The Los Angeles Scientology Celebrity Centre is housed in a picturesque chateau-inspired landmark in the foothills of Hollywood. Just a five-minute walk from my home, it is an alluring building that naturally inspires curiosity from passersby.
My friend and I were headed for a hike on a typically sunny afternoon when she noticed a sign outside the Centre advertising an open house tour. While I would likely never enter on my own for fear of never being seen again, the two of us were emboldened to cross Xenu’s threshold.
An iron fence spanning an entire block surrounds the Centre. The gate was open when we entered, the atmosphere generally inviting. A stone pathway cut through a garden of palms, on one side flanked by a gurgling fountain, on the other a glass veranda was visible through the greenery, inside revealing a restaurant with no diners.
A man in a suit and sunglasses milled about the garden, watching us as we approached, silent. The doors to the chateau were open, but we hesitated to enter. At that moment, a woman in black pants and a crisp white shirt walked down the corridor towards us. I asked her if the tour was still going on.
“Yes, we do tours every day,” she informed us. The Centre is open for anyone to walk in. Admission is free, but does not come without strings attached.
We followed her down a long carpeted hallway, passing a few more men dressed uniformly in black slacks and starched white shirts. L. Ron Hubbard peered at us from framed pictures adorning the walls. She led us past the airy great room, its high ceilings decorated with ornate gold crown moldings and painted frescoes.
Finally we reached a waiting room in the back of the building and were invited to sit. A woman with curly blond hair named Jenna appeared from behind a counter and handed us forms to fill out. “This will let us know what you’d like to see on the tour,” she told us.
The form asked for our name, address, telephone number, email address, and occupation. “Do we have to fill the entire form out?” I asked, uneasy about handing over my personal details to an organization famous for subterfuge. “Yes, it will help for the tour,” Jenna reiterated. I gave my name and a false address, leaving the rest of the fields blank.
My friend noticed there were cameras built into the walls above us.
Jenna took the cards and invited us to watch a short video clip, “that would give us a background on what we were about to see.” I was expecting a history of the building. Instead we were treated to a film whose purpose was to demystify Scientology adherents and portray them as normal, non-crazy humans.
We learned there are Scientology centers all over the world: New York, London, Paris, Tokyo. Scientologists come in all shapes and sizes. A Sikh man in a blue turban was repeatedly shown to emphasize diversity.
My friend and I exchanged glances, trying to decide if we should stay for more propaganda watching. We’re already here, I reasoned. Might as well go for the full experience.
We passed through another hallway displaying framed banners of basic Scientology tenants. She bade us to read them before letting us continue to the next television screen outside the office. The next video was produced like a Sci Fi Channel documentary, and told us that we are not the body, not the mind, but a consciousness called “Thetan,” which is undying.
This is the basis of any Eastern religion, minus naming the consciousness “Thetan,” so I conceded to our host that this made perfect sense. She seemed delighted that I identified with the message, dollar signs all but lighting up in her eyes. I imagine that most people wander in for a tour, hoping as we did to actually be shown around the building but bamboozled into watching informational videos, express kneejerk skepticism at the message. I was determined to have an open mind and judge Scientology on its merit.
I had little previous concept of Scientology. All I knew about the organization I had picked up from an episode of South Park which mocked the religion’s belief in alien warlords and a conspiratorial Vanity Fair essay examining the Church’s influence on Tom Cruise. I was curious if they were actually as strange as they seemed.
We were shown another video, this time a dramatic production with actors in varying degrees of distress. A businesswoman walked hurriedly down the street in New York, clutching a cup of coffee. She encountered a construction worker and tripped on her heel. Another woman angrily launched a guitar out a window at her boyfriend. A father beat his son. It told us that the mind registers everything around us. It asked us if we were unhappy, stressed, or let our emotions get the better of us.
Thus far I found nothing strange in the message. I told our chaperone that this seemed like a lot of repurposed Buddhist philosophy packaged for a Western audience. I mentioned that through meditation the mind can also be overcome in a way that Scientologist implies it is also able to effect. She insisted that Scientology could bring about enlightenment in years, instead of lifetimes. I searched her face for signs of deep awareness or peace, but found nothing. She instead had the determined, cunning look of a rental car sales agent.
Aware we were not going to get an actual tour of the building, but instead a tour of basic Scientology spiel, I asked what this building was used for. She replied that the Celebrity Centre housed classes, workshops, as well as hotel rooms. “3 of our people just won the Grammy,” she added, apropos of nothing. I wondered how this was a benchmark of spiritual achievement.
Scientology, unlike other religions, offers promises of material success if one follows rigorously its program. A flyer advertising a discussion by NCIS actor Marisol Nichols asked provocatively:
“As we go through life, ours goals reflect our desire to survive with abundance. We want our health, our looks. We want a soul mate, a nice place, the right career and we want happiness. Some people have these things, some people don’t.
And if you don’t, have you ever wondered what it might be within you that is blocking you from achieving these things? Are you holding yourself back? Or is something else stopping you?”
The implication is that Scientology can remove any obstacles and provide you with all these worldly things: health, looks, a soul mate, and the right career.
Jenna led us to another room, a gift shop of sorts displaying Hubbard books and various models of E-meter machines. The E-meter supposedly measures brain waves and with the help of an auditor who poses questions, it is used as a tool to root out past trauma. In this way, Scientology goes digging around in your brain, hoping to uncover this or that. Sessions with an auditor begin in the hundreds of dollars, and can advance into the thousands. I volunteered for a reading and held onto two metal canisters while Jenna adjusted the machine’s nobs. She asked me to think about something painful. Then about someone. Apparently not getting the response from the machine she wanted, she turned it off and told us to continue the tour.
Scientology purports to be able to change your life. It can help you cultivate better relationships, make more money, whatever you desire it will bring you. But these are empty promises. Any religion purporting to fulfill worldly desires obviously has worldly aims of its own. True liberation means not desiring for anything, realizing that you are enough as you are, complete and content in the present moment.
All religions prey on the weak and stupid. Scientology is even more nefarious, posing as religion while truly a snake oil dealer. It is spirituality devoid of spirit for the rich, where each level of attainment must be paid for. Tellingly, they aren’t any Scientology centers in third world countries; they aren’t looking to convert the poor, they’re out for the wealthy and gullible. Knowledge and awareness do not come free, but are offered at an introductory price of $200.
My friend and I cut short the tour, uninterested in seeing yet another video. We walked back out to the courtyard where the gate was now locked. As we approached, it buzzed to let us out. For others though, escape might not be so easy.