Monday, December 3, 2012


Scientology and Me, Part Five: Hubbard, Mao, and Me

Previously: parts onetwothree, and four

It gets a little tiring being the only former Scientologist everyone you meet has ever known, or to be asked on a first date whether you were raised religiously and know that if you answer honestly you’re in for 25 minutes of Q&A. Not only do you start to wonder if the most interesting thing about yourself is something you had nothing to do with, but you began to refine and embellish this narrative over dozens and dozens of tellings. Which eventually begins to restructure your actual recollections, highlighting some memories while pushing others — no less important — into the background, where they stay until they're brought forth again by some random cue.

It was a bizarre experience to be a first-year Ph.D. student cramming my head full of Chinese history and find strange echoes of my childhood in Cultural Revolution memoirs. It wasn’t that we had Dianetics and the Chinese had their little red books, or that we quoted L. Ron Hubbard and they quoted Mao Zedong — it was how it felt to have one unifying ideology that you weren't ever allowed to consider incorrect, and how individuals were always made to take the blame when things went wrong, made to search themselves and others for ethical or political treachery against the center.

When I read the stories of people who were taught to be vigilant in self-criticism and to struggle against any family members, teachers, or neighbors who evinced a bourgeois mentality, I heard echoes of life at the mission in the mid 1980s. In Cultural Revolution-era China, even saying something so mundane as “the sun has set” (Mao was known as the sun; to say it had set was tantamount to calling for his end) could get a student expelled or an employee fired. The Church of Scientology produced widespread paranoia by creating an organizational structure that placed blame on individuals. As journalist and Inside Scientology author Janet Reitman says of a Scientology facility staffed by ‘Sea Org’ members (members who've signed billion-year contracts to serve the church), “everyone … lived in fear of everyone else and what they might be saying, or reporting, about one another.” When I read about families who didn’t dare to complain even at home about the enormous privations of the Mao era for fear of being reported on, I felt a jolt of recognition. This was true at the highest levels of Scientology as well; both Mao and Hubbard (and later the current leader of the church, David Miscavige) were constantly purging their inner circles, removing ‘spies,’ ‘rightists,’ and ‘suppressive persons.’

Obviously the stakes were enormously different in the two cases — in China under Mao millions died of starvation, and during the Cultural Revolution hundreds of thousands suffered violent deaths, often at the hands of people they knew, whereas in Scientology the harm done was primarily psychological, though there are many credible reports of physical abuse or neglect in the church (resulting in at least one death). But the systems were remarkably similar. Neither Mao nor Hubbard — both charismatic leaders — allowed their system's non-theological doctrines to be questioned, and both required unceasing progress, be it through economic growth via industrialization or through spiritual dissemination (driven in large part by economic goals). Stalling would endanger both the powerful, well-cared for people at the top, and the masses at the bottom who could either cling to these doctrines or face the dissonance of seeing how much they'd sacrificed for a bankrupt ideology and corrupt system. 

Both ideologies required constant support and evidence. Under Mao, Socialism's targets were agricultural production and industrial growth (targets that were constantly over-reported to save the skin of mid-level bureaucrats); under Hubbard, Scientology's targets were book sales, new-member numbers, and cold hard revenue. There were quotas for enemies as well. During China's many political campaigns in the '50s and '60s, party leaders frequently required work units to submit names of ‘anti-rightists’ or other ‘class enemies.’ It didn’t matter if everyone in their employ was an upstanding socialist — a certain number of names had to be produced. Thus personal grudges and harmless errors were magnified, and there was always a 'head on a pike' to take the blame. Calling out 'enemies' excused the system's faults, at least for a time, and left the ideology — and the hope that someday its promises would be realized — intact. Because if they weren’t working for the glory of the proletarian revolution or unlocking the power of the mind and clearing the world, then why had believers sacrificed so much? It was too difficult to imagine.

Reading those Cultural Revolution memoirs, I felt a kinship to people who were children at a time when the adults in their lives were acting completely insane, when it felt like political currents might take away a parent or come down on their own heads. I had responded to the break in my social world and to my parents' split by becoming an observer of social worlds, interested in, if a bit detached from, why and how people think the way they do and create and enforce social boundaries. This, I knew, played a large part in bringing me to the questionable life choice of embarking on a Ph.D. in a social science. Still, for a long time I thought I had emerged unscathed, that it never touched me. That I had grown up in a screwed up organization but had turned the experience to my advantage. I wrote my first college essay in Sociology 101 on Scientology, modestly titling it “Why We Believe.”

Of course I didn’t believe — I was an academic now! But as I sauntered into my early 30s I began to realize how much growing up in the church had affected me — not because I was paranoid or dogmatic, but because I had internalized many of the actual precepts of Dianetics. For instance, several years ago I attended the wedding of a friend whose parents had cut off communication with her after she left the church, but were trying out a reconciliation. At the wedding, they kept themselves apart but smiled constantly in a way that seemed almost robotic. Another friend there agreed with me that they appeared to have adopted a certain point on the tone scale, probably enthusiasm (4.0), and were maintaining it in all interactions. They seemed dialed in, which I noted in large part because I often feel that way myself.

Scientology claims that your mind can be controlled, that you can live according to the dictates of your true self, and that Scientologists can find success in whatever area they choose. There are plenty of successful Scientologists — and not just celebrities — otherwise the Church would never have amassed the wealth it has today. Successful Scientologists are often determined, willful people who are convinced of their own capacities, and though it's impossible to determine whether the church' precepts made them that way or if people attracted by a science of the mind are already preoccupied with self-control, self-mastery is central to the doctrine of Dianetics.

I’ve never consciously, as an adult, practiced Scientology principles, but it is positively eerie to glance over Scientology materials and find how obvious they seem: Of course your unconscious fears and memories hold you back (reactive mind) — you must triumph over them! For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like there's a war going on in my head and that I have to fight my way to victory, and I was well into my 20s before I discovered that not everyone thought the self was, or should be, perfectable. Can you unlearn a language you spoke fluently as a child? Once your relationships with others and yourself have been defined so comprehensively, can you ever see them any other way?

Although I have at least as much self-doubt as most other people, I'm also uncommonly confident in the ferocity of my own will. I started studying Chinese two months before my 28th birthday, and four years later I was conducting interviews with Chinese experts in my field, my research supported by prestigious grants. I have always maintained that I’m far from the smartest person I know, but that I can outwork almost anyone. I could give you more examples, as, I’m sure, could my friends, who have often endured my confusion when confronted with people who weren’t trained to subvert their unconscious wants, to will their brains to do their bidding, and to whom it doesn’t occur to strategize in relationships and social situations. Even the way I dealt with my father’s disconnection was about taking control of and managing my grief.

The fact is, one of the reasons Scientology persists despite all the bad press, the public suspicion, and the insane costs of auditing and coursework is that it not only makes appealing promises, it often delivers on them — or at least its practitioners believe it does. Spend some time reading or listening to Scientologists, celebrity or not, talk about their religion, and you'll likely hear them speaking pragmatically about how the church has helped them in their lives and in their relationships. They don’t spell out how ridding themselves of engrams and ‘clearing’ misunderstood words has heightened their mental powers, but why should they have to? The ideal of social improvement through self-improvement, the idea that our destiny is our own, and the promise of total control over ourselves and our environment — all of these fit nicely into the American mythology of the self-made man and the land of the free. It’s possible that I internalized the ideas of Dianetics so easily because they echoed messages I'd heard elsewhere in the culture. Or maybe I just ended up this way because I was born in the year of the snake; can we really untangle these things so easily?

Although Scientology has outposts in many far-flung corners of the world, I believe it is a fundamentally American religion. In my hours spent hunched over my Chinese textbook, in my father’s and mother’s considerable professional successes, in the Dianetics meetings my grandparents once held in their suburban ranch-style house, I see a particular kind of American promise: You can do anything if you put your mind to it. You can create the world you live in. It’s a compelling message. And yet it has a cruel flipside: When you have ultimate power, you are responsible for every failure and every flaw. I’m still relentlessly self-critical, always believing that the solution to anything is simply to work harder, and I’m forever trying to find ways to be stronger, to have better control — to focus more, wake up earlier, spend less money, find time to meditate … all of which sounds less like Scientology's influence than the influence of the American self-help industry.

But I’ll say this much: If you’ve ever tried in earnest to fix yourself — to eat your vegetables and get your cardiovascular exercise, to be ambitious in your career and fearless in love — well, if someone told you that all you needed to achieve that was audit away a couple dozen body thetans attached to you by a malevolent galactic ruler named Xenu, you might just ask who to make the check out to.

NEXT: Postscript

Stella Forstner is the pseudonym of a Hairpin reader who wishes to protect her family's anonymity.

48 Comments / Post A Comment


I hate to admit this about myself, but the thing that bugs me the most about that tone scale is how some of the points are listed as adjectives (disinterested) and some are nouns (mild interest).



Those characters are freakin' adorable, though!

AND how about the description for -20.0? SO ZEN, SO ZEN

Stella Forstner

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll SO ZEN. I had a poster of the tone scale in my room growing up purely because I thought the little faces were so adorable/funny. Now I kind of want to make them into t-shirts (but I WON'T!)


@Stella Forstner I kind of found it charming that games are a step above action. Because hell yeah they are. Games are action with FUN.


Wonderful...good @y


Thank you, again...

"For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like there's a war going on in my head and that I have to fight my way to victory, and I was well into my 20s before I discovered that not everyone thought the self was, or should be, perfectable."

That word, perfectable, resonated strongly with me, out of the many words written. It's familiar, given how I grew up in the Hare Krishna movement... that we have a ability to constantly improve ourselves and all we have to do is try and not stop trying. I think some of the early disciples turned many things strange and unhealthy. Trying to better oneself is not inherently a bad thing, but if the endeavor comes at the expense of self worth, I think the process needs looked at.

Reading your story, Stella, is nourishing and helpful to me. Thank you.

*big hug*

Stella Forstner

@Barracuda So glad to hear it! Knowing that these thoughts and feelings of mine resonate with other people is wonderfully gratifying, and nourishing too. I think the best thing we can get out of these experiences is perspective, and that is no small thing.


@Barracuda and Stella: My perfectionism came, not from religious principles, but from my mother. To this day she claims that if only she tried hard enough, she'd never make any more mistakes. I love her dearly, but wish I hadn't absorbed this mentality - it's helped me to achieve a lot, but has also caused a lot of anguish in my life.

In fact, one of the reasons I turned to religion was because despite my best efforts, I kept screwing up. Christianity offered me a way to let myself off the hook and acknowledge my human frailty. It was a huge relief to drop the burden of perfectionism, though I sometimes pick it back up again.


Oh my God, replace "Scientology" with "LDS" and you have my whole life story, down to the social science PhD program.

"Can you unlearn a language you spoke fluently as a child?" I've been trying for fifteen years, and I think... maybe not. At least, not entirely.

Thank you, Stella!


@anderin That makes two of us, in the former LDS camp, that is. I am fascinated by the aftereffects, and the potential unconscious biases we carry with us. Great conversation!

Stella Forstner

@anderin Wow, I'm glad I'm not the only one! I hope your job market sucks less than my job market ;)


@liverwortlaura For a long time I tried to deny its effects, like Stella says here... but eventually, I had to wise up and realize that it's had life-long implications. And most of them, I'd say, aren't bad!


@anderin I really dug that line too.


@Stella Forstner I think the language is part of you forever no matter how hard you fight it. It's what you do with and about it, though...


@anderin Maybe you should write a series from your experience with LDS? ;) ;) I'm going to be so sad when this series is over. I want more!


@somethingsatanic Thanks! I'm kind of in awe of how well Stella said everything, though. I'm going to miss her series so much!


The 25 minute Q&A rings true! I grew up in a little-known religion. I don't practice anymore but I also don't have any ill will toward it or its followers so I don't have any shame talking about it - but I wish I could the say the same for other people. As soon as people find out you can see the change in their eyes. Five minutes ago, they liked you. Now you're a weird stranger. Either they want to bait you into bashing followers or quiz you like you're the messiah. Either way, it's exhausting. I find it off-putting enough that I think I think I suffer in social situations because I constantly try to steer any questions away from my background.


@casedffasdg yes. I have mentioned my religion in other posts, but since I also consider it to be my culture and a way to explain my immigrant background, it comes up. I think people are just trying to be interested.

Stella Forstner

@casedffasdg Oh yes, I know all about steering the conversation away from one's past. I think I lived with my current roommates for about 9 months before they knew about this part of my life.

What I've discovered though, is that it is PERFECTLY ok to be as honest as you want to be while also setting down boundaries. I was at a conference last month talking to a friend about this piece when her sister met up with us and got that change in her eyes when she heard what we were discussing. So I just told her my family had a long, complicated, and often painful history with Scientology and that she was more than welcome to read my piece about it. It felt weird, but also SO MUCH better than submitting to the same old (often intrusive or even sort of prurient) questions.

I recommend giving it a try! Maybe there's a book or something online about your former religion that you could point people towards? Either way you shouldn't have to feel like you have to reveal difficult parts of your past to strangers. Good luck!


This is very interesting! Can I really blame my ability to accept or adapt to things in my life entirely on my parents and their hippie-go-with-the-flow attitude or does a large part of it come from my Christian belief system that says God has a plan for me and a destiny? Eee! I love thinking about this kind of stuff.

This whole series has been great. Thank you, Stella.

Stella Forstner

@Yarnybarny I love thinking about it too -- even if we can't come to any certain conclusion in the end I think the reflection is good for us -- and helps us to understand others better.

Thanks for reading!


yay, "Postscript!" I know this series has to end eventually (lest it deteriorate into "What I, a Former Scientologist, Bought at CVS Yesterday"), but I'm glad that there's at least one more installment.

Stella Forstner

@nonvolleyball Thank you so! Edith willing, I'd be happy to write another piece in the future. I'll try to come up with a topic more engaging than that, although frankly my grocery lists *are* quite riveting.


Not gonna lie, the promise of that kind of will power and unflappable faith in myself makes me want to check out some Scientology books from the library...even after reading this entire series! They offer us such pretty prizes.

Stella Forstner

@PotatoPotato Pretty prizes indeed. I just hope this doesn't give some poor student of intermediate Mandarin the idea that auditing is the secret to Chinese language fluency. That's not what I meant kids!

Sgt. Exposition

@Stella Forstner It's a good thing I'm reading this now, then, as opposed to being in the throes of CHI 301 three years ago.

Of course, now I don't have time to practice thanks to my PhD coursework, so I'm not sure that's exactly an improvement.


So, so good and such a well-earned conclusion. Thanks for writing thoughtfully (and so very compellingly!) on a topic that so often ends in irrational screeds.


The ideal of social improvement through self-improvement, the idea that our destiny is our own, and the promise of total control over ourselves and our environment — all of these fit nicely into the American mythology of the self-made man and the land of the free.

This right here is one of the big takeaways I got from this series. I have always regarded Scientology as just so damn wacky and bizarre - the church for the crazy people. I realize now that this was a shamefully ignorant point of view.

This series gets my vote for the Best of Hairpin 2012. You and A Clean Person, of course.


@karion I agree - on all counts.

Stella Forstner

@karion What fine company you have put me in! I'm so glad you've gotten something out of the series. Writing it really helped me to sort out my own thoughts on the subject.


It's utopianism, man! That's where these both come from - the idea that with enough hard work and earnest subscription to a base set of ideas, the world will be made perfect. So anything can be justified, and any failures of the ideology will NEED scapegoats.

Stella Forstner

@deepomega excellent point!


I left a Christian cult as a teenager, and suffered the consequences. It's a different experience, but I have read yours with that particular kind of interest. Thanks for writing all this!

What's got to be particularly galling about what you're describing about Scientology is how so many of the technologies actually seem to reflect various forms of therapy, with lots of NLP thrown in. There probably IS lots of value in the technologies, but how the hell do you get ACTUAL therapy to deal with the unhelpful controlling voices in your head when you come from something like that?

Ex-Christians seeking therapy just have to deal with their therapists trying to convert them back, which is bad enough. I dunno how an ex-Scientologist could even get through the waiting room.


@stjohnofthecruz As a former Scientologist high level "auditor," I had no other options than to build a therapy practice after I left as I had very few other skills! I found, however, that the common sense parts of Scientology fit nicely with several different schools of therapy. After all, Hubbard was clearly a master synthesizer of various theories. Dianetics was Freud, slightly altered, and packaged up for a layman's use. It is very similar to various forms of Regression therapy still practiced today. Some of the later stuff has some remarkable similarities to Cognitive Therapy (my favorite) and as you note, Neuro-linguistic Programming. The goofy stuff is....just goofy... and best left alone (unless you're into exorcisms). It really is quite possible to leave Scientology and find many options for self-help or therapy, and not have the damages from being part of a controlling cult


@mammamia Good on you for making use of your experience. Didn't you fear reprisals like Stella's mother?

I guess I'm speaking more from the perspective of someone diagnosed with PTSD as result of my religion (and, yes, exorcisms, as well as psychiatric abuse.)


@stjohnofthecruz SO MUCH of what is actually useful and workable in Scientology is part of the general knowledge base in the field of Psychology/self-improvement. The organization successfully controls its adherents by convincing them that they cannot find spiritual/mental betterment any place else. They can claim you are "using Scientology", but if it's general knowledge, what can they do? There are also many former Scientologists who went on from that experience to develop new therapies that pull some from Scientology, but in a non-controlling, non-dogmatic setting. One that comes to mind is Metapsychology, but I'm sure there are many splinter groups or practices that may be evolving.

For your situation, you might want to seek out a therapist who has had experience and success working with former religion/cult members, or research into some books on the topic.


@mammamia my therapist told me that to move on with my life I need to figure out my religious beliefs. I think someone a bit more sympathetic to religion would have been helpful. I am sure that there is someone out there, especially if you live in a big city.


@theotherginger Thanks for your concern, guys. I have found some great resources, luckily.

Stella Forstner

@mammamia Excellent points, thanks!


Please, dear Hairpin, consider publishing more of these series in the future.

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Thank you for this piece and the comparisons made within. I kept reading them going "omg yes" and then had to forward a link to my sister, demanding that she read!

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I am so comforted by this piece. I grew up in an extreme religious movement and have struggled for years with my feelings towards the group. I feel like it has shaped me so much, but due to the freak factor, I can't really share my childhood. I am extremely critical of the church, but at the same time, highly protective of it. I'm glad to know that there are others who deal with this. What an excellent series.

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