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It Happens

Or does it? When it comes to Landmark Education corporation, there's no meeting of the minds.

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 happeningEand 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 excuses.

"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 rejoin 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 his employees...I think it took a lot of courage to do that...don't you think?"

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."

ouisville's Liz Sumerlin first became aware of Landmark in 1991, after her then-fiance 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 psycho-babble. 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 life was."

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?

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