Once Upon a Time, I Fell Into a Cult

Vulnerability outweighed common sense.

Joel Eisenberg
Apr 18, 2020 · 8 min read
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Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International in Hollywood, California

Guilty, as charged.

When I’ve written about politics I’ve pejoratively referred to extreme-right supporters of our current U.S. president as “Trump cultists.”

I have done so here during periods of anger, and on my social media. The internet is forever, so why deny it?

To be clear, I am not referring to everyone who voted for him, nor the Republican party in general. Though I do strongly believe the modern GOP in office enables this president’s more destructive instincts, my invective has been targeted to those who compare this President of the United States to a deity and think think he can do no wrong.

Donald Trump is not “the cure” for everything. In this day and age, especially in the wake of our current pandemic, I consider such blind loyalty — to anyone or anything — as potentially deadly.

I understand justification, and vulnerability. I understand feeling disenfranchised.

I speak from the perspective of one who was briefly involved in a cult, and who spent many years thereafter studying them.

During my own period in those trenches, a science fiction writer named Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (L. Ron Hubbard, on the right, below) was supposed to be that deity.

Between the two, there was not that much difference.

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Scientology is a cult. Unfortunately, that’s personal experience talking.

I found L. Ron Hubbard’s book, “Dianetics,” at a flea market when I was 21-years-old and read it that year after splitting with my first girlfriend. She and I dated for nearly three years, and when our relationship started going south my world crashed in synch.

My ego advised me. I broke up with her because I wouldn’t have been able to bear her breaking up with me. We had shared so much; no one knew me like she did. With her I was able to be myself. Without her I was lost.

I was living with my parents at the time, and in a moment that still resonates my father entered my bedroom the next day and asked, “You’re not planning to kill yourself are you?”

“No! Why are you asking me that — ”

“I know how you feel about her and I just want to be sure my number one son is okay.”

I was not okay, and knew then I would not be for some time.

I stopped by a local flea market that weekend. I was an avid book collector, science fiction and horror being particular favorites. I had heard of L. Ron Hubbard, the famed science fiction writer who apparently had made a turn to “self-help” books. Or so I thought.

“Dianetics” cost me a dime.

What followed would have cost me tens of thousands of dollars if I allowed it.

I was already immensely lonely and I could not put the book down. In truth, I was impressed. As a former special education teacher with some training in abnormal psychology, I thought “Dianetics” made some psychological sense.

From “Dianetics” promotional materials (excerpted): Dianetics (from dia, meaning "through", and nous, meaning "") is a set of ideas and practices regarding the metaphysical relationship between the mind and body ... Dianetics divides the mind into three parts: the conscious "analytical mind", the subconscious "reactive mind", and the “somatic” mind. The goal of Dianetics is to erase the content of the "reactive mind", which interferes with a person's ethics, awareness, happiness, and sanity. The procedure to achieve this erasure is called "auditing." The Dianetic auditor asks a series of questions (or commands) which are intended to help a person locate and deal with painful past experiences.

I completed the thick tome in three days.

The back cover of the book advertised what they called a “Scientology Centre” (proper European spelling) in New York City. I had no idea what it was; I only knew from the ad it related somehow to “Dianetics.” As I was freelance writing for some magazines at the time and I needed fresh material for a new article, I called for an appointment using that excuse.

In reality, I was desperately seeking help. No, I was nowhere close to suicidal nor had I ever been, but neither had I found the comfort I so sought in my religion or my closest friends.

The therapist I had hired for a short time told me I should consider reading books on grief. Would have been nice if she did her job and did not pawn me off, but in the end I did find a book, after all.

As for that book, “Dianetics” read as more therapy to me.

From another point of view.

I did not realize New York City’s “Scientology Centre” was the same place where for years I had been regularly accosted by unwelcome strangers, dressed in quasi-miliary garb, who hounded me and other pedestrians to take a “personality test” whenever we crossed their way. I had always ignored them and kept walking, as they peddled tests for which one could never “pass.”

What I know now vs. what I knew then … but I digress.

With “Dianetics” in tow, I arrived early to my appointment.

I figured my visit would make for a cool article and a quick paycheck. Besides, I was already weeks into miserable. Maybe I’d also learn something.

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After finally taking their “personality test” — which was “problematic” according to my 20-something male Stepford guide (yes, a movie reference about blindly submissive housewives) — I agreed to undertake 10 minutes of “auditing.” My guide escorted me down the hall to my “auditor,” a middle-aged male, quite serious, who asked me to hold onto the twin handles of the “e-meter” while he probed me with questions.

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I felt I had nothing to lose and besides, I believed the more raw I was the more resonant my article would be.

I told my auditor about my failed relationship … and after less than five minutes he told me my “engrams” were blocking my recovery and my happiness.

My future was determined, if he had his way.

From Scientology promotional materials (excerpted): An engram, as used in “Dianetics” and Scientology, is a detailed mental image or memory of a traumatic event from the past that occurred when an individual was partially or fully unconscious. … An engram is a “cellular level recording” that includes both physical and emotional pain.

My auditor then told me that my engrams were out of balance.

“You will need at least 200 hours more of auditing to prepare you for getting clear from their neagative impact.”

(In Scientology-speak, “Clears” suffer no illness and do not even wear glasses. I wore glasses and still do; apparently, if I had listened I would have saved a great deal of money avoiding ophthalmologists over the subsequent years.)

So, after five minutes holding on to two sticks, and I was already prescribed 200 hours more of auditing. I saw the scam right away, but asked how much it would all cost, out of curousity. “$20,000 or so and then we’ll work with you from there.”

As expected.

I had my article fodder. But I pressed on.

“Where will I get the money?” I asked. “I’m 21-years-old.”

“Are your parents still alive?” he asked.

That touched my Brooklyn temper, but I remained cool.


“I’m sure they’d look out for your happiness, right?”

“We live in a small apartment in Brooklyn. They don’t have that much money.”

“They have a car?”

“Yeah — ”

“Sell the car.”

“It’s an old car.”

I was beginning to lose it at this point, but I stayed.

“Do you have any hobbies?” he asked.

“I collect coins and comic books,” I said.

“Great! Sell your collections. It’s what LRH (Hubbard) would want.”

The conversation devolved from there. I went home and began work on my story … which I quickly discarded as the truth was I was searching for help, not an extra buck. I decided to stick with the writing I knew best in 1984, as a columnist for a series of sports-entertainment magazines.

Besides, I didn’t want the world knowing about my personal life.

But that was then. I feel maybe this experience could do some good now.

Unfortunately, like so many others who get caught up in cultish behavior, I reflected and returned to the building in a particular moment of vulnerability. I even purchased some books based on Scientology teachings, just in case, with the caveat that they could not try to sell me further as I was “working on it.” I then discussed with my parents the possibility of my attending their church to help myself.

“It’s not religious,” I said. I had no clue what I was talking about.

My moment of vulnerability was a moment of feeling sorry for myself. I began asking questions. “Should I have broken up with my girlfriend?” “What if I’m not giving this a fair shake?” And so on.

24 hours later, I came to my senses. And that’s when Scientology showed me its dangerous side.

I did not go back again, and for the next 15 years their offices called me and my parents on a daily basis. Every day, even when I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, even when we changed our phone numbers, for 15 years. They would say “LRH would be disappointed,” or “an LRH-approved auditor recognized your engrams and you are in a very dangerous time …”

Hubbard passed in 1986.

Eventually, they stopped calling.

During that period, in 1987, the following print expose was released, among the first such efforts to call attention to the true goings-on behind L. Ron Hubbard’s “religion”:

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Further, in the May 6, 1991 issue of “Time,” the following cover story triggered a great deal of controversy, and denials on the part of the Church:

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I was validated, but also enlightened.

It was initially easy for me to see through the scam as a young adult, and yet I returned in a moment of weakness. I guess I was one of the lucky ones, as their efforts to lure me were unrelenting.

And scary.

Like any cult, preying on the vulnerable is potentially worth a fortune.

Today, celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta are the most visible spokespersons for the organization, and actress (and former Scientologist) Leah Remini’s A&E documentary series, “Scientology and the Aftermath,” has won numerous awards for exposing the dangerous, sometimes deadly business behind the cult of “LRH.”

In my opinion, his was (is) not all that different from the cult of Trump, though the latter’s is on a much larger scale. That’s what horrifies me.

I hope this story helps those who need something like this today.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this story of value, feel free to recommend, share and follow me here on Medium, where I publish new stories daily on a variety of topics.

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Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

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