Drive-thru Deliverance

It's not called est anymore, but you can still be ridiculed into self-awareness in just one expensive weekend

Day two, and I'm in the bad girl's chair because I didn't come back after dinner last night. Jack, who never smiles, takes me in a separate room and gives me a talking to. I smile and nod. Jack tells me my life doesn't work and I say "Okay."

Then he brings in Tom -- the guy who registered me -- to tell me about my "rackets." Racket is another new vocabulary word. It means a persistent complaint and a fixed way of being, our way of being right and making others wrong. Tom tells me about his rackets and asks about mine. I say I'll have to think about it, desperate to escape his penetrating gaze.

Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult interventionist, receives numerous complaints about Landmark.
Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult interventionist, receives numerous complaints about Landmark.
Landmark Education's office building in central Phoenix holds "Forums" every six weeks.
Paolo Vescia
Landmark Education's office building in central Phoenix holds "Forums" every six weeks.

Finally, they give back my name tag. A line of latecomers has formed outside the classroom. Anyone who arrives even minutes late finds the door shut, a man blocking it with his size. He "clears" each of us, saying, "Did you break your promise?" We nod like good children, and when we enter, Richard is yelling at someone for not speaking directly into the microphone. Not only am I late and truant, but I didn't do my homework. Each night we are sent home at midnight with assignments. Today we're supposed to have written a letter to someone we want to "complete" with. We now must turn to the person next to us and read our letters.

A complete stranger turns to me and pretends I'm a man she recently had an affair with. She tells me how she pretended it was no big deal, but she's really not over it. "Maybe you should be saying this to him," I suggest.

Some people offer to share with the entire group, Jerry Springer-style. One man has written to his frigid wife. Another to his dead father who used to beat him.

Larry (all names of seminar participants have been changed) is depressed because he tried to enroll his girlfriend last night, but she's not interested because she's worried that Landmark is a religious cult. Richard explains to Larry that the problems with his girlfriend are really all about his mother.

Richard explains that what happens to us has no effect on our lives. It's all about our interpretation of what happened. A young woman named Kim takes the microphone and talks about her abusive, alcoholic father. Richard tells her she's suffering now from her interpretation of her father's actions. She breaks down in heaving sobs, and Richard tells her it's her racket. He suggests she call her father, who lives in the Northwest, and invite him to come down Tuesday night for her "completion meeting," which is the Landmark equivalent of graduation. By the end of the Forum, Kim will be rocking back and forth incessantly and laughing.

The dinner break is approaching when Richard tells us he's going to walk us through a powerful exercise. He tells us to close our eyes, and that we absolutely must keep them shut. He begins with simple relaxation techniques, going through all parts of the body, concentrating on how each place feels.

Where do we feel stress? Some people store it in their shoulders, in their temples, in their stomachs. Richard's voice, which has become burned on our brains after so many hours, is working its way through our bodies. Just as I start to relax and let go of 48 hours of built-up tension, Richard tells me I am terrified of the two people next to me. Next, I am terrified of the entire city of Phoenix, then the country, then the world. He goes through all the characteristics of terror -- the shaking, sweating, racing heart -- trying to manufacture them inside my body.

Someone in the room lets out a primal wail. A woman two rows in front of me has covered her head with her jacket, another is shaking her head furiously. Others are writhing around and stamping their feet.

The moaning gets louder, and more join in. Someone screams, "I want my mommy"; another hollers, "Leave me alone." Richard's voice gets louder and more frantic as he describes the quality of the fear we're supposed to be feeling.

Then Richard lets us in on the joke: People are just as afraid of us as we are of them. Those who a minute before were screaming in pain begin to laugh hysterically.

Volunteers are at the ready with tissues when Richard brings us to, and more pressure is exerted to sign up for the next Landmark course. People are chanting in the next room. Richard says they are taking the Self-Expression and Leadership workshop.

When we return from dinner, everyone is back in their seats on time and eager. We applaud ourselves on our integrity and commitment to the group.

Before Richard lets us go home for the evening, he issues a challenge involving risk and unreasonableness. We are to call three people and tell them about the Landmark Forum and invite them to Tuesday night's completion.

John, one of the few younger members of the group, approaches me after we break for the evening. He says he's totally wigged out by the hypnotism display. "It's like ecstasy and the club scene -- which is kind of like a cult, but in a good way," he says.

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