LGATs and Fight Club. Dissecting a Delusion

John Hunter, PhD
November 26, 2019

2. Parallels between the LGAT industry and Fight Club

2.05. Marla Singer and Margaret Singer

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

Having worked closely with Erhard at Mind Dynamics [8], Stewart Emery was appointed as the first CEO of est (although he later broke away to form his own LGAT, Actualizations [10][8]):

“That began to change in the summer of 1973 when Erhard conferred upon Stewart Emery the new title of chief executive officer…” [8, p. 85].

In line with Tyler’s splicing of single frames of pornography into family films, it appears that Fincher spliced a specific reference to Stewart Emery into Fight Club. When Jack realises that “Tyler” is a sociopath with bizarre plans to change the world, and that Project Mayhem is likely to hurt many innocent people, he attempts to turn himself in to the police, confessing to being responsible for “numerous acts of vandalism…”. Before the film moves on to the next scene (the discussion with the police) there is a brief changeover where a couple of things flash on the screen. One of the things which flashes is a green folder with the words “6868 EMERY PL.” on it [6].

2.07. Casualties of participation

Singer comments on the harm, and the lawsuits, relating to LGATs:

“Also, a plethora of allegations has been raised, some in civil suits, pointing out that individuals have suffered mental breakdowns and psychological harm as a result of participating…” [14, p. 187].

She further asserts that psychological harm in LGATs is not uncommon, and describes some of the lawsuits she personally worked on as an expert witness:

“These damages ranged from death by drowning and suicide to both brief and prolonged stays in mental hospitals. I have kept track of the individuals involved in the nearly sixty legal cases in which I was a consultant. Some of them have got their lives going again, although with the fearful recall of what it was like to lose mental and emotional control. A few are still hospitalised as long as ten years after their breakdowns during or immediately after the training” [14, p. 192].

Stanford University researchers, Finkelstein, et al. [10] consolidated the findings on those harmed in LGATs up until the early 1980s in a section of their article entitled Psychiatric Casualties Among est Trainees. The first two studies referenced – by Glass, Kirsch and Parris [17], and Kirsch and Glass [18] – describe seven participants who developed psychiatric disturbances during or immediately after the est training. Six of the seven patients – who were diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression, paranoid symptomatology, and depressive neurosis – had no history of psychiatric illness, and three years after the training six of the seven patients were still suffering “marked psychological impairment” [10, p. 528]. According to these two studies, “mood swings, grandiose delusions, and delusional identification with Werner Erhart (sic) were prominent among the symptoms…” [10, p. 528]. While similar accounts can be found on discussion forums, there is no formal, large-scale longitudinal research on the relationship between LGAT participation and psychological casualties. While the case studies presented by these authors did not indicate the frequency of harm, the executive director of New York City’s Lincoln Institute for Psychotherapy intimated that est casualties were not uncommon:

“‘Most of the people I’ve seen at our clinic – and they come in after the training in fairly substantial numbers – have suffered reactions that range from moderately bad to dreadful,’ the executive director of New York City’s Lincoln Institute for Psychotherapy reported in 1978. ‘They are confused and jarred, and the same pattern – elation, depression, feelings of omnipotence followed by feelings of helplessness – is repeated over and over again’” [8, p. 194].

Marc Fisher of The Washington Post provided a similar report on Lifespring:

“There is another side to Lifespring, one of court battles about emotional trauma, psychotic episodes and even death. There are experts who believe that Lifespring is a dangerous company that uses psychological tricks to manipulate minds, a view Lifespring and its paid experts dispute. […] And there are dozens of ‘casualties,’ the company’s name for people who leave the training with severe psychological problems. Casualties, Lifespring says, happen because people with psychological problems who are warned not to take the course take it anyway” [16].

In line with Finkelstein et al. [10], and conflicting with the common LGAT explanation for casualties, Dr Singer describes several cases where participants had no history of mental illness:

“He felt himself coming apart psychologically and asked to be excused, but the leaders of the program insisted he remain. By the fourth day, he was in a mental hospital experiencing a brief reactive psychosis. Gerald had no prior history of mental illness and nothing related to such illness in his family history” [14, p. 205].

“Joyce found the psychological and social coercion so intense that she has no remembrance of just when she deteriorated, but she was admitted to a psychiatric ward with almost continuous panic attacks. As time passed, she developed numerous incapacitating phobias and became house-bound and unemployed or underemployed for more than three years. She had no prior history of mental disorder nor was there any in her family” [14, p. 205].

Palahniuk’s commentary on the inevitable harm resulting from LGAT participation, and the attitude of LGAT proponents to these casualties, is seen when Bob is shot. The space monkeys bring Bob’s body back to the house and argue that, because he was killed serving Project Mayhem, they should just bury him in the garden (destroy the evidence). These followers of Tyler appear numb to the tragedy, concerned solely with protecting their group and its misguided revolution, while Jack – who is the only one connected with the reality of the situation – is disgusted with their denial, and for wanting to cover it up:

JACK: What are you talking about? This isn’t a fucking piece of evidence! This is a person! He’s a friend of mine, and you’re not going to bury him in the fucking garden! […] This is a man and he’s dead now because of us, all right? Do you understand that? [6]

The attitude of LGAT proponents to those harmed – that they are acceptable collateral damage – is referred to again near the end of the film [6]. Jack arrives at the parking lot in Franklin Street to find the bomb, placed in the van by Tyler. Tyler stands casually outside the van while Jack frantically attempts to disarm it:

TYLER: We’re not killing anyone. We’re setting them free!

JACK: Bob is dead! They shot him in the head!

TYLER (shrugging): You want to make an omelette you gotta break some eggs…

2.08. “Applying the formula”

Pressman [8], Fisher [16], Singer [14], and others argue that LGAT casualties frequently occur, but that these organisations simply pay off the few who are able to take them to court. Referring to est and the Forum, Steven Pressman states:

“For years lawsuits had generated nothing but bad publicity for him and his work, even though no jury had ever found est or the Forum legally responsible for any injury. Courtroom fights just weren’t good business when it came to selling the wonders of personal transformation […] While disclaiming any legal responsibility for Janis Vivo’s death, Erhard agreed to pay a small amount of money – no more than several thousand dollars – to Wachter. In exchange, Wachter promised never to file a lawsuit accusing Erhard or his company of any role in his wife’s death” [8, p. xiv].

Referring to the practice of paying off those injured, rather than going to court, Marc Fisher states:

“At least five lawyers around the country specialize in suing Lifespring on behalf of trainees who have had psychotic episodes or other emotional strains they attribute to the training. Only two cases have reached a jury. Nearly all the others were settled, with Lifespring generally paying from $150,000 to $800,000 while admitting no fault, lawyers say” [16].

Because Singer was sued for including Landmark in the first edition of her book [37][21], in the second edition she describes pay-outs made by other LGAT organisations:

“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].

In Fight Club [6], Jack’s profession hints at this major criticism of LGATs:

JACK: I’m a recall coordinator. My job was to apply the formula. It’s simple arithmetic. It’s a story problem. A new car built by my company leaves Boston traveling at 60 miles per hour. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now: do we initiate a recall? You take the number of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement (C). A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.

(Jack is explaining this to a woman next to him on a plane.)

WOMAN: Does this sort of accident happen often?

JACK: You wouldn’t believe…

WOMAN: Which… car company do you work for?

JACK: A major one.

Palahniuk may have been alluding to the argument that LGATs are well aware that some participants are seriously harmed, but that they aren’t willing to stop running the trainings because the revenue from satisfied participants exceeds their costs of out-of-court settlements. Like Jack’s car company, LGATs may prefer to pay people off in the event of disaster, rather than warning people of the real risks, because from a business perspective this is a more profitable route to take. Few people who are psychologically harmed have the mental and financial resources to take on these organisations and, when settlements are reached, they are not able to discuss their experiences. If this analogy is valid, Palahniuk suggests that, as a volunteer, he witnessed numerous people being harmed, but noted that casualties were covered up and that the organisation accepted no responsibility:

“I know about the air-conditioning rheostat that gets so hot it sets fire to the maps in your glove compartment. I know how many people burn alive because of fuel-injector flashback. I’ve seen people’s legs cut off at the knee when turbochargers start exploding and send their vanes through the firewall and into the passenger compartment. I’ve been out in the field and seen the burned-up cars and seen the reports where CAUSE OF FAILURE is recorded as ‘unknown’” [36, p. 99].

“If you know where to look, there are bodies buried everywhere” [36, p. 126].

2.09. Joining Project Mayhem and becoming a Landmark “assistant” (volunteer)

As the film progresses the fight clubs develop into something that Tyler calls “Project Mayhem”. Acceptance into Project Mayhem requires that recruits pass through a process that is curiously similar to Landmark’s introductory program, the Landmark Forum, and the “leadership training” which follows. The Landmark Forum could plausibly be summarised as three days (Friday to Sunday) of being told that you are not good enough by the leader after which, if you do not leave, you are accepted as a graduate (and asked to volunteer). Amelia Hill of The Guardian, James O’Brien of GQ Magazine, and Roland Howard of the Daily Mail reveal how participants are treated by Landmark Forum trainers:

“We’re still taking our seats when Jerry begins shouting: We’re ugly people. Disgusting. Our behaviour is entirely governed by a need to look good which makes us liars, fakes and frauds. ‘You’re disgusting,’ he shouts. ‘You just don’t realise quite how disgusting you are yet.’ […] He shouts, he mocks, he refuses to let us ask questions. He tells us we’re liars and ridicules the stories we tell about our own lives” [38].

“I sit in anxious silence with a hundred other hopeful souls as the leader berates us for an impressive two hours straight” [39].

“A rape victim is sneered at. A senior surgeon breaks down. It’s an extraordinary scene of humiliation and control” [27].

Describing how Project Mayhem recruits were treated, Palahniuk says:

“If the applicant is young, we tell him he’s too young. If he’s fat, he’s too fat. If he’s old, he’s too old. Thin, he’s too thin. White, he’s too white. Black, he’s too black […] You tell the participant to go away, and if his resolve is so strong that he waits at the entrance without food or water or shelter or encouragement for three days, then and only then can he enter and begin the training” [36, pp. 128-129].

Referring to the tendency of most participants to stay for the whole training, Palahniuk states:

“… sometimes the applicants will leave, but most times the applicants stick it out until the third day…” [36, p. 130].

2.10. LGAT rules and Project Mayhem rules

Describing the rules of Project Mayhem, Palahniuk says:

“You don’t ask questions is the first rule in Project Mayhem” [36, p. 122].

“… but the second rule of Project Mayhem is you don’t ask questions” [36, p. 122].

“The third rule in Project Mayhem is no excuses” [36, p. 122].

“The fifth rule about Project Mayhem is that you have to trust Tyler” [36, p. 125].

Project Mayhem’s rules closely mirror the rules in LGATs where, firstly, it is very difficult to question the trainer’s authority:

“Chris mocked me, ‘Oh, you have questions? You’re questioning me? How long have you been leading the Forum? Do you think I know a thing or two more than you about it?’ I could literally hear cackles from various parts of the audience. It was fucking Animal Farm in there” [40].

“It ought to be perfectly clear to everyone that you’re all assholes and I’m God. Only an asshole would argue with God. I may let you be Gods too but that’ll come later’” [9, p. 39].

James O’Brien of GQ Magazine and Vanessa Grigoriadis of New York Magazine reveal how “integrity” is emphasised in the Landmark Forum, and how it is used to ensure that graduates offer no excuses:

“‘You are living lives of sham and illusion,’ Condon assures us from his director’s chair. ‘Everything you do in life is meant to make you look good or to avoid looking bad. Everything. You are inauthentic. You have no integrity. Your word is worthless’” [39].

“Then I had a miscarriage. I missed a seminar because I was grieving for my baby. When I showed up the next week, the leader said, ‘The good news is the loss of your baby doesn’t mean shit. What does mean shit is that you have gone outside your integrity because you missed your seminar’” [1].

In the Landmark Forum, indiscriminately trusting the trainer is, stealthily, positioned as being “coachable” or “open-minded”:

“The Forum, she said, is a game called transformation. Like every other game, it calls for sportsmanship. One should be ‘coachable,’ or open-minded about the Forum’s concepts, and committed to ‘forwarding the action’” [28].

“Eventually, I realise I’m breaking the promise I made to Jerry to be coachable. I decide to stop analysing, and simply give Jerry my trust” [38].

2.11. Project Mayhem and LGAT “assistants”

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].

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

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.

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

27. Howard, R. (2001, July 23). Mindbreakers. Retrieved March 29, 2016, from Daily Mail – London: http://www.culteducation.com/group/1020-landmark-education/12500-mindbreakers.html

28. Faltermayer, C. (2001, June 24). The Best of Est? Retrieved March 28, 2016, from Time Magazine: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,138763,00.html

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

37. Scioscia, A. (2000, October 19). Drive-thru Deliverance. (P. N. Times, Ed.) Retrieved March 26, 2016, from Phoenix New Times: http://www.culteducation.com/group/1020-landmark-education/12479-drive-thru-deliverance.html

38. Hill, A. (2003, December 14). I thought I’d been brainwashed. But how wrong could I be… Retrieved March 24, 2016, from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/dec/14/ameliahill.theobserver

39. O’Brien, J. (2012, May 22). Get Confident, Stupid! Retrieved from GQ: http://www.gq.com/story/landmark-forum-get-confident-stupid-gq-may-2005

40. Fazeli, S. (2012, August 27). My (Scary, Destructive) Brush With Scientology Light. Retrieved April 20, 2016, from xojane: http://www.xojane.com/newagey/landmark-forum-cult

Full reference list