If you’re ever in the market for a bit of harmless revenge or a rather cruel practical joke, I highly recommend making use of the Scientology mailing list. Sign your friend up under a hilarious name, and 20 years later (assuming the church is still around) they'll still be receiving mail for “Laura Rockemsockem Huntsman.” Scientology staffers, many of whom work for the church in order to obtain its expensive coursework, have quotas to meet, and must contact a certain number of people by mail or phone in an attempt get them into the church and spending money. Even the dead aren't safe from the stats-seekers: During a visit to my dad’s house a few years ago, I let the answering machine run as a staffer from the org where my grandmother had taken some courses before her death five years previous left a message. It would have meant so much to her, the staffer told the obliging machine, to have a brick with her name on it in the new mission. Only $3,000.
The church's fortunes have been on a near-constant decline over the last decade or so. While still a powerful entity by any fiscal standard, the Church of Scientology has been hit with so many scandals and so much bad press, from reports of abuse to the maelstrom unleashed by Katie Holmes, that stats are almost certainly on a permanent downswing. The church is so desperate to get people in that even my mother, who left, on, uh, rather bad terms more than 20 years ago, recently got a call at her office. She recounted the call gleefully, telling me the caller, identifying himself as a staff member at the local mission, said he’d seen her name in the records and wondered if she’d heard about the new courses they were offering and whether she'd be interested in coming in. My mother politely told him her life was better than it had ever been and she had no interest in returning to the church, telling him she left because of policies she thought were unethical and wrongheaded. Things have changed, the man on the phone promised, and when my mother expressed her doubt, citing directives written by Hubbard himself, he became excited: “but we found out something that changed everything! You see, the writings weren’t taken down by Hubbard himself, they were transcribed!”
Oh OF COURSE, I teased my mother, “fair game” (a policy that encourages attacks on Scientology’s perceived enemies) was just a transcription mistake, maybe the policy was really supposed to be called “they’re lame.” Neither of us were surprised in the least that the church is still making excuses, still unable to admit mistakes made or flaws in the ‘tech.’ Over the years mom and I have talked a lot about the church, sharing the rare investigation or exposé that dared tempt the organization at a time when they were known for destroying their critics, and later trading links about the latest scandals.
For years we’ve watched the church attempt to silence its enemies, and in the years since the internet became a clearinghouse for Scientology’s secret documents and evidence of its illegal and unethical actions, we’ve seen it fail to do so. The last few years have brought many high-profile defections, the playful trollery of Anonymous, and plenty of excellent journalism, but also that infamous South Park episode and the widespread conviction that personal alien colonies are a fundamental part of what Scientologists believe. I’ve always known that people were curious about the church, but I wish they'd take the time to understand a little more about why people join and what they get out of it, instead of just writing it off as the cult of Tom Cruise and its ‘brainwashed’ members. If any one thing prompted me to write this piece, it’s that I hate the idea that my mother — who joined the church out of principles stronger than many of us possess, and then showed enormous personal courage in leaving the organization to build a new life for herself and her family — should feel embarrassed to share her history.
With all the information out there now about Scientology, it’s difficult to imagine how and why anyone would be newly taken in by the church, although I’m sure it still happens. I don’t find it difficult, however, to imagine why they would stay in. All the outside criticism in the world can’t and won’t challenge the certainty of people who have spent decades in the church, invested thousands of dollars, enmeshed themselves in Scientology-centric social circles, and experienced the positive effects of the ‘tech.’ Listen to recent defectors like Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, and Paul Haggis: They didn’t leave because they heard that a bunch of people thought Scientology was stupid, they left because the contradictions between the church's ethical claims and its practices became too gaping, too obvious to ignore.
And it’s not only people who have left the church. In January 2012, a Scientologist in good standing named Debbie Cook sent out an email to 12,000 members condemning the aggressive fundraising practices of the current church, and had some fairly pointed words for the current leadership. Calling on Scientologists to demand change from within the institution, she wrote: “as a Scientologist you are more able, more perceptive and have a higher integrity. Scientology is supposed to allow you to 'think for yourself' and never compromise your own integrity."
While I sometimes joke about Scientology, I never mock the people who believe in it, and it saddens me to see so much unnecessary nastiness, so many thoughtless asides about brainwashed drones chasing body thetans. It’s usually not accurate or funny, it’s just mean. And I believe it only makes things worse — a group that feels it's being persecuted will only turn more deeply inward and become even more distrustful of outsiders. Anyone who doesn't support the church thus becomes its enemy, and this only tears more families apart and leave those members who already have doubts about the church all the more isolated.
My criticisms of the church are grounded in my own experiences and those of my family. I’ve seen how they’ve treated my parents and some of their friends, how they’ve harassed, threatened, and tried to destroy the reputations of ex-Scientologists and others who've opposed them, and how they treated my ex-stepmother, a woman who (even though she thought I was evil incarnate) devoted her life to the church only to be abandoned by them at the end, denied financial support for medical assistance, and told she could cure herself with more auditing.
I know that most people in the church, and in organizations like it, cannot or will not hear these criticisms. For most of my life I couldn’t tell my father what I really thought, because if I had been openly critical it would only have fed his sense that the church was under attack, that I was an enemy. But I believe that my efforts to be respectful of his beliefs while living my own life, pursuing my own principles, and trying to do a little good in this world, were part of a very slow process through which he was able to recognize that Scientology was not the only way.
There’s a new “flagship mission” in downtown Seattle, and my errands in the city often take me by it on foot. While I’ve never seen anyone dole out abuse directly to the staff members offering personality tests or inviting members of the public to see a film about Dianetics, I don’t doubt that it happens; my friends and I might have done it ourselves 15 years ago. In a generally non-confrontational city like Seattle, people usually just avoid the staff or make fun of the fliers before letting them fall to the ground. I realize this is not an uncommon experience for anyone working with the public, but I imagine it takes on a different tone for Scientologists who must believe they're working to help the planet, who cannot believe otherwise if they do this work. I’ve seen how the church works its staff to exhaustion, and I’m sure it doesn’t help when every celebrity magazine talks about Suri’s rescue and Tom’s strange cult, or how people look at new acquaintances like they have three arms if they say they're a Scientologist.
All people want to believe they're on the right path in life, and when they find themselves in an organization that slowly separates them from their loved ones, leaving them with nothing to cling to but its doctrine, they cling to it ever more fiercely, especially in the face of cruelty and disrespect. So I try to be kind, to make eye contact, to smile when I walk past the mission. I decline their fliers and tell them I’m not interested but that I hope they have a good day. I want to be something small that lodges in their memory, a positive engram perhaps, so that if they ever decide the church isn’t for them they won’t feel like their only option is to return to a world that rejects them.
I know I’m not sprinkling fairy dust or instantaneously opening people’s minds with my tiny efforts, but one never knows. As Leonard Cohen, himself a dabbler in Scientology in the 1970s, has written so beautifully: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Stella Forstner is the pseudonym of a Hairpin reader who wishes to protect her family's anonymity.