Everyone registering for the Landmark Forum is asked to sign a paper relinquishing right to a jury or court trial and agreeing to arbitration should any controversy or claim arise out of his or her participation.
But in September 1997, the company was hit with a lawsuit from a customer who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a group leader at the Dallas Landmark Forum. In the suit, filed in Dallas County, Tracy Neff claimed that in 1995, David Grill, then executive director of Landmark’s Dallas branch, invited Neff to his home and assaulted her.
The suit claimed that Landmark had received numerous complaints about Grill from both students and Landmark officials relating to sexual and/or behavioral misconduct, yet still put him in charge of the Dallas facility. Landmark “should have been aware of Grill’s propensity to commit criminal sexual assaults with students from a time preceding his assignment as executive director of the Dallas Landmark facility,” the suit alleged.
As part of a settlement, both Neff and her attorney, Jay English, agreed to sign a comprehensive confidentiality agreement, so English can’t comment on any specifics of the case. But he does offer up his personal opinion about Landmark Education.
“My set of facts in my case was so obnoxiously egregious — I cannot say anything about it — but I am no fan of Landmark Education,” English says. “It was settled, they compensated my client for her injuries, and it was an amazing, amazing case.”
Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult interventionist, was called in as a consultant on behalf of Neff. Ross can’t discuss specifics of the case, either, but says the plaintiff was awarded a substantial sum of money, though the amount cannot be disclosed because of the confidentiality agreement. Art Schreiber, general counsel for Landmark, disagrees that the award was substantial.
The Neff case, Ross says, was one of the more shocking complaints he has heard about Landmark. “I see it as a controversial group that I would not recommend to anyone because of all the complaints I’ve received,” Ross says.
Ross says he gets numerous complaints from people who tell him they were traumatized by the organization. He gets complaints from people who say they were pressured and relentlessly pursued by the group. And he hears from family members concerned about radical personality changes they see in loved ones spending time and money on Landmark courses.
Ross says he has even received e-mails and phone calls from people who say they have been hospitalized for breakdowns as a result of their involvement in Landmark.
…Ross says he’s heard from people who say they were well before participating in the Landmark Forum, and not so afterward.
Like 60-year-old Nan Kolbinger of Minnesota, who found Ross’ Web site after her Forum experience. She had signed up for the Forum at the suggestion of another teacher who informed her she could receive 40 hours of in-service credit toward renewing her teaching license. She walked out after two 15-hour days, feeling demeaned, controlled and browbeaten. Kolbinger says the breaking point came when the Forum leader exploded and yelled at the participants. Kolbinger says she cried all the way home. She later met with a psychologist who she claims diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder.
“I was depressed and hadn’t been able to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, even after I did escape,” Kolbinger says. “I said that I was okay, but then the tears would well up. I was denying how really traumatized I was. I was semi-paranoid.”
…Landmark vigorously disputes the cult accusation and freely threatens or pursues lawsuits against those who call it one.
When the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) made statements and distributed materials alleging or implying that Landmark is a cult, the company sued. In 1997, CAN resolved the suit by stating it has no evidence that Landmark is a cult.
Landmark also boasts numerous letters from experts stating that it does not meet cult criteria. One such letter comes from Dr. Margaret Singer, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, and an expert on cults. Landmark sued Singer after she mentioned the company in her book Cults in Our Midst. Singer says she never called it a cult in her book, but simply mentioned it as a controversial New Age training course. In resolution of the suit, Singer gave a sworn statement that the organization is not a cult or sect. She says this doesn’t mean she supports Landmark.
“I do not endorse them — never have,” she says.
Singer, who is in her 70s, says she can’t comment on whether Landmark uses coercive persuasion because “the SOBs have already sued me once.”
“I’m afraid to tell you what I really think about them because I’m not covered by any lawyers like I was when I wrote my book.”
Singer will say, however, that she would not recommend the group to anyone.
…Even professional cult buster Ross agrees that Landmark isn’t one. “I’m a relative conservative on the issue of defining a cult,” he says. “In my mind, I look for an absolute authoritarian leader . . . I just don’t see any parallel with that type of leader in Landmark.”
The company does not meet many of the conventional definitions of a cult. Landmark does not require its members to turn over their personal assets, except the cost of tuition. Landmark does not cut people off from family and friends, there is no communal living situation, nothing to worship, and participation must be voluntary.
But does Landmark wash brains? That is an entirely different question. In an article titled “Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change,” Richard J. Ofshe, professor of social psychology at UC-Berkeley and co-recipient of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, defines coercive persuasion, or brainwashing, as “programs of social influence capable of producing substantial behavior and attitude change through the use of coercive tactics, persuasion, and/or interpersonal and group manipulations.” Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and professor at the City University of New York, studied brainwashing in China, and in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism identified eight criteria as a basis for answering the question: “Isn’t this brainwashing?”
They include: control of communication, emotional and behavioral manipulation, demands for absolute conformity, obsessive demands for confession, agreement that the ideology is faultless, manipulation of language in which clichés substitute for analytic thought, reinterpretation of human experience in terms of doctrine and classification of those not sharing the ideology as inferior.
Ofshe points out that brainwashing isn’t always as scary as it sounds and it doesn’t necessarily involve physical assault. He distinguishes four characteristics of coercive persuasion: the reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack, the use of an organized peer group, applying interpersonal pressure to promote conformity and the manipulation of the person’s social environment.
In his report on the Landmark Forum, Raymond Fowler of the American Psychological Association states, “The relatively brief encounters in a pleasant environment that characterizes the Landmark Forum program could never effect such extreme and unwanted changes in personality and behavior as those attributed to the various forms of ‘mind control.'”