February 18, 2004
It worked for Travolta. Would it work for me?
By Russ Coffey
As the Church of Scientology celebrates its 50th anniversary, our correspondent describes how, like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, he tried to become a "clear" — free of mental blocks and ready to realise his full potential — with the aid of coloured bricks and a dictionary
I GUESS I was feeling suggestible when Susan approached me with a free “personality test”. She was a prim-looking leafleteer and we were outside the London headquarters of the Church of Scientology on Tottenham Court Road.
With nowhere in particular to go I agreed, and was handed the “Oxford Capacity Analysis” test, a 200-part questionnaire. Though I was feeling fine, I had a gut feeling that it was going to bring bad news. In fact, in a small booth in the shabby building I was “scientifically” diagnosed as depressed, unstable and nervous. Susan suggested that I stay to watch a film that might help my “problems”. It was screened in a subterranean room with just two seats. While the projector was being set up the nervous young woman next to me bolted.
I stayed, and for half an hour learnt about a “mind technology”, and about a man called L. Ron Hubbard whose revolutionary ideas could change my life and, eventually, the world. Every time it all seemed too incredible, John Travolta or Kirstie Alley would appear and assert that the technology had been their making.
Then I was taken into a classroom and presented with a series of crackpot theories coated with a veneer of plausibility and common sense.
But the bizarre experience stayed with me for days, and I decided to subscribe to a course at “London Org”, the run-down, five-storey building where Susan had stopped me in the street, to find out more.
The first Church of Scientology was established in Los Angeles 50 years ago today. Despite years of extensive condemnation, lawsuits and bad publicity, the Church claims 100,000 followers in this country and about eight million around the world. Critics put the figures much lower, at perhaps 50,000 worldwide, and 1,500 in the UK.
When I turned up for my first day at school at London Org, to begin my 30-hour introductory course, I was told about the eight million followers. Scientologists like facts. After my information-based briefing, I was dispatched alone to the video room tucked at the back of the ground floor to hear more. The film was in the style of an American “infomercial”, narrated by men and women who looked as if they wanted to sell me life insurance. Its title was Dianetics, which is both the name of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s breakthrough book, and the core belief of the Church.
The theory struck me then as a half-baked version of any number of psychoanalytic systems. Some of what I was watching made sense, but much of it was over-reductive and some of it plain gobbledegook. For instance, I was told that the sole reason why we fail to understand a concept is because at some point in the explanation we encountered a word that we didn’t understand, and so should always carry a dictionary. If the mechanics of the system seemed dubious, I had no such reservations about the goal: to become a “clear”, ie, free of mental blocks, or “engrams”. It is to be in a position to realise one’s full potential, and the dreams that rest on it.
When I turned up for my next session, three days later, I carried a sheet of questions that I had prepared. Henk, a Dutchman, was very impressed at my enthusiasm, and that I had started annotating the copy of Dianetics they had sold me for £15. He led me up the shabby stairs to the third-floor classroom to answer my questions.
London Org is the only place I came across in Scientology that didn’t smell of money. Critics have estimated that worldwide it makes more than $300 million (£160 million) a year and has billions in overseas bank accounts — none of which seems to have arrived at Britain’s most geographically prominent Org. Its smell isn’t of money, more like the nearby Tube station.
In the classroom Henk assured me that Scientology was compatible with all other belief systems. Former adherents with whom I later spoke told me that they had heard cassettes of “LRH” (L. Ron Hubbard) saying that Christianity was a hypnotic implant. Henk’s allembracing Scientology did, however, require belief in a soul. He said Scientology had proved the soul’s existence by removing it and weighing it. He was evasive when I asked how much it weighed, but became animated when I questioned him on absolution, which had always struck me as being central to any religion. He wanted to know whether I particularly needed it, whether I had done awful things in my past and, if I had, could I tell him? He made a note in a pad he carried.
At 5pm, Henk told me that he wouldn’t charge me for the Q & A session; however, the next time I was to get on with my introductory course, and report to my supervisor, Anna. This course, a “Dianetics seminar”, had cost me £27.60 and came with a workbook. The fact that I had chosen to do it in bite-sized chunks and not all at once seemed to have disappointed, Anna, a German , who feared that I might lose momentum.
My classroom looked a bit like how I remember primary school. There were coloured bricks on the tables and crude Plasticine models on the shelves. These were apparently used in “revolutionary” teaching methods. My workbook, along with a dictionary, was placed in front of me. The former had lots of Janet and John-style drawings and required that I perform tasks such as imagining eating my breakfast, and remembering frightening incidents in my past involving dogs.
Apparently, I was a natural.
On the wall was a poster called “The Bridge to Total Freedom”. It showed all the ways of getting to “clear” and beyond. Beyond is to the impossibly grand-sounding Operating Thetan 8, when one has the power of telekinesis, and astral projection. No one would tell me how much it would cost, but former scientologists have claimed a figure of more than £250,000.
The other pupils, many of whom looked like veterans of drop-in day centres, were variously engaged in working through other courses. After a few sessions working through the exercises I was started on “auditing”, the process of eradicating engrams by revisiting past traumas, which is one of the Church’s most controversial processes.
I was started off practising the procedure with a prompt card and a teddy bear. After about ten minutes I was partnered off with a postman called Hamish for a co-audit session. I found the process very intense, and quite unpleasant. I was required to go over various horrible incidents for hours until my head hurt, and I felt scared and unhappy. Hamish, on the other hand, seemed to be genuinely enjoying the experience of having someone take so much interest in him.
I was disappointed that I never got to know Hamish, other than through these strange sessions. He seemed to be a bit of a lost soul, and I wanted to reach out to him on a normal social level. However, while class is in session there is strictly no chat allowed.
The only time I really got to chat to fellow Scientologists was when I dropped in to London’s “Celebrity Centre”, a grand building in Bayswater. I was there for Sunday Services, part lecture, part group therapy. It was the centre’s grand name that had attracted my curiosity. I had heard it mentioned so often by Anna over the past three weeks.
In the main, these Scientologists seemed eccentric or vulnerable, but certainly not unintelligent, and certainly not celebrities, though some played in pub bands.
My distaste for auditing, and fear of being put on the “emeter”, in effect a crude lie detector that decides if you are being truthful in your answers, was one of the reasons why I stopped visiting the London Org. The other was that because I was coming to the end of my introductory course, constant pressure was being put on me to take the purification rundown, a week of saunas and vitamins that costs £1,000.
The increasingly worrying experiences I had had over the past month led me to research the group on the internet. Typing “scientology” into the search engine, I was taken aback as countless pages of results appeared. A number of websites are run by the Church itself. There are also myriad “Scientology uncovered” sites where “secrets” of the upper levels of the Church are detailed, along with many deeply upsetting personal accounts.
Perhaps most damaging for Scientology is dissemination of the bizarre “facts” that lie at the end of the “bridge”. Had I known that at the end of the Bridge to Total Freedom was the revelation that we are all covered in dead space aliens as the result of the actions of an ancient Galactic ruler, Xenu, I would never have had the interest I did. I still had enough curiosity for one more visit, though. Anna had told me there was to be a rare open day in Saint Hill, the European HQ in East Grinstead, Sussex.
Saint Hill comprises a manor house and a castle. The event was an evening open to European Scientologists. In the marquee attached to the castle, I estimated about 7,000 people there, about a third of them English. In the oakpanelled entrance hall there were men and women dressed in what looked like some sort of naval uniform, pressing people to join the Sea Org, the quasi-military wing of the Church. They reminded me of when I met Susan.
They didn’t look as if they were inviting anyone to join something that had personally transformed their own lives; they looked as if they were hard-selling something. Around were various booths, united in their one purpose: persuading people to part with their money in pursuit of the goal of becoming a “clear”.
The evening consisted of a series of lectures about how well the Church was doing, and how virtuous it was. Apparently they were setting up more drug rehabilitation centres in South America, and literacy programmes in the former Soviet Union. Maybe it was the other way round. It was all the same stuff I had seen in the induction film, and I didn’t believe it.
A month before I had been curious to know what exactly this wacky, celebrity-endorsed church-cum-self-help-group was all about. Now I felt sick and stupid that as an intelligent person I was sitting among thousands of Scientologists in the grounds of a multimillion-pound complex, listening to their propaganda, and being asked to part with money.
Some names have been changed.