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Pay Money, Be Happy

By the last night, people are pledging to invite everyone they know. At the end, Willmore scrawls on the board the phrase LIFE IS EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS, AND IT'S EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS THAT IT'S EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS on the board, and the room goes nuts. Everyone's getting it, even a brunette publicist who complained earlier that she felt like the "bullshit police" -- though, as Willmore says, "there's nothing to get."

Much of what the Forum teaches comes down to the Nike slogan -- "Just Do It." But after three days of homework assignments and rigorous exercises like the "fear conversation" -- in which everyone is encouraged to look around them, be afraid, and then conquer that -- participants walk away with a catharsis and an unholy confidence in what they can accomplish. Whatever people come in wanting to do but are afraid to follow through on they tend to leave seeing as their destiny revealed, whether it's getting a divorce or getting off the grid. "You could die tomorrow," Willmore declares repeatedly. "There is no someday to do this stuff -- the time is now."

By the end of my Forum, a gay 30-year-old has come out to his parents and a septuagenarian has proposed to his longtime girlfriend. "It's hard, especially when you get really deep, but it's a complete transformation," says Lavinia Errico, the co-founder of the Equinox gym chain who sold it for a reported $150 million in December and took the course months ago. "Before, I was this tragically hip girl -- nails, feet, outfits, everything had to be perfect. I was always like, 'I'm moving, I'm shaking, I've got no time for you.' I was freely expressed, but I was freely expressed as a bitch! Now sometimes I hear myself talking, and I'm like, 'God, I'm such a cornball!' But I'm closer to who I really want to be."

At the back of the room, Robin Quivers is watching the proceedings intently -- Willmore was her Forum leader, and she sometimes comes by when he's in town. Though Quivers wrote a book about her unhappy childhood (her mother was physically abusive and her father molested her), it's the Forum that helped her truly put away the past. "I called up my mother and asked, 'Mom, will you come spend my birthday with me?' " says Quivers. "When I said that, she was so frightened. My mother was scared of me because I had spent my whole life making her wrong! Once I got that, I called her back and said, 'You know what, Mom? I really want you to come, and bring the whole family!' And they all came, to my apartment for the first time, to the radio station, just all over." She pauses. "My father died the following year. So it really was an amazing opportunity."

During one of the half-hour breaks, I run down to America's Coffee with Alex Kuscher, a petite blonde registered by Tootsie's best friend. After we discover that the guy pouring our coffee had also signed up for a Forum, Alex tells me that the man Tootsie met on the subway is in our course, wearing an old pair of eyeglasses Tootsie asked her to give him. "You can't miss Jerry," she laughs. "He's the guy wearing women's glasses." Sure enough, there he is in the front row, looking up words like authentic and meaningless in a French-English dictionary, wearing glasses with arms that only reach his temples.

Jerry left his own glasses in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After his father was murdered before his eyes, Jerry became more active in an opposition party. One day the house where he lived was set on fire and he was taken captive. Months later, he escaped in the back of a truck to a town where he was able to contact his uncle, who sent Jerry his passport, a plane ticket to New York, and $100, most of which he spent on the taxi from JFK. He slept on the street, then stayed at a shelter until he found room and board at a synagogue in Williamsburg, where he works as a maintenance man and Shabbos goy. Then he met Tootsie and he learned how to tune out his soap opera.

Sprawling over an entire floor of a skyscraper in San Francisco's financial district, with a half-dozen clocks for various time zones hanging over the receptionist's desk, the world headquarters of Landmark looks every bit the office of an information-age global corporation. Which, of course, it is. "We're all over, as you can see," says Landmark's CEO, Harry Rosenberg, his gold Neiman Marcus tie swinging as he extends an arm to a world map marked with tiny red dots. "Next, we're thinking Korea, Hong Kong, China, Singapore. We're already in two cities in Japan. Japan is ridiculous!"

A chatty father of two who likes to golf, Rosenberg has a salesman's tendency to overuse names and a self-deprecating, me, a CEO? kind of laugh. He's been the head of Landmark Education Corporation since 1991, when he and a handful of employees bought "the technology" from Erhard, who, as it happens, is Rosenberg's older brother. Rosenberg was 10 when Erhard left Pennsylvania, and, along with the rest of his family, heard nothing from him for twelve years -- "Literally, we didn't know if he was dead or alive." One day, Erhard appeared on the Rosenbergs' doorstep, and soon Harry moved to San Francisco to work for est. "The healing process that happened there was great," says Rosenberg, nodding. His own 8-year-old daughter just completed the children's Forum.

Though it was rumored that Erhard sold his system for $1, it was later revealed that he received an initial payment of $3 million in addition to an eighteen-year licensing fee that was not to exceed $15 million; Erhard kept the Mexican and Japanese branches of the operation. By then, est had fallen out of favor: At best, it was seen as a seventies fad; at worst, a successful scam. Even as Erhard planned to sell his company and leave the U.S., the 60 Minutes segment reported that est had an elaborate series of offshore tax shelters, and two of Erhard's daughters were accusing him of sexual abuse. (His daughters later recanted.)

To Erhard's supporters it was a setup, engineered by disgruntled ex-esties and the Church of Scientology. According to 60 Minutes and the Assassination of Werner Erhard, a Landmark-approved book on the subject by Dr. Jane Self, Scientology considered Erhard a traitor for what the church considered the liberal use of its techniques. "Werner made some very, very powerful enemies," says Rosenberg. "They really got him."

The exposé only reinforced the group's persecution complex; details of the company's operations are closely guarded. "No one in the organization gossips," says Suzie Simmons, a professional coach. "Gossip kills organizations." Convinced the company is misunderstood, Landmark diehards tend to close ranks. "Anyone who wasn't a part of Landmark was basically to be looked down upon, like an enemy," says White, a former volunteer. Eventually, "I really didn't have any friends outside of Landmark. And other people really didn't like me after a while."

When Landmark is challenged, it sometimes responds in court. It's brought libel suits against Berkeley professor Margaret Singer for her book Cults in Our Midst, and against the Cult Awareness Network, which had provided information about the organization to concerned callers. Both cases were settled out of court, and can stated that it "does not hold, and has never held . . . that Landmark is a cult or sect." (A bankrupt can was purchased by a Scientologist shortly before the settlement.)

Landmark often justifies the value of its courses by citing a 1997 Harvard Business School case study, "Landmark Education Corporation: Selling a Paradigm Shift," which outlines the company's business practices and underlying message in glowing terms but doesn't cover the psychological aspects or effectiveness of Landmark's programs. As of this year, Harvard is no longer printing the study, teaching from it in courses, or keeping it in its library. "Landmark ordered 75,000 copies of the study," says a source at the school. "That's when we knew we had a problem." (Landmark's spokesman, Mark Kamin, calls this figure "grossly inaccurate.")

Last year, Landmark had revenues of $58 million, and Rosenberg says the company has bought outright Erhard's license and his rights to Japan and Mexico. Entirely employee-owned and run by a board of directors elected by the staff, Landmark also draws on the expertise of successful devotees like Mick Leavitt, producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who works part-time in Landmark's business-development department. Eventually, says Rosenberg, that development might even include leaving behind some of the hard sell associated with Landmark's courses. "We've been accused of pressuring people in terms of our, quote, 'sales,' and we're out to avoid any of that," he says. Instead, "I'd like to experiment with advertising," he continues. "We're coming out with an audiotape. We'll probably do a book." Rosenberg is also "committed" that within five years Landmark will have an IPO.

The big question, of course, is, what exactly is the Forum selling? "There's no question that the combination of examination, encouragement, and the act of speaking out has been shown to have the psychological benefit of freeing people up to see things about themselves that they never have before," says analyst Kevin Garvey. "My problem is that there's an amount of control going on that Landmark's not honest about. People are being put into a state where they are -- here's the bogey word -- hypnotizable. So I don't care if they can screw better or make more money -- their freedom is being taken away. Can you have freedom without knowledge? I think the answer is no."