Drive-thru Deliverance

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

Richard says the show starts tomorrow.


Desiree Lewis was concerned about her husband after he attended the Landmark Forum in Phoenix. She says he went into the Forum Friday morning and came back Sunday night as a person she didn't recognize.

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.

"What I thought right away was that he'd been brainwashed," Lewis says. "He was acting so completely out of his normal character -- laughing and then crying, and speaking with all these weird words. I just wanted to shake him and say, "Could you go back outside and come in the man I married, because who are you?" It was truly frightening."

Lewis says on Monday morning, her husband called in sick, and she found Rick Ross' site on the Internet. "I told my husband, 'You were brainwashed, you're some kind of nut, and if you go back to this thing on Tuesday night I will file divorce papers on Wednesday.' He was hemming and hawing, saying, 'I made a commitment to these people.' I said, 'I'm your wife -- who are these people?'"

Lewis convinced her husband to discontinue his association with the group.

Such reactions explain why Landmark -- and est before it -- has often been labeled a cult. The unwashed find their loved ones changed, speaking a new language, acting out of character and ready to volunteer all their free time to a for-profit corporation. Ross says he's been retained twice in the past few months to do interventions with people whose loved ones want them out of Landmark.

But Landmark vigorously disputes the cult accusation and freely threatens or pursues lawsuits against those who call it one.

When the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) made statements and distributed materials alleging or implying that Landmark is a cult, the company sued. In 1997, CAN resolved the suit by stating it has no evidence that Landmark is a cult.

Landmark also boasts numerous letters from experts stating that it does not meet cult criteria. One such letter comes from Dr. Margaret Singer, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, and an expert on cults. Landmark sued Singer after she mentioned the company in her book Cults in Our Midst. Singer says she never called it a cult in her book, but simply mentioned it as a controversial New Age training course. In resolution of the suit, Singer gave a sworn statement that the organization is not a cult or sect. She says this doesn't mean she supports Landmark.

"I do not endorse them -- never have," she says.

Singer, who is in her 70s, says she can't comment on whether Landmark uses coercive persuasion because "the SOBs have already sued me once."

"I'm afraid to tell you what I really think about them because I'm not covered by any lawyers like I was when I wrote my book."

Singer will say, however, that she would not recommend the group to anyone.

Kamin says in the face of such evidence, Landmark can in no way be considered a cult.

"Our official stance is that it's ridiculous [to call Landmark a cult]," Kamin says. "It's actually insane."

Kamin goes on to explain: "People don't understand what our programs are. Our programs make a difference, they're powerful. When somebody goes to something that lasts a weekend and they come back saying, 'Wow, this really made a difference in my life,' they are going to be met with a certain amount of skepticism. So somebody who is ill-informed and hasn't done their research will go, 'That must be X, Y or Z.' I think it's pretty obvious why those things happen."

Even professional cult buster Ross agrees that Landmark isn't one. "I'm a relative conservative on the issue of defining a cult," he says. "In my mind, I look for an absolute authoritarian leader . . . I just don't see any parallel with that type of leader in Landmark."

The company does not meet many of the conventional definitions of a cult. Landmark does not require its members to turn over their personal assets, except the cost of tuition. Landmark does not cut people off from family and friends, there is no communal living situation, nothing to worship, and participation must be voluntary.

But does Landmark wash brains? That is an entirely different question. In an article titled "Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change," Richard J. Ofshe, professor of social psychology at UC-Berkeley and co-recipient of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, defines coercive persuasion, or brainwashing, as "programs of social influence capable of producing substantial behavior and attitude change through the use of coercive tactics, persuasion, and/or interpersonal and group manipulations." Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and professor at the City University of New York, studied brainwashing in China, and in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism identified eight criteria as a basis for answering the question: "Isn't this brainwashing?"

They include: control of communication, emotional and behavioral manipulation, demands for absolute conformity, obsessive demands for confession, agreement that the ideology is faultless, manipulation of language in which clichés substitute for analytic thought, reinterpretation of human experience in terms of doctrine and classification of those not sharing the ideology as inferior.

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