Walter Plywaski placed the blue yarmulke on his head. A Jew by ethnicity but an atheist by choice, he rarely wore the symbol of faith.
But it seemed important now, as he stood near a mass burial site for Jews murdered at what had once been the Riederloh "punishment" camp in Germany. Somewhere beneath the stone markers, he believed, were the remains of the father he'd seen beaten to death for cursing an SS commandant in January 1945.
Fifty years later, Plywaski turned to look at his youngest daughter, whom he had brought to this place. He had hoped it would give her a better understanding of what happens when individuals start thinking of themselves as a group, when they become true believers in a cause. He had only just rescued her from another group of true believers back home in Colorado.
It was known as Landmark Education Corporation and was one of those "self-empowerment" organizations that promised a rich and full life in exchange for adopting a certain way of looking at the world. Plywaski's daughter had taken one of Landmark's seminars, then another, then another. She had dropped out of the University of Colorado, spent money she didn't have and begun to talk like some member of a secret club, using phrases only "insiders" could understand. Everything was Landmark, Landmark, Landmark. She spent all her free time there: recruiting, helping at seminars, coaching neophytes.
For a year she'd badgered friends and family alike to sign up for the introductory course called The Forum. And at last Plywaski had agreed to go.
It had been just what he expected: carefully constructed salesmanship whose main purpose, as he saw it, was generating new membership and which sold itself with commonsense advice like "Don't blame the world for your troubles."
He recognized the sales techniques from his post-WWII days selling pots and pans--really companionship and a sympathetic ear--to lonely young American women. And the audience ate it up, he thought, like the people he'd seen at tent revival meetings in the South during the Fifties. True believersEspeaking in tongues, handling snakes, writhing on the floor as the preacher screamed, "Do you SEE Jesus? Reach out for JESUS! REACH out for Jesus!" Only at The Forum, it was "Do you get IT? Do you want to live a LIFE of POSSIBILITIES?"
The preacher had predicted eternal damnation and everlasting torment for sinners who refused to change their ways. The Forum trainer promised that participants would remain in the same old ruts that had brought them to the seminar in the first place unless they underwent "transformation."
Although he admired the salesmanship, Plywaski was alarmed at the ease with which more than 200 individuals began thinking, reacting, even laughing and clapping, as a group. True believers.
After the seminar, he complimented The Forum trainer for being "the best huckster I've ever seen." But Plywaski then made it his mission to get his daughter out. By telephone and fax, he let the Landmark Education Corporation office in Englewood and its San Francisco headquarters know he thought they were damaging people like his daughter financially and psychologically. He insisted they return her money and cut all ties to her.
At first, they'd blustered and threatened back. But Plywaski, a survivor of the camps, did not back down. Finally, Landmark gave in to his demands.
His daughter was angry with him and left home. But by spring of 1995, she'd gone back to school and their relationship was getting better, and now they were traveling together through Germany and Poland, with time for beer and laughter between the history lessons.
Plywaski had broached the subject of Landmark only once. "Don't spoil it," his daughter had warned. So instead he took her to Riederloh, Auschwitz and Dachau and prayed that she got it.
The guy on the other end of the phone cheerfully introduces himself as Jerry. "I understand you needed some information about The Forum," he says, then proceeds to give a rundown of the particulars.
It's offered every month at the Englewood office. It goes for three days straight--Friday, Saturday, Sunday--from 9 a.m. to midnight, maybe a little later. Then it's back again Tuesday evening for about three hours. Cost: $290.
Landmark Education, he says, has been in business for 25 years. So far, about 1.5 million people have taken the basic course called The Forum.
The Forum is offered to the public, says Jerry. "But we also do a lot of work with schools, government, institutions--like prisons and Fortune 500 companies. So you don't have to worry," he laughs, "we won't be testing the program on you."
The program deals with the design of human beings, he says--what causes us to make the choices we do, and how we relate to people and ourselves. "In other words," Jerry says, "how did we get the way we are today? Then, if we know the design, what's possible in this business of being alive?"
Does the training draw on any particular philosophies?
Jerry pauses as if he has never been asked such a question before. "Ah, well, it doesn't come from any one particular place. Basically, it was started by a man named Werner Erhard about 25 years ago...He was just a regular old guy who committed himself to living a life of possibilities.
"He made a lot of mistakes," Jerry adds. "Heh, heh. Don't we all? Heh, heh. But he learned from his mistakes and was awake to it."
It? What's "it"?
To learn that, Jerry says, you need to attend The Forum. "Do you have ten minutes to answer a few questionsE?"
erner Hans Erhard was born in 1936, and for the first 24 or so years of his life went by the name of John "Jack" Rosenberg. His own accounts describe a stress-filled childhood in which he was often told that he was an unwanted child.
Rosenberg graduated high school and married his longtime sweetheart with whom he promptly produced four children. He found his true calling in life--as a salesman--at a Philadelphia car lot. Handsome and charismatic, he is said to have used those traits to both sell cars and seduce women.
One of those women was named June Bryde. In 1960, at the age of 25, Rosenberg walked out on his family and Philadelphia with June. Leaving his past behind--a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of his future teachings--he chose a new name gleaned from the pages of a magazine article about West German officials: theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and then-economics minister Ludwig Erhard. June took the name Ellen Erhard.
Erhard sold cars in St. Louis, then books door-to-door in the Pacific Northwest. But he and Ellen soon moved on to San Francisco, where Erhard formed his own book-selling company, motivating his sales force with rousing speeches and group sing-alongs and dabbling in Eastern mysticism, Dale Carnegie and the Church of Scientology.
From there it wasn't far to his next venture: what Erhard called the "mind business." In 1971 he founded Erhard Seminars Training, or est.
Erhard claimed to have reached his own enlightenment while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, when suddenly he realized that he knew everything and knew nothing and didn't know what he didn't know--psychobabble phrasing that would become scripture in est. Whatever the epiphany, Erhard also recognized a sales opportunity when he saw it.
From its start in San Francisco, est spread quickly from coast to coast and then overseas at two-weekend seminars given by Erhard-trained clones. At its peak in the late Seventies, est was attracting more than 50,000 new customers each year and generating tens of millions of dollars in revenues.
The participants came from all walks of life, although est's primary appeal was to white, educated liberals in their twenties and thirties. Enthusiasts of est included housewives and corporate executives, athletes and entertainers--John Denver, Diana Ross, Valerie Harper.
"What if you were committed more often and upset less?"
"What if your future was a function of your creation, rather than an extension of your past?"
"How would you like to increase your effectiveness in relating to others, your personal productivity, enhance your confidence and ability to make the right choices in pursuing what's important to you?"
Est promised to deliver all this and more. But there was a price to pay beyond the tuition.
Est seminars were brutal. Trainers shouted and swore at participants. The days were long; participants went with little sleep and weren't allowed to use bathrooms during training, where they were encouraged to disconnect from the past (just as Erhard had). No matter what their past problems had been, they had to get over them and take personal responsibility for their own happiness.
The seminars often reduced participants to tears--which were then rewarded with smiles from trainers and applause from their fellow attendees, because they "got it."
Meanwhile, Erhard was getting rich off his creation. But with his success came increased scrutiny, including press reports about Erhard's past and some of est's excesses. Participants were expected to volunteer for the organization in a variety of capacities, such as setting up seminars and recruiting. Former employees and volunteers reported that Erhard treated his followers like slaves; one man said his job was to massage the feet of The Source, as they were encouraged to refer to Erhard. (Some disgruntled former workers claimed he'd referred to himself as God.)
But even its critics conceded that a healthy--mentally and physically--adult was in no real danger from est, except maybe potential damage to the checkbook. The concern was for people who really needed professional psychotherapy or psychiatry but turned to est instead.
There were reports of suicides and psychotic breakdowns. Families complained that they'd been torn apart by the zealotry of the newly indoctrinated to bring in brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. Psychologists warned of the danger of refusing to resolve very real problems by pretending they no longer mattered.
In 1984 Erhard decided to rename his venture. Cynics said he did it in part to avoid paying Ellen, who was divorcing him, a percentage of the money gleaned from est. Others said it was an attempt to divorce himself from est itself.
After a couple of false starts, Erhard transformed est into a kinder, gentler program. He gave it an innocuous new name--Landmark Education Corporation--and called its introductory seminar The Forum.
Although Erhard remained popular in some sets, he continued to attract bad publicity. One story concerned the Hunger Project, which he'd helped found (earning a 1988 Mahatma Ghandi Humanitarian Award in the process). The Project's stated goal was to put an end to hunger before the millennium, and at first it was welcomed with open arms by relief agencies as Erhard followers took to the streets, getting people to pledge money toward the cause.
But then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that of $7 million collected, only a little over $200,000 had gone to actual relief efforts. Landmark tried to claim that it and Erhard had little to do with the Hunger Project. But the Project's main office was right next door to a Landmark office--and the woman who ran the Project was a former top-level est trainer. She told the CBC that the Hunger Project had never intended to be a relief agency but rather a program to raise "people's consciousness" about the reality of hunger.
Still, the most damaging hit to Erhard's reputation came in a February 1991 60 Minutes expose in which one of Erhard's daughters claimed that her father had molested her and raped her sister, had beaten and kicked his son and had struck Ellen and encouraged a follower to choke her. At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service filed more than $21 million in liens against Erhard and est, charging tax fraud and evasion.
But by then, Erhard had already fled the country. For a reported $250,000, he sold the company, valued at $45 million in 1989, and the rights to use his "technology" to his former employees, now operating out of a San Francisco headquarters with satellite operations in other cities, including Englewood, Colorado.
The ten minutes of questioning for a would-be participant in The Forum begins with a request for name, address and credit-card number. "We're going to be best friends for a few minutes," says the perky woman doing the asking, whose favorite word appears to be "great." She adds that failure to answer these questions as fully and honestly as possible means Landmark cannot guarantee the results of The Forum.
The process actually takes more than ten minutes as she asks what the caller wants to get out of The Forum. Then there's a break, and she's replaced on the phone by a chatty male who asks a half-dozen questions related to the would-be participant's mental state.
"The Forum is for people who are well...have you in the past six months, or are you currently taking any prescriptions for mood-altering or chemical imbalances? No? Hey, great!
"Have you ever been hospitalized for a psychiatric problem? No? Hey, that's great.
"Have you ever been under the care of a psychiatrist and discontinued treatment against advice?" Another negative answer is, of course, great. But after asking a few unrelated questions, the man repeats the mental-health questions.
At last he's satisfied and pronounces the interview over. "That's great! Have a great week and a great seminar!"
The Forum weekend arrives. Participants, lugging little coolers full of the snacks they've been instructed to bring (only at dinner will there be time to leave the premises for a quick bite), are directed to a building in a remote Englewood business park by smiling attendants in orange vests.
After receiving name tags, which must be visible at all times, participants are sent to the seminar room. The hallways leading to it are bare, except for the occasional inspirational poster depicting momentous occasions such as the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.
The seminar room is even more sterile. Although there is plenty of room, the hard plastic chairs are lined up in neat rows with absolutely no space between them. There are just enough seats for the 140 people attending the seminar. At the back of the room are several tables; one holds the sound system, and serious-looking folks sit behind the others fiddling with papers.
In the front of the room are several chalkboards bearing neat, block-letter admonitions. One warns participants to be on time in the morning and following breaks: YOU MUST BE PRESENT IN THE ROOM, otherwise Landmark makes no guarantees about the results. Another notes that if participants have any needs that require they take medications on a regular basis or use the restroom frequently, they should inform someone sitting at the tables in the back of the room. DO IT NOW! the chalkboard warns.
Another message reminds participants that The Forum is for "WELL PEOPLEEYOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR MENTAL, EMOTIONAL, AND PHYSICAL WELL-BEING."
The seminar's leader later repeats this message, reading aloud from a notebook that Landmark is an "educational" organization and The Forum, which is for well people, should not be thought of as therapy for people who need professional psychological help.
Even so, the gathering soon resembles a large group-therapy session. During the initial question-and-answer period with the trainer, participants reveal their innermost secrets as they ask if The Forum will help them deal with marital problems, abuse, abandonment by fathers. Attendants rush up and down the aisles to provide microphones that can broadcast these confessions.
At one point in the morning, the trainer asks people who believe they were "pressured" to attend The Forum to stand. Half a dozen people do. "You will have to leave," she says. "I cannot do The Forum with you."
Immediately, one young woman starts sobbing. Under the trainer's probing, she reveals that her father, a graduate of The Forum, had been coaxing her to attend and even paid her tuition without telling her. There are apparently issues regarding his domineering influence, and once again, he was making decisions for her. "But now," she wails as 140-plus people look on, "I have to leave."
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?
"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.
"Landmark isn't a cult," he says. "I know, because I was in one."
Eight years ago Ted read a book that seemed to have an interesting take on life. After writing to an address in the back, he received an invitation to attend a weekend seminar. It turned out to be hosted by the Church Universal and Triumphant, a doomsday cult led by Elizabeth Prophet, whose headquarters are on a ranch near Livingston, Montana.
"They feed you information that is believable but slightly slanted," says Ted. "And prey on your ego, telling you how special you are, that you are one of the chosen. They really work on your need to be accepted and special."
What followed was what he describes as brainwashing: three sixteen-hour days of indoctrination with little sleep, food or breaks.
Ted stayed with the church for about six weeks and only broke away "when I realized they were trying to isolate me from the rest of humanity," he says. "They tell you that your family is screwed up, that your friends are screwed up--that they'll try to talk you out of being with them."
Ted, today a local musician and martial-arts teacher (he asked that his real name not be used), learned about Landmark a little more than a year ago. His older brother, "who has been a real dick his entire life," Ted recalls, "egotistical and arrogant," called from Boston to say he was participating in a program that had transformed his life. He wanted Ted to fly out for his graduation from The Forum.
"He was really coming from the heart and was a much nicer person," Ted says. "I wanted to know what had happened." He flew to Boston and was "overwhelmed" by what he heard from The Forum's participants.
"They had a passionate way of being," he recalls. "They were empowered, and I decided, 'Hey, I could use a little of that.'"
Ted enrolled in The Forum last May. The experience left him "mellower," he says. "I don't have to get mad if I don't want to. It's easier for me to forgive and accept others."
All 110 people in his session, Ted adds, had "significant breakthroughs...even if they had to go through a lot of different gyrations, including getting mad and huffy, to get there."
And the people who didn't "get it," he says, had "loser mentalities" to begin with.
That wasn't the problem for another Colorado man, Bob (who also asked that his real name not be used). After enrolling in The Forum, he "got it"--and then spent a year and a half living and breathing Landmark before getting out of it. Later, for a psychology class, Bob wrote about his experiences, starting with The Forum's introductory night:
"Every aspect that defines my goals as a maturing human being were in that room: The skills and confidence to better relate to people, getting past procrastination and taking action, defining my objectives and aggressively pursuing them. Successful doctors, attorneys, and teachers with wonderful, committed relationships in their lives, volunteering valuable time to share powerful information with me! It could begin now if I simply enrolled."
Bob compared an expert's psychological analysis of what occurred in Jonestown to his own Landmark experience: The analysis "discusses the gradual increase of discipline and dedication required to participate with the group and how, when that participation is deemed desirable, unusual or uncomfortable behaviors become accepted as normal. You were...warned that every thought (doubt, change of heart) and obstacle (scheduling, work, illness) would come up, that overcoming those obstacles, no matter what, were part of the process for transformation, and though the requests and recommendations (really rules and regulations) seem stringent, they were necessary to the process."
Participating in Landmark required submitting to the total control of communication, he wrote, "gradually turning conscious obedience into unconscious obedience... Latecomers were challenged at the door. If admitted, they were sometimes grilled or even humiliated by the leader. The course ran 15 or 16 hours each day with minimal breaks, plus substantial 'homework' which guaranteed that sleep-deprivation would factor in to your susceptibility at the end, when the push came to enroll yourself in the $700 course...and bring your friends to 'share' your transformation and have an opportunity to begin the process for themselves.
"The ultimate insight, the epiphany, the answer we were all working so hard to find, and was saved until the very end, was simply this: 'There is no answer. All these rules and conversations don't mean anything. And, it doesn't mean anything that it doesn't mean anything.'"
Nevertheless, Bob continued to participate, traveling to other cities, spending large sums of money and time, "being groomed in appearance and demeanor so that I, too, could lead flocks to the promised land...It was only when I noticed my business suffering, my scholastic production and success on the verge of diminishing, my own personal goals and needs being subjugated to those of the group, and my emotional well-being tied to how many potential enrollments I had working, that I began to break free."
he two groups for which the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network receives the most inquiries--about 25 a month each--are Scientology and Landmark, says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of CAN. She's quick to note that not all of the calls are complaints--but then, Landmark has a $40 million suit pending against CAN and Kisser in the Illinois courts.
"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 packet...do 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 group...you 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.
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."
Walter Plywaski, however, will never be convinced that there is a shred of value in what Landmark has to offer. In particular, he worries about The Forum encouraging people to forget about the past if it disturbs them.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could just forget the Holocaust ever happened?" he says. "Maybe for some people...the Germans, the paleo-Nazis and the neo-Nazis and anyone else who feels uncomfortable with the subject."
Plywaski himself cannot forget. For fifty years he has lived with the guilt of being too afraid to say goodbye to his mother as she was herded off to the gas chambers.
"Perhaps it would be nice to forget all these bad things," he says. "But then who would be there to remember for when the next Hitler comes along...Part of being human is learning to deal with trouble as individuals, not some group-think."
One section of The Forum he attended, Plywaski says, was a "fear session" during which participants were asked to close their eyes and imagine that the person sitting next to them wanted to kill them. "Then it was all the people around them," he says. "That brought on the first moans and cries. Then it was all the people in the room wanted to kill them. There were screams.
"By the end, everyone in the world wanted to kill us. I cheated and opened my eyes. There were people writhing on the floor, kicking and screaming...just like at the old tent revival meetings. And what is the purpose in either instance except to instill fear so that you can control them...'Only Jay-sus can save you'...'Only Landmark can give you heaven on earth.'
"They want to replace your individual values, experiences, morals with their values, experiences and morals. Your way of looking at the world with their way of looking at the world. Your mind with their mind.
"Sure, it all seems benign. But look at what's happening just in this country. The malicious militias. Farrakhan and all his hatred. All these little cults who 'know the way' the rest of us should follow. Hitler just wanted to unify Germany and protect German people from the Jews.
"True believers are true believers, and they can all be dangerous when push comes to shove.