How The Landmark Forum Destroyed My Friendships

How The Landmark Forum Destroyed My Friendships August 6, 2018

 

In 2001 a friend invited me to attend an information session for the Landmark Forum. At the time, I was in my senior year of college and looking for something more in my life. All of my friends had the same thirst for more substance in their lives. Over an evening of beer and popcorn, a mutual friend to all of us convinced us that Landmark transformed his life. He seemed intoxicated with happiness and full of hope. I wanted that feeling, and I could tell my friends did too. All of us signed up to go to the event a few weeks later.  At the time, I didn’t realize Landmark Forum would destroy our friendships.

The night of the event all of us got ready together. As a group, we made dinner and piled into a car. We arrived at a suburban hotel about 20 minutes outside of our metro area. The conference room was brightly lit. There were rows of chairs, a stage, and toward the very back pitchers of water and cups. For all the hoopla described by our friend, the environment felt sterile and dull to me.

All of us sat near the front row, and we began to listen to a presenter talk about reaching our best selves. They threw out words and phrases like authenticity, possibility, connection, minimizing negativity, and working through trauma.

I looked at my friends, and several of them seemed captivated by the speaker.

However, I was bored.

Everything I heard felt very rehearsed to me. Almost like the self-help gurus I had seen on Oprah that promised the “Best Life” but offered no substance in how to achieve it. My BS meter was high.

They broke us up into groups within an hour. We were told to share our most significant obstacles and fears preventing us from reaching our “possibilities.” I played along because my friends were really into the exercise. However, exposing my deepest secrets to strangers felt extremely uncomfortable to me.

By the end of the night, I felt drained. The presenters pitched to us a way to get more of the experience. Landmark was offering a two-day conference for only $500. Some of my friends signed up on the spot for the meeting. I, on the other hand, just gave the presenters my phone number and told them they could call me.

After we were done, I had no interest in doing anything related to Landmark ever again. On the other hand, several of my friends looked drunk in excitement from experience. For the next several days, the only thing they talked about was the upcoming conference. While they gabbed about their possibilities, I quietly rolled my eyes in my head.

Landmark Forum started calling me the very next day. The volunteers on the phone were eager to sign me up for the conference. I politely told them I didn’t have the money to attend, and I didn’t want to go. The volunteer was relentless. She told me to charge the money on a credit card, borrow the money from a friend, or ask my parents to loan me the money.

For more than twenty minutes, she badgered me to find a way to pay for the conference. She reminded me that several of my friends used their credit cards. In fact, one of them even loaned money to another to pay for the conference. She didn’t want me to be left out of their experience. No matter what she told me, I firmly said no. When she wouldn’t quit, I ended up hanging up on her.

The following week my friends all attended the event without me. I worked weekends as a waitress, so their absence didn’t bother me a ton. Spring semester of my senior year had just started, and I kept myself busy with my studies. When I connected with them the next week, all of them seemed different.

A group of five of them attended the event together. They came home with a new vocabulary. The words were similar to what was used at the informational session. All of them said they felt transformed from the experience. When I asked if they felt like they got what they needed, four of them said they had more work to do. My best friend, who also attended, confided in me she felt the experience was a waste of time.

I felt relieved when my best friend admitted this to me. At least someone else could see through the BS.

However, my friends that said the event transformed their lives, all dove head first into more conferences. They said the additional functions would be thousands of dollars. Most of them were broke college kids. I asked them how they would pay to attend. They told me “The Forum” would let them volunteer and get the courses for free.

I remember thinking, “Isn’t that convenient.” But I kept my thoughts to myself.

Soon my friends were all in at Landmark. Nearly all of their free time outside of school and work was spent volunteering, recruiting, or attending conferences. Several of them ended up finding significant others through Landmark. My best friend and I saw less and less of them.

When we did get together, they didn’t even act the same. All they did was talk about “The Forum.” Every conversation included obscure vocabulary that meant nothing to me. Each of them picked the other apart for allowing “rackets” to get in the way of their “possibilities.” When I tried to steer conversations away from the “Forum,” I was told I didn’t understand. Unless I attended a conference, I could never get what they were going through.

For months, they harassed me to attend the conferences. I stuck to my convictions and refused. My best friend and I drifted even further away from them. We really couldn’t stand the peer pressure. Nor did we like the people “The Forum” had turned our friends into.

By the end of Spring Semester, I barely spent any time with my friends. My best friend’s boyfriend was heavily involved in the Forum, and their relationship started to fracture. By summer my best friend and her boyfriend split up. He got more invested in the Forum, while she and I spent no time with any of them.

Landmark destroyed our friendships. One of my friends severed ties with me for being toxic. His girlfriend from the Forum felt I was a bad influence. Our relationship never recovered. One of my friends became a leader of volunteers. He recruited more and more people to join the Forum. I no longer enjoyed spending time with him.

After spending our entire college experience together, we were graduating with only a fragment of a friendship remaining.

When I graduated in December 2001, I landed a job at a mortgage company. My life moved in a completely different direction than their lives. All of them remained in the Forum for years. A few of them moved away but continued to attend events.

By 2003, I barely spoke to any of them. My friends had isolated themselves and insulated themselves from people outside the Forum. Our friendships didn’t even exist anymore.

I was heartbroken.

I never expected a conference would ultimately divide and destroy a group of friends. Losing those friendships still hurts today.

Thankfully, 17 years have passed. All of them have since left the Forum. They have all apologized for the way they treated me. One of them even admitted to me last year; he got involved with a cult.

The self-help world is full of organizations like the Forum. They prey on vulnerable people looking for a purpose in their lives. Looking back, I don’t think any of my friends expected they would separate themselves from everyone.

The Forum does a great job of love-bombing and getting people excited. However, at the end of the day, their purpose is to gain followers who will pay for their classes. My friend went broke and gave all their resources to “The Forum.”

The followers are required to recruit others. If Forum members can’t recruit you, they cut you out of their lives. The Forum brainwash followers with terminology and classes designed to help their members. However, the members end up becoming vindictive, toxic and mean to anyone outside the group.

If this situation has taught me anything, it is that the “Self-Help” industry can be extremely dangerous for vulnerable people.

Finally, Stay away from The Forum.

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TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I have never heard of this group, but the practices remind me of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity.

  • Raging Bee

    No, no, it’s totally secular and inclusive. More like Fundamentalist Evangelical Fill-In-The-Blank.

  • WallofSleep

    Sounds an awful lot like $cientology. Back in the day they almost got a good friend of mine, but fortunately for him he was too poor to join the cult. Thankfully that fact alone opened up his eyes to what they were about.

  • It’s secular – more a garden variety Self-Help group. The Cult Institute qualifies it much like Scientology – without the religion. You have to pay for courses to learn more and more. THere are an infinite number of courses to take to learn.

  • Interesting you would make that distinction. The Cult Institute qualifies it a lot like Scientology. The Forum doesn’t pretend to be a religion though. That’s the primary difference

  • WallofSleep

    It also kind of reminds me of those groups that hire young people to sell (whatever) door-to-door, then take them out of state to do it. If you don’t produce adequate sales, they just dump you wherever you are with no way to get home.

  • OMG I had a friend do that too! She sold posters. Was a total nightmare. But yes, Landmark is huge on recruiting others. HUGE. My friends stopped wanting to do anything but the forum. Those of us not in the Forum were not maximizing our possibilities. It was a constant recruitment effort to get us to realize we needed what Landmark offered. I told them all the time it was a cult.

  • JTrue

    As someone who did quite a few Landmark programs, I both feel for you regarding your relationship with your friends, and would yet politely disagree with your characterization of the courses. The classes preach reconnecting and reconciling with people regardless of the circumstances – cutting people off because they haven’t done Landmark is exactly the opposite of what is talked about. Personally I’ve become much closer to people in my life, regardless of whether they ever did Landmark.

    ‘The followers are required to recruit others’ – not so. I was encouraged to share about the courses, but never required to recruit anyone into anything.

    ‘My friend went broke and gave all their resources to “The Forum.”’ – ‘the courses cost thousands of dollars’. I didn’t think the courses were very expensive. For a little over a thousand dollars, you could do their entire curriculum over the better part of a year. And you can’t ‘give resources to The Forum’. You pay for a class or you don’t – there aren’t contributions.

    My two cents.

  • encouraged or required – potato/potatoe – in 2001, there were multiple classes and were well more than a $1000. Courses were on-going especially if you volunteered or worked for the Forum. 🙂

  • Jim Jones

    Another example of groups like NXIVM. Every religion starts as a cult with a leader who can grab most people’s attention. Somehow.

  • Jim Jones

    Scientology is not supposed to be a religion – although they are now putting crosses on their buildings. But it’s a cult in all other aspects.

  • Totally – Scientology is 100% cult

  • Yes, charismatic leaders are a must

  • Little David

    It became a religion when L. Ron Hubbard changed his mind and said it did. He did this so Scientology could break many laws with legal exemption and be exempt from most taxes. The “great” USA should be ashamed for facilitating this blatant con with their laws exempting religion from many criminal acts and exemption from taxes.

    “Landmark’s own site at one time included a copy of a Los Angeles Times article, titled, Scientologists Ran Campaign to Discredit Erhard, Detective Says (now published on wernererhard.com, a site operated by “Friends of Werner Erhard.”)”

  • Beadmaster

    Thank you for writing this, and I’m glad you didn’t join Landmark. because it’s definitely a cult.

    I never joined Landmark, either, but back in ’95 I had a “friend” who tried to get me into the Forum. She treated me horribly, “sharing” the Forum in the most abusive ways. If I didn’t want to do what she said, I was “out of integrity.” I now think of her as the “esthole,” est being the name of the stupid cult started by Werner Erhard. (Landmark is based on est. It’s said Erhard has no connection to Landmark, that the rights to est were purchased, but I’m not convinced about that.)

    The esthole was supposed to be helping me when I was getting a divorce. She preached the Forum every chance she got. One time we met up with a guy we’d known from online. He was good looking…but not my type. She badgered me into admitting there was a “possibility” of a relationship between us. I really liked the guy…as a friend. I finally admitted to her there was a possibility…just to get her to shut up. When I said the words, I was thinking, “Never in a million billion years.”

    The worst part, though, was when she tried to tell me how to approach a certain guy I’d wanted to date. We’d spoken a few times, he’d been enthusiastic, and the last time he was indifferent.

    I’d made the mistake of telling the esthole I wasn’t interested in him after our last conversation. She started screaming, “I’m tired of you bashing that man!” (She’d never met him and aside from me telling her about his latest indifference, had no idea of what had gone on.) Her advice was based on some BS relating to her child, who had been trying to raise money for a science fair project. (Because dating and kids with science fair projects are the same thing.) She told me I should call and tell him I would always be around, so he could call me anytime. Huh? Tell him, “I’m your doormat. Wipe your feet on me whenever you want”? Yeah, no.

    We finally got into it. This was her last day visiting. I told her I’d thought about her advice, but I didn’t think it applied in this situation. She started screaming at me. We screamed at each other for something like 45 minutes. Then she left. I saw her off. We made up…but nothing she said after that convinced me she was my friend.

    A few days before she left, she’d told me she could get certain things in her area that I couldn’t get in mine. I gave her money for those things. She never sent anything. There was one thing we’d talked about, which she’d promised to bring along when she flew out to help me (on my dime), but she’d conveniently “forgotten.” It was a CD that could only be purchased from a convention. She’d never sent it. When I finally reached her to ask about the things she was supposed to send, she claimed to be “out of integrity” (eyeroll) and good news, her husband had bought her the same CD that she’d picked up for me (which she’d used), so now she could send me the CD she’d bought for me. (Translation, “My kids used it as a Frisbee, so now that I’ve got a nice, pristine copy, I can give the scratched up old piece of shit to you.”) When I told her no thanks, I’d just take the money, as another friend had bought the CD for me (truth), she started screaming at me, “So now I’m 25 bucks in the hole?” PS, she didn’t send me jack shit. No money, no CD and not one of the other things she’d promised to send. Nada. I was way more than $25 in the hole.

    Anyway, sorry to go off on such a tangent, but that Landmark shit really pisses me off. The esthole wanted me to go to meetings…guaranteed, she would have gotten a kickback, but I never went. It wasn’t interesting to me, even without her shit. And I didn’t believe her bullshit claims that it was so great…she promised me everything. Money for my business, a boyfriend, whatever it was that I wanted, I was going to find it through the Forum. I want to vomit just thinking about it.

    Glad you and your best friend never joined. Landmark really is a cult and it’s a sick one. I don’t know what’s worse, the people who run that shit or the people who are fooled by it and “share” it with others.

  • Little David

    ps “Friends of Werner Erhard” tries to minimize his Scientology connection by falsely claiming that Dianetics was not Scientology:

    “In the 1960’s Werner Erhard explored a myriad of disciplines and courses in the arena of personal development and philosophy, including courses with a company named Dianetics. Where the confusion lies is that Dianetics was not Scientology.

    When Werner took these courses L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote the book Dianetics, had already lost the rights in a bankruptcy. So when Werner was exposed to Dianetics it was a “franchise” type business with no affiliation to Hubbard.”

    Werner investigated a multiplicity of ideas or disciplines during his professional search for useful techniques to employ with his sales force in his book business. Dianetics was a self help system, also referred to as a counseling system, and contained techniques that could be utilized to maximize the results of sales people, and Werner employed the techniques for that purpose.

    After Hubbard lost the rights to Dianetics, Hubbard published Scientology, a belief system that was established as a religion.

    While Werner has acknowledged the value he received from Dianetics “auditing”, he did not study or subscribe to the belief system of Scientology (the religion).*

    The myth/allegation that Werner Erhard was ever a Scientologist came from Scientology itself as part of a campaign to defame Mr. Erhard personally and co-opt Mr. Erhard’s work as their own.”

    http://www.wernererhard.com/urbanmyths1.html

  • Phil

    That thought occurred while I was reading the article. Definitely the same business model and the same exclusion tactics.

  • I agree

  • JTrue

    Courses are absolutely not more than $1000 – three month long, weekly seminars were a little over $100 last time I did one, which is pretty hard to go broke on. As far as I know, the only courses that expensive were that expensive were in something called the ‘Wisdom Division’, which were either a) a year long, or b) included a vacation like a cruise as part of the class.

  • clubzombie

    And specifically how is that false or minimized? It reads to me like a considerate description of events. I am open to something you might know from having been there or some info not publicly known.

  • clubzombie

    When one friend in a friendship group gets involved in anything that is beyond the habits and business as usual of the friendship group, what you described is known to happen, a demanding involving new job, a new boyfriend or girlfriend, joining an elite sports team with intense training and strict lifestyle requirements. What you described does not sound all that unusual to me. Also in my personal experience, like those things I just mentioned, Landmark is very disruptive and results in unpredictable behaviours and changers and growth spurts and set backs and disagreeableness and on and on. It’s not some pollyanna koombaya feel good hand holding exercise.

  • clubzombie

    Humans can be obnoxious and it has nothing to do with Landmark. I would estimate that 70+% of the people I know who did the Forum, did the forum and never did anything else and never mentioned it to anyone else. And the people who were enthusiastic zealots before landmark continued to be themselves after landmark. They do not owe you any good behaviour or conduct and if they got out of hand, that is when you say bye bye to them. Nobody wants jerks yapping around them.

  • clubzombie

    encouraged or required does not = potato/potatoe

  • Bored Now

    It’s 2018 and people still do EST? Who knew?

    For a little over a thousand dollars, you could do their entire curriculum over the better part of a year

    So just hopping over to their website I see that the three day seminar is $700 in Canada. Under “advanced evening seminars” I see about twenty courses at $155 each in my country and $200 USD elsewhere. That doesn’t include their self-expression leadership program or their two communication programs.

    So unless you define “entire curriculum” in some rather convenient way. I’d say it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars there.

    Personally while I generally defend people’s right to spend their money how they like. I mean whether you want to help the Landmark Corporation or Stephanie Meyer build another cottage entirely out of $100 bills that’s no skin off my nose. Whatever value there is for some people in Landmark they are pretty underhanded in the way they operate.

  • They are always creating more courses. The amount of money you spend can be infinite.

  • Emmanuel Goldstein

    A PhD has recently been written on Landmark’s processes (or those of LGATs in general). You should be able to find it online. It explains how they influence people and why their processes work on many people.

  • Robyne McPherson

    The author sounds like a spoiled brat who didn’t get her way. She refused to be vulnerable, which was a tool in which the forum uses to promote self growth and healing. Additionally, it sounds as if she closed her mind to gaining any growth from the experience. I’m not a Landmark connoisseur, but I have a couple friends in which it has changed their lives, for the better. They do not throw me away as toxic, because I don’t demean their experience, nor am I jealous of the time they spend doing landmark activities. Finally, I’m happy for them and don’t carry around a persona of judgment. I may not agree with everything ‘my friends’ do, but if it makes them happy, I’m happy for them. Finally, anyone I spend time with, that demeans me, treats me like I’m an idiot, or degrades the things I’m doing in my life, that are healing, and make me happy, are indeed toxic people. I hope the author heals past the trauma in her life that has put her in such a negative space. I recognize the space, I have been there. It’s no fun.