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