Reading Deborah Beroset's most excellent work of creative nonfiction, I was reminded of Bill Clinton's famous disquisition on the meaning of the word is, and how it pertained to his claim that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." (Of course, as we now know, he did indeed have sex with that woman, as well as others.) Seldom have I read a more entertaining example of hair-splitting, lawyering, language-parsing and general concealment of forests in trees.
I was amused for starters by her use of the word request, as in, "We have written separately to The Wall Street Journal to request a correction be printed..." One gets the feeling that Landmark requests things the way Vito Corleone did. (Remember Tom Hagen's quietly chilling line after being rebuffed by the soon-to-be-horseless movie mogul during their uneasy dinner? Hagen says of his boss, the don, "He never asks a second favor when he's been refused the first.") The above-linked site puts it this way: "How does Landmark handle criticism? With lawyers." But rather than spend the balance of this email being snarky and offhand, I'd thought I'd address the substance of Beroset's observations head-on. Actually, where appropriate, I also thought I'd let her own employer, Landmark, address the substance of her thoughts, which might prove even more illuminating. This gets a bit complicated in spots, folks, so fasten your seatbelts and shoulder harnesses, and read carefully as you go.
We have a very simple question before us: Did the late Dr. Margaret Singer offer sworn testimony* in a case that was originally filed as Ney v. Landmark Education Corporation and Werner Erhard? (Answer: Yes.) Did she say what I quoted her as saying in my Journal piece? (Answer: Yes.) Let's review her words for a moment:
The est/Forum organization applies a number of powerful and psychologically disturbing, emotionally arousing and defense destabilizing techniques to large groups of people, in an intense, marathon-like period.The fact that Landmark eventually was dismissed from the suit** is in my view a technicality that has scant bearing on Singer's conclusions about Landmark's product, which clearly were based on a contemporaneous knowledge of Landmark's ongoing operations, not just a retrospective understanding of Erhard's est. [See NOTE below.] The reason this gets tricky is that Landmark in 1996 sued Singer, unhappy over finding its name in her 1995 book, Cults in Our Midst. (Singer had not specifically labeled the company a cult, but nothing will prompt a suit from Landmark faster than the words Landmark and cult used in any sort of adjacency—as the women's magazines Self and Elle, as well as the Cult Awareness Network, all learned during the 1990s.) As part of a negotiated settlement of that lawsuit in 1997, Singer agreed to stipulate that she had "no personal knowledge" of the Landmark program. However, the operative graph of that settlement clearly applies an extremely technical and limited standard of what constitutes "personal knowledge." In Singer's case, what it means—all it means—is that the famed psychologist was never physically present in the room during a session of Landmark's version of Forum.
This is key because Beroset and Landmark like to play the settlement language as a trump card, spinning it as if Singer were recanting her testimony in Ney (as well as her other, prior observations about Landmark and est). Hardly. Though Singer was understandably reluctant to talk about Landmark after the 1996 suit—which of course is the outcome Landmark sought—it appears obvious from the few guarded statements she did make that she viewed the settlement as having been coerced. "I do not endorse them—never have," she told a reporter from Phoenix New Times, adding that she was "afraid to tell you what I really think about them" because "the SOBs have already sued me once."
In fact, "no personal knowledge" is an awfully casual way of dismissing (a) Singer's several decades of studying and observing practices commonly known as "brainwashing" and "mind control," and her acknowledged worldwide expertise in the workings of same; (b) Singer's voluminous reading on the subject of LGATs in general and est/Forum in particular; (c) Singer's personal attendance at several Forum training sessions prior to the Landmark acquisition; (d) Singer's personal interviews with a variety of people who had attended Landmark coursework; (e) Singer's personal review of Landmark's training materials and internal memos; (f) Singer's familiarity with the case histories of several people who had suffered extreme adverse reactions to the Forum course. I could go on and on. In one section of the declaration Singer made in initially defending the Landmark lawsuit, she put it like so: "Between 1991 and the time I wrote the Book, I spoke to numerous individuals about their experiences as participants in est and/or The Forum. The experiences they shared were consistent with one another and independently corroborated by the many newspaper and magazine articles and books that I read about Landmark and The Forum."
Life experience qualifies each of us to render judgment on any number of matters. I have no personal knowledge of a shotgun blast to the face, but I think I'm capable of appreciating the damage that such an occurrence is apt to cause on those who do have the experience. In addition to the generalized life experience we all share, highly specialized experience like Singer's prepared her to render meaningful judgment on topics within her area of expertise. (If you still need more convincing, my God, look at pages 2 through 4 of the Singer declaration; even in summary form, the woman's qualifications to speak to this subject are breathtaking.) To assert otherwise is ridiculous—tantamount to arguing that a physician must actually be sick himself in order to accurately diagnose a patient with that same disorder. It bears noting that Landmark Forum does not have "personal knowledge" of the lives of the customers who attend its coursework, yet Landmark claims to possess a generic formula for helping those people improve their quality-of-life. Go figure.
As to that formula for success... One is struck by the catch-22 of Landmark's public stance. On the one hand, the company promises to deliver coursework that is so psychologically and emotionally compelling that it will foster an almost instantaneous breakthrough in those who attend; that is the clear message of Landmark's promotional materials. From its site:
The Landmark Forum, our powerful flagship program, is specifically designed to bring about positive and permanent shifts in the quality of your life—in just three days.This is remarkable, given that formal psychotherapy often takes years to prompt major insights and breakthroughs (if they take place at all). And yet, on the other hand, Landmark does not take kindly to media implications that any coursework that's potent enough to spur that sort of metamorphosis would also be likely to trigger serious emotional upset in some people. Personally, I do not think that such a program can be both safe and effective. In order to be effective—almost instantly effective, no less—it must be "destabilizing," in Singer's words. And if it is destabilizing, then it cannot be safe for all participants, particularly in the weekend-warrior setting in which it is delivered.
But why leave this to one journalist's uninformed, irresponsible perceptions? (I am paraphrasing Beroset.) Let's look instead at how Landmark sees Landmark.
Here is the waiver that prospective Landmark attendees must read and sign. Take a gander at the scope of this thing and—in particular—focus on its self-evident intent. At least by implication, this document would seem to represent a near-total annihilation of all of Landmark's public vows about the safety of its coursework. The nature and sweep of its caveats tell us that Landmark itself manifestly has concerns about being "psychologically disturbing."
The brows begin to lift at the very outset of Landmark's Notice of Important Information, Health Warnings, and Legal Agreements. The first full paragraph notes blandly:
Many people have found the Program to be an enjoyable and valuable experience. However, the Program is not advisable for everyone.But think about that. Is it reasonable that everyone for whom the Program is "not advisable" would be able to self-identify, or in any case could be weeded out, ahead of time? This is especially pertinent in light of the observation, a few graphs later, that:
...[T]here is simply no way to predict in advance exactly what you may think or feel. It is normal for some people to experience unwanted or unfamiliar emotions from time to time, such as fear, anger, sadness, regret, hatred, irritation and impatience.Fear? Anger? Hatred? If you concede that such emotions may occur, and are even "normal" (at least for Forum participants), how can you, in the same document, disclaim responsibility for the possible results of such extreme emotions? (As Landmark does.)
As the waiver moves forward, notice how many times Landmark cautions prospective attendees that OUR ADVISORS STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU DO NOT PARTICIPATE—just like that, in all caps. One case where Landmark's advisors make that recommendation is:
...if you have a family history of bi-polar affective disorder (manic-depressive disorder), schizophrenia, acute or chronic depression or other psychotic disorder, whether or not you or they are being or have ever been treated or hospitalized.I added emphasis to the last part, because if you haven't been treated, how would you know you have a condition that disqualifies you from participating? And isn't it likely that some of those who'd be drawn to such coursework are people with underlying psychological problems, "whether or not you or they are being or have ever been treated"?
Also cautioned are people who are taking:
any drugs or medicines, whether prescription or non-prescription, intended to treat or affect mental processes or mood or to treat a chemical imbalance...What exactly does that cover? What does it rule out?
Here's another: You should probably not participate if you
are uncertain about your physical, mental or emotional ability to participate in the Program.But...you haven't yet taken the Program. Have you? How would you make that judgment, and on what basis?
Next we have this:
From time to time, during or shortly after participating in the Program, a very small number of people who have no personal or family history of mental illness or drug abuse have reported experiencing brief, temporary episodes of emotional upset rnaging from heightened activity, irregular or diminished sleep, to mild psychotic-like behavior.Note my emphasis. This caveat is followed by the most intriguing statement in the document, at least to me:
In less than 1/1000 of 1% of participants, there have been reports of unexplained suicide or other destructive behavior.Working from Landmark's own figure of having "helped" 1.2 million people since 1991 (and we'll come back to that boast next time), that translates to 12 people. Or, using Landmark's current claim of training 200,000 people per year, that translates to two "reports of unexplained suicide or other destructive behavior" annually. Is that "serious"? Is it worthy of mentioning in a more upfront way? I leave that to others to decide. For argument's sake, though, here's a comparison: Walt Disney World in Orlando attracted 17 million visitors in 2008. The same incident rate admitted by Landmark, applied to Disney, would yield 170 deaths or other major events. In a single year. And that's just the one Disney park in Orlando; the systemwide numbers would, of course, be stratospheric: the makings of a cause celebre with major "legs," as we media types say of hot stories. (In fact, the Disney incident numbers are infinitesimally small).
What's more, does it not seem reasonable to assume that for every actual case of "suicide or other destructive behavior," there are a certain number of additional "dislocations"?
As the waiver rouses to its dour finish, we encounter a section titled INFORMED CONSENT. Here, among other things, clients must affirm via signature that they're aware that "certain persons with no personal or family history of current or previous mental or emotional problems and no history of use of psychotropic or mood altering drugs reported having experienced psychotic episodes following the Program." A few lines later the participant is again reminded that he has been "STRONGLY ADVISED NOT TO PARTICIPATE in the Program if...I have concerns about my ability to handle stress."
What makes this excruciatingly ironic and even tragicomic is the way Landmark, in other areas of its site, hypes the stress-busting potential of its coursework. F'rinstance, Landmark's online syllabus, DAY TWO, Section IV, is titled, "Freedom From Anxiety." The syllabus observes:
Consider that one of the primary obstacles to effectiveness is fear. No matter how accomplished, successful, or courageous we are, fear and anxiety seem to play a role at some point in all of our lives. Often, we allow fear and anxieties to stop us...assigning them an unwarranted power and magnitude in our lives...(In truth, any number of Forum segments seem designed to address conditions that laypeople would probably describe as "stress-related" or "depression-like." Consider, for example, the language of DAY 1, Section V: Rackets™: The Payoff and the Cost, and Day 2, Section 1: The Illusion of Someday. The language is the rhetoric of philosophy, but the payoff—it is strongly suggested—occurs in the realm of psychology.)
Landmark even uses stress as a sales hook in this testimonial from one Gabor Mate, MD:
As shown throughout [my] book, it is these fixed but unconscious interpretations that underlie and trigger many of our chronic stresses.Does it not seem reasonable that if you're offering a Program that teaches people how to free themselves from anxiety and "chronic stresses," your target audience would consist in some part of people who "have concerns about [their] ability to handle stress"?
To be continued...
NOTE: I've received a couple of emails off-blog suggesting that a bit more explanation of the Ney case is in order. A woman, Stephanie Ney, attended a Forum course in 1989; in its immediate aftermath, she experienced an utter psychological collapse that required her to be institutionalized. A few years later she filed suit. In the interim Forum had become Landmark Forum, so she included Landmark in her filing. Singer was called as an expert witness on Ney's behalf.
Read Part 2.
* See paragraph 35. This was the quote I focused in on my Journal piece.
** The events at the heart of the case occurred in 1989, prior to Landmark's acquisition of Forum, and the judge denied plaintiff's claims of Landmark's "successor liability."