaid with new-age buzzwords and trite observations marketed as deep insight. Maybe both. The question is not really whether it’s useful. The question is whether it’s a deliberately exploitative, manipulative and financially driven pyramid scheme. Of course it can be useful – I’m sure there are lots of useful insights. Also, it’s doing something and there’s a tendency for anything that breaks the status quo of ‘doing nothing’ to be lauded as the cure for all your ills, (when the cure for all your ills was actually anything that was no longer ‘doing nothing’), there are enough people who do Landmark and sing its praises that it’s worth taking seriously.

Certainly, some people have improved their lives through Landmark’s courses. Other people have walked away with lighter wallets and a sour taste in their mouths. As far as I can find out though, nobody’s forced to stick around, which makes me feel like this is less on the level of problem-cult, and more in the realms of well-some-women-get-exponentially-more-expensive-beauty-treatments-whatever-makes-you-feel-less-empty-I-guess. Whether or not Landmark is a cult, they are definitely a successful business. I guess it’s up to you whether you want to buy what they’re selling.

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