Moving out of a storefront into a temple, New Haven’s Church of Scientology is booming.
Matthew has a scrubbed, clean face. He smiles a lot. He can’t be older than 23, 24. His cornflower blue polo has been ironed. It matches his eyes. On the left breast, his shirt is imprinted with the phrase, “This is it!/The Ideal Org!/We’re putting it here!,” just over the heart. If you ask him what the “Ideal Org,” refers to, Matthew will pull a book off a shelf of leather-bound volumes, flipping to a page he has already memorized: “One would look at this ideal org and know that this was the place a new civilization was being established for this planet.”
Matthew glances around a fluorescent-lit, drop-ceilinged room that looks like a driving school—all motivational posters and video equipment shoved into corners. Matthew sighs. “This,” he says, closing the book, “is the ideal org.”
“This” is New Haven’s Church of Scientology, a squat office on Whalley Ave. that looks more like one of the city’s storefront churches than the site of a new civilization’s inception. In a city founded by persecuted pilgrims, it’s easy to dismiss just another religious sect, especially one so often characterized by the media as a kooky, anti-psychiatry prayer group. But Scientologists like Matthew claim to be part of the “world’s fastest growing religion” and describe the era to come as a sort of Golden Age for Scientology. Now, New Haven’s Scientologists are constructing a multi-million dollar church. Just down the road, Yalies remain blissfully unaware of the movement starting in their own backyard.
What most passersby know about Scientology they’ve gleaned from supermarket tabloids. But, the facts of this religion are far stranger than a 300 pound baby. Followers believe in an Overlord, or Creator-figure named Xenu, who, 75 million years prior, sent his planet’s excess population, or Thetans, on space planes (modeled after Douglas DC-8s) to the planet Teegeeack, or Earth, for extermination. Loading the Thetans into Earth’s volcanoes, he pelted them with hydrogen bombs—such that their exploded corpses adhered to the flesh of the native earthlings. According to Scientologists, this cosmology is really no less believable than the Virgin Birth or Jesus’s resurrection. But what seems a little bit strange is that all this was prophesied in the ’50s by an entrepreneur named L. Ron Hubbard, who is best known outside the church as the author of hundreds of sci-fi pulps.
New Haven’s Scientologist clan plans to move from the former furniture store that they currently occupy into the former 1926 Olive Branch Masonic Temple, a space three times as large. A display case in the present office showcases the impressive refurbishment plans—all plush velvet, scrollwork, and mysterious symbols carved like Wedgewood onto dimly lit, buttery walls.
Though symbolically this new facility marks their “Golden Age” in New Haven, its interior is currently gutted and empty. Just last weekend, a modest tag sale aimed to raise the last of the funds: L. Ron Hubbard cassette tapes lay for sale alongside sweater-vests and ’60s cookbooks. Minister Carol Yingling came to work in slippers. “I forgot I sold my favorite black shoes,” she explained to the sparse congregation, pointing at her feet, “I had to buy them back on the way over here.”
On that Sunday, Yingling was only speaking to twenty-five people sitting in folding chairs. The new church, however, has space for almost five times that many. To make full use of the new elbow room, Rachel, the head of recruitment, says they’re looking to double the number of staff members—from the present 40 to around 80. Will the church look to Yale to fill the gap?
Currently, there are no registered Scientologist student groups on campus, and no Yalies attend services. But certainly Yale will feel the effects of the church expansion. Recruitment schemes are growing more and more insidious—swiftly zooming in on fumbling, self-seeking college students, individuals desperate for a connection with something greater. Rachel herself was recruited right out of college, and nearly as soon as she stepped foot in the church, she was offered a staff position: “I finished the Basic Study manual before I finished my first Dianetics course,” she bragged to her friend and co-worker, Don, a Southern Connecticut State University drop out. In other words, Rachel finished qualifications for a clergy position before she even attended Sunday school.
Though Scientologists have occupied the Elm City since the religion’s advent in the ’50s in the form of “missions,” the first church came about in the early ’80s, and recruitment is only now edgin g toward the University’s campus. Recently, Scientologists have actively recruited near the intersection of York and Broadway, outside the student-flooded Gourmet Heaven, touting “stress tests” which encourage students to evaluate their lives using a handy written examination as well as an “e-meter,” a pseudo-scientific measuring device outfitted with two steel cylinders, which purportedly senses, through changes of mass, the moment when the person holding them grabs hold of an idea. Until the FDA stepped in in 1963, Scientologists freely marketed the device as a psychological aid and medical panacea. Today, there’s a small warning label.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology
It’s easy to understand how Scientology’s most immediate claim—a cleansing of stress—might attract the oft-overworked college student. A video screened to newcomers explains Scientology’s core practice—Dianetics, a pseudo-psychological confessional that aims to rid participants of the bad memories that inhibit their current behavior. “I never get depressed—ever,” a member of the congregation testified of the process. When asked by the video’s narrator think back on negative phrases they hear constantly, a man described how the phrase, “I’m a loser, I’m a loser,” loops in his head. The scene recalls, of course, the Beck lyric, “I’m a loser, baby/So why don’t you kill me?” Even Beck, indie-teen-idol, is a registered Scientologist, whose glammy smile graces Scientology’s shiniest propaganda.
Five or six teenaged girls sit in the back row at service one Sunday, sneaking peaks at sci-fi romances one minute and listening to the minister the next. In the past year, both the University of Cincinatti and the University of Houston have printed op-eds against aggressive recruitment techniques. A Pi Lambda Phi fraternity chapter at MIT had to bar Scientologists from stalking a brother who had feigned interest.
Matthew, Rachel, and Don admit they actively recruit from “business colleges and typing colleges” in the area, but haven’t yet set foot on Yale’s campus—a feat which requires paperwork. University Chaplain Reverend Frederick J. Streets, doesn’t mind their recent encroachment: “When it comes to Yale students,” he said in a phone interview, “my main concern is that before they give their commitment [to any group] they should be very critically thinking about it, what’s expected of them, what do they think they’re going to get out of it, before deciding to be a part of it.”
Before a Yalie considers Scientology, he or she should consider the cost, even before the creed. The major contrast between Scientology and other organized religions is a system of mandatory donations, like tithes, that must be paid to undergo the auditing sessions necessary to attain enlightenment. New Scientologists are referred to as “wogs,” or “fresh meat” in staff manuals.
“They’re the only religious group I know that self-consciously operates as if it is a business,” Jon Butler, professor of religious history at Yale, said. Speaking of how Scientology offers classes in everything from drug awareness to marriage counseling, Rachel mentions that what’s really helpful are the classes on finances. She pulls out two books written by Hubbard—The Dynamics of Money and Financial Control. But the church’s real financial record is not spelled out as clearly. IRS evidence tracks funds from congregants through money laundering systems in Panama, to numbered Swiss bank accounts. A 1991 Time Magazine article estimated the income of just one of their branches at $503 million per year. The Golden Age comes with a price. The church is often marred by lawsuits from disenchanted congregants who claim Scientology scammed them out of thousands of dollars—promising enlightenment.
“It’s an option,” Yingling said of the donations. “People sometimes give more.” Rachel and Matthew are happy to work at the Church. That way, their auditing sessions are “discounted.” A chart on the back wall shows them how many levels they have left before they reach “clear,” and shows the strata of enlightenment above that. It seems to go up and up forever.
Scientologists think a lot of things can be solved by “auditing,” a process that medical professionals don’t agree with. A framed sign on Rachel’s desk reads, in friendly, curly script, “If you have come here to be cured of a physical illness, see the registrar.” The registrar is a full time staffer who schedules auditing sessions. Scientology’s blacklist of diseases, which are “purely psychosomatic” and thus curable through auditing, include tuberculosis, heart conditions, the common cold, arthritis, and ulcers—from which Hubbard himself suffered. And some of the biggest court battles Scien-tologists have fought have been against the families of the dead who demanded repercussions for an institution which pulled their loved ones away from clinically proven modes of mental healing toward a “religion” founded on the un-researched ideas of a man who failed grade school.
Though the religion publicly disavows psychology, Scientologists’ core beliefs encapsulate a good deal of psychological rhetoric, an irony which isn’t lost on Butler. “Well, I mean, there’s a very crude parallel between Scien-tology and the earliest stages of Christian development in the sense that you’re creating a new religious system,” Butler observed. “And they use a variety of techniques to create themselves, such as appropriating a language we esteem.”
Closely following Freud’s theories of repression, Scientologists believe that bad memories, or “engrams,” become infused with everything concurrent to them. To rid the mind of “engrams,” congregants must consciously move their bad memory associations from this “reactive mind” to the portion of their brain which can analyze and understand: the “analytic mind.” Like psychoanalysis, whose terms Hubbard appropriated, the “Auditing sessions” that cure these problems’ prices run steep and are the only way for a “preclear” (someone whose mind is still cluttered with engrams), to achieve “clear,” or, in other religions: enlightenment.
But Scientologists draw a hard line between the type of therapy they offer and psychological therapy. Don, a church staff member, speaks at length of Scientology’s accepting nature—citing the Creed written by Hubbard whose first tenet is “that all men of whatever race, color, or creed were created with equal rights”—but he admits that there is a kind of person they would be unwilling to welcome into the fold: “If you wanted to be a psychologist and gave lobotomies, then we’re against that,” he says. “We’re just against people hurting other people.” In a classroom just behind him, an instructor sports a shirt that screams: “Psychiatric drugs turn children into Killers!!!” The argument that today’s youth is over-medicated has perhaps been more tastefully made in less absolte terms.
On Yale’s campus, academics looking solely at statistics would disagree with church leaders that psychology is detrimental. “The attack on psychology is dangerous precisely for people who need reputable counseling,” said Professor Butler. University Chaplain Rev. Streets, whose office provides pamphlets advertising “Mental Health and Counseling Services” alongside pamphlets from “Indigo Blue, A Center for Buddhist Life at Yale,” is also worried about such a hard and fast division. “I believe that there should be and can be a healthy relation between science and health and religion,” he said. “Religious groups make the separation much more strongly than I would.” Like the Christian Right, cults and religious sects galvanize their various supporters around a “Satanic figure,” Butler argues. “There are certain people in society who thrive on the existence of evil and the personification of evil.” In order to become a staff member of the Church of Scientology, one must swear an oath that one has not undergone psychoanalysis. Unlike religions interested in converting the downtrodden, Scientologists’ restriction on who it will agree to “help” seems to counter an argument like Don’s that the church is solely interested in “helping people.”
There is one segment of the “Gay Ivy” that Scientology might not “help,” exactly: homosexual students. “I have gay friends,” says Don, “but they’re not Scientologists.” Homosexuals are classified as an “outness on the second dynamic,” Rachel explains gently. Ask her what she means and she’ll define “Dynamic two” as sexuality, and “outness,” as a problem, a deviation (all of this is in their bible, Dianetics). This seems to be the core of Scientologists’ belief. Whereas many religions embrace difference and celebrate it, Scientology professes to embrace difference and then eradicate it. “That’s just a part of the person’s case,” Rachel says, speaking still of the rhetorical possibility of a homosexual. “And it would be able to be audited.”
But New Haven’s congregation concentrates less on the negative aspects of their burgoening congregation, and more on celebrating their messiah figure, L. Ron Hubbard. The Whalley branch sports a brass sculpture of Father Hubbard’s pouting bust, a framed portrait of him glowering and ponderous hangs behind the main podium, and upstairs, in the church’s administrative wing, an office is kept for him, dusted regularly, in case he stops by. It looks like the lair of a less glamorous Mr. Burns—complete with an imposing executive chair, a wide desk, a jar of pens, a bookshelf housing some of his many writings, a fax machine, and—according to rumors—a cup of coffee to be refilled daily. But Hubbard has been dead for nearly ten years.
“It’s a tradition,” says Minister Carol Yingling as she shows off the second floor. “Every church keeps an office. We’re building an office for Mr. Hubbard in our new building.”
In this Golden Age of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard’s office stays empty. And so, too, may the chairs in their new building. “We don’t tell people what to believe about God,” Carol Yingling says on a Sunday, watching her congregation file out. “People come to it on their own.”
* At her request, the writer’s name has been changed.