Landmark Education Forum: Is it a “racket”? Part II

This is a follow up to a post I previously wrote about the Landmark Education Forum for Clickholistic. You can find it here: https://clickholistic.wordpress.com/2009/05/03/landmark-education-forum-%E2%80%93-is-it-a-racket/

What has interested me is how many hits this post gets. So I did some internet searching, only to discover that the Landmark Education Forum does not tolerate criticism very well – and is even prepared to have items pulled from the internet to ensure it’s name remains unblemished. Only problem is, it makes the LEF look like it is a spoilt brat who will not take any teasing.

In 2004, a documentary aired on French TV got the Landmark Education Forum’s knickers in a knot. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyage_au_pays_des_nouveaux_gourous)
It was filmed by an undercover journalist, posing as a new recruit. The spy apparently highlighted some of LEF’s methods of recruitment and style of large group awareness training.

The LEF has a reputation for giving huge seminars with hundreds of people in a room at a time. The seminars usually last a minimum of three days and are often held for over twelve hours a day. During these seminars, participants are apparently told they will “fail” if they leave early (even if it is to go to the toilet), are not allowed or encouraged to ask any questions nor to criticize the methods employed, and are encouraged to make themselves vulnerable to a room full of strangers by telling their “life story”. The course leaders are not always psychologically trained, so are, from my understanding, basically lay people with no special training outside of that which the LEF offers. LEF courses cost anything from US$ 375 and upwards. The LEF claim they have over 200 000 participants every year.

But the main insinuation of the aforementioned documentary – backed at the time by the “Report of the 1995 French Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into Cults” – was that the LEF was a cult, and that it possibly employed brainwashing techniques to encourage people to continue paying for training and to recruit their friends and family into what appeared to be a possible pyramid scheme. The LEF (perhaps understandably) had a fit, and insisted that the allegations were false. I am still not too sure what happened to the documentary, but judging from the fact that you cannot find it easily on the internet, leads me to believe the program was eventually pulled.

The interesting thing was that following the debacle, we are told that Landmark died a slow death in France, and it’s French adherents migrated to internet groups and forums – which is a far cry from the huge conference centres with hundreds of people taking the course at a time.

But it didn’t end there, and Landmark took their fight to the internet. Landmark’s lawyers sent subpoenas to Google Video, Youtube and Internet Archive, insisting they remove the footage of the french documentary from their sites, citing copyright infringements.  Landmark also wanted the identity of the poster to be made known. Internet Archive refused to comply.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed objections on Internet Archive’s behalf, saying that the LEF were twisting copyright laws to silence their critics. This letter was sent to the LEF by the EFF. Eventually, the LEF dropped the case. But plenty of Landmark Education Forum internet searches result in broken links and pages missing or not found. One has to wonder if the LEF is possibly behind the pulling of negative information on it’s methods?

The LEF seem to particularly take umbrage with the suggestion that they may be a cult. This has been alleged several times in various publications – both in print and online. Landmark is apparently no stranger to litigation. This Wikipedia article alleges that the LEF have sued at least 11 times.   The LEF also sued Elle magazine for libel after an Elle reporter published her take on her Landmark experiences. I have copied the article below. I don’t think it’s all that bad, actually. In my earlier post on the Landmark Forum I posted this link to the Huffington Post reporter’s Landmark experience. The Elle article isn’t a patch on Karin Badt’s take on the organisation, yet they still got the chop.

However, the Landmark Education Forum seem to creating a lot of attention by being so heavy handed with their detractors. Every time they stamp their foot about being “misrepresented” they seem to just be acting like an organisation that can’t take any criticism. I am still not sure about whether that is a healthy way to address an issue – especially if you are always insisting on responsibility, self-appraisal and breaking away from the “rackets” you allow yourself to become embroiled in.

On the other hand, in 2011, Landmark reported revenues of approximately $81 million. (Even without France). Which leads some people to think there may be some financially motivating factor as to why Landmark are trying to keep their critics either tame and/or quiet.

Some more links to look at:

http://web.archive.org/web/20050226040847/http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Shadowlands/8080/forum1.htm

http://listverse.com/2011/09/29/top-15-controversial-tv-specials/

http://web.archive.org/web/20040606222805/info.france3.fr/emissions/1389638-fr.php

http://boingboing.net/2009/08/31/suppressed-60-minute.html

http://www.rickross.com/groups/forum.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landmark_Education

Article from Elle:
Do you believe in miracles?

Elle Magazine, September 1998
Rosemary Mahoney

In talking about the Landmark Forum, people with experience of this self-
improvement seminar describe its impact in wildly disparate ways. Janet
Jenkins,* a divinity student who completed the three-and-a-half-day weekend,
calls it “a sort of religion with ‘I’ as God,” while an enthusiastic young
Forum volunteer tells me it’s “a three-and-a-half-day intensive introduction
to ideas and philosophies that will transform your life.” James Williamson, an
attorney at a high-powered law firm, says, “Either it’s one of the most
beneficial experiences I’ve ever had, or it’s a complete con job.” Kevin
Garvey, a counselor who assists people coming out of cults or cultlike groups,
says, “The Forum constitutes a brilliant anti-intellectual exercise … they
take away the base that makes a moral view possible for each individual and
call it freedom.” Adam Kahn, who for two and a half years was deeply involved
with Landmark and its advanced programs, expresses his present disillusionment
by stating simply, “There’s so much the Forum can’t do.”

Loosely classified as a large-group-awareness-training seminar and descended
from the encounter-group movement of the ’60s, the Landmark Forum is the
introductory seminar to a series of self-actualization programs offered by
the Landmark Education Corporation, an employee-owned company engaged in the
booming business of “self-improvement.” With last year’s receipts of $48
million, the corporation, which has around 300 paid employees (including
forty-odd charismatic seminar leaders), boasts an army of some 7,000
volunteers worldwide. Volunteer hours invested in Landmarks programs and
recruitment bespeak a level of customer satisfaction unheard of in most for-
profit corporations. On the other hand, the sort of overzealous efforts
Landmark volunteers tend to display on the corporations behalf are precisely
what disturbs skeptics, many of whom feel that the Forum is a mass-marketing
pyramid scheme, trafficking in subtly coercive thought reform and bent on
ensnaring the weak of character in a slick web of palliative jargon.

The 180 Forum participants who, like me, have gathered in a bland conference
room on New York Fifth Avenue at nine on a Friday morning are here because
the Forum has claimed that for $375 it can “transform” our lives. The room,
carpeted in gray and filled with rows of straight-backed chairs upholstered
in a dowdy motel maroon, is oppressively unadorned. There’s not much to look at
but a tall director’s chair on a dais and a pleated gray curtain pulled tight
across the room’s only windows. (From the street, the windows resemble the
windows of a chicken coop, stubbornly streaked with brown and white stains.)
Two blackboards stand on the dais, and at each corner of the rectangular
arrangement of chairs are four microphones on stands. The only decorative
touch is a vase of yellow tulips on a table.

The room is suffused with a mood of nervous anticipation. The woman to my left
is swinging her foot and checking the phone number that’s just appeared on the
tiny screen of her electronic beeper. On my right, a bespectacled Asian man
with a line of pens neatly clipped to his shirt pocket smiles eagerly at me
and raises his hand in an anxious wave. Though we’re sitting side by side,
shoulders touching, I nod and wave back with an awkward little jerk of my
hand.

Most of us have signed up for this course because we’re dissatisfied with our
lives; we’re unfulfilled, isolated, or depressed; we’re not successful enough,
or we are successful but our success has left us hollow. Some of us are
unhappy in our relationships or frustrated at not being able to unlock our
potential. Others simply want to stop smoking, lose weight, get out of abusive
relationships. Many are here at the request of friends, lovers, family members
who claim to have experienced the “breakthrough” the Forum offers. We are all
vulnerable, if only because we’ve paid our tuition and have as yet no clear
idea of what well get beyond lofty abstractions like “In the Forum people come
to grips with what it means to be human.” The most we can safely predict is
that for three consecutive days we will be required to sit here from nine a.m.
to midnight, with two half-hour breaks and one ninety-minute dinner break. We
will be asked to complete exercises, chiefly verbal, and homework assignments
at night. We have all signed a confidentiality agreement as well as an
agreement not to violate Landmark’s copyright claims. We have answered formal
questions about our mental-health history (including whether we’ve been
hospitalized for psychiatric illness, are in psychotherapy, or have quit
therapy against a therapist’s wishes), and have, not without some wondering
pause, signed away our right to a jury or court trial against the Landmark
Education Corporation. Most of us are white, anywhere from twenty to forty
years old, but there are Indians, blacks, and Hispanics as well. There are
bankers here and lawyers, interior decorators and magazine editors. According
to the Forum’s glossy informational brochure, 31 percent of us have “some
college education,” 28 percent have a college degree, 20 percent a
postgraduate degree, 40 percent are in technical or professional jobs.

At nine o’clock, an energetic young woman hops onto the dais in front of the
room and introduces herself as our Forum leader. I recognize her from an
introductory evening I happened to attend here exactly one year ago. She was
Beth Hanover then, with a stylishly severe crewcut, a ropy gold necklace the
thickness of a garter snake around her neck, and the snappy manner of an
afternoon-talk-show host. Now she’s Beth Handel, and her dark hair has grown
into a glossy boy’s regular, sleek as mink and tightened against her scalp.
“I’m Beth Han . . .” she stumbles on her last name. “Handel.” In her brown
double-breasted pin-striped pantsuit, she resembles a handsome little Mafia
man. Her voice, carried through a tiny microphone pinned to her lapel, is
slightly abrasive, her manner casual but sharpened with a gangster’s tough-guy
edge. She’s fit and tidy and brassy. “Welcome to your Forum!” she barks,
launching into an impeccably executed performance laden with anecdotes,
tautologies, Landmark slogans, pithy quotations ranging from philosopher (and
Nazi sympathizer) Martin Heidegger to civil-rights torchbearer Martin Luther
King, Jr.

Handel’s barreling manner is lightened with the broadly screeching style of
Joan Rivers. “How many people here want to lose ten pounds?” she asks. Many
people raise their hands. “Okay. How many of you know how to lose ten pounds?”
The same people raise their hands. “Oh, very good,” she says with a sardonic
squint, “a lot of good that knowledge is doing you.” The room roars with
laughter. Handel has a gift for telling stories, most of them about herself. A
year ago I saw her bring the female members of her audience to tears with a
cautionary tale of how, with her self-professed cranky selfishness, she nearly
spoiled the sweet surprise her husband had planned for her on their wedding
anniversary. He was only trying to love her; she was making herself unlovable.
This morning, pacing, hands flying, she explains that while the Forum works
“miracles” toward self-awareness, it will not keep us safe from the vagaries
of fife. “My husband left me!” she announces flatly. “Yes, even Forum leaders
get divorced.” The Forum, she says, won’t help you stop being human. “I am a
jerk every day of my life. The only difference now is that within thirty
seconds of being disgusting I can admit it and dean it up and move on.”

Her seeming frankness, her self-referential anecdotes, inspire attention and
trust. While Handel works, volunteers at the back of the room wearing pumpkin-
orange nametags are busily checking our applications and surveying the room
like “exam proctors. In the opening hour Handel tells us a lot of what we’re
going to get if we work the Forum, but very little about how were going to get
it. She tells us many things about ourselves, including that we are unable to
listen to her at this very moment because we are too busy listening to
ourselves: I hate this woman she’s awful. She can’t tell me anything. It’s
the other people in the room who need this. I’m fine. The room erupts in
nervous, awed laughter at how well she knows what we’re thinking. The way we
listen, Handel says, is dominated by our human desire to avoid looking bad, to
be right, to understand things. Good, bad, true, false don’t have a place in
the Forum. “You’re listening to yourself opinionating, which means you’re not
listening to us!”

We learn a great deal about Handel: She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish
family, her parents used to hate her, she used to hate them, but the entire
family has done Landmark and now they are all “profoundly related.” Except
that after nine years of marriage her husband left her. He wanted children,
she didn’t, he, left. She chose her job over children and husband because “I
love my life—that which is up in front of this room.” She’s been involved
with the Forum since its original incarnation as Erhard Seminars Training, the
controversial self-help organization popularly known as est, founded by the
internationally renowned guru Werner Erhard.

Handel wets her fingers with a catlike swipe at her tongue, shuffles through
papers on a music stand, and begins to read. The Forum’s commitment produce a
“result” over the weekend is based on “an understanding that you will be
present in the room throughout the entire event. Being present includes being
seated at the exact starting times each morning and after each break. If you
are out of the room for any portion of any session, even for a few minutes,
you may get the ‘result,’ but you have no right to expect it.” We are
instructed not to drink alcohol, use drugs, tobacco, even aspirin during the
course of the weekend, including when we go home at night, for if we do, the
Forum cannot guarantee the “result.”

The rules feel objectionable, like a blanket tossed over my head. I don’t want
to be told what to do when I go home. Having set the parameters, having
established the authority of the corporation over the student body, her
authority over ours, the lessons of her experience over the lessons of our
experience, Handel asserts that the Forum is not a belief system, that nothing
she says here is “the truth” per se, and that if she says anything we door
like, we can leave it behind. Our key to the Forum will be to maintain an
openness to what she has to tell us, a phenomenon called “enrollment.” “You’ll
access the extraordinary if you are willing to participate. This is the most
powerful technology in the world, but you need to have enrollment. Enrollment
is a distinction that’s a breakthrough paradigm.”

I have a strong unwillingness to throw myself into the arms of a person I
don’t know whose language is at moments unintelligible. “Who’s enrollable?”
she asks. “Raise your hands.” Most of us hesitate. The Asian man smiles wanly
at me and stares at his hands. In a deadpan worthy of Jack Benny, Handel says
dryly, “You have to participate; it’s not TV.” We laugh, our hands go up.
Handel warns, “I’ve seen people who got absolutely nothing from this. Spent
three and a half days making you wrong and judging, while everybody else gets
miracles.” The idea, she says, is to be authentic about our inauthenticity.
Willingness involves getting up to the microphone, completing the exercises —
our transformation depends on that. She suggests that we think less and act
more. “As Ray Bradbury said, ‘Jump and find your wings on the way down.’ ”

She invites questions, then sits in the director’s chair, arms folded, and
waits, surveying the room like Sacagawea in the prow of a canoe. One man,
puzzled by the vagueness with which Handel has outlined Landmarks services,
asks, “What does the Forum promise?” With notable condescension Handel
answers, “You’ll get what you want by the end of the day. That’s just how it
works.” Another man says, “I’ve been here for two hours and still don’t know
what I’m going to get.” For every doubting question, Handel’s reply is
essentially the same: brusque, confrontational, laced with a tincture of
ridicule. “You are a cynic and all your friends tell you you’re a cynic.”
“You’re lying.” “Boy, do you make stuff up.” “You’re not coachable, you refuse
to be.” A man asks in what way the Forum is different from Erhard’s est. In
her steady, hammering fashion, Handel says, “It’s like comparing an orange to
a cabbage. Est training was appropriate for the’70s and ’80s. Now that won’t
be impactful. Times are different.”

Handel tells us that in 1991 Erhard sold his Forum “technology’ to a group of
“people.” I later discover that the “people” who bought the Forum and changed
its name to Landmark Education Corporation include a group of former Erhard
employees and Erhard’s brother, whom Erhard reportedly handpicked as CEO.
Though Landmark maintains that it is autonomous, there is evidence that at the
time of the sale Erhard retained certain financial interests. In any case,
Erhard’s philosophical and ideological influence–the ideas that inspired half
a million people to sign up for est–remains. (Erhard himself, having suffered
numerous lawsuit threats, negative media exposure, and a damning 60 Minutes
investigation that raised issues of charlatanism, incest, and spousal abuse,
left the U.S. soon after the transfer.)

A woman asks if the Forum is a cult. Swiftly, sarcastically, Handel defuses
the question. “Yeah! And I’m the head of it and my parents are so proud.”
Whatever I say, you’ll think I’m lying. People have to explain it to deal with
it. So they call it a cult. The Cult Awareness Network says it is not a cult.”

(In 1996, the Cult Awareness Network, which was begun as an anti-cult group
concerned with defining the nature of self-help groups, declared bankruptcy
and was purchased by a Scientologist. The organization now operates as “a
foundation for religious tolerance.” Callers, many of whom are concerned
family members seeking information about the harmful potential of an
“enlightenment” group, are not alerted to the fact that the Cult Awareness
Network is staffed in part by volunteers who are Scientologists.)

We’re given an opportunity to “share.” One man steps to the microphone and
says that his wife is having an affair and he’s in a lot of pain. Handel
suggests that this pain is not his wife’s
responsibility, it’s his, and it’s for him to handle it. He has to forgive
her. Making her wrong will get him nowhere. A woman tells us she has problems
with her sister, a man has been scarred by his father’s violent treatment of
him. The suffering contained in this ugly room is palpable.

Eventually Handel gives us a chance to drop out if we don’t like what we’ve
seen so far. “You can leave now and get all your money back.” After this
point, we’ll be free to leave, but without a refund. A young man stands up and
asks where morality fits into the Forum’s philosophy. Handel says, “There is
no right or wrong here, Arthur. It’s not about judging. It’s not about
morality.”

Arthur expresses an objection. Handel snaps, “You don’t agree with most
things, Arthur, with what most people say.” The room goes deathly quiet.
Arthur asks if the Forum aims to teach people that they have no moral
obligation. Skeptical questions and searing answers fly back and forth until
finally Handel interrupts him with “All I’m doing, Arthur, is holding up a
mirror to you. You are opinionating. What you’re doing now is what you do to
everyone.” She turns to the audience. “You are all so busy judging and
evaluating and opinionating that you can’t hear anyone else!” Arthur says,
“But responsibility. . .” Handel cries, “You have no clue!”

A man at the back of the room, bored with this seemingly pointless wrangle,
shouts out, “Cut him loose. Please!” Handel freezes, and like Mary Poppins
sizing up the messy nursery, she turns her icy eye on the room. “No!” she
says, one admonishing finger raised in authoritative warning, “We do not do
that in the Forum. You are making it unsafe. We make it safe here.”

Arthur asks what the Forum’s position is on right and wrong. Handel says,
“There is no truth. The whole truth is your speaking the truth. What you say.”
Arthur has difficulty with this solipistic approach and chooses to take his
refund and go home. The rest of the class nervously remains. Now that we’re
financially bound, Handel tells us we’ll get tremendous value out of the
Forum, by Monday our lives will be transformed, but we won’t really know how
to use the tools we’ve been given unless we sign up for Landmark’s Advanced
Course, an intensive four-and-a- half-day, $700 seminar in which we’ll
continue to progress.

With the reminder that we have no right to expect the results if we don’t
follow the rules, we take our break. I walk around the block a few times,
looking at my watch and wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. When we
return, forty of us find the conference-room door shut against us. My watch
indicates we have three minutes to go. The man next to me says his watch
agrees. I ask the guard what his watch says. “Well, actually, my watch isn’t
working,” he says sheepishly. “But they told me to close the door.”

The not-so-subtle lesson is that we must operate according to the elusive
Landmark clock instead of our own. I want to raise my hand and complain about
what I perceive as a manipulative trick, but when the man finally opens the
door for us, I go obediently back to my seat and sit quietly while Handel
continues outlining concepts that can help us transform our existence into an
“extraordinary life.” The day’s lecture is interspersed with exercises in
which we turn to our neighbor and discuss what we’ve just heard or go to the
microphone to share our experiences.

Handel offers more “breakthrough” anecdotes from her life and the lives of
clients (They were married forty years, they did the Forum, they’ve been
screwing every night since), and more pithy quotations from Zen Buddhism,
Nelson Mandela, G.B. Shaw, Charlie Parker. Stabbing at the blackboard with a
rivet-thick piece of chalk, she posits one of the central rungs in the Forum’s
ideological ladder. The way we live is based on an unreality we ourselves
concoct. With our interpretations, speculations, and opinions we invest “what
happened” with our emotions and come up with a story that has nothing to do
with reality. This is what’s “killing” our lives. If we don’t get rid of the
story, it will appear again and again in our future. “You’re living out of a
story you made up!” Handel cries.

People smile, heads nod. We’re introduced to the concept of the “racket,” what
Handel tells us is “a fixed way of being plus a persistent complaint.” We are
all running rackets that allow us to make ourselves right while making others
wrong. And while our racket seems to give us a degree of protection and
satisfaction, it is costing us “love, vitality, fulfillment, self-expression.”

“I have heard stories that would shock you,” Handel says of her experience
leading the Forum all over the world. In one group she had a man who survived
a Nazi death camp. All his life he had remained psychologically in the camp
because he couldn’t get rid of his “racket” against the camp guards. “When he
could finally forgive, he was out of the camp.” (How he managed to forgive is
a minor detail not explained.) “You have to complete with people before you
can move forward. Start to speak what just came up for you in this.”

People line up at the microphones. A man wants to “complete” with his
alcoholic mother, a woman has trouble with intimacy. Some people weep, some
express anger at the world. A young woman says she’s having difficulty with
the idea of “completing” with her father because he’s abusive. She keeps
hoping things will change, but …

“It’s never going to change!” Handel hollers at her.

The girl says, “Should I continue to embrace this man who… ”

“You’ve never embraced! You don’t have a clue!”

“Well, how do you establish a way of loving yourself and still allow this man
to treat you in a crappy way. Is that not some form of self-abuse?”

Handel points a finger and shouts, “You are a racketeer!”

The problem lies with the girl, not with her father. She can’t change him; she
must change the way she thinks of him. She doesn’t have to approve of his
behavior, but she has to surrender her “right to resent” him, let him know she
loves him. In the course of the weekend we are instructed that the linguistic
distinctions we make become our reality, an idea purloined from the theories
of Heidegger. We are asked to choose “a possibility of being.” People stand
and say what possibilities they have chosen. Loving. Fearless. Successful.
Rich. Forgiving. Effective. The world is what we call it. If we adopt the
Forum’s language of positivity, distinction, and possibility (if we “speak” a
“possibility”), combine it with the Forum’s concept of fact versus story, and
throw in the mantra This shall be, we’ll get our transformation.

Each day ends with a homework assignment that involves making phone calls or
writing letters to people we want to ‘complete with. I go home, bleary-eyed,
with Handel’s prefab English echoing in my ears. Impactful instead of
affecting. Speak instead of say. Listen as a transitive verb. “When you grant
somebody else being you’re creating them as themselves” and “Be with your
headache,” she says. I don’t want to be with my headache. I want to drink beer
and take aspirin. Instead, dutifully, I do my homework. “Don’t go home and
complain about what they did to you today!” Handel shouts in her best Joan
Rivers voice, floating her warning on a lily pad of humor. “The language in
here is for here. Leave it here.” I want to ask “why,” but I know by now that
“why” questions are dismissed in the Forum.

“Sunday will be a day you will never get over!” Handel says mysteriously from
her high chair, her shoes kicked off and her feet tucked under her. An
assistant keeps stepping up to her with a steady stream of folded notes, and
Handel flicks them open with icy efficiency as people tell their stories: Her
brisk perfection has begun to annoy me. The microphone on her lapel, the
transmitter attached to her waist under her jacket, its antenna sticking out
behind her like a lobster’s feeler, the automatic patter, the overrehearsed
stories, the generic objectification of people’s heartaches. “You keep being
in your mind a bad mother. What’s the payoff?!’ she says loudly to one woman
while idly picking lint from her jacket sleeve. She banishes a woman’s
headache onstage with a kind of pseudo hypnosis. “Isn’t that cool?” she says,
grinning and cautions us not to try this at home. If we find a way to accept
our headache, our tiredness, our anger, it will go away. She encourages us to
experience our individual fear collectively, careful to alert us that some
will find this exercise upsetting (“There might be some crying in the room”).
Be with our fear, Handel tells us, locate it in our bodies, notice whether it
moves. “Eyes closed!” No talking!” Next we’re instructed to be afraid of the
two people next to us, then to be afraid of the entire room, then the seven
million people in New York, until finally we should be afraid of the entire
universe. On cue, the good students in the room begin crying and moaning.
Slumped low in my seat, my head against the back of my chair, I can’t help
opening one eye to see what’s going on around me. A pale-faced woman at the
end of my row who had earlier said to me out on the sidewalk, “You single?
Forum’s a great way to meet people. I’ve done it twice,” is rocking back and
forth in her seat, crying and rubbing her thighs. Two rows behind me another
woman has her face in her hands, her shoulders trembling. A man at the edge of
the room is moaning and lowing, while Handel’s noisy instructions rain
relentlessly down on us. Now we’re informed there’s a flip side to this
exercise that well find enormously funny. Within minutes people are laughing.
The funny thing is, Handel explains, while you’re busy being afraid of the
world, the world is afraid of you.

We’ve hardly recovered from this exercise when Handel hits us with another
sales pitch. Tonight we can avail ourselves of a super-bonus homework exercise
involving “risk and unreasonableness.” If we’re brave, we’ll call three people
and invite them to the Tuesday night meeting of the Forum. Unbelievably,
unabashedly, Handel says, “Being unreasonable means doing it when you don’t
even understand it!” She is careful to say that we will still get full value
from the Forum if we don’t do the super bonus, but if we do, our returns will
be greater.

A young man gets up and says, “I’m afraid of you, Beth. Some of us have heard
this is a marketing scheme.” He wants his risk taking to involve something
other than recruitment for the Forum: “I want you to say to us that you’re
interested in making money.” Handel turns her palm up and shrugs, ‘I don’t do
anything if you don’t pay me! There’s no secret here. This is a business like
any other. You go to a restaurant, they give you a meal, you pay them. If you
like what we give you, tell your friends!”

Before the man can protest further, Handel says instructively, “Joe, what’s
the possibility of being you’ve enrolled yourself into this weekend?”
“Fearlessness,” he says. Handel grins in victory. Although many people in the
room obviously share Joe’s sentiments he is the only person who actually
challenged her. With visible suddenness Joe gets the point. He puts out a
twenty dollar bill and says, with wonder, “Beth, I want to give you a tip.”

People are clearly excited, tantalized, electrified by the level of
confrontation and frankness. Some are already adopting their new language.
After one break, as we’re hurrying back up the stairs, I hear a woman saying
into a cell phone, “You always gave me the room to be who I wanted to be,
Dad.” People have had breakthroughs with their spouses and parents: “He didn’t
get mad at me when I said what I wanted.” For many, this is the first time
they’ve been encouraged to think about the nature of their lives and the harm
their own perceptions can do them; what they’ve heard is nothing less than a
revelation. During the breaks, people are lining up at the public telephones
outside the building to “complete with their friends and families and recruit
them for the Tuesday night meeting. One young man stands at the microphone to
say he left a long message on his father’s answering machine, his Father
called him back and left a great message in return, and he feels really good
about it. Later he confesses to me his Father didn’t really call him back. I
asked him why he told us otherwise. “I don’t know,” he says. “I wanted it to
work.” On Sunday the grand punch line we’ve been waiting for–the point of the
Forum–turns out to be an elementary exercise in existentialism. “Life is
empty and meaningless…. What’s out there is nothing and you make it mean a
thousand things it doesn’t mean.” This is what we’ve paid for: The news that
the way we think about life is surreal, debilitating and above all
pointless–we’re all going to die anyway. “The Forum is getting that you are
in a trap,” Handel says. We are instructed to be “unreasonable” on Monday when
we go back into “the world.” “Share with people, enroll people, invite than to
come Tuesday night,” she says. ‘Who’s going to do it, stand up.” A lot of
people stand up. She warns us to be careful how we spread the word, likening
those who haven’t been enlightened to shipwrecked people laboriously rowing a
foundering boat. She introduces the beaming volunteers hovering at the back of
the room. Soberly Handel tells us that the volunteer work has transformational
value. A tear rolls down one volunteer’s cheek as she’s saying good-bye.
Handel’s own eyes fill up with tears. With her hands in a position of prayer
she says, “It was a privilege to serve you.”

My Forum is over. Almost. On Tuesday night Handel shows up in pink-and-black
high-heeled lace-up shoes, like a Victorian granny’s boots. She is
overanimated, high on her performance, cackling campily like a Hollywood
witch. Most of us have brought guests to the meeting. My classmates offer
inspirational testimonials. Marie says, “The Forum showed me how to look at
myself.” Joan, an actress, saw people making a movie and went right up and
asked if she could be in their film. Handel focuses on the guests, pressing
her foot to the recruiting pedal. “It took me ten years to find myself. We say
that it will take six months in the Forum. You ask, How do they do that? You
can’t explain it. I’m going to invite you to take a leap, trust the person who
brought you, and sign up for the Forum. If you aren’t signing up, you’re on
the fence. Being on the fence is probably what stops you in the rest of your
life. The people who brought you here are standing for your greatness.

Is she saving our lives or is she reaching into our handbags for our
checkbooks? “We will train you to use your future to make your future,” she
says, pitching the Advanced Course to the graduates. And we’ll get $100 off
the tuition if we sign up right now. Amazingly, more than half the room is
signing up. Beth Handel knows how to hustle.

My $375 has bought me a flimsy synthesis of world philosophies, littered with
the sort of aphoristic suggestions abundant in high school yearbooks (“Be
yourself and you’ll be more than you ever thought of being” — Janis Joplin),
paralleling aspects of Plato’s allegory of the Cave, Alcoholics Anonymous,
Freudian psychology, Christianity, positive thinking, Scientology, group
therapy, Fascism, and carnival hucksterism. Saturday night’s super-bonus
homework assignment, with its proposition that the act of bringing new
recruits to the Forum is itself a bold and transforming endeavor, sticks
naggingly in my mind. Were a psychiatrist to suggest to a suffering patient,
“Your therapy will be enhanced if you bring me three new patients,” it would
be considered a bad abuse of power.

What exactly is happening here and why do so many people relate to it? My
suspicion is that because we so badly want what it is that we’re looking for
and because we have put our money down and expect a return, we’re inclined to
believe the Forum works. Moreover, as psychotherapist Milton H. Erickson,
M.D., has demonstrated, in a kind of informal hypnotic process people can
become submissive to voices of authority through a series of indirectly
applied techniques of suggestion. Such hypnosis, practiced without formal
trance induction, employs jokes, confusion, guilt, humiliation, group
pressure, and sleep deprivation to assert its control. The stories leaders
tell–known as “killer shares” among expects who study such self-actualization
groups–are rehearsed but apparently spontaneous anecdotes calculated to
deliver an emotional message. Strategically placed suggestions are another
form of subtly coerced influence. When Handel says at the start of our group
experience of fear, “There might be some crying during this exercise,” the
suggestion is that we should cry. But anti-cult counselors say that the Forum
itself is not a cult; in a cult members are encouraged to live within the
group and are conditioned to be mistrustful of the outside world. The Forum
doesn’t do that, though there is, experts agree, a denigration of critical
thinking. My classmate Janet Jenkins questions Landmark’s capacity for self-
criticism and objects to the program’s sweeping advocacy of indiscriminate
forgiveness. “It’s a premature leap to a predetermined reconciliation,”
Jenkins says, “as though every case is the same–it isn’t. The human sold is
complex; a quick fix is probably got to be temporary.”

But of course the emphasis in our culture is on the quick fix. When Handel
tells an overweight man that he has to accept his body before he can change
it, she doesn’t say how he will find a way to do that in a culture where body
image is crucial. Just do it? Just say no? Don’t worry, be happy?. In a
commercial world the overriding idea is not to accept what you have, but to
get what you don’t have. We are inundated with ideals to strive for the right
car, the right clothes, the right sex life, the right income level. What’s
driving us to the Forum? Obviously we are in pain. But self-acceptance under
the best circumstances takes a lifetime. The sort of intimacy and connection
we’re seeking can’t be found in a weekend, no matter how much money we put
down. A shallow Oprah world wants a shallow Forum solution. Everything else in the world can be bought, why not happiness? In the end, the transformational key the Forum offers is nothing more than words. My life has been transformed.
Say it enough times and it might come true.

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About clickholistic

I blog - both for reward and for fun.

3 responses to “Landmark Education Forum: Is it a “racket”? Part II”

  1. The Elite (@7hElit3) says :

    In the end all this article left me is…. more words.

  2. The Elite (@7hElit3) says :

    the words you use and the words you say in your head IS whats creating the context of your life. its what gives everything meaning. so, yes the key is WORD. bringing a new language to ones life; transforming the way one relates to the world from the language we use. i mean, dude what else is there without language? how do i share my experience with someone without words?? A chair, wood, object. the object become a chair through language. A human being is interpreting whats occurring through a filter called language/words. if you take that away, you have only whats occurred, no meaning, just ‘what so”. The What So has no meaning without language. It is what it is.

    Right now is just “what is”. the only difference between you and a rock rolling down a hill is that you will be the only one complaining all the way down.

    Check out Landmark if you want a life altering experience. i took it because it was rated as number 3 in the top 25 Adventures at top100expo.com

    this is not for everyone. the course will definitely give you an access to opportunities which ceased to exist before the course. The reason why you want your friends and community to take the course is because once your “unplugged” from the matrix everyone else is still in. WHO YOU CREATED YOURSELF TO BE IN THE COURSE EXISTS THROUGH THE LISTENING OF OTHERS.

    i personally would want my community to have the listening of Anything is Possible instead of the That will never happen point of view. you can tell the people that taken the forum. they listen to you in a different way. as if your goals the things which are most important to you actually matter and you are left with a space of joy and motivation to get whatever you want for yourself or your life.

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