Cults in Our Midst

A few years ago, I learnt of an international organization called Landmark that has set up shop in 20 countries including Singapore. Their doctrines and practices seemed so suspect to me that I began to look online and man was I overwhelmed by the volume and variety of information I found, a daunting mound of material that I’ve only recently revisited and resumed digging into. There are lots of accounts of Landmark seminars by journalists and regular participants – some sing their praises, some point out problems, some deem them harmless. But because I was trying to build a case to convince somebody of their objectionable nature, I needed sources with clearer insight and greater authority.

Perhaps the most damning article is a 65-minute episode of French investigative journalism programme Pièces à Conviction (Incriminating Evidence) titled “Voyage au Pays des Nouveaux Gourous” (“Journey to the Land of New Gurus”). Its initial airing in 2004 effectively caused Landmark to leave France. My favourite source, though, and the most illuminating, has to be a book called Cults in Our Midst (1995) by Margaret Singer, a woman who spent much of her life studying cults and counselling ex-members and their families. In the introduction, Singer wrote:

A number of cults are highly litigious and use their wealth and power to harass and curb critics. … In fact, and with much regret, this edition of the book contains a rather glaring omission in my historical account of a certain movement. Despite the profound impact of one particular person and his organization on the spread of certain types of training, I have not mentioned this well-known leader and his international organization. I have taken this step due to the pendancy of a meritless lawsuit against me and Janja Lalich arising from the publication of the hardcover edition of this book.

Based on Singer’s Wikipedia entry, as well as online extracts of the original edition of her book, it became undeniably clear that the organization referred to is Landmark. In a 2000 newspaper article, she said, “I do not endorse them – never have. 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.” The original chapter on Large Group Awareness Training programmes (LGATs) not only describes the history and evolution of Landmark, beginning in 1971 when Werner Erhard aka Jack Rosenberg founded est (later reborn as The Forum, then a second time as Landmark, headed by his brother Harry Rosenberg), but also cites it as the inspiration for numerous other New Age corporate training programmes that sprouted in the eighties – Lifespring, Actualizations, MSIA aka Insight, PSI World, etc. – descendants that remained in the book while their parent was expunged.

What you find wrong about a cult depends on what you value in life. If truth is not negotiable, then falsehoods will be an irritation. If honesty is paramount, then deception of any kind is unacceptable. If you think freedom of choice is a basic human right, then hardselling tactics and the illusion of volunteerism will get your goat. If you cherish the ability to think critically, then you will greatly resist any effort to have you check your brain at the door and just “go with the flow”. (This is the case with the contributor at HuffPost who attended a Landmark seminar, though remarkably she places blame on the participants, who “willingly put critical thinking aside”.) If none of the above matter much to you, then you may focus on the positive aspects and write off the negative ones as harmless. The key question is: If a cult has positive effects on its members, is it bad? In other words, does the end justify the means? I think it depends on the means, and on what ideas or freedoms you hold dear.

According to the book, a common misconception is that all cults are religious, when in reality they may centre on anything from self-improvement, health fads, meditation and money to outer space, sports, hairdressing and horses. What they all have in common is two basic purposes, recruiting members and fund-raising, as well as the use of what academics call thought reform, lawyers call undue influence, and laymen call brainwashing or mind control. Margaret Singer was certain that “Our concern about cults must focus on conduct, not beliefs. People are free to believe whatever they choose.” It is the methods of intense persuasion and social pressure used to manipulate and influence followers that she took issue with, and not the fact that the groups take your money or spread false beliefs. One technique that I absolutely abhor is the use of jargon, or loading the language, which Landmark is definitely guilty of (Integrity. Authenticity. Possibility. Strong suit. Breakdown. Racket™. Story. Complete. Commit. Enrol. Give me. A break.). The meanings of words are not immutable, but twisting them wantonly to constrict and shut down thinking abilities amounts to heinous crimes against vocabulary.

After extensive research, I remain convinced that Landmark’s practices are shady and questionable. Any organization that devotes an entire webpage to guaranteeing that its programmes are safe for your psyche and will not affect your religious beliefs – a guarantee backed by quotes from a string of “eminent” and “renowned” “top experts” – should raise red flags. Reading Singer’s book left me with a clearer and deeper understanding of cults and, more importantly, of thought reform. Cult is just a label. What must be recognized in such groups is their use of psychological manipulation. I’ve come to the realization, with both horror and relief, that such scams and cultlike activities are everywhere. They are possibly an ineradicable part of life. Parts of the book brought me back to encounters I had during my 10 years in church. More recently, I read an account of a Herbalife (The Real Slim Shady?) recruitment meeting that involved shiny eyes, preacher babble and raving testimonies. Same shit, different packaging.

For an excellent, comprehensive overview of Landmark, check out this New York article. And if you have 65 minutes to burn, you can watch the French exposé on Landmark here.

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