Church Offers Stress Exams, And a Pitch, at Public Booths
The sign advertising “Free Stress Test” beckoned Marian Prescott as she
crossed Farragut Square, and she found herself settling into a chair
beneath a yellow tent and taking hold of two metal poles hooked up to a
device that the tester said could detect psychic strain.
“What did you think of?” asked Kelly Turrisi, the tester, as the needle
on the electrometer jumped to the right.
Prescott tilted back her head and laughed. Work. Her husband. What else?
Turrisi, 19, leaned forward, her eyes concealed by oversize black
sunglasses that matched her black outfit. She asked Prescott a few more
questions. Did she and her husband argue a lot? What was happening at
her job? What was happening in her life that she most wanted to change?
Then Turrisi handed Prescott a paperback book, “Dianetics” by Church of
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the back of which promised advice
for living without “insecurity, negative thoughts, depression and
irrational behavior.” All Prescott needed to own this trove of wisdom
was to fork over the “suggested” donation of $8.
“It’s an amazing book,” promised Turrisi, reciting the names of a few
famous Scientologists, including John Travolta and Isaac Hayes, as well
as Tom Cruise, whom she described as “one of the most well-known actors
on the planet.”
Prescott, 40, a management consultant who lives in Olney, had expected a
test to check her blood pressure or her heartbeat when she sat down. A
book? About Dianetics? She put her hands up to her face and shifted in
The pitch was, well, stressing her out. She stood up and went on her
Unfazed on that afternoon last week, Turrisi waited for her next
subject. She and her colleagues, all employees and volunteers at the
Founding Church of Scientology, retain an unceasingly sunny disposition
as they staff their booth, which for the past six months has made
appearances at Dupont Circle, a few blocks from the church’s 20th Street
headquarters, and Union Station, Farragut Square and the Springfield
Mall in Northern Virginia.
The Rev. Susan Taylor, the D.C. church’s president, said the stress test
is a way for the organization to spread the message of Scientology, a
faith movement that acolytes have lauded for helping people gain control
of negative emotions but that skeptics have dismissed as a cult. “It
goes back to” the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Taylor as she
retreated from the table to the shade. “After 9/11, it was realized by
many people the amount of stress is incredible, and we feel we have some
tools that can be beneficial.”
Among those tools are the electrometers, which come with an array of
dials and a roving needle. Taylor described the device as a “religious
artifact used as a spiritual guide,” not a “psychological or scientific
“It helps them focus on something,” she said of how people benefit from
At that moment, Alex Lemon, 19, a deputy in the church’s marketing
department, stood on the sidewalk trying to attract some of the
lunch-hour crowd. Most passersby did not break stride as they smiled
vaguely at his invitation: “Hello, sir, would you like a stress test?”
“I’ll break your meter” is the response Lemon said he often hears.
Up stepped Hashim El-Tinay, 58, the head of a D.C.-based foundation
dedicated to studying Africa and the Middle East. After handing El-Tinay
the poles, Lemon asked him what he was thinking about.
His mother and father, his sisters and “various” girlfriends, El-Tinay
answered. And another thing: “I’m thinking about how stressed you are to
find out how stressed I am,” he said, chuckling.
Ella Capaldi, a paralegal who lives in Columbia, sat with another
tester, Astrid Reeves, 37, who asked her to think of things that cause
her stress. The needle jumped to the right.
“I haven’t focused on anything,” Capaldi protested.
Capaldi said she loves her husband. They had just returned from
vacation. Work, she said, “is a piece of cake.” Everything was swell,
except for the fact that she has to wake up in the morning to go work.
“That’s a pain in the behind,” she said. She passed on the offer to buy
A few minutes later, Kenny Blake, 24, a Shaw resident who works at a
commercial laundromat, slipped into a chair, across from his tester,
Terry Dechaunac, who sells antique rugs when he isn’t volunteering for
“You got some stress you want to tell me about?” Dechaunac asked.
Blake smiled. “You know that,” he said, mumbling about his relationship
with a former girlfriend.
Dechaunac reached for a copy of “Dianetics.” Blake took a look at the
back, then announced, “I don’t have no eight bucks. That’s why I have
stress. I don’t have money.”
That was a fib, he confided after strolling away. He had the money, just
not the interest. “Everybody goes through stress,” he said with a shrug.
“You just got to deal with it.”