Trying the Landmark Course

By Amy Dresner 04/26/17

Could a three day seminar cure a lifetime of Amy Dresner's issues? What do you think?

A woman shakes hands with someone in a blue bear character costume.
Landmark as a tool for treating alcoholism

At my then boyfriend’s behest I decided to do a three day introductory Landmark course. He was concerned that I still had a charge around my ex-husband and wanted me to prepare myself for any good and, more importantly, bad press that my book might garner. So for $600 dollars, I agreed to sit in a room in Culver City for 13 hours a day for three consecutive days with 140 other people and learn a new philosophy and way of thinking that is supposed to “free” you. Who doesn’t want to be free, right? I mean unless you’re into bondage and stuff.

If you’re not familiar with Landmark, it’s a self-actualization program started in the 70’s by Werner Erhard and was originally called EST.

Despite its bad reputation as the demonic love child of self-help gurus, Scientology and pyramid schemes, there are many people who claim it is NOT a cult and has absolutely changed their lives.

Everybody was given a name tag with their first and—gulp—last names. The crowd was a diverse group: older married women, hot chicks in their 20’s, foreign students who flew in, aspiring poets, Jesus freaks with homosexual feelings and loads and loads of people who, I’d come to find out, had been molested or abused in their childhoods.

Our moderator was a gay guy in his 60’s, a sort of Mr. Rogers meets 80’s game show host. He’d given up a lucrative career years ago to teach the Landmark philosophy, traveling the world and “transforming lives!” His style was a mix of Tony Robbins and fundamentalist preacher punctuated by an odd girly laugh. And unsurprisingly it turns out he was a lobbyist and grew up in some weird hardcore religious church so his verbal finesse, fervor, and polished case-making made perfect sense.

For $600 a head, you’d think they could have craft serviced this thing. But nope, you were encouraged to bring snacks and were let out on short periodic breaks to eat and, more specifically, make calls and “enroll people.” There was one official meal break in the evening.

You were to wear your name tag at all times. You were encouraged to not drink or do drugs, including Advil or any over the counter medications during the three day bootcamp. I had heard that impulsive bathroom breaks were looked down upon but my small bladder and I had no problems.

I’m not going to get into the minutiae of the tenets because a) I don’t know them well enough and b) I don’t care. But the overriding philosophy is that it’s your interpretation of the events in your life (your “story”), not what actually happened, that creates your emotions. If you can reframe the story, you reframe your feelings and the event’s impact on you. For example, “did your ex really leave you penniless or did he just give you what he gave you and not give you what he didn’t give you?” You get the picture.

Every night we were given homework: one constant was to write letters or to make calls to people in our life where there’s been a break in connection or communication. We were supposed to tell them what we were doing (Landmark!) as well as take ownership for our past behavior. But here’s the kicker: we were aggressively encouraged to invite friends and family to come to the Tuesday night graduation. So basically it was like an amends but with a huge dash of marketing. Gross. Don’t get me wrong, I understand Landmark does not do any direct advertising and is therefore completely dependent upon word of mouth referrals. But this feels much more like forcible promotion than attraction, if you will.

Another big piece of this philosophy is what they call your “racket.” A racket is “a fixed way of being and a persistent complaint.” 

When I was taken in front of the room to the microphone in front of 140 strangers, I was informed by Mr. Game Show Host that my “racket” was blaming and becoming destructive when people don’t take care of me the way I want. Now this is absolutely true and certainly not news to me, nor any addict I’d guess. However by the second day when I felt so exhausted and dizzy and seizure-y that I wanted to leave, I was told that my resistance to the Forum was also my racket. That type of circular logic is a trap, crazy-making and reminded me of that spooky idea some people have that if you relapse in AA, it’s your fault. If it doesn’t work for you, YOU are to blame. Fine, I get it. The program, whether AA or Landmark, is perfect. But why does everything have to work for everybody? It doesn’t and it shouldn’t and it can’t.

But by far the most off-putting thing to me was the marketing, the hard sell from the stage. The philosophy was interesting but the constant barrage of proselytizing under the guise of “enrollment” felt icky and violating…like somebody who invited you out to dinner and never stopped asking to borrow money.

In between hours of “witnessing” where people came up to the microphone and creepily beamed how well their calls to reconnect went, was again the push for us to sign up to do the next course. Notecards were handed out. I refused to put my name on it and handed it back empty. The next morning next to my name tag on the table was the same enrollment form but this time it had my name written on it. And again I heard the whole “don’t you wanna be even more free? Don’t you want to accomplish your dreams and make a difference? That’s what level two is about.” Who’s gonna say “No, no. I wanna stay a slave and small. Don’t take off my shackles.” Such a mind fuck but I saw right through it and it made me really angry, so angry that I was beginning not to be open to the philosophy part.

Most people that went up to the microphone at the front of the room had broken relationships with in-laws or parents and as I said, many people had scars from childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Some people had what I considered super mundane problems like “I’m scared to publish my writing” or “I want to be a singer but I’m in school for public relations because it’s safer.” One guy decided to look for his birth father. Another woman was encouraged to mend the rift with her brother and his insane wife. A third woman was told to call her boss at the country club and renegotiate her swim club meet. Everybody cried a lot. But nobody had done anything really bad to somebody else….until I got up there.

I nervously admitted that I had a substance abuse history and that I had pulled a knife on my now ex-husband. I got no kudos for getting and staying clean but other people got the room’s “acknowledgement” and applause for being honest, vulnerable, courageous or just for graduating college. Umm really? What I did get was torn apart which included comments like “You’re callously funny about things that aren’t funny.” No shit, Sherlock. That’s how we addicts “reframe,” to use your words, all the horrible shit we’ve done.

At the break after my public shaming, a middle aged black guy came up to me and said, “Your share helped me the most.”

“Oh really. Thanks. Why?” I inquired.

“Cuz you’re an asshole.”

Alrighty then.

I then had a major meltdown which the Forum sees as a “breakthrough” not a “breakdown.” (As somebody who’s been 5150’d four times, I beg to differ.) I cried and cried. I felt like the moderator had shamed me and I already have a Masters in doing that to myself. Those 13 hour days, the picking at people’s scabs, the public humiliation….it is all set up to “break” people. But what about people like me that are fragile? What about people that have mental illness or personality disorders? There were no disclaimers that I can recall regarding psychiatric illness and there were no therapists on site to help people through any meltdowns they might have. If you look at the Landmark forum chat rooms, there are countless people who were re-traumatized or had serious problems with depersonalization or identity crises after attending a seminar.

On the third day, at 1:37, I walked out. The endless sales pitches and the redundant reports of people’s glorious reconnections were wearing on me. As I was leaving, I was stopped once again at the door by a moderator in training with horrific turquoise eyeliner. She again attempted to convince me to stay. But I was done. “I see through your shit," I said. “And the marketing is really creepy and tiresome. I don’t want this. Take me off your fucking list. Do NOT contact me.” And with that I took off my stupid nametag and dramatically walked out.

I went straight to a 7-11 and bought cigarettes, shaking with rage. And then I got into it with my then boyfriend.

“This is not for me. I think it’s absolute bullshit.”

“It was just tools,” he coolly texted back. “I hope you find some.”

“I have tools. It’s called AA.”

“If you react this way to a faux tragedy, how will you react to a real tragedy? What kind of meltdown will you have when the book comes out?”

“Oh honey, I’ve already had REAL tragedy in my life. I don’t need to be brainwashed and shamed in front of a group of strangers to have a fucking breakthrough.”

After I calmed down and spoke to some people in AA with long term sobriety who have a lot of experience in, and dare I say respect for, Landmark, I became open to redoing the third day. Supposedly I had left before the big bang, the whole revelation, when everybody “pops.” (I’ve heard that that hyperbolic moment is the disclosure that life is innately and inherently meaningless. So freeing! Liberation at last!) I was also told by former AA/Forum attendees that almost all polemic pieces about Landmark are written by people that didn’t finish. Fine. I called the center and asked if I could redo the third and final day. No, I was told. I’d have to re-register (read: pay another $600) and do the entire three days over. When I explained that I couldn’t physically handle those type of hours because of my epilepsy and that I would at least like to have what is called a “completion conversation,” I was told that somebody would call me back. Nobody ever did.

In the end, I did have a profound realization. Two in fact. I had more empathy for my ex-husband and saw that I probably was a nightmare to be married to back then. I also realized that my frustration with the slow burn of AA (aka “slowbriety”) was unfounded. And that AA’s pace was, in fact, perfect for me.

My desire for a quick fix which I thought a three day seminar could deliver was just another manifestation of my impatient impulsive alcoholism. And I even made a friend: a brutally witty hot Armenian chick who teaches Pilates. So I think I did get my money’s worth.

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2012 and is the author of the forthcoming My Fair Junkie. And she is on Twitter.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.