It Happens

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

"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-Ee-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 about Erhard/est/Landmark.

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 warnings 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 mannerEwe 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 organization.

"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...or interfere...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 sessions--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...So what if a few people died of E. coli?' instead of accepting responsibility, which they did, would people have said that was okay?

"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 allegiance."

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 courses.

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