By Joel Warner
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The Forum was described as a room in which course leaders sit in director's chairs at the front while, one by one, the participants share personal details about their lives. The participants talk about their "acts" rather than their "masks," but the message was the same: To be a better person, they had to stop hiding who they really were. The participants were discouraged from going to the bathroom while the group was sharing, Reilly learned, and by the end of the session, they were to have achieved a "breakthrough" in which they finally "got it."
Reilly discovered that the Landmark Education Corporation grew out of a controversial self-help program called Erhard Seminars Training, better known as est. The program was founded by a man named Werner Erhard. Born in 1936 as John Paul "Jack" Rosenberg, he left his wife and four children in Philadelphia in 1960 and forged a new identity. He started by assuming a new name, which he borrowed from German physicist Werner Heisenberg and former German economics minister Ludwig Erhard. After working as a car salesman in St. Louis, a door-to-door book salesman in the Pacific Northwest and a senior vice president at a publishing company, Erhard wound up in San Francisco, where he decided to go into business for himself by peddling the intangible: self-awareness. In 1971, Erhard Seminars Training was born.
Erhard sold the idea of self-empowerment by holding a series of seminars in which he encouraged people to put their pasts behind them -- as he had -- and take control of their lives. He taught his grateful clients to train others across the country and the continent. By the late 1970s, Erhard was a rich man. But the methods he employed to help people achieve their "transformative experience" -- keeping people in rooms where each person underwent an emotional bloodletting while trainers yelled and swore at them until they broke down in tears -- eventually drew harsh criticism from psychiatrists and est "graduates" who claimed that the seminars had left some est graduates psychologically damaged.
Although many participants reported real benefits from est, others compared the pre-Landmark est to a cult, since it shared some of the characteristics of traditional cults -- a single, charismatic leader, its own language, and graduates who were highly encouraged to bring in more clients.
The American Family Foundation, which professes to be "the leading professional organization concerned about cults and psychological manipulation," features est on its list of "large group awareness trainings" to be aware of. The AFF Web site lists several characteristics of a cult, which include: control of the environment, preoccupation with bringing in new members, preoccupation with making money, deception in recruitment and/or fundraising, using language that people outside the group do not use, and using mind-numbing techniques such as meditation and chanting. It acknowledges, however, that est no longer exists.
In 1985, Erhard dropped the name "est," and his company, Werner Erhard & Associates, dubbed its introductory course "The Forum." Despite the bad publicity, Erhard enjoyed continued success. In 1991, however, Erhard suffered more publicity problems. One of his daughters accused him on 60 Minutes of sexually abusing her and her sister (she later recanted amid claims that she had been encouraged to exaggerate), and he got into a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service (Erhard eventually won a $200,000 settlement). Erhard left the United States and has been living in self-imposed exile in points unknown ever since.
But his legacy lives on.
Before he left the country, Erhard sold his company and the "technology" that went with it to his employees. Landmark Education was incorporated in San Francisco in 1991 and has since established 58 offices all over the globe, including one in Englewood ("It Happens," April 17, 1996).
Although Landmark's Web page claims that Erhard has no role in the company, it also states that "Landmark Education considers him a friend."
Landmark officials say Erhard has been repeatedly misrepresented in the press, and they insist that their organization is not a cult; they have a ready supply of letters from experts to back them up. In one of these, a November 30, 1999, report on the Forum, Raymond Fowler, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, wrote: "In my opinion, The Landmark Forum is not a cult or anything like a cult, and I do not see how any reasonable, responsible person could say that it is."
Although Fowler is on a leave of absence and couldn't be reached by Westword, his assistant, Barbara Peet, confirms that Fowler did, in fact, write the report.
In addition to Fowler's report, Landmark Education attorney Art Schreiber provided a litany of other testimonials from people, including a cult expert, an Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts, six law enforcement officers in California, several psychiatrists and psychologists, other clergy members and a former FBI agent in Texas. In 1998, the Harvard Business School even published a favorable case study of Landmark, titled "Landmark Education Corporation: Selling a Paradigm Shift," which covered the company's history, "technology," business model for the future and other factors.
Schreiber warned Westword that "in the event your article does not include relevant portions of the opinion letters of experts that Landmark and The Landmark Forum are not a cult and does not include the fact that the allegations against Mr. Erhard have been retracted, Landmark will pursue appropriate legal action to redress the damage caused by publication of the article." Landmark Education has a history of using its legal staff to try to attack negative press reports, and several publications, including Self and Redbook magazines, have run retractions after having referred to Landmark as a cult.