Drive-thru Deliverance | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

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...
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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.

Landmark Education's General Curriculum consists of four programs that cost about $1,000 to complete. In total, the organization offers more than 60 programs that vary in price, some costing as much as $1,900. The company says it pulled in more than $50 million in revenue in 1998, a hefty sum considering that it does not advertise or market its seminars. Instead, it relies on word of mouth and a large group of volunteers to solicit customers.

Landmark says it offers courses in more than 100 cities around the world, to more than 100,000 new participants annually. Corporations also hire Landmark to come in and conduct seminars for groups of employees. Landmark calls its product "technology," and proffers testimonials about the organization claiming it boosts confidence, improves relationships and increases joy in life. Some credit Landmark with their financial and professional success. Others claim it has cured physical ailments and helped them become fearless.

According to Landmark literature, more than seven out of 10 participants surveyed think the Forum is one of their life's most rewarding experiences. The company gladly distributes copies of letters of support it has received over the years from psychologists, doctors, judges, religious officials, law enforcement officials and the like.

The letters of support are also letters of defense. Controversy has so plagued the organization that its Internet home page has a "Past Controversy" icon. Click on it, and find that the controversy is blamed mostly on misconceptions about Erhard, irresponsible journalists and the misperception that Landmark is a brainwashing cult, a characterization the company contests with vigor and lawsuits.

But to say the controversy is in the past is not entirely accurate. One of the questions the company will not answer is, "How does it work?"

To discover that, you have to take the course.

It's more than 100 degrees outside on the second weekend of September, but chilly inside the Landmark building in central Phoenix. "Anything you want in life is possible that you invent as a possibility and enroll others in your having gotten," reads one of the blackboards at the front of the room. The Forum, says another, will bring forth "the presence of a new realm of possibility."

Possibility, enroll, action -- these are buzz words that will pepper the seminar for three days. Any thoughts the paying customers have are to be expressed using this new language.

Richard and Jack are the leaders this weekend. Richard says he's a former drummer and night club owner who completed one year of college. He was a war protester. The fact that he and Jack -- who says he is a former Navy SEAL captain -- can get along is a supposed testament to the program.

When Richard opens up the microphones for questions, people ask why the long hours are necessary, why the rules are so rigid, why they are being asked questions about medications they're taking and their personal bathroom habits. Someone brings up sleep deprivation. "It's how you live your life anyway," says Richard, who seems to have a snide reply for every question.

Much of the first three hours is dedicated to teaching those of us who have already paid our money how to recruit other customers for Landmark, a theme that will be revisited often throughout the weekend.

A large man takes the mike and explains he's not willing to "involve" others in his personal transformation. Richard can't convince him otherwise. This man is "uncoachable," Richard observes. In the Forum, being uncoachable seems to mean disagreeing and trying to defend your point of view. Richard tells the man he must leave. The man makes his way out of the classroom, a precedent of humiliation set for any future dissenters.

Richard then offers everyone the chance to leave and have their money refunded. To stay, we must agree to the rules. Jack gives us a pep talk about integrity. He tells us we have none. Following the rules is our first opportunity to redeem our pathetic selves.

We must promise to show up on time, not use drugs or alcohol, be coachable, wear our name tags in a visible location and bring no food or drink into the room. We cannot take notes, talk or sit next to someone we know. Though no one will physically stop us from leaving to use the bathroom, if we do, we have no right to expect the loosely defined "transformation" we have come for.

"Getting it" requires following the rules, and those who break them will be humiliated. These rules are not just practical, they are a moral imperative. Breaking them means disappointing the group and demonstrating your weakness as a person.

An ever-revolving cast of Landmark volunteers lines the tables at the back of the room. They stare blankly, smile incessantly and cover their mouths with their hands when they whisper to each other. They pass notes to Richard and bustle around in a hyperefficient flurry.

Richard then informs us that we all are living lies, and we're supposed to introduce ourselves to others and confess the lies we tell. After several hours, something finally seems to be happening. People start going to the mikes. "I'm dead inside, but pretend to love my life," says one man. "My marriage is loveless and I pretend it's great," a woman says. Richard praises them. A stocky woman with black hair confesses that there's no joy in her life.

Before we leave for the dinner break, Richard says, "You're going out into the real world now where no one cares about your integrity." He commands us to go in groups, with our Landmark peers. We've been instructed to choose a new possibility of being for ourselves. People have created the possibility of being fearless, powerful, successful. Richard explains that we've chosen a new identity for ourselves, but others in the outside world will still treat us like our old selves.

Richard says, "Transformation happens on the third day!"

Two days and then -- poof -- we'll be brand-new.

Everyone registering for the Landmark Forum is asked to sign a paper relinquishing right to a jury or court trial and agreeing to arbitration should any controversy or claim arise out of his or her participation.

But in September 1997, the company was hit with a lawsuit from a customer who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a group leader at the Dallas Landmark Forum. In the suit, filed in Dallas County, Tracy Neff claimed that in 1995, David Grill, then executive director of Landmark's Dallas branch, invited Neff to his home and assaulted her.

The suit claimed that Landmark had received numerous complaints about Grill from both students and Landmark officials relating to sexual and/or behavioral misconduct, yet still put him in charge of the Dallas facility. Landmark "should have been aware of Grill's propensity to commit criminal sexual assaults with students from a time preceding his assignment as executive director of the Dallas Landmark facility," the suit alleged.

As part of a settlement, both Neff and her attorney, Jay English, agreed to sign a comprehensive confidentiality agreement, so English can't comment on any specifics of the case. But he does offer up his personal opinion about Landmark Education.

"My set of facts in my case was so obnoxiously egregious -- I cannot say anything about it -- but I am no fan of Landmark Education," English says. "It was settled, they compensated my client for her injuries, and it was an amazing, amazing case."

Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult interventionist, was called in as a consultant on behalf of Neff. Ross can't discuss specifics of the case, either, but says the plaintiff was awarded a substantial sum of money, though the amount cannot be disclosed because of the confidentiality agreement. Art Schreiber, general counsel for Landmark, disagrees that the award was substantial.

The Neff case, Ross says, was one of the more shocking complaints he has heard about Landmark. "I see it as a controversial group that I would not recommend to anyone because of all the complaints I've received," Ross says.

Ross says he gets numerous complaints from people who tell him they were traumatized by the organization. He gets complaints from people who say they were pressured and relentlessly pursued by the group. And he hears from family members concerned about radical personality changes they see in loved ones spending time and money on Landmark courses.

Ross says he has even received e-mails and phone calls from people who say they have been hospitalized for breakdowns as a result of their involvement in Landmark. Kamin says that if people have had breakdowns after participating in the Forum, it isn't fair to blame Landmark.

"I'm sure it's happened -- we've had a million people take our programs," Kamin says. "There is always going to be some small percentage of people -- just like somebody reads your newspaper and has a nervous breakdown. You wouldn't attribute it to your newspaper. There are people who go into marriage counseling and have a nervous breakdown. It wasn't provoked by that experience. There are people who have breakdowns in the supermarket."

In its literature, Landmark points out that its seminars are intended for "well" people and are not designed to address issues best dealt with by physicians, psychotherapists or other health professionals. It warns that the Forum may be physically, mentally and emotionally stressful. Participants must assume for themselves, their heirs, family members, executors, administrators and assigns all risk of physical injury and mental and emotional upset which may occur during or after the program.

Landmark can provide concerned participants with a letter from Raymond D. Fowler, executive vice president of the American Psychological Association. His professional opinion -- not presented as the view of any organization he is affiliated with -- is that the Landmark Forum is not harmful.

Kamin says the company goes to great lengths to screen out people who are not emotionally stable. Forum participants are asked to voluntarily reveal, among other things, whether they have ever been hospitalized for psychiatric care or a mental disorder, are currently in therapy or have taken any prescription medications or drugs that affect their mental processes or mood within the past six months.

But Ross says he's heard from people who say they were well before participating in the Landmark Forum, and not so afterward.

Like 60-year-old Nan Kolbinger of Minnesota, who found Ross' Web site after her Forum experience. She had signed up for the Forum at the suggestion of another teacher who informed her she could receive 40 hours of in-service credit toward renewing her teaching license. She walked out after two 15-hour days, feeling demeaned, controlled and browbeaten. Kolbinger says the breaking point came when the Forum leader exploded and yelled at the participants. Kolbinger says she cried all the way home. She later met with a psychologist who she claims diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder.

"I was depressed and hadn't been able to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, even after I did escape," Kolbinger says. "I said that I was okay, but then the tears would well up. I was denying how really traumatized I was. I was semi-paranoid."

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.

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.

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.

"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.

Ofshe points out that brainwashing isn't always as scary as it sounds and it doesn't necessarily involve physical assault. He distinguishes four characteristics of coercive persuasion: the reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack, the use of an organized peer group, applying interpersonal pressure to promote conformity and the manipulation of the person's social environment.

In his report on the Landmark Forum, Raymond Fowler of the American Psychological Association states, "The relatively brief encounters in a pleasant environment that characterizes the Landmark Forum program could never effect such extreme and unwanted changes in personality and behavior as those attributed to the various forms of 'mind control.'"

When asked whether they use any brainwashing techniques, Kamin says "absolutely not." "I think that's about as libelous as you can get, and I think it would be very interesting if you print it," he says. "I'm not going to even respond; I think it's ridiculous. I think it's a ridiculous allegation."

Kamin says he's shocked that anybody would even raise the question. "We will take very seriously anything that libels or slanders us. And I believe you will," he says. "And if you say I'm defensive, I want you to be clear that's an interpretation that may or may not damage my reputation personally. Because I'm not defensive."

But Ross questions whether coercive persuasion is what allows a group like Landmark to produce attitude and behavioral changes in people and convince them that their long-term participation in the group is essential to preserving that change.

"The problem is -- is it really making their lives better, and what is the long-term result?" Ross asks. "What I have seen is that they are very good at convincing people that their lives have been changed and they've had good results."

Ross gets letters from people who say he has no legitimate grounds to criticize Landmark because he hasn't been through the training himself. "I don't have to jump off the South Rim to know it's a bad idea," he responds.

Day three starts off with much of the same. Richard is still talking about how he has a great life, and we are pathetic, little people.

A woman confesses her story about incest, and Richard says there is no right and wrong. In some cultures, even incest is not considered taboo. Anyone who argues is cut off with a thought-terminating cliché -- "That's your racket," "That's why your life doesn't work."

Looking around the room, my eye falls on one young man, sitting with his arms folded, looking defiant. Over the break, Jerry and I go for a walk. "Are you cool?" he asks me. "Or are you one of them?"

Jerry was 15 when he first heard about Landmark. His father was involved in it and was trying to get the whole family involved. Dad brought the family to his completion meeting five years ago. "I thought it was the biggest crock of shit I'd ever heard of in my life," Jerry says. "Some of it made sense, but the people were just fake. You can tell fake people when you meet them."

Jerry says he finally wound up in this Landmark course after he was arrested for possession of a joint coming back from Nogales after spring break. A prosecutor agreed to let Jerry attend Landmark instead of going to rehab. Jerry, now 20, has requested anonymity because he wants there to be no record of the drug charge.

"We had pretty much agreed on rehab when my dad came out of left field with this Landmark thing," he says. "The DA said, 'What's Landmark?,' and I knew right then and there I was going. My dad is a good salesman."

If Jerry's father, 57-year-old Steven, is good at selling the idea of Landmark, it's because he believes in it. In the past five years, this salesman from the Northeast has spent a few thousand dollars on seminars, volunteered extensive amounts of time and created what he believes are positive changes in his life.

Now, when he talks, it's all Landmark speak.

"I looked at it from a global perspective," Steven says. "If people in the world can give up their rackets, they could be in communication with each other. People would understand that they're in their winning formula and would back off and give others space. I saw the planet moving up a level, and I saw that if my family, my wife, my mother, my sister, my aunt, my sons did it, they could have some freedom around the choices they make. They could have access to express themselves."

Steven hoped Landmark would be a positive opportunity for Jerry, and also felt that a precedent could be set in the criminal justice system. "I think Landmark Education could become part of the court system. Where kids who have minor brushes with the justice system go through Landmark Education not as a form of punishment, but as an option. I would hope the state of Arizona could look at that in a lot of situations. It's a new possibility."

Jerry tells me he has learned one important lesson from his Landmark experience thus far. "I went in with an open mind about what I could get out of it in terms of my life, and what I saw is that I need to wake up so that I don't become like these people," he says.

His father, on the other hand, has noticed tangible changes in his own life. He's lost weight, is more conscious about his health, and he dresses differently.

"It wasn't like someone told me I had to cut my dreads off . . . I was dreaded, and something happened that made me feel like I wanted to take responsibility for what people thought of me based on my physical appearance. Being responsible for that, rather than saying it's their problem, not mine," Steven says.

He jokes: "If it's brainwashing, it's good to have a clean brain."

Steven, whose phone was shut off last week because he couldn't pay a $160 bill, is currently enrolled in a $1,700 Landmark course, but says he gets discounts because he has volunteered so many hours for the company. He says he has seen people who were contemplating suicide change their minds, and survivors of rape and incest forgive their attackers. He credits Landmark with his own project to help poor kids with asthma get access to medical care.

Jerry, on the other hand, is suffering through every minute of his Landmark experience, with the knowledge that, for him, leaving is not an option.

"Two days without sleep, and I had this guy's voice in my head telling me this bullshit constantly," Jerry says. "And I have it reinforced by everyone in the room. In a situation like this, you start to question reality. What exactly is going on?"

Jerry and I return reluctantly after the break, and Richard lets us in on the grand punch line of the whole weekend. Number one: You are a machine. Two: Life is empty and meaningless, and you are a meaning-making machine. And three: Standing in the empty meaningless of life there is nothing, and on the other side of that everything.

Now that we're all enlightened, Richard encourages us to sell the farm, do whatever we have to do to complete the Landmark curriculum.

After dinner, everyone is giddy and the atmosphere is fun and happy. The people who initially introduced us to the Forum are here (we've been encouraged to fly people in) and we are given the opportunity to register for an advanced course that costs $700, but only $600 if we sign up right away.

Richard calls these people "our community" and reassures us that going out into the "other" world won't be easy.

"Friday you couldn't wait to get out of here, now you're scared to leave," he says.

But not to worry. There are nearly 60 Landmark courses and infinite volunteer opportunities. If we want, we can easily spend the rest of our lives with Landmark Education.

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