From a car coasting up Whalley Avenue in Westville, it's easy to miss the yellow banner across the old Hallock's furniture store. Look closer: It announces the impending arrival of the Church of Scientology. The church is now housed in a small storefront a block away--but bigger things are coming.
Since purchasing a small storefront from the adjacent Frame Shop 20 years ago, the Westville Scientologists have become the major league franchise of Connecticut Scientology. Last year, Rev. Carol Yingling brokered a swift deal with her group's neighbor, Jack Fast, owner of the 35,000-square foot Hallock's building, and since then, the building has been answering to a higher authority.
Contractors have gutted the building and say they'll be done refurbishing by spring. But despite Scientology's 20 years in New Haven, not everyone is sure who, exactly, will be moving in.
Read the omnipresent flyers tucked under your windshield wipers, and you'll know that "Scientology... offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one's spiritual nature and of one's relationship with self, family, groups, mankind, all life forms...and the Supreme Being, or infinity."
That doesn't exactly clear it up. To many, Scientology remains the weird celebrity trip they read about in People , the curious self-help faith of John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Jenna Elfman. An autographed photo of Travolta and Kelly Preston sits by the church entrance. The church's orientation video features former A-lister Kirstie Alley. Tom Cruise speaks widely of the benefits of Scientology, claiming it helped him overcome his dyslexia. After entering the church, Isaac Hayes revived his career with "Chocolate Salty Balls."
According to Cruise and the like, these gifts are available to normal people, too: Nine million of them, the Church claims, have already taken advantage of the teachings, 8,000 of them in Connecticut. One doesn't need millions, or a marquee name: Just acknowledge the wisdom of founder L. Ron Hubbard--pulp sci-fi author and occasional Buddhist--and study.
Hubbard's many novels are not exactly syllabus-worthy. But he was a hell of a religious impresario. In 1950, he published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health . In the 1960s, his growing movement, Scientology, became popular with New Agers and hippies. In the '70s and '80s, it began to draw actors in large numbers. Not all of them are famous, for sure, but the famous ones get press--as evidenced by the ridicule John Travolta won after he used his own money to fund the unswallowable 2000 film version of Hubbard's barely palatable 1982 novel, Battlefield Earth .
Scientology teaches that people are in their essence "Thetans." A Thetan is rather like a soul, an immaterial essence; our physical bodies are mere carriers. But we Thetans are hampered by engrams, sublimated memories of traumatic events, which may have occurred in utero, in childhood, even in recent days. To eliminate engrams, we may attend counseling sessions with church "auditors"; an auditor can hook one to an e-meter, which helps track engrams, the better to remove them. Through the removal of engrams, a Thetan--you or I--can progress from being a Pre-clear to being a Clear: someone devoid of the traumatic engrams that inhibit our potential.
These sessions cost money, and Scientology's ability to get money from adherents has led to accusations that it is a profit-driven enterprise. Governments like Australia's and Germany's have either banned Scientology or placed it under intense legal scrutiny. Here, the Internal Revenue Service granted the church tax-exempt status in 1993, over much opposition.
Still, Scientology gets less money from its followers than, say, the Catholic church. Most religions ask for money; if you believe committed Scientologists, the Church repays them in far more important currency.
Rev. Yingling defends her church. "Two or three people out of a hundred are going to be crabby about something," she says. The church's literature is blunter: "They so rabidly oppose Scientology...because it is doing more to help society than any other group."
Scientologists are known for standing their ground in court. According to a computerized search of court decisions, in the last 20 years the Church of Scientology has been a party to 353 reported state and federal court decisions. In 1991, Time magazine published "Scientology: Cult of Greed," a highly critical 10-page article that included a statement about Scientology's "Mafia-like" tactics with its critics, as well as a statement calling Scientology a "cult" that is "classically terroristic." The church sued in 1992, claiming libel and intended malice. The case was dismissed for failure to show actual malice on the part of the reporter; in 2001, an appeals court let stand the dismissal--but no court ever ruled on the truth or falsity of the statements in Time .
As to the last two counts, Scientologists say they must must protect their technologies to ensure survival. The church funds itself by charging for spiritual guidance given in the form of training courses, books, videos and lectures, a tactic that Scientologists say is both necessary and fair.
"Scientology must make its way in the world according to the economics of today's society," says the Church's President, Rev. Heber Jentzsch, on the Scientology website. "It's a donation based on the services you receive," explains Yingling. "It's whatever you want," she says, though when this Advocate reporter went in for a visit, she was quoted a dollar amount and not told it was optional or flexible.
But let's talk turkey: The three-week Purification Rundown program (billed as a must for any serious Scientologist) costs $1,200. The literature this writer was offered at her first "consultation" [see sidebar] came to about $55. Upgrades and package deals are brokered like gym memberships and can trigger the same sense of lingering guilt should you try to save a few bucks. "I think this will really help you with the problems you've been having," said the nice lady who did my personality consultation. "Will that be cash, check or charge?"
Jon Butler, who teaches religious history at Yale, says that the "laws of economics" explanation is hardly the rule for religions. Southern Baptists, like many religions, grew by distributing free materials or charging only nominal rates.
"It's quite unusual," Butler said. "I can't think of a single group that would have charged at that [$55] level, nor can I think of any new group that operated under those principles."
What also distinguishes Scientology from Catholicism, Baptism, or the synagogue next door is its insistence that it relies on science and technology rather than faith. Its after-school and outreach programs adhere to Hubbard's methods. Yingling has a picture of children happily holding copies of "The Way to Happiness," a Scientology pamphlet, next to their signed pledges to avoid drugs. Scientology volunteers who brought hot meals and cigarettes to rescue workers at Ground Zero also performed "assists," a hands-on stress relief technique Scientologists say relaxes the body and frees the mind. Addicts in the church's Narconon rehabilitation program submit to a physical regimen that includes saunas and vitamin cocktails.
Adam Donshik, a Los Angeles actor who grew up in West Hartford, described for me how his growing self-awareness through Scientology translated into better opportunities. His speech was peppered with Scientologisms like "analytical" and "reactive." Scientology helped him, he says, in "making the able more able." Yingling says Scientology gave her "the peace and assurance" that she desired after seeing it in Mother Teresa.
So far, Scientology has co-existed with its Westville neighbors, with no incident. Westville is home to the Mitchell Library and Beth El-Keser Israel synagogue, but interactions among the groups have been limited.
"I don't see any objection," remarked one of the Mitchell librarians, when asked about the big, new headquarters. "They're free to go wherever they like."
Peggy Hackett, an employee of BEKI, as the temple is known, was enthusiastic about the new arrivals. "I tell people they're going to start calling it religious hill," she jokes.
The Scientologists say people have nothing to fear. "We're very much a part of the community," says Yingling, "and we're always open." Economically, the Scientologists may be a boon: They own over 200 small businesses in Clearwater, Fla., where the church is headquartered.
Pete Biondi, owner of Pancho's Cantina in Westville, optimistically embraces the Clearwater theory that Scientology is good for the local fisc. "A shot in the arm would help everyone," he says.
To the journalists the Scientologists have sued, or to the disenchanted who gave thousands of dollars to Hubbard's spiritual heirs, "a shot in the arm" might be too kind a term. But New Haven has long been a bastion of pluralism, welcoming Jews, Catholics, and John Davenport's Puritans. So if you have the yen, and the dough, stop by. You might spend enough for a few appliances at old Hallock's--but maybe, just maybe, the payoff is far grander than whiter whites.
The first step on the path to becoming Scientology stud is to become "self aware," with the help of the Oxford Capacity Analysis Personality Test, which you can conveniently take at the Hubbard Dianetics Scenter on Whalley Avenue (but not yet in its new, bigger digs). "Your personality determines your future,"claims the test, and which of us can wouldn't like to know the great things we might achieve? "This will help you isolate your personal shortcomings," says one of the staffers, brandishing a clipboard and a grimmer reality.
The Oxford Capacity Analysis is presented as an objective psychological tool used to measure "the preclear's estimation of ten different personality traits." It consists of 200 questions which were not, as the name suggests, crafted under the auspices of Oxford University (or even Oxford Health Insurance), but evolved from a test created and copyrighted by L. Ron Hubbard in 1953. I pored over the questions in the pink pamphlet, wavering between answers of [+] for definitely or mostly agree,  for neutral, and [-] for definitely or mostly disagree. Guilty eraser smudges marked the places where I'd changed my mind: "Do you consider there are other people who are definitely unfriendly toward you and work against you?" Definitely agree. No wait, neutral.
Some questions were more general: "Do you consider more money should be spent on social security?" Others were just plain weird: "Do you browse through railway timetables, directories or dictionaries just for pleasure?"
While a computer crunches your spiritual ills, a staffer parks you in front of a video that explains how you can be fixed: Dianetics, which is described as "a modern science of the mind"; the book of the same name, published in 1950, is "the all-time self-help bestseller" and is one of the central texts of Scientology (for the literature averse, there's a movie version).
"If you've ever felt there was something holding you back in life, ruining your plans and stopping you from being who you want to be," begins the hefty paperback, "you were right." Dianetics treats what Scientologists call "the reactive mind," the painful subconscious that negatively influences decision making and physical responses. While drunk, unconscious or in pain, the reactive mind forms an "engram," a subconscious recording of an event in full sensory details, which trigger inexplicable reactions, dangerous to both public and private life.
The video version consists of short clips that look like they were assembled from spare advertising footage, driver-ed videos and Court TV imaginactments: a happy family at the park, a man slapping his girlfriend in a fit of rage, a boy frolicking with his dog, and shots of majestic rock formations, to name a few, fly by as a steady-voiced announcer unravels the mysteries of the human mind. The cobbled-together appearance suggests the video has a subconscious agenda of its own (and it did cross my mind more than once that the video might induce screaming nightmares).
The video goes on to show an "auditing" session, where painful memories are re-lived in the conscious mind until their unwanted effects can be controlled. To demonstrate how auditing works, the video shows a young man talking his way through multiple iterations of a nasty car crash. With each time that he's pulled from his car, bleeding profusely from his head, another level of control is achieved. By the end of the session, he's laughing as he remembers tiny details; he feels a great weight has been lifted from him.
I was handed a graph of my "capacities," while my personality advisor read blurbs from a printout that could have been produced by those who write horoscopes, maybe fortune cookies. The good news was that I placed in a high IQ bracket. On the downside, I had projected a deep and profound unhappiness. "Did someone close to you die?" asked my consultant, placing her hand on mine.
I was surprised by her leap into pathos. I thought I had sidestepped all the easy traps on the questionnaire: "Do you often 'sit and think' about death, sickness, pain and sorrow?" Nope. "Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?" Yup--my people invented Bollywood; breaking into song and choreographed dance is our national pastime. But somehow my moroseness had shone through.
I was teetering on the edge of a dangerous precipice. My highest score hovered in the 80s, and my lowest score nearly bottomed out at -90. Levels in the +90 to +100 zone are thought to correspond with "Clear" status, the ideal state of existence, where the reactive mind has been tamed and the individual is working on all cylinders. From calculations and estimates drawn from the church's website, and from the rough sketch of expensive courses and literature my consultant prescribed for me, I'm at least several thousand dollars away from realizing my potential and approaching acceptable levels of happiness and self-awareness. If anyone can spare some change for salvation, checks can be sent to the Advocate offices or directly to the Hubbard Dianetics Center.