The day I tried to become a Scientologist
One of London’s cheapest, weirdest days out
Anne slid the piece of paper across the desk towards me. Her expression was grave. It said that this piece of paper was both Important and Serious. On it were the results of the personality test I’d taken a few minutes earlier, and even a brief, cautionary glance at the graph suggested I was in trouble.
With a practiced hand, Anne produced a biro, began pointing to the parts of the paper explaining why I was such a bad, sad person. I’d scored abnormally for instability, depression, nerves, irresponsibility and ‘lack of accord’ with others. The graph said these were Unacceptable States. “That’s not very good is it,” she said, biro lingering over a particularly jagged part of the line.
“Can you think of anything that might have happened in the past to explain why you might be this way?” A thick pause before Anne played her trump card.
“Has anyone ever let you down?”
She was wearing a uniform very similar to a male flight attendant’s: trousers and shirt, a waistcoat with gold piping. I smiled at her and said nothing really came to mind. There was another pause. The biro tapped at the paper.
Anne works for the Church of Scientology.
If you take a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral, down the streets lined by haughty buildings, you’ll find another church. Like the rest of the architecture, capital leaks from every pore. This is the Church of Scientology’s flagship UK storefront and I’ve come here on a bright, cold April day to have a free personality test.
A documentary on Scientology’s YouTube channel
I’m aware of the Church of Scientology on a basic YouTube and Wikipedia level; I’ve watched some YouTubes, I’ve scrolled through some Wikis. But it’s worth going through the basics one more time. Scientology is a body of religious practices founded in 1954 by the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. It’s famous for having celebrity adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. It’s infamous because Hubbard’s belief system is founded on a mental story, which goes something like this: 75 million years ago, Earth (then called Teegeeack) belonged to a confederation of 90 planets, ruled by an alien warlord named Xenu. Xenu managed galactic overpopulation by paralysing aliens from other planets, flying them to earth in space craft, dumping them in volcanoes, before showering them with H-bombs. The souls of these murdered people (called Thetans) remained on Earth and inhabit us all today, making us do bad things. The role of Scientology is to remove these Thetans in order to “go clear”. To go clear adherents pay the church thousands upon thousands of pounds, for teaching, classes, materials and auditing.
I did say it was mental.
Anybody can walk into the Church and take their test for free, which makes it one of London’s cheapest, weirdest days out. After a brief wait in the lobby, a man in the same black and gold uniform as Anne leads me to an exhibition space. The room uses an interplay full of marble, silver, gold and an orange coloured wood in order to say “we have money”: but it is the bling of a third world dictator’s front room, that expensively cheap effect. Half-moon shaped couches are placed opposite wall-mounted television screens, forming educative displays for distinct areas of Scientology. Each zone is separated by glass.
After some small talk about ice-skating (?) the man tells me to watch a video about Scientology and vanishes. The screen emits its sales pitch and I have that creeping, nerve-end feeling of being watched. When it stops, the man reappears instantly (he was watching) and guides me to another area. I walk around, surreptitiously photographing things. There are distant sounds, underwater sounds from within the body of the place, doors closing, phones ringing.
There are snatches of conversation also. The man waiting outside speaks to someone else. One of them watched Hans Zimmer last night in concert. They talk about weekend plans. Maybe they’re normal? This is, after all, the sort of anodyne exchange that takes place in my office, that takes place in yours. Then the screen says, “to love is the great lesson” in a Hollywood trailer voice, overlapping primary colour images of people with Kool Aid smiles. Ahhhhh. I start thinking about Xenu again.
The man hands me a book, a sort of child’s introduction to the religion, pages frayed and crackly to the touch – it has been well used. How many of the people who started with this book, ended up going clear? “We have plenty of copies of this one. It’s easy to buy even though it’s so big.” Was the man suggesting that the more pages a book has, the more expensive it ought to be? I didn’t know, but he explained this to me patiently, as if he were handing over the keys to a fabulously secretive chocolate factory.
With that he disappeared again.
This is a Scientology advert that played during the Grammys, entitled “How We Help”
I do my best with the textbook, spending a few minutes wading through its jargon. I don’t get very far before I leave it on one of the couches and move on to another display called “The Ways to Happiness”. There’s a noise behind me, and I turn around. The textbook is no longer on the couch, in fact it’s nowhere to be seen. Prominently shrink-wrapped, being unapologetically hawked are the rest of L. Ron’s books, in particular Scientology’s founding text, Dianetics. In the eerie silence they wait, hope, yearn to be bought, for all that shrink wrap to be torn away and Hubbard’s intergalactic truths to be revealed. There are no windows in here.
I feel entombed.
Before I’m lead away to take the Oxford Capacity Analysis™ test, I think about how hard it must be to set up a religion. Imagine trying it. Like anybody who’s cooking up a religion, you’re perceived as a huckster, a charlatan. It must have been far easier to offer people salvation in the context of Bronze Age Palestine, like Jesus did. L. Ron set up Scientology in the full gaze and glare of the 20th century. What Scientology offers is its freshness. It is so new, so recent. And being modern, Scientology has had a thoroughly modern treatment. It has been investigated and criticised by previous church members. It has been slammed as being little more than a miserable cult. It has been mockingly torched by South Park.
I sat down and began the test.
Questions included: “Do you keep ‘close contact’ on articles of yours which you have loaned to friends?”, “Do you enjoy activities of your own choosing?”, “Does emotional music have quite an effect on you?”, and “Do you completely condemn a person because he is a rival or opponent in some aspect of your relations with him?”
Later, with Anne, we discussed what it means to be happy. Anne didn’t say much: she lets me fill the silences. For someone I’d known for less than five minutes, she seemed keen to barge into the most fraught areas of my psyche. If I really were vulnerable or unhappy I could see how it would play out: she’d ask something vague about past traumas, let the question hang, wait for me to break down. I resisted and she asked me whether I’d like to buy a copy of Dianetics, both in book and DVD Blu-Ray form.
I politely declined.