I couldn’t sleep for two nights last week. Why was I so disturbed? Because I watched the HBO documentary “Going Clear” (based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.”)
It’s a disturbing film for many reasons – an abusive, financially motivated founder, instilling fear, alienating people from friends and family, intimidation, control, stalking, and even physical torture in some cases. I couldn’t help but think of Rebecca Musser’s memoir “The Witness Wore Red” and how the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints props up human trafficking and slavery. All in the name of religion. Are people really so desperate for meaning in their lives that they allow themselves to be hijacked and brainwashed? To do the will of someone else without question? To have every aspect of your life controlled - be told what to do, what to think, and even to take your income?
Some might say that cults like Scientology prey on the weak and vulnerable. Perhaps in some cases that’s true. However, what I find most disturbing about Scientology is that its recruits appear to be the opposite – these are intelligent, educated, professionally successful people.
My first experience with Scientology was as a child. My parents were friends with an affluent couple – the type who could afford an au pair to help raise their children. Both had successful careers and were able to afford fine things. Yet after a few years, we didn’t see them anymore. The wife had gotten involved with Scientology, and started funneling all their money to the church. They quickly divorced.
My own brush with Scientologists was quite different. When I was homeless in San Francisco, I frequently passed a building with a sign “Free Personality Tests” in the window. It was near a bus stop I often passed to go to the office of a social worker who helped me process an application for a group home. One afternoon, the offer of a free personality test tempted me as I waited for the bus. I went inside.
Soon I was seated at a wooden table and surrounded by books. There were shelves full of books, tables with displays of books, and even piles of stacked books on the floor. While the books had different titles, each one had the same author. I was given a questionnaire and a pencil, and concentrated on the questions. I don’t recall what these were, but they were introspective. Are you the kind of person that thinks this/that? When I finished, a man took my completed questionnaire to tally my score. I’d always gotten good grades in school, and was accustomed to positive feedback, so I waited for his praise.
When he returned, he sat next to me and told me that I was a horrible person. But I had potential, and must buy a book to help me become better. He handed me a copy of “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard. I told him I couldn’t afford the book - I had no money, and was spending my nights in a homeless shelter. He frowned, muttered something about my not being ready for the message, and walked away. Scientology is only interested in people that it can profit off of. I wasn’t one of them.
Even though I didn’t have the money to buy a copy of “Dianetics,” I wouldn’t have bought it anyway. At 16, and the most vulnerable - physically and emotionally - I’d ever been, I could see it was a scam. What happened to my parents’ friend years earlier, clicked – if you are a wealthy person, and you have some guilt about having that wealth, Scientology will relieve you of that (both your guilt and your wealth.) Their church profits off of insecurity, and the hollowness of the American dream.
Scientology doesn’t want you if you’re homeless. And that’s a good thing.