In the Clear: On Scientology
A 2008 survey by Trinity College estimated there are about 25,000 committed Scientologists in the United States. As the study’s authors admit, their estimate could be off target. But even if the number of Scientologists were twice as large, Scientology would still be the smallest religion people bother to loathe. There are more Wisconsin Synod Lutherans than Scientologists—most likely by a factor of ten. There are more Hasidic Jews of the Bobover sect. There are more Wiccans. There are, I am certain, more people who thought the world was ending on May 21, 2011, than there are people who believe in this sci-fi religion of e-meters, thetans and a prehistoric cosmic warlord named Xenu. When I say “Scientologist,” half the time people think I mean “Christian Scientist.” L. Ron Hubbard, Mary Baker Eddy: what’s the difference?
Yet we can’t ignore Scientology, if only because the Scientologists won’t let us. You can go a lifetime without being invited to a Roman Catholic Mass, but sooner or later, especially in urban areas, the Scientologists will find you. They open recruitment centers all over the world. They place leaflets beneath windshield wipers, invitations to take free “stress tests.” They brag of sending missionaries to disaster areas like Ground Zero and post-earthquake Haiti. For many years, the church relentlessly harassed journalists, sued critics and fought the Internal Revenue Service over its tax status. Its proud Hollywood adherents include, besides small fish like Jeffrey Tambor and Jenna Elfman, box office whales like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, both quite vocal about their love for the church. Other celebrities express their support with money. In 2007 Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, was reported to have given $10 million to the church.
Scientology is, in other words, aggressively evangelical, and how one reacts to an encounter with it says a good deal about how one views religious freedom generally. We tend to think that freedom of speech and freedom of religion both live in the American soul, but the truth is that most of us value free speech far more than we value freedom of religion. Ask yourself: Should practitioners of Santería be allowed to sacrifice chickens? Should Native Americans be permitted to ingest sacramental peyote? Would you let Catholics send their children to parochial schools to learn their faith, or allow fundamentalist Mormons to take multiple wives? At various times, Americans have answered no to these questions. Even liberals for whom “tolerance” is a sacrament will find reasons consenting adults may not ingest harmless plants or enter plural marriages.
One danger of what might be called Abrahamic ecumenicalism—the idea that Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Muslim can all get along—is that it sets the bar for tolerance rather low. In the United States, where by the third generation every immigrant family succumbs to the English language and a pop-culture religion that venerates Angry Birds, Lady Gaga, Wiz Khalifa, Harry Potter and Entourage, most followers of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad can find a way to get along. Eventually, they locate a moderate mosque, a Reform temple or a prosperity-gospel megachurch. After worship, they agree by text message to meet up at Mickey Dee’s.
But what does the United States say to religious people who remain resolutely weird? That they may practice their beliefs but must expect to face bigotry and harassment? That they deserve legal rights but should also keep their distance—staying in Clearwater, Florida, a major seat of Scientology, but steering clear of our beach communities? Or do we, just maybe, fully accept these religious outliers, knowing that they are not just the price but the fruit of true toleration?
* * *
Still, embracing the free market of religion requires that we be discerning buyers. We can be grateful that America is the country where Scientology may flourish, but we need not be grateful for Scientology. All religions have bloodstained garments, but in Scientology there is more blood on fewer garments, more pints per believer. That, anyway, is the ineluctable conclusion of Inside Scientology, Janet Reitman’s harrowing history of the movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954. Scholars and journalists have written articles about Scientology almost since its inception, and there have been memoirs by disaffected believers. But this heartbreaking book is the first thorough investigative treatment of Scientology. Inside Scientology is not the last word; Reitman, who first wrote about Scientology for Rolling Stone in 2006, does a poor job of placing it in the context of postwar American history, and she does not recognize how it is typical of 400 years of American religious experimentalism. But if she cannot give us the aerial view of Scientology, that is only because she has ventured deep inside it and is working hard to light the way.
One problem with being a young religion is that muckrakers can easily get the goods on the founder. We know Muhammad had either eleven or thirteen wives, but we don’t know the details of their marriages. L. Ron Hubbard had three wives, and we know he was briefly bigamous with the first two, that he told the FBI his second wife was a communist and that he tried to have her declared insane. This was in the 1950s, well into Hubbard’s career as a cad, mountebank and all-around louse.
Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was born in 1911 in Nebraska, and as a young man in the 1930s he made a name for himself as a pulp fiction writer. After a World War II career that he would later exaggerate to heroic effect, Hubbard abandoned his first wife and their two children and moved to Pasadena, where he crashed with the wealthy, eccentric rocket scientist Jack Parsons. An occultist who, like many gullible people with an excess of sentiment, enjoyed reading the English “black magick” practitioner Aleister Crowley, Parsons was, Reitman writes, “witty and sophisticated…a ladies’ man whose dark wavy hair and good looks lent him an air of danger.” (Reitman’s subjects are often sketched like characters in a melodrama, but in the case of the self-dramatizing Parsons and Hubbard, this tic makes sense.) “By 1944, Parsons had turned his eleven-bedroom home into a boarding house for the eccentrics of Los Angeles,” she writes. He advertised for “artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or other exotic types.” In 1945 Hubbard came to the house as the guest of another boarder, and he moved in immediately. Hubbard and Parsons would often fence in the living room; when Robert Heinlein dropped by, they would discuss science fiction. Later, Hubbard was Parsons’s second in experiments to conjure up a female partner. (When a comely redhead appeared at the door, success was declared, and soon Parsons married her.)
There is nothing admirable about the young Hubbard, but there is a lot that’s charming and familiar. He is a recognizable figure in American religion, the spiritually promiscuous autodidact, ill educated but up for anything, so long as a spell or a funny name is involved. Like Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, Hubbard began with a youthful zeal for spirituality in varied forms, particularly occult or magical practices, and distilled it into something new, which he expressed in a long, boring book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950.
* * *
Reitman does a good job summarizing the argument of Dianetics, which became the central teaching of Scientology. For Hubbard, the mind is “a simple mechanism which works very much like a computer,” she explains. “Its main processor, called the analytical mind, is like Freud’s conception of the conscious mind, in charge of daily events and decisions and the management of information.” But the analytical mind is undermined by the “reactive mind,” which promulgates “glitches, or ‘aberrations,’ which manifest as fear, inhibition, intense love and hate, and also various psychosomatic ills…. Painful or traumatic moments are recorded in the reactive mind as lasting scars, which Hubbard called ‘engrams.’” By undergoing auditing, in which a professional auditor asks questions designed to summon, and thus overcome, these traumatic incidents, the patient is rid of engrams and can eventually become “a Clear.”
Dianetics became a bestseller. College students talked about it, suburban couples held auditing parties. Reitman suggests that an anxious cold war population was ready for a do-it-yourself talking cure, especially a kitschy hipster remedy that originated in the dreamland of SoCal. Some auditors started private practices, and Hubbard opened branches of his Dianetic Research Foundation across the country. But problems soon arose. Medical boards investigated auditors for practicing medicine without a license, and psychiatrists denounced and ridiculed Hubbard for his pseudoscientific theories and what they saw as his bogus therapy. Hubbard was a terrible businessman, freely spending the money his far-flung enterprise made. Several early followers defected. In 1951 Hubbard wrote to the FBI, denouncing more than a dozen of his followers in Chicago, New York City and California as possible communists. One was Sara Northrup, the second Mrs. L. Ron Hubbard.
In 1952 the Dianetic Research Foundation went bankrupt, and its remaining assets were sold to a wealthy supporter named Don Purcell, whom Hubbard accused of being bribed by the American Medical Association to destroy Dianetics. In what Freud would have called a case of the narcissism of small differences, Hubbard, who had been a great evangelist for something that looked an awful lot like the talking cure, settled into a lifelong enmity toward psychiatrists.
Hubbard did not get mad—he got back on his feet. That same year, he announced to eighty loyal followers that he had “important new material” to present. The new discovery was the e-meter, a little black box with two metal handles that measures an auditing patient’s galvanic skin response. “It was, essentially, a lie detector, operating on many of the same principles,” Reitman writes. “And it would be used, said Hubbard, in the practice of what he called a brand-new science: Scientology.”
Equipped with the principle of engrams in the reactive mind, and the claim that a skilled auditor using an e-meter could help a willing patient get clear, Hubbard began to rebuild. He wrote pamphlets, internal memos, curriculums and eventually a cosmogony. Access to Hubbard’s growing corpus of secret truths, more of which he discovered, or invented, all the time, isn’t free. The Scientology stuff that gets mocked on South Park—the Galactic Confederation; the prison planet of Teegeeack; our primal souls the thetans, attached to our earthly bodies—is associated with a mental state known as Operating Thetan 3, or “OT 3,” revealed by Hubbard in the late 1960s. OT 3 is a level of learning that takes many years and, according to one scholar of Scientology, tens of thousands of dollars to achieve. “The original goal of Scientology and Dianetics—becoming Clear—was now only the beginning,” according to Reitman. Eventually there were eight OT levels, “each one promising a higher level of personal power and spiritual enlightenment…. Scientologists did not have to believe in OT 3. They had to do it.”
To this day, Scientology is about doing. Local Scientology centers offer books, self-help classes and auditing; if someone reads well, studies hard, gets audited and has the money to keep on keeping on, he may become clear, and then become an Operating Thetan. That is what is to be done. The average Scientologist has not read every word of Hubbard’s, and may have learned about Xenu from television or the Internet, where all the top-secret material has been posted by saboteurs and defectors. The Scientologist need not be a literalist; like Jews and Christians, Scientologists can do metaphors. But the Scientologist probably does believe that Hubbard made real discoveries about the workings of the human mind, and that ascending “The Bridge to Total Freedom,” going beyond clear and becoming an Operating Thetan, is a worthy goal. This “fantasy was sold so effectively,” Reitman writes—at about $3,000 for a complete package of OT levels in the 1970s—“that ‘going OT’ became for Scientologists the equivalent of reaching nirvana or finding the Holy Grail.” After all, even Jesus and the Buddha were not OTs, Hubbard once said. They were “just a shade above clear.”
* * *