The Choice is Yours
The Los Angeles Scientology Testing Center is settled in among all the familiar landmarks: Frederick’s of Hollywood, the wax museum, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The day I dropped by, it was staffed by two or three young people dressed in prep school fashions, and a slightly-older and higher-ranking individual who remained hidden until important decisions needed to be made. One of the younger workers sometimes stood out in the street to proposition passersby, offering an E-meter, a device used in Scientology therapy, for free demonstrations. I watched for a while from the other side of the street, then crossed and approached the young man loitering there. I’d read about it, I said. I was interested, I said. And that was all I had to say.
The basic decoration motif throughout all Scientology buildings blends corporate stereotype and lost adventurers’ clubs. The bookcases and heavy desks are all dark-stained stuff, the couches are all hard, tight-stretched leather, and color schemes tend toward the dreamy lulls of dusk and dawn. Scientology substitutes “technology” for “word” in its religion — most everything is about spreading the “tech” — but this is the most futuristic thing about it; the rest of the time its talk and its fashions indulge in nostalgia for L. Ron Hubbard’s youth, a kind of lost and necessary hopefulness.
The front of the Testing Center strained to recall a one-room schoolhouse, with a couple rows of small wooden desks all facing deeper into the room. I took three tests, a personality inventory, an IQ test, and some kind of association analysis. The first ran two hundred questions. Many were about depression, about whether I preferred to lead or follow, and some seemed designed to gauge whether I was answering questions the way people normally did.
As it happens, I had been reading a lot of William James at the time — so much so that it was actually more natural for me to guess at how he would have answered. So that’s what I did. Then they gave me the IQ test, eighty questions in fifteen minutes. I was down to question four before I realized that part of the test was noticing that the numbering on the answer sheet ran right to left. I lost a minute erasing.
I finished with just a few seconds left. My test administrator seemed pleased. I was pleased that he was pleased. The association test took only five minutes and when I was done I was led back to a hard couch to watch a video while my scores were tallied. It was then that I noticed what was perhaps the strangest thing about the Testing Center, a thing that would hold true for all the Scientology buildings I would enter. The walls were all bookcases, deep heavy expensive shelves, and they were all filled with books. The strange part was that it was all the same book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the gleammy copies fanned decoratively, or the bright hardcover spines lined up with titles bold on the vertical. Scientology is a library of one author.
A young man I’ll call Eric appeared with my test scores on a graph. He would read them like an electrocardiogram. He introduced himself, asked me who I was. I gave him William James’s history instead of my own, circa 1870, when James was about to have his breakdown. I fudged the dates a little, killing his parents off a few years early: My father had been a mystic, I said, he had died recently, we’d disagreed about God even as we were very close, I was left a fair income, but now I was unsure what direction I wanted my life to take, I had read a great deal of philosophy and studied medicine but I had doubts about that, I knew I couldn’t follow my father’s religion, I had yet to find a meaningful relationship though sometimes I longed for women, and I sympathized a little with the occult because intuitively I knew that science did not have all the answers and that truth needed elasticity to be true.
“I see your pain,” Eric said, indicating a crash on my graph lines. He circled the fixed point of my sadness in red ink for emphasis. “There’s a good bit of philosophy in Scientology, you know. You can see a lot of it in Plato and Herbert Spencer.”
“Yes.” Then Eric said, “Have you ever thought about being a writer?”
I stayed in James. In 1905, between writing Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism, James had described himself, in consecutive letters, as a “graphophobe” and a “graphomaniac.”
“I have a brother who’s a writer,” I said. “He’s a little vague for me.”
“It seems like something you’d be good at.”
“You scored very high on the IQ test.” Eric circled another dot. “Extraordinary, really… for someone walking in off the street.”
I shrugged. “So is there a course or something I should enroll in?”
“Well, yes.” Eric was used to a harder sell. “But are you sure you want to approach it so –” he jiggled his hands in the air as though juggling the words he might use — “journalistically?”
I told him I didn’t think of it like that. I had read an article about Scientology written by someone outside the Church, I said, and it had interested me. This much was true — that morning I’d read an article claiming that Scientology’s rootedness in science fiction was precisely what made it a good example of the American occult. The article had been written by a doctoral student and was based on field research in Los Angeles, just as I was doing, sort of. And the writer had provided a list of people and texts that Hubbard had claimed to be familiar with: Taoism, Descartes, Durant, Korzybski, Vedic hymns… and William James. But the article dated from the early seventies, before Scientology erased itself from history. I was seeking, I told Eric. I was in pain, I reminded him. And I had made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to follow my interest.
“Okay,” he said, and then he hedged into a roundabout pitch that concluded with a blunt query into how I would be paying for services.
He disappeared to consult with his higher-up, a woman in a corporate suit who eyed me once over before giving me the okay to head over to the Mother Church. Eric came along as an escort. I liked him, basically. He was on commission, but I believed he believed he was helping me.
The Mother Church and campus was home to a variety of Orgs, each in a separate building off L. Ron Hubbard Boulevard, some of them dedicated to the very highest levels of Scientology study. I would be encouraged only to visit the glass-fronted Dianetics Center off Sunset. Out near the street, a dated electronic marquis transmitted pixilated, grammatically-incomplete rhetoric: Do you want better relationships? Do you want to improve communication? Eric and I parked. The lobby inside churned with people intent on urgent matters. To the left was a pastry kiosk and several living rooms’ worth of couches, ahead was a concierge desk, and to the right was another of Hubbard’s private libraries, the selection now expanded to include the hundreds of books and pamphlets he’d written while he was alive. He died in 1986.
I met several workers (whose names I’ve changed): Oscar, a kind of Scientological gopher; Geraldo, a handsome Hispanic man; and Aaron, a slight bespectacled man who would be the coordinator of the class I would take, the Hubbard Dianetics Seminar. Oscar gave me a ticket to the birthday celebration coming up and Eric helped me with some paperwork, doing a good bit of it for me, actually. But it was Geraldo who guided me through the Church disclaimer, a lengthy legal document called the Religious Services Enrollment Application, Agreement and General Release (hereinafter “Release”). The title was printed in the swoopy font of a wedding invitation.
“Initial all these spots, then sign here at the back,” Geraldo said. Then he caught himself. “Read it! Then sign.”
The Release established L. Ron Hubbard (hereinafter “LRH”) as an American author and philosopher, and described the etymologies of Scientology (“the study of knowing”) and Dianetics (“through soul”). I initialed subsections which established that Scientology would not have any particular effect on me, and that I was not entering Scientology with the belief that it would cure me in any way. I agreed that the E-meter was “not intended or effective for the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of any disease” and that “all mental problems are spiritual in nature.” I also claimed that I had “no record of [having been] committed in an institution for mental or emotional disorders.” I relinquished all rights to ever sue the Church for anything, and no one I knew or would ever know in the future could sue on my behalf, either. I was in full agreement with the “religious belief” that psychiatric labels were a kind of cruddy way of talking about mental competency, and in the event that anyone ever tried to lock me up for so-called lack of competence I fully expected Scientologists to intercede.
On the level of paperwork, the Release was less a contract with the Devil than a thirty-year variable-rate mortgage of my soul. Geraldo chatted me up as my hand cramped from the dozens of initialings. I repeated the James story, and Geraldo said he was sorry that my father had passed. He explained that the Church could serve as a complement to membership in other religions and that there was nothing in Scientology one had to “believe” in. But then he looked at me with his dark salesman’s eyes, poised to take mental note of my reaction, and tried out one of Scientology’s basic postulates.
“But maybe he’s not ‘dead.’ Maybe he’s still out there. Maybe he’s just waiting to enter another body.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Can I get a copy of this?”
But Geraldo forgot to get me a copy of the Release. He passed me back to Oscar so I could get a private viewing of the Church’s official orientation video. I already had a temporary ID card, but I would not formally be a member of the Church until I saw the movie. Oscar took me to a small theatre in the middle of the building, twenty or thirty empty seats that faded to black when he closed the door behind me. I sat and hugged my satchel. If a public announcement system had suddenly begun a countdown that ended with the whole building blasting off from its foundation I would not have been particularly surprised.
But instead a movie screen lit up — it was Hollywood — and we, the audience, me anyway, we were suddenly flying through space, either in a ship or maybe just looking for a body, and we cruised through an asteroid belt, headed for Earth, and when we found it we zipped by some satellites and came in range of a transmission of synthesized organ chords calibrated to glory. We pierced the atmosphere and swished down to the surface for fly-bys of prominent Scientology buildings, the Mother Church in L.A., the vast mansion that Hubbard had occupied in England for a while, and a cruise ship that served Scientology as a kind of floating monastery for high-level research.
The camera settled into a subjective point of view in L.A. We encountered a young narrator who would guide us on a formal tour of the Church. The man seemed like a zombie not because he was a Scientologist, I thought, but because he was a bad actor. Scientology teemed with bad actors.
The movie rushed us through the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition for a quick biography, and then it teleported us to one of the LRH libraries for some book recommendations. Here we visited with an official whose title was “LRH Communicator,” a woman who over-read her lines but reminded us that the word founder also meant author. Next we stopped in with a Director of Processing, a balding man cast from the stereotype of Watergate intelligence officials. In a few short minutes he managed to lay out the battle Scientology waged against psychology and to demonstrate the gains that were possible through Scientology therapy.
From there the film eased into a montage of testimonials from actors and professionals. For the finale the narrator reappeared in a Scientology hallway, just before the threshold of a chapel before services. The narrator began a tortured speech, overplaying his hand gestures. As with all Scientology films, the text had been written by L. Ron Hubbard:
“I hope that I’ve helped to answer some of your questions. Something happened in the world that was a bright piece of hope for man. Such a thing occurs every few hundred, or a thousand, years. Some genius rises, and man takes a new step toward a better life, a better culture. Clouds loom over this culture and planet. Right this instant, you are at the threshold of your next trillion years. You will live it in shivering agonized darkness, or you will live it triumphantly in the light. We are not making any claims for Dianetics and Scientology. It is you, who, when you’ve experienced what can be, are the one that will make the claim. What is true, is true for you.
“If you leave this room after seeing this film, and walk out and never mention Scientology again, you are perfectly free to do so. It would be stupid, but you can do it. You can also dive off a bridge, or blow your brains out, that is your choice. But if you continue with Scientology, we will be very happy with you, and you will be very happy with you. We here in this Org are really just doormen to the great highway found and built by Ron into a better future. It is your future. You can have it, or you can deprive yourself of it. The choice is yours.”
J. C. Hallman was raised on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community in Southern California. Nevertheless, he is the author of several books, including In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise.