The Program by Gregg Hurwitz – parody of The Forum – or analysis of a cult leader ?

The Program

The Program by Gregg Hurwitz, though a fictional work, is a very educational read, and an uncanny analysis of the potential dangers inherent in some forms of Large Group Awareness Training and the “Leaders” that teach these controversial courses. 

But is this book a parody of Large Group Awareness Training in general, a poke at the totalitarian tactics used by cult leaders, or a specific spoof of the methodology used by Werner Erhard in his course The Forum, the “technology” of which was bought by his employees who then formed the company Landmark Education and the course The Landmark Forum ?

 This book was previously analyzed in the post, Large Group Awareness Training in popular culture, but we’ll go into a more detailed analysis in this post.  Incidentally, in a previous post The Invasion, “cultism” and Werner Erhard, we noted how two different reviews of the film The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman both discussed Werner Erhard – with one review referring to “self-help gurus“, and the other discussing “cultism“.

Nothing and Semantics 

Prior to the prologue on page 1, The Program opens with a quote from Werner Erhard: “There are only two things in the world – nothing and semantics.”  The choice of this particular quote by Gregg Hurwitz is interesting – it could simply refer to a form of existential philosophy, but more likely it is a subtle introduction to the high importance placed on semantics both by Werner Erhard and by “The Program”, the Large Group Awareness Training organization depicted in the book.  Dr. Paul Martin, Director of the Wellspring Retreat, discusses the importance of “loaded language” in an article analyzing the controversial group Executive Success Programs, entitled: “Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria of thought reform as applied to the Executive Success Programs.”  Dr. Martin’s introduction to the section analyzing Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s criterion “Loading the language“, is actually a very good summary of the use of semantics in the book The Program.  Dr. Martin writes: “The group develops a jargon in many ways unique to itself, often not understandable to outsiders. This jargon consists of numerous words and phases which the members understand (or think they do), but which really act to dull one’s ability to engage in critical thinking.”

A Fictional Psychologist and Real-World Harassment

In Chapter 24 of the book, on pages 175-180, U.S. Marshal Tim Rackley consults with a psychologist named Dr. Glen Bederman about the tactics used by “The Program” group, and Dr. Bederman educates Rackley about Large Group Awareness Training.  Rackley had first met Dr. Bederman in Chapter 4, when he went to visit the psychologist at UCLA and met him after he finished teaching a college course on destructive cults.  On pages 30-38, Dr. Bederman discusses some of the methodology used by these groups, including hypnosis, totalitiarian control, and harassment of critics.  This harassment of an academic critical of destructive cults is eerily similar to that endured by former UC Berkeley professor, psychologist Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer.  Obituaries in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle described some of the harassment Dr. Singer suffered at the hands of cult “operatives” over the years. 

Dr. Singer was sued by Landmark Education, over a portion of the 1995 edition of her book Cults in Our Midst that dealt with Large Group Awareness Training.  Dr. Singer later reached a settlement with Landmark Education, where she stated she did not believe the group was a cult or sect.  However, in a later article on Landmark Education in the Phoenix New Times in 2000, Drive-thru Deliverance: It’s not called est anymore, but you can still be ridiculed into self-awareness in just one expensive weekend, Dr. Singer clarified some of her views on Landmark Education, stating: “I do not endorse them — never have.”  Dr. Singer went on to state she would not comment on whether or not she believed the Landmark Forum uses coercive persuasion, because “the SOBs have already sued me once.”  Dr. Singer also said “I’m afraid to tell you what I really think about them because I’m not covered by any lawyers like I was when I wrote my book,” but she did say that she would not recommend the group to anyone.  Though the character Dr. Glen Bederman did not describe having been sued by an organization he criticized, he did cite instances of canceled hotel and airline reservations, and harassing phone calls after he had given expert-witness testimony in a case against a controversial group.

Controversial Groups and Movements 

Though there are no direct references to Werner Erhard, Erhard Seminars Training, The Forum or Landmark Education after the initial quote in the prologue, the character Dr. Bederman does reference other similar types of Large Group Awareness Training groups in his consultation with U.S. Marshal Rackley.  On page 176, Dr. Bederman remarks to Rackley: “He’s married two cult models, the psychotherapeutic cult and the self-improvement cult – think the Sullivanians meet Lifespring.”  The Sullivanians are analyzed in the article Cultism and the Law, by Randy Frances Kandel, J.D., Ph.D., and an article in The Washington Post referred to the group as a “psychotherapeutic cult.”  Lifespring was started by John Hanley, who with Werner Erhard had previously been an instructor at the controversial company Mind Dynamics.  Werner Erhard went on to start Erhard Seminars Training in 1971, and John Hanley founded Lifespring in 1974.  Some of the early development of both of these groups is discussed in the February 1993 Self Magazine article: White collar cults, they want your mind…, by Dirk Mathison.  Landmark Education decided to sue Self Magazine and Dirk Mathison, in 1993, but reached a settlement in October 1994, and the lawsuit itself was later dismissed

Hacked From the Inside 

By far the most amusing and thought provoking scene in The Program takes place in Chapter 49, on pages 323-337.  U.S. Marshal Tim Rackley, along with Dr. Glen Bederman and other operatives, register for “The Program” under fake names and proceed to question the motives and logic behind the methodology of cult leader T.D. Betters.  Rackley and Dr. Bederman succeed in picking apart the hypocrisy and oxymoronic lessons inherent in “The Program” self-help course, and by the end of the chapter they have completely broken up the course – the participants no longer want to stay registered and they want their money back.  Rackley states his reasoning for doing this in front of the group:  “I’m here because I believe that this is a dangerous, unethical group that utilizes methods of mind control.  I was told by my group leader that The Program was honest, forthcoming, and nonabusive.  Well, they went Off Program with me, so I’m going Off Program with them and walking away.”

After this statement, the crowd of enrollees seated in the ballroom begin to shout out questions to the cult leader T.D. Betters, complain, and finally yell that they want their money back.  When Tim Rackley confronts T.D. Betters and reveals his identity, Betters responds with an indignant retort:  “TD gathered his arrogance about him like armor.  ‘You think you’ve won something here?’  He gestured at the pandemonium below.  ‘A hiccup.  I can replenish my human resources with two weeks and a soapbox.  And when I do, you’ll be sorry you ever tangled with me.’ “

Inspired by Cult Experiences 

On the page on The Program on Gregg Hurwitz’s Web site, he explains his inspiration behind the book, stating: “A friend lost his sister into a cult and told me all about it. I found it fascinating.”  Hurwitz also gives a few examples of the research he did in writing the book:  “I went undercover into mind-control cults. I submitted to cult testing. I got ahold of bootleg copies of indoctrination tapes for various cults. I interviewed former cult victims. I studied the history of mind control. “

So was “The Program” group in Gregg Hurwitz’s book The Program a parody of a particular controversial group, or form of Large Group Awareness Training, like Werner Erhard, Erhard Seminars Training, The Forum or Landmark Education, or a different group like The Sullivanians, or Lifespring – or was it just a dangerous group conjured up in Hurwitz’s mind, drawn on inspirations from many different types of organizations ?

Read the book and judge for yourself !


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