Along with his handful of peers in "exit counseling" -- a gentler version of "cult deprogramming" -- Garvey believes that Landmark employs a kind of thought reform similar to conditioning used by other Large Group Awareness Trainings, some cults, and the U.S. Marines. Like those organizations, the Forum drives its points home with loaded language, relentless repetition, and a carefully constructed environment. "We controlled even subtle things like the quality of light and the sound that came out of the microphones," says White. "The style of lettering on all the signs had to be exactly the same or it was a really big deal. We covered the mirrors. We put all the chairs in a specific order."
Landmark refutes such claims, citing studies the company has requested from such experts as Dr. Raymond Fowler, the CEO of the American Psychological Association (who conducted the study independent of the association's auspices), and Dr. Edward Lowell, a specialist in mind-control techniques, who interviewed thousands of people involved with Landmark's programs and concluded that claims of brainwashing are "ridiculous." "I've also got this letter from Bishop Otis Charles," says Kamin -- " 'By no definition I know of can the Forum or Landmark programs constitute a cult or sect.' An Episcopal bishop! Does that seem like someone who would be supportive of a cult?"
"Although there's a perception that people who get involved with such organizations are simply stupid, lonely, mentally ill, whatever, the dependence on such groups is very real," says Paul Martin, director of the country's only recovery center for such groups, Ohio's Wellspring Retreat. "For some people, life becomes living for the next seminar. It becomes, in a sense, a person's religion." Put a different way, "people become Landmark junkies," says exit counselor Rick Ross, who says he gets more calls about Landmark than about any other group. "They start to take courses, and they just don't stop."
"For six months, I was just hooked," says a recently counseled Landmark participant from Denver, Colorado. "My parents kept pushing me to do it, and I thought, 'My God! If everyone did this, there would be no need for drugs, 'cause the euphoria is just so . . . euphoric!' I took the whole 'Curriculum for Living,' assisted constantly, and even dropped out of school because being a medical assistant wasn't 'extraordinary' enough for me. Then I had a miscarriage. I missed a seminar because I was grieving for my baby. When I showed up the next week, the leader said, 'The good news is the loss of your baby doesn't mean shit. What does mean shit is that you have gone outside your integrity because you missed your seminar.' "
For many disillusioned dropouts, what seems to replace an obsession with Landmark is . . . an obsession with Landmark. There are dozens of anti-Landmark sites on the Internet, one of which, presumably for inspirational purposes, quotes the lyrics to Edie Brickell's "What I Am": "Philosophy is a walk on slippery rocks / Religion is a light in the fog / I'm not aware of too many things / I know what I know, if you know what I mean." On most of them, the million-dollar question is: Where's Werner?
Kamin initially said he didn't know where Erhard was and later said that while Erhard plays no role at all in Landmark's operations, he and his brother have remained in contact. "Besides the fact that he's my brother, the company considers Werner a friend," says Rosenberg. In fact, Erhard has appeared at company functions, including a program in Toronto and a seminar in Japan. "From time to time, Werner might be at a program that Landmark is hosting if he happens to be in that city," says Kamin. "It's very natural that we would invite him. We respect the guy, and feel that he made not only a big contribution to us but to billions of people around the world."
Though his whereabouts have been shrouded in mystery since 1991, it turns out that Erhard has been living at least part of the time in Georgetown, the capital of the Cayman Islands, with Gonneke (pronounced "Hanukkah") Spits, his assistant during his encyclopedia-selling days and later a key executive in est. Changing his surname yet again -- he goes by Werner Spits -- Erhard has joined an eating club called Chaîne des Rotisseurs, which holds formal themed dinners several times a year. One eleven-course feast (roasted squab, peaches in chartreuse jelly) re-created the last dinner on the Titanic.
For Jerry, the forum was "the best present anyone ever gave to me. Before I came, I could not sleep at night because I could not forget what had happened to me." Sitting on the ground outside the World Trade Center, he cradles his head in his hands. "Now I know that nothing happens by accident. I am committed I will make a new life in America."
Jerry wanted to take the Advanced Forum very badly, so he started saving whatever money he didn't need to live on for the $700 registration fee. Meanwhile, he met with Tootsie nearly every week to work on his application for political asylum; she also lent him her laptop so he could write his life story. The week after he took the Forum, Jerry went to a bar called Calico Jack's for Alex's going-away party -- she had to have a bunion on her foot removed and was planning to recuperate out of town -- and Alex asked him to sign her crutches. "I want to have a party for my birthday," said Jerry, sipping a Corona. He would turn 29 the following week. "Maybe you all can come?"
A couple of weeks later, the money that Jerry was going to spend on the Advanced Forum was stolen out of his apartment, along with his passport, his application for asylum, and Tootsie's computer. "I can't believe someone did this," says Jerry. "It makes me so mad!" He was bored with his job at the synagogue and was having a hard time "making new possibilities." He had tried to call the Congo, but he couldn't reach his family. "But the people from Landmark call me all the time," he says.
"Jerry," says Tootsie, in her singsong voice. "They do that to everyone."
"Well, they said they wanted me to assist, something about a weekend for the teenagers -- "
"God!" says Tootsie. "This is so not the guy who has time to go volunteer at the Forum." In the month since she took the Advanced Forum, Tootsie has started to have doubts about Landmark. "I really believe in the work," she says, "but I think there are some things that aren't so great -- what's up with all this volunteering? The longer it gets without me going down to the World Trade Center . . . I don't know. I mean, I'm committed to Jerry, but it just feels like, 'What was I doing?' "
Other Forum graduates are picking up where Tootsie left off. Six weeks after the Forum I attended, I received an e-mail from a technical designer who had taken the Forum when I was there. She was now in the advanced course and she had told two strangers about it on her way home. She also wrote: I am inviting you to my completion of the advanced course. Please take this opportunity to find out if the advanced course can be of benefit to you and your life. Bring your calendars and money (could be in form of cash, check, or a credit card), in an event that you decide that you want to take it you have everything is available. For those who are very sure they do not want to do the advanced course, bring it anyway. If you are sure you are not taking it, it is completely safe in your pocket.
Additional reporting by Sara Wilson.