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Scientology - help or hindrance?

Evening Standard (London) 8 February 2001

From batchild1@home.com Tue Feb 13 13:39:13 GMT 2001

by Susan Robinson

The office is non-descript and functional - reception desk, sofa, table, private booths for one-to-one interviews, bookshelves.

It might be a DSS office, or a down-at-heel travel agency. Were it not for the large poster of John Travolta on the wall - and the fact that the bookshelves contain dozens of copies of just one book - it would be possible to pass through this office without feeling remotely uneasy.

But that didn't happen to me. This is the Tottenham Court Road branch of the Church of Scientology; the book is called Dianetics by L Ron Hubbard - and I left feeling guiltily paranoid.

For non-believers, Scientology is a jargon-heavy enigma; not a religion, a cult. It demands complete dedication to its highly prescriptive teachings, as Nicole Kidman has perhaps discovered to her distaste. News that Scientology might have driven a wedge between Kidman and her husband Tom Cruise has fuelled curiosity about the "Church" and its high-profile devotees, Travolta and Kirstie Alley among them.

Cruise, meanwhile, is 100 per cent committed and loyal; he lives by Scientology's principles and reportedly donates more than £1 million a year to the cause.

"Tom has always been far more into Scientology than Nicole," said the actress Naomi Watts, one of Kidman's friends. "He is somewhat of a fanatic. Nicole never wanted to go down that road." By contrast, says Watts, Kidman describes herself as a fringe member of the cult.

"I would never have married Tom if he had insisted I become an out-and-out Scientologist," Nicole has said. "That would've been forcing me to do something I didn't want to do."

My own curiosity was aroused, so I paid a casual visit, as an enquiring punter, to the Tottenham Court Road branch. I was seeking an explanatory literature, a leaflet or two. Scientology works by inducting its members into a system of "audits", a series of sessions involving the airing of personal problems and their attempted resolution according to strict processes laid down by LRH (as Hubbard is fondly known). But instead of leaflets, the friendly receptionist offered me a "personality test" - and so began a strange exchange designed, as far as I can tell, to shatter any remaining fragments of self-esteem a genuinely troubled person might have.

"What is the test for?" I asked. "Well, to see how we can help you," she replied.

How long will it take? "Half an hour or so," she said, smiling warmly.

Sure, then. Why not? At her direction, I sat down at the table in front of a sheet of paper headed The Standard Oxford Capacity Analysis. What has Oxford got to do with this, I wondered - other than to lend a spurious veneer of academic credibility to the Scientologists' test?

A second booklet of questions was then pushed in front of me, and I was told how to fill in the test paper.

I had three options for each question - yes, no, and maybe. Easy enough, I thought - and then, feeling a bit like a nervous student, I began to read the "paper" ...

Well, what would you make of it? The questions were repetitive, often odd in the extreme, and sometimes just plain loony. One asked if my muscles twitched when I was nervous? Did I often entertain suicidal thoughts? Could I kill an animal if it was in pain? Did my friends think I was a warm person? Would I criticise someone's personal or professional attributes? Did I bite my nails, or pull my hair, or chew pencils? If I wasn't expert in a subject, did I think my views on it were still worthy of expression? Did I think colour bar or class distinction important?

And so on, and on, and on. All in all, there were 200 of these questions, niggling, intimate, half-baked. I guess I should have got up there and then. But I didn't - I finished the test and my paper was whisked away from me to be "assessed", a process which would take just a couple of minutes. The Scientologists left me at the table, watching shoppers pass by the window and wondering what on earth they could tell about someone's personality in a) such a short space of time, and b) using a "test paper" of such cretinous and random compilation.

I was handed my results - a curious scientific-looking graph detailing 10 aspects of my personality, ranging from my happiness to my stability, to my aggressiveness.

Each category was measured from plus 100 to minus 100; and I was informed that any mark between plus 30 and minus 20 could be considered "normal".

I think I answered pretty truthfully. And that means, according to the analysis sheet that I am hopelessly unstable, (minus 50), depressed (minus 65), irresponsible (minus 80) and withdrawn (minus 95). In fact, only in three of the 10 categories did I appear to be demonstrating any sign of good mental health (though, how I can be withdrawn and aggressive at the same time?).

The Scientologists clearly wanted me to think I needed help - and who better to cure me than the people who had diagnosed my "problems"? I was advised to buy an LRH book and think about joining the church. But, to their credit, I wasn't asked to part with any money at this point, or to sign up there and then, so I didn't.

Later, as I sat on the Tube thinking about this small taste of Scientology, I was able to brush it off. Maybe Nicole Kidman has done, or is doing, something vaguely similar. In truth, though, while I sat in that office and listened to a total stranger utterly trash my personality and character - on the basis of no evidence at all - I began to feel vaguely insecure. Paranoid even.

The Church of Scientology claims to help people attain a deeper, richer existence - but it clearly does so by erasing all sense of self-respect first.

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