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 Landmark.

Aug 27, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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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 direction!” 

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 any money.” 

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. 

I know. 

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 up. 

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 life?"

Uh, well.  

“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 about. 

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. Don’t go. 

“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.” 

What?

“And, it looks like the price of the course has gone up since you registered.” 

"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 10am-Midnight. 

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. I agree. 

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 second.” 

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! Skeptical, unsure.”

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 deposit).

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 grew tenfold!”

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 Landmark classes.” 

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:

NO WRITING. 

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. 

So, after we’d all been given our East German Stasi cards -- oops, I mean our nametags -- we were reminded that if someone is doing something they’re not supposed to (taking notes, taking unofficial breaks), you say something. Hold them accountable. 

Yes, we were asked to police our neighbors. 

About15 minutes after this “reminder,” the woman next to me tapped me hard on my arm. “Yes?” I looked up, assuming she wanted to borrow something or ask for a piece of gum.

“No writing!” she said, and waved her finger back and forth in my face. 

I almost stabbed her with my Bic Roller Gel. 

I nearly walked out so many times, usually during the abusive interactions between the leader and whatever emotionally wracked person onstage. These were serious emotional breakdowns being handled in five-minute increments by this Landmark leader. Not a well-trained, experienced therapist in a safe environment but an arrogant, would-be dictator who egged on these breakdowns, gave them a quickie “tool” to get over their childhood trauma, and moved right along to the next person.  

There were first-time revelations of childhood molestations, my-father-murdered-my-mother divulgements, I-think-I’m-gay moments. The words that best sum up Landmark’s catch-and-release handling of these fragile situations are dangerous and irresponsible. 

I’ve done self-help work. I’m an actor, for Christ’s sake! Introspection and being alone on stage is what we do! So I asked questions in response to “the work” and was struck down, humiliated and branded “uncoachable.”

Chris mocked me, "Oh, you have questions? You’re questioning me? How long have you been leading the Forum? Do you think I know a thing or two more than you about it?” I could literally hear cackles from various part of the audience. It was fucking Animal Farm in there. 

It went on like this as I watched others get worked over. It was abusive, demeaning. Yet, people kept coming back for more! 

The only reasonable explanation is Stockholm Syndrome. You are trapped like sardines in rows with random people, after hours without food or daylight, put into a high-pressure emotional situation, and told the only way out of the emotional basket-case-ness that they have instigated, is for you to pay for and take more of their seminars. (And to “powerfully enroll others to do the same.”)

Looking back, I can’t believe I stayed as long as I did. I suspect some people stay out of curiosity, a wanting-to-get-your-moneys worth feeling.

I might have stayed even longer but then I heard this: Everything in your life is your fault, including your rape. 

They were SUCH assholes to me onstage after I'd bared my soul, and talked about everything from being raped to my husband never wanting to have sex with me. The upshot was essentially, Guess what, bitch? It's all your fault!

Streams of people came up to me after I got up to do "the work" (translation: get emotionally eviscerated/abused in public). 

"The way she talked to you up there made me sick."

"After witnessing that, I don't think I can come back for another day."

"That was unconscionable."

Yet, they all stayed. Why? Like a crowd around a wagon back medicine show, they were desperate to see this "transformation" they had been promised (over and over again)  all weekend. ("Don't leave! You are this close to "getting" it.)

That was Saturday night. I could have just gone home and not returned for the third day, but something in me woke up. That pit in my stomach? It was on fire. And it wasn’t going to go quietly. I had to make a statement. 

As homework the night of Day 2, we were supposed to write a letter to someone we’ve “been inauthentic with.” 

I went home and wrote out three pages on a legal pad. I returned bright and early Sunday morning, on time and sitting in my seat (lest I be scolded) like all the other good little sheep. 

When it was my turn, I went up to the microphone and began to read:

“Dear, Sarah -- I realize now I have been inauthentic with you." I could feel sympathetic nods up and down from the crowd. I continued. 

“When I first heard about Landmark Forum, I had this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. An instinct. A sense of dread. I ignored my inner voice. I let myself look past all the unethical business practices, the high-pressure sales tactics, the abusive, emotional manipulation --"

“-- Turn off her mic! Turn off her mic!” Chris shouted, her arms raised arms up and down like a stiff Henny Penny,  and the drones scurried do her bidding. 

A Mack truck couldn’t stop me. I didn’t need a microphone, just my own authentic voice. The drones went berserk, buzzing around in the back, bumping into each other over the sound equipment. Someone finally just ripped the cord out of the wall. 

Chris raced toward me. She tried to shuffle me offstage -- physically. I calmly (maybe too calmly) told her not to touch me. The audience gasped. Gasped! As if I had done something to HER! Wow, they were goners. 

I went on with my letter.

She interrupted, shouting, “What do you want? Do you want a refund?”

I said, "Hell, yes!" and then got the hell off stage. 

Three people booed me. Yes, BOOED ME. Another three came to the back of the room to shake my hand, clap me on the back, and tell me that I had just articulated everything they were thinking. Soon enough, though, the drones broke up the conversation. 

“I have to ask you to stop this conversation because you are just creating another 'racket,'" which is Landmark-speak for “a persistent complaint with someone or something that leads you into a habitual way of being, thinking, feeling, or acting.” 

“See?” I said to the three would-be-defectors. You take issue with something Landmarkian? You are labeled as having a “racket,” “resisting,” or -- my personal favorite -- being “uncoachable.”  

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 Landmark. If this is what people call “Scientology light,” I’d hate the get anywhere near the real thing. 

I have since discovered that a couple of my friends have actually done the basic Landmark Forum. I still don’t understand quite how they couldn’t see through all the mindfucking-disguised-as-enlightenment, deceptive business practices, Stockholm Syndrome-y seminars or the constant, hard-sells to get more involved.

That said, if they got something positive out of it, I am truly glad for them. (And a little in awe.) 

One of them asked me, hopefully, “But, Sarah, you must have learned something from it?”

I thought for a moment.  “Yes,” I said. “I learned that I should trust my instincts.” Like the time my gut told me, "Sarah, run fast. It’s totally a cult.”