Scientology: inside the Auckland HQ
First Published in Metro, September 2012. Photo by Jeremy Toth.
“I’m sorry, darling.”
“I’m sorry, darling.”
“I’m sorry, darling.”
I’m sorry, darling.”
I was sitting in a tiny room. In front of me was a Croatian man named Uri. On the table between us was a box of tissues, a tube of hand lotion, and a small electronic box. “And again.” Uri said.
At the entrance to a disused plaza on Khyber Pass Rd, there’s a button with a sign that says: “Push for Church of Scientology.” I’m pushing it. Eventually the doors slide open and a pram with a baby in it emerges, propelled by a receptionist called Anna. “We aren’t having a Sunday service today,” she says as she drives the pram through the deserted mall and into a spacious lounge area. “But please, make yourself at home.”
The church is well-lit, comfortable, and full of Scientologists. There are leather armchairs, shelves lined with glossy books and products, a couple of flat screens, a podium adorned with the Scientology cross, and, against the far wall, a bust of L. Ron Hubbard, the former science-fiction writer who founded the religion. People stand around, chatting. A woman sits in a chair, filling out a crossword with furious intent. “Would you like to do a personality test?” Anna asks.
I make a coffee and sit at a table with a pamphlet. The questions are difficult: “Do you make thoughtless remarks or accusations which later you regret?” “Do you browse through railway timetables, dictionaries or phonebooks for pleasure?” “Do you get occasional twitches of your muscles, when there is no logical reason for it?” That one stumps me.
I do my best, and as I’m answering the 200th and final question — and beginning to doubt whether I have any idea who I really am — Anna replaces the pamphlet with an IQ test. A timer whirrs next to me and I drink coffee and scramble to finish in time. Two babies are being passed about the place and people come and go from the armchairs, as though they’re waiting to see someone.
It’s a chaotic experience, and my test results are going to prove shocking.
Scientology has been established in New Zealand since 1955. The last census registered 357 Scientologists, but the church’s own records number around 5000. Inland Revenue considers Scientology a tax-exempt religious organisation. Scientologists have fought hard for this status. The US government refused to recognise Scientology as a religion for 25 years and, in that time, Scientology filed more than 50 lawsuits against the Inland Revenue Service and hired private detectives to dig into the personal lives of IRS officials. In 1991, the current world leader of the religion, David Miscavige, visited IRS headquarters and offered to stop the suits in exchange for tax exemptions.
Two years later, they’d reached a settlement. This paved the way for religious status in countries all over the world.
Actor Tom Cruise — who once donated $1500 to the New Zealand church — is the most identifiable Scientologist in the world. During his swift and highly publicised divorce from actress Katie Holmes in July, Scientology was never far from the entertainment news’ hysterical spotlight.
The narrative that unfolded — if it can be at all trusted — cited Cruise’s devotion to the religion as a schism in their parenting of daughter Suri, and even portrayed Katie as having broken free from the confines of a constrictive marriage.
Since Ron Hubbard launched “Project Celebrity” and made a list of famous names that he wanted converted, there has been a Celebrity Centre in Hollywood designated exclusively for the stars.
It’s unclear if this is where Tom began his pilgrimage, but he has been an outspoken Scientologist since about 1990. Over the years, he’s claimed that Hubbard’s teachings cured his dyslexia, and publicly criticised actress Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants to curb her post-natal depression, and the Paris City Council has barred further dealings with him for lobbying officials in a “militant” attempt to foster charitable status for Scientology in Europe.
After the test, I talked more with Anna. She was from Ukraine. She talked slowly and her eyes stared searchingly into mine. “How long have you been a Scientologist?” I asked.
“About seven years.” She pushed the pram back and forth as we spoke.
“Is it your turn to look after the baby?”
“No, I bring him here every day.”
There was a poster with a concept drawing near the entrance to the lounge. It was of the nearby Grafton Rd building once occupied by Trinity Methodist College and then the Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, but it had been remodelled as a Scientological monument. Three storeys high and emblazoned with symbols, it looked more like an institution than a church. Below the picture it said, “Auditors Wanted.”
“We’re moving in March next year. It’s very exciting,” Anna said. Then she said, “Someone has freed up to go over your test results with you.”
I went outside for some air. I’d scarcely stepped into the car park when Helen, a curly-haired Australian, came out to get me. As she brought me back to my table, she was eager to know what I’d heard about Scientology. “You’ve probably read all kinds of things,” she said, “about aliens and stuff.”
We went over my results. They weren’t good.
We went over my results. They weren’t good. According to the graph the computer had drawn up, I am unstable, depressed, nervous, withdrawn and I have a “lack of accord”. The only positive traits were “analytical, active and aggressive”. I’m not sure if aggression is positive, but it’s where I got my highest score.
I should mention that Helen later debunked my “active” character trait as a front. In the erratic journey of the line in the graph, it hadn’t once landed in the grey zones labelled “Normal” or “Desirable State.” Instead, seven of the 10 traits were below the broken line: “Attention Urgent.”
My IQ result was also deflatingly average, although Helen said this could be improved.
“It is our past experiences that shape who we are,” she said, turning the paper over and drawing a diagram. “Describe your parents.”
I was evasive, probably because there were people within earshot. But Helen’s questions became increasingly intimate. “Did anything bad happen to you when you were growing up?” She seemed poised for a catalogue of childhood traumas. But I wasn’t co-operating and our conversation meandered awkwardly.
Finally she asked me about drugs. I told her I’d once dabbled in hallucinogens, and we concluded that this could have scrambled my reactive mind. Then she tried to sell me a book. It was settled: I’d come back the following night to watch the Orientation Film.
Helen was right to assume I’d heard about aliens. In 1968, Ron Hubbard presented a lecture to his followers on board a ship called Apollo. In it, he told a story known as the Space Opera. This is taught to Scientologists after they have reached Operating Thetan Level 3, an achievement that is said to require a significant investment of time and money. Although the church is trying to have a recording of the lecture removed from the internet on the grounds of copyright infringement, it’s easy to find.
The story begins with Xenu, the tyrant ruler of a Galactic Confederacy, who, 75 million years ago, brought billions of his people to Earth, stacked them around volcanoes and destroyed them using hydrogen bombs in an event known as Incident 2. The spirits of these people remain today and cluster around the living, causing them spiritual harm.
This information came to Hubbard in a series of revelatory experiences. In a letter to his wife of the time, he said that to assist his research he was “drinking lots of rum and popping pinks and greys”.
The discovery of Incident 2 is also said to have taken a severe physical toll on him; he announced that he had broken a knee, an arm and his back during the course of his findings.
The Apollo was one of a fleet of ships known as the Sea Org — an elite group of Scientologists who sailed from port to port during the late 60s and early 70s. Hubbard was an experienced seaman; he’d served in the US Navy during World War II, holding command of two vessels. But he was removed from both positions when superiors found him unsuitable for command. In one instance, he quite literally attacked Mexico by mistake.
His unconventional leadership continued as “Commodore” of the Sea Org. According to former Sea Org members, conditions on board were terrible. The crew were worked to exhaustion, given meagre rations and forbidden to wash or change their clothes for several weeks.
Troublesome crew members were banished to the bilge tanks without toilet facilities, or thrown overboard with Hubbard looking on and, occasionally, filming. Hubbard lived in luxury, tended by young girls in hot pants and halter-tops, whose duties included lighting his cigarettes and dressing him.
But the expedition wasn’t to last. Britain, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Venezuela all closed their ports to his fleet. Australia revoked the church’s status as a religion, France convicted Hubbard of fraud, and he was forced to return to the United States, living in hiding in the California desert. By 1983, he’d been indicted as a conspirator in “Operation Snow White” — a project which included infiltrations and thefts from foreign embassies and private organisations that had been critical of Scientology — as well as 136 government agencies. It was the single largest infiltration of the US government in history.
The next evening, I arrived half an hour early. A teenage boy answered the door. Inside, I sat down in the same place I’d been told I was dangerously dysfunctional. Someone brought me a coffee. In a circle of armchairs nearby, a meeting was drawing to a close between a group of five or six people. They had been talking in hushed voices.
A guy came over to me and introduced himself as Mike. I realised he was Mike Feriss, the official spokesman for the New Zealand Church of Scientology. He was grey-haired and looked like a businessman.
“What’s going on here tonight?”
“Nothing much,” he said.
I pointed to the poster of the remodelled Grafton Rd building and said, “That’s exciting.”
“Oh, we bought it in 2007,” he said as he sat down across from me.
“I sat a personality test yesterday and I was disappointed with my results.”
“Well, too often people live with a veneer,” he said.
“Is it normal for new members to score badly?”
“It’s relatively normal,” he assured me. “But people generally find that their results improve during their time here.”
I was relieved. I sipped my coffee and we stared at each other.
I asked him, “Are you hesitant to tell people you’re a Scientologist?”
“No. I think it’s best to be open about it. Of course, not everyone is going to understand. When my mother heard I was a Scientologist, she was worried I’d lose my sense of humour. But she’s pleased to see that I still have it.” He laughed.
I took this as a cue to laugh as well. “But why does Scientology have such a loaded public image?”
“Any ideology that is relatively new is met with resistance. Look at the Salvation Army.”
“Any ideology that is relatively new is met with resistance. Look at the Salvation Army. People used to spit at them, and now they can collect money on the streets.”
It was an interesting comparison. And it was plausible. But if Scientology is little more than a pragmatic approach to self-improvement, as Helen had said, why does it need to call itself a religion?
“Well, we don’t have any set dogma concerning god that we impose on our members, if that’s what you mean,” he said with narrowed eyes. “Scientology is a spiritual journey.”
It was 1953 when Ron Hubbard decided that Scientology was to be transformed into a religion. Membership was declining and money was running out; critics say he was enticed by the legal and financial benefits of religious status. He had also been quoted as telling an authors’ convention in 1948: “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”
Helen had found me and it was time for the Orientation Film. She took me to a screening room, and we sat in the dark in front of a projector.
The film begins in black and white. Words light up the screen: “The Evolution of a Science.” A boy is playing American football with his father in the backyard. Flash forward: a college American football game in the 50s. Jazzy music, bright colours. The protagonist — Anderson — now a young man, is spear-tackled and lies motionless on the field. Panic. He’s taken away on a stretcher, and wakes up in hospital. Villainous doctors are inspecting him with primitive instruments. Anderson is paralysed from the waist down. “He’ll never walk again,” the doctors say.
Enter Dr Brown, a man with a bow tie and a book titled Intensive Psychotherapy under one arm. Sinister music as he approaches Anderson’s bedside. “Your personality is a product of your genetics,” Brown says. “I can’t change it. Nothing changes. The mind is too complicated.” Anderson is wheeled into an operating theatre.
Behind a two-way mirror, lab technicians decide they want to open up his brain and poke around, because it might make for an interesting experiment. They smoke and eat doughnuts.
Dr Brown comes to see Anderson, this time with another psychologist, Adler. “I could work on you for several years,” Adler says, “at a cost of $30,000, but even then we might not get anywhere.”
“Doctor!” Anderson calls after him. “Didn’t you ever cure anyone? With psychology or psychotherapy?”
“Cure?” Adler laughs. “The mind is just too complicated.”
Then one day, Anderson’s grief-stricken girlfriend leaves a book on his bed for him: Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard. He reads it and, in a cheerful montage, has a number of epiphanies. One is that while he was unconscious on the football field, a nearby teammate yelled, “Oh man, he’ll never walk again!” And this is the reason for his paralysis.
Soon, he’s wriggling his toes, getting out of bed, and running around the room, just as Dr Brown and Adler arrive to perform brain surgery on him. “That book’s dangerous!” Adler says. “It could put us out of business!”
I wasn’t sure what I’d just seen. It seemed like some kind of joke. But Helen seemed satisfied. She ushered me out of the screening room and it was decided that I’d come back in a couple of days for an auditing session. I was to get a good night’s sleep, eat a big meal, and not consume any alcohol, pharmaceuticals or other drugs beforehand.
“What about coffee?”
“Coffee is great.”
I wondered why I wasn’t allowed to pop so much as a Panadol for the next 24 hours, but caffeine — which is technically a psychoactive drug — was fine.
I also wondered if Helen knew that Ron Hubbard had said of auditing, “Benzedrine often helps a case run better,” and I was tempted to prove him right.
That night, I watched a DVD about Dianetics that Helen had sold me. There was a disclaimer at the beginning that said: “Neither Dianetics nor Scientology is offered as, nor professes to be, physical healing, nor is any claim made to that effect.”
I found this odd, because physical healing seemed to have been the central theme of the Orientation Film. And Hubbard had said of Dianetics himself: “Arthritis vanishes, myopia gets better, heart disease decreases, asthma disappears, stomachs function properly and the whole catalogue of illnesses goes and stays away.”
The basic principle of Dianetics is that there are two parts to the mind. The reactive mind, which is recording experiences at all times, and the analytical mind, which is the source of rationalisation and consciousness. When we experience physical or emotional traumas, they are stored in the reactive mind as “engrams”. These cause people to act irrationally and lose their true identity. “Auditing” — which I would undergo — is a kind of therapy in which the subject is regressed through these engrams so that they can be “cleared” — a process that is believed to cause improved IQ and photographic memory.
When Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it was an instant commercial success, selling 150,000 copies in the first year. However, while he described the book as “a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and the arch”, it was a critical flop. Scientific American said the book contained “more promises and less evidence per page than any publication in the history of printing”, and fellow writer Jack Williamson called it “a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology”.
A US Navy psychoanalyst had taught Hubbard about Freud. Scientologists describe this as an encounter that left Hubbard dissatisfied with psychology’s “scientific approach to the mind”. But after a paper on Dianetics was submitted to, and rejected by, both The Journal of the American Medical Association and The American Journal of Psychiatry, and instead published in a science-fiction magazine, one can’t help but wonder if the true source of Hubbard’s animosity towards conventional medicine wasn’t bitterness.
I arrived at 7 o’clock on a Thursday night and sat at my table. Uri, the Croatian, came down and collected me. We went out of the lounge, through the plaza and up a flight of stairs. I had no idea there was more to the church. We passed doors, some with signs that said “Session in progress”. There were posters on the walls. Exercise equipment. One of the rooms looked like a kitchenette. I wondered if people lived up here.
Uri led me into a room that could pass as a closet. On a table inside was what Scientologists call an E-Meter. It’s a device with dials and two metal tubes and an arrow that is believed to indicate a person’s mental state or whether they are telling the truth.
“I should tell you that you can stop the session at any time,” he said. Then with a smile, “But I might not let you.”
We closed the door and sat down, facing each other across the narrow table. Uri went over some housekeeping. “I should tell you that you can stop the session at any time,” he said. Then with a smile, “But I might not let you.”
He was a big guy in a leather jacket. I imagined the scuffle that might ensue if I lunged for the door. But then he told me to close my eyes. “Go back to an incident you can comfortably face,” he said.
I started to remember a memory from childhood — the death of my first dog. I recalled that after the dog died, one of my relatives had said to me, “I’m sorry, darling.” We paid particular attention to this. “Repeat that phrase to me,” Uri said. “I’m sorry, darling.” “And again.” “I’m sorry, darling.” “And again.”
So there I was, in that little room with Uri, telling him repeatedly that I was sorry. And it seemed to go on forever. There was nothing but the hum of the lights, an increasingly bad smell, and Uri’s voice telling me, “Go back to the beginning, recount the experience again, and pick up whatever additional data you can contact.”
When I finally opened my eyes, the room seemed smaller. I felt euphoric. Uri pulled out a chart and started explaining something about a chain of emotions, but I wasn’t taking it in. My sanity was hanging by a thread. I wanted to get out of that room and back to reality.
Helen was waiting for me in the lounge. Her hair was always slightly wet. It was 9.30; I’d been telling Uri about my dead dog for two and a half hours. As I related the experience, I could sense her face resume a vacant expression when I wasn’t looking directly at her, although she’d light up when I looked her in the eye.
There were women working on laptops nearby. When do they go home? Do they go home? We agreed I should become an auditor like Uri, which would require attending an upcoming auditing seminar for $160.
As we talked payment options, I was conscious of the fact that Anna, Mike and Uri were the only other Scientologists I’d met. There seemed to be an unwritten taboo about new Scientologists interacting with each other. There were voices behind closed doors, and nervous glances across the lounge, but nothing more. I wondered if this was to prevent mutinous chatter, or the sharing of doubts. Maybe I was reading too much into things.
L. Ron Hubbard was still hiding in California when he died. He lived on a 65-hectare ranch and was worth more than $US200 million. The IRS had been considering indicting him for tax fraud. Soon after his death, followers had all his Dianetics and Scientology texts engraved on steel plates, placed in titanium containers and buried in a vault under a mountain in New Mexico, on top of which a logo has been bulldozed on such a massive scale that it is visible from space. They believe he has left his body to continue research on another planet, and will one day be reincarnated on Earth.
I was back in the church one evening, sitting in the lounge and waiting for Mike. He emerged from some hidden meeting. As usual, he was wearing a suit. I had hoped to speak to him in private, but soon a moustached man sat next to us and began chomping on an apple. “Are Hubbard’s more esoteric teachings still used today?” I asked. “I’m talking about Xenu.”
He thought for a moment. Then he looked at me. “Scientology has an esoterica that you will learn about when you’re good and ready,” he said. He looked tired. I took his answer as a vague “yes”, and wondered if the reason for his ambiguity was that those who learn about Xenu before they’re ready are supposedly stricken by pneumonia. If that was the case, I was grateful.
“The media take it completely out of context,” he went on. “I remember being handed a Reader’s Digest magazine once and, from what I read, it sounded like I’d joined some kind of orgy-happy cult. I still haven’t seen that.” He laughed, and I laughed too, and he looked at me through narrowed eyes. I liked Mike, but I had yet to understand him.
Days later, I was still troubled by my auditing session with Uri. Whether auditing is as destructive as critics have suggested remains to be seen in me, but I was sure of one thing: there had been a definite imbalance of power in that little room. The endless repeating of phrases and events during the session seemed to have lulled me into trance-like compliance. Uri had expected me to verbalise thoughts without hesitation. Now and then, as if sensing a flicker on the E-Meter, he’d say, “What’s that thought?” And I told him instantly. If that sounds unethical, perhaps it’s why, in 1965, an official inquiry in Australia condemned auditing as a form of “authoritative hypnosis”. Ron Hubbard was, after all, known to be a talented hypnotist. And he was also a genius; by building a religion around the practice of auditing, his followers were effectively hypnotising one another.
When the elders realised there was nothing more they could sell me, our relationship began to unravel. They had a growing suspicion that I wasn’t fully committed to the church, and I had a growing suspicion that they were robots. I remember one woman talking to me with such slow, deliberate speech that I almost took her for some kind of freak. But these mannerisms seemed to be simply a part of the culture.
Dianetics describes the human mind as “the perfect machine”. The process appears to view the brain as a computer program; auditors — who aren’t allowed to stray from a rigid script — “run engrams” in their subjects, to “descramble and clear” the reactive mind. It could be a damaging way to approach mental health.
I had sensed control at play in the church, disguised as friendly condescension. This can be traced to Hubbard, who forbade “discreditable thoughts” among his followers, and punished free thinkers severely. Because if they aren’t imparted with indubitable authority, Hubbard’s teachings are too easily seen for what they really are: pseudo-scientific posturing. From Helen’s insistence that I had a malfunctioning personality, to Uri’s exhaustive interrogation, subservience had been key.
I wondered if Hubbard hadn’t viewed his followers as religious devotees at all, but as machines. Perhaps that is the end of the spiritual journey in Scientology. Not total freedom, but unquestioning, robot efficiency. And it is sad, or funny, that these machines are built for a man who has been dead for 26 years.