It Happens

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

"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 praise Landmark.

"But I have to say the majority are from people with complaints, who want to know what they can do about it...Often they're 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 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 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...I can't 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 worthwhile, 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.

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