LGATs and Fight Club. Dissecting a Delusion

John Hunter, PhD
November 26, 2019

1. Introduction to the LGAT industry

2. Parallels between the LGAT industry and Fight Club

2.01. The rules

For the first few hours of an LGAT the trainer (or an assistant) goes through the all-important rules, which are repeated throughout the training:

“The leader starts with welcoming you by explaining the rules of the forum” [24].

“Werner has developed certain ground rules for the training which you have agreed to follow” [9, p. 5].

“The session begins with a re-reading of the ground rules…” [10, p. 519].

There is a major focus on the rules in Fight Club and the first and second rules are, “You do not talk about fight club”. LGATs do exactly the same thing, heavily stressing and enforcing rules – the most emphasised of which is that you do not reveal any detail about what goes on in the LGAT:

“Moreover, it is a crucial and well-respected tenet of est that graduates will not discuss the content of the training with the uninitiated. This rule stems from the est maxim that the training cannot be explained or understood, but only experienced” [7].

“The program trainers and leaders typically get agreement from participants that they will not tell anyone about the processes that occur” [14, p. 193].

“We have all signed a confidentiality agreement as well as an agreement not to violate Landmark’s copyright claims” [25].

2.02. Sharing, crying, and visualisation exercises

The more benign elements of LGATs may be represented in Fight Club by the meetings initially attended by the narrator (“Jack”). These meetings allow him to cry, which allows him to sleep [6].

In LGATs, participants are similarly encouraged to share painful experiences with the group, and participants frequently break down crying during these processes:

“These opaque missives came to life, though, through ‘sharing,’ the testimonials that participants gave at the microphones. In our course, at least, this became a speed-walk through the awful things that people do to themselves and to each other – infidelity, incest, anorexia, abuse. Weeping at the mike was so common that one dry-eyed grandmother seemed compelled to explain, ‘If I wasn’t taking antidepressant pills, I’d be crying right now’” [26].

Guided visualisation also takes place during the early group meetings in Fight Club. In the film, Jack is encouraged to “go to his cave” to “find his power animal”, for example [6].

Rhinehart describes a visualisation exercise used in est (which is similar to exercises used in other LGATs):

“First, I will instruct you to remove your glasses and contact lenses, place any article on your lap on to the floor beneath your chair, and sit comfortably with your arms and legs uncrossed. I will ask you to place your hands on your thighs and to close your eyes. Then I will instruct you to ‘enter your space’…” [9, p. 32].

2.03. Brutality and “enlightenment”

While the initial meetings attended by Jack represent the nonthreatening elements of LGATs, the fight clubs may represent the more confrontational elements. Much of an LGAT involves psychologically brutal interactions between the trainer and individual participants:

“The socially anxious trainee, looking for approval and validation from others rather than from himself, comes face to face in the training with a punitive, authoritarian, invulnerable trainer who ridicules, abuses, and shouts at him in front of 250 people, demolishing his feeble counterattacks and reducing him to a state of apparent foolishness” [10, p. 532].

Referring to the “enlightenment”, confidence, and euphoria brought about by fighting, Jack says:

“After fight club, we all started seeing things differently” [6].

“After a fight, you could deal with anything” [6].

“Afterwards we all felt saved” [6].

The back cover of the DVD possibly makes the most explicit reference to fight-induced euphoria, stating, “Before long, Jack and Tyler are beating each other to a pulp in a bar parking lot, a cathartic slugfest that delivers the ultimate high” [6]. LGAT participants likewise claim to “see things differently”, and report sudden confidence and euphoria as a result of participation:

“The standard est training promises to transform the capacity to experience life so that one is more satisfied with life as it is (Sayre 1977). As such it promises a personal upheaval in consciousness which is meant to alter the very way in which the environment is known (epistemology) and being is experienced (ontology) (Lande 1976)” [10, p. 534].

“… participants walk away with a catharsis and an unholy confidence in what they can accomplish” [1].

“I was shaken by the power of the weekend. As I got the midnight train out of London, I realised that well over 100 people had experienced a transformation in three days. The sense of euphoria that such an experience of accelerated community brings was remarkable” [27].

2.04. Tyler Durden and Werner Erhard

The three main characters in Fight Club are the narrator (Jack), Tyler Durden, and Marla Singer. As has been suggested, Jack likely represents Palahniuk himself, or any person who gets involved in an LGAT and ends up volunteering for the organisation. It is contended that Tyler Durden represents Werner Erhard, who is portrayed by Pressman [8] as the charismatic, sociopathic leader of an unethical organisation. Numerous parallels between Tyler and Erhard support this assertion.

LGATs offer participants “transformation” [28][29][26] – a new and exciting way of seeing the world – much like Tyler offered Jack:

“You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you were – that’s me. I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, I am capable and I am free in all of the ways that you are not” [6].

Describing the way that Landmark volunteers look up to the trainer, Hukill states:

“The volunteers, some of them Forum leader hopefuls, watch the way he sits in his director’s chair, relaxed but energized, the person everyone wants to be” [30].

Late in Fight Club it is revealed that Tyler is actually Jack’s creation – that Jack is psychotic and has effectively merged with a character that he has imagined. From a psychological perspective, this is not as radical an idea as you may think, as is explained in this academic paper on est:

Identification refers to learning which occurs as the result of modeling behavior upon others. Glass and associates (1977) and Kirsch & Glass (1977), in reports of est casualties (described above), suggest that ‘identification with the aggressor’ is a central dynamic in all est outcomes. They argue that est trainees exposed to a regimen of sleep deprivation and an attacking charismatic leader attempt to master the situation by unconsciously identifying with, or merging with, the trainer” [10, p. 534].

Notably, Pressman quotes these authors, who say of est:

“… an authoritarian, confrontational, aggressive leadership style coupled with physiologic deprivation fosters an identification with the aggressor. The inability of this defense mechanism to contain overwhelming anxiety aroused by the process may lead to fusion with the leader, ego fragmentation and psychotic decompensation” [8, p. 193].

Just as Tyler Durden was created by Jack, Werner Erhard was created by Jack (Rosenberg):

“Nobody back in Philadelphia, he thought to himself, would ever imagine that Jack Rosenberg would change his name to Werner Hans Erhard” [8, p. 2].

In addition to the back cover of the DVD [6], on which the “nameless” narrator is explicitly referred to as Jack, the following extracts from the movie [6] also hint at this name:

TYLER: Hey man. What are you reading?

JACK: Listen to this. It’s an article written by an organ in the first person. I am Jack’s medulla oblongata. Without me Jack could not regulate his heat-rate, blood pressure, or breathing. There’s a whole series of these… I am Jack’s colon…

TYLER: Yeah… I get cancer. I kill Jack.

Throughout the movie [6] there are more “I am Jack’s…” comments such as:

I am Jack’s raging bile duct

I am Jack’s cold sweat

I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise

I am Jack’s wasted life

I am Jack’s inflamed sense of rejection

I am Jack’s broken heart

I am Jack’s smirking revenge

Werner Erhard was born as “Jack” Rosenberg, but he left his wife and four children, moved to a new city, changed his name and started a new family:

“On May 25th, 1960, Rosenberg picked up June from her real estate office and drove to the Newark airport, where they left the car in the parking lot and boarded a flight to Indianapolis. More than a dozen years would pass before Rosenberg’s family would hear from him again. By the time they landed a few hours later, Jack Rosenberg and June Bryde were ready to begin new lives as Werner and Ellen Erhard” [8, p. 6].

This may have been hinted at during the scene in which Tyler is sitting in a bath, speaking to Jack. Responding to Tyler, Jack says:

“I don’t know my dad… I mean I know him but he left when I was like six years old… married this other woman, had some other kids… He did this every few years – he goes to a new city and starts a new family” [6].

While several sources refer to Palahniuk’s participation in “Landmark”, the only source prior to this analysis which compared a character from Fight Club to someone from the LGAT industry was the (unfavourable) review of the film by renowned critic, Roger Ebert. Suggesting astonishing insight, coincidence or, perhaps, that he was in on the joke, he described Tyler as:

“… a bully – Werner Erhard plus S&M, a leather club operator without the décor” [31].

Considering that LGATs have been associated with cults since their inception [20][32][14], Ebert’s description of those who follow Tyler is equally incisive:

“None of the fight club members grow stronger or freer because of their membership; they’re reduced to pathetic cultists” [31].

When you consider the three jobs that Tyler has, the metaphor gains clarity. Jack explains early on in the film that Tyler works as “a banquet waiter at the luxurious Pressman Hotel” [6]. Steven Pressman was the journalist who wrote the damning biography on Werner Erhard [8]. Later Jack comments, “Tyler was now involved in a class action lawsuit with the Pressman Hotel over the urine content of their soup” [6]. In 1998 Landmark sued Pressman and attempted to force him to reveal the sources he had used [21]. Since there was a reference to the Pressman Hotel, but not to a lawsuit, in the book (1996), it is telling that the movie (1999) makes reference to a lawsuit which took place after the book was published, but before the film was released.

Tyler’s second job is as a projectionist. He takes this job, we are told, because it affords him the opportunity to splice single frames of pornography into family films. “Nobody knows that they saw it, but they have…” Jack explains [6]. LGATs have frequently been accused during the nearly half-century they have been around of using deceptive methods of indoctrination – of furtively manipulating participants to work as unpaid salesmen and “volunteers” (servants) through trainings which are marketed as transformative and empowering [33]. In 1983 Dr Singer led the DIMPAC committee, on behalf of the APA, to investigate whether LGATs and cults used “deceptive and indirect methods of persuasion and control” [20]. While the APA concluded that evidence of “brainwashing” in LGATs was lacking [20], a recent (transparent) analysis reveals that LGATs appear to incorporate all eight steps of thought reform [33][34] – an uncomfortable finding for those committed to these trainings.

Tyler’s final job is making soap. “In order to make soap”, Tyler tells Jack, “we need fat, and the best fat for making soap comes from humans” [6]. In addition to visualisation exercises and obscure philosophical lectures, LGATs get participants to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets – the problems, the concerns and the things which are troubling them. What they then do is they take what participants say and twist it around (so they can “take responsibility”) and then they give it back to them. For this they charge hundreds of dollars. Fat may represent the bad/painful parts of people that are revealed, repackaged, and returned to participants. Jack comments while Tyler sells the soap, “It was beautiful – we were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them” [6].

A more obscure reference to Werner Erhard is made through his place of residence. While running est, Erhard’s mansion in San Francisco was in Franklin Street. In Outrageous Betrayal Steven Pressman refers to it constantly and chapter eleven is entitled “Nightmare on Franklin Street”:

“Inside the Franklin House, from which Erhard directed his minions, nothing escaped the attention and demands of the master” [8, p. 123].

Both the opening scene and the final scene in Fight Club occur in Franklin Street. This name comes up twice in the movie – firstly, when Jack checks a number that he called while “asleep” he is told that the address is “1888 Franklin Street” and later, after he escapes from the cops who are in on the plot (and runs down the street in his underwear), he reaches a road with a bus shelter on it. He briefly looks up to the name on the bus shelter and it says “FRANKLIN STREET” [6]. While the links between Tyler Durden and Werner Erhard require some understanding of the LGAT industry, the links between Marla Singer and Margaret Singer are somewhat less concealed.

2.05. Marla Singer and Margaret Singer

Marla Singer, as the final key character in Fight Club, represents a reality check to Jack, who cannot enjoy his groups with Marla “watching”. Marla is the counterpoint to Tyler’s reckless way of viewing the world and, while Jack initially resents her, she turns out to be the one person who really does care about him.

Margaret Singer’s full name is Margaret Thaler (“Mar-ler”) Singer [14], and it is contended that the major conflict within Fight Club represents Palahniuk’s struggle between a psychological attachment to these organisations, and the frustrating, conscience-invoking evidence presented by Pressman [8] and Singer [35].

In the book, Tyler explains that he takes over whenever Jack “falls asleep”, suggesting that Erhard (est/WE&A/Landmark) takes control as soon as participants stop questioning, and start trusting the LGAT trainers indiscriminately:

“We’re not two separate men. Long story short, when you’re awake, you have the control, and you can call yourself anything you want, but the second you fall asleep, I take over, and you become Tyler Durden” [36, p. 167].

Margaret Singer provides an uncomfortable reality check to LGAT proponents – anyone who reads, and honestly engages with, the information in her book would find it difficult to support the way that LGATs operate. In Fight Club Marla prevents Jack from enjoying his group and adopting the hedonistic, and “enlightened” perspective advocated by Tyler:

“I can’t cry with this woman watching me” [36, p. 22].

“Tyler just doesn’t come out when Marla’s around” [36, p. 65].

Palahniuk explains that the only way for Jack to “stay awake” is with Marla’s help – that only Marla’s influence could prevent Tyler from completely taking over:

“And if I went to bed earlier every night and I slept later every morning, eventually I’d be gone altogether. I’d just go to sleep and never wake up […] I would never wake up and Tyler would take over […] So Tyler can’t take complete control, I need Marla to keep me awake. All the time” [36, p. 174].

Similarly, when Jack “hears” Tyler and Marla having sex this causes him distress, and Tyler and Marla cannot be in the same room at the same time [6]. This may represent the cognitive dissonance experienced by Palahniuk as he tried to maintain his loyalty to “Landmark” and its ideas, while engaging with evidence of those harmed by these trainings. As Jack puts Marla on a bus, to protect her from Tyler, he exclaims, “They think you’re some kind of threat – I can’t explain it right now”. Margaret Singer, as the head of the DIMPAC committee, and author of Cults in Our Midst, was – like Pressman – sued by Landmark [21], and was certainly seen as a threat.

2.06. Stewart Emery: the first chief executive officer (CEO) of est

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

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.

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

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

24. Prasad, A. (2012, December 18). Landmark Forum Review – Scam, Cult or Pyramid Scheme? Retrieved March 24, 2016, from: http://ajithprasad.com/landmark-forum-review-scam-cult-pyramid-scheme/

25. Mahoney, R. (1998, August). Do you believe in Miracles? Retrieved March 29, 2016, from Elle Magazine: http://culteducation.com/group/1020-landmark-education/12396-do-you-believe-in-miracless.htm

26. Thornburgh, N. (2011, April 10). Change We Can (Almost) Believe In. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from Time Magazine: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2055188-2,00.html

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30. Hukill, T. (1998, July 9). The est of Friends. Retrieved March 29, 2016, from Metro News (San Francisco): http://culteducation.com/group/1020-landmark-education/12352-the-est-of-friends.html

31. Ebert, R. (1999, October 15). Fight Club (1999). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fight-club-1999

32. Fowler, R. (1999, November 30). Report on the Landmark Forum. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from Landmark Worldwide: https://www.landmarkworldwide.com/media/files/pdf/expertopinionreport.pdf?la=en

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

34. Lifton, R. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. North Carolina: W.W. Norton & Co.

35. Singer, M. (1995). Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from: https://www.amazon.com/Cults-Our-Midst-Hidden-Everyday/dp/0787900516

36. Palahniuk, C. (2006). Fight Club. London: Vintage Books.

Full reference list