On a boring date in 1997, I tried to liven things up with a detour to the Church of Scientology in Times Square. I was curious about cult-recruiting techniques and since the date wasn’t going anywhere, I thought it would at least make the night interesting.
What I remember: a long series of questions that seemed designed to awaken unconscious anxieties (“Would you make the necessary actions to kill an animal in order to put it out of pain?”), so that when you were given your results, you‘d be primed to attach to a strong parental figure. The man who spoke to me told me my friends took advantage of me and that I felt I was “in a box,” then tried to sell me some books he said would help me. When I told him I didn’t have any money, he allowed me to be on my way. I remember no hard sell, and everyone was exceedingly polite, in a low-key way.
Ever since then, I have closely followed the various dramas within Scientology. I have tried to make sense of my fascination by linking it to my general interest in human development, particularly the child self that, out of necessity, idealizes the parent. While I have worked hard to overcome any tendencies to defer to authority, I know that deep inside me there remains a frightened child who believes that a benevolent adult can help me figure out how to live by simply telling me what to do.
Also, it has seemed to me that people in showbiz who choose one of these two positions — submissive, idealizing child or omnipotent, omniscient adult — do very well in their careers (and the ones who manage to combine both roles in one persona do the best). My resentments about such colleagues contribute to my interest in Scientology too.
So it’s been fascinating to me to see the broader culture pay such close attention to Scientology in recent years. It seemed to begin with Lawrence Wright’s excellent book, and has reached its peak with Leah Remini’s show on A&E. What accounts for this surge of interest in an organization which likely has only around twenty thousand members worldwide?
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Scientology is uniquely positioned to contain our anxieties and misgivings about the culture we have been creating for a while now, but which has tipped over into a more manifest madness the last few years.
For example: it is easy and fun to malign Scientology’s megalomaniacal founder — as well as its current leader — as we avoid looking through any but the most partisan lens at why it is our major politicians evince such narcissism.
The absurd and fantastical narratives at the center of Scientology’s mythology are easy targets in a culture that, on the conscious level, takes seriously the nonsense found in big-budget comic book movies. While one may argue that audiences don’t take these narratives literally, hysterical reviews and think pieces suggest that we do in fact treat these fictions as if they reflect our actual reality.
Further: much is made of the hideous hours, low pay, and abusive working environment Scientology’s Sea Org members endure, while upper management lives a life of luxury. But is this so different from American workers toiling endlessly for low and stagnant pay, often risking injury, while the wealthy get richer and richer?
Finally: we are told that Scientology has no tolerance for dissent, and that if you run afoul of the rules, you are “disconnected” from — rejected by everyone with no further contact. Well, if you’ve spent a minute on Twitter you’ve seen how common it is for people to demonize those they disagree with, and anyone who has tried to date in recent years knows how many people end relationships without making or maintaining any contact. In a time when debates and disagreements frequently result in literal violence, the psychological extremes of Scientology no longer seem so unique.
Is our mainstream culture as disturbed as a desperate, dying cult? Shows like Leah Remini’s and websites like Tony Ortega’s portray Scientology as something wholly other — deranged, evil, psychotic. But I think we would do well to see it as an enhanced reflection of the violence and regression at work in our culture. While our institutions have provided us some protection against our bad decisions, disturbed beliefs, and narcissistic instincts, there is no guarantee they will continue to. It is our continuity with Scientology that explains our obsession, and it’s time — as it always is — to turn the critical eye on ourselves.