Probably the best known thing about East Grinstead these days (at least on an international level) is the fact that L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, bought a mansion house there in the late 1950s, and it has become one of the world’s foremost communities of Scientologists.
On the face of it, that’s surprising. East Grinstead is a quiet, unassuming, and deeply Anglican town. It’s as far from Los Angeles as it’s possible to get.
And yet there are many reasons why the town has been a good fit for the Scientologists up at Saint Hill manor. It has a storied history of non-judgmental acceptance, and plays host to a number of other minor religious groups and sects (New Religious Groups, as Eileen Barker calls them). So the Scientologists have rumbled along in East Grinstead for many decades. And they were an obvious place to start looking at how and why East Grinstead became just so weird.
The problem with writing or broadcasting about Scientology in the UK is that it’s much easier to find ex-Scientologists willing to speak to you than it is to find current congregationalists. And this necessarily gives an uneven portrait. I did, eventually, speak to a 92-year-old local Scientologist, a Hubbardite of some 60-odd years, but my main resources were two local ex-members, noted critic and historian Jon Atack, and a local woman, Charlotte.
But as I thought about Saint Hill and East Grinstead, the more I found myself being drawn into a broader consideration of British Scientology. There is something quite fundamentally unBritish about Scientology. It has always struck me as very American. And I think that sense is amplified by the fact that East Grinstead is, to me, a deeply British town, filled with the contradictions of Britishness. It has a deep sense of history but is also quite vapid in its consumerist modernity; it looks with one eye to the untrammelled countryside, the rolling hills, and with another to London, where its richer residents work and which is only 45 minutes away by train. East Grinstead says so much about Britain, and Scientology says so little.
But hopefully when you hear Charlotte Greenwood talk about her life in East Grinstead, growing up in the Scientology community there, quite a human face will shine through. This is, I think, an important part of telling this story; allowing the principal actors to be humanised. I am a bit of a soft touch, and there are certain critics of Scientology who will probably be frustrated by that, but for me the questions of Scientology are not whats but whys.
How did you end up following a religion that is so niche in this country? How do you fall for a dogma that, even compared to other implausible dogmas, is so implausible? How do you get sucked into something that feels so malign and which is aggressively damed by ever corner of the internet? These are the questions that interest me about Scientology, far more than the specifics of e-meters and auditing and going clear and Thetans and whatnot.
Hopefully this episode captures some of the confusing paradoxes of British Scientology. It’s also an examination of how we talk about, how we report on, the human factor of systemic abuse. That’s a really challenging issue, and I’m sure it’s not one that I’ve grappled with adequately, but it’s something that we need to address. But above all, I think that ‘The Scientologists on the Hill’ is a fun, interesting look at something truly bizarre that’s going on in the rolling hills of suburban England.
Here are some relevant links if you want to do some extra reading:
Books to buy: A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack, The Making of a Moonie by Eileen Barker, The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely by Tony Ortega, The Church of Fear by John Sweeney.
More important than anything: please subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts, and if you like it (even a little bit) please leave a glowing review (more glowing that you feel, preferably) with that provider. I want people to be able to find the show and that requires a bit of help from you. And if you want to chat about anything, show related or not, email me to firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter.