MY (SCARY, DESTRUCTIVE) BRUSH WITH SCIENTOLOGY LIGHT
So. Is it a cult? Technically, no. But, if it walks like cult, talks
like a cult, and preys on people like a cult, it just might be
Everyone told me not to go.
"It's a cult, Sarah. Don't get sucked in!"
“The Landmark Forum? It’s like 'Scientology Light.' Run the opposite
I'd just begun a trial separation from my husband. I was heartbroken,
confused and vulnerable. That’s when my good friend, Ed, a
fantastically positive, well-put-together human being, told me
emphatically that The Landmark Forum had changed his life and invited
me to a free seminar.
Eager, I went online to check it out, and began to worry.
On the net, opinions and experiences ran the gamut. There were
warnings against Landmark, video testimonials about how-Landmark-saved-
my-life, letters of both support and condemnation from psychologists,
priests and university scholars.
I had other friends who all but begged me not to go, citing it as
destructive and dangerous. Now, I was intrigued. Such a range of
reactions and emotions! I had to find out for myself.
Still, something didn’t feel right. On the day of the free seminar, I
had a sinking feeling deep in my gut. Don’t go. But I'd told Ed I
would see him there and felt bad bowing out. I explained my conflicted
feelings to another friend who advised me to “Go, just don’t part with
Huh. Why would I part with any money?
I left late (subconsciously on purpose? Hoping it would be half over
when I arrived?) and drove with trepidation to the location, a crappy
hotel by the airport.
There, I was greeted by what seemed like an endless supply of grinning
volunteers. Each name-tagged little helper gushed how happy they were
to see me. After tacking a nametag across my chest, they ushered me
into a dank, depressing ballroom. Heavy draperies kept out the light
of a gorgeous California day.
On stage, people stood in line to give witness to how Landmark changed
their lives. I thought it would be over -- I was almost an hour late
-- but it was nowhere near over, and would go on another two hours.
Somehow, despite my skepticism, halfway through I ended up sobbing my
marital sadness to the two Landmark women with whom I was put into a
small group. And by the end of the afternoon, I had written a check
for $300 (merely a deposit) and registered for the course.
By the time I got back on the highway, I regretted it. What the hell
was that? I asked myself aloud. I called to get a refund.
At first, the Landmark rep on the phone acted as if a refund was no
problem. Great, I thought. That was easy. But when she smoothly
launched into a series of circular questions, I didn’t have a chance.
“Mmm, this refund, let’s talk about this. Why do you feel this way?
What could you be resisting in your life? What if 'I want my money
back' is just a story you are telling yourself?”
Hm. Gosh. Never thought if it that way.
And she seemed so nice. So caring. I said I’d think about it and hung
Every single day for the next month, I was barraged with phone calls
and messages from Landmark. It was like having a collection agent who
also needed to buy crack from you. I had been willing to consider
doing the course, but now I was pissed.
The phone rang yet again. I saw the Landmark name (I had labeled it on
my phone as a warning to screen the call) and picked up. This time I
would give them a piece of my mind!
Of course, the Landmark rep, “Paul,” wasn’t having any of it.
“Sarah, can you honestly say you are where you want to be in your
“What is really going on here? What are you resisting?”
Apparently, “resisting,” as they labeled my decision to get my money
back, was proof of how much I needed their help. You know, the help I
needed to stop resisting THEM. Get it?
“I just want a refund,” I stumbled, somehow getting roped back into
another big ass, circular conversation. They’re really good at that.
After almost 20 minutes on the phone it was clear I wasn't getting my
deposit back. Paul “reframed” it for me: essentially I could lose the
$300 or pony up the additional $200 and just see what the fuss was all
Even then, as I was agreeing to pay the balance, I could feel my heart
pounding, stuffing down a little voice that said, This isn’t right.
“All righty!” Paul interrupted my inner monologue. "So the total on
your Visa will be…” he slowed down. “Oooh, Sarah,” I could hear him
inhale through his teeth, “It looks like since you registered last
summer, but didn’t complete the forum, we can’t honor your deposit.”
“And, it looks like the price of the course has gone up since you
"Seriously?" I balked.
“I hear you, Sarah, but I want you to be open to the possibilities
that lay ahead for you.”
I didn’t feel open to new possibilities. I felt taken advantage of,
swindled, even a little bullied. But bullied in a really nice way.
As the seminar weekend approached, the feeling in the pit of my
stomach returned. But I had spent the money. I was going. The schedule
was as follows: Friday 10am-Midnight, Saturday 10am-Midnight, Sunday
The leader, a stern, non-nonsense woman I’ll call Chris, explained the
contract we must all agree to: no use of alcohol, drugs. No problem.
They went on to reject the use of coffee, caffeine, painkillers like
Advil, and snacks. Coffee? Snacks? Tylenol?
Also, there would be very limited breaks. As in one meal break for the
13-hour day. I didn’t think this was a big deal until I’d been sitting
for four hours in a hot room in a stiff row of people in a very
uncomfortable chair. One person got up after about an hour, presumably
for the bathroom, and Chris made quick work of explaining all the
reasons this was not okay. The tone was set: You followed the
schedule; you did not veer from the group.
Later, after spotting a few travel mugs of coffee in the audience and
more unofficial bathroom breaks, Chris exploded.
“You can’t control yourselves? Geez, you’re like babies here whining
about going to the bathroom and having your snacks.” She mocked us in
a high-pitched voice. Then, she got very serious.
“You get up and take a break? Don’t blame me if come Sunday everyone
else 'gets it' and you don’t. I can’t guarantee the transformation
that will happen Sunday at 5pm unless you are here and present every
Within the first hour of the seminar we were pressured to take the
$800 “advanced course.” To push us along, the drones in the back of
the room came up and gave testimonials like “I was like you once!
I look around the room. Does anyone else see what’s going on here? A
few do -- we make eye contact and quickly look away before the drones
can see us connecting and possibly staging a rebellion.
Nametags: They were very strict about them. I mean hardcore. You had
to have your nametag on and in view at all times. They were collected
anytime you left the room. Presumably to keep tabs on who had returned
(or were late returning) and who had not. It was weird.
Also within the first few hours, we were “challenged” to “powerfully
enroll our friends and family in the possibilities Landmark is giving
you!” This would mean using the few and far between breaks we did have
to call our friends and “get complete” with them. Then we were
supposed to bring them Sunday night to our own “completion” where they
could hear about our transformative weekend (and pay their own $300
One woman raised her hand.
She was handed a microphone, and was thus allowed to speak. “I’m
sorry,” she started, her voice wobbling in preliminary apology, “but
do we have to tell them about Landmark? All of this feels like a big
commercial for Landmark.”
By the time Chris was done with her, this young woman had shrunk about
two inches and said, “I guess I wasn’t seeing the possibilities,” she
smiled hopefully, “Thank you.”
Cheers and applause broke out. “Yes! Look at that, people! She just
But, not everyone was buying it. A man raised his hand. I'd noticed
this man before because it seemed whenever I was sighing or looking
askance he was doing the same thing.
In a very reasonable, professional manner, he raised his hand and
said, “Excuse me. I’ve been here for a little over three hours now.
And the only thing I’ve heard is how I should sign up and pay for more
A small wave of nods rippled across the room.
In a roller coaster two minutes, Chris lauded the man for his honesty,
encouraging others who felt this way to show themselves. Then she went
in for the kill, spinning it around so anyone who questioned the
program or its tactics was “resisting.”
The second day, the man expressed the same feeling. This time, the mic
was ripped out of his hand, campaign manager style, “We are not
discussing that right now!” Chris snapped
On the third day he was “asked” to leave.
All of those things were freaky, but none truly scared me until we go
to this rule:
This was when the little hairs on the back of my neck came to
attention. Writing, whether it’s journaling, taking notes, even just
having a pen in my hand, is how I process the world.
When I expressed my concern over this, I was used as an example of
someone who is clearly resisting the work by choosing not to follow
the rules. Others around me, who only moments before had echoed my
feelings, now clammed up. They wouldn’t even meet my gaze.
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