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.