LGATs and Fight Club. Dissecting a Delusion

John Hunter, PhD
November 26, 2019
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John Hunter was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in 2003 and since then has been trying to understand the illness, and its impact on belief-formation. In 2017 John completed his PhD in psychology, contending that a brutal form of “personal development” training triggers a bipolar state (hypomania/mania), that this experience contributes to a kind of religious conversion… and that Chuck Palahniuk and David Fincher were satirising these trainings in Fight Club. Twitter / lgatsandfightclub@gmail.com

Based on Appendix 5 of the PhD thesis: “Stress-induced hypomania in healthy participants: the allostatic manic-defence hypothesis” (Hunter, 2017)

Contents

1. Introduction to the LGAT industry
1.01. Overview of Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT)
1.02 Chuck Palahniuk’s participation in The Forum

2. Parallels between the LGAT industry and Fight Club
2.01. The rules
2.02. Sharing, crying, and visualisation exercises
2.03. Brutality and “enlightenment”
2.04. Tyler Durden and Werner Erhard
2.05. Marla Singer and Margaret Singer

2.06. Stewart Emery: the first chief executive officer (CEO) of est
2.07. Casualties of participation
2.08. “Applying the formula”
2.09. Joining Project Mayhem and becoming a Landmark “assistant” (volunteer)
2.10. LGAT rules and Project Mayhem rules

2.11. Project Mayhem and LGAT “assistants”
2.12. Tuesday night meetings
2.13. Raymond K. Hessel and the fear exercise
2.14. Silencing critics
2.15. Facts vs. stories
2.16. Homework
2.17. The expansion of LGATs, and Erhard’s withdrawal from the centre of the organisation

Conclusion
Full reference list

1. Introduction to the LGAT industry

In 1989 Chuck Palahniuk participated in a controversial type of “personal development” seminar, known generically as a large group awareness training (LGAT) and, according to Palahniuk, this seminar inspired him to become a writer [1][2][3][4]. In the two decades since Fight Club was published [5] and released [6], film reviewers, academics, journalists, and the public have largely agreed about Palahniuk’s commentary on consumerism and masculinity; however, just as Tyler Durden spliced single frames of pornography into family films, it will be argued that Chuck Palahniuk, and later David Fincher, spliced numerous references to the LGAT industry into Fight Club. It will be contended that, while Fight Club touches on multiple themes, a major metaphor relates to Palahniuk’s involvement with these organisations. Because Palahniuk and Fincher refer to various individuals, processes, criticisms, and critics associated with LGATs, this analysis will start with an overview of the LGAT industry. Evidence of Palahniuk’s participation in the most well-known LGAT of its time will then be provided, and the remainder of the paper will discuss the parallels between this industry and the book/film.

1.1. Overview of Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT)

Large group awareness training is the generic term for a type of “enlightenment training” that was popularised in San Francisco in the early 1970s. These trainings have some of their roots in Humanism, Zen, and Gestalt Therapy, and it is claimed by reliable sources that the first major LGAT incorporated techniques from Scientology [7][8][9].  Three prominent early LGATs were: Erhard Seminars Training, or “est” (formed by Werner Erhard), Lifespring (formed by John Hanley), and Actualizations (formed by Stewart Emery) [10][8]. Werner Erhard (born “Jack” Rosenberg [8]) is widely considered “the Godfather” of these trainings and while The est Training no longer exists, it was replaced by The Forum in 1985 (this is the training that Palahniuk took in 1989), and The Forum was replaced by The Landmark Forum in 1991 [11][8] (see Figure 1 for details [33]). Of specific relevance to this article, Werner Erhard was very much the figurehead of the organisations which offered The est Training and The Forum, but in 1991 he sold his “technology” to his employees [11] and – while his brother (Harry Rosenberg) has been the CEO of Landmark Worldwide (formerly Landmark Education) since its inception – there is now a distinct effort to ensure that no single person is seen as the focal point of the organisation [33]. “Landmark” currently has offices in 125 cities [12], a presence in 21 countries [11], and claims more than 2.4 million graduates since its inception [11]. Because LGATs are highly scripted and structured [13][14], many spinoffs of est and Lifespring have occurred in the last half century, and it is estimated that Landmark is just one of hundreds of LGAT organisations worldwide [15].

Figure 1: Relationship between Erhard Seminars Training (est), Werner Erhard & Associates, and “Landmark”

At a high level, LGATs position themselves as group “personal development” programs. They typically run over three to five days and are made up of long lectures, guided visualisation exercises, New Age philosophy, and – significantly, for the purposes of this analysis – psychologically brutal interactions between participants and the trainer. Frequently, people will talk about problems in their lives and they will be mocked and harassed by the trainer until they “take responsibility” for these experiences:

“It’s your own fault. Gradually, Tony moved on to another mainstay in the est body of knowledge, the idea of ‘taking responsibility for your life.’ It is basically the perception that your problems aren’t caused by sickness or fate or other people, they are caused by you, and until you accept that, you’ll never solve any of them. Not surprisingly, almost everyone in the room had an example of some exception in his own case, but Tony would have none of it. He wouldn’t have cared if you’d been gang-raped or born with a brain defect, it was no goddamn excuse” [7].

Since their inception there have been claims of psychological harm resulting from participation [16][17][18][14], and the people who criticise LGATs are often those intimately familiar with indoctrination processes. Former “Moonie” Steven Hassan mentions them in his book Combatting Cult Mind Control [19], Dr Margaret Singer dedicates chapter eight of her book Cults in Our Midst [14] to LGATs, and a special task force, led by Dr Singer, was appointed by the American Psychological Association (APA) to investigate cults and LGATs in 1983 [20]. Dr Singer was sued by Landmark for including them in her book, and journalist Steven Pressman [8] was likewise sued by Landmark for his damning biography of Werner Erhard. Attorneys Peter Skolnick and Michael Norwick, while defending another critic of Landmark, stated:

“In an effort to suppress this unfavourable dialogue about the company, Landmark, like Erhard before it, has repeatedly used litigation and threats of litigation as an improper tool to silence its vocal public critics” [21].

The litigious nature of these organisations possibly explains why Palahniuk and Fincher commented on this industry through a veiled metaphor, and not more openly. In Postcards from the future: The Chuck Palahniuk documentary, Palahniuk notes how fiction can be used to remark on topics that cannot be spoken about freely. It is conceivable that, through Fight Club, he was saying something that it is difficult for society to talk out loud about:

“Horror is always creating a monster that stands for something that society can’t talk out loud about. The Frankenstein monster was about the industrial revolution…” – Chuck Palahniuk [22]

Given the psychological brutality of LGATs, one might ask why anyone would willingly participate. LGATs promise participants “transformation” (or “enlightenment”) and, as a result of significant stress, maintained for a few days and then abruptly removed, most participants experience a powerful transient state of confidence, euphoria, and of seeing the world in a new way [23]:

“Afterwards, participants have attested to feeling ‘awesome’ and experiencing an emotional high that lasted for days. Some say they had to use special ‘grounding’ procedures just to carry on with normal life after this transcending experience” [14, p. 198].

Few participants understand that their state of mind is related to altered neurotransmitter levels and that the “one-size-fits-all” approach used by LGATs causes serious psychological harm to a (not insignificant) portion of the participants. In Dr Singer’s book, she provides evidence of psychotic breakdowns, suicides, PTSD, phobias, cognitive difficulties and stress-related illnesses experienced by some. Of relevance to this analysis, Singer [14], like Fisher [16], asserts that LGATs are well-aware that some participants react very badly to their processes, but that they choose to pay these people off in the event of a disaster, rather than adequately warning future participants of the risks:

“Although she had no history of psychiatric illness prior to the Lifespring training, afterward Jane underwent a period of growing depression that culminated in multiple suicide attempts. She was hospitalized for three years and remains on medication. Jane sued Lifespring and the case was settled for a large amount” [14, pp. 203-204].

1.2. Chuck Palahniuk’s participation in The Forum

In an interview with Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian in 2005, Palahniuk explains how he participated in “Landmark”, and how it gave him the confidence to quit his job and face his fear:

“A casual visit to a ‘group awareness’ seminar conducted by the Landmark Forum, an organisation that uses ideas based on controversial ‘est’ therapy, was, he says, his ‘big epiphany moment’.

‘I was 26 when I did the seminar, convinced the world was out to burn me at every turn. If it wasn’t for that seminar, I wouldn’t be a writer’” [2].

Likewise, Believer Magazine insists that his decision to write was inspired by the Landmark Forum:

“In 1989, a man named Chuck Palahniuk enrolled in a Landmark Forum workshop [A]. He was twenty-six years old and, like many of his co-participants, struggling with his life and what to do with it. Despite his lack of vocational direction, Palahniuk had no problem navigating his way to the closest exit after the first forty-five minutes of the workshop, repelled by the program’s cultiness and rigidity. Later that day, however, he returned to complete the training, and that night began writing what would become his best-selling book, Fight Club…[3].

Vanessa Grigoriadis of New York Magazine quotes Palahniuk with regards to his participation:

“Then, when I was walking out, it struck me that I was 26 years old and I was never going to take another risk in my life. I was the one being an asshole! So I went back and said, ‘Okay, I’d like to take a risk, where do I sign?’ After that, I bought a word processor. That was my first step to being a writer” [1].

Notably, Palahniuk explains that his books typically reflect his own experiences:

“Oh, definitely. If they are satires, it is usually me satirising myself, the traps I fell into, the self-help groups I attended. It’s all me. I’m the guy who had the Ikea catalogue in my drawer at work” [2].

It is contended that Palahniuk took part in The Forum, enjoyed the transformative state it provided, and worked as a volunteer for “Landmark” for some time but, being an independent thinker, he later read two key books, which compelled him to reconsider his support for this organisation:

1. Outrageous Betrayal – The Dark Journey of Werner Erhard from est to Exile by Steven Pressman (published in 1993).

2. Cults in Our Midst by Dr Margaret Singer (first edition published in March 1995).

In these books, he would have been confronted with a disturbing portrayal of Werner Erhard and evidence of those harmed by these trainings, and it is possible that this caused him conflict. On one hand, he had these courses which presumably worked for him – impressive-sounding philosophy and a no-holds-barred attitude to life – and on the other hand he had evidence that, while these trainings might benefit some, there are others who suffer enormously as a result of taking part:

“Importantly, a certain number of participants will be seriously harmed as these stresses precipitate a handful of psychological conditions, such as brief psychotic episodes, posttraumatic stress disorder syndrome, a variety of dissociative disorders, relaxation-induced anxiety, and other miscellaneous reactions including phobias, cognitive difficulties, and stress-related illnesses” [14, p. 208].

Fight Club was first published in August 1996, soon after these two books, yet seven years after the training that supposedly initiated Palahniuk’s writing career [5]; the film, directed by David Fincher, and starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter, was released in 1999 [6]. What follows are a number of observations about the LGAT industry and Fight Club. Why, you might ask, have you never heard about LGATs before? The answer is simple and at the same time revealing. For the first few hours of any LGAT participants will be put in their place and explained the rules they must agree to for the duration of the training. These rules are repeated over and over again – most of which effectively hand all authority over to the trainer – but the most crucial and emphasised of all the rules is that “You do not talk about what goes on in the LGAT”.

2. Parallels between the LGAT industry and Fight Club

Notes:

A. Landmark was only formed in 1991. Palahniuk initially attended the Forum (offered by WE&A), and may have been involved until 1991, when the Landmark Forum was first offered. These LGATs are often considered synonymous.

References:

1. Grigoriadis, V. (2001, July 9). Pay Money, Be Happy. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/culture/features/4932/index1.html

2. O’Hagan, S. (2005, May 8). Fright Club. Retrieved November 5, 2016, from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/may/08/fiction.chuckpalahniuk

3. Snider, S. (2003, May). Est, Werner Erhard, and the Corporatization of Self-Help. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from Believer: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200305/?read=article_snider

4. Thorne, M. (2008, July 12). Chuck Palahniuk talks sex dolls, strippers and the one subject he won’t write about. Retrieved August 10, 2017, from Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/chuck-palahniuk-talks-sex-dolls-strippers-and-the-one-subject-he-wont-write-about-864625.html

5. Palahniuk, C. (1996). Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

6. Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club [Motion Picture].

7. Brewer, M. (1975, August). ”We’re Gonna Tear You Down and Put You Back Together”. Psychology Today, pp. 35-40+.

8. Pressman, S. (1993). Outrageous Betrayal – The Dark Journey of Werner Erhard from est to Exile. United States: St. Martins Press.

9. Rhinehart, L. (2010). The Book of est. Hypnotic Marketing, Inc; Hypnotic Media LLC.

10. Finkelstein, P., Wenegrat, B., & Yalom, I. (1982). Large Group Awareness Trainings. Annual Review Of Psychology, 33 (1), 515-539.

11. Landmark. (2016a). Landmark Company History. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from Landmark Worldwide: http://www.landmarkworldwide.com/about/company-overview/company-history

12. Landmark. (2016b). Company Overview. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from Landmark Worldwide: http://www.landmarkworldwide.com/about/company-overview

13. Lieberman, M. (1987, April). Effects of Large Group Awareness Training on Participants’ Psychiatric Status. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144 (4), 460-464. Retrieved November 28, 2016

14. Singer, M. (2003). Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (Revised and updated ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from: https://www.amazon.com/Cults-Our-Midst-Continuing-Against/dp/0787967416

15. Langone, M. (1998). Large Group Awareness Trainings. Cult Observer, 15. Retrieved May 18, 2016, from: http://www.csj.org/rg/rgessays/rgessay_lgate.htm

16. Fisher, M. (1987, October 25). I Cried Enough to Fill a Glass. The Washington Post, p. 36. Retrieved May 26, 2016, from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1987/10/25/i-cried-enough-to-fill-a-glass/c75b0dda-e8ea-46f9-8aea-8e4afdd0cfbe/

17. Glass, L., Kirsch, M., & Parris, F. (1977). Psychiatric disturbances associated with Erhard Seminars Training: I. A report of cases. American Journal of Psychiatry, 134, 245-247.

18. Kirsch, M., & Glass, L. (1977). Psychiatric disturbances associated with Erhard Seminars Training: II. Additional cases and theoretical considerations. American Journal of Psychiatry, 134, 1254-1258.

19. Hassan, S. (1988). Combatting Cult Mind Control. Rochester: Park Street Press.

20. CESNUR. (n.d.). CESNUR Center for studies on new religions. Retrieved June 10, 2017, from: http://www.cesnur.org/testi//DIMPAC.htm

21. Skolnik, P., & Norwick, M. (2006). Introduction to the Landmark Education litigation archive. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from Cult Education Institute: http://culteducation.com/group/1020-landmark-education/12390-introduction-to-the-landmark-education-litigation-archive.html

22. Mr. Blueberry. (2014, February 3). Postcards from the Future: The Chuck Palahniuk Documentary. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1IH54MLTq4

23. Hunter, J. (2019, May 20). The first rule of large group awareness trainings. Retrieved November 7, 2019, from Psychological Society of South Africa: https://thoughtleader.co.za/psyssa/2019/05/20/the-first-rule-of-large-group-awareness-trainings/

33. Hunter, J. (2017). Stress-induced hypomania in healthy participants : the allostatic “manic-defence hypothesis”. Retrieved November 7, 2019, from Research Space: University of KwaZulu-Natal: https://researchspace.ukzn.ac.za/handle/10413/15188

Full reference list