It Happens

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

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 up.

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 egomania. 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. In it, 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 broadcast.

Landmark contends that all the bad publicity ultimately can be traced to one enemy: the Church of Scientology. 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 had 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'd 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 the product.

Landmark officials at both the 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.

here 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'...(particularly 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)...If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't."

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