Sitting on a red velvet chair in the middle of a majestic, oak-panelled hall, I have rarely felt more fearful for my sanity.
On the wall in front of me, a creepy, larger-than-life-sized portrait of an old man seems to be staring straight at me. In front of the portrait, Laura, a middle-aged woman wearing a high-necked blouse and ostentatious gold cross, stands behind a lectern reading aloud from a huge leather-bound tome.
None of the worshippers take their eyes off Laura as they repeat her words back to her – phrases such as: “All men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others”.
I am at Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, West Sussex – the UK’s Church of Scientology headquarters.
This is the church of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the church of John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Isaac Hayes. Priscilla and Lisa-Marie Presley are also members of the sect, created in 1954 by the pulp science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. It is his portrait that hangs in Saint Hill.
Posing as an interested disciple, I had called into the Scientology Centre on London’s Tottenham Court Road, where I filled out an Oxford Capacity Analysis Test.
My results apparently proved that I am depressed, nervous, critical, anxious and unable to communicate. I am told that I am in dire need of spiritual enlightenment and that only scientology can help me.
Two days later, I am standing on the manicured lawns of this beautiful Jacobean building.
My guide for the day, Ron, tells me has been a member for seven years and sold his home six years ago “to be closer” to the church.
My tour takes in converted outbuildings that comprise a sauna, showers and a gym area. Three teenage boys and a girl wearing swimsuits are sitting eating a spartan meal of rice and beans. “These people are undergoing a period of purging,” Ron tells me.
After taking a variety of vitamins and minerals designed to cure addiction, they spend the day alternately sweating in the sauna and running full tilt on the machines. When I ask what the purpose of the exercise is, Ron is unable to tell me whether these youngsters are addicted to alcohol or drugs – they’re just “addicts”.
He tells me that if I am serious about wanting to join up, I will need to do this too.
Quite what scientology does for the individual has been a matter of debate since Hubbard set it up in 1954. Four years earlier, he had announced at an authors’ convention: “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars he should start his own religion.”
Aged 42, he declared that humans are descendants of an exiled race from outer space called Thetans and that we are nothing more than temporary vessels for the immortal souls of Thetans.
Only by exorcising painful memories of our past incarnations can we achieve our full potential and reach spiritual salvation. Scientologists believe that life is a relentless struggle towards the total erasing of painful mental images – called “engrams” – that accumulate through successive incarnations. The cult has always had its detractors. In 1984, a British judge, Mr Justice Latey, giving judgment in open court after a private hearing, branded the scientologists “corrupt, sinister and immoral”. In 1991, Cynthia Kisser, former executive director of the American Cult Awareness Network, proclaimed that “Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen.”
In 1994, the Californian Court of Appeal accepted that the techniques of scientology constituted brainwashing. In Britain, the Charity Commission denied scientology religious status on the basis that it did not benefit the public in any way.
At the end of the four hours, I am keen to leave. Ron tries to get me to make an appointment to see someone for “dianetics counselling” as soon as possible. He phones me that evening – and for the next three days. A female recruit also leaves me messages – none of which I return.