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Scientology and Me

8th December 2008

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Fuelled by talk of 'a dangerous cult' and following a bizarre personal experience in Edinburgh, our reporter delved into the world of Scientology...

'Hubbard isn't a god or anything…. we just have this out of respect.'

I am standing behind a red rope, on the top floor of a Scientologist Church in central London. In front of me is an immaculate office, which I cannot step into. It looks like any functioning work place, decorated with flowers, memo pads and a reading lamp. Yet something feels not quite right, and then I see it. On the grand wooden desk there is a polished name plaque. It says, 'L. Ron Hubbard' on it and behind the desk is an expensive leather chair for him to sit in. Except there's no chance that he will ever be using this as he's been dead for 22 years.

'Every Scientologist Church will have a room like this,' says my new Scientologist friend.

I start to feel like I am in a dream, it's all getting a bit bizarre. How did I get here, I think to myself. "How have I become initiated into the Church of Scientology?" Rewind.

The late sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology in 1952. Its fundamental premise is that man is an immortal spiritual being - a Thetan. The body is a shell and dies but the Thetan lives forever. Scientology increases a person's spiritual awareness and certainty of their own immortality. It believes the mind is an accumulated record of three dimensional smelling, sounding, mental, image pictures. Scientology's aim is to clear the mind of the painful mental image pictures we have collected. When the mind is clear we will be free.

To achieve complete spiritual freedom you must complete 'The Bridge of Total Freedom' comprising of twenty-seven Auditing classes. You receive a certificate after each class. It is most likely you will invest several hundred thousand pounds before achieving the final classification of Hubbard Class 12 Auditor.

Scientology is a highly controversial religion banned in Greece and Italy. Germany declares it a threat to democracy. In countries such as Belgium and Norway it is under investigation for allegations of child abuse, kidnapping and running secret internal prison camps.

My intrigue into Scientology began after seeing the Panorama special 'Scientology and Me'. In this documentary the BBC presenter John Sweeney looses his rag on camera after he is followed and verbally harassed for several days by Tommy Davis, an American Scientologist spokesman who in his black sunglasses and sleek suit looks like he's just stepped off the set of Men in Black. Sweeney suggests that Scientology is a dangerous cult, which brainwashes its members and takes all of their money. Attending Scientologist conventions he highlights some of its bizarre beliefs, one of them being that psychology is an 'industry of death'.

My immediate reaction was disbelief at the apparent power Scientology has, clearly enabled by the huge amount of cash investment it receives from expensive auditing programmes, self-improvement courses and books. The harassment Sweeney and the ex-members he interviewed experienced when filming, was unnerving. How did Scientologists dig up so much information about a person's life and why use it as a weapon to stop ex -members speaking out? However I could understand why Tommy Davis was so defensive and unenthusiastic about Sweeney's documentary. If a reporter told me that what I believed in was a sham and was trying to give a negative portrayal of my organisation, then I would also get touchy.

At that point I had never met a Scientologist. I knew they existed but my attitude was, if their beliefs aren't harming the rest of society then I don't have a problem with it. Yes, I heard the anti-Scientology talk from groups such as Anonymous but I wanted to see for myself what the organisation was all about.

Little did I know that a few weeks later I would unknowingly have my first encounter with the Church of Scientology and acquire my own understanding about what the organisation is really about.

During August I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Fringe is a buzzing place and it put me in an open-minded mood - perhaps it was all the whisky! So on a rainy afternoon when a chirpy twenty something guy asked if I'd like to come inside an inconspicuous building, similar to other Fringe Venues, to take a 'Free Personality Test', I simply saw it as a fun thing to do to avoid the rain and without much thought stepped inside.

Entering a sparingly decorated room, we sat at a table and the test began.

On the table were two tin cans wired up to a boxed machine, which had a swinging needle on it. This is what Scientologists call an 'E-Meter', to my mind a primitive lie detector, explained in a Scientology handbook as "a religious artefact…used by ministers…to help parishioners locate the source of spiritual travail". The goal of the so-called 'auditing sessions' is to achieve no movement of the needle. You are then 'Clear' and can continue along 'The Bridge to Total Freedom.' As I picked up the cans, the man sat at the desk asked questions in a rapid, quick-fire fashion.
"What were you thinking of, right then?"

"I don't know," I said, as pinning down thoughts is a difficult thing to do.
"What were you thinking of just then."
"I don't know," I said.

He explained the dial was swinging rapidly and so I was thinking a negative thought.
"What are you holding back?" he asked.

"Something to do with a guy? Fallen out with a friend? Have you lost somebody you cared about?"

After a lot of nervous giggling I gave way. Even though initially I wasn't thinking about any of these things, his pressured questioning forced them into my mind.
"I guess I'm thinking about my grandma, she died a year ago."
"Go on," he said.

And so I started talking about my grief and the pain of loosing her. He stayed mostly silent whilst I spoke about this.

The questions continued, and we went over many events in my life, as far back as my early childhood. It was cathartic to purge my thoughts to a stranger, who assured me that nothing I could say would unsettle him since he had heard it all before. It was a form of therapy.

I noticed that as I became more honest about my past, the dial on the E-Meter started to settle. When I became emotionally tired the man insisted there was still more to explore.
"I can probably guess what it is you are holding back," he said.
"Well, tell me," I said, as I did not know.

"I can't do that…but I want you to read this. I don't want you to say anything, just give it a read."

He produced a card and handed it me. The atmosphere was intense as he watched me read it.

The words 'L', 'Ron' and 'Hubbard', jumped out at me. The realisation dawned that the, 'Free Personality Test,' was simply a disguised recruitment method of Scientology. I felt I had been mislead, like Gretel going inside for some sweeties and discovering that there were none.

"What did you think about that?" asked the man I then understood was a Scientologist.

"Yes, it's very interesting" was all I could say. I wanted to leave. He then produced a book, titled Dianetics. It would be a "good thing" if I bought it, he said.
Jeez, I thought. Now you're trying to sell me something!
"No thank you," I said.
"It would really help you."
"No, thank you," I said again.

He persisted and I continued to offer excuses. After several minutes he relented.

"I think you could really benefit from coming to watch some videos," he continued.
"Yeah, maybe," I replied.

I then got up, thanked him for the personality test and walked away.

In all the man seemed a genuine guy, eager to help and I felt a warm feeling to have a stranger reach out to me, but there was an underlying pressure and intensity towards the end of the session that unnerved me.

John Duignan, a former scientologist told The Sun newspaper in November 2008 that he joined Scientology in 1985 after a pretty girl offered him the 'Free Personality Test'. Like myself, it was his first experience of Scientology. Now 45 he said, "The test is a clever recruitment device because it appeals to people who are searching for something."

He said the 'friendly people' he met offered a solution to his self-confidence issues and depression, in Scientology. On reflection he believes what he really needed was "proper psychological counselling."

John's new expose of Scientology The Complex has been pulled from Amazon and British bookshelves for "legal reasons". Duignan is reported to be "not at all surprised given the Church's record on Freedom of expression".

The experience in Edinburgh made me wonder more about the alleged darker side of Scientology. I contacted The Cult Information Centre, or CIC, an educational charity that provides advice and information for victims of cults, their families and friends, researchers and the media. Representative Ian Haworth, an American ex-cult member with first hand experience on the realities of cult life has handled over 20,000 enquiries and delivered over 1,200 talks on cults.

He told me his work in the UK includes helping people who are concerned for the welfare of a family member who have joined the church. He has also helped people 'recover' after leaving Scientology. Recover from what, I asked? He directed me to the article, Information Disease written by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, published in the North American version of Science Digest in January 1982.

This article shows the results of an extensive survey Conway and Siegelman conducted into cults. The participants, all ex-cult members included Moonies, Divine Light Mission and Scientologists. The results were enlightening. Ex-Scientologists said that it took, "on the average, more than two years (26 months) before they felt rehabilitated - more than twice the time of those from other major cults."

It is said that those leaving the church suffered from sexual dysfunction, violent outbursts, hallucinations and delusions and suicidal or self-destructive tendencies. 58% of ex-scientologists reported incidences of physical punishment whilst in the group. If these results speak the truth Scientology can be seen as nothing less than evil.

My preconceptions and the information I had acquired seemed at loggerheads with the genuine nature of the Scientologists I had met in Edinburgh. Haworth commented that people in cults in general, "are decent human beings who have become victims of a process".

"They have undergone a change in personality," he said and are "less able to critically evaluate… they look happy because they're programmed to do so, I looked happy when I was in a cult."

He said he is 'concerned' about Scientology quoting Judge Latey, a British judge who in the 1980's dealt with a case involving Scientologists. Latey said that Scientology, "is corrupt sinister and dangerous"

On telling him I was going to visit the Church of Scientology in London he replied "we would never recommend that."

The first thing that hits you when you walk into the Scientology church in London is the sheer grandeur of the place, with its marble flooring and high ceilings. Unlike in Edinburgh the Scientologists wore uniforms, something which it is said is a method cults use to remove individuality, discourage free-thought and promote conformity.

Telling a receptionist that I was 'interested in joining Scientology' I was taken to the 'testing centre' an area where you take several tests designed to assess your seriousness and suitability in joining Scientology.

I was given a list of 200 questions which I had to answer, such as "Are you readily interested in other peoples conversations?", "Is your voice monotonous rather than varied in pitch?", "Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?", and "Does life seem rather vague or unreal to you?"

Whilst taking the test I got talking to a pretty American woman around my age. I asked her, how Scientology has helped her. "In everything," she emphasised, "I was born into Scientology because my parents were Scientologists…" She quickly skimmed over details about her parent's messy divorce, which struck me as a hefty subject to skim over.

"It's helped me in relationships, in my studies, with friends," she added.

Scientology claims to contain solutions to "the problems of drugs, education, morals (and) relationships". If a child cannot read well then Scientology can help the child, "dispense with a liability that would otherwise affect him for his entire life". Marriages can be "saved and strengthened' and their "most effective drug rehabilitation programme" enables the addict "to uncover the reasons why he began in the first place". Whatever the problem, Hubbard has the answers.

It took me half an hour to complete the test. A woman typed my answers into a computer which created a spiky looking graph. She told me my graph revealed I had a lack of responsibility for myself, poor communication skills, that I suffered from severe depression and at times felt suicidal. This is untrue but if I had been a person with low self-esteem this computer-generated analysis of my mind would have made me feel very worried about my mental state and perpetuate my inner turmoil.

She prompted me to comment on the graph but I felt weary to disclose information about myself.

Instead I began to argue the graphs results to which the response was, "These are your answers though… I'm only telling you what your answers revealed."

In between the questioning we were getting along; I told her about my trip to Edinburgh and she told me she was going there in a few days to visit the Church. An older Scientologist overhearing the conversation interjected with the probing question, "Have you CLEARED that?"
"Yeah, yeah I've cleared it," the woman replied in defence.

Why would anyone have to 'clear' a visit to Edinburgh, and at this point the thoughts provided by the The Cult Information Centre seemed scarily close to reality.

As the discussions of my graph continued the plural 'we' started to enter into the conversation, I felt like I was becoming a part of a single entity.

"So what we're going to do is get you started on some of these communication courses… it's about 30 pounds for the course…did I say 30 pounds, I meant eighteen… and you can come here to do them, if that's best for you?. So shall we sign you up?"

Hold up, a minute, I thought. I have not agreed to participate in a course, she has just presumed.

"I have to think abut this. I can't afford the course at the moment," I said

"I don't want you leaving here with nothing… I want to get you started on the courses… you can do some Dianetics for free, I know a guy whose really good at it…you can buy a paperback for £8."
"Eight pounds did you say?"
"Yeah, eight pounds."
"Ok, I'll buy it."

I relented, I bought the book. Strangely as soon as I agreed the pressurising conversation ended.

As we went to the cash desk with my self-help book I asked her how Scientology had helped her.

"I came into Scientology to help others," This statement was true. She clearly was eager to help me, but also just as eager to close a sale.

She told me I needed to fill out a receipt on the top floor for my book.

In the lift she chatted about her university friends and how she liked what I was wearing. Perhaps this was a 'love bombing', a cult technique, however I think if we had met in a university environment, away from the church, we could've gotten on well.

The 'receipt' involved writing down all my personal details, something I've never had to do in Waterstones! It was on this floor that she showed me Hubbard's office. And it was at that point I realised I had been in the Church for three hours and really had to leave.

As I headed for the exit I saw a little boy in his school uniform running up the marble steps on his way to a private lesson in an empty classroom. He should be at home, chilling out, I thought. Outside scientologists, smoking cigarettes were there to say goodbye. Funny that, I thought. If Scientology makes you think clearly and calmly why do you need that kind of crutch? I don't.

So, what have I found out about Scientology? . I have seen how auditors pressurise you to buy books and courses and it is for this reason I believe it is simply a money making business and not a religion. I believe Scientology is harmful to those that try to leave it. John Duignan writes about a 'Rehabilitation Project Force' in Scientology, which stops members from leaving the cult. They subjected his friend Alice to daily interrogation for six months.

"One afternoon Alice swallowed a tin of paint thinner and jumped from a 15ft room…Alice is now crippled," he said.

I believe that Scientologists are generally good people but have become victims of a pyramid scheme they are unaware of.

I don't recommend going for a 'Free Personality Test' since the intense pressure of the experience and the preying on insecurities may draw even the strongest willed person towards the 'religion'.

Interestingly a few days after visiting the church the email account I set up purely for correspondence with Scientology was deleted. This may be a coincidence or it may be that my questioning whilst at the Church aroused suspicion and forced them to take action against me but I guess I'll never know.

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