Cult Triggering: When Landmark Freaked Me Out
When you’ve been in, and got out of, a high-demand group, religion or cult, you can get triggered and freaked out when you find yourself in a similar situation. Your 'keep me safe' brain can scream, ‘Danger, Danger! Get the hell out of here!’. You can also go another way… feeling drawn back to the familiar… ‘Oh, this feels nice. Warm and fuzzy. They care. I miss this sort of connection!’ My reaction to a Landmark forum was the former. I was triggered.
A guy ‘James’, whom I'd met through the magazine I was editor of at the time, encouraged me to go to a Landmark introductory night for my self-development and healing from my past domestic violence.
Curiosity got the better of me
I was hesitant, knowing that an ex-boyfriend had been there, and I wasn’t left very impressed by him! But some other friends had said positive things about Landmark, so despite some wariness (knowing also how easily I can get hooked into things)… I decided to go. Who knows? This might have been what I was looking for … ? I was curious though nervous…Perhaps because I felt there was an organisational structure behind it.
On their website, Landmark says, ‘The Landmark Forum is designed to bring about positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life—in just three days. These shifts are the direct cause for a new and unique kind of freedom and power—the freedom to be at ease and the power to be effective in the areas that matter most to you…’
Their tagline is ‘Redefine the very nature of what’s possible.’ Sounds, good, right? Not religious, so should be safe???
The meeting was inside an office building in the West End. More like a warehouse really.
Inside I was given a name tag, which I knew communicated to anyone in the room that I was a newbie. The receptionist was very welcoming. In the room there were about 150 people sitting in chairs facing a stage. On the stage three people were sitting, one of whom was James. The MC, a lively lady, came on and all the chatting stopped. After welcoming us, she shared a little on Landmark.
There was a very upbeat vibe in the air. The charismatic MC invited all new visitors to stand up and be welcomed to resounding applause. Clearly, we were surrounded by devotees. She then introduced the three speakers, who each shared a brief testimony of how their lives had been transformed through the Landmark coaching. It was definitely a sales pitch; somehow James even mentioned me in his talk – something about hoping I will gain much from the evening. I was so embarrassed. Their stories were very transparent and intimate. They clearly trusted their audience with this personal information and were trying to communicate to us newbies this was a safe space that could likewise transform our lives if we were that transparent! I felt James was giving his testimony because his guest, me, was there. I knew well the purpose of testimony giving in these settings. Yes, I found myself a bit skeptical and analytical. I was putting a wall up around me.
Having been in the Unification Church / Family Federation for World Peace (nickname the 'Moonies cult') where we were encouraged to share personal information, which built up trust but also co-dependence (and we were taught to get new prospects to engage in this way), I was wary. I didn’t allow myself at Landmark to get carried away by the ‘inspiration’ on display. This was unusual for me, as usually I would get carried away! Especially as I was always seeking something. But this seemed too familiar. The way everyone cheered and clapped… the camaraderie… and the clear formula being followed up on that stage. Surely all the new people like me could see it! My gut was sending 'You are not safe' signals.
Soon after the rah rah, I found myself with a young female university student and her boyfriend and a few other people in a small room for new guests. I soon realised the university students and I were the only new guests. The others were back-up staff to populate the room.
Was it synchronicity again?
The lecturer was a young French guy who was married to an Australian. He shared his testimony about how his ‘block’ had been his constant criticism of his young wife who was a homemaker with little children. When he’d come home the house would be in a mess. The dishes still in the sink. Dinner not cooked. Toys and chaos everywhere. He became very unhappy. Very cranky, and he admitted, not nice to her sometimes. It sounded like he was possibly abusive. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You see, his past version of himself reminded me so much of my French ex-husband’s attitude to me as a wife and homemaker. The constant criticism, anger and occasional abuse borne out of frustration, unmet expectations and a lack of emotional regulation.
I momentarily thought as the lecturer was sharing, This must be meant to be for me to hear this. What are the chances? What synchronicity.
The lecturer then proceeded to share the Landmark strategies he used to overcome his bad attitude, turn himself around and improve his marriage. He had changed! He now comes home and plays with the kids and helps his wife. He was happy to share how horrible he’d been and how he had transformed. It was actually very inspiring. I found myself wishing my ex and I had come to Landmark years ago and wondered whether to invite him next time. OMG! What was I thinking? I was sliding down the tunnel…
This French lecturer then invited us all to consider a block we had or what it was that brought us here…. Something we are struggling with. My warning bells rang, and I decided just to mention my business, Wendy & Words. My gut said don’t mention my personal life.
He then took us through some of the processes to really break this down and connect it to some areas within ourselves that needed developing. There was quite a clever formula involved. We were then encouraged that if we went on a three-day seminar, we could delve into these things deeper and overcome our issues, to become successful. And it would only cost $300. The Landmark seminars go late into the night, and I’d heard you couldn’t leave.
This talk must have gone on for 2 hours. And I was getting tired.
The pressure started
Then the pressure started. Suddenly I had one male Landmark staff member sitting next to me, talking about the seminar, forms ready for me to sign. And a female Landmark staff member sat with the two students.
I could hear the lady pressuring them, not a metre from me. “Your auntie really wants you to do this. She really cares about you and your future. This will be so good for you, for you both.” (Her auntie was the MC.) “We’ve got university exams coming up. We don’t have time for this,” she girl said, rather weakly.
“This is more important than uni. This is your self-development. It will make your whole life improve. Don’t worry about the money. Your auntie say she will pay for it all.”
“No, I don’t think so…”
And the pressuring continued, on them, on and on. Every argument shot down.
My appointed ‘pressurer’ was pushing me too. He reminded me how much I’d gained just from that one lecture and that it was time to face my fears and make a decision. When I kept saying no and that I always give myself three days to decide on something (and that I couldn’t afford the $300) they brought in James, the guy who invited me. He started to try to coerce me too, inviting me to analyse and confront the ‘blocks’ inside me, and how to overcome those blocks... with the goal of me going to the workshop. They wanted to put me through a psychological process (it reminded me of Scientology), but I didn’t want to open up and let them play with my head. I didn’t know them and trust them. I was back peddling out of that tunnel fast!
My hackles were up. My usual open mindedness was not there. I could see a road ahead of seminar after seminar… My head being messed with…Indoctrination.
I said to them that I understand all the strategies you are applying here. I learned them myself in the Moonies. I was getting angry as I could hear the pressure being placed on these young students too. I wanted to grab those kids and run!
But I left alone. Before I did, the staff asked if their head office in Sydney could call me in three days time, and I said no. I will call them if I am interested. (They did call me!)
I felt bad leaving those kids. How many times I have wished the scene went something like this:
“Would you like to leave with me, right now? Yes? Great. Come with me. You too, boyfriend. Let’s leave together. You don’t have to bow to this pressure. They are manipulating you. ” And then they would get up to leave with me. I would save them.
But of course that didn’t happen.
I just walked out and forever regretted not standing up for that girl especially. I often wondered what happened to her.
No doubt after the three days, there would have been more workshops, more programs, money to pay…. I’ve heard about the programs. She might have stopped studying at uni, like I did, when I met the Moonies. Possibly she might have gotten something out of it… She might have been able to walk away with new skills and merge back into life after having an interesting experience and new growth. Or she might have remained caught in the Landmark cycle of continuous expensive programs and continuous calls to friends from those workshops to invite them onto the merry-go-round.
I realised later that that university girl was me. In saving her I wanted to save the old Wendy. I so often wished somebody had stood up for me, and that I would have listened… But would I have? Probably not. Some friends and family had tried. I got caught very quick by the Unification theology and the hope it presented, and the support the group offered me at a very vulnerable time in my life…. Plus there was the promise of a type of adventure that would change the world and heal God’s supposedly broken heart. Irresistible!
What the Landmark experience did show me is that a part of me was angry …. Perhaps that nobody had rescued me from the Moonies. And a part of me really did believe I had been manipulated, misled and needed rescuing. I’m sometimes angry at myself too. At how stupid I was (I don’t always feel that of course, I’m working on the positives from my experiences too). The anger inside me that night was to come up a few times over the years, where I did let it out… when I felt someone trying to coerce me! So much anger that my son had to wrap his arms around me and drag me away! But that’s for another story.
The other thing I’ve reflected on is the importance of discernment and listening to your gut. You don’t have to trust everyone to be a nice person.
Listen to your gut
I will say, there have been certain churches or environments that were good for me, but I had to face initial fears coming up because of the similarity in some respects to my old group – the fact it is an organised religion and uses that word ‘God’. But over time, my trust was earned (in some cases) when I realised my freedom was not being taken away, and in fact I was finding more internal and external freedom that I’d felt in my life. So, sometimes you can’t judge whether a new environment is right for you by the fact that it is familiar to your past cult or church, and you are triggered….
Still, go slow – even take a few steps back. Go at your own pace and don’t let anyone push you.
And if your gut is screaming, “Danger, danger, Mr Robinson,” then listen and run!
PS For those you have achieved great success in your lives through Landmark Forum, good on you. That’s your journey and I'm glad you got something out of it. I may have too! But I knew it wasn't for me.