Not long after I arrived in Central Florida, a young woman I’d met in YMCA indoor cycling classes attempted to recruit me into Landmark Forum. Not everyone who partakes of positive psychology would give much credence to Landmark Forum, but to me it became a symbol of what positive psychology could do when taken to extremes.
Kathy and her husband, Angel, were very friendly. They always chatted me up before class, and they acted familiar with a lot of other people in the room. They seemed genuinely interested—always asking me about myself and sharing cheerful tid-bits from their marriage. They talked about a wide range of friends, and they seemed always to have a busy social schedule. I thought they were great, and I thought that maybe making friends in Orlando was going to be easier than I’d thought.
I was new in the area, had no family or friends nearby to speak of, was a single woman past the age of forty, had a rather serious chronic illness, had poured most of my energy into my career, and was discovering that in spite of moving several hundred miles for my new job it wasn’t going to be an ideal employment situation. I suppose that I looked like easy pickings to Kathy. I would disappoint her terribly.
One day in spin class, Kathy asked if I’d like to go to a movie one evening with her and Angel and a friend of theirs. “A guy friend,” Kathy said, wiggling her eyebrows. “What kind of man do you like?” she asked.
Ever skeptical of the fix-up, especially by someone who only knew the outline of my life, I tried to wriggle out of it. But she mentioned it again a few days later, and again after that. “He’s a really great guy,” she told me. “Very smart and together.”
So I went. From the first moment that I met them at the theater, the mis-match became apparent. I’d worn some very comfortable semi-hippie skirt with lots of bangles; he was wearing a starched shirt with cufflinks and the most preppie pair of loafers I’d ever seen. I had never had a friend, much less a lover, who wore cufflinks on a casual movie outing. It should have been a sign to me that Kathy was trying too hard, but I laughed it off as a mere mistake.
Some days later, Kathy invited me to come to a “meeting.” She said she belonged to an organization that had really helped her achieve her life goals and that she wanted to share this opportunity with me. My first creepy feeling arose, but I had never heard of anything like Landmark Forum, and she wouldn’t tell me at first the name of her organization. She said that it was an “educational” organization that sponsored workshops to help people quit sabotaging themselves.
Over the weeks, Kathy told me more of her own personal story—how she had been in a dead-end relationship, living with her boyfriend but never committing to marriage, and how through this group she had managed to give up the old guy and marry Angel. “Angel was in the group?” I asked. Yes, she told me. She had met him there, and they had married within a few weeks of meeting. She had broken out of a “no good” relationship of seven years’ length in order to do so. She looked at me. Her stare implied that I could do this, too, and mentioned that the movie fellow was an avid seminar leader. “Marriage was part of my goal,” she said with a shrug. She and Angel had also been encouraged to quit their “dead-end” jobs and start their own business, though it was unclear exactly what that business would be. Later, Kathy would ask me to recommend students go to her “journaling” class, and she had a website as a “personal consultant.”
I began to watch Kathy and Angel more closely. Though they came to spin classes together, they didn’t usually sit on adjoining bikes—instead, Kathy always sat next to me, and Angel seemed to be working on a fellow across the room. Sometimes, he would sit on a bike on the other side of me, and he would chime in on how right Kathy was. I had to admit that Angel seemed less into the proselytizing, and, though Kathy would always tease him it sometimes had an edge. I could see that she already didn’t think he was as good as she was at whatever it was they were doing.
The invitations continued, and I continued to decline. Kathy spread her invitations more widely to others in the class, and finally one day she handed out small slips of paper that included directions to the next introductory meeting—proudly labeled as “Free!”—that also included in small print the name of the organization.
I went home straight away and looked it up on the internet. What I found shocked me: personal accounts of brainwashing and verbal abuse at meetings of more than a hundred people at a time, and even stories of lives destroyed. Participants were required to recruit, and many spent long hours doing so; if they weren’t successful, they were reprimanded, but if they brought new members into the fold they were rewarded financially with discounts on further seminars. The seminars were often held in isolated office parks and lasted long hours with little chance to eat, drink, or use the restroom. “Homework” kept participants up late and deprived them of sleep. One woman recounted how her brother had cut off all contact with family and former friends, quit his job, and become destitute because he had invested so heavily in the expensive series of seminars that teach that you are the master of your own fate.
Some of these accounts have been taken down, perhaps because Landmark Forum has a habit of suing anyone who maligns them, especially those who refer to them as a cult, and I’ve been surprised by the only tentatively critical nature of most journalistic accounts now on the internet, though there are still many anonymous negative postings on blogs and the like. LF has also built an enormous web presence, so that its own sites fill the first pages of any search.
Even the Landmark Forum’s own website, however, would have been by itself enough to give me pause. Any organization that claims that “what we think of as reality, which includes an objective world that exists independent of us” is a “myth” is going to send me running. Especially when it notes that part of the seminar’s purpose is to upend those “myths” and teach us “that we no longer need to be confined to living within this limited range.” That’s post-structuralism without any sense of the regulative discourses in which we all function and that are probably as inescapable as any old-fashioned reality. In other words, it’s delusional.
It was after I read these things that Kathy got very aggressive with me. The next time she asked me to go to a meeting, I told her that I’d looked up the organization and that it didn’t sound right for me. I told her I respected the fact that it might help her, but that I knew myself well, and public humiliation would not bring around a breakthrough for me. When she pushed further, I asked her what the qualifications of those conducting these seminars were and whether they had psychology Ph.D.s. I explained that I’m a person who believes that credentials matter. She said simply that they were internally trained. I told her that with my Type 1 diabetes, it would be dangerous for me to go to an event where access to food was limited and where I’d be discouraged from taking breaks to check my blood sugar. She scoffed.
“I’m just not that kind of person,” I reiterated, getting tired. “I’m stubborn and I’m not willing to go through that kind of program.”
“And how’s that working for you?” she said, squinting into my face. She repeated herself two or three times.
It was then I realized that she and Angel had seen me, not as a potential friend, but as a failure with a desperate longing for change. That was a prerequisite to being a real candidate for Landmark Forum, and something—my single status, my illness, whatever—had marked me as that failure to them. I suppose they saw no particular shame in this, since they had been this way too, before. But I felt my spine stiffen.
“You have me all wrong,” I told her.
After that, Kathy and Angel would still say hello, but they never chose the cycles next to mine, and they never asked me how I was. I had certainly been manipulated and used in romantic relationships before, but I had never had someone pretend to be my friend in such a calculated and false way. Adjusting to life in Orlando wouldn’t be easier than anticipated after all. If you were me, actual friendships would have to grow, not spring fully formed from nothing. If you were me, it would just be real life, without the fantasy and self-delusion. I’m happy with that.