When it comes to Landmark Education Corporation, There's no meeting of the Minds.
Westword/April 24, 1996
By Steve Jackson
Walter Plywaski placed the blue yarmulke on his head. A Jew by
ethnicity but an atheist by choice, he rarely wore the symbol
But it seemed important now, as he stood near a mass burial site
for Jews murdered at what had once been the Riederloh "punishment"
camp in Germany. Somewhere beneath the stone markers, he believed,
were the remains of the father he'd seen beaten to death for cursing
an SS commandant in January 1945.
Fifty years later, Plywaski turned to look at his youngest daughter,
whom he had brought to this place. He had hoped it would give
her a better understanding of what happens when individuals start
thinking of themselves as a group, when they become true believers
in a cause. He had only just rescued her from another group of
true believers back home in Colorado.
It was known as Landmark Education corporation and was one of
those "self-empowerment" organizations that promised
a rich a full life in exchange for adopting a certain way of looking
at the world. Plywaski's daughter had taken one of Landmark's
seminars, then another, then another. She had dropped out of
the University of Colorado, spent money she didn't have and begun
to talk like some member of a secret club, using phrases only
"insiders" could understand. Everything was Landmark,
Landmark, Landmark. She spent all her free time there: recruiting,
helping at seminars, coaching neophytes.
For a year she'd badgered friends and family alike to sign up
for the introductory course called The Forum. And at last Plywaski
had agreed to go.
It had been just what he expected: carefully constructed salesmanship
whose main purpose, as he saw it, was generating new membership
and which sold itself with commonsense advice like "Don't
blame the world for your troubles."
He recognized the sales techniques from his post-WWII days selling
pots and pans - really companionship and sympathetic ear - to
lonely young American women. And the audience ate it up, he thought,
like the people he'd seen at tent revival meetings in the South
during the Fifties. True believers speaking in tongues, handling
snakes, writhing on the floor as the preacher screamed. "Do
you SEE Jesus? Reach out for JESUS! REACH out for Jesus!"
Only at "The Forum, it was "Do you get IT? Do you
want to live a LIFE of POSSIBILITIES?"
The preacher had predicted eternal damnation and everlasting torment
for sinners who refused to change their ways. The Forum trainer
promised that participants would remain in the same old ruts that
had brought them to the seminar in the first place unless they
Although he admired the salesmanship. Plywaski was alarmed at
the ease with which more than 200 individuals began thinking,
reacting, even laughing and clapping, as a group. True believers.
After the seminar, he complimented The Forum trainer for being
"the best huckster I've ever seen." But Plywaski then
made it his mission to get his daughter out. By telephone and
fax, he let the Landmark Education Corporation office in Englewood
and its San Francisco headquarters know he thought they were damaging
people like his daughter financially and psychologically. He
insisted they return her money and cut all ties to her.
At first, they'd blustered and threatened back. But Plywaski,
a survivor of the camps, did not back down. Finally, Landmark
gave in to his demands.
His daughter was angry with him and left home. But by spring of
1995 she'd gone back to school and their relationship was getting
better, and now they were traveling together through Germany and
Poland, with time for beer and laughter between the history lessons.
Plywaski had broached the subject of Landmark only once. "Don't
spoil it," his daughter had warned. So instead he took her
to Riederloh, Auschwitz and Dachau and prayed that she go it.
The guy on the other end of the phone cheerfully introduces himself
as Jerry. "I understand you needed some information about
The Forum," he says, then proceeds to give a rundown of the
It's offered every month at the Englewood office. It goes for
three days straight-Friday, Saturday, Sunday -from 9 a.m. to midnight,
maybe a little later. Then it's back again Tuesday evening for
bout three hours. Cost: $290.
Landmark Education, he says, has been in business for 25 years.
So far, about 1.5 million people have taken the basic course
called The Forum.
The Forum is offered to the public, says Jerry. "But we
also do a lot of work with schools, government, institutions-like
prisons and Fortune 500 companies. So you don't have to worry,"
he laughs, "we won't be testing the program on you."
The program deals with the design of human beings, he says-what
causes us to make the choices we do, and how we relate to people
and ourselves. "In other words," Jerry says, "how
did we get the way we are today? Then, if we know the design,
what's possible in this business of being alive?"
Does the training draw on any particular philosophies?
Jerry pauses as if he has never been asked such a question before.
"Ah, well, it doesn't come from any one particular place.
Basically, it was started by a man named Werner Erhard about
25 years ago
He was just a regular old guy who committed
himself to living a life of possibilities.
"He made a lot of mistakes," Jerry adds. "Heh,
heh. Don't we all? Heh, heh. But he learned from his mistakes
and was awake to it."
It? What's "it"?
To learn that, Jerry says, you need to attend The Forum. "Do
you have ten minutes to answer a few questions
Werner Hans Erhard was born in 1936, and for the first 24 or so
years of his life went by the name of John "Jack" Rosenberg.
His own accounts describe a stress-filled childhood in which
he was often told that he was an unwanted child.
Rosenberg graduated high school and married his longtime sweetheart
with whom he promptly produced four children. He found his true
calling in life - as a salesman - at a Philadelphia car lot.
Handsome and charismatic, he is said to have used those traits
to both sell cars and seduce women.
One of those women was named June Bryde. In 1960, at the age
of 25, Rosenberg walked out on his family and Philadelphia with
June. Leaving his past behind - a concept that would become a
fundamental aspect of his future teachings - he chose a new name
gleaned from the pages of a magazine article about West German
officials: theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and then-economics
minister Ludwig Erhard. June took the name Ellen Erhard.
Erhard sold cars in St. Louis, then books door-to-door in the
Pacific Northwest. But he and Ellen soon moved on to San Francisco,
where Erhard formed his own book-selling company, motivating his
sales force with rousing speeches and group sing-alongs and dabbling
in Eastern mysticism, Dale Carnegie and the Church of Scientology.
From there it wasn't far to his next venture: what Erhard called
the "mind business." In 1971 he founded Erhard Seminars
training, or est.
Erhard claimed to have reached his own enlightenment while driving
across the Golden Gate Bridge, when suddenly he realized that
he knew everything and knew nothing and didn't know what he didn't
know - psychobabble phrasing that would become scripture in est.
Whatever the epiphany, Erhard also recognized a sales opportunity
when he saw it.
From its start in San Francisco, est spread quickly from coast
to coast and then overseas at two-weekend seminars given by Erhard-trained
clones. At its peak in the late Seventies, est was attracting
more than 50,000 new customers each year and generating tens of
millions of dollars in revenues.
The participants came from all walks of life, although est's primary
appeal was to white, educated liberals in their twenties and thirties.
Enthusiasts of est included housewives and corporate executives,
athletes and entertainers - John Denver, Diana Ross, Valerie Harper.
"What if you were committed more often and upset less?"
"What if your future was a function of your creation, rather
than an extension of your past?"
"How would you like to increase your effectiveness in relating
to others, your personal productivity, enhance your confidence
and ability to make the right choices in pursuing what's important
Est promised to deliver all this and more. But there was a price
to pay beyond the tuition.
Est seminars were brutal. Trainers shouted and swore at participants.
The days were long; participants went with little sleep and weren't
allowed to use bathrooms during training, where they were encouraged
to disconnect from the past (just as Erhard had). No matter what
their past problems had been, they had to get over them and take
personal responsibility for their own happiness.
The seminars often reduced participants to tears - which were
then rewarded with smiles from trainers and applause from their
fellow attendees, because they "got it."
Meanwhile, Erhard was getting rich off his creation. But with
his success came increased scrutiny, including press reports about
Erhard's past and some of est's excesses. Participants were expected
to volunteer for the organization in a variety of capacities,
such as setting up seminars and recruiting. Former employees
and volunteers reported that Erhard treated his followers like
slaves; one man said his job was to massage the feet of The Source,
as they were encouraged to refer to Erhard. (Some disgruntled
former workers claimed he'd referred to himself as God.)
But even its critics conceded that a healthy - mentally and physically
- adult was in no real danger from est, except maybe potential
damage to the checkbook. The concern was for people who really
needed professional psychotherapy or psychiatry but turned to
There were reports of suicides and psychotic breakdowns. Families
complained that they'd been torn apart by the zealotry of the
newly indoctrinated to bring in brothers and sisters, fathers
and mothers. Psychologists warned of the danger of refusing to
resolve very real problems by pretending they no longer mattered.
In 1984, Erhard decided to rename his venture. Cynics said he
did it in part to avoid paying Ellen, who was divorcing him, a
percentage of the money gleaned from est. others said it was
an attempt to divorce himself from est itself.
After a couple of false starts, Erhard transformed est into a
kinder, gentler program. He gave it an innocuous new name - Landmark
Education Corporation - and called its introductory seminar The
Although Erhard remained popular in some sets, he continued to
attract bad publicity. One story concerned the Hunger Project,
which he'd helped found (earning a 1988 Mahatma Ghandi humanitarian
Award in the process). The Project's stated goal was to put an
end to hunger before the millennium, and at first it was welcomed
with open arms by relief agencies as Erhard followers took to
the streets, getting people to pledge money toward the cause.
But then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that of
$7 million collected, only a little over $200,000 had gone to
actual relief efforts. Landmark tried to claim that it and Erhard
had little to do with the Hunger Project. But the Project's main
office was right next door to a Landmark office - and the woman
who ran the Project was a former to-level est trainer. She told
the CBC that the Hunger Project had never intended to be a relief
agency but rather a program to raise "people's consciousness"
about the reality of hunger.
Still, the most damaging hit to Erhard's reputation came in a
February 1991 60 Minutes expose in which one of the Erhard's
daughters claimed that her father had molested her and raped her
sister, had beaten and kicked his son and had struck Ellen and
encouraged a follower to choke her. At the same time, the Internal
Revenue Service filed more than $21 million in liens against Erhard
and est, charging tax fraud and evasion.
But by then, Erhard had already fled the country. For a reported
$250,000, he sold the company, valued at $45 million in 1989,
and the rights to use his "technology" to his former
employees, now operating out of a San Francisco headquarters with
satellite operations in other cities, including Englewood, Colorado.
The ten minutes of questioning for a would-be participant in The
Forum begins with a request for name, address and credit-card
number. "We're going to be best friends for a few minutes,"
says the perky woman doing the asking, whose favorite word appears
to be "great." She adds that failure to answer these
questions as fully and honestly as possible means Landmark cannot
guarantee the results of The Forum.
The process actually takes more than ten minutes as she asks what
the caller wants to get out of The Forum. Then there's a break,
and she's replaced on the phone by a chatty male who asks a half-dozen
questions related to the would-be participant's mental state.
"The Forum is for people who are well
have you in the
past six months, or are you currently taking any prescriptions
for mood-altering or chemical imbalances? No? Hey, great!
"Have you ever been hospitalized for a psychiatric problem?
No? Hey, that's great."
"Have you ever been under the care of a psychiatrist and
discontinued treatment against advice?" Another negative
answer is, of course, great. But after asking a few unrelated
questions, the man repeats the mental-health questions.
At last he's satisfied and pronounces the interview over. "That's
great! Have a great week and a great seminar!"
The Forum weekend arrives. Participants, lugging little coolers
full of the snacks they've been instructed to bring (only at dinner
will there be time to leave the premises for a quick bite), are
directed to a building in a remote Englewood business park by
smiling attendants in orange vests.
After receiving name tags, which must be visible at all
times, participants are sent to the seminar room. The hallways
leading to it are bare, except for the occasional inspirational
poster depicting momentous occasions such as the Gettysburg Address
and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.
The seminar room is even more sterile. Although there is plenty
of room, the hard plastic chairs are lined up in neat rows with
absolutely no space between them. There are just enough seats
for the 140 people attending the seminar. At the back of the
room are several tables; one holds the sound system, and serious-looking
folks sit behind the others fiddling with papers.
In the front of the room are several chalkboards bearing neat,
block-letter admonitions. One warns participants to be on time
in the morning and following breaks: YOU MUST BE PRESENT IN THE
ROOM, otherwise Landmark makes no guarantees about the results.
Another notes that if participants have any needs that require
they take medications on a regular basis or use the restroom frequently,
they should inform someone sitting at the tables in the back of
the room. DO IT NOW! The chalkboard warns.
Another message reminds participants that The Forum is for "WELL
PEOPLE.. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR MENTAL, EMOTIONAL, AND PHYSICAL
The seminar's leader alter repeats this message, reading aloud
from a notebook that Landmark is an "educational" organization
and The Forum, which is for well people, should not be thought
of as therapy for people who need professional psychological help.
Even so, the gathering soon resembles a large group-therapy session.
During the initial question-and-answer period with the trainer,
participants reveal their innermost secrets as they ask if The
Forum will help them deal with marital problems, abuse, abandonment
by fathers. Attendants rush up and down the aisles to provide
microphones that can broadcast these confessions.
At one point in the morning, the trainer asks people who believe
they were "pressured" to attend The Forum to stand.
Half a dozen people do. "You will have to leave," she
says. "I cannot do The Forum with you."
Immediately, one young woman starts sobbing. Under the trainer's
probing, she reveals that her father, a graduate of The Forum,
had been coaxing her to attend and even paid her tuition without
telling her. There are apparently issues regarding his domineering
influence, and once again, he was making decisions for her. "But
now," she wails as 140-plus people look on, "I have
In the end, however, none do. One by one, the trainer discusses
the ":pressure" each felt and, lo and behold, it turns
out the only pressure was the pressure they put on themselves.
The young woman could have told her father to go to hell. An
older man who was signed up at an introductory course "when
I didn't know what was happening
and a friend paid"
could have refused to come. Another man, who was angry because
a Landmark employee said he was "making excuses" when
he skipped the December seminar he'd originally been scheduled
for because of a daughter's Christmas pageant, was indeed making
"You will always be making excuses for why you can't do something
that is important to you," the trainer says.
As each person is allowed to sit back down and rejoining the group
- thus saving their spot in the seminar and their tuition money
for Landmark - the audience applauds.
The applause is initiated by "lifers," veterans of The
Forum who are sprinkled throughout the audience. ("We called
them 'shills' when I was in the carny business," says Walter
Plywaski, who noticed the same thing when he attended. "We
would put them in the crowd, and they would yell and carry on
whenever they 'won'- which was not too often so that it would
be suspicious, but often enough to bring in the suckers.")
The easy, encouraging atmosphere shifts only once in these early
hours, when a woman asks how The Forum got started. The trainer
frowns, for the first time, and takes a drink. "Well, it
all started about 25 years ago," she says, "by a wonderful
man named Werner Erhard
But it got so big, he sold it to
I think it took a lot of courage to do that
There is applause, after which the trainer segues into a description
of the wonderful, life-transforming experience we can all expect
from The Forum, provided we follow the rules. "And,"
of course, "keep an open mind."
But a few minutes later, another man stands. He wants to know
more about Landmark's connection to Erhard. "I heard he
was in trouble for tax evasion or something," the man says.
"Where do you hear this?" the trainer responds, somehow
managing to sneer and smile at the same time. "Newspapers?
Television?" She explains that because Erhard was such
a successful businessman, his enemies started saying bad things
about him. Erhard didn't want all that negativity reflecting
on his great work, so he sold the company. "Which I think
was a very great thing to do," the trainer concludes.
More applause. It's clear the trainer expects the man to sit
down, but he doesn't. Instead, he says, "That's too glib."
If there is something to the rumors he's heard, he thinks she
should discuss them and then they can all decide whether to go
on from there.
Smiling, the trainer approaches the man. "would you feel
better if I told you Werner Erhard is no longer connected to The
Forum?" she asks. The real issue, she says, is a matter
of trust between herself and her questioner. She steps closer.
Does he trust her? The man nods. She steps closer still.
Does he trust her enough to stick around and see if The Forum
is worthwhile? He nods and hurriedly sits down. Applause.
"Now," the trainer says triumphantly, "are there
any other questions about this?"
No one raises a hand. She smiles even wider. "Very good.
Now we can proceed."
Louisville's Liz Sumerlin first became aware of Landmark in 1991,
after her then-fiancÚ enrolled in The Forum and began pressuring
her and his family to sign up.
"The longer he stayed in it, the less I could talk to him,"
she recalls. "It was all psychobabble. We'd have a disagreement
and he'd just dismiss anything he didn't want to hear by saying
'That's your story' or 'That's your racket.'"
"I found it strange that an organization that talks about
how it's creating all these people who have empathy for their
fellow man turns out all these people who don't want to communicate
so that other people will understand them."
Sumerlin decided to find out everything she could about Landmark.
A friend told her about a Wall Street Journal article,
but when she tried to find it at the Denver Public Library, the
microfiche had disappeared. However, a librarian there handed
her a printout with a whole list of suggested reading, explaining
that she had lost a relative to est.
"Apparently a lot of people were interested in the same thing
I was," Sumerlin remembers. "I was really surprised
by the amount of negative publicity."
She was also surprised by the nature of that publicity. "And
what about Erhard?" she says, shaking her head. "They're
always talking about how this will give you better, more loving
relationships with people, but look at what a mess his family
As her boyfriend got further into the organization, signing up
for the leadership and self-expression program, Sumerlin agreed
to attend an introductory course.
"They were just big sales pitches," she says. "We
were whisked away into these back rooms where they try to get
you to sign up. If you don't they want to know why. What's so
great about your life that you don't want to improve it? Why
do you have such a hard time committing to anything?"
"It's like shooting clay pigeons; there was always another
question. They just try to wear you down."
At one point, Sumerlin tried to leave - but first she had to get
past several hall monitors who kept up the questioning. "it
was before I learned that the only way to handle these people
is to just say no," she adds. "Anything else gives
them an opening to ask another question. They're trained on how
to do it."
In fact, she says, a former volunteer told her how they were taught
to desensitize themselves to objections from potential recruits
by singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" and substituting
all the possible objections people might have for the verses:
"I'm not signing up because
of money. Ee-I-Ee-I-O.
I'm not signing up because
I don't want to. Ee-I-Ei-I-O."
Sumerlin soon split up with her boyfriend, but she doesn't blame
Landmark for that.
"Actually, they did me a favor. It never would have worked
anyway," says Sumerlin, who has since married and is now
the mother of a seven-month-old son. "But I was real concerned
about what I had seen it do to his relationship with his family,
which basically fell apart, and his business partner, who couldn't
talk to him anymore without Landmark getting in the middle."
The engagement was over, but Sumerlin still thought she'd like
to make it easier for people to find information about Landmark.
So she placed an ad in several local newspapers that read, "Is
Landmark a cult?" and gave a telephone number for a recorded
message. Over the first few months, more than 600 people called.
That's when she decided to form a nonprofit organization called
Action Works, which offers a reading list of articles and books
That got Sumerlin into some unusual reading of her own: angry
correspondence from Landmark officials, including Art Schreiber,
Landmark's current president and Erhard's former attorney, and
Harry Rosenberg, Erhard's brother, who's on the Landmark board.
Their letters began nicely enough, expressing their desire to
work out whatever dissatisfaction Sumerlin had with the organization
(including once offering her a half-price scholarship to The Forum).
But they ended with similar heavy-handed warning such as this
one from Harry Rosenberg in 1993:
"While we are committed to correcting any mistakes in our
own behavior and we respect your freedom of expression in a responsible
we are unwilling to have the reputation of Landmark
damaged or the activities of people participating in Landmark's
programs interfered with as a result of statements by you or your
"Accordingly, this is to advise you that in the event that
you or your organization continue to make or republish false and
defamatory statements regarding Landmark
is fully prepared to initiate legal action against you."
"Again, I am not intending to threaten you or stop your expression."
Sumerlin's response was to pump up the volume. Her attorney,
David Kolko, wrote Rosenberg back, noting that all of Landmark's
previous correspondence had failed to point out a single false
or defamatory statement. Action works not only would not cease
its activities, Kolko said, it was considering expanding "its
information service to other metropolitan areas in the United
States and, perhaps, throughout the world."
Sumerlin says she's not trying to put Landmark out of business,
but only to get the organization to stop using the "influence
techniques" - such as the phraseology and marathon session
- and to back off on high-pressure recruiting.
Landmark fights off criticism by teaching participants they are
responsible for whatever happens to them, she notes. "Therefore,
if you have a negative outcome at The Forum, it's not Landmark's
fault, it's yours. Pretty clever.
"Maybe only a few people get hurt, but if Jack-in-the-Box
had said, 'Hey, we serve millions of hamburgers every year
what if a few people died of E. coli?' instead of accepting
responsibility, which they did, would people have said that was
"Landmark believes they can do no wrong," Sumerlin says.
So far, Landmark has not followed up on its threats to take legal
action against Sumerlin or Action Works. "I think they have
bigger fish to fry," she says, although she's still careful
to preface all her remarks about Landmark with the disclaimer
that "this is just my personal opinion."
"I kind of think of it as my community service," she
adds. "But it's not my whole life. It's like, if you see
a mess in aisle 12 at Safeway, you can't just walk away."
Ted, a recent graduate of The Forum who's gone on to other Landmark
seminars, bridles at any suggestion that Landmark is a cult.
"I consider myself a cult-buster," he says. "Cults
take everything you have - your money, your mind, your time -
and disempower you. In a cult, the leader is the Almighty, who
has all the answers and all the power. You owe them your
Landmark, he says, stresses the importance of family, friends,
co-workers and humanity as a whole. "they teach you that
you have the power to do whatever you want, including teaching
you how to say no, even to their own invitations to take more
"Landmark isn't a cult," he says. "I know, because
I was in one."
Eight years ago Ted read a book that seemed to have an interesting
take on life. After writing to an address in the back, he received
an invitation to attend a weekend seminar. It turned out to be
hosted by the Church Universal and Triumphant, a doomsday cult
led by Elizabeth Prophet, whose headquarters are on a ranch near
"They feed you information that is believable but slightly
slanted," says Ted. "And prey on your ego, telling
you how special you are, that you are one of the chosen. They
really work on your need to be accepted and special."
What followed was what he describes as brainwashing: three sixteen-hour
days of indoctrination with little sleep, food or breaks.
Ted stayed with the church for about six weeks and only broke
away "when I realized they were trying to isolate me from
the rest of humanity," he says. "They tell you that
your family is screwed up, that your friends are screwed up -
that they'll try to talk you out of being with them."
Ted, today a local musician and martial-arts teacher (he asked
that his real name not be used), learned about Landmark a little
more than a year ago. His older brother, "who has been a
real dick his entire life," Ted recalls, "egotistical
and arrogant," called from Boston to say he was participating
in a program that had transformed his life. He wanted Ted to
fly out for his graduation from The Forum.
"He was really coming from the heart and was a much nicer
person," Ted says. "I wanted to know what had happened."
He flew to Boston and was "overwhelmed" by what he
heard from the Forum's participants.
"They had a passionate way of being," he recalls. "They
were empowered, and I decided, 'Hey, I could use a little of that.'"
Ted enrolled in The Forum last May. The experience left him "mellower,"
he says. "I don't have to get mad if I don't want to. It's
easier for me to forgive and accept others."
All 110 people in his session, Ted adds, had "significant
even if they had to go through a lot of different
gyrations, including getting mad and huffy, to get there."
And the people who didn't "get it," he says, had "loser
mentalities" to begin with.
That wasn't the problem for another Colorado man, Bob (who also
asked that his name also not be used). After enrolling in The
forum, he "got it" - and then spent a year and half
living and breathing Landmark before getting out of it. Later,
for a psychology class, Bob wrote about his experiences, starting
with The Forum's introductory night:
"Every aspect that defines my goals as a maturing human being
were in that room: The skills and confidence to better relate
to people, getting past procrastination and taking action, defining
my objectives and aggressively pursuing them. Successful doctors,
attorneys, and teachers with wonderful, committed relationships
in their lives, volunteering valuable time to share powerful information
with me! It could begin now if I simply enrolled."
Bob compared an expert's psychological analysis of what occurred
in Jonestown to his own Landmark experience: The analysis "discusses
the gradual increase of discipline and dedication required to
participate with the group and how, when that participation is
deemed desirable, unusual or uncomfortable behaviors become accepted
as normal. You were
warned that every thought (doubt, change
of heart) and obstacle (scheduling, work, illness) would come
up, that overcoming those obstacles, no matter what, were part
of the process for transformation, and though the requests and
recommendations (really rules and regulations) seem stringent,
they were necessary to the process."
Participating in Landmark required submitting to the total control
of communication, he wrote, "gradually turning conscious
obedience into unconscious obedience
Latecomers were challenged
at the door. If admitted, they were sometimes grilled or even
humiliated by the leader. The course ran 15 or 16 hours each
day with minimal breaks, plus substantial 'homework' which guaranteed
that sleep-deprivation would factor in to your susceptibility
at the end, when the push came to enroll yourself in the $700
and bring your friends to 'share' your transformation
and have an opportunity to begin the process for themselves.
"The ultimate insight, the epiphany, the answer we were all
working so hard to find, and was saved until the very end, was
simply this: 'There is no answer. All these rules and conversations
don't mean anything. And, it doesn't mean anything that it doesn't
Nevertheless, Bob continued to participate, traveling to other
cities, spending large sums of money and time, "being groomed
in appearance and demeanor so that I, too, could lead flocks to
the promised land
it was only when I noticed my business
suffering, my scholastic production and success on the verge of
diminishing, my own personal goals and needs being subjugated
to those of the group, and my emotional well-being tied to how
many potential enrollments I had working, that I began to break
The two groups for which the
Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network [bankrupted by Scientology
sponsored litigation and then bought by Scientology lawyer see
receives the most inquiries - about 25 a month each - are Scientology
and Landmark, says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of CAN.
She's quick to note that not all of the calls are complaints
- but then, Landmark has a $40 million suit pending against CAN
and Kisser in the Illinois courts.
[Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently
bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do
not contact them for assistance.]
"Some calls are from people who are considering attending,
or have a family member involved and just want more information,"
Kisser says. "We even get a few rare calls from people who
"But I have to say the majority are from people with complaints,
who want to know what they can do about it
families or friends who have lost contact, or are losing contact,
with someone they love."
Landmark has sued CAN, which came to prominence following the
Jonestown massacre when a number of like-minded groups, including
a chapter in Denver, decided to pool resources, on the grounds
that CAN's activities are intended to prevent people from attending
Landmark seminars, and therefore hurt business.
Among other things, Landmark charges that CAN identified est/Landmark
as a "cult," although only by inference, by distributing
a packet of photocopied newspaper and magazine reports about Landmark.
That packet even comes with a disclaimer from CAN: "The
opinions in this public service packet
do not necessarily
reflect the opinions of the Cult Awareness Network, its staff,
directors or advisors. The compilation of a packet on a particular
group does not necessarily mean that it is a cult or is destructive,
only that CAN receives inquiries about it."
The cost of fighting Landmark's lawsuit has helped send CAN into
Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and Kisser, who is named in the suit, has
to pay for her own defense. Noting that even a lawsuit can't
get blood from a turnip, Kisser says she thinks Landmark's real
objective is not to recover money for its wounded reputation but
to gag critics.
But Kisser's not about to shut up.
It's not important whether Landmark can be labeled a cult in the
strict definition of the word, she says. Of greater concern to
her group are Landmark's practices. In particular, Kisser points
to the long hours during which the participant is in the organization's
total control, receiving input from only one source, removed from
any support system except for the seminar group itself.
"When you're fatigued, you do not process information in
the same way as when you're fresh and alert," she says. "isolated
from family and friends, manipulated to elicit a lot of strong
emotional responses, you tend to bond with the group
are punished or rewarded by how well you alter your attitudes
to conform to the group."
What about people who report being "aglow" and energized
at the end of The Forum's three-day introductory session? "But
of course," says Kisser. "You have all this emotional
baggage tied up with the group and now, because you're thinking
like them, you're accepted
The need to feel accepted and
safe, especially when we're tired and having been stressed for
three days, is very human."
The results are self-fulfilling if not necessarily real, she continues:
"Imagine you've had very little contact with anyone else
during this very stressful situation, so you've bonded with your
group. Now everyone around you is experiencing 'breakthroughs'
and accepted with love by the group. You don't want to be the
only one left out in the cold, so you have a 'breakthrough,' too,"
Armed with a "new" language and a world-view shared
only by other graduates of The Forum, participants tend to alter
relationships with friends and family who don't "get it"
or don't want to. Says Kisser, "We get a lot of calls like,
'My wife took the course, and now she seems different
talk to her.'"
Landmark's schedule is calculated, Kisser says. The Forum is
set up so that after the three-day seminar, participants have
a day's break during which they are supposed to go out and practice
what they've learned. The participants impress their friends
and family with their "transformation" - however short-lived
it might be - and then return for a Tuesday evening "graduation,"
where they are encouraged to bring ten people. Those ten people,
of course, will hear more participants talking about the amazing
changes in their lives - and then sign up themselves.
But if what Landmark has to sell is worth-while, Kisser contends,
it could be presented in a way that allows people to make rational
decisions, say, during eight-hour sessions with plenty of time
for breaks and gathering outside points of view.
"If Landmark is an 'educational' organization, as they claim,"
she adds, "why are they a for-profit business reaping the
rewards of thousands and thousands of volunteers who devote long
periods of time away from their businesses and families?"
Even if the obligation is only implied, she says, these volunteers
feel they must prove their loyalty and the degree of their personal
"transformation" by bringing in new members.
"What for-profit business do you know that has the majority
of its people working for free?"
CAN isn't the only critic that Landmark has targeted. A 1993
article in Self magazine, titled "White Collar Cults,"
dealt mainly with Lifespring, another offshoot of the Seventies'
self-empowerment movement. The only mention of Landmark was in
an accompanying list of the 'Ten Most Wanted Cults." But
that was enough for Landmark to threaten to sue. It eventually
settled for a disclaimer from Self stating that the magazine
had no firsthand knowledge that Landmark was a cult.
Werner Erhard has been sued successfully (his defenders say the
plaintiffs won only because he did not show up in court to make
his case), and he sued 60 Minutes himself for its 1991
story. Erhard later dropped the suit, he told Larry King during
a December 1993 radio interview, because his lawyers told him
he would have to prove not only that the TV show knew the material
aired wasn't true, but that 60 Minutes used it maliciously.
To King, Erhard denied the allegations of sexual and physical
abuse, saying his family members had been pressured by CBS and
had since recanted. He also referred to the tax fraud and evasion
charges as "misunderstandings" that were being cleared
But the most damning critique of Erhard was a 1993 book by journalist
Steven Pressman, Outrageous Betrayal: The Dark Journey of
Werner Erhard From est to Exile. In it, Pressman details
Erhard's past, including allegations of manipulation and tales
of ego-mania. Art Schreiber denounced the book as defamatory,
but Landmark has yet to prove any inaccuracies.
There are also books sympathetic to Erhard, est and Landmark -
some of them by writers already in the fold. One such tome, Werner
Erhard, was written by W.W. Bartley, III, a professor of philosophy
at California State University and an old friend of Erhard's.
Erhard is portrayed not as a hypocrite, but as a troubled man
who was able to transform himself and then set out to teach others
how to do the same.
Another book, 60 Minutes and the Assassination of Werner Erhard,
was written by Jane Self, a journalist who acknowledged in the
first chapter that she'd attended several Landmark seminars.
She was granted rare interviews with Erhard in exile to prepare
her work, which was essentially a counterattack to the 60 Minutes
Landmark contends that all the bad publicity ultimately can be
traced to one enemy: the Church of Scientology
[see http://www.rickross.com/groups/scientology.html]. And in fact,
there is some truth to the charge. The church's own records indicate
that Erhard and his organization were placed on an enemies list
by the late L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder. There's also
evidence that the church hired private detectives to dig up dirt
on Erhard and disseminate it to the press.
Whatever role Scientology might have played on digging up dirt
on its competition, Erhard's bad publicity can't be dismissed
so easily, Sumerlin says. "Scientology gets as much bad
press as Landmark, if not more," she notes. "It's just
easier to blame it all on Scientology."
But in a magazine interview Erhard granted in 1993, when he was
in Ireland offering a seminar for priests and nuns, est's founder
said he couldn't return to the U.S. not because of the IRS, but
because he feared Scientology zealots might be out to get him.
With Larry King, Erhard didn't go quite so far. Although he worried
about "harassment," he said he hoped that with Hubbard
dead, a deal could be worked out with the Scientologists allowing
him to return to this country. Erhard, who continues to give
seminars and consult with governments and businesses throughout
the world (he called King from Moscow), contended that the Scientology
leader hated him because Hubbard believed Erhard has swiped his
ideas and was jealous of Erhard's success.
And during King's show, it was clear that many people still view
Erhard as their spiritual leader. Callers expressed their love
for Erhard, talked about the difference he's made in their lives,
and said they wished he could return soon, pretty much monopolizing
the call-in portion of the show.
Landmark's official position is that Erhard has no connection
to the organization except that he is the creator of the initial
technology, since refined, and he receives licensing fees for
Landmark officials at both Englewood office and the San Francisco
headquarters did not respond to Westword's request for
an interview. And when a Westword reporter signed up for
The Forum and identified himself during the initial session, he
was called " a spy" and politely shown the door.
There are thousands, make that hundreds of thousands, of est and
Landmark graduates who swear by the programs. Even those who
criticize the way Landmark does business often say that their
experience at The Forum was useful.
"I don't discredit the positive influence of my participation
in the actual courses," says Bob. "Some insights that
I gained have impacted my life, my relationships, and my willingness
and ability to communicate openly
But the cost was too great."
"You must be wary when confronted by always-smiling, happy
people whose lives have been 'transformed' by spending a couple
of days looking at something 'new.' Be wary when conformity to
explicit behavior is demanded, when the environment is rigidly
controlled, when people say they 'get their lives' out of 'volunteering'
when the 'cause' is a very-much-for-profit one)."
"Avoid groups who employ powerful, psychological methods
but don't want to explain their necessity or effect ('You just
have to "experience" it')."
"Look at the history and track record of the organization
and its leader(s). Don't accept incomplete or unclear answers
to important questions (and do question, question, question)
it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't."
Walter Plywaski, however, will never be convinced that there is
a shred of value in what Landmark has to offer. In particular,
he worries about The Forum encouraging people to forget about
the past if it disturbs them.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could just forget the Holocaust
ever happened?" he says. "Maybe for some people
Germans, the paleo-Nazis and the neo-Nazis and anyone else who
feels uncomfortable with the subject."
Plywaski himself cannot forget. For fifty years he has lived
with the guilt of being too afraid to say goodbye to his mother
as she was herded off to the gas chambers.
"Perhaps it would be nice to forget all these bad things,"
he says. "But then who would be there to remember for when
the next Hitler comes along
Part of being human is learning
to deal with trouble as individuals, not some group-think."
One section of The Forum he attended, Plywaski says, was a "fear
session" during which participants were asked to close their
eyes and imagine that the person sitting next to them wanted to
kill them. "Then it was all the people around them,"
he says. "That brought on the first moans and cries. Then
it was all the people in the room wanted to kill them. There
"By the end, everyone in the world wanted to kill us. I
cheated and opened my eyes. There were people writhing on the
floor, kicking and screaming...just like at the old tent revival
meetings. And what is the purpose in either instance except to
instill fear so that you can control them
'Only Jay-sus can
'Only Landmark can give you heaven on earth.'"
"They want to replace your individual values, experiences,
morals with their values, experiences and morals. Your way of
looking at the world with their way of looking at the world.
Your mind with their mind."
"Sure, it all seems benign. But look at what's happening
just in this country. The malicious militias. Farrakhan and
all his hatred. All these little cults who 'know the way' the
rest of us should follow. Hitler just wanted to unify Germany
and protect German people from the Jews."
"True believers are true believers, and they can all be dangerous
when push comes to shove."
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