For an organization as elusive as the Church of Scientology, walking to the main headquarters in Manhattan is as easy as walking to McDonalds. With an appetite for “Living a Better and Happier Life” and the financial means, you will be welcomed with open arms. Leaving with the knowledge of how you actually achieve promised happiness, and with your wallet (and sense of reality) in tact, is another thing entirely.
Inquirer editor Cat Spencer and I embarked on our undercover pilgrimage on what we thought a most appropriate day for our mission, the wedding of Scientology’s most famous Operating Thetan, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. As we confirmed our cover stories, fake names and our most important pact of the day—not to get separated from each other—we admitted our mutual nervousness. Secure in our self-awareness and non-susceptibility to cults, would we find ourselves brainwashed anyway? After all, our mission was to find out how the seemingly powerful “religion,” in spite of decades of bad publicity, had gained an alleged 10-million-member following. Perhaps curiosity alone was the vulnerability necessary for new recruits.
The inside of the Church is ultra-modern and expansive with Dianetics products on every available table. The feeling inside was not unlike a megastore, with uniformed worker bees buzzing about, grabbing anyone who walks through the doors to make their sales pitch. We descended a staircase that led into a lobby surrounding a fish bowl library-cum-conference room, where a middle-aged man was sitting on a chair, eyes closed, his feet on a box. Someone official was sitting across from him, talking slowly.
A disconcertingly perky woman, about our age, immediately approached. I asked what was being done to the man, and she explained with a knowing smile, “he’s becoming clear.” To me, he looked pained and far away.
The perky woman would be our main guide for the day. She had a look that I later realized was characteristic of other Scientology disciples: a disquieting emptiness and halcyon smile. With an obvious air of hopeful desperation for new recruits, she fired questions without waiting for answers, acting as if we’d entered the party of the year. I looked around for the keg. No dice.
They offered a viewing of their orientation video. On the way to the screening room were little rooms along a hallway with people filling out questionnaires, being interviewed. Others were writing checks. Who were these people? They looked like tourists who’d mistaken the church for Madame Tussauds. We were led into a dark room with theater seats and, out of my periphery, I noticed our guide shadowing the door from the outside once we were shut-in.
Images of weary looking people flashed across the screen. An ominous voice questioned if we ever felt stress, anxiety, unwanted pressure or depression. Well, yeah, but only when I’m awake. The narrator explained that the cause to all of our problems was the “reactive mind” which is controlled by “engrams” or painful experiences that had happened to us consciously or subconsciously throughout our lives. These traumas control the weary, unhappy and listless, causing addiction, violence and depression. They also contribute to the “problems of mankind”; crime, terrorism and war. These revelations were accompanied by images of reenacted traumas; a couple breaking-up, a car accident, someone slugging a bottle of booze. Suspecting we were being watched, we suppressed our laughter.
The music turned upbeat and the iconic volcano erupted on-screen. Apparently the answer to all of the world’s problems is to cleanse ourselves of engrams, reversing the reactive mind and becoming “clear.” Super. How does one become clear? Dianetics, of course. Finally, they were going to explain what Dianetics actually is. Wrong. Testimonials of glassy eyed Scientologist actors extolling “Dianetics is life changing” in every possible iteration ensued. Any actual explanation of what the program actually entailed was noticeably absent. And where were the aliens? They couldn’t get Cruise or Travolta to make a cameo? I was unimpressed, and far from brainwashed.
After the film, we told our chipper guide that we needed to use the bathroom. We were not directed but escorted to the third level. There would be no Veronica Mars investigating, as I’d hoped. Lining the staircase were posters with messages like, “Psychiatry Kills.” Our guide waited outside the restroom while my comrade and I exchanged non-verbal “What the fuck?” glances. What had we gotten ourselves into? Before we were directed back downstairs to the pit, we asked about the large theater doors guarded by a bored looking security guard. Our guide, eager to please, attempted to give us a “peek,” but was stopped by the guard who commanded that no one was allowed inside. I tried to catch a glimpse of a hi-def TomKat wedding feed inside the theater before we were whisked away.
Once back downstairs we were asked to fill out numerous forms with our personal information while our escort commiserated with some of her colleagues. She came over with two copies of Dianetics. “This will change you life.”
“How?” we asked.
“It is life altering.”
“But what does it do?” We asked.
“It changes your life. Read this.”
She flipped to the back of the book and told me to read the testimonials. More life changing, altering praise for Dianetics. I conceded and bought a copy; after all, I should read the book before fully forming my opinion. Our guide smiled enthusiastically and told us there were over a million copies in print.
“What is the e-meter?” We asked. Her eyes lit up. “I’ll give you a stress test!”
I’d seen the stress testing in the major subway stations and while I was curious, I had never taken the time to stop. I was more concerned that someone I knew would see me than what the testers might tell me. I was taken aside while someone else came to speak with my partner in crime. Damn, they had succeeded in separating us. I was handed to metal cylinders attached to wires affixed to a ridiculous looking machine that didn’t appear to be plugged into anything. “How does it work?” I inquired.
“It measures your stress levels based on your answers.” My guide looked unprepared to elaborate any further.
She proceeded to ask me questions about what things in my life where stressing me the most. I spun a yarn of an overbearing boyfriend and unappreciative job, a lack of direction and general sense of unhappiness. Her eyes widened as the needle on the machine jumped around.
“Wow, you are REALLY stressed. It’s good you came today.”
Then she asked me to think about all of the things that were bringing me down. I thought of all of my favorite things. The needle moved again.
“You really need the kit.”
Next came the hard sell. She put a box on her lap and opened the lid, revealing yet another copy of Dianetics, the large print edition. Under that was a DVD of Dianetics that suspiciously looked like the video we’d been shown already. Under that, was a series of “LRH’s” lectures. I asked what the lectures were, and she told me they were “life altering.” Of course they were. For only $150, I could leave with this box and get that much closer to being “clear.”
I leveled with my friendly guide. I told her that I was having money problems and the $9.00 paperback was really all I could afford. Her eyes darkened a bit and she looked around the room for assistance.
I asked her about the aliens. She stammered. “That isn’t what Scientology is about.” What about Xenu? I asked. She blinked at me. I could tell I was losing her. I asked her how she got into Scientology. She told me her parents were involved since before she was born. She’d been interested but didn’t get involved until her mom had died and totally bereaved, she read Dianetics and found that all of her grief dispelled immediately. I stared, disbelieving. “Really?”
“It changed my life. I wasn’t unhappy anymore.”
Cat emerged from a side room with a senior looking male guide. I watched as she was led to the e-meter and pitched the box, and a series of other costly products. I was told I could wait on a bench, which felt a little too much like “time-out”. Another recruiter was sent over to tell me about an exciting opportunity for seminars taking place. “If you sign up now, you can start as soon as this week.” How much? $150 per session. I explained my financial situation and she continued to push the seminars as “life changing” undeterred.
“I can barely pay my rent.”
She left me to flip through my book, clearly discouraged, but not without handing me a last ditch effort—a pink personality test to fill out and drop-off if I wanted to explore my “minds full potential.” Now why would I want to do that? Take a guess. “It will change you life.”
As I waited for Cat, I watched people trickling into the church and become absorbed by one of the waiting recruiters. All of them were pitched products to “change their lives” without any explanation of what the program actually did to enact any kind of change. Shockingly, people opened their wallets without hesitation.
Cat joined me on the bench and our perky guide excitedly told her they’d be in touch. She smiled and shook our hands and told us for the umpteenth time that we seemed like “really good people.” We exited through the doors, our copies of Dianetics tucked under our arms.
As soon as we were outside I felt clear on many things. I’d been rejected by the Scientologists, something I was ecstatic about.
The Church of Scientology was not at all a church, not all were welcome.
Without the means to purchase the endless LRH endorsed products, the secrets to living a “happier” and “better” life were not available.
To answer the question posed by Dianetics; “what blocks me from using my minds full potential?” For starters, a willingness to empty my bank account before knowing what I’m getting in return.