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Monday, December 10, 2012

189

Scientology and Me, Part Six: Postscript

Previously: parts onetwothree, four, and five

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.



189 Comments / Post A Comment

wearitcounts

i loved this series and am sad that this appears (?) to be the last installment. but thank you, stella! your writing is elegant and the information has been incredibly interesting and enlightening.

theotherginger

@wearitcounts exactly. I kind of wish every person on the pin would write their story and we could read it - we get such tantalizing snippets through the comments - and some people, like Stella, are extremely gifted writers

Stella Forstner

@theotherginger yes, more 'pinners' stories! Many of my friends who have read this piece have told me they feel they know me better now -- there's something about making your story a narrative that welcomes people into your life in a different way.

PatatasBravas

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.

I really, truly have appreciated every word in this series, and I loved hearing from you and your mom in the comments. You two are amazing ladies! And I love that I started reading out of curiosity and ended up invested in your idea that we can respect people's need for order amongst the chaos, as well as respectfully offer them help in finding ordering methods that aren't exploitative if they want it.

Veronica Lemmons

@PatatasBravas Yes! That Stella wrote this wonderful series out of admiration and concern for her mother was, for me, almost unbearably sweet. The mother-daughter love and strength is so apparent and lovely.

Stella Forstner

@PatatasBravas
That's wonderful to hear. Thank you.

packedsuitcase

"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 think this is true of basically any missionary - LDS missionaries spring to mind, but really anybody that believes in what they are doing enough and who believes they are helping people by showing them the "true" path (whatever that may be for them), and it's a good reminder to show all of them compassion. Thanks.

theotherginger

@packedsuitcase yeah, one of the LDS sites I like, askmormongirl.com (you all should read it, really), talks about this - she says that what people should do with those young guys is just smile at them and give a friendly wave from a car, because sometimes that's what they need. I'm not about to talk to them, that's just not my style, but I figure that if I want to (not because someone on the street tells me to, sidetrack, sorry) a smile to a kid probably from Utah in my intensely diverse city can't really hurt.

Stella Forstner

@packedsuitcase
Yes! I'm guilty myself of running the other way when I see a pair of friendly Elders (though mostly out of discomfort). I know the world needs all sorts of things besides compassion and kindness but it can't hurt to practice them.

packedsuitcase

@Stella Forstner I've done it, too, but so many of my friends' brothers have served their missions that part of me always wants to invite them in and make them food. Buuuuut I don't really feel like listening to their pitch, so I just smile in a hopefully more friendly than "come talk to me" way and go about my day.

thisisveronica

beautifully written, thoughtful, insightful. thanks for sharing your experience. one of my favorite hairpin items ever.

Stella Forstner

@thisisveronica Given how much fantastic stuff there is on the hairpin that is a mighty fine compliment. Thanks!

anderin

This. This! I think I've said it about every installment, but everything you've said really, really speaks to me. In this case, especially as regards 1) moms, and 2) not mocking believers, even if you make fun of the institution.

Thanks. Really.

Stella Forstner

@anderin You are very very welcome. Thanks for all your support!

Sabrah

"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."

This is exactly how domestic violence works too! Thank you so much for a refreshing, informative, and compassionate series!

White Rabbit

@Sabrah YES!! I've been noting the parallels between DV and the way that the church (cult-like groups in general?) operates for some time now. It's nice to see others also making that connection, and I hope it means we'll be more effective going forward in breaking through to the folks who are currently entrenched.

And to clarify, I respect people's right to make their own decision with regard to whether or not to participate in the church - what makes me angry is that the church essentially forbids followers from seeking any information from outside the church*, thus cutting off any possibility of them recognizing that something is terribly amiss, and in turn undermining their capacity to make a truly informed decision.

*As an example, roughly 15 years ago, when the Internet was first starting to become a Thing, the church passed out CD-ROMs that everyone was instructed to install on their personal computers. The CD-ROMs contained software that would block your computer's ability to view anything on the Internet pertaining to Scientology that wasn't an official Scientology website. THAT is how serious they are about making sure that their followers are kept in the dark. That was also one of the biggest cracks in the facade that ultimately led to my leaving the church.

PistolPackinMama

@Sabrah Domestic violence as a practice/institution and abusers as individuals have the weight of tacit and overt social acceptance behind them.

If a person is being Abused In A Classic Sense, yeah, people see and maybe intervene. But a lot of what gives abusers power is how much people generally don't want to intervene, how hard it can be to prosecute/protect an abuse victim, and how much some abuse is rationalized, excused, or ignored.

I feel like we as a collective- as a society- are in relationship with abuse and abusers in a different way than most Americans are with religions like Scientology.

I am not sure why I am writing all this out, except to say that dynamic puts a responsibility on we in the community who know abuse happens and aren't as proactive about it as we should be. Abusers choose to abuse, but American society sure makes it easy for them sometimes.

(Not saying that this applies to the commenters in this thread at all. Just a general observation.)

White Rabbit

@PistolPackinMama If you're trying to say that we all have a responsibility as members of a community to recognize the problem and do our part to help stop it - both with DV and when it comes to abuses within religious/similar organizations - then I'm 100% with you on that! :)

PistolPackinMama

@White Rabbit That incoherent statement brought to you by a Feminist Liberation Theology Loving Catholic-With-A-Question-Mark. Yes. That's right. The church that can sometimes be all OUTSIDERS NOOOOO AND has its fair share of DV-style abuse. IN COMBINATION. IT IS A COLLECTIVE PENANCE TWO-FER UP IN HERE.

Goddamn. Now I am depressed.

(I am looking at you, Cardinal Ratzinger)
(Who I obvs. have trouble calling Pope Benedict.)
(Ugh.)

Stella Forstner

@White Rabbit This is the first time I've ever heard about the CD-ROM -- unbelievable! Congrats to you again for making it out!

PatatasBravas

@PistolPackinMama "Pope Emperor Palpatine" is the title my questionmarkCatholic friends jokingly use. The humor helps with the hurt, some days.

charlesbois

Brava! This was possibly the best thing I've read on The Hairpin. Really well written and engaging. Your last statement of the piece today really resonates.

Stella Forstner

@charlesbois You're so kind. Thank you for reading!

Springtime for Voldemort

As someone who probably would have made fun of Scientologists before this series, I think you've done a very good job of presenting a case for doing the exact opposite. I'm a bit sad that this is the last installment.

karion

My admiration and respect for this series are well-documented, but I just wanted to say again how much this series affected me. It absolutely changed my perception of Scientology and its adherents, and in a very positive way.

I am also a deep admirer of your writing style. Your tone and narrative style were instrumental in opening my mind. Also, I am a Seattle girl, too, and a downtown one at that, and username at the gmail and all that.

I think this was my favorite line of today's postscript, because I think it beautifully summarizes the gentle, compassionate tone of the entire series:

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.

Stella Forstner

@karion Excellent! I had hoped there would be some Seattle readers. Perhaps it's time for a Sea-Tac 'pinup?

Nukegrrrl

@karion Longtime 'Pin reader, 1st time poster. Thanks very much for this series, it's reminiscent of the feelings and facts surrounding my upbringing around old-school Mormonism and my immediate family's ousting from that organization.

I live & work next to the newish Scientology Center in Uptown/Lower Queen Anne, Seattle. For the past 1-2 years that they've been here, they have been quiet neighbors. Lately, it looks like they are feeling bolder. They have more stone-faced, Tom Cruise-look alike security guards patrolling their block and have been applying vinyl posters/decals near the tops of many neighborhood utility poles that say "Psychiatry Is A Scam," or something to that effect. I've been trying to think of a way to *thoughtfully* culturejam or counteract these posters. Any ideas from you 'Pinners?

White Rabbit

@Nukegrrrl Ugh. That sounds like something they would do. And it's extra-paranoid for a local church to post security - it makes me wonder what they're afraid of.

Hmmm... Do they have to get city approval to hang the posters? If so, you can see if they skipped that step, rendering the posters illegal. The only other thing I can think of is to post signs next to theirs that point to a resource that debunks the Scientology viewpoint on psychiatry.

White Rabbit

"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."

Thank you for this. As a former Scientologist who struggles with this quite a bit, I really appreciate the effort you have made within this series to help people understand.

Stella Forstner

@White Rabbit If it helps even a teeny tiny bit then I'll have done my job. Best of luck to you!

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

I'm sad for two reasons: 1) This series is apparently over, and 2) your name isn't actually Stella, which I guess I missed in the previous entries. I love that name.

Thanks for sharing. This was enlightening.

Stella Forstner

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose I love the name too! It was part of the reason I chose it as a pseudonym -- the other was that I have a few tiny star tattoos so it felt right ;)

Tuna Surprise

Stella,
What a beautiful conclusion to your story. I am so glad you wrote this piece. If you haven't already, you should read Upon This Rock, an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan on his experience at a Christian rock festival. At the end he had this to say about the people he met:

But mostly I thought of Darius, Jake, Josh, Bub, Ritter, and Pee Wee, whom I doubted I'd ever see again, whom I'd come to love, and who loved God-for it's true, I would have said it even if Darius hadn't asked me to, it may be the truest thing I will have written here: They were crazy, and they loved God-and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I never was capable of. Knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were.

I'm saddened by how easily discourse on the web (even the corners of it I love!) quickly dissolves into mocking people for believing in 'sky fairies', etc. I hope we can all follow your example and be a bit more respectful to each other.

Ophelia

@Tuna Surprise I'm not sure I could say this any better, so, Ditto.

Stella Forstner

@Tuna Surprise Awesome, I will definitely check out that essay. Thanks for reading and for doing your part to make the internet just a little bit nicer :)

KLPA

I will miss this series!

paper bag princess

Thank you very much for writing this series. I admit that I have made fun of Scientology in the past without taking the time to learn very much about it. I really enjoyed your story.

And thank you to the 'Pin for running it. This is my favorite website because I can learn how to make seasonal deviled eggs and challenge some of my personal beliefs in the same day, and have respectful and informative dialogue in the comments at the same time. There's just nothing else like it.

Stella Forstner

@lizzle I second that. The 'Pin is my favorite place on the web.

Flies in my eyes

Thank you! Brave and enlightening series! I was always curious about Scientology and you not only provided an interesting description about your experience with the church, but brought up a lot of valid points about the human experience! I guess that is why so many people have related, as I also appreciated so many of the thoughtful and brave comments of Pinners sharing their own experiences!! I wish you all the best and look forward to hopefully reading more by you!

Stella Forstner

@Flies in my eyes Thank you! I'll definitely consider writing for the 'pin again but probably not until I'm done with my dissertation...

Mae
Mae

This series has been wonderful to read. Your family's story is really eye-opening, and your writing is lovely.

Also, we should totally have a Seattle pin-up.

whateverlolawants

This has been a great series. I summarized some of it during a conversation a few weeks ago about cults and fringe religions, and the people I was with were very interested in it. Hopefully I did it justice. :) Between that and the excellent article from a former follower of Rev. Moon, I've learned so much about the humanity behind these punchlines.

Also, I know this is tangential, but South Park, man. No one ever called me a ginger until that famous episode came out, nor did anyone say I didn't have a soul. I was called other things for my hair color over the years, but it was definitely SP that brought the US closer to UK-levels of ginger-teasing. I don't care about it personally -- we're not socially disadvantaged here, no one I know ever meant it maliciously, and it might have been funny if it hadn't gotten so eye-rollingly frequent. It's just funny how that show has really changed people's take on certain things, and I'd forgotten that Scientology is one of them.

Stella Forstner

@whateverlolawants That's awesome! I have so hoped that this could serve as a resource for 'pinners and their friends to share with people curious about the church; delighted to hear it's already doing so.

Inconceivable!

Thank you so much for this series. It's been thought-provoking and informative and emotional, and I'm sad to see it go.

Stella Forstner

@Inconceivable! Thank you! The response from this loveliest of internet communities has meant a great deal to me. I'm sad that it's over too!

whimseywisp

Just going to echo the other comments by saying THANK YOU for such a thought-provoking, well-written series. You've really made me re-evaluate how I feel about Scientolists. That is to say, I still think Scientology is kind of crazy, but I can respect the individual Scientologist a little more. Keep doing what you do; I look forward to hopefully one day reading more! And special thanks to you & your mom for patiently answering questions in the comments :).

Stella Forstner

@whimseywisp You're very welcome! I'm absolutely hoping to write for the hairpin again, whether on this topic or another. Thanks so much for your support.

yofi

I created an account (finally) because I am also a Seattle-area person and so I felt called out!

This series started out being interesting because of scientology and ended up being interesting in terms of an attitude toward life. Really powerful thoughts and great writing.

There is a lot of hatred toward religion, in general, certainly in the more liberal circles I'm in. The condescension is rough. The anger is rough. But we all have a group of people we know less about than we think we do and feel justified being a-holes about. It wouldn't hurt to take a moment to think about who *your* targeted group is(the obese, stay-at-home moms, etc etc) and if you've ever given deeper thought to if the individuals in that group warrant your anger/condescension.

Stella Forstner

@yofi Thank you! and also: aren't you sick of this damn rain? (kidding, sort of).

I agree with you completely about religion-hating coming from so many otherwise compassionate and progressive people. I volunteer with an organization that tends to attract a lot of Christians (the kind that believe the best expression of their faith is in giving service where it is needed) and it's those people I think about when I hear someone trashing [all] organized religion.

You're right that we should all look at our own assumptions and biases but I think that we should also do our best to (gently) call out our friends/family/colleagues on theirs. I'm not great at this myself, but I try...

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