Article of Faith | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Article of Faith

In which a reporter goes to a seminar of the Landmark Forum ready to expose it as a cult, but emerges as a believer.

It's 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 15 and I'm sitting in the lobby of the North Hills Holiday Inn, an insipid space that looms over a McKnight Road strip mall. I have a pit in my stomach, the kind I usually get when I have to catch a flight at an uncivilized time of day. I'm here to write about something that I know almost nothing about: the Landmark Forum.

What little I'd heard made Landmark sound like a cult for young urban professionals, and the brochure I'd received at an introductory session reinforced the idea: It featured a multicultural bunch of twenty- and thirtysomethings with smiling faces and advertised the "potential for an extraordinary life." It looked like something a Fortune 500 company would use to recruit employees. And I feel like I am applying for a job, a job I have no description for.

There are two types of people lingering around -- those who look as blank and clueless as I feel, and those who look you straight in the eye with an acute, constant smile. I am slightly afraid of the latter group and huddle over some notes I brought, mainly to look busy.

Soon the "Forum Leader," Sandy Bernasek, approaches me. She doesn't smile acutely or constantly; in fact, she looks to be all business. In high-heel boots and a blue suit, Bernasek is a cross between your eighth-grade history teacher and a real-estate agent -- the kind who doesn't try to sell you a house, but makes you feel as if the house is too good for you, so don't bother. She and I don't hit it off. Apparently, I'd failed to answer an important question on the registration form about what I hoped to get out of the Landmark Forum. I thought I'd figure that out when I got there.

"Frankly, Sharmila, I'm surprised to see you here," she says. "I called you last night and you never called back. And I was told that you were here to participate fully in the Landmark Forum. Participation begins with registration. Did someone say that to you when you inquired about Landmark?"

"Um, no. I don't remember. Well, I figured I'd see you today. And here I am -- ready to participate."

"I just don't think you're committed to participating." She tells me that all others who failed to complete the registration form properly have been dropped from this session. She also says, for the first of four times in this conversation, that she is committed to my "transformation," whatever that means.

"Of course, I am committed," I say. "I'm committed to writing my story." That I was there, and had made plans to be there from 9 a.m. until midnight for three straight days, seemed like commitment enough for me.

"Your last piece on street performers didn't really seem to empower the people you wrote about."

I'm allowed to stay, but things don't get much better. I have to wear a nametag and find a seat in the ballroom, a nondescript space with off-white walls, uncomfortable chairs and no natural lighting -- just a harsh, unrelenting glare. The room is large but somehow oppressive. At the front stand dry-erase boards, one of which reads, "Transformation: The Genesis of a New Realm of Possibility."

It all reminds me of vacation Bible School, a week-long crash course on Christianity I once took because my Baptist friends feared I'd go to hell if I didn't.

I see no familiar faces among the group of 114, so I sit next to a guy who looks as if he's going to cry. I realize that I forgot my lunch, except for two oranges sitting in my car. For the next three hours I listen to people speak at considerable length about their problematic lives, to Bernasek guarantee that after three and one-half days we would all experience a "transformation," and to Forum rules that sound much like the rules of after-school detention. I am convinced this will be an excruciating weekend.

In many ways, it turns out that I am right. But by Sunday evening, being "right" about Landmark won't matter much. By then, I'll already be planning to return.

Though you may never have heard of the Landmark Forum, chances are you know someone who has participated in it, especially if you're a college-educated professional. Each year, 125,000 people take a Landmark course, a high number given that Landmark advertises only by word-of-mouth, and that the Forum, Landmark's flagship program, costs $375. And though Landmark is hardly a household word, it's made its way into the parlance of pop culture: The makers of recent hit films The Matrix and Fight Club -- both stories about secret societies and hidden truths -- have graduated from the Landmark Forum, and allude to the experience in their movies.

In The Matrix, for example, Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker who discovers the world he knows is a computer-generated veil that one can only see through -- and therefore transcend -- by taking a "blue pill." Landmark graduates often use the pill as a metaphor for the Forum.

Most recently, in the popular HBO series Six Feet Under, a character takes part in a parody of Landmark, called The Program, which is portrayed as a corporate cult.

The stigma is somewhat understandable: Landmark Education has roots in est, a controversial "life training" program founded by Werner Erhard, a used car salesman from New Jersey whose real name was Jack Rosenberg. In its 1970s heyday, est was called everything from a money-making scheme to dangerous exercise in mind control, and it was known for the rigor of its group therapy sessions: Participants weren't allowed to go to the bathroom, were fiercely berated in front of the group, and endured seminar sessions that lasted up to 18 hours. Still, est attracted thousands of supporters.

After a bout of negative publicity, including a particularly damaging interview with Erhard's children on 60 Minutes -- he was accused of both tax fraud and incest, then later acquitted on both counts -- Erhard sold his "technology" to a group of employees in 1991. They renamed the company Landmark Education.

With Erhard's brother Harry Rosenberg at the helm, the company is today owned by its 750 employees and sustained by a base of 4,000 volunteers. It boasts 59 offices in 16 countries (though there is no office in Pittsburgh), and annual gross revenues of about $58 million. Landmark officials are quick to say that Erhard has no business relationship with Landmark. Yet participants who have taken both readily acknowledge that the Forum is simply a kinder, gentler, and more accessible est.

"The conversations [in est] were more challenging," says Robin Artz, who has participated in both programs and worked for Landmark (and Erhard himself) during the early '90s. "The Landmark Forum presents a lot of the same stuff but in a more accessible way." Est took place in less-than-comfortable conditions, she acknowledges, but that was part of the process. "We were asked to look at our lives in a completely different way," she says, and making participants physically uncomfortable can be a way to enable the emotional or mental discomfort of doing so. "The rigor could be a way to prevent escapism."

Like its advertising, criticism of Landmark has spread by word-of-mouth. Search the Internet and you'll find testimonies claiming:

-- that the Forum is a cult with an abusive indoctrination session;

-- that one participant was carried out of a seminar and immediately hospitalized for manic depression;

-- and that Landmark is simply brilliant marketing used to sell something we all consider ultimately not-for-sale: happiness.

Landmark also has its proponents, including a Harvard Business School professor whose 1997 study on the Landmark Education Corporation lauds its business practices, and numerous psychiatric professionals who dispel the claim that Landmark's programs are psychologically damaging. The Forum is advertised for "successful, healthy" people -- in other words, those without mental illness who can afford to pay for it.

But none of this answers even the most basic questions. What is Landmark? Why do people take it? If it's so effective, or dangerous, why don't more people know about it?

To be honest, I can't recall the exact chronology of the weekend. So much of it is repetitive, with the Forum leader drilling concepts into your head until you can recite them yourself, that the days start to run together.

There's a structure to each day -- there's a structure to everything in the Landmark Forum. Days are broken up into roughly three-hour sessions with one 90-minute meal break and a couple of shorter breaks. The program starts at 9 a.m., ends around midnight, and includes about 13 grueling hours of what Forum participants call "conversations" but are more like interrogations -- right down to the uncomplimentary lighting. Landmark tapes every session for training purposes, but participants (including reporters) aren't permitted to take notes during the sessions. And unless I was willing to spend my breaks jotting down notes in the bathroom stall, there's no private place to jot down notes between sessions, either.

Throughout the weekend, one assistant is specifically assigned to assist me. If I want to quote someone speaking at the microphone, I am to turn to the assistant and touch my nametag. Then during the break -- while I am required to stand at least 15 feet away -- she asks if they were interested in speaking with me. Such rules were spelled out in a contract I was required to sign before participating.

Initially, I wonder what will happen if the assistant isn't looking at me. But I soon find that there is never a time I turn my head when she is not looking. I don't know whether to be impressed or scared.

The first three hours are structured much like the first day of a foreign-language course -- lots of repetition of words that mean very little to the students. We also learn the most elemental rule of the Landmark Forum: Don't be late. If the session starts at 7 p.m., then be sitting in your seat by 7 p.m.

"This is called integrity," Bernasek says, deadly serious, and soon punctuality becomes a virtue of almost everyone -- at least for the weekend. By the second day, I find myself having dinner on the floor of a Papa John's take-out pizza shop, rather than return to the Forum late.

Bernasek sits in a director's chair at the front of the room, speaking in what at first sounds like a strange code: Are you willing to "be enrolled in the possibility of being?" If you are, and if you're willing to "create possibilities" for yourself, you must "enroll others in that possibility" by "moving, touching and inspiring" them, which you do by demonstrating your commitment to that possibility. (The word "possibility" is repeated so often that I find myself wondering if it's even a word anymore.) In case participants think there's a possibility they are wasting their time and $375, Bernasek asks repeatedly, "How much is the rest of your life worth?"

Occasionally, Bernasek engages in demonstrations that are as abstract as the ideas themselves.

"Now this is one," she says at one point, holding what looks to be a dry-erase marker and eraser in one hand. "And this is two," holding up an eraser in her other hand. "Got it?"

In Landmark parlance, the proper response is "Got it!" But while I take this to be a demonstration of how we can think in different categories, it's hard to say if any of us "get it." Especially because Bernasek constantly reminds us that there's nothing to "get." There is no truth, and there's nothing to believe. While the Forum's rules are not debatable, you're not required to fully understand or debate the concepts being taught. We're not being tested on the material. As far as I can tell, the test is whether we're willing to sit through it.

Early on, Bernasek introduces us to one of the basic tools of the Landmark Forum: sharing. We spend much of the weekend revealing the intimate details of our lives with 100-plus strangers. Over the course of three days, I hear a litany of complaints about divorce, career angst, identity crisis, familial conflict, and poor time-management skills. In each case, Bernasek confronts sharers with their "inauthenticities," the ways in which they are being dishonest with themselves and others.

For example 18-year-old Gabbie shares her distress over her "terrible relationship with my ex-boyfriend. He blames me for everything. I keep trying to call him, to talk things through, but he hangs up. He says he never wants to speak to me again. How can I 'enroll him in the possibility' of fixing things between us if he won't even pick up the phone?"

"Gabbie," Bernasek says. "Do you hear yourself? That's just your story. It's not what happened."

"Of course it's what happened. He totally hung up on me."

"Yes, but what did he say, Gabbie?" Bernasek draws two circles on a dry-erase board. In one she writes, "story." In the other, she writes, "what happened."

Gabbie thinks for a minute. "He said he never wants to speak to me again."

"Exactly. And that's it. That's all he said. That's all that means."

"So now what? I never speak to him again?"

Bernasek holds out her hands. "Be authentic."
Gabbie sits down, bemused.

What we're being instructed about is the difference between our "story" and "what really happened." Bernasek explains that we usually collapse the two, using the story of the past to define who we are ... and to dictate who we will become in the future. What we should do instead, Bernasek asserts, is to stick to "what happened," which in Gabbie's case is that someone simply didn't want to speak with her, not that he hates her.

At the meal break, I go to a nearby Chili's with Gabbie and a handful of other younger participants. We sit squished together at a table in the bar, and relieve our tension with some minor jokes.

"So, can I 'enroll anyone in the possibility' of 'sharing' a bloomin' onion?" one asks, and orders two cups of coffee. It's a little before 7 p.m. and we have six more hours of today's session left.

"I would," Gabbie retorts, "but that wouldn't be very authentic of me since I'm a vegan."

Once the joking ends, we start "sharing" : I don't know why I'm here; so being authentic just means "keeping it real," right?; what's so cultish about a bunch of people in business suits?; sometimes it makes sense, maybe.

We're all struck by the number of people who have shared stories about divorce, the inordinate amount of crying we've witnessed in one day, and how much more of it we'll be forced to bear.

Someone at the table asks, "Do you think they're all for real?"

Some did seem genuine: I think of a thirtysomething Muslim woman who shared how she's been emotionally derailed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In a post-Sept. 11 America, I remember her saying, "Everything that I am, that I've worked for, that I've done -- I feel like none of it matters."

But in general, as Landmark officials readily acknowledge, the Forum is targeted toward successful people, not those suffering from abject poverty or blatant racism. How real are the problems of a group of mainly white professionals who can afford $375 for a self-actualization seminar?

By the time I get in my car that night, I'm not sure if I want to come back the next day.

But though I've just spent 14 hours sitting until my thighs are numb, I'm full of energy for some reason. I drive to my office and spend a couple of hours responding to e-mail messages, and typing notes for a story.

Before the next morning's session starts, I complete my first Forum homework assignment (we were given assignments every night), which was to write a letter to someone with whom you've not been authentic.

I write a letter to my dad, though the attempt itself seems pretty "inauthentic." I spend most of the time musing about the weather in Pittsburgh.

But who can blame me? My dad and I are often on shaky ground. If I write a bad story, he'll say, "No one's ever expected you to win the Nobel Prize," which makes me feel mediocre when that's what I'm most afraid of being. If he asks me how my day is going, I'll scream, "Why do you always think something's wrong!" At times our phone calls go so poorly that we have to hang up and start over.

Today, a handful of people are several minutes late getting to their seats after an afternoon break. Bernasek goes into a "you've-been-too-loud-in-the-high-school-auditorium-during-the-talent-show" lecture about integrity.

"Integrity," she reminds us, "is like spokes on a wheel. If one is missing, the integrity of the entire wheel has been lost. When you aren't in your seats at the right time, what does that say? Oh, well, I guess it doesn't matter. It's only the rest of your life at stake. It's only your transformation."

I start to fade out; this isn't the first time I've been reprimanded for being late, so why bother paying attention? And so I've missed the first part of Bernasek's next lesson -- ironically, on the importance of "being present" (or living in the moment) in life. Human beings process information through what Bernasek calls filters that keep us from seeing the present and hitch us to the past.

Right now, though, I'm hitched to the fact that I need to go to the bathroom, badly. But while there's no one stopping me, or even discouraging me from doing so, I remember something Bernasek told us the first day: You may leave the room at any time, but if you do, she can't guarantee a "transformation." I don't know what this transformation may be, but nearly two hours in the Forum, I don't want to jeopardize my chances of having one.

Other members are having transforming experiences already. During the breaks, people are calling loved ones to clear up past conflicts, or to share news of the possibilities they've invented. Though some of us use the breaks just to eat or relax, others line the hallway outside the ballroom, reading letters and crying into cell phones.

Yet it was becoming harder and harder to "enroll" myself in having a transformation in three days, especially given all the time that's dedicated to marketing the Forum itself, and that it's often difficult to separate the marketing from the training since the curriculum seamlessly blends the two. For at least a half hour each day, Forum leaders urge us to sign up for another course, asking participants who'd already taken those courses to "share" the benefits they gained. "If there's something holding you back, find a way to do it," we're told. "If you don't have the money, find the money."

The pitch isn't as mercenary as it sounds; it sounds as if they're less interested in your money than in your ability to overcome obstacles to having "transforming" experiences.

Moreover, we're also repeatedly told by Bernasek and other Landmark veterans that many of us will never take another Forum class, and that their happiness won't be jeopardized. And it's not as if Landmark invented ubiquitous capitalist practices. In a society where everything is for sale, perhaps it's unfair to fault Landmark for selling what seemed to be sensible tactics for living.

But after nearly two days in the Landmark Forum, I still don't know what I'm buying, let alone whether I should buy into it. At the beginning of the next session, someone shares about having a breakthrough with her mother minutes before. Another person, with tears in his eyes, explains a new possibility for a career he just invented. My stomach sinks; I am sick of feeling emotional about the emotions of others, having had no emotional experiences myself. Perhaps I'm not working hard enough? Or maybe I'm just a hopeless case, lost in a sea of positive thinkers?

Then Bernasek asks us to close our eyes for an exercise she promises will lead to a breakthrough. "Think about the two people sitting next to you, and how afraid of them you are," she says. "Then think about the 100 people in this room and how afraid of them you are." She expands the circle of people we were supposed to be afraid of until it encompassed the planet. With each new level, she tells us to delve deeper into our thoughts toward a "door" that was behind everything in life.

"What's back there? What are you holding on to?" she asks over and over, sometimes quite harshly, for what seems like hours. I have an eyelash in my eye and am having a hard time keeping it shut. My lower back throbs.

Then I hear the sobbing.

As Bernasek eggs us to "be present," participants gasp, sniffle and cry. I simply don't get it. Are people willing themselves to have a breakthrough just because Bernasek told them they would? How can they be getting it when I'm not?

Soon, a woman somewhere to my right starts laughing -- not laughing, but guffawing. Others begin giggling, too, and just when I am ready to walk out the door, Bernasek shares the epiphany that seemingly everyone else in the room has achieved: While we are afraid of others and spend most of our lives striving to just look good, others spend their lives afraid of us. We're just as powerful as we are scared.

Sure, I think, as I limp to the bathroom during a break. Bernasek, who I still feel some resentment toward, stops me in the hall.

"How is it going for you?"

"Fine," I say.

"Good," she says, somewhat dismissively.

My face starts to get hot. I have "participated fully" for two days and she's blowing me off? I look for a friendly face to bitch to, but everyone is on the phone or rapt in conversation about either feeling euphoric or empty.

Instead I call my parents, intending to finally read that letter to my dad.

The answering machine picks up.

"We're not home right now," I hear my brother's voice say, and I get angrier.

Everyone else is "getting it" because their parents pick up the phone. What am I supposed to do? My parents are NEVER home on Saturdays.

This reminds me of a James Harms' poem in which the narrator hears a woman leave a message on his answering machine:

"'You're never home, the problem with you is you're never home. You're not there when I look at you. You don't say a thing when you say something.' Kay is on a roll, but I go over and pick up the phone. 'I'm home,' I say and I hang up."

I've always loved this poem, but now I realize it's partly because I, like the narrator, love to have the noncommittal last word. It's as if I think that sounding smart or cute will negate my lack of commitment to things that matter. I lean against the piano in the lobby and wonder if I ever pay attention to what's going on around me. I wonder what it would sound like if I said this out loud.

I wonder if, now, I'm starting to get it.

You could say that's the moment that I chose to swallow the blue pill. I simply stopped caring about whether the Landmark Forum was for real or not; I realized that I could be real in the Landmark Forum, and that was good enough.

I go back into the ballroom, tired and hungry and ready to give up some of my cynicism. I stop resisting the vocabulary that has been bombarding my brain. And once I give up my desire to expose all the reasons why Bernasek's words couldn't possibly make sense, they begin to do so. (Later, I even apologized for not filling out my form completely.) So when Bernasek later unleashes her trump card -- that life has no meaning other than what we assign it -- I am ready to hear it.

That didn't make the rest of the weekend any more fun. I still was wary of making uncomfortable phone calls, though I did call my brother, who was at home. I don't really have much to clear up with him, so I considered it a practice call.

"I just wanted to tell you that I think you're a nice person. Even for a 19-year-old," I say. "Really fun and sweet and all those things."

"Nice. Dude. That rocks. Glad to hear it."

I tell him about the Landmark Forum, vocabulary, distinctions and all.

"So why don't you call Dad and tell him that he's a nice person?"

"He's not at home. He's never at home."

"Sounds like your 'racket' to me."

A "racket" is a story that we tell ourselves and that we perceive to be the truth. It's often a convenient way to justify a lack of accomplishment, but it also limits what we can accomplish. I tell this to my therapist two weeks after the Forum.

"A racket sounds like what they call tapes in transactional analysis -- recorded messages we play back to ourselves in our heads," she says.

In fact, each time I describe to her a Forum concept, she can relate it to some other school of thought: existentialism, cognitive therapy, Heidegger, the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, even parts of How to Win Friends and Influence People. None of the Forum is novel: Landmark offers age-old concepts packaged in its own jargon. But it's not the message that is unique; it's the process, or as Landmark officials would call it, the "technology."

The hours of sitting and deciphering inscrutable jargon, the things that make the Forum so unpleasant, are also what make it so valuable. The Forum takes you out of the context of your life for three days, so whether you buy into its precepts, your life is all you have to think about. You're stuck in an anonymous hotel room, and you are told that something remarkable is about to happen until you end up believing it. The whole process is about instilling faith in your own life, and if you can make that leap of faith -- swallow the pill -- you realize that life has endless possibilities you can act upon.

To some, that process -- being isolated and having your resistance broken down after hours of hearing the same message over and over -- might sound cult-like. And with their catch phrases and insular vocabularies, Landmark participants might sound a bit like they're brainwashed. But if I was brainwashed, it happened long before I attended the Landmark Forum. For all its annoyances and incessant marketing, the Landmark Forum is a product of its time. The notion that you can acquire happiness at a $375 encounter session may sound ridiculous but it isn't much different from the notion that you can acquire happiness by buying a Volkswagen.

Besides, cults usually demand their members separate themselves from their friends and family forever. Landmark requires you to do the opposite: to become more engaged with those in your life, to tear down the "inauthenticities" that separated you from them.

The Forum might be frightening if, like so much else in society, your own gratification were all that mattered. But Forum leaders constantly urge participants to think of your life as something larger.

"Choose a problem in life that's worth your time," Bernasek would say. "World hunger is worth your time. Making a million dollars isn't." In fact, Landmark stresses that the Forum isn't about "you." "It's about enrolling others. It's about other people."

Indeed, some local Landmark graduates will say that the program has produced tangible results in their lives. Multimedia artist Carolyn Speranza asserts that after having participated in the Forum nearly four years ago she transcended the financial difficulties that most Pittsburgh artists face. Last year she received a $40,000 grant from the Heinz Endowment for a video project; previously she'd had trouble finding funding even under $1,000.

"'Pittsburgh doesn't support its artists': That was just my racket," she says. "'What could be done? There's just no money.' These are all things I would tell myself. Then I saw a way to make things happen and I did it. I took those steps even when they seemed unreasonable."

Likewise, Traci Jackson, a founder of the grassroots arts and community development network Ground Zero, credits her participation in Landmark with her key role in laying the groundwork for ventures that include a music series that began in her house and now plays in larger venues. Jackson is known for starting projects and executing them almost entirely with a boundless enthusiasm on both her part and that of others she enlists.

"My life doesn't look anything like it looked two years ago," she says. "Who I am and who I am as a leader came about because of my work in Landmark. It's shaped my being this person who is creating a space for artists in Pittsburgh."

Jackson also attributes to her participation fulfillment in her personal relationships, particularly with the person she refers to as her life partner.

"I had been telling myself for years that I couldn't be myself and also be with him -- that was my racket," she says. "But Landmark turns on this big, fat switch in your brain that you can't turn off. I was able to look at myself and say, 'Oh, that's what's going on with me,' and realize that I don't have to choose between anything."

I've yet to experience such concrete transformations: Despite Bernasek's talk about being on time, this story will be published nearly two weeks late. And I sometimes doubt whether I have it in me to enroll others in my possibilities. It's hard work.

I realize this while my family visits over the Thanksgiving weekend. I take them to an Italian restaurant -- one of my favorites. Yet judging by his unusually taciturn demeanor, my dad is clearly not enrolled in the place.

"I asked you a thousand times about where you wanted to go," I say. My brother stares at the ceiling; my mom started ignoring me about 15 minutes ago.

"The place is fine," my dad says.

"The only reason you don't like it is because I chose it," I say.

"Grow up," my dad says.

"This entire weekend has been a hassle since you got here," I say.

But if this Landmark thing is going to work -- and I'm enrolled in the possibility that it will -- I have to work at it. Starting now, with this meaningless argument.

"Listen," I say, "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean that you being here is a hassle. And I don't know why I became so fixated on whether or not the restaurant was OK. It had nothing to do with you. It never does." This doesn't sound like much, but, sadly, in my case, it's a revolutionary act of contrition, as the astonished look on my brother's face attests.

"That's fine," my dad says, still not too enrolled. "I know all about your behavior. I've had 27 years to familiarize myself with it."

I may not have transformed dinner that night, but I like to think I began to chip at the "inauthenticities" I perpetuate. If I learned nothing else in Landmark, I learned that transformation is a process, not an end result.

That's why I'm now attending a Landmark seminar series once a week, even when I want to do nothing less than drive through rush-hour traffic to the North Hills, even though it means sitting in that hotel ballroom again.

For two hours each week, I return to that structure and a highly defined language to think about the process of living, and how I can use what I learned from the Forum -- almost despite myself. What the Forum taught me was not an easy pill to swallow at first, but now I find myself craving another dose.

Kaibur Coffee
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Kaibur Coffee

By Mars Johnson