Like many of us, I was a miserable and angst-ridden adolescent, and the way the Church of Scientology had divided my family in half seemed like just another teenage burden. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I realized with surprise that my family’s history in Scientology gave me pop culture cool points, that it was a factoid I could deploy to make me instantly more interesting to just about anyone. While occasionally useful at parties or when trying to impress dudes, talking about the church also felt like treachery against my father, still a faithful church member and married to a professional auditor. But while I didn’t relish insulting my dad by implication, there was no way around it — I did think he was a bit brainwashed, and I did resent his attempts to make me a Scientologist.
When I was about 15 and struggling in school, my father decided to give me a crash course in Scientology’s ‘study tech’ while I was visiting over the summer. I was already familiar with much of this tech from growing up in the missions: The clay I used to play with was also used by the adults to make models that gave ‘mass’ to something. For instance, if you were concerned about your husband's possible infidelity, an auditor might have you build models of three people as a means to approach the complex situation. The concept of ‘adding mass’ was also an important part of study tech and was similar to other techniques designed to render abstract or large issues into other formats. A student might be encouraged, for another example, to draw a map if they were having trouble following a lecture on world history. There was also an emphasis on gradient: learning things step by step and not jumping into advanced levels without being sufficiently prepared. So far, so reasonable.
Scientology study tech also incorporates a concept Hubbard emphasized throughout his writings: the importance of understanding the meaning of individual words. Most, if not all, Scientology books carry a preface reminding the reader to be certain they understand all the words in a text, claiming the only reason a student becomes confused, can't learn, or gives up is that they've skipped past a word they didn't understand. My father had decided that misunderstood words were at the root of my problems in school, and so we spent several afternoons on either side of a long desk, me with a school text, him with a gigantic dictionary. I would read aloud, then parse a sentence or a section, and if he thought I was having trouble I would have to go back and define any unusual words, and sometimes even basic ones, in order to ‘clear’ them.
I’ve always been a reader and a lover of words, but I hated this task and it left me feeling stupid and resentful. Part of the problem was that Scientologists believe that if you become agitated or uncomfortable in study, it's because you don't understand something, not because you fundamentally disagree with the tech. The more frustrated I became, the more my father pushed me to find the source of this frustration in misunderstood words, until I was eventually reduced to tears over some miserable article like ‘the’ and he abandoned the endeavor. Although I found the experience upsetting, it left me with a deeper understanding of the confidence many Scientologists have in their own powers.
Tom Cruise has famously claimed that Scientology’s study tech helped him to conquer dyslexia, and when I see the gif of him jumping on Oprah’s couch I imagine him clearing words with an auditor, that mad glint in his eyes coming from his belief that the secrets of the universe have been unlocked all because he can define ‘the.’
From the time my mother left the church until I was 18, my father never officially tried to get me involved. Scientology remained a big part of his life: He had few friends outside the church, quoted LRH incessantly, and even moved to Los Angeles with my stepmother so they could be closer to the center of things. Once I was an adult, my father took me to his mission and tried to get me signed up for courses. I played along, worried about what would happen if I refused, and was relieved when they told him I was ineligible to receive any Scientology services because of my continuing relationship with my mother. I was glad to be off the hook and assumed this meant I would never have to reject the church outright and hurt my father, or worse, and for a time it seemed to work.
In the meantime, life, which had looked so endlessly bleak to my adolescent high-school dropout self, was going remarkably well. After two years at a community college, I had transferred to a small liberal arts college, where I designed a concentration that culminated in a research project in Southeast Asia. I was surrounded by talented, intelligent, and adventurous friends, and had fallen in love with an extraordinary fellow whose courtship of me included a research trip to a Scientology mission. I was charmed by his report on the terrible film they had shown him and by the philosophical challenges he had presented to a hapless staff member. A tiny voice screeched 'treachery,' but I buried it deep. It wasn’t, I told myself, as if Scientology had made my father happy. He was the most depressed person I had ever known, and I often thought it tragic that after so long in the vehemently anti-psychiatry church, my dad would never accept the help I thought he truly needed.
Sometimes something's significance can't be understood until seen in the context of the events that follow. My father told me once that when I came to visit I always brought him ‘up,’ referring in this to Hubbard’s tone scale, a range of emotional ‘tones’ said to correspond with a person’s spiritual state and ability to communicate. My father always carried a credit card-sized version of the tone scale that he would sometimes consult when dealing with a situation at work or in his personal life; I remember you were supposed to identify the tone someone was at, and then adopt a tone a few degrees above it in order to communicate with them successfully. I remembered this conversation many years later when I realized that my father had believed that my difficult adolescence was evidence of the malignant effect of my mother’s ‘suppressiveness.’ I knew he must have been glad that I came out the other side and started to find success, but imagined it was deeply confusing to him that even without Scientology I was always at a higher tone than he, and, more confusing still, so was my mother.
The theory of cognitive dissonance says that the human brain is neurologically incapable of holding two incompatible ideas at the same time. When our minds are presented with two conflicting cognitions, the theory goes, they work to reduce the dissonance by denying or reducing one of the ideas' importance. Both of my parents came to see me present my undergraduate thesis project — the first time they'd been in contact of any kind for nearly 15 years. It was surreal, and slightly uncomfortable to see them sitting next to each other in the audience, but at the time I never considered the effect it might have on my father to see my mother doing so well. My father was unhappy, his second marriage was breaking down, and though he had long ago gone ‘clear,’ he had made little further progress. To see my mother, ex-Scientologist and suppressive person, finding continued personal and professional success while he, a dedicated Scientologist for more than 40 years, felt he had neither, created intense dissonance in his mind, and I became the means by which this dissonance was reduced.
I have always believed that my father's conviction that he was being contaminated by my connection to my mother originated not with him, but with an auditor or even a Scientologist friend. But once the seed was planted it found fertile soil; I imagine my father even felt some hope in thinking that once my mother’s (as he saw it) malign influence was completely cut off, he would experience personal freedom and spiritual growth. Of course I found this idea hurtful and preposterous. We spoke on the phone two weeks before I was to move to England for graduate school, and he told me I needed to escape my mother’s influence, and that if I didn’t he would have to remove himself from my life. I told him he was giving me an ultimatum I could not accept. I had rarely seen him angry, but he was angry then, angry at me for putting him in the situation of being connected to someone his church denounced. He told me I could think about it, and I told him I didn’t need to; I loved both of my parents, but I would never choose the one that demanded I choose between them. And with that, my father left my life.
Ironically, my father’s disconnection brought my mother and I even closer; she provided support and understanding, and tried to help me resolve my own dissonant feelings: If my father loved me, how could he cut me out of his life? The reality of the loss took a long while to settle in, and when it finally started to, I was grateful for the immersion of an intensive master’s program to keep my mind engaged on other things. I worked diligently, but every so often I would feel a build-up of sadness, like a migraine coming on, and I developed a habit of making time for concentrated catharsis. I would put on my headphones, select an album with a sweeping symphonic and emotional arc (often The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin), listen to it from start to finish while numbly playing computer solitaire, and cry until my tears were spent. That’s not to say there weren’t pockets of pain I would stumble into all the time, things that reminded me of my dad’s goofy sense of humor, triumphs I wanted to share. I missed him. It hurt terribly. At the beginning I tried e-mailing him every couple of months, but I never received a response. I hoped he just needed time. About a year and a half into the disconnection I planned a trip to Los Angeles to see friends, and wrote my father to tell him I’d be in town and that it would mean a lot to me to see him. He wrote back cursorily, wishing me a good trip, not even acknowledging my request. I think that hurt most of all.
There has long been a tradition, if not always a stated policy, of disconnection (separation and exclusion being among the things that make a cult a cult), in Scientology, though the church has long denied it. When my father disconnected from me, I lost touch with my grandmother, too. Having drifted away from the church for decades, she had been welcomed back enthusiastically by staffers who needed to increase their stats and revenues and immediately signed her up for courses and an expensive Freewinds cruise.
It had been about two and a half years since we'd last spoken when my father started writing to tell me about my grandmother’s declining health and later to report on her death. I wrote up some of my memories of her and he read them at her funeral, though I was not invited. There was a temporary opening: I asked for family photos and received two boxes full in the mail. And then more silence. But a crack had opened up and slowly there was more, until suddenly we were e-mailing with some regularity and I was planning another visit to Los Angeles.
It’s been eight years since we re-connected but those three years of distance still cast a shadow on our current relationship. We can’t talk about what happened because my father insists that while he may have been misinformed about the extent of my mother’s influence on me, I forced him to choose between me and the church, and I maintain that while I try to understand his point of view he is completely full of shit.
I don’t believe the concept of brainwashing is particularly useful; I think it's more useful to look at how people create and maintain communities with words and ideas and build socially exclusive environments where these ideas are constantly repeated, reinforcing shared beliefs and denying alternatives — more like a kind of brain-shaping. According to the linguistic theory of frame analysis, every word is part of a mental structure, a ‘frame’ mirrored by a fixed neural circuit in the brain. These frame-circuits are engaged any time you think or talk or try to understand anything, and ideas that cannot be accommodated within them (things that do not compute, if you want to go with the robot-mind analogy), cannot be understood and are likely to be ignored or rejected.
While I find theories like frame analysis and cognitive dissonance both appealing and applicable, I don’t think theory can ever capture completely the complexity of the human mind or the human heart. Though my father doesn’t know about this piece, and I’m writing it pseudonymously, I still wish to honor his request that I not tell others where he currently is with reference to the church. I will say only that I am proud of the steps he has taken to keep me a part of his life.
The wounds made by what at the time felt like my father choosing Scientology over me, his only child, went deep, and I fear there will always be some distance between us, if only because I hold back, fearing that I could lose him again. But I’m still so grateful to have him back, so glad that something cracked open and made room for me in his life again. My mother and father both stand as testament to the incredible agility of the brain to adopt and embrace systems, and then to cast them off (at least in part), and to the strength of the soul, or the thetan, whatever you want to call it, to strike out on new paths. They give me hope for other people in the world, and even for myself.
NEXT: Hubbard, Mao, and Me.
Stella Forstner is a pseudonym for a Hairpin reader who wishes to protect her family's anonymity.