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.