Herald Sun - Australia March 6, 2011
Inside the Church of Scientology
What's the Church of Scientology all about? Sunday Herald Sun reporter Hamish Heard joined to find out.
AFTER barely an hour in the Church of Scientology's new Melbourne headquarters the verdict is in: I am deeply flawed.
It appears I am in denial of a deep-seated depression, I am close to unlikable and a decade and a half of social indulgence has left me borderline dim.
On the plus side, Mark - my new mentor in Scientology - says I have a "can-do" attitude that, with the help of an $1800 "purification" ritual and countless dollars spent on cult literature, is enough to put me back on the path.
As I took my first steps inside the sect's new $21 million Ascot Vale base - a reporter posing as a sausage salesman - I had no idea what to expect.
I knew that Scientologists believed I was an immortal alien trapped inside an Earthling's body.
I had also been told that Scientologists believed in some kind of super alien called Xenu. But all of that was conspicuously absent during my first close encounter with the religion.
It was more like a slickly packaged self-help university.
Paul Schofield, who spent nearly 30 years working for the cult in Melbourne and Sydney before breaking ranks in 2008, said he was not surprised.
"They are very careful to keep it all very normal and believable at the start - that's how they suck you in," he said.
"The whole aliens and volcanoes thing comes much, much later and only after you're willing to spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on Scientology books and courses and treatments etc."
Like Paul and millions of other Scientologists worldwide, my introduction to the sect came in the form of a series of tests.
First was a fairly standard IQ test and then a 200-question personality test, asking questions such as: "Would you smack a 10-year-old child if it disobeyed you?" and "Do you feel the urge to clean other people's houses?".
The purpose of the tests, explained Paul, was to convince potential Scientologists that they were broken and needed fixing.
Sure enough, when Mark finished marking my tests he presented me with a graph showing that I was extremely critical of others, a little unhappy, aggressive and people probably didn't like me.
Mark said there were "things" I could do to overcome these horrible personality traits and that I should start by buying $50 of books and a DVD introducing me to the cult's brand of mental health therapy.
Also important, he said, was that I complete a "purification process", which would cost $1500 for the use of the sect's new treadmills and sauna and a further $300 for special vitamins.
Fifty dollars poorer, I vowed to read the literature, watch the DVD and return next week to discuss purification.
At home that night I immersed myself in Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, an introduction to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's views.
Central to his argument is that all human faults are caused by "engrams" - subconscious memories of painful happenings earlier in life.
Paul said the book was the first step in opening Scientologists' minds to the belief that they were controlled by reincarnated alien spirits, called Thetans.
"Basically Hubbard decided that the thing that was really wrong with people was that they were infested with the souls of dead aliens which had been sent down to Earth by Xenu and blown up in volcanoes," Paul said.
"These alien spirits end up inside human bodies and implant thoughts and behaviours in them."
He said Scientologists were not told of the strange beliefs until they had reached "Operating Thetan 3", or OT3, level.
"Most people working there don't know about it - they don't trust anyone with this until they are so entrenched in the cult they will believe it," Paul said.
"They're made to believe that even just reading the words without being ready is enough to kill them."
Wandering around the Ascot Vale headquarters, it is hard not to marvel at the number of uniformed cult members.
Mark said there were 200 paid staff working at the church.
A couple of days after my first visit, my phone started ringing daily with calls from Scientology sales staff wanting to know if I had read my books and when I was coming back.
On the seventh day I turned up unannounced and declared I was ready for "auditing".
Auditing, according to Dianetics, allows people to neutralise the engrams that are ruining their lives by mentally revisiting the time the memories were created.
My initial auditing session was free and involved me sitting in a room with my eyes shut while going through painful memories - like the time when, as a toddler, I cried from sunburn.
My "auditor" made me go over the incident, and others, at least 15 times in an unsuccessful attempt to help me get inside the engrams.
It was excruciating and quite possibly the longest hour in my life - even more awkward than when I had to explain to Mark why I was unable to provide sausages for a church barbecue.
After my first auditing session, I was summoned to Mark's office where he prescribed a $200 course of audits.
He also reiterated his belief that I required purification and performed a mini-audit on me, this time with me connected to an "E-meter".
The gadget - essentially two cans hooked up to something resembling an electronic multi-meter - is used in auditing to gauge how intensely people react to certain questions.
Mark's probing questions prompted the E-meter's needle to jump decisively to the right - firm proof that I was what the cult called "preclear", meaning I had a long road of auditing ahead of me.
On my most recent visit I made it my mission to get to the bottom of the church's alien beliefs and, with Mark on his day off, I hit a new contact up for some answers.
At first I was given the sarcastic response: "Does it look like we've got UFO hangars here?"
But after I convinced him that I had already taken plenty of steps down the Scientology path, he opened up on the church's views on immortality.
"We believe you're immortal and you've lived before and you'll live again," he said.
After even more pressing, he said auditing uncovered people's memories from earlier lives, including some from people who had lived in outer space.
In 2008, Paul broke one of Scientology's golden rules and began talking to former cult members and researching what the critics had to say online.
"The more info I found, the more I thought to myself: 'Oh my God, what have I been doing for the past three decades?' and I just walked out," he said.
After two visits, the sect had spouted enough gobbledygook to last me a lifetime and tried to hit my bank account for up to $2000. I walked, too.
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