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The est of Friends

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Werner Erhard's protégés and siblings carry the torch for a '90s incarnation of the '70s 'training' that some of us just didn't get

By Traci Hukill

ON A FRIDAY MORNING IN EARLY SUMMER, 110 Silicon Valley high-tech workers, salespeople and curiosity seekers drift into a conference room on the ground floor at Park Center Plaza in downtown San Jose. As I take my seat in one of the hard, scratchy chairs, I overhear the woman to my right making polite chitchat with her neighbor. The man to my left warily reads the messages printed on two blackboards at the front of the room, and I follow his gaze.

In terse, perfect script, one of them directs participants who frequently need to eat, drink or use the bathroom "for medical reasons" to tell this to one of the swarm of volunteers at the back of the room, and to "do this now."

Another cautions that if participants leave the room during The Forum, even for a few minutes, they "forfeit the right to expect the result."

What is this sensitive mechanism that vaporizes the moment one leaves to pee? The shiny brochures enrollees received after paying the $325 registration fee for the weekend-long seminar explained little. Steeped in vagaries, they introduced Landmark Education's language, praising The Forum's "technology" and promising "breakthroughs" that would make us happier.

Participants signed up for a variety of reasons. Some were just curious, having noticed Forum-inspired happiness in friends and being eager to find out the secret for themselves. Some were really the walking wounded, folks who've tried everything from Hare Krishna to Herbalife in an effort to fill an aching emptiness. Others, like me, came in wearing the armor of skepticism and academic superiority complexes--and wound up being the most elated.

All of us, I'm convinced as I sit here looking around, are harboring some small hope that The Forum will bear us up where God or love has failed us, let us once and for all cross over to a land of milk and honey where we can slough off layers of disappointment and neglect and be naked and fearless, the loving people we are in our private Edens.

Even I, determined to be the impartial reporter, find myself waiting with a pleasurable tingle of hope.

A pair of microphones, a tall director's chair and a table complete the set on the podium, plus a box of tissues: the gun on the mantel.

Within a half hour the first weeping confession will seep out over the PA system from a woman who has taken The Forum once before. "I just have so much trouble being authentic with people," she will sob into the microphone as the Forum leader hands her a tissue and the bewildered audience hesitantly applauds, just like it's been taught to do in its short time here. And I will clap along with them.

During the entire weekend, my natural compassion and desire to reach for some better place war with my sense of professional duty. I've come in suspicious of Landmark because I know it's the direct descendant of Erhard Seminar Training (est), an acronym of lower-case initials that imparted contemporary chic a generation ago, and which flourished during the '70s and '80s as a hard-edged, confrontational seminar in the heyday of the human potential movement. Trainers yelled at people who didn't "get it," and bathroom breaks were forbidden. Everything was aimed at getting in touch with one's self, learning how to really communicate. It was all very edgy and glamorous--luminaries Diana Ross, John Denver and Yoko Ono took the training--but in est's wake followed reports of psychotic breaks and esties' alienation from friends and family.

But as it turns out, we won't have much time to ponder The Forum's family tree over the next three 14-hour days spent in this stuffy room with our Forum leader. We'll hardly have time to change our underwear. Each day we will be released exactly three times. We will be asked to have dinner with Forum "friends" and to spend our scant hours at home calling family members and pals and telling them about our "breakthroughs."

But nothing's happened yet. No tears, no tissues, no long-distance calls. Expectation simmers in the room. The show is about to begin.

Finally, Forum leader Brian Regnier strides down the aisle and takes his place on the dais, all smiles and wire-rimmed glasses. A small, neat man of indeterminate age, the charismatic Regnier moves easily around the stage as he tells us what we can expect from our marathon weekend. New life in our relationships. Love for our fellow Forum graduates. Possibilities flowering everywhere we look.

"You'll notice for the first time in your life, 'I'm happy,' " Regnier predicts, beaming like a benevolent uncle. "A miracle is going to take place here."

But we gotta want it. We have to be enrolled, he explains--open to what The Forum can do for us. If we're not, we can leave now and get our money back, even the nonrefundable deposit.

No one moves.

Smiling All the Way to the Bank

'NO?" HE QUERIES. Audience members crane their necks to look around the room. "This is very unusual, by the way," he adds approvingly, then launches into a preview of the next few days.

He'll encourage us to be unreasonable, he says, do things that feel stupid, like singing to strangers in the park or signing up for a Landmark course we don't have money for. That's the only way we'll achieve life-altering "breakthroughs" into new ways of being.

Like any exclusive group of people who know something the rest of the world doesn't, Landmark has its own language. It happens to be the same vocabulary esties learned, and it serves to separate the ones who "get it" from those who don't. A "breakthrough" is Landmark's term for arrival in new psychological terrain--a phenomenon also called a "paradigm shift." Old limitations wither away, replaced by a vital conviction that anything is possible.

"Rackets" are persistent complaints that we orchestrate in order to avoid some kind of responsibility-- complaints like "I have too much to do," which might excuse shoddy performance. Rackets obstruct breakthroughs, Regnier informs us, and we've spent our lives perfecting them in order to get what we want.

We also learn about our "winning formulas," tricks we learn to get along in society, like being charming and smart. Winning formulas, we're told, keep us smug and content, but they also keep us from breakthroughs--and real happiness.

Among our unreasonable, breakthrough-inducing assignments will be telling friends all about The Forum. Sound like a sales pitch? Well, why not try to sell the people you love on something this great? Ah--but some of those folks will think we've been hoodwinked.

"One guy even said it was nothing more than positive thinking!" Regnier exclaims in delighted disbelief. Then he lapses into a bizarre fit of silent laughter.

"That was Tulsa," he notes mirthfully.

The audience snickers: We're much too sophisticated to make that mistake here in the Bay Area.

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Buzzwords for enlightenment.

Web links about Landmark.

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THE POCKET-PROTECTED AND PEDIGREED have turned out in surprising numbers for this event. The pervasive presence of high-tech and professional employees makes me wonder if the soulless, isolated nature of keyboard-pecking work isn't to blame. They're alienated from living things like flesh and dirt, I figure, noting a paucity of farmers and horse doctors in the room.

But maybe it's something simple, like who has 300 bucks to see if they like something. Or the fact that most of these employees didn't grow up here, and they're a long way from their parents and cousins and Fourth of July picnics and churches, all the things that keep people sure of who they are.

Whatever it is, it's working, and it might not be long before The Forum integrates into Silicon Valley companies. One fellow from Cisco stands up on the last night and says, "I took The Forum because my boss suggested it, and in Silicon Valley you don't say no to your boss." He grins sidelong glance at his employer, who's standing next to him. "But I'm very happy I came." A lot of people came at their boss's "friendly" behest, and several asked for information on Landmark's corporate programs, in which entire companies examine their rackets.

Here, just a short junket from Landmark's San Francisco headquarters, Forums fill up weeks in advance. One of 53 offices worldwide, including centers in India, Israel, Great Britain and Japan, the San Jose office enrolls about 100 people each month in The Forum. Enthusiastic grads can spend up to $4,000 completing the Landmark curriculum of courses. For companies the cost ranges from $250,000 to $4 million.

On the last night 39 people sign up for the $700 advanced course--a $27,000 drop in the $48 million-a-year bucket of Landmark revenues. Last year Landmark Education Corporation spent $13 million on salaries and bonuses for its 451 employees, dedicated $4 million to travel and made $2.5 million in profit.

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BRIAN REGNIER SMILES A LOT, and with good reason. Performing for a room stuffed with $35,000 worth of hungry souls and a dozen Landmark volunteers drinking in his every gesture, Regnier is the only paid employee of Landmark Education in this room today.

The volunteers, some of them Forum leader hopefuls, watch the way he sits in his director's chair, relaxed but energized, the person everyone wants to be. They listen to his casual, funny delivery. He's a Landmark legend. Not only is he known throughout the corporation as a stellar Forum leader and recruiter, but he's a Landmark heavyweight, signing on as president and secretary of Landmark when it incorporated in 1991.

"If you are open to what happens here," he declares in his personable way, his head tilted just so, his gaze traveling the room with a Clintonesque knack for making every one of us feel like he's really looking at me, "you'll get a million-dollar Forum. If you want to"--he pauses for effect--"you can get something priceless. And I'll tell you how to do that."

Someone running a math racket or a skepticism racket or both could calculate pretty easily for these volunteers that their chances of becoming a Forum leader ping-pong between microscopic and infinitesimal. A case study by Harvard Business School reports that nationwide, 7,500 volunteers lend their time and services to Landmark. The corporation only pays 451 people, and only a tenth of them are Forum leaders.

But here at the Forum, we are told, anything is possible. So devotees keep enrolling in courses, keep volunteering to prove their "commitment."

I wonder what kind of racket the Department of Labor was running when it investigated Landmark and determined its volunteers were employees subject to the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Who's heard of volunteers for a for-profit? In the end the Department of Labor dropped the issue, leaving Landmark trumpeting about its volunteers' choice in the matter.

These particular volunteers are watching a master. On Friday night Regnier's performance takes a revivalist twist when he asks if anyone in the audience is suffering headache or fatigue. Our fluorescent-lit conference room might as well be a sweating tent of fervid souls in a Mississippi field for what happens next.

A woman comes to the front of the room and takes a seat in the director's chair. Regnier asks her to describe her headache and her "story"--her explanations, many of which we now understand to be excuses--for why she has it. She answers that she's tired and hasn't taken any medicine. The pain is pounding in her temples.

"Now visualize the pain," he says. "It's what color?"

"Magenta."

"What shape?"

"Round."

"How much water would it hold?"

"Two ounces, each side."

"Now feel that headache," he tells her. "Do you have it?"

She opens her eyes, blinks once. "No," she answers wonderingly.

The audience bursts into wild applause.

The est of the Story

REGNIER'S HAD PLENTY OF PRACTICE at changing people's lives and checkbook balances. In 1971, he tells us, he abandoned a career as a computer analyst and started doing transformational workshops. What he means by "transformational workshops" is est, the controversial seminar made popular by former automobile and encyclopedia salesman Werner Erhard, born Jack Rosenberg. Est's 60-hour program shares such defining features with Landmark as buzzwords and long days with few breaks. The difference seems a matter of politeness: Forum participants can go to the bathroom when they want. No one yells here. And no one is obliged, as they were in the '70s, to refer to Erhard or anyone else as "the source."

Werner Erhard and his cohorts coasted on est's enormous success until they reduced their last estie to tears in 1984. The next year Werner Erhard & Associates repackaged est as The Forum, a seminar aimed more at goal-oriented breakthroughs than reprogramming. By 1988 close to a million people had taken est, The Forum or some other Erhard training under auxiliary companies like the Hunger Project.

When Erhard's reputation took a nosedive amid tax fraud and incest allegations in the early '90s, he fled the country. (Later the tax charges were dropped, and the accusation of incest was withdrawn.) In the meantime, his disciples conceived a way of continuing to produce The Forum free of the negative publicity attached to Erhard's name.

In 1991, a group of trusted Erhard aides started Landmark Education, licensed Erhard's "technology" and incorporated in the state of California. Erhard owns no Landmark stock, but Regnier does. One of the founding members of Landmark, Regnier belongs to a select club of insiders--the same group, according to a Landmark case document, who presented est.

Landmark says that Erhard has nothing to do with The Forum. But the license Landmark obtained from Erhard enabling them to produce The Forum is in fact owned by Erhard, and is scheduled to revert to him in 2009. Erhard's 63 now and is assured 50 percent of Landmark's net pre-tax profit each quarter, not to exceed $15 million in the 18-year lifespan of the license. Furthermore, Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, is currently Landmark's CEO, and sister Joan Rosenberg is listed as a director.

Despite the obvious links, Landmark executives take pains to separate the organization from Erhard and almost all things est, other than to acknowledge its roots. Reports of psychological damage resulting from est sullied Erhard's reputation. Family members of est graduates complained that est jargon invaded every conversation and that esties--or estholes, as detractors called them--shunned people who didn't "get it."

Landmark has not entirely escaped est's fate. A 1993 lawsuit against Landmark by a Maryland woman claimed that The Forum precipitated her psychotic breakdown through negligent infliction of emotional distress.

She lost the case, but her legacy lives on: prospective Forum participants must now give verbal attestation and sign two separate documents disclosing their histories of therapy, psychiatric hospitalization and psychoactive drug use. Boxes checked "yes" result in Landmark's recommendation not to participate.

Lousy Tippers

AFTER OUR FIRST BREAK ON FRIDAY morning, Regnier introduces course supervisor Robin Benson, a tall, slim greyhound of a woman with dark hair and hard black eyes.

After Regnier's friendly presence, Benson's sadistic air and flaring nostrils as she reels off a list of rules set the crowd on edge. Not to mention the rules themselves, which include things like raising our hands to talk and making sure our name tags always show.

Then Benson says we must not take medication unless our health is endangered without it. Seeing uncertainty in people's faces, Regnier steps in to explain. "It interferes with your ability to get The Forum," he says pleasantly, as if stating a scientific fact.

Tension hangs in the room like smoke. Later, when I talk to people about The Forum, this is the part they hated, the moment they almost left.

As Benson and Regnier strip away our free agency and become the dispensers of comfort and relief from thirst, hunger and bladder ache by telling us when we can leave our wretched chairs, I can't help thinking that they're playing a little game of God here. We're infantalized, turned into children--by choice--and who comes in to tell us what's what? You guessed it.

Regnier swoops in with a joke, Benson makes an unsmiling exit and within moments the tension dissipates. Boy, are we glad to see him! We listen to Regnier with new fondness.

Landmark's "technology" builds on the backs of a few key ideas, most of which make sense if applied with care. In addition to rackets and winning formulas, we learn about "stories." To show how stories work, Regnier draws a diagram of two overlapping circles on the board. One represents the facts of something that happened and the other our interpretation. We can change misery-inducing stories, he explains, by changing our interpretation of events.

"This really works for people," Regnier says, tapping the "interpretation" side of the diagram with a sage nod. "Even Auschwitz," he says cryptically, leaving us to wonder how that particular revision would go. Would it be, "The Nazis tortured my father and gassed my mother by mistake," or "The Nazis tortured my father and gassed my mother, and I'm OK with that"?

The lecture weaves in esoteric threads of ontology and philosophy in the form of puzzling statements like "the only change is no change" and "there is no meaning."

It all seems like so much pointless wordplay, a bunch of David Copperfield­inspired tricks refracting language instead of light.

And what good does it do? During our breaks all 100 of us stampede into the cafe next door, and I watch people who were weeping at the microphones half an hour earlier snap at the frantic, overworked counter help.

"No minestrone? What soup do you have, then?"

At the end of one such break I peer into the tip jar. A smattering of coins and a crumpled bill are the sum total of our generosity toward our fellow human beings.

"Are Landmark people good tippers?" I ask one of the women.

She grimaces an instant, then smiles wearily. "No. But it's OK."

Dueling Therapists

BACK IN 1982, WHEN EST WAS STILL going strong, three Stanford doctors conducted a study of est and a similar seminar called Lifespring. They determined that two kinds of harm might result from est training. In the first kind, people who were already on shaky psychological ground might decompensate--what most of us call "snap"--under the stress. In the second kind, people might abandon important psychological defenses necessary to stability.

For me, it's almost impossible to observe The Forum's methods without the word "brainwashing" flashing across my intellectual radar screen every 15 seconds or so. Landmark refers inquiries in this department to a letter by Forum graduate Edward Lowell, a New Jersey psychiatrist who states in no uncertain terms that Landmark does not use brainwashing techniques.

So there we have it.

However, San Jose's own Brian Lippincott, associate professor of psychology at JFK University, calls grouping people close together for long periods a "time-honored method of indoctrination," used since the days of the Roman centurions. "And then you're tired on the second or third day," he says, "and you lose your independent thought process, and the things you're hearing become internally consistent. You kind of lose the ability to check out-- 'Are these assumptions really true?' If I get you to accept three or four premises, then all these things would follow from those assumptions.

"They never allow you to go back and check," he says. "Or if you do, one technique is, 'You're not following protocol.' "

The Forum forbids notetaking. And it takes Forum participants about a day and a half to learn how to say, "That's your racket" every time someone breaks ranks.

MOST LANDMARK BROCHURES mention a study by social scientist Dan Yankelovich, whose survey of Forum graduates reveals high satisfaction ratings of the program. "More than seven out of 10 people," he writes in his summary, "have found the Forum to be one of life's most rewarding experiences."

Simon Pearson would probably agree with that. A 33-year-old Internet service marketer for Hewlett-Packard, Pearson started The Forum with a bad attitude.

"I was pissed," he recalls, laughing. "For the first day I felt like we'd had about a half hour of content. I was thinking, 'Why'd I waste my time?' "

Pearson found the rules and recommendations "manipulative and authoritarian," but the session on rackets struck a chord in him. So he returned on Saturday. And broke through.

Before, he says, he felt controlled by his environment, resentful of people and responsibilities. A few days after the advanced course he states with visible relief, "Now who I am is the possibility of love and freedom."

After 11 years of troubled relationship with his mother, who lives in England, Pearson called her up the night after The Forum and offered to fly her out for his Forum graduation. She sat in the audience along with eight of his friends from work and stayed on for two weeks. They had a wonderful time.

"The relationship I now have with my mother is rich, it's joyous," he tells me. "We don't talk about the weather. It's not 'How are you, Mother?' It's 'How are you, Mother?'"

Prima Hernandez, a 23-year-old UCSC graduate, went to The Forum hoping to refine her focus on her career. Even though she had trouble with the recruitment aspect--which she solved by tuning it out--she got a lot of good out of The Forum. "I thought of The Forum as all the golden rules we were taught but forget," she says. "Like rackets: If you're unhappy with something, just stop bitching about it."

I watched Hernandez achieve fleeting fame in The Forum during an exercise in "being unreasonable." She asked participants for money for a trip to Mexico, and in a half hour had $400 in cash and promises, presumably from other people who were being unreasonable. (Later, perhaps when reason returned, she gave the money back.)

Hernandez, who exudes balance and thoughtfulness, doesn't want to be a simpleton about The Forum. "I was constantly battling," she explains, "trying to pick apart the exercises. It was a constant thing in my head."

On the other hand, she says, maybe releasing her intellect and letting the paradigm shift happen unfettered would have been the way to go. "So many scams have tarnished our trust," she muses. "Maybe it could be beneficial."

Appropriate Legal Action

'ERHARD GRADUATES WITH gripes," read an ad I placed in Metro in an effort to locate people irked with The Forum. Est and Forum grads called me with stories of how they or someone they knew had taken an introductory course, then an advanced course ... and eventually started volunteering, spending as many as 20 hours a week in the service of est or Landmark. Most said they thought The Forum itself was fine, even valuable, when kept in perspective. Without exception they asked not to be named.

Once word about my story got around, popping up in an online Landmark newsgroup, it somehow made its way into the office of Art Schreiber, general counsel of Landmark Education Corporation.

Schreiber responded swiftly with a 10-page letter advising me of his "serious concern" that I might defame Landmark. What followed were six pages explaining why Landmark is not a cult, a page of why Landmark cannot be said to brainwash its enrollees, a page and a half of why I must not defame Werner Erhard or est, and a tedious summary explaining that should I "leave Landmark and its programs depicted in a false light ... Landmark is fully prepared to take the appropriate legal action."

He included 23 letters of recommendation from happy Forum grads; a letter like mine addressed to Self Magazine, whom Landmark sued in 1994 for calling The Forum a cult; a newspaper article describing a lawsuit by Erhard's daughter against a San Jose Mercury News reporter; and statements from Margaret Singer, author of Cults in Our Midst, and Cynthia Kisser, former director of the Cult Awareness Network, that Landmark is not a cult. Landmark has sued them both.

In Kisser's case, she was co-defendant with the Cult Awareness Network in a $40 million suit brought on because CAN classified est and The Forum as cults that used mind-control techniques unbeknownst to program participants. CAN settled and retracted the statements. Kisser is still defending.

I had a nice chat with Mark Kamin, Landmark's public relations man. He told me, "It is my bias that you have a bias," and said, "There's no real story." Then he appealed to my sense of "integrity"--a word much bandied about in The Forum--to write what "the truth is about us."

Landmark advocates self-expression. Surely, I thought as I hung up the phone, I'm not being discouraged from expressing myself.

CEO Harry Rosenberg recently noted that "in the United States, we have altered the public conversation about our work and our enterprise. For example, it is no longer possible for informed people or publications in the United States to pin pejorative labels on us."

"Altering the public conversation." The phrase sends a chill up the spine of anyone who thought it was OK to speak freely in this country without fear of being sued into silence.

Can't Buy Me Bliss

SHORTLY AFTER THE FORUM I tried to explain to a friend a peculiar experience that repeated itself many times during the three days and evening I spent listening to Regnier. Most of the time I maintained a skeptical frame of mind, indulging my fetish for lay sociology by analyzing The Forum's methods. At times, though, pieces of the message pierced my thoughts, resonating deeply with some dormant conviction that life can and should be better, more pleasurable, less fraught with complications and conflict.

I'm open-minded, even suggestible at times. Once, years ago, I found myself dissolving into misery as a Scientology recruiter harangued me, pointing out that my life as a cocktail waitress was going nowhere fast, and that unless I took action soon--he brandished a copy of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics at me--the whole thing would swirl down the toilet. My search for meaning slunk out of the Phoenix Scientology office and led me to the astrology aisles of numerous used-book stores and the pages of Ram Dass's Be Here Now. I even spent a few years doing Tarot readings for my friends, pretending I knew what I was talking about. I'm a sucker for esoterica.

So when the idea of "rackets" started to make sense, and some of my "stories" emerged as patently ridiculous, I would get this light, spacious feeling in my head, and the possibility of a life released would glimmer beautifully on an expanding horizon. Didn't I owe myself a chance at bliss?

And then the volunteers would pass out registration cards for the next seminar, and the people who didn't fill them out would be called to the back of the room and asked to explain why, and I would be among them, facing a stern volunteer who donates his time to lead that seminar. Or Regnier would mention how important it was to tell our friends about The Forum and bring them to our graduation. And right away it would be as if someone had switched cameras on me, sharpened the focus, turned off the flattering back lighting.

Oh yeah, I'd think. The money.

As harmless, even helpful, as The Forum's ideas themselves are, something about the delivery system just doesn't feel right. The subtle controls, the obvious ones, the glitter of an eye, a 10-page letter--all add up to something that shifts, vanishes, reappears--does anything but breathe, endure, stand still for inspection.

And still, for a day, I got the result. I got the euphoria the day after The Forum. And then it dissipated. That's what happens--that's why people keep signing up, to keep that feeling fresh.

It was easy to make fun of The Forum until I saw a 45-year-old man choking back tears as he read a letter to his stern Japanese father. He was not stupid or naive or a drama queen. He was in real pain, and The Forum seemed to help.

But it didn't make me think something was right with The Forum as much as it made me realize something is terribly wrong with the rest of the world. It's so sad, I thought, that the most intimate and intense experience these people have had is one they paid to have with a group of strangers. The more I think about it, the clearer it seems that too many people are cut adrift from the organic necessities of love, family and community. In an age when people leave their hometowns as a matter of course, the ties that bind are dissolving, and people are looking for pretty new ribbons to replace the old familiar cords.

Good luck, I say. But I doubt they'll find them here.

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From the July 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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