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Pay Money, Be Happy

Tootsie has done her part for Landmark, too, bringing about a dozen people to the center and signing up four friends from college. "There's a bunch of us from Cornell who are still a tight-knit group," says Tootsie. "So it's funny now because someone's always missing when we hang out because they're at the Forum. The couple girls who haven't done it are always rolling their eyes, saying, 'God, is So-and-so in the cult, too?' "

Though Tootsie and her friends have seen the Forum's light, many of them don't realize the program is older than they are. It goes back to a used-car salesman named Jack Rosenberg, who in 1960 left his wife and four children in rural Pennsylvania and took off with a new wife for the West Coast. On the plane, he read an Esquire article about atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg and economics minister Ludwig Erhard, and decided to change his name. He landed in California as Werner Erhard.

Erhard spent the next decade kicking around the West Coast self-improvement scene, first in the then burgeoning "human-potential movement" centered around the Esalen retreat in Big Sur, where he explored Gestalt therapy and Alan Watts's interpretation of Zen; then in more structured groups like the Church of Scientology and Mind Dynamics, which tried to help its adherents harness the power of the brain's alpha waves. Unlike most of his fellow seekers, however, Erhard meant business: In 1971, he quit his job with an encyclopedia-sales company and synthesized his explorations into est.

Promoting his course with an advertisement featuring his photo and a pitch tailored to the times -- "Know and understand yourself and others" -- Erhard soon had a hit on his hands. Thousands gathered in auditoriums to hear the koans he said would unlock the secrets of self-knowledge: "What is, is, what ain't, ain't"; "If you let a tree be a tree, you get a tree, not a jackass"; and "The sound of one hand clapping is just that -- one hand clapping." Est became the basis for Tom Wolfe's article for this magazine on "The ME Decade," and it attracted more than a half-million people, including John Denver, Yoko Ono, and enough employees of one film company to earn it the nickname "Werner Brothers." Erhard also founded the Hunger Project, which pledged to end world hunger simply by raising awareness of the issue -- which could be why, according to Mother Jones, only $2 million of the $67 million it raised was given to relief organizations.

As the company grew, Erhard also began to know and understand Monte Cristo cigars, a Mercedes with the license plate so wut, and a Pacific Heights mansion with the bedroom walls painted black. Assistants shined his shoes, cleaned his Sausalito houseboat, and cared for his Great Dane, Polo. Asked whether he was the Messiah, according to Steven Pressman's Outrageous Betrayal, Erhard replied that he wasn't -- "I am he who sent him."

By 1991, however, after a scathing 60 Minutes exposé, Erhard disappeared. These days, Landmark says Erhard has no role in its business, although their courses are based on his "technology" -- the structure, style, and system of beliefs he used in est and later in the Forum, which he created in 1985 when est enrollment started to dip. Landmark's Forum is shorter than est and has fewer rules (in est, attendees weren't just warned they might miss something if they went to the bathroom -- they weren't allowed to go at all), but it retains some similar exercises and the same tortured relationship to grammar. People aren't in the room; they are "present." One is not "committed to" something; he's simply "committed." A typical Forum phrase might read "The listening you are does not allow for the possibility of being committed that you are extraordinary."

Then there are the slogans written on the chalkboard by Forum leaders: change causes persistence; you must create a new way of being, but you are perfect just as you are. Even while Landmark teaches its truth, leaders repeatedly assert that "none of this is true"; participants need to "get it," but there's "nothing to get."

Consider the way one Forum leader compares the program with est: "The est training was based on experiencing your experience. The idea was that if you really, truly experienced your feelings, emotions, anxieties, all of those problems in your life would miraculously clear up. But that doesn't quite get to where the bad feeling came from. What's unique and powerful about the Forum is that it gives you the tools to get to the source."

The source, of course, is you.

"You!" shouts the tall man perched on a director's chair raised on a dais at the front of the room. "You are a loyal viewer of your own soap opera. You love it! You couldn't deal with life without it. Your friends are the people who watch it." He pauses for dramatic effect. "Well, guess what? It's going off the air."

The man is Jeff Willmore, a 41-year-old former entrepreneur with a Seinfeldian drawl and a dry sense of humor. Over the next three days, Willmore lectures about the principles of the Forum, introduces the vocabulary behind them, and calls up dozens of people to standing microphones to "share." Though most of the people at the Forum I attended were white and in their twenties or early thirties, there were also fiftyish black attorneys, Pakistani secretaries, and a miniskirted senior from the Ross School in the Hamptons. "Everyone says high school is where you're supposed to figure it all out," she said. "But I haven't! So that's why I'm here."

The Forum runs from 9 a.m. to midnight each day, with only a 90-minute dinner recess that attendees are told to spend with other attendees. There are two other half-hour breaks, which don't always offer enough time to catch the elevator downstairs to the subterranean World Trade Center mall and scarf down a bagel; then you're late and one of the assistants with an orange name tag -- not one of the white ones students wear -- will ask why. The right answer isn't "I was having a snack"; it's simply "Yes."

At the beginning of the Forum on Friday morning, we all agree to be on time with a show of hands. We agree to raise our hands before speaking, which we also agree to with a show of hands. We agree to wear our name tags; not whisper; not use drugs, alcohol, or aspirin over the course of the weekend; and not bring in any food or drink. "People say that you can't have anything to eat because we're trying to brainwash you," says Willmore, who has pinned his name tag squarely on his tie. "Um, I don't think so. We just don't want spilling on the carpet."

Once all the agreements are made -- and we've all agreed again that we made them -- Willmore introduces the idea of separating "what happened" from "the story about what happened." A 51-year-old advertising copywriter steps up to a microphone and says, weeping, that her father died when she was 10, her husband left her, and she thinks the two are related. "That never happened," says Willmore, handing her a Kleenex.

"Well," she says nervously, "yes, it did."

"What are the facts here?" he asks, pacing the stage. "Your father died when you were 10. Fact. Now men always leave you. That's the story, the soap opera -- the part that never happened! Get it?"

Then we applaud. We always applaud after someone shares.

Up at the microphones, people announce things that they've never told anyone. A slender thirtysomething aid worker for Eastern European refugees confesses that she doesn't care about her clients and she took the job only because she was tired of corporate law. An Indian woman admits she doesn't really love her husband. A 28-year-old attorney tells her deepest secret. "I moved from Somalia to London when I was 6, and my English was quite bad," she says, a tremulous murmur in her voice. "The nuns at the new school told me to bring in money for lunch or to bring a lunch from home. I didn't understand, so I brought both, every day. The nun kept asking, 'Why aren't you eating the lunch you paid for?' This went on for a month or so. One day, she made me stay after the other kids left. She put the school lunch in front of me, and even though I'd already eaten my lunch from home, she made me eat it. I got so sick to my stomach that I threw up in the plate. And she made me eat that, too."

"I'm loving this," confides a woman next to me, breaking the no-whispering rule. " 'Cause it's just like Oprah, and I love Oprah."

In each case, Willmore exhorts people to let go of their anger toward those who have hurt them. This is "getting complete," which involves calling up those who wronged you and asking them for forgiveness (a bank of phones are provided for this purpose). "Don't say, 'I forgive you even though you were a bastard to me,' " says Willmore. "Getting complete is the kind of forgiving where you say, 'Hey, I just wanted you to know I'm okay with you.' "

After you get complete, explains Willmore, it's time to have an "enrollment conversation," as in "I'm calling because I want to enroll you in the possibility of me having an extraordinary life." That's followed by the "invitation conversation," in which you ask those close to you to attend your Forum "graduation" on Tuesday night ("because it would mean a lot to me"), and the "registration conversation," in which you ask them to take the Forum themselves ("because I think it would be good for you"). "There's also a bonus assignment," says Willmore. "Who thinks they can bring three or more people to their introductory Forum?"