It’s just an ordinary A4 page of handwritten notes, scribbled during an interview. But what disturbs me are the ticks after each memory described by the candidate. “Mother has Parkinson’s disease, lost balance and fell, got upset.” Two ticks. “Feeling under pressure at work, can’t cope.” A flurry of eager ticks, the latter two made with such fervour that the pen has torn through the paper. The interviewer is clearly enthused by having found somebody vulnerable. Welcome to Scientology.
Created in 1952 by the American sci-fi noveliest L. Ron Hubbard as a get-rich-quick scheme, it disguises its profiteering as a religious organisation, providing self-improvement seminars to the public for an unspecified cost. This benign front belies the Church’s cultish practices of withholding information about its official doctrines for economic gain, isolating its members, and prosecuting its critics. I’ve just found the page described above in an ‘auditing’ room of Scientology’s headquarters in Queen Victoria Street, London. I’ve visited on a quiet Saturday morning, claiming to be a curious passer-by. Left alone to wander around their Information Centre and fill out their infamous personality test, I’m looking for evidence that Scientology attracts new members by exploiting their insecurities, but I didn’t expect to find anything this explicit. Or anything at all.
Most of the filing cabinets are empty, matching the bland but spotlessly clean offices. The last cabinet in Auditing Room 4 contains a bright yellow, spiral-bound manual entitled “Division 6: Testing Line Drills”. It’s a set of instructions on drawing in new Scientologists. A paragraph in all-caps on a page headed “Successful Phone Patter” catches my eye: “NOTE: IN USING THIS PATTER DO NOT GET INTO EXPLAINING OR TELLING THE PERSON ABOUT DIANETICS AND SCIENTOLOGY OVER THE PHONE, NO MATTER HOW MUCH THEY TRY TO GET YOU TO TELL THEM. THIS WILL WRECK THE ‘COME-ON’ PER THE ABOVE POLICY AND THE PERSON WON’T COME IN THEN, AS YOU GAVE THEM THE DATA!” A Hubbard quotation at the top of the page similarly urges the proselytiser to “keep the prospect’s appetite for knowledge and mystery well stimulated… so that he will and does become an actual Scientologist”. I keep this in mind as I head downstairs (stolen papers stuffed to the bottom of my backpack) to find someone to evaluate my personality test. Having answered its two hundred strange questions – “Do you browse through railway timetables, directories, or dictionaries just for pleasure?” “Do you get occasional twitches of your muscles, when there is no logical reason for it?” – entirely at random, I’m curious about the results. I ask a young man carefully rearranging the unsold stacks of shrink-wrapped Hubbard books in the Dianetics exhibition, and he calls for a colleague to help me. The woman who arrives is my age, with waist-length blonde hair and immaculate make- up. She takes my test for marking, and returns once for clarification on one question where I’ve accidentally ticked across two boxes. She also asks me to add a postcode to the (fake) address I’ve supplied. After around ten minutes, she calls me over to her computer. The screen shows a line graph that peaks in the middle, with lower points trailing on each side, similar to that pictured. Katie (not her real name) sits opposite me and explains the results.
The personality test is officially called “Oxford Capacity Analysis”, which she claims was developed at the university (actually by an American football player, Ray Kemp, who had no links to Oxford). The graph shows that I’m low on such qualities as stability, happiness, and composure. The dramatic spike in the centre corresponds to aggression (“which here means ambition,” she adds helpfully) and activity. So I have a lot of potential to do well in life, but often feel insecure and nervous about confiding in other people. Sometimes I’m very sociable, but at other times I just want to be by myself. I recognise the Forer effect in what she’s telling me: the vagueness of her description means it can apply to everyone. This method is commonly used by psychics, astrologers, and literature students. The evaluation continues. Katie asks for possible reasons for the poor happiness results, and I admit to a history of depression and an attempted overdose. She seizes on this and asks a series of questions in a soft monotone, rarely breaking eye contact. How long have I been depressed? Am I taking medication? What kind and how often? When did I overdose? Why? Then what happened? Am I scared I’ll overdose again? My results show that I’m heading for a nervous breakdown if I can’t get some help soon. I’ve prepared for this, but it’s still a shock. I quietly answer Katie’s questions, and avoid eye contact. I think of pretending to cry, but decide that would be overkill, and ask her what I should do. Since I’m on psychiatric medication and its toxins will remain in my body for years, she explains, I’m not eligible for auditing – their brand of counselling which aims to expel traumatic memories known as “engrams” (caused by the trapped souls of alien ghosts, according to Hubbard’s doctrine). Instead she recommends a £24 self-help course, claiming how much it has benefited her.
When I decline, she doesn’t push the issue, simply repeating that I need to get some kind of help. I’m impressed by her gentle approach, but moreso by how well she can praise the benefits of Scientology without giving away any kind of concrete information about it. The patter system works. As we leave the exhibit and she wishes me good luck, all I can think is that she’d be the worst kind of tute partner. But that’s probably just my engrams talking.