Until last week, everything I knew about Scientology came from Tom Cruise on Oprah, and from an experience I had last summer.
I wrote two articles for Salon.com, one in May 2007, the other in June. The first, about a catastrophic reaction my son had to psychiatric medication, resulted in a swell of support from Scientologists. Then I published the second piece, describing how doctors at the Mayo Clinic brought our son back from near death with electroconvulsive therapy, and was cyber-stalked by a few.
Around the same time, representatives from the local chapter purchased the former Science Museum in downtown St. Paul and announced they planned to build one of the largest Scientology churches in the world there. Strangely, no one seemed to question this. So a couple months later, I walked into the current “church” on Nicollet Avenue determined to find out: Who are these people? What, exactly, do they believe? Why do they oppose psychiatric medications? And is their ministry more Franklin Covey, sci-fi Fundamentalism, or a combination of the two?
I was told that if I left my card, the church’s “public affairs officer” would contact me. The following day, he did, saying he was very eager to meet and provide me with details. “Our current church looks like an office building,” he told me. “It’s not a good representation of what Scientology is about. But soon, we’ll have something that truly represents the riches people can find inside our doors."
I’ll call him Karl. He didn’t ask me to use an alias, and with the details I’m about to provide any third-grader with an Internet connection could find him. But this man is either an excellent liar or the victim of a cult — and I’m betting he’s the latter. Should he choose to get out some day, I’d rather not link every Google search of his name to Scientology.
We meet on a Wednesday afternoon in winter. He is exceedingly well dressed: a deep, purple shirt, gray suit coat, and designer tie. Small wire-rimmed glasses and short hair. He holds the door for me, shakes my hand with deference, and smiles often in a neat way but never — throughout our two-hour interview — actually laughs.
Karl grew up a devout Catholic in small-town Iowa. He started college intending to become an electrical engineer but dropped out and moved to Nashville at the age of 19, because he dreamed of becoming a professional bluegrass musician. Five years went by and little happened: he was playing small, private parties and working odd jobs. Then he read Dianetics — a self-help manual written by the pulp science fiction and western author L. Ron Hubbard in 1950 that later became the basis for the Church of Scientology — and was hooked.
“It made so much sense to me,” he says. “It explains the mind and psychosomatic illnesses, which may be 70 percent of all illnesses. I thought that was really neat. It explained so well why a person might be depressed and what to do about it. Dianetics helps you figure everything out. I read it today and it’s just as mind-blowing as it was back then.”
Karl and his then-girlfriend (now wife) moved to Minneapolis from Tennessee in 1991 so he could pursue mission work with the church. Today, at 41, he is an ordained minister — one of several in his congregation — and public affairs liaison for the Twin Cities Church of Scientology but claims that he continues playing music because he needs the money; despite all the hours he puts in, his service to the church pays a pittance: “Somewhere between $20 and $50 a week.” For the same reason, he says, his wife has abandoned her career as an artist to become a full-time bill collector.
We get some pay but it’s only a token,” Karl tells me. “That’s because most of the money we make goes into furthering the religion. It goes to pay the light bill and our insurance. Then there’s a percentage that goes to our management in Los Angeles. Also, we support many human rights campaigns and drug education programs.”
Scientology, he tells me, literally means “the study of wisdom” (it derives from the Greek word “scios”). The religion did not, Karl insists, develop out of the plot of a science fiction novel Hubbard was writing, and it has nothing to do with aliens, though the press often insists that it does. What’s more, according to Karl, Hubbard himself didn’t even start the movement. It was people who read his books and started a church in California around 1954 in homage to the man — and his writings — whom they called The Source.
Unlike other religions that don’t tell you how to live, this is an applied religious philosophy,” Karl explains. “It’s a way to look at life, and it looks at the spirit, too. But it’s also applied like a science because you use it to do things. You can actually take the tools we give you and use them to improve your relationship with your spouse or your working situation.”
When I ask for specifics, Karl is quiet for a moment.
“You might take a class in how to improve your marriage,” he answers after a time. “There would be drills you do with your spouse and the idea is you would go home and continue to apply what you learned and things would be better. You would learn that a marriage has to be created every day.”
Tell me about the drills,” I press on. “Give me an example of a problem a couple might work on.”
Instead, Karl describes the method: people pay for the classes (later in the conversation he will amend this and tell me they make voluntary “donations”), which are conducted at the church. Each class is a self-study, meaning there is no teacher — only a single supervisor who is available for questions — and members must read books written by Hubbard to find the answers they seek. They also have to buy the books.
“You’re getting the wisdom straight from the texts,” Karl says. “This is important for a couple reasons: first, we can have a lot of people studying different things; but also, we want you to get the facts straight from a book, not someone’s interpretation.”
In fact, Karl’s own ministerial course was self-study as well; and yes, he paid for the privilege of reading on-site and becoming ordained. Now he can perform marriage ceremonies, preside at funerals, and give sermons. These days, however, most of his service to the church involves outreach. He also helps run the local arm of their street drug prevention program, Narcanon — which owns several dozen rehabilitation centers around the world and implements Scientology’s “New Life Detoxification Program” — as well as a public awareness campaign focused on the mental health field that disseminates pamphlets such as Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.
I do not claim to have conducted an exhaustive study of Scientology. I couldn’t, frankly, given the time and resources I have.
Journalists who write extensively on the topic — most notably Richard Behar, a reporter for Time whose article The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power was published in 1991 — spend years conducting hundreds of interviews and reading through court cases. I have read those stories, however, as well as Dianetics (the 1992 edition) and the work of a man from Norway who has administered the anti-Scientology website Operation Clambake since 1996.
I’ve also spent enough time in the church in downtown Minneapolis to describe it accurately: It consists of several connected rooms. The front two are lined with shelves
containing books, audiotapes, CDs, and workbooks — all of which are sealed in plastic. You can buy a pocket-size paperback edition of Dianetics on Amazon for $7.99, but the prices on the materials here hover in the $20 range. You can also get a free personality test, typically administered with something called an “e-meter,” a device invented by Hubbard which measure very small changes in the electrical resistance of a person’s body and points to “engrams” — traumatic memories that block one’s attainment of success and happiness.
Engrams can derive from a variety of events. In this passage from Dianetics, Hubbard described how pre-birth coitus trauma will cause a “thetan” (or immortal spiritual being — Scientology claims we are all immortal but is vague about exactly how the spirit lives on after death) to become blocked:
"Mother and Father are engaging in intercourse which, by pressure, is painful to the unborn child and which renders him unconscious. . . Mother is saying “Oh, I can’t live without it. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. Oh, how nice. Oh, do it again!” and Father is saying “Come! Come! Oh, you’re so good. You’re so wonderful. Ahhhh!” Mother’s orgasm puts the finishing touch on the unconsciousness in the child. Mother says, “It’s beautiful.” Father, finished now, says, “Get up,” meaning she should take a douche (they do not know she is pregnant) and then begins to snore." (Dianetics, p. 326)
Hubbard also wrote that there is no foolproof method for terminating a pregnancy and that a major cause of mental “aberration” is attempted abortion.
"Attempted abortion is very common. And remarkably lacking in success. The mother, every time she injures the child in such a fiendish fashion, is actually penalizing herself. Morning sickness is entirely engramic, so far as can be discovered, since Clears [see below] have not so far experienced it during their own pregnancies. . . Actual illness generally results only when Mother has been interfering with the child either by douches or knitting needles or some such thing." (Dianetics, p. 199)
Hubbard defined homosexuality as a sexual perversity, “far from normal and extremely dangerous to society” (Dianetics, p. 135) and claimed Scientology can “heal” a penitent of this and other forms of sexual deviance. For years, the actor John Travolta has been held forth [unofficially] as proof of this, and he was even cited in a lawsuit brought against the Church of Scientology by a man who submitted believing he, like Travolta, would be cured of being gay.
Engrams can be dealt with only through “auditing,” which is, basically, the process of self-study Karl described. It involves years spent studying the religious works of L. Ron Hubbard — he wrote dozens of texts, tracts, and standalone pamphlets before his death in 1986 — and watching his taped lectures, then working one-on-one with a specially trained auditor from the church. The goal of all this is to attain a state called “clear” (this is used both as an adjective and a noun: those who have achieved engram-free existence are called Clears). After that, with more study, it is possible to achieve the more enlightened level of Operating Thetan (OT). Operation Clambake estimates the cost of becoming an OT to be $300,000-$500,000.
This is where the questions about Karl arise.
Several years ago, a former Scientologist went public with the story he was told upon reaching OT III status: Only the chosen few who had dedicated their lives to Scientology were let in on the “true” story of its genesis. It is based on the Galactic Confederacy of an alien community ruled by the tyrant Xenu, who brought them to Earth 75 million years ago and killed them, leaving their spirit essences to wander the planet and damage humans in modern times. It’s fairly well established that Scientology has a science fiction connection, but Karl may not be high enough in the ranks to have learned it yet.
On a more pragmatic front, the money trail of the Church of Scientology is long and convoluted — and there’s reason to believe it supports more than just the mission. Behar claimed in his TIME magazine exposé that “Hubbard was skimming millions of dollars from the church, laundering the money through dummy corporations in Panama and stashing it in Swiss bank accounts.” The founder was accused of stealing around $200 million and was under investigation for tax fraud when he died in 1986. And Scientology has been characterized by many as a pyramid organization, which uses the faithful to recruit more people and rewards them, very modestly, for bringing more [paying] members into the fold.
Finally, Scientology was the leading reason people cited for calling the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) for deprogramming of their loved ones until 1996. That was the year CAN filed bankruptcy after years of fighting “freedom of religion” lawsuits, and was bought outright by the Church of Scientology.
Of course, Karl has access to the same various Internet sites and Wikipedia entries I do. He’s aware this information is out there but believes (or at least says he does) that this is propaganda put forth by the mainstream press, the IRS, and the psychiatric community to make his religion look greedy and “ridiculous.” Psychiatrists in particular, he tells me, are desperate to discredit Scientology.
“We know the damage it causes when people go to psychologists and psychiatrists,” Karl says. “The drugs are very damaging. But they also tell people all sorts of garbage, “You’re depressed because your mom used to spank you,” which gives people all the wrong ideas about their lives. [Note: This is inconsistent with Dianetics, which does claim childhood “abuses” cause engrams.] And we’re against psychiatric drugs because number one, they don’t work; number two, we think they’re damaging; and number three, we have all the answers anyway in our books.”
He denies vehemently the idea that money is at stake and refutes the apocryphal story about L. Ron Hubbard (recounted by many people, including the author Harlan Ellison) that he joked in the 1940’s that the best way to become rich would be to start a religion. Despite a 30-year battle between Scientology and the IRS, Karl cites a 1993 ruling that confirmed the church’s nonprofit status.
"Every religion I have ever studied tried to answer questions that are beyond the physical world. They want to know what happens after we die. They all mark different rites of passage: birth, marriage, death. And they all involve a community of people who come together to practice similar beliefs.” Karl pauses then looks me straight in the eyes. “I do this work because I know we have the answers people are looking for. And all the money we take in is spent right back on what we’re doing.”
In June 2007, Karl helped his congregation negotiate the purchase of the former Science Museum building in downtown St. Paul. It’s an 80,000 square foot space, which Karl tells me will serve five states: Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and both Dakotas. Though it will not approach the palatial “advanced” institutions in Los Angeles, Clearwater, Florida, and various locations overseas — or the Celebrity Centers built to serve only well-known actors and artists, including Cruise, Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman, Juliette Lewis, and Chick Corea, — St. Paul soon will be a major Scientology site. If all goes according to plan, a $7 million renovation of the building will begin in early ‘08 and finish late the same year.
This is part of an international effort under current leader David Miscavige to upgrade Scientology facilities and prepare for a whole new wave of followers. No one knows how many peop
le identify themselves as Scientologists today. The church’s administrative offices in California claim worldwide membership is around ten million, but independent surveys estimate this number is inflated by 20-50 percent.
Karl reports — accurately according to all the information I can find; though it’s likely he provided the numbers for other local reporters as well — that the Twin Cities sect is growing steadily. “When I got here in ’91, we had a couple hundred people. But now, we have 700 active members, people who attend weekly services and take classes and participate in all our events. We didn’t plan to become one of the biggest churches in the country. We just got lucky. With the new St. Paul facility, we’re going to be ready to take as many new members as we can.”
In his final correspondence with me — just prior to publication of this article —Karl directs me to several Scientology-friendly websites, expresses concern for my situation, and offers his personal assistance.
I believe in his way, he means it.