It Happens

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?"

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Steve Jackson