I spent an afternoon with the Church of Scientology
They were creepily persuasive
Karl sat on the table’s edge opposite me, beaming. “We want to bring Scientology to more people at universities”, he said. “We need more people like you.”
* * *
Nestled in an unassuming office building above Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, just a few doors down from Casablanca’s, is Brighton’s very own faction of the Church of Scientology. Publically recognisable only by an A4 sheet stuck to a window, Scientology’s local headquarters aren’t exactly begging for attention. Odd, considering this is an international organisation whose celebrity adherents include Tom Cruise, John Travolta, even Beck.
This is an organisation with some bizarre origins and even weirder beliefs, so a recap is in order. The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, an American science fiction author. It’s based on Hubbard’s concept of ‘Dianetics’, a set of ideas that regard the relationship between body and mind. Though the concepts of Dianetics are somewhat more complex than that, it’s Scientology’s core beliefs that are just completely bonkers.
For Scientologists, the story goes that 75 million years ago there existed a galactic warlord named Xenu, ruler of a confederation of 90 planets, including Earth — back then called ‘Teegeeack’. Xenu paralysed and brought billions of his people to Teegeeack, chucked them into volcanoes before killing them with nuclear bombs. The souls of those murdered people (known as ‘Thetans’) live on in all people and cause them to do bad things. Through ‘auditing’ sessions, Scientology’s purpose is to get people to remember their true selves and ultimately ‘go clear’. This all sounds mad and, to top it all off, it comes at an infamously hefty price. Adherents have to pay the Church thousands of pounds for teaching, auditing and ‘educational’ material. Pay-as-you go religion or what?
* * *
I approach the front door and ring the buzzer. A few anxious seconds pass before I’m let in. This is definitely the right place. I ascend one floor and find myself in what looks to be not much more than an downbeat office. A pair of eyes gaze at me through a doorway ahead. A young woman appears, greets me and asks what she can do for me.
“I’m here for an appointment”
“Alright, what’s your name?”
“Joseph” (my pseudonym for the day)
“I’m Sheila. Wait here, I’ll be right back”, she says, leaving me by myself. I use this brief pocket of solitude to make sense of my surroundings and calm my nerves. This was actually happening.
* * *
A little backstory for this adventure begins 10 years ago.
I’ve long been intrigued by the weirdness of Scientology. As a kid, I’d watched 2007’s The Secrets of Scientology and 2010’s Scientology and Me, BBC’s Panorama documentaries presented by the stoic and ruthlessly inquisitive John Sweeney. I recall being taken aback by the Church’s absurd secrecy, disconcerting threats to journalists, and its infamous reputation for squeezing money out of its members. Recently, I came across Louis Theroux’s acclaimed new documentary, My Scientology Movie. And just like that, my interest in this peculiar organisation was concretised. I had to know more. I had to see it for myself.
A quick google took me the organisation’s local site, where I was directed to take a ‘free personality test’. Scientologists refer to it as the ‘Oxford Capacity Analysis’, even though it has no links to the University of Oxford — though I suspect it’s probably a deliberate mark of false legitimacy. Comprising 200 questions, the test spanned a startlingly broad range of topics, ranging from the fairly reasonable:
To the more personal:
To the paranoid:
And the unsettling:
Upon completion of this disturbing ‘personality test’, I expected to get my results. Not exactly. Instead, I’m asked me to book a time slot at my local centre, to speak with a member themselves.
This was it. This was my way in. So I booked my appointment for 1pm the very next day. I couldn’t contain my mix of excitement and nerves. I’d have to wait and see what to expect.
* * *
Sheila comes back, this time with a colleague in tow. I’m introduced to Karl — a middle-aged, German fellow with the glaring eyes of a person simultaneously excited and nervous. Sheila brings me a coffee and quizzes me on my current knowledge of Scientology. Feigning naivety, I tell her I don’t know all that much. Karl interrupts to inform me that my appointment to get my test results is running a bit late, as they weren’t aware I was coming. He says it’s probably a technical glitch.
Crazy eyes Karl powers on the room’s TV and suggests I watch a short video about Dianetics in the meantime, to get me up to speed. This is when things begin to get weird.
As the video ends, Karl reappears, smiling at me. “What did you think?”. Unsure quite how to respond to the bizarre video I’d just watched, I say it was ‘interesting’.
Karl asks if I’m currently at university. I tell him yes — his expression lights up.
“I must show you something”, he says before disappearing briefly once more.
He returns with another DVD and plays it on the TV. This time, the video is about how Scientology claims it can help students achieve better results and be more productive. It’s easy to see the appeal, but at the same time what it’s saying is completely obscure.
Again, Karl asks me what I think. I tell him I can see how this could be helpful to students like me, once again trying hard to come across as naive and impressionable.
After a brief chat about my life goals, Karl tells me I can now go to my appointment. I’m led to a small office room and introduced to a woman called Catriona. We sit down on chairs facing each other, oddly arranged to be unnaturally close together. She points to a piece of paper on the desk next to us.
“I have your results here.”
* * *
What happened over the course of the next 30 minutes can only be described as a mix between counselling, (pseudo-)psychological assessment and confessing my sins to a priest.
Catriona was highly surreptitious about the greater complexities of Scientology, instead speaking only about ‘helping me’. No talk of Xenu, Thetans or going clear. All that sci-fi stuff is reserved for much higher level Scientologists, not for entry-level newbies like myself (probably because it would come across as too wacky until you’re properly embedded into the cult). Instead, Catriona focused on me and the results of my attempt at the Oxford Capacity Analysis test.
Pointing at various points on the graph, Catriona would make judgements about my character. I felt she was using a strong confirmation bias when she suggested that I might be confident in certain situations, but also apprehensive in others. It was clear that these results were skewed in a way that made it appear I had some well-defined problems — problems that could be only addressed through Dianetics. Throughout the auditing session, Catriona would ask provocative and personal questions like:
“How is your relationship with your family?
“Have you ever taken drugs?
“Do you want to know more about the mind?”
The whole experience was very strange. Though I might be fairly open about many things, this was a woman I had just met, yet I was giving her the answers she was looking for. Catriona asked me to close my eyes and imagine a childhood memory. “Use your mind’s eye”, she said. This was some therapy-level stuff.
Towards the end of the session, Catriona recommended I get a copy of L. Ron’s Dianetics, which I could purchase then and there for £16 (there was even a card machine on her desk). I politely declined her offer and said I might check the university library first. After asking for some leaflets to bring home, I’m handed some magazines and a couple of DVDs. We exchanged a few more words about our similar go-getting attitude to life, before shaking hands and saying our goodbyes. It was done.
* * *
It’s hard to sum up my Scientology ‘experience’, but it’s safe to say I have never felt more uneasy and bewildered by anyone in my life. On the face of it, these were friendly and polite people who made me feel welcome, yet I could never shake off the obvious knowledge that they wanted to reel me into something I didn’t want to join.
Though Scientology may only boast around 2,500 members in the UK, its infamous international reputation is what puts it in the public eye. What I had definitely learned is Scientology’s initial appeal is much more subtle. It advertises itself as a way for people to get to know themselves better, to achieve greater success, and to be happier. Its obscurity is its main weapon, used to lure in the naive and vulnerable who have fallen victim to the unfairness of modern life.
Only now, after experiencing a taste of it first hand, do I better understand the tragic human side of it all. Like other religions, it’s a place to turn for answers and meaning when everything or everyone seems to be against you. Catriona even professed: “Scientology is like an encyclopaedia — it has all the answers but where do you start looking?”. Thanks for your time, but I’ll continue to stick to actual encyclopaedias.