Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Landmark Education

When is a cult not a cult?

By Richard Philips

An organisation accused of mind control and cult practises is about to set up in Ireland.

The English media were thrown into a tizzy recently when Prince William had his hair cut by a member of an organisation accused of having cult tendencies. "Will's Chile leader is in brainwashing sect" ran a typical headline. The young prince was on a trek in Chile led by Marie Wright, who left her recruitment business after attending courses run by Landmark Education.

The U.S. organisation that promises to change your life is coming to Ireland in 2001. Landmark are holding a four-day Forum course in Jury's Hotel, Ballsbridge from March 2nd. You won't see it advertised in the media, but a lot of Irish people will be approached by friends and family over the next few months and persistently urged to attend. Who could resist the chance to change your life for a mere £325 (£100 non-refundable deposit)?

Landmark is virtually unknown in Ireland. Mike Garde of the Dialogue Ireland advises the families of those who get involved with New Religious Movements. He describes Landmark as part of the Human Potential Movement and more specifically as a Large Group Awareness Training programme (LGAT). A number of groups are active in this area - most notably Scientologists and I Am. What they all have in common is the practise of promising personal transformation through endless expensive "courses" and using a high number of local volunteers. Landmark Education is a US based organisation with offices across the world. The secretive organisation had an estimated turnover of $54m. in 1998. It employs 400 full-time staff, but depends on a network of 7,500 volunteers who donate time and energy to running conferences and seminars.

Most of the groundwork for the Ballsbridge event has been carried out by Irish volunteers who have attended the Forum and follow-up courses in London. "It was the most intense experience of my life," says Peter, a 40 year-old civil servant from Dublin. "A friend invited me to a meeting in Dublin where a few English people talked about how the Forum changed their lives. Irish people can be stubborn and sceptical, but the organisers were very anxious to get us to sign up. I resisted and registered when I was ready to go."

The Forum was held in North London where Peter joined nearly 300 others in a conference hall. A quick calculation gives an income close to £100,000 - for one weekend! But to fair there isn't a Forum every week. "A lot of it consisted of people talking about how their lives had been messed up by events in their childhood. For over twelve hours the participants were guided and lectured by a charismatic leader who seems to have the answer to everything. He tells you that your life is all a story, but you can change the story."

Peter had his breakthrough on the last day: "I realised I had been blaming other people when everything went wrong. It was amazing and taught me to look at my thinking more closely." But the biggest surprise was saved to the end. A follow-up Advanced Course that would enable you to go forward with the knowledge from the first. And if you booked now you got a £100 reduction. Peter booked. "I've always been cautious where money is concerned, but it seemed like a good investment."

He did the second course a few months later and found a dramatic change: "There was a lot of the same jargon about rackets and story, but from the first day the emphasis was on getting new recruits. Participants were quizzed in public each morning: who did you phone? How many pledges to attend did you get? The whole measure for transforming your life was how many others you could recruit."

Peter began to express doubts during breaks: "But most of the participants didn't want to know. They were out to find their pot of gold by the end of the course. We were told that even one person doubting could hold everyone else back. People were getting hysterical. One guy was shouting at me through the toilet door. It seems funny now but not then."

Peter was on the verge of returning to Dublin on the next plane when he met a woman whose father had been in Auschwitz. "I always knew what Hitler did," she said. "Now I know how." He stuck it out for the rest of the course. "But my eyes were opened. I saw how eager people were to brainwash themselves. A sort of intense group pressure had built up over the four days. People were prepared to believe anything if it would change their lives. It was one of the weirdest days of my life, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

After doing both courses he is very sceptical about Landmark. "They trade in our desire to be better people, but it's all moonshine. They dress up threadbare concepts in topsy-turvy language. You're called a "graduate" after a four-day course. They claim a few techniques are "technology" to change your life. And the Advanced Course is only a ploy to get you into further "leadership" courses. An Indian woman told me her cousin had got all forty members of the extended family to do the Forum. He had neglected his family, his business, constantly volunteering and doing more courses." His advice to anyone urging you to attend an introductory meeting is brief: "Run."

People who have done the courses are polarised. One woman slammed down the phone when Landmark was mentioned. But other Irish people have flown to London to attend weekly follow-up courses and returned for work the next morning. Brigid from Galway has a different slant on Landmark: "It's given me back my family," she says. "I've been able to talk to my son and daughter again. I've devoted my life to this work." Her tone changes when confronted with Peter's experience: "Some people have major issues with manipulation and pressure. It's all in their minds, but they can't see that." She denies that people can be pressured into anything. "You either do it or you don't." > It looks that Landmark Education will continue to arouse controversy because of it's hard-sell methods and elusive philosophy. Peter is convinced their methods are dangerous, their contribution negative: "They mess with the most precious thing you have, your mind. I learned from them that you have to trust your own judgement no matter what everyone else is doing. It was an expensive lesson, but worth it."

We are used to cults in religious clothing, but a cult-type group that passes itself off as an educational organisation is something we aren't prepared for and is very difficult to grapple with. Landmark Education is the modern name for EST. Erhardt Seminar Training was named after the founder "Werner Erhardt" and became prominent in the US in the '70s and '80s. It also attracted a lot of negative publicity and a number of court cases from disgruntled former members.

Landmark Education is a diluted form of EST with Erhardt in the background1. It claims to be an educational organisation, but there are major differences. There are no books or syllabi or exams. You only have to attend a weekend course to become a graduate, but don't expect to get academic recognition. The course is "taught" through high-powered sales techniques to groups of 100- 200 hundred by forum leaders. There are no tests or exams, but your progress can be tested by your ability to recruit others to the courses, which cost in the region of £350 a time. Like most people I was introduced by a friend. This course will change your life. It will give you tremendous insight and empower you to transform yourself. I went along to the introductory meeting and found myself under pressure to sign up. When I objected I was told there was no such thing as pressure. It's only a word. Landmark have an unusual approach to language. Meanings are what we say they are.

When I was ready I enrolled for the first course - the Forum, in London. It was a strange experience to sit in a large lecture room with over 200 others, many of whom were prepared to lay bare their lives in hope of enlightenment. You're told over and over that your problems are of your making. They are all thoughts and you can change the script. I'd read this before, but it makes a much stronger impact in such dramatic surroundings. I'm not sure if it did change my life, but it did provide valuable insight. That would've been fine, but they start to promote the next level, the Advance Course. It's a hundred times more powerful than the Forum. Reductions if you sign now. So I did and attended a few months later.

It was very similar to the Forum, but with a much bigger emphasis on recruiting others. People don't have a right to be wrong, was the message. Don't take "no" for an answer. Go out and get them to come with £50 deposit in their pockets. Instead of empowering us the entire thrust of the weekend was on recruitment. It got to the stage where people were told to raise their hands with fingers up for each recruit. Those with none were ordered to explain. And it went downhill from there. Naturally there were more courses to sign up for. And if you're doing nothing maybe you could help out in the evenings and at weekends. Landmark is an organisation that makes enormous profits - there are few outlays and the staff are mostly unpaid volunteers. Some people have no problem with this.

They think Landmark is wonderful and try to live up to the teaching of unlimited potential. I found it extremely manipulative and distasteful. They promise personal transformation and they sure deliver - they make you dependant on Landmark. If you really want enlightenment I'd recommend Dorothy Rowe's Guide to Life. It's much cheaper than a Landmark course and you don't have to submit to any form of shallow group therapy to find out who you are. My advice to anyone who is invited to a meeting is simply - run. And I did learn something from the weekends. You have to trust your own judgement, even if it means going against everyone else.

Some believe that EST/ The hunger Project/ Landmark Forums and now Landmark Education are derivatives of Scientology. This is a matter of dispute. Certainly Landmark Education disputes this derivation.

Click here to return to the Landmark section