This weekend, I was thinking of going on a Landmark Education weekend course in London, in order to do some research for a piece I’m writing on resisting social pressure. I was intending to go along to see if, with the help of ancient philosophy’s resilience techniques, I could survive three days of the Landmark’s highly emotional encounter sessions without getting affected by the group hysteria. My brother pointed out it wouldn’t really prove anything, and I might actually get conditioned. Plus it cost £330. So I didn’t sign up.

I’m glad I didn’t, after hearing from a fellow psychology and philosophy blogger, Adam, who I met yesterday evening for a beer in Kings Cross. Adam told me a remarkable story about how one of Landmark’s encounter sessions triggered a psychotic episode in him, leaving him completely disorientated and having to be institutionalized for six weeks.
He says he went to Landmark after he left university, when he was at a low ebb – he was depressed, had low self-esteem, was in a job he didn’t like. He signed up for Landmark, hoping it would turn his life around. He gathered with the other recruits into a large hall, and as soon as the group leader spoke, Adam felt something wasn’t right.
‘The first thing the group leader said was ‘I need your total commitment. If you have any doubts at all, or are only going to give half measures, I want you to leave now.’ It sounded culty to me. He was basically saying you’re either 100% with me or you should get out. He didn’t leave any room for people’s doubts or criticisms. I thought about walking out there, but I stayed. I think I was embarrassed at the thought of being the only one in a room full of people to get up and leave.’

Adam goes on: ‘Landmark practices something called Attack Therapy. It involves attacking someone verbally, ridiculing and belittling them, calling them names, to try and break down their defences and help them breakthrough to the leader or therapist’s way of seeing things. The leader insisted that ‘you can do whatever you want to do’. And, throughout the three days, various people stood up, shaking with rage, and revealed all the terrible things that had happened to them that meant they couldn’t do whatever they wanted to do – people had been raped, or abused, or one person had killed their father by mistake. And the leader would shout back at them, and ridicule them for their self-pity or their hypocrisy or whatever, until eventually they accepted the leader’s point of view, had a ‘breakthrough’, and converted to a new way of seeing reality.’
‘I was the first person to stand up. I remember, I was absolutely terrified. My hands were shaking. I was standing up in front of all these people, challenging the leader’s authority, but I felt I had to do it. I said: ‘what if the one thing you want is that everyone in the world admits that not everything is possible?’ And the leader just sneered at me: ‘The thing about you is you like to play clever little games’. And I felt crushed. I suddenly wondered if it was true, if I was really a worthless person clinging on to my intellect. I sat back down. It wasn’t that I’d had a breakthrough…I just didn’t have the guts to leave. I wanted to prove I could stay the course. But for the whole three days, I became more and more stressed. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.’
After the course, Adam found himself unable to make sense of the world. He suffered an extreme stress reaction, which meant his brain was pumped full of adrenalin and cortisol, as if he was in extreme danger (after all, he felt his ego was in extreme danger). Too much of these stress chemicals damages our ability to make sense of the world, leading us to make unusual or deluded interpretations of reality in an effort to re-find some control (one study found that the more unhappy and stressed people are, the more they’re likely to hold on to superstitious beliefs).
Adam started to suffer from advanced paranoia, and to think everyone was speaking in code about him – even the TV News – and that some sort of global cataclysm was about to happen. He says: ‘Landmark had basically broken my ego defences, but it hadn’t put anything in its place. They’re nihilists – they think there’s no meaning to life, other than doing what you want to do.’
He ended up being put in a mental home for six weeks, as he tried to figure out where he was and what was happening to him. ‘For a while, I thought that we were all patients with mad cow disease, except some of us didn’t have it, and the game was to figure out who had it and who didn’t’. He gradually came back to reality, but then had to embark on the slow work of reintegrating with life. He says: ‘I realised that I needed to get some friends, and get a job’.
He managed to counteract his paranoia through the method of evidence checking. He held the strong belief – ‘everyone is looking at me, thinking about me and talking about me’ – which he decided to check by simply looking up and looking around to see if other people were in fact looking at him. And he found they weren’t. That was a key step in challenging his distorting beliefs and coming back to reality.
This morning I did some research into Attack Therapy. It seems to have grown up out of the encounter session technique pioneered by evangelist religious organizations, and first used in therapy by quasi-religious groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
At AA, members’ attachment to the group and its ethos was cemented with ‘sharing sessions’, where members would share their deepest, darkest stories and receive sympathy and acceptance in return.Attack Therapy took this group dynamic and gave it a twist. Instead of receiving sympathy and approval, patients are ridiculed, humiliated and shamed. Their individual ego defences are broken down by the experience of intense public ridicule, and to overcome the stress of ostracism, they let go of their individual beliefs and embrace the beliefs and view-points of the group.
The Attack Therapy technique was made famous by a California drug rehabilitation centre called Synanon, set up by a former AA patient, Chuck Dederich, in the 1960s. The Synanon members, including drug offenders sent there by California courts, went through a weekly ritual called ‘The Game’, in which recalcitrant or rebellious members were humiliated and their inner foibles exposed to the Group. Synanon was eventually disbanded because of tax fraud, the violent beatings of people who’d left the group, death threats of anyone who criticized the group, and the suspected murder of members.
The teachnique was also used by other California encounter session-based therapies, such as Erhard Seminars Training (est), which is the progenitor of Landmark, and also Byron Katie’s The Work. These groups followed the same formula: you take a group of vulnerable individuals, put them in a large hall for three or four days, during which time you restrict their movements and their freedoms and then subject them to ‘marathon sessions’ of very emotional and confrontational therapy, in which patients are encouraged to stand up and ‘share’ their deepest hang-ups with the group – to be ridiculed by the leader, before ultimately being accepted by the group.
The est trainer Peter McWilliams calls this technique ‘pressure / release’ – you subject the initiates to the pressure of intense ridicule and ostracism, before the release of group acceptance and re-integration. A similar sort of method is used in the Army, I suppose, through hazing rituals.
Byron Katie’s encounter sessions apparently use a similar method – not exactly ‘attack therapy’, but certainly the method of getting people to share their darkest secrets with the Group. Here’s one account of a Byron session:
In the Shame unit, we were instructed to write down the thing we’d done in our lives that we were most ashamed of, then take the mike and tell the whole group, then do The Work on it with a partner. Shaming is a subtle but powerful component of psychological abuse used in every torture and mind control process. People stood up and, sobbing or preening, revealed everything from bestiality and zoophilia to embarrassing physical features, infidelity to poor parenting that bordered on abuse. Many people told of having been abused and shamed by that. The reward for producing a novel or particularly painful shame experience was Katie’s cooing, warm approval and attention. This was such a powerful exercise that, for the next few days, Katie would interrupt whatever exercise was in process to say that so-and-so desired to tell about their shame. Folks who had kept quiet during the Shame module apparently could not resist being part of it all, taking that microphone, and joining Katie’s ‘family.’

This sort of pressure cooker group therapy sessions works for some people, but many have an adverse reaction: one study of 200 college students who went through encounter sessions found that 9% suffered psychological damage that lasted at least six months. That’s quite a cost. And yet groups like Landmark and The Work are still able to perform this sort of gung-ho extreme therapy, without even checking if any of their participants are borderline or vulnerable to psychosis. One account I read of Byron Katie’s The Work says that participants were actually encouraged to hand in their medication at the beginning of the weekend, and that some participants suffered psychotic reactions during the course of the weekend.
The Attack Therapy technique reminds me very much of the ‘struggle sessions’ used by the Red Army during the during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970s, in which Red Army propagandists would fire up crowds and then get them to denounce and publicly shame any supposed rebels or dissidents.
For all the talk of Communist ‘brainwashing techniques’, it’s really quite a simple mechanism. You brainwash people through group dynamics. We’re such social animals, and so biologically programmed to be conformist and to seek the approval of the people around us (however strange or abhorrent their ethics), that it only takes a few days before most of us instil the ethics of whatever group we’re in and seek the group’s acceptance – even when the group abuses and ridicules us, or perhaps particularly when the group abuses and ridicules us. We like to think we’re rational, autonomous individuals who can think for ourselves, but maybe we’re all just a few days away from Nuremberg.