Some folks on this blog have asked about my “brush” with the Church of Scientology and the impertinent question I asked that got me chased out of one of their centers by a livid, screaming Scientologist. Here’s the story, which I wrote up many years ago.
It happened in the fall 1978 and spring of 1979. It remains a story that I tell to this day, part weird, part spooky, part hilarious. Happy Halloween!
Of course, because it’s one of my tales it involves a bike and a girl.
I was junior at the University of Maryland at College Park, living off-campus in a group house in nearby Hyattsville. One warm fall Sunday, I took the afternoon off from my studies and got on my bike and rode down Rhode Island Avenue to toward downtown Washington D.C., about 10 miles away.
I rode on the mall and down to the Tidal Basin, visited the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, then kept going on a bridge across the Potomac River and into Virginia. A few miles down Lee Highway I stopped at a 7-Eleven for a drink. As I sipped a Mountain Dew, a slender, blond-haired man in a gray suit walked by me and said “hello.” I said “hi” back, and he kept on walking to another business in the plaza.
Now the reason I had ventured pretty deep into Arlington on not-very-bicycle-friendly Lee Highway was the girl. M. was a tall, pretty brunette whom I’d met in Annapolis the previous summer. She was way out of my league but for some reason she liked me. My then-girlfriend was in Montana, her then-boyfriend was in New York, we were both a little lonely – it was that kind of thing. We’d gotten together now and then, and once I’d accompanied her to her a large night class at Georgetown Law School, where I had great fun embarrassing her by pretending I was a student and attempting to answer her professor’s classroom questions.
M. lived less than 2 blocks from this 7-Eleven that I was sitting outside and, and as I drank the soda I was debating whether I should drop in for a visit. I’d pondered this for 10 or 15 minutes when the friendly man came walking back from wherever he had been.
He said hello again, stopped to talk about the nice day, then popped the big question: “Would you like to take a personality test?”
“Huh?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s just a chance to learn more about yourself,” he replied. “It won’t take long. And it’s free. We give them at the center right down the road here.”
What the hell? I thought. It was early in the afternoon, so there was still plenty of light left in the day. I’d have time to stop by M’s after the test. So I agreed, grabbed my bike and walked it as we headed south on a sidewalk along Lee Highway.
I can’t remember the guy’s name. As we walked along, he told me that he’d been in a business selling discount coupon books, like for restaurants, and that he’d made a lot of money doing it. But the money didn’t make him happy; there was something missing. Now, however, he was on staff at “the mission” and he’d discovered what was really important in life.
“The mission?” I asked. “What’s that?” He seemed a bit evasive about that. As we neared the doors he identified it as the Church of Scientology, Arlington Mission.
I had heard of Scientology. It was an unusual cult, founded by a mysterious, nickel-per-word science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard. Around that time, it was big news in the Washington area because some of its top brass had been indicted for breaking into the IRS and Justice Department buildings and stealing documents about the church. And I’d heard of the “E-meters” a rudimentary lie detector the church uses in a curious counseling practice it called “auditing.” This was one of the church’s sacraments, like confession in the Catholic Church, and was a key to eventual happiness, members believed. But all that was stuff I’d read. This would be chance for me to get a first-hand peek.
We walked in and after I filled out a long form with my name, address, telephone number, etc., he showed me to a small booth and handed over the test. He said it wouldn’t take long; but the damn thing had 200 or 250 questions.
They were arranged in blocks of five or 10 on the page. They weren’t actual questions at all, they were statements like, “I feel comfortable in small groups of people I know really well,” or “I really like to play with animals.” Many of them seemed dumb, like, “My mother loved me.” Some of the statements were repeated with slightly different wording in other blocks later in the test.
Next to each statement was a row of three symbols, +, 0, or -. You circled the symbol that corresponded to your reaction to the sentence. Plus meant you agreed with the statement, minus meant you disagreed, and by circling 0 you indicated you felt neutral.
It took me a while to finish this thing. I came out and gave it to him and he told me to sit in a waiting area and to feel free to read the church-related literature there. Meanwhile, he would “score” the test.
It seemed like the scoring took forever. Finally he emerged from an office and beckoned for me to follow him into a conference room. There on a table lay a chart with a series of columns on it. Each column had a vertical scale from 0 to 100, and each represented a different personality trait, like loyalty, intelligence, consistency, industriousness, responsibility, etc. He’d plotted a dot on each column that corresponded to my score for each trait. Then he horizontally connected the dots in a big zigzag that went all the way across the page. My name was printed on the top.
“You scored pretty high,” he said, “especially in loyalty, and industriousness. It’s obvious you’re very intelligent. But look at this,” and he pointed to my score for responsibility. It was almost at the bottom of the scale.
“What’s the problem in this area, Dan? Why do you think that is?”
I don’t recall giving him any kind of thoughtful answer. Of course I was irresponsible – what did he expect? I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was a 19-year-old college kid who’d ditched studying on a nice day to go for a bike ride. I had a kind-of girlfriend who lived in Montana, but my mind was on M, who had a kind-of boyfriend who lived in another state. I was a part-time shoe jockey in a shoe store on the edge of campus, and my earnings bought me cheap beer in the bar across the street.
He kept on drilling me.
“Look at this zigzag. There’s a real problem here, Dan. This thing will fester and grow if you don’t deal with it. It’s going to interfere with your grades, and your career after college. What this shows us is that in some ways your life is already pretty messed up.”
But that was OK, he continued, because the Church of Scientology had a way to fix it.
He recommended a church course called “The Life Repair.” He assured me that it would get my life back on track. My grades would improve and my other problems would melt away. It was even possible, he added, that the course could raise me to the exalted state of “Clear,” at which point my test scores would be all 100s all the way across the top of the page. That was the goal of Scientology, he said: to get every person on the planet to the state of “Clear.”
Then he mentioned the price – I believe it was more than $2,000. I gulped. That was a huge sum for a college student and part-time shoe salesman. I didn’t have that much money, I told him.
“Couldn’t you borrow it from you parents?” he asked. “Take a bank loan on you car?” He knew from our conversation in the walk to the center that I owned a BMW. But he didn’t know it was an old junker.
“My parents? No way. They’re Catholic, and my mom goes to mass every day,” I told him. “And I only paid $300 for my car.”
This was very important, he assured me. I could find a way to get the money if I really wanted to.
I didn’t, and I was getting tired of the sales pressure. I wanted to get out of the mission and over to M’s. So I brought up the recent federal indictments of the church leaders.
“All that stuff that’s in the papers about them breaking into government offices,” I said. “What’s that all about, anyway?”
At this point his face grew very serious and his tone turned icy and a bit paranoid. There was a government conspiracy against the church, he said, and I shouldn’t believe any of it. It was all a bunch of lies. This very friendly, outgoing guy had suddenly weirded out on me, and the sudden change was kind of spooky. Besides, the sun was moving downward in the sky and I had 15 or so miles to ride home. And I hadn’t seen M yet.
“Look, I’m going to leave,” I told him. To get him off my back, I bought a copy of “Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health.” It was the church Bible, the founding document, and L. Ron Hubbard was the author. It cost about $3 plus tax, which I thought was a cheap way out of there.
On the way back, I stopped at M’s apartment. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening there, and she ended up driving me and my bike home. She became alarmed, however, when I described my afternoon at the mission. She worked a day job at the Justice Department while attending law school at night, and she considered Scientology dangerous.
Nothing happened, Scientology-wise, until the following spring. I had forgotten all about it. At some point around late April, I began getting mysterious phone calls from a woman named “Kathy.” She’d leave messages with my roommates that “Kathy called,” but wouldn’t leave her last name or a phone number. Now when you’re a guy in college and a girl is calling you all the time – well, that’s the kind of message you notice.
I called every “Kathy” whose phone number I knew, but none of them had been trying to get hold of me. After missing me a bunch of times, the message-leaving Kathy finally left a phone number and later I called her back. That was when she identified herself as “Kathy with the Arlington Mission.”
On the phone, Kathy invited me to take the church’s introductory communications course. It was either free or very cheap, like $20 or so. I demurred, but she was persistent. She asked me to come back to the mission and repeat the personality test. Because she had the original test, we could tell which way things were trending for me, she explained.
I agreed because it would give me another excuse to drop in on M.
So on another Sunday afternoon, I drove my beat-up car down to Arlington. This time, it was raining cats and dogs. I parked right outside the mission doors, and ran inside out of the rain. There I finally got to meet this mysterious “Kathy.”
Kathy wasn’t bad looking: late 20s or early 30s, about 5 feet 6, with straight long brown hair and a pale complexion. She was on the slender side, but had a tired and worn look to her.
She also had an obvious lisp. I hadn’t noticed it on the telephone, but in face to face conversation is was quite noticeable. I figured she occupied a higher place in the mission hierarchy than the guy who had first brought me there, because she had a private office. Her tone was mildly aggressive and on the authoritative side, as if she was used to some measure of control at the mission.
I retook the test, waited in the lobby again, then she ushered me into her office.
We talked for quite awhile. She was curious how much of Dianetics I had read. Some of it, I told her. What I didn’t add was that I had found it too boring, too far-fetched and too undocumented to take seriously. We went over my test. It was similar to the previous test, although there were some areas that had gotten worse, as my previous salesman probably had predicted, she told me.
Then she went on at length describing the difference Scientology had made in her life and how lost she had been before it. She’d been a heroin addict and a prostitute, and Scientology had helped her beat the addiction and given her back the self respect she needed to quit selling her body.
She was very proud that she had attained the status of “Clear,” and she explained what that meant. And she told me something else that the previous guy never had mentioned: all illnesses and physical conditions were psychosomatic. And by Attaining “Clear,” she’d successfully rid herself of all maladies.
“You could do that, too,” she said matter of factly.
Now, since I was a little kid I’ve had a strange quirk that manifests itself in this kind of blunt naivete. It’s a mouth-connected-to-the-mind thing that works like this: if a relevant question pops into my mind, I blurt it out with little regard to the consequences. Going back to age 7 this has caused me no end of trouble and hassles. It’s gotten me involved in fistfights, caused break-ups with girlfriends – once it even killed an offer on a house my parents were selling. It didn’t fail me this time.
“Well, if you’re really Clear then why do you have a lisp?” I blurted out. It was an honest question, but oh sh**, I wished as soon as it had left my lips that it hadn’t. Even so, I was unprepared for her response.
Kathy’s face screwed into an ugly grimace, like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. She stood up, leaned over me, and screamed, “You rotten little sh**! How dare you!” Her hand shot out of her body until her finger was pointed the door and she ordered me out, hollering a blue streak at the top of her lungs. I jumped up from the chair and headed for the exit as she stalked me, yelling at the top of her lungs, all the way to the front door of the mission. She even followed me outside to my car, yelling at me in the pouring rain.
I hopped in my car and beat a hasty retreat over to M’s.
And no one from Scientology ever bothered me again.