With her platform sandals clacking against the pavement, 25-year-old freelance TV producer Tootsie Olan made her way through the empty canyons of Wall Street at midnight on a recent Sunday. She descended into the uptown IRT station and pulled out her cell phone. Meandering down the platform, she began to tell her best friend from Cornell about her weekend, which she considered among the most important of her life. Then she stopped short.
"There's something I have to do," Tootsie said. "I'll call you back."
Leaning against a subway column about twenty feet away was a young black man in a black leather jacket. He wore a gold chain around his neck and had a scar on his right cheek. To Tootsie, he looked like the kind of guy she normally tries to "get as far away from as possible, especially in the subway late at night."
"Hello," Tootsie said, breaking into a wide, toothy smile. "Can I talk to you?"
Then Tootsie told him about the weekend that had changed her life. It had cost her several hundred dollars, involved 200-odd strangers, and taken three days, though it can sometimes stretch into a lifetime commitment. About 125,000 people participate annually, in cities as far away as Paris and Cape Town, and companies from Reebok to Agency.com even foot the bill. This is the Landmark Forum -- called "the Forum" for short -- and they say it will change your life.
"It's weird to think about how skeptical I was when I first went to the Forum," says Chuck Palahniuk, 39, author of Fight Club. "I brought a book with me in case I was bored. I immediately started railing against the leader about how they were just using me for my money. Then, when I was walking out, it struck me that I was 26 years old and I was never going to take another risk in my life. I was the one being an asshole! So I went back and said, 'Okay, I'd like to take a risk, where do I sign?' After that, I bought a word processor. That was my first step to being a writer."
That's what it's all about, Tootsie says over a lunch of tuna niçoise at L'Express on Park Avenue South. It's about change. It's about transformation. It's about taking your self-esteem, self-hate, and self-destructiveness; your desires, depressions, and frustrations; your passions, envies, and anxieties -- everything you have come to feel makes you you -- and having it all just disappear, like a train pulling out of a station. The past is past, the Forum says, and has no bearing on the future, which is yours to invent. "I saw," says Carole Vaporean, a financial reporter for Reuters, "that I could create, over time, the world that I wanted for myself."
"Living life powerfully and living a life you love" is the promise of the Forum, and Tootsie, an attractive brunette from East Brunswick, New Jersey, talks about it with the confidence of a sports fan and at a volume that makes the people at the next table start to listen. When she gets to the part about "transformation," she raises her delicate fingers in air quotes, which she calls "bunny ears." "I have to stop doing that," she cries. "This is serious! But there's something about it that's so absurd."
She takes a deep breath. "My transformation," she says, sitting on her hands, "was a result of one realization: My whole life has been about being special. In high school, I was always an A student, but I felt special because I was also in a semi-professional dance troupe. After college, I went to Barcelona because I wasn't just going to move to the city like everyone else." Her neatly lipsticked mouth purses into a self-amused smirk. "I mean, my name is Tootsie, for God's sake!"
Ever since that weekend, all that has changed. "I no longer have to be the person of the past," she says. "I can be any Tootsie I choose to be!"
To this end, she paid for the man in the subway to take the Forum.
With its emphasis on self-examination, self-revelation, and sharing both with a roomful of strangers, the Forum seems more appropriate for seventies softies than aughties urban warriors. Yet for upwardly mobile twentysomethings like Tootsie -- the generation that talks sex with the callousness of Samantha on Sex and the City but armors up with irony to discuss the meaning of life -- the Forum offers a chance to explore their innermost hopes and dreams. In New York, the company recently moved out of its offices in a walk-up across from Macy's. Now it leases an entire floor of One World Trade Center.
Unlike other New Age staples that have been reified as expensive indulgences -- aromatherapy, bindis, Balinese end tables -- the Forum isn't remotely exotic. Nor does it offer enlightenment and a better body at the same time, like yoga. Held in a bright, antiseptic conference room, the Forum is run as a shades-drawn, no-whispering class moderated by one of 50 certified Forum leaders. Leaving during the three fifteen-hour days is discouraged -- a posterboard sign warns, IF YOU LEAVE THE ROOM FOR ANY REASON, EVEN FOR A FEW MINUTES, YOU MAY GET THE RESULT BUT HAVE NO RIGHT TO EXPECT IT.
The Forum is only the beginning: Seven out of ten people who take the Forum go on to a higher level of Landmark's "Curriculum for Living," which includes the ten-session "Forum in Action" seminar series, the four-day advanced course ($700), and the five-day "Self-Expression and Leadership" seminar ($200) -- about 250 hours in total. In addition, Landmark offers seminars on "Sex & Intimacy" and "Being Extraordinary" and a $1,900 "Wisdom Program." (Landmark also offers courses for children and teens.) Any of the 60-odd courses can be repeated, or, in Landmark terms, "reviewed." "I was very involved about five years ago," says former Rent star Anthony Rapp, who was turned on to Landmark by actor Andy Dick, a childhood friend. "A couple months ago, I decided to review the Forum. I just loved it: It was like going to see your favorite band in concert, the familiarity so comforting and empowering."
Some Landmark graduates also volunteer for the company, which has approximately 500 employees and a reported 7,500 unpaid "assistants" (though Landmark puts this number much lower) who answer phones, sign up recruits, and cater to the Forum leaders. "They have a person designated to make them lunches," says Laura White, a former volunteer at the Washington, D.C., Forum office. "Someone makes sure they have a clean pair of socks after the second break."
For some, it's almost a second career. "I've been assisting and then leading the 'Self-Expression and Leadership' course for about seven years," says Larry Panish, who owns the Tomato Restaurant in Chelsea and just sold the Moondance Diner. "To me, it's a fair trade: Landmark may get my time for free, but I get to continue in the process of self-realization for free."
Since Landmark doesn't advertise its courses, it relies solely on satisfied customers to spread the word, and much of the initial course is spent exhorting participants to tell their friends, family, and anyone they might see on the subway. People often talk about it with their co-workers; at CNN, Landmark has been popular among on-air talent and upper management, including former executive vice-president Gail Evans. Devotees can even hold three-hour introductions to the Forum in their homes, à la Amway. At hers, attorney Linda Howard served punch. "The wine we had after, because this is a serious conversation," she says. "It's a conversation about your life."