A visit to the Church of Scientology
Or, reasons I would be a terrible Scientologist
It’s one of the first chilly Monday mornings. I’m in bed, wrapped in a mess of blankets and freshly-washed clothes that I was too lazy to put away the night before. It’s a comfortable place to be in, and I sure as hell don’t want to move. I’m also—as much as I hate admitting this—not sure I want to keep my appointment at the Church of Scientology that’s in an hour.
I don’t know why I’m so apprehensive. I mean, sure, they have a weird reputation. Celebrities like Laura Prepon of “Orange is the New Black” and Nancy Cartwright of “The Simpsons” call themselves Scientologists. And Tom Cruise. I almost forgot Tom Cruise. He’s into it.
Despite my hesitations, I’m still curious. I want to know what Scientology is all about. I’m also not so convinced about its aims, so I want to see if visiting the place changes anything.
The Church of Scientology was founded by a man named L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. He wrote a book on dianetics, which combine Eastern philosophy with Western ideas of science and rationality to create a holistic understanding of being. After taking a personality test called the Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA), members are recommended programs and coursebooks (written by Hubbard) to help them solve their issues. From my understanding, Scientology is a self-help organization. They don’t have much confidence in Western medicine or psychiatry and prefer to use their own methods. The Church boasts having millions of members, but I have yet to find actual figures on their membership.
They’ve been, of course, famously shrouded in controversy since their inception.
They’ve been hit with criticism for allegedly calling themselves a nonprofit for tax evasion purposes, to endangering the lives of their members by denouncing modern psychiatry, to cases such as Operation Snow White in the late ’70s, where the Church infiltrated government documents. They’ve been vocal against their opponents, going as far as harassing them to plotting their deaths.
I cross the street and walk up the front steps of the Church of Scientology on Delmar, which towers over me. It’s intimidating. A sign denotes, “Free personality tests!” upon entry. I walk up to the receptionist, who is sitting behind a mahogany desk. The side wall next to her has a shelf with around 25 copies of L. Ron Hubbard’s book on dianetics arranged in a 5 x 5 pattern. I don’t understand why you need 25 copies of the same book concentrated in one space, even if they’re only for aesthetic appeal. Also, the display isn’t aesthetically appealing. It’s just creepy.
I explain the piece that I’m working on for Student Life to the receptionist, who seems enthused about the youth interest in Scientology. I tell her my name, to which she says, “Rima? What a beautiful name.”
Damn, Scientologists. I almost feel bad for being skeptical. So far, they’ve been really nice to me. I wonder if they have snacks.
The receptionist leads me up the stairs to a large room with high ceilings that feels almost like a traditional church. There, I’m introduced to a woman that I’ll call Dena. Dena appears to be in her 70s. She has a trendy blonde bob with bangs and is wearing a tweed pantsuit. She’s been a member of the Church for 45 years.
She smiles and waves me over to a chair so I can watch the introductory videos. I’m joined by another newcomer, who’s a 30-something woman. She’s considering joining the Church and, like me, is there to explore.
The first video is a commercial that shows ethnically-diverse millenials gallivanting through the city and explaining their choice to become Scientologists and the clarity they’ve received from it. From a marketing standpoint, the video is shot and edited well—I can see how this would appeal to viewers on the fence about joining. Does the happiness seem artificial? Sure, but then again, that’s how marketing works. Should a religion have to market itself so heavily to find followers? Not so sure.
The second video lauds the life and times of L. Ron Hubbard. It details his talents as a novelist and screenwriter before moving on to found Scientology. There’s something about the smugness that emanates from every photo of him presented that gives me the heebie-jeebies. There’s a point where they illustrate his travels to Asia and the Caribbean and show pictures of Hubbard with “disadvantaged” children, which further adds to the whole “I feel weird here” vibe.
After the video, it’s time for the personality quiz. They can’t find the quiz I took online in their database, so I end up taking another one. Dena hands me a booklet and asks more about the Student Life piece I’m working on. I tell her that I’m doing a personal experience piece for the campus newspaper. I mention the word expose at some point, to which Dena raises her eyebrows.
“Expose? That makes it sound like you’re here to dig up some dirt,” she says. Her tone is even, but still calculated.
I explain that, again, this is more about my experience learning about the Church, but that if I had any questions (re: are you saying there’s dirt here, Dena? Where that dirt at?), she didn’t have to answer them if she didn’t want to.
Her eyes widen, and she smiles. She reassures me that she has no problem answering any questions I have. She excuses herself to print out my test results. We sit down and analyze the test. The x-axis lists personality traits, while the y-axis is empty—it is simply broken up into three parts: one “acceptable state,” a middle area and an “unacceptable state.” Before we analyze this, I want to ask a few questions about the test.
“Can I record you?” I ask.
“But—I mean, I’m not going to ask anything controversial. I just want to make sure I don’t misquote you.”
“No. You can write down my quotes in your notebook, but you can’t record me. You can talk to our director of special affairs if you want to record an interview.”
I don’t argue. I think it’s a little weird that she’s so adamant about this, but whatever.
“Let’s see—it looks like you’re unstable.” I definitely look offended, because Dena follows up with, “Well, this is not what we think about you. You took the test. This is what you think about you.” She reminds me that it was me that took the test, and me that filled out the answers.
She explains the appeal of Scientology as a road to self-help. I ask her what the difference is between joining the Church of Scientology and just going to therapy. After all, both cost money, but one of them is internationally recognized as a scientifically-backed method. She tells me that therapy is more aggressive and less holistic.
“Scientology doesn’t tell you what you are. Therapy tells you, okay, this is what’s wrong with you and this is how to fix it. We ask questions to help you find out for yourself what it is that’s making you unhappy.”
“That sounds a lot like therapy.”
“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been to therapy.” She retains her polite demeanor—hands clasped while holding eye contact—but now, her tone is definitely icy.
I want to remind her that she started out this conversation by literally telling me that I’m unstable. Which, to me, sounds like she’s telling me what’s wrong with me. Also, the notion of a “holistic” test where you can fall under categories like “unacceptable” and “acceptable” seems contradictory.
I can’t tell whether my face has fallen into “sweet simper” or “smirk.” Either way, Dena and I are not getting along. Our interaction goes from being friendly to holding a definite tension. I know that she knows that I think she’s full of s—.
She’s sitting on the defensive, ready to jump at the next snarky comment I make. On the other end, I am trying my hardest to have a damn filter.
Dena rounds out the assessment by deducing that I struggle with time management. Which, alright, I’ll give her that. But I could’ve told you that if you had asked me. She walks me over to an array of Hubbard’s self-help books. There’s one for everything—how to take care of yourself, how to be a good parent, how to foster a happy workplace, etc. She pulls out a book on time management and suggests that I check it out.
I want to ask how I’d be able to fit reading another book into my already unstable and poorly-managed life, but instead, I nod. Dena, who kindly humors me, nods back.
We sit back at the table. I ask her if I have permission to ask why she joined the Church of Scientology.
She says yes. She tells me about how she had been struggling with medication dependency—she was addicted to pills and tranquilizers during her 20s. Her sister, who was a Scientologist, suggested that she try out their system. She joined the Church and the programs that she participated in helped her out of her addiction. She’s seen it help others, too—from drug addicts to couples with failing marriages.
Her story catches me off guard. For the first time while being here, I feel like we’re sharing a genuine moment. As much as I don’t buy into Scientology, I’m happy that she found happiness through it. The fact that some people have found solace in Hubbard’s work makes it seem more useful and concrete.
Still, the uneasiness from earlier doesn’t completely dissipate. Dena’s professional, matter-of-fact attitude made me forget that she had a backstory. There’s something jarring about this juxtaposition between the story she told me and the tone I have perceived while here.
Dena leads me back to my seat and notifies me that the director of special affairs will be here shortly. She goes back to attending to the first potential member that had arrived earlier.
While I’m waiting, I do the worst possible thing that I can do: go on their Wikipedia page. I want to refresh my memory, so that I can ask good questions once the director arrives. I’m going into more depth on their controversies (which are located on a special “Scientology Controversies” Wikipedia page). I’m suddenly reminded of stories of members who had been imprisoned against their will, along with the Church’s history of litigation.
A few feet away from me, a woman from the Church introduces herself to another potential member who has stopped by. She greets her, asks her what her name is and says, “Wow, [insert name here]? What a beautiful name!” It’s eerily identical to the statement the receptionist made to me. And then, you know, I start panicking. This place is eerie. It’s really, really eerie, and I don’t want to be here anymore. I know I’m probably being irrational, but I’m sort of terrified.
I shove my things into my bag. I think it’s time to go.
I dart down the steps of the spiral staircase and stop by the front desk. I feel really stupid for putting my real name and address on the personality test. I politely ask the receptionist to delete it. She give a chippy “sure!” I’m glad she didn’t witness the interaction that I had with Dena. I jolt as I feel a hand rest on my shoulder.
“I LOVE your shoes!” says some lady in a gray sweater dress. Her hand doesn’t move. She looks at the receptionist. “Have you seen her shoes?”
I mumble a hurried “thanks” before getting the hell out of that building.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal. My fear that someone was going to throw me into a ditch was partially rationalized by the Church’s history. At the same time, as a skittish 20-year-old who barely has a working knowledge of how to use a toaster oven, I’m hardly a threat to a multi-million dollar organization.
At some point, I want to go back and sit down with the director of special affairs—I really do. And I want to get a clearer picture of Scientology and why people like it. I want to ask her about the controversies and contradictions. But for now, I think I’m going to pass.