In the years since Werner Erhard, the iconoclastic founder of est and the Forum, vanished from public view after some withering media coverage, the Forum has thrived.
The Landmark Education Co., which runs the Forum and other self-help programs, last year achieved gross revenues of an estimated $54 million, most of which was plowed back into the company.
Worldwide, about 68,000 people attended Forum seminars in 96 locations in 1998. That does not include the workshops that Landmark has provided to employees of the 75 US companies it has worked with, Forum officials say.
Before he disappeared in 1991, Erhard had successfully defended himself against the toughest of the media reports: His daughter recanted allegations of incest, and the Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that reports of tax fraud were false; Erhard won $200,000 in that case.
But despite its success, financial and otherwise, the Forum has been dogged by claims that it comes close to being a cult. And the primary root of such allegations is the large number of people who work for Landmark unpaid.
Landmark has only 400 paid employees. But it has 7,500 unpaid volunteers, graduates of Landmark seminars, who help market the program and staff each workshop, assisting the Forum leader at every step of the way (even to the point of opening and closing doors for people who have to go to the bathroom so that no one is distracted by noise).
Social scientists familiar with the Forum agree that the program itself is not a cult. But whether the training gets people so hooked on the experience as to make them dependent on the Landmark company and thus engage in cultlike behavior is an open question for some.
"If volunteers who put in all this time are getting a valuable sense of their own experience, that's OK," says Tom Greening, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. "But if they are being used because of their dependence, that's another thing. The question is how free are they every day to choose to be volunteers or to leave?"
Volunteers say they are free to leave whenever they choose. They say they like to staff Forum workshops to help others and because of the good that they continue to get out of the program.
Jim Goodman, a lawyer who works as general counsel for a large company in Philadelphia, was one of perhaps 20 volunteers at a recent Forum workshop. He flew to Boston to act as media liaison, and except for his expenses (air fare and hotel), he says he wasn't paid.
"I do this about four times a year, and I do it because I'm someone who wants to make a difference in life," says Goodman, a quiet, unassuming man who's 42. "When you see the results people get from the Forum, it makes you want to assist others achieve the same thing."