The weird world of Scientology
Taking a toll bridge to a science fiction faith
The past 20 years have seen more Canadians grow up without traditional religious beliefs than any previous period in history. Having abandoned the faith of their parents, many have found themselves uncomfortable as skeptics and have reached out for some secure handle on certainty in a difficult technological age. It should come as no surprise, then, that this is a time when offbeat religious cults have blossomed, when the sidewalks of our large cities swarm with blue-caped disciples of the Process church, saffron-robed followers of Hare Krishna and believers in a dozen other creeds.
Scientology may not be the strangest of these cults (although it is in contention) but it surely is the most expensive religion — if it is a religion — ever to
gather a large following in Canada. There are religions that urge people to give up their worldly goods. Few encourage their followers to go deep into debt besides. Fewer still offer “pastoral counseling” at $50 an hour. Scientology does.
I recently spent four months investigating the church of Scientology, from both inside and outside. And I found that the “Bridge to Total Freedom,” which Scientology claims to be, is really a toll bridge. I learned that it’s possible to pay $15,000 or $20,000 and still get only part way across. There is no ascertainable limit to the amount that can be spent on Scientology’s fanciful blend of mental self-improvement and outer-space theology.
The cult was founded in the early 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, an inventive American whose flock around the world now numbers nine million, according to the more conservative claims of Scientology officials. Some enthusiastic
Scientologists say 15 million, or even 50 million. In Canada alone, Hubbard’s lieutenants talk of 60,000 believers, although they admit that not all are “active.” In fact, the figure includes people who have done little more than take the “personality test” that serves as the church’s basic recruiting device. Canada’s biggest Scientology centres are Toronto (claiming a congregation of 22,000) and Vancouver, but a branch network touches Halifax, Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Kitchener, London, Windsor, Regina, Calgary and Edmonton.
It was at the St. Catharines centre that Mike Dolbaczuk joined. I met Mike — a quiet, bearded 19-year-old — after he had made his pilgrimage to the larger church in Toronto and had invested about $3,000 in Scientology training and therapy. One winter evening, Mike traveled from the Toronto Scientology organization (Scientologists call it the “org”) to an apartment in suburban Willowdale. With him was Jack Manning, 29, a former rock band promoter who is now a church “registrar.” Their mission was to persuade Mike’s stepbrother, Larry Shinkaruk, a 28-year-old draftsman, to lend him $2,500 for more Scientology-style help.
I was introduced to the pair only as a friend of Larry’s. We sat for three hours as they explained, with Manning doing most of the talking, why it was important that Mike have money immediately. “I’m feeling a lot better,” Mike told his stepbrother. “I’m becoming more able. I’m not worried about going into debt.” But he had discovered in Scientology therapy that he still had a major problem that required a further package of assistance. He was determined to have it. but he
had already used up his savings and taken out two separate $800 loans from finance companies. He had tried to borrow from his parents and had asked an uncle for $5,000, but had been turned down.
In theory, Mike was entitled to basic Scientology services without charge, more or less as a fringe benefit. He had signed up to work 2'A years at low wages for the St. Catharines org, and that was part of the deal. But even staff members often end up digging into their own pockets. It turned out that Mike’s hometown branch wasn’t equipped to give him the assistance he needed, and in Toronto he was strictly a cash customer. He said Scientologists in St. Catharines had urged him not to delay in getting the additional assistance.
Larry Shinkaruk wanted to know if his stepbrother could ever stop spending money on Scientology. “Is there any end to awareness?” Manning answered: “Is there any end to knowledge? Is there any end to the money? There is no end. . .” (As a Toronto registrar, Manning stood to make a small personal commission on Mike’s purchases, but Mike said Manning had not tried to pressure him.) When Larry asked whether a Scientologist would be denied help if he were broke, the unflappable Manning said:
“You can always get money somewhere.”
But not, it turned out, from Larry Shinkaruk. He refused to lend Mike the money. Mike was unperturbed. “Somebody will,” he smiled. “I’ll get it somewhere.” He and Manning left together.
It’s easy enough to get into Scientology; all it took me was five minutes, the time I spent walking in the midtown area of Toronto before an eager young missionary zeroed in on me.
He hadn’t been hard to spot; clean-cut to the point of wearing a necktie under his ski jacket, moving purposefully down Avenue Road with a fistful of handbills offering “free personality testing.” When I showed interest, he escorted me up the street to the former funeral parlor that shelters the church’s Toronto branch.
Scientology is “really neat,” he told me, “not like the oldstyle religions.”
I took the test — a curious list of personal questions to be answered “yes,” “no” or “uncertain.” One query, repeated several times in different ways, concerned whether I was letting others stop me from doing as I wished. It would be charitable to say my grade was poor. I was urged to start training in Scientology immediately, and I agreed to try a two-day introductory course. The price was $25 in advance.
I ended up spending a week in the org, a strange subworld dominated by the personality of the absent Ron Hubbard. His face peers out from inspirational posters with such messages as HELP CLEAR A PLANET. His writings are studied
diligently. Believers spend scores of hours listening to aging tapes of lectures by “Ron” or “LRH,” as they know him.
Hubbard is a pudgy, 63-year-old former science fiction writer who lives in considerable style aboard a 328-foot yacht plying the warm seas around North Africa. I have a small, dog-eared collection of his paperback novels from the 1940s and 1950s (you can find them in secondhand bookstores specializing in science fiction), but his avowedly fictional works are not in evidence in the org. In any case, his more recent books make them look unimaginative.
Hubbard’s “Flagship Apollo,” a 3,200-ton former Irish Channel steamer, is one of four saltwater Scientology vessels providing isolated training centres for the faithful and mobility for their leader. “Commodore Hubbard,” as he styles himself, can move beyond the jurisdiction of any secular government at will. After a spate of bad publicity in the English
press, Hubbard was barred from Britain as an undesirable alien in 1968 — an event that cut him off from the Sussex manor that had been his home and headquarters. Now, from the flagship, he issues bulletins to his followers on five continents.
For public consumption, the church takes the position that Hubbard receives no income from Scientology. Some skepticism may be appropriate. Up to 1966, the founder openly accepted a 10% personal cut — off the top — of the revenues of most Scientology organizations. Published estimates of Scientology’s worldwide sales run as high as $1.4 million per week. Church spokesmen say that figure is far too high, but they refuse to provide financial statements to refute it.
My first real taste of Scientology was a security check administered by Harvey Schmiedeke, the Toronto org’s director of training. Schmiedeke used a Hubbard Electrometer (or E-meter), a device that plays a key role in Scientology’s training and counseling processes.
The machine consists essentially of a galvanometer (an instrument for detecting small electric currents), a battery, a couple of wires, and a pair of empty soup cans. That’s right, soup cans. Various brands and sizes are used. I held a can in each hand while Schmiedeke asked questions and watched the needle move on the dial. Was I associated with any person or group “antagonistic to Scientology”? Had I ever “threatened to embarrass Scientology”?
The E-meter responds to perspiration and anything else that affects the quality of contact between soup can and skin. The needle can be sent flying across the dial simply by tightening and loosening your grip. Nevertheless, Scientologists believe that their meter, in the hands of an expert practitioner, detects not skin changes but thought. Thought has mass, they teach, and therefore it
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SCIENTOLOGY from page 26
has resistance to electrical current. Thus the meter can tell when you have created a thought. Still, they reject suggestions that the E-meter is a lie detector, and my experience, at least, supported this. The meter detected nothing wrong when I answered no to a standard question: Was I a news reporter working on an article? The truth would have ended my Scientology career immediately. Reporters fall into a category the church calls “potential trouble sources,” that is, security risks.
(Scientology officials discovered only much later, when 1 returned for conventional interviews, that I had enrolled with what they called an “underhanded” purpose. Their response was a bitter campaign to prevent publication of my story. They gave notice that 1 would almost certainly face a serious lawsuit. They produced affidavits which they claimed showed I had made remarks slandering their beliefs. They sent protests to everyone who might conceivably have influence — from the editors of the newspaper for which 1 work up to the Ontario Press Council.)
The E-meter is the probing tool used in Scientology’s central activity, a sort of amateur psychotherapy. The church does not claim to practise psychiatry; to do so would be illegal. But the church’s penchant for do-it-yourself analysis goes back to the 1950s, even before Ron Hubbard’s movement started calling itself a religion. At that time Scientology’s adherents had only one major goal: they wanted to become clear of past suffering through a process they called “dianetics.” Nowadays church leaders say this state of “clear” is attainable for as little as $4,500 if you take the economy route. People in a hurry can spend $15,000 or substantially more. But “clearing” is no longer the final goal. Hubbard adds new rungs to the ladder from time to time. With sufficient cash, you can now move through seven more exalted levels.
Once a novice comes to believe that the waving needle of the E-meter truly bares his soul he can “prove to himself’ that Hubbard’s theories are fact. Using a meter, his “auditor” or therapist “locates” the unsuspected subconscious memories that disturb him. These memories — always associated with pain or unconsciousness — are called “engrams” by Scientologists. When they are thoroughly exposed, by making the patient consciously remember them, their power is “blown off’ or dissipated.
Under the guidance of the auditor, the patient might remember having his head chopped off in a mass execution in 19th-century China. His description could be accompanied by lavish and gory detail although the incident apparently took place 100 years before his birth. The E-meter might indicate that.
yes, this is a true memory. Then it might indicate that the traumatic effect of the engram had been erased by the act of bringing it to light.
The Chinese execution is not a farfetched, hypothetical example. It’s taken from a case described in Have You Lived Before This Life? by Ron Hubbard, which is on sale for four dollars at most church branches.
Hubbard teaches a novel doctrine which holds that both the spirit and the body — quite separately — have been reincarnated thousands of times before their present existence. The potential
gruesomeness of their stored-up memories is staggering. Just in the present life an almost limitless number of horrible experiences may be engraved on our unwitting minds.
Our souls may be hamstrung by chains of unpleasant events that begin during the nine months before birth. The hapless fetus may be buffeted by dozens of things that happen to — or are done by — its mother. It doesn’t seem to miss or forget much. Here’s a sampling of the prenatal cripplers Hubbard cites (with no sign of tongue in
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cheek) in another four-dollar book: The Hiccup Chain, the Douche Chain, the Constipation Chain, the Coitus Chain, the Masturbation Chain, and four classes of Attempted Abortion Chain.
To understand how this grim view of life is marketed, you must take into account Ron Hubbard’s teaching method. Everything is taken in small bites and completely “understood” before the student moves on. He is not allowed to stand back and critically examine the material.
The $25 course I took was called Anatomy Of The Human Mind. It started off with fairly sensible hints on human communication. You can’t communicate with another person until you get that person’s attention: that sort of thing. From there, the material became slowly but steadily less commonplace.
As I completed each brief section of the course, I was “checked out” (often with an E-meter) on what I had learned. The basic question was: “Is there anything you haven’t understood?” I admitted that one Hubbard doctrine made no sense to me. The instructor, a bouncy girl named Cindy Harris, said I must have “a misunderstood.”
I learned I could be required to read and reread the same passage indefinitely. Failure to accept Hubbard’s disjointed thoughts signified misunderstanding, not rational disagreement. To get ahead in Scientology, any but the least questioning student would be forced to pretend.
I found Hubbard’s disciples an unremarkable group — mostly young and middle-class, with a sprinkling of older people and toddlers. The children make an attractive picture, playing on the org
floor while their parents work for Scientology — until they’re old enough to study Hubbard’s tedious works themselves. It’s depressing to watch a nineyear-old girl who says she’s never read Winnie The Pooh spending her morning over a Scientology text and a dictionary.
What draws people to this unlikely enclave? I can see some of the attractions: personal attention if you’re lonely; a direction in life if you’re confused; a sense of achievement if you feel unsuccessful in the larger world; and certainty, cosmic certainty. Scientologists, in Hubbard’s words, are “the only group on earth that does have a workable solution.”
The last assignment of my two-day course was to sit through a tape recording of a Ron Hubbard speech. The original listeners — a 1961 gathering of Scientologists in South Africa — were obviously enthralled by his account of triumphs over disease and even death.
They learned that asthma can result from inability to do arithmetic. And they learned that the brain plays no part in controlling the body. “In Scientology,” Hubbard said, “we have taken people with all and any part of their brains destroyed and restored the bodily function's although that part of the brain was gone.” He concluded that the brain “doesn’t control anything; all it is is a shock absorber.”
Other miracles within the power of Scientology, Hubbard said, include making the blind see and bringing the dead back to life. Of the latter, he said: “That’s no trick; it’s whether they want to be alive that’s the point.”
Repeatedly during my stay in the church I was told that 70% of human ail-
ments are psychosomatic. Scientology “addresses the spirit” and thus can handle mentally induced problems medicine can’t touch, it was explained.
The church states emphatically that it is not itself in the business of medical treatment. Notices are posted to warn newcomers with physical disorders that they must see a doctor before getting help from Scientology. But within Scientology, Ron Hubbard’s words are timeless. His outrageous medical claims
— on a 13-year-old tape — are part of a basic introduction to the faith he founded.
Hubbard first published his theory of dianetics in 1950 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. In book form (Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health), it became a best seller. It sparked a fad that Hubbard translated into a church around 1954.
Here, pieced together from his haphazard writings and other sources, is Hubbard’s theology:
In the beginning were the “thetans,” or spirits, billions of them, including you and me. We existed in a void. We were
— and are now, if only we knew it — almost immortal and very powerful. We could create matter by willing it. (The only thing that existed before us was the “prime source.”) Living in emptiness was boring, so we created the universe as a game. We adopted bodies and played at being physical creatures. But since we could always get another body, the stakes were low. The solution was to treat each of us with “forget implants,” blotting out our lofty knowledge. Now, when we die, we report back to a station on Mars or elsewhere, where we are made to forget our past lives and are assigned new bodies. But because of the “forget implants,” most of us think we really are only bodies. Scientology is the “way to freedom” from that delusion.
Another problem is that in eons past there were bitter wars between groups of thetans, and between thetans and strictly physical beings. These wars were marked by interplanetary invasions, enslavement of populations and systematic, brutal torture. Some experiences of the combatants are too horrible to be completely forgotten, even with the help of the implant machines back at the report station.
A nasty group called the Fourth Invader developed the “coffee grinder,” a torture Hubbard says is part of everyone’s suppressed memories. “The coffee grinder is a two-handled portable machine which, when turned on, emits a heavy push-pull electronic wave in a series of stuttering ‘baps’,” Hubbard explains. Memories of the coffee grinder are brought to the surface by the sight and sound of pneumatic drills. It is these horrible memories that are “responsible for the mortality of workers assigned to
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these drills on construction projects.”
This description is taken from Hubbard’s History Of Man, which he offers as “a cold-blooded factual account of your last 60 trillion years.” In the book, he discusses many devices employed by and against our former selves, notably the Jack-In-The-Box.
The Jack-In-The-Box was “an invader trick, a method of trapping thetans.” It consisted of a pretty box containing a stack of pictures, plus an explosive charge. “The thetan looks over the pictures,” Hubbard writes. “He finds they are quite similar one to another. They show, each one, a picture of a box of pictures.” Then: Bang! People bothered by this memory are “very curious about cereal boxes which have pictures of boxes of cereal which have pictures of boxes of cereal.”
We battle-scarred thetans showed up on this planet only during the past 70,000 years, Hubbard teaches. But over millions £>f years of Earth history, the human body was evolving quite independently. In fact, the body has its own second-rate soul which is capable of operating without the help of a thetan. This is the “genetic entity,” the equivalent of the mind of a horse or pig. The thetan is a sort of puppeteer who controls the body, often from a position three feet behind the head. All these
thetans are invisible, of course.
What complicates things is that the genetic entity or animal mind is also semi-immortal. Starting in some primitive form such as algae or plankton, it climbed a grim ladder of evolution, passing through many unpleasant existences. Unluckily, we can remember these too.
The best-known stopover in the ascent of the animal mind is The Weeper (also called the Boohoo) which “spent half a million years on the beach.” Hubbard writes: “The plights of The Weeper are many and pathetic. Still obtaining its food from the waves, it had yet to breathe. Waves are impetuous and irregular. The Weeper would open up to get food from the water and get a wave in its shell. It would vigorously pump out the water and then, before it could gulp atmosphere, be hit by another wave. Here was anxiety ...”
Scientology offers, through highpriced therapy, to free members’ minds and souls of the shackles of these past experiences. Then they can go on to realize their true potential by buying more training and therapy to become “operating thetans.” Operating thetans (OTs in the jargon of Scientology) are aware of their powers and life-span. They are “at cause” (in control) of their environment. In short, they can do all sorts of
miraculous things — if they want to.
Hubbard acknowledges that “it’s a terrible temptation to knock off hats at 50 yards and read books a couple of countries away.” But he cautions his OTs: “Don’t get spectacular until a few of the boys make it. You don’t want to be lonesome — and you’ll need reinforcements if a war gets declared on thetans here . . . Let’s not go upsetting governments and putting on a show to prove anything to homo sapiens for a while.”
Some Scientology ministers wear clerical collars; others don’t. At one time or another, individual Scientology ministers have been empowered to perform marriages in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. But the federal government has declined to register the church as a religious or charitable body for tax purposes.
The Rev. Bryan Levman, who holds the top post in Canadian Scientology, stresses that church members are not required to give up their other faiths. Levman, 27, is a straggly-bearded former music teacher. Although Scientology has lately been adopting the trappings of Christianity (using a stylized cross and stating that “there is no disagreement with other churches as to Jesus Christ being the Son of God”), Levman says he
himself remains a practising Jew.
Inside the Toronto org, I saw one ceremony that might be construed as worship. It was an hour-long “Sunday service” opening with a recitation of the Scientology creed, which is reminiscent of the United States Declaration of Independence. Then followed an illustrated talk by a Scandinavian sculptress on the influence of Scientology on her art. The service ended with a prayer addressed to the “Author of the universe.”
That was almost a week after I took my “personality test.” Meanwhile, like almost everyone who takes a Scientology course, I had been invited to join the church’s hardworking staff.
After a break-in period, the new staffer signs a 2'/2-year contract and forgets most other personal and social activities. He may work 43 hours a week (that’s considered part-time) or 69 hours (full-time), plus plenty of unpaid overtime. If he already has a job, he may be encouraged to give it up. He may find himself filing thousands of Ron Hubbard policy statements in a warren-like church basement, writing hundreds of “personal letters” to strangers, or trying to persuade pedestrians to buy a Hubbard book.
In return, he gets small, variable amounts of money — usually something between $10 and $50 a week —and the hope that Scientology will solve his problems.
The really big spending in Scientology begins when the believer travels to “advanced organizations” in California or England, or goes directly to the seat of the founder, the yacht Apollo. One Canadian widow, whose last letters home came from Los Angeles, is believed by former Toronto friends to have gone through $35,000 or more — including her husband’s insurance money and a fund set up by his friends when he died.
A single course on Hubbard’s boat can cost $5,000; a “package” of training can cost $12,000. Scientology staff members may receive these benefits free. But if they leave the church before completing their “contracts” (usually five years at this level), they are billed for everything they received. Such “freeloader bills” have run as high as $48,000, and thousands have been issued. The ex-Scientologist may find that former colleagues have been offered 10% commission to collect from him.
My last visit to the org (some time after the Scientologists realized I was writing about them) was a conducted tour. Church leaders insisted I give them a chance to correct unfavorable impressions they seemed to assume I had gained. As it happened, two local celebrities who subscribe to Scientology were in the building that weekday morning.
Dini Petty, the 29-year-old hostess of
a television phone-in show, confided that she had come to the church as I did, to investigate its practices. She decided there was nothing to “expose” and proceeded to invest about $5,000 in training and therapy. “It’s the best $5,000 I ever spent,” she said. “It (Scientology) has taken all the rotten, ugly things that ever happened to me and removed them from my life.” Studying near Miss Petty was rock drummer Larry Evoy, who is an operating thetan. The 27-year-old musician credits Scientology with much of the recent success of his rock group, Edward Bear.
Converts with mass followings are prized in the church. Larry Evoy testifies regularly for Scientology in ads in Rolling Stone, the U.S. pop bible. A church “celebrity centre” in Los Angeles caters to the needs of movie stars and athletes. The route to Total Freedom is not so smooth for rank-and-file members.
In one of Ron Hubbard’s near-forgotten fiction works, Typewriter In The Sky, the central character finds himself in a bizarre existence after being written into the plot of a pulp novel. Scientologists who stumble across the book may pause to consider their lot.