I’ll never forget my first experience with Scientology. It was 2006 in San Francisco, with my friend John. Back then, the faith’s devoted followers were a common sight every time you exited the BART station—holding two hollow aluminum tubes, asking passersby if they wanted to be “tested.” They looked like kids who had rolled up toilet-paper tubes with aluminum foil, something cheap and vaguely sci-fi looking to use while playing Flash Gordon or Spaceman Spiff.
We stopped in the now-closed Scientology building on McAllister one night, giggles already cocked in the back of our throats. It looked like a decent presentation put together in a hotel convention center: a generic interior but with poster boards everywhere, offering inspirational quotes, photos, and details about the man who founded the religion, science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. We learned lots of claims the church made about him—that he was a retired Navy great who healed thousands of people through counseling.
A woman greeted us and offered to “audit” John—meaning to analyze him to help him realize what his problems were. At this point, I should describe my friend: He’s the best conversationalist I’ve ever met. He’s impeccably polite, pretty well off, and smart as a whip. He’s quite tall, handsome, and has a big, easy grin, with dimples that I’ve seen more than a few girls fall for. He’d be insufferable to hang out with if he weren’t such a good guy.
In other words, visitors aren’t indoctrinated by learning about what Scientology believes in, or what it practices, or even how it benefits adherents. They start by learning how great L. Ron Hubbard is.
What happened next could have come from a comedy sketch. John sat down, gripped those useless-looking tubes, which in turn were connected to a cheap dial, and listened to the woman’s questions.
“Are you concerned with any relationship problems?” she asked.
“Actually,” John responded, “I just got a date with a girl I really like.”
“Are you having problems with your work?”
“Nope. I just started an internship, and it’s going really well.”
“Do you have trouble sleeping because you’re so stressed out from the day’s events?”
"Oh, jeez! No, not at all.”
Stumped, she took a breather. “Well, what’s the issue that’s been giving you the most stress recently?”
John thought for a moment, too, and gave an honest, if incredibly nerdy, answer. “I guess it’s the fact that I’ve not been as good at time management as I’d like.”
The Scientologist looked at him. Without batting an eye, she said, “I think the biggest stress factor in your life is the lack of quality time-management skills.”
We tried to suppress our grins, declined her offer to come in for more testing, and left.
FOR THE NEXT YEAR, that was a funny story I’d occasionally tell at dinner, a good reminiscence John and I would bring up every once in a while. But my perception of Scientology, and I think the public's, grew darker. We were all unsettled by Tom Cruise’s manic eyes and his rictus grin as he bounced on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, having apparently unleashed some manic energy with Scientological methods—which was, after all, the inspiration for Christian Bale’s cackling maniac in American Psycho. Then came Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a terrifying portrait of a very L. Ron Hubbard-like character.
The hacktivist group Anonymous has led a campaign against Scientology in recent years. I’ve since learned of Operation Snow White, a 1970s plot in which Scientologists infiltrated thousands of government jobs to uncover what information the government had on them. And of “the Hole,” which former members describe as a terrifying confinement facility used to punish members.
And yet I wanted to go back to see if my memory served. Who is still drawn into this stuff, when pop culture so widely rejects it?
In early December of 2014, now a New Yorker, I swung by again.
The New York Church of Scientology is in the area immediately around Times Square, my least favorite part of Manhattan. Also known as the Theatre District, it’s filled with a manic, draining energy, which I attribute in part to the fact that this is the city’s highest concentration of tourists, costumed characters, and struggling, desperate, manically hopeful stage actors.
"When you close your eyes and picture a dog," she said, "that’s your thetan looking through your mind’s memory banks."
People amble more slowly here than anywhere else—New Yorkers blame the tourists—but there’s an aura of that second definition of hustle, the looming sense of people wanting to squeeze a few extra bucks out of you. The place sets my teeth on edge. And this makes me feel judgmental, which I doubly don’t like. It’s bad vibes on the way to the Scientology center, I’m telling you.
I walked into this Scientology center aware that, just like eight years ago, someone would likely ask me personal questions. A video played on a loop by the door, asking visitors to “imagine science and religion connecting.” It was a good start, I thought. The world would probably be a better place if people stopped insisting the two had to be at complete odds. Score one for Scientology.
A very young man, possibly a teenager, big grin on his face, got up from the front desk and and shook my hand. “I’m curious,” he asked. “What brought you here? Was it the sign out front, or...?”
I thought for a moment, and told him I guessed it was the awning that read “SCIENTOLOGY.” It’s not like there were a lot of options.
The teenager brought me up to another gentleman, not quite as young, named Steve. Steve looked and talked like a second-rate Neil Patrick Harris. He brought me up the stairs to the immediate left of the desk to a narrow room that led to a meeting room and a small cafe. Lined along the walls were a few posters of L. Ron Hubbard doing things: L. Ron on a boat, L. Ron on a ranch, L. Ron as a boy.
“What brought you here today?” Steve asked. “We like to keep track.” It was a small thing, but hearing this question a second time in the space of a minute threw me. I told Steve the same thing—that giant sign above the door.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“West Virginia,” I said. Technically, this is true: I was born and raised in West Virginia. But I haven’t lived there for a dozen years. “I’m a writer,” I said. But I didn’t want to raise any eyebrows. “Fiction,” I followed up. “I write short stories. About people in my hometown.” (That last part is also true.)
“Awesome,” Steve said. “That’s frickin’ awesome. I’m an actor, so I write some myself. Screenplays, mostly.”
What I only learned later, upon reading Lawrence Wright's fantastic Scientology exposé Going Clear, is that I was smack in the middle of a standard “dissemination drill.” It's a practice the church has employed for decades, and its four steps are simple. First, the recruiting Scientologist makes contact. Then the recruiter is to “disarm any antagonism the individual may display toward Scientology,” as Wright puts it.
The problem came with stage three, in which the church member is asked to “find the ruin,” which is a hell of a way to refer to the most prominent problem on the recruit’s mind. I don’t really carry some glaring problem around with me, and the rest of my two hours or so remaining at the church would focus on various Scientologists’ futile attempts to get at that dang ruin. (If you’re curious, the fourth step is, as Hubbard once wrote, to “bring about an understanding that Scientology can handle the condition.”)
Steve guided me to the first of several video screens where I would sit and watch a handful of educational shorts. “We like to start people off by learning about our founder,” he explained.
In other words, visitors aren’t indoctrinated by learning about what Scientology believes in, or what it practices, or even how it benefits adherents. They start by learning how great L. Ron Hubbard is. And I don’t know about you, but I have an impression of him as a science-fiction writer who started a cult of personality around himself, who was quoted as saying the best way to make a fortune is to start a religion. This video didn’t even try to dispel any of that, and I honestly don’t know why. Maybe they show a different movie to skeptics, but I doubt it.
Honestly, a lot of what these videos said is a blur to me, but the gist is that Scientologists think this guy is an insane renaissance man, somebody to put Da Vinci to shame. Going Clear details that drastically over-inflating his accomplishments to others was a recurring theme throughout Hubbard's life, and it’s a tradition continued at the church: He was the 385th person to get some special kind of pilot’s license; local newspapers called him “Flash Hubbard.” He was one of only a handful of people to ever receive some sort of master boat captain license, which would literally let him captain any kind of ship, and he was some kind of World War II hero. He then got interested in applying research techniques to spirituality—what that meant, exactly, neither the video nor anyone there said—and traveled to Asia and acquired “much arcane wisdom.”
In the really high levels of Scientology, you learn a convoluted creation myth about an alien dictator named Xenu who slaughtered a host of beings here on Earth, the after-effect of which is a major source of suffering today.
“Flash Hubbard.” “Much arcane wisdom.” That’s one of the most curious things about my visit: Scientology was officially founded in 1954, and apparently its language hasn’t changed since. A strange pastiche of ’50s and ’60s science fiction crept into the message presented before me.
IT'S NO SECRET THAT Hubbard was an insanely prolific writer, much of it pulp, and much of that science fiction. That makes it all the more glaring when, for instance, one video that described how my mind supposedly works referred repeatedly to my “memory banks,” as if described by someone thrilled by the invention of those giant computers that took up whole offices. That’s maybe the most frustrating part of my experience with Scientology: It implies some sort of futurism, but it’s a vision of the future as it was imagined decades ago. (If you’re coming at me with a new religion that wants to capitalize on technology, come with visions of cloning and uploadable consciousness and string theory, or don’t come at all.)
After maybe 45 minutes of videos, Steve came back for a chat. I kept asking, but he wasn’t remotely interested in talking about anything supernatural or theological, even though he did call Scientology a “religion.” Instead, he wanted to talk about removing the blocks in my mind that were keeping me from success. Slightly puzzled by how to help me “get to the next level,” he asked me if I’d spend another 45 minutes taking a personality test.
I can’t help but think Scientology is squarely aimed at people with depression or significant emotional or substance abuse problems. A lot of the questions repeated themselves—no, no matter how many times you ask, I don’t suddenly find myself unable to stop shaking—and many of them seemed to have clear “right” answers. (“If you lose an article, do you get the idea that ‘someone must have stolen or mislaid it’?” No, because I’m not a child.) A few questions even seemed to be asking if I was a sociopath, like if I had trouble feeling empathy for other people or if any friends regarded me as “warm.”
When I finished, a 20-something woman named Tyler took my completed test, manually put my bubbled answers into her computer, and took me down to her office to explain the results. Had she not been so affable, it would have been incredibly awkward. Because she just sat there and straight-up, guilelessly told me what I was like as a person, even though we had just met.
I had been graded on 10 different criteria: stable or not, happy or depressed, aggressive or inhibited. I felt weirdly judged, even though my score looked pretty good to me. She read me a corresponding paragraph for each score. As I was mostly “stable,” I was “calm and collected in demanding situations,” she said. She used the tone a kindergarten teacher might use to a bright student: “You’re good at finger-painting, but need to learn how to share better.” The fact that I’d taken the emotional equivalent of a bad public high school standardized test didn’t seem to diminish the results in her mind.
I reminded myself that I was mostly in character, that I was Kevin Collier the West Virginian novelist, and started agreeing with Tyler as she noted my relatively lowest scores. I wasn’t as happy (instead of depressed), responsible (instead of irresponsible), or communicative (instead of withdrawn) as I could be. I told her I was stressed about getting my first novel done, that I was in New York to visit a friend in Brooklyn, and that I’d be in town until Sunday.
“You sometimes feel frustrated that you’re being controlled by other people,” Tyler said.
I went with it. I told her of my editor, the only possible boss I’d have in my novelist fantasy. I called her Joan. Yeah, Joan and I don’t always agree on everything, I said, but that we had a good rapport when it came to finding solutions to parts of my novel where we didn’t agree.
“I’d like you to meet Lori,” Tyler said.
Tyler took me to the office next to her, where I had my third and final meeting with a Scientologist. Lori, I’ll tell you right now, gave me the most insight into the religion’s theology that anyone did, and still left me grossly wanting. Here’s what I got:
We all have thetans, which are basically souls. Everybody is a thetan, and every thetan has both a mind and a body. “When you close your eyes and picture a dog,” she said, “that’s your thetan looking through your mind’s memory banks.” (Yes, she said memory banks.) There isn’t a God, per se, she said, but there is something like reincarnation, as thetans bounce from body to body. Most other questions (are there other life forms? Is there a god? An afterlife?) were in L. Ron’s books, she said, and she didn’t want to answer for him.
That’s one of the most curious things about my visit: Scientology was officially founded in 1954, and apparently its language hasn’t changed since. A strange pastiche of ’50s and ’60s science fiction crept into the message presented before me.
What kind of religion won't tell interested people what its theology is? Isn’t the point of a religion to explain how humans came to be and how we should act? The church proudly points out in several places that Dianetics is both the “all-time self-help bestseller,” and “indisputably the most widely read and influential book about the human mind ever written.” But though it functionally is just armchair psychology, its adherents definitely call it a religion.
Since they didn’t say much, I’ll give you the very basic gist, as told in Wright’s book. Basically, we all have a portion of our mind that's obsessed with wrongs in our life, and that's called the “reactive mind.” If we sit back and really think about it, we can effectively dispel their negative influence on our lives, helping us to achieve an idea state called “clear.” And in the really high levels of Scientology, you learn a convoluted creation myth about an alien dictator named Xenu who slaughtered a host of beings here on Earth, the after-effect of which is a major source of suffering today.
So Lori kept on pushing step three of that dissemination drill. She asked me to dig deep into my memory banks (ugh) and come up with a time I had done something I did to another person that I would never, ever want done to me.
I thought for something truthful. And thought. I remembered smacking my cat once, as a kid, and feeling awful about it for days. Fighting with my girlfriend over nothing. Gossiping. Beating up a bully in middle school. Playing hooky and scaring my parents by not coming home until late in the evening.
“No, not like that,” Lori said. “Something you truly regret doing to another person. I mean, I know you’ve never killed anyone.”
I agreed that I had never killed anyone.
“But you’ve surely done something you really wish you could take back. Nobody’s a saint.”
After a few hours in the Church of Scientology, with everyone pestering me for an idea of what to tell them was wrong with me, I became seriously concerned that I had something, after all: I couldn’t figure out anything wrong with myself.
“I guess I could be more responsible with my free time,” I wanted to tell her. I wanted to make up some story of something awful that the fictional, novelist version of myself had done. That I had stolen something precious from a made-up brother, or sold meth to orphans. But I shrugged. I can’t spin up long, incredible yarns about myself and present them as truth. It felt too weird to make up sins just so I could confess them. They just weren’t either of my memory banks, real or fictional.