I Failed the Self-Help Seminar: The Landmark Forum (Part 4 of 5)

(Did you miss part 1, part 2, or part 3? Click on the hyperlinks to get the back story.)

I came late to class on the third day — intentionally. Landmark made such a fuss over being on time for everything, claiming that we lacked integrity if we were even one minute late, that I tried to be late as much as possible. I arrived only 10 minutes after class began and was thankfully spared the pestering phone call from Landmark asking if I planned to attend that day (I think those started at the 15-minute mark).

I felt uneasy walking into class, not only because I was late but more so because the third day held the mighty promise of transformation, the day of salvation when our souls would be saved by the holy hand of Landmark. It seemed that people had already started transforming by way of the confessionals that lifted their burdens and buoyed their steps.

I took my usual seat in the back row, tired from a sleepless night that saw my mind racing aimlessly at lightning speed. I had disregarded the prior night’s homework assignment, this one again instructing us to call someone and “enroll” him or her in a new possibility we’ve created for ourselves. (Bonus homework was to call three people.)

Beyond surviving the day, I had created no new possibility for myself. I called no one the whole weekend except for my parents (just to say hi) and one of my best friends, Sharon in San Francisco, who is knowledgeable about new age stuff given her job as a life coach. She had taken the Forum 10 years ago and was freaked out by it, which is a surprise considering her tendency to gravitate toward this sort of thing.

“You know, in self-help circles people make fun of Landmark. It’s known for being cultish and weird, especially because some people become so obsessed with it,” she told me.

It was easy to tell who from my class would become those people. They were the oversharers, the “seminar stars” whose hands shot up at every opportunity to speak. They were the ones everyone knew everything about: the guy who was newly sober, going through a divorce and had a childhood gay experience his father walked in on, thereby turning him into a macho athlete; the closeted bagpipe player turned workaholic who also had daddy issues and couldn’t keep a girlfriend; the verge-of-divorce girl with two kids, a history of depression, a love for yoga and a masters in clinical psychology.
They were the ones who routinely sat in the front row, their eyes bright, backs straight and hands folded in their laps. They not only drank the Kool-Aid, they guzzled it as though their very lives were on the line. The verge-of-divorce girl told the class on the first day, “You can hypnotize me, you can cut me open, I don’t care because I need help any way I can get it.” By the third day, she had vowed to get off antidepressants and was calling every person she knew to “complete” with them.

The day began with more lessons aimed at deconstructing our identities. There was talk of our “strong suits,” which were otherwise positive aspects of our personalities formed from traumatic childhood experiences. So if we experienced rejection during grade school, we may have arrived at a life of independence because our underlying fear of rejection convinced us that we couldn’t rely on anyone. To me, this sounded like Landmark’s lame attempt to make us feel insecure about things we normally felt good about. There was also talk about life being dangerous, which Landmark says is a belief cemented at birth, as we slide from the cozy comfort of our mother’s womb into the bright and scary world where a doctor smacks our ass to make us cry. Every interaction with the world thereafter reinforces this belief, we are told, so by the time we reach adulthood we take no risks and are afraid of everything and everyone.

I found myself sitting next to Mike during this exercise, a savvy twenty-something I had not met before. When it was time for the requisite sharing with a partner, I discovered that Mike was a fellow skeptic who told me he had become so bored over the weekend that he began counting the lights in the ceiling and the letters in the laminated posters on the wall. He said he felt almost offended by the curriculum. “I know who I am,” he said, “but I’m really surprised that so many people here don’t know who they are.” I must have pinched him to make sure he was real. Along with Sophie, who was still rolling her eyes at every lesson, he was the only other skeptic I encountered.

That’s not to suggest that the other 72 students succumbed to the brainwashing. One woman who admitted on the second day to being in a sexless marriage did not show up on the third day. Other people were dropping off as well, a handful every day — sometimes after particularly brutal confessions — but the Landmark proctors made it impossible to identify who or how many by removing their empty chairs, making it seem as though every seat was always occupied.

The morning session ended with a lesson on how to invite people to our “graduation” ceremony on Tuesday night. We were asked to bring at least three of the people we had enrolled in our new possibility over the weekend. Part of living a transformed life meant inspiring others to transform themselves, we were told. One man raised his hand to say he had recently moved from Australia and didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles he could bring. Coach Angie suggested he fly his family and friends out. “Be unreasonable! A reasonable life is the lowest form of living,” she said, a common battle cry of the weekend.

Anyone we brought in as a referral would have a chance to sign up for the Forum on Tuesday night. And if we wanted to sign up for the Landmark Advanced Course, which typically follows the Forum, the discounted rate was $595 if we signed up by Tuesday; after then we’d have to pay the retail price of $850.

During the mid-morning break, I sat with my Forum buddy Eduardo, who was falling down Landmark’s rabbit hole. He felt incredible, he told me, and his worries were slipping away. His transformation had begun.
“It’s amazing what I am feeling. It’s like a connection to the universe flowing through me. Everything is beautiful around me and I’m open to new possibilities in this life that I can now create for myself. There are no limits anymore.

“I feel a big change happening in my body. Feel my hands, they are so cold. I would normally be hungry right now but I’m not at all. I feel light, like I could just float. And I feel alive, like this energy is running through me and I am it and it is me and it is everything. I feel so connected to the world. It’s so amazing. I want to feel this way all the time.”
“Wow,” I replied. “Sounds like you’re tripping on Ecstasy.”

“That’s exactly what it feels like!” he said. “You know Ecstasy activates neural pathways in your brain that already exist so you can get that feeling without doing the drug.”

“So now Landmark is the drug.”

Back in class, Angie was acting pissed off. People were still coming late after the breaks, she said. (Sadly, I had come back on time after that particular break.) We had no integrity, she said. We were uncoachable and uncaring, and she was tired of trying to help us when it was clear we didn’t care to help ourselves. We were one of the slowest groups she had ever worked with. We were not getting it and it looked as though we never would. We were still “running rackets” and “waiting in the stands.” She was done with us. She was considering walking out because we just weren’t worth the effort anymore.

The class immediately began pleading with her, promising her that we’d try harder, we’d be better. She shouldn’t give up on us; she should allow us to prove her wrong, to show her that we could get it and that we were committed to our transformations. People stood up and begged. Would she please stay to coach us and grant us the second chance she already knew she’d give us? Please, please, please?!

The whole exchange was wildly surreal and yet totally convincing. It was also thoroughly nauseating. I had read about this Sunday morning tantrum in my research of the Forum, but couldn’t believe the groveling it actually produced. More unbelievable was how quickly the students became the enforcers. We had to check each other, it was said. We had to go on breaks only in groups and promise to return to class five minutes early from now on. Like it or not, we were all each other’s keepers. As a group, we could do it. Alone, we might fail.

The pressure kept on. It was suffocating in its intensity. Conform, obey, transform. Conform, obey, transform.

I looked over at Eduardo, who was sitting hunched over in the front row, his head practically in his hands. He looked as though he was still tripping on Ecstasy. I tried to locate Mike and Sophie but couldn’t find them among the sea of heads. I started to feel queasy. What the hell was happening? Everyone around me looked shaken, fearful over the threat of abandonment as if some primal childhood fear had been triggered.

Angie seemed pleased with herself. She stood at the front of the room, her control consolidated, about to deliver The Transformative Lecture, the one that would make us “pop.” But first she had to know: Were we ready? Did we really want it?

Milla Goldenberg is an L.A.-based writer and editor. Visit her blog @ MillaTimes.com and follow her on Twitter.


2 comments for “I Failed the Self-Help Seminar: The Landmark Forum (Part 4 of 5)

  1. August 16, 2010 at 5:19 am

    good for you that you didn’t succumb to the brainwashing.

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