LGATs and Fight Club. Dissecting a Delusion

John Hunter, PhD
November 26, 2019

2. Parallels between the LGAT industry and Fight Club

2.10. LGAT rules and Project Mayhem rules

2.11. Project Mayhem and LGAT “assistants”

Roger Ebert stated that Tyler’s followers do not become stronger or freer through their participation – that they are reduced to “pathetic cultists” [31]. This is precisely the charge that is levelled against LGAT “assistants”, who volunteer much of their free time to work for these organisations, believing that they are receiving free training or “enlightenment” in return:

“Both in training sessions and for organizational purposes the est enterprise is heavily dependent on volunteer labor” [10, p. 522].

The bizarre dedication of unpaid LGAT volunteers has been observed in est, in Landmark – as revealed in the suppressed 2004 French documentary [41][42] – and in Lifespring:

“Thousands of Americans now call themselves Lifespringers and spend hundreds of hours recruiting new students with no compensation other than the belief that they are helping people revolutionize their lives. Graduates often get their whole families to sign up…” [16].

Pressman describes how this occurred at est:

“Around the country, a growing army of enthusiastic est volunteers (called ‘assistants’ in est jargon) contributed free labor – sometimes up to forty hours per week – to the organization, filling every conceivable task from handling the phones in est centers around the country to cleaning out the toilets and scrubbing the pots and pans at Franklin House” [8, p. 86].

“Within the est culture, enthusiastic staff members and volunteers cheerfully spent hours scrubbing toilets and windows until they shined, convinced that such mundane service was part of a Zen-like philosophy offering Erhard’s version of the path toward enlightenment” [8, p. 136].

In Fight Club Jack and Tyler end up living in a house with scores of volunteers who – like LGAT volunteers – cook, clean, and perform every conceivable menial task that is requested of them. Jack notes the situation and questions what they think they are getting for their servitude:

“So what brainless little honor has Tyler assigned him, I ask. There are guys whose job it is to just boil rice all day or wash out eating bowls or clean the crapper. All day. Has Tyler promised Bob enlightenment if he spends sixteen hours a day wrapping bars of soap?” [36, p. 131].

There is also, perhaps, a hint at how many LGAT graduates are experienced by non-graduates. Numerous sources state that graduates unwittingly come across as overly-assertive about the training, and that their extreme openness, their drive to recruit others, and their newfound “enlightenment” can be disconcerting, and aggravating [33]. Palahniuk alludes to this as follows:

“Me, with my punched out eyes and dried blood in big black crusty stains on my pants, I’m saying HELLO to everybody at work. HELLO! Look at me. HELLO! I am so ZEN. This is BLOOD. This is NOTHING. Hello. Everything is nothing, and it’s so cool to be ENLIGHTENED. Like me” [36, p. 64].

2.12. Tuesday night meetings

LGATs tend to run for three to five days (The Forum and the Landmark Forum take place over three days), but the core of the training ends on a Sunday. On Tuesday evening – five days after starting the grueling program – there is a graduation-type evening, where participants invite family members, friends and colleagues to attend. These evenings serve as a recruitment tool for LGATs, who encourage graduates to testify about how their lives have “transformed”. LGAT volunteers (like Palahniuk), wearing name badges, are among those in the audience, greeting guests and hoping to encourage participation [33].  Jack’s description of his Tuesday night Above and Beyond “Catch-Up Rap” meetings in Fight Club bares a strong resemblance to these LGAT recruitment evenings:

“Everybody is always getting better. Oh, this new medication. Everyone’s always just turned the corner. Still, everywhere, there’s the squint of a five-day headache. A woman wipes at involuntary tears. Everyone gets a name tag, and people you’ve met every Tuesday night for a year, they come at you, handshake ready and their eyes on your name tag” [36, p. 34].

2.13. Raymond K. Hessel and the fear exercise

The basic process of LGATs is to generate significant stress for approximately the first 75% of the training, and then to remove this stress on the final day. The result, for most, is a period of euphoria/ “enlightenment”, likely resulting from the manipulation of dopamine [23][B]. Within LGATs, however, there are also shorter exercises involving significant stress and stress removal. The fear exercise, used in the Standard est Training and the Landmark Forum, is a good example of this:

“The next exercise will get to me. Alain Roth asks us to close the eyes and imagine the two people on either side as being potentially dangerous. ‘Let the fear enter your body, your breathing, your gut,’ he orders. ‘You are trying to escape, but there is nowhere to go.’ Some people break. I hear tears and tremors around me” [49].

The exercise ends with the trainer abruptly removing the fear:

“The moaning gets louder, and more join in. Someone screams, ‘I want my mommy’; another hollers, ‘Leave me alone.’ Richard’s voice gets louder and more frantic as he describes the quality of the fear we’re supposed to be feeling. Then Richard lets us in on the joke: People are just as afraid of us as we are of them” [37].

The Fight Club equivalent is the “human sacrifice” scene. Tyler pulls Raymond K. Hessel out from a convenience store, puts him on his knees and tells him, “Raymond! You are going to die!” (while pointing a gun at the back of his head). Raymond is beside himself with fear, shaking, begging and crying as Tyler taunts him about his sad life and how he needs to sort it out [6]. In the book, Tyler specifically mocks Raymond for his self-pity:

“Finally, you were listening and coming out of the little tragedy in your head” [36, p. 153].

Mocking participants for their self-pity is something that LGAT trainers frequently do:

“Sure. That’s the game Marie’s probably used to having people play when she creates a sickness: ‘Poor Marie! Has to puke. Poor baby!’” [9, p. 17].

“… 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 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” [50].

Eventually Tyler lets Raymond go and he sprints into the darkness, having just been “given back his life” (stress removal). Jack is exasperated stating, “What was the point of that?!!… I feel sick…”, to which Tyler responds, “Imagine how he feels. Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you or I have ever tasted…” Possibly referring to the screaming which occurs in the fear exercise, and the fact that “transformation” occurs (for most) on Sunday afternoon, Palahniuk says:

“There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved” [36, p. 51].

2.14. Silencing critics

Another likely parallel is when the space monkeys infiltrate a dinner where a high-ranking official is promising to catch the underground group responsible for “many recent acts of vandalism” [6]. When this individual takes a bathroom break, he opens the door to find Tyler, who grabs him, throws him to the ground, and punches him in the face. The space monkeys then gather around him, place tape over his mouth, pull his trousers to his knees, and Tyler says:

“Hi. You’re going to call off your rigorous investigation… you’re going to publicly state that there is no underground group… or… these guys are going to take your balls” (one of the space monkeys flashes a knife at the frightened man) [6].

Tyler then leans in close to the man and says:

“Do not fuck with us!” [6].

Like est before it, Landmark has been accused of using its vast legal resources to intimidate those who question its processes and draw attention to the negative experiences of some participants. It was only because of a pro bono defence by New York legal firm Lowenstein Sandler that Rick Ross (founder of http://www.culteducation.com) was able to fight off a cynical Landmark lawsuit in 2004; Margaret Singer was one of many individuals and organisations who were less fortunate. As a result of the significant financial pressure created by Landmark’s litigation, she was forced to remove references to Landmark from her book and publicly state that it was not a cult [37][21]:

“I do not believe that either Landmark Education or the Landmark Forum is a cult or sect or meets the definition of a cult or sect” – Dr Margaret Singer [51].

This scene in Fight Club may be referring to Singer’s experience, to the experiences of critics in general, or perhaps to the former head of the APA, Dr Raymond Fowler. Fowler was the APA’s treasurer (1982-1987), president (1988), and executive vice president and chief executive officer (1989-2003), and is frequently cited by Landmark as a supporter of their programs [52][42].  In spite of extensive evidence to the contrary, Fowler [32] described the Landmark Forum environment as “pleasant”, the leader as “pleasant” and “sensitive”, and participants as “relaxed”. Again, in spite of significant evidence otherwise [33] – and no evidence that this is an area of expertise for him – Fowler [32] stated that, “the Landmark Forum does not place individuals at risk of any kind of ‘mind control’, ‘brainwashing’, or ‘thought control’.” Regardless of the (questionable) validity of Fowler’s opinions about LGATs, and the Landmark Forum specifically, it is highly irregular for the head of such a prominent organisation – while still the head of this organisation – to personally endorse a controversial training (previously investigated by the APA) without mentioning the concerns of other academics, or making a declaration about whether or not he was financially compensated for this endorsement.

2.15. Facts vs. stories

If the LGAT metaphor is valid, then Palahniuk’s view of Erhard is clear:

“… Tyler said the goal of Project Mayhem had nothing to do with other people. Tyler didn’t care if other people got hurt or not. The goal was to teach man in the project that he had the power to control history. We, each of us, can take control of the world” [36, p. 122].

LGATs preach a constructionist philosophy (applying a distorted, and arguably dangerous, version of cognitive therapy [33]), which encourages participants to reframe all life events in a way that is more appealing to them. Landmark Forum trainers spend a great deal of time convincing participants that the event (the fact) and their interpretation of this event (the story) must be separated:

“Willmore introduces the idea of separating ‘what happened’ from ‘the story about what happened’” [1].

“With our interpretations, speculations, and opinions we invest ‘what happened’ with our emotions and come up with a story that has nothing to do with reality” [25].

“… facts have no meaning; it is the stories we concoct out of those facts that give them meaning” [28].

“We are constantly affixing ‘stories’ to events rather than seeing the separation between ‘event’ and ‘interpretation,’…” [53].

The core LGAT philosophy – that everything is a “story” and that we need to free ourselves from our pasts – is mirrored in Tyler’s philosophy:

“Because everything up until now is a story,” Tyler says, “and everything after now is a story” [36, p. 75].

“What Tyler says about being the crap and the slaves of history, that’s how I felt” [36, p. 123].

“We wanted to blast the world free of history” [36, p. 124].

To many LGAT graduates, there is no absolute truth – only perceptions. They are, therefore, fully responsible for their experiences, and held accountable for “controlling” their pasts:

“A woman confesses her story about incest, and Richard says there is no right and wrong. In some cultures, even incest is not considered taboo. Anyone who argues is cut off with a thought-terminating cliché – ‘That’s your racket,’ ‘That’s why your life doesn’t work’” [37].

“But it is only on the second day when a young man comes to the microphone that my misgivings turn to anger. He tells us with tears streaming down his face that he had been raped by his brother for most of his childhood. He had taken David’s advice the day before and phoned his brother to create a breakthrough. […] His brother had put down the phone. David urges him to phone again. ‘Rape is interpretation. Brutality is interpretation,’ he says. He had to forgive him. ‘Get off your guilt and grow up,’ he snaps” [27].

2.16. Homework

LGATs arguably use homework to generate stress, minimise sleep, and maximise the amount of time that participants are effectively in the LGAT environment [33]. The longer participants are thinking about the advocated doctrine, the less time they have for sleep, recovery, reflection, and influence from the outside world:

“Each night we are sent home at midnight with assignments. Today we’re supposed to have written a letter to someone we wanted to ‘complete’ with” [37].

“We have homework, which, since it’s already midnight and we start tomorrow at 9 A.M., we have to think about. The assignment: Write a letter to someone you haven’t been straight with, come clean” [54].

Similarly, there is an emphasis on homework in Fight Club [6]:

TYLER: Each one of you has a homework assignment…

JACK: Tyler dreamed up new homework assignments. He handed them out in sealed envelopes…

2.17. The expansion of LGATs, and Erhard’s withdrawal from the centre of the organisation

Est was spread throughout the USA by Erhard, but very soon – because LGATs are highly scripted [13][14] – former est and Lifespring trainers and participants began starting their own LGATs under various different names. In the film this is represented as follows:

JACK: Did you know that there’s a fight club up in Delaware City?

TYLER: Yeah, I heard…

JACK: There’s one in Penns Grove too. Bob’s even found one up in Newcastle…

TYLER: Yeah, did you start that one?

JACK: No, I thought you did…

TYLER: No…

In the book, Palahniuk states:

“And this is how Tyler was free to start a fight club every night of the week. After this there were seven fight clubs, and after that there were fifteen fight clubs, and after that there were twenty-three fight clubs, and Tyler wanted more. There was always money coming in” [36, p. 117].

Later in the book, Palahniuk explains that fight club went from being centred around Tyler to not having a central figure. Considering Palahniuk reportedly became involved with Werner Erhard & Associates in 1989 (when Erhard was at the centre of the organisation) and Landmark was formed in early 1991 (at which point Erhard was no longer officially at the centre of the organisation), this change would have occurred very near to the time of Palahniuk’s participation:

“The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club…” [36, p. 142].

Commenting on how new leaders continued with Erhard’s training, he states:

“In every new fight club, someone I’ve never met is standing under the one light in the center of the darkness, surrounded by men, and reading Tyler’s words” [36, p. 134].

Conclusion

Notes:

B: An elevation in dopamine is associated with hypomania and mania [43][44][45] and psychosis [46], while a depletion of dopamine is associated with depression [47][48].

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Full reference list