Up: Martin Poulter > Scientology Criticism > UK Media Archive

Spirit of the Age: Signing up for scientology

Independent, 15 Aug 1998

From chriso@lutefisk.demon.co.uk Mon Feb  1 17:41:35 GMT 1999


By PAUL VALLELY

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I DO not, to the untrained eye, look much like the artist formerly known
as Ginger Spice. Nor, from the cut of my chinos, would you think I was
as wealthy as John Travolta. But then there is nothing untrained about
the eyes of the members of the Church of Scientology at their London
mission in Tottenham Court Road. 

A few days earlier, the said ex-Spice, Geri Halliwell, had been spotted
around Hollywood carrying a copy of The Scientology Handbook. The 125-
page tome is said to open doors among the folk of Tinseltown, where the
new religion counts; Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Lisa Marie Presley and
Travolta are among its adherents. Would this passport to prosperity work
its magic for me? I entered the Tottenham Court Road shop to find out. 

I did well in the 200-question personality test. That is to say, I
failed. I was marked as unstable - without failing off the scale in the
L Ron Hubbard copyright Capacity Analysis. I also was depressed,
nervous, irresponsible, self-critical and withdrawn. I did not, it has
to be said, recognise myself from the portrait. But the analyst ploughed
on asking me impertinent questions about my private life. 

There was no doubt, she said, that I would benefit from a course in
Dianetics. She suggested a book by the same name. 'Over 116 million
copies sold,' it said on the cover. A card inside told me I could
purchase the full introductory package for only 82. The analyst got 15
per cent commission, she told me with engaging honesty, but she thought
I would be better just starting with the 5.99 version. I thought so
too. I rang William Shaw, the author of Spying in Guruland, an admirably
unsensational account of what goes on in Britain's cults, and told him
about my results. I had ranked above normal only on Active and
Aggressive. 'You did very well,' he said sardonically. 'I laid it on so
thick, that they thought I really was too awful to be worth having.' I
had not laid anything on at all, I said rather stiffly. I had answered
all the questions truthfully. Oh dear, he said. 

till, I thought I ought to find out a bit more before signing up with
Ginger. After all, the Church of Scientology has a controversial
reputation, with lawsuits all over the world accusing it of aggressive,
and on occasions unlawful methods of recruitment. It has won some cases.
But it has lost others, and also been described by a High Court judge as
'corrupt, sinister and dangerous'. A US judge branded its founder, L Ron
Hubbard, a 'pathological liar'. The German government has placed it
under security service surveillance, saying it is not a religion, but a
cover for 'economic crime and psychological terror'. And the Internet is
full of ex-members conducting vitriolic campaigns against their
erstwhile colleagues. So what, in the face of all that, could possibly
be the attraction of the Church of Scientology? What could be the
beliefs which produced such tenacious enthusiasm among its devotees? I
went down to its British headquarters, Saint Hill Manor, near East
Grinstead in West Sussex, to find out. 

It is an odd place. The elegant 18th-century building once belonged to
the Maharajah of Jaipur before L Ron Hubbard bought it as his family
home in 1959. In the grounds, he designed a castle to accommodate his
followers. Everything is lavishly appointed. There is a lot of money
around. 

The 300 staff moved around the grounds, dressed in dark-blue uniforms
with epaulettes, in honour of Mr Hubbard's wartime career in the
American navy. They have ranks, too. Graeme Wilson, the outfit's public
affairs director is, he told me with a nervous shift in his eye, a petty
officer. 

Mr Wilson explained the basis of Dianetics - a non-directive form of
counselling called auditing which uses a meter, like a lie detector, to
monitor electrical changes in the skin while subjects discussed intimate
details of their past. The process is designed to detect and remove
'engrams' - the subconscious residues of traumatic experiences,
accumulated during reincarnations, which hinder the spirit from
expressing its unadulterated goodness. 'It's a tool for life; a
programme you can work through,' he said. 

But a lengthy quizzing on the theology of this new religion produced
only a collection of vague paradoxes. 'There is no dogma about the
Supreme Being. Something is only true if it's true for you.' Yet there
is no relativism about Dianetics which has to be applied without
individual variation: 'if it's been found to work, why change it?' On
aspects of traditional religion - such as sexual ethics and social
justice - Scientology seems equally inexact. On the meaning of
suffering, he offered no coherent response; evil, he seemed to feel, was
merely the consequence of an unfortunate series of accidents. 

So I asked to meet some ordinary Scientologists to see if things became
clearer. Georgina Roberts, 26, an actress, was beaming with sincerity.
At the end of a long conversation she spoke of how, aged 14, she had
become promiscuous. 'It made me deeply unhappy,' she said and turned to
the handbook to show me the section which had 'saved her'. Like much of
Hubbard's writing, it seemed merely common sense mixed with platitudes,
dressed up in esoteric jargon. 

Yet it seemed to have worked for the older folk. Murie Cheshire, a
76-year-old Scotswoman, spoke of how Scientology changed her life 26
years ago after divorce, a bad car accident and a crisis in her career
had left her shattered. And Ken Eckersley, a 70-year-old, spoke of how
auditing had cured his brother's asthma and his wife's psychosomatic
infertility. It also allowed him to visit his past lives. It sounded
wacky, I said. 'I'm not wacky. I'm happy,' he replied. And he looked it. 

They say that Ginger Spice will have to cough up $100,000 (62,000) for
the full Scientology package. 'Impossible,' Mr Eckersley said. So how
much had it cost him? 'Just about 5 a day,' he said. Over his 47 years
in the fold, that makes 85,450. 

The young lady in the Tottenham Court Road shop had said: 'You'll either
decide it is not for you, or else you'll be back in a week.' I hope
she's not holding her breath. 

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