Drive-thru Deliverance

Everything in the central Phoenix office building could vanish in a matter of minutes, leaving behind no signs of life. No family photos sit on the desks. All the furniture could easily be stacked up and rolled away.

At 9 a.m., the people arrive, find name tags, and file into a nondescript classroom. They are 180 strong, mostly white, middle-aged, and needing to lose a few pounds.

Beneath the numbing glow of industrial fluorescent lights, they sit shoulder to shoulder, packed in tighter than coach class, unable to cross their legs without kicking the seat in front of them. Tiny windows show only a strip of sky, and there is nothing to focus on but three chalkboards at the front of the room.

For three days, 15 hours a day, like clockwork, the people will show up and await transformation. They will sob and wail, confess their failings and reveal the deepest secrets of incest, infidelity and shame in their lives. If their burdens are not lighter by the time they leave, their wallets will be.

Richard Condon takes the stage and mounts himself on a long-legged director's chair. He is 50-ish, with salt-and-pepper hair, a goatee and small, piercing eyes. He tells the people they are about to board an emotional roller coaster. There will be peaks, there will be valleys, and it isn't safe to get off until the ride stops. Leave now, he says, or stick around for the long haul.

It has been a long haul for this mainstay of the self-awareness movement, which started under the name "est." Peaking in the late '70s, est helped people "get it" with its characteristic and controversial marathon seminars and abrasive, confrontational techniques. In 1985, Werner Erhard and Associates changed the name from est to the Forum.

For the past decade, the company has had a different name -- Landmark Education -- and new management. But little else has changed. Est's intellectual scion still claims that it can change people's lives by pummeling them into admitting that they are failures and remake them through hours of guided introspection and group confession.

And it still charges hundreds of dollars for the privilege of spending three days wedged cheek to jowl with other souls who have forked over cash to be yelled at, ridiculed, berated and, of course, transformed.

Landmark Education holds permanent court at its Phoenix office on Osborn Road, hosting basic "Forums" every six weeks, which generally attract more than 100 people at $350 a head. It offers introductory courses nearly every day, and at any given time, two to four seminars of some sort are in progress. Despite decades of persistent controversy, the programs continue to attract crowds with promises of quick salvation from whatever ails you.

In a prepackaged, microwaveable, Pop-Tart, drive-through-liquor culture, what could be more appealing than reconstructing your life over one weekend and being back at work on Monday?

While driving on a California freeway in 1971, Werner Erhard saw the light. According to his authorized biography, he realized that he knew nothing. The instant he realized he knew nothing, he realized he knew everything, and everything was good.

It was the birth of Erhard Seminars Training (est), a previous incarnation of Landmark Education. Prior to the freeway revelation, Jack Rosenberg had another transformative experience when he became Werner Erhard. In the midst of eloping with his mistress, Rosenberg sat on the runway in Philadelphia, flipped through a magazine article on West Germany and constructed his new name from those of several prominent German figures of the time. He was leaving behind a wife, four kids and a job as a used-car salesman to become a successful businessman and national guru.

Est, a two-weekend self-awareness program, gained popularity throughout the '70s and '80s, attracting celebrities and bringing fame to Erhard. In the late '80s, IRS allegations arose that Erhard owed back taxes and was improperly transferring assets out of the country. Around the same time, one of his daughters went on 60 Minutes to air allegations of sexual abuse. Erhard sold his "technology" to his employees and left the country. No criminal charges were ever filed against Erhard, and the claims were never proven; his daughter later recanted and said she was coerced by a San Jose Mercury News reporter into making the abuse allegations.

Erhard later sued the IRS, claiming it made false statements about him, and the agency settled with him for $200,000. Still, the damage was done. Erhard was out, and Landmark was in. The new company, Landmark Education, was incorporated in California in 1991 and is headquartered in San Francisco, owned by its employees and led by Erhard's brother Harry Rosenberg, the chief executive officer.

Landmark literature credits Erhard with developing its coursework, but says he has nothing to do with the management of Landmark and is not a stockholder. Company spokesperson Mark Kamin says this doesn't mean Landmark thinks poorly of Erhard. "I want to be really clear that we don't have a problem with him," Kamin says.

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Amanda Scioscia
Contact: Amanda Scioscia