It was 4 PM on a Sunday and I had already had a strenuous day of sampling craft beer. I was visiting Portland for the weekend with no other plans than to consume local beverages and enjoy the sultry weather. In an effort to quell my addiction to social media, I had ditched my laptop in favor of Jenna Miscavige’s memoir, which details her life as a child of devout Scientologists. I had picked it up after watching the documentary Going Clear, which exposes many well-kept secrets within Scientology and essentially reveals it to be one of the largest and most elaborate pyramid schemes in history.
While Going Clear paints an intriguing portrait of scientology’s overall history, it also left me with more questions than answers. What did the religion look like now? Who exactly were the members? And, most importantly, what kind of person would join such a cult after all the scandals that had been recently divulged?
It was these questions (along with “where the cheap pizza at?”) that were racing through my mind when I literally stumbled upon The Portland Church of Scientology. Located in a multi-storied brick building in the heart of downtown, the center was simultaneously attractive and foreboding. I scanned the rows of books lining the front window, all immaculately organized and attributed to scientology’s revered founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Behind them, an enormous flat screen TV advertised a “free personality test!”
The prospect of entering both thrilled and repulsed me. After all the diabolical things I had heard about Scientology, did I really dare to wander straight into the lion’s den? My hand was literally hovering over the door handle when a normal-looking woman with short brown hair appeared next to me and opened it. “You can come inside if you want,” she said, cheerful but not pushy. The invitation, along with my higher than normal blood-alcohol ratio, caused me to follow her.
Three women wearing black and white suits greeted me from behind an enormous wooden reception desk. I studied them like creatures in a zoo. One of them appeared to be about my age, 25, with disheveled hair and sunken eyes, as if she had just come off a weekend heroin binge. Basically, she was no different than your average Portland hipster aside from the fact that she was wearing a name tag labeled “auditor.” The other two looked like librarians who had stumbled into the wrong library. I asked to take the free personality test and their three heads bobbed in unison.
Heroin Girl led me over to a row of desks, where she set me up with a pencil and 200 question test. I glanced down at the wobbly sea of answer bubbles and immediately regretted this decision. In addition to the test’s daunting length, the questions were strangely worded and seemingly irrelevant. They were things like, “Would it give you anxiety to consider whether or not you are a leader?” and “Do you often chew on your pens and pencils?” I carefully extracted the writing utensil from my mouth and answered “no.”
As I made my way through the questions, I noticed the room filling with more and more people in black and white suits. The three initial members had multiplied into at least 15, all positioned at various stations throughout the room. I wondered if they had all been there the whole time or if they’d been summoned in by the prospect of a new convert.
When I finished the test, a young man with red hair, acne, and too much enthusiasm lead me over to the evaluation area. He introduced me to the woman who would be evaluating my results and told me I was “in good hands.” My evaluator, an older Australian woman, greeted me from her desk and told me to have a seat. She made a joke about the hipsters loving this rainy weather and cursed lightly, which put me at ease. So far, she did not seem weird at all. In fact, as she lead me through my results, I decided she was one of the most comforting strangers I had ever met. I wanted to crawl into her bounteous lap as she detailed all the various things that were wrong with me. She explained that my desire to please other people was hindering my path to success and asked if I could recall any times when this was the case. About a thousand incidents popped into my mind but I was not there to be asked questions. I quickly steered the conversation back toward Scientology and her involvement in it.
Through careful prying, I learned that she was a paid employee of Scientology who has been with the organization for over 30 years, converting thousands of people in the process. She had happened upon L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics in her 20s, while going through a “rough time,” and it made a lot of sense to her. I also learned that her son was a member of the Sea Org, a religious order of Scientology comprised of the most dedicated members. I wanted to ask her if it was true that Sea Org members were paid less than 80 cents an hour for backbreaking labor while never being allowed to see their children, but instead opted for the less obtrusive, “What’s it like in the Sea Org?”
She immediately clammed up, as if I had struck a chord. She asked me if I had seen “a film or something?” In an effort to remain neutral I lied and said I hadn’t. She looked skeptical, and then explained that, “Scientologists see the world from a rather radical perspective. We don’t agree with a lot of the ways society is run. Therefore, over the years we’ve made some enemies and they have been very vocal. They will tell you that we jump out of volcanos and have gold teeth,” she chuckled. “You can’t believe everything you read.”
At the end of the session, she recommended that I take a $50 course in Dianetics. “Just one,” she said, sensing my resistance. “You can always take just one and then leave.” Strangely, I almost considered registering for research purposes but then realized how ironic it would be if I ended up becoming a Scientologist. “Maybe next time!” I sang, moonwalking toward the exit. Once outside, I glanced back at the captives. Staring forward with lonely half-smiles, they seemed less like evil, volcano jumpers and more like a coven of lost souls.
On my way back to the hotel, a young homeless man asked me for a dollar. One glance at his skinny frame and bulging veins told me that he’d most likely be putting it toward a fresh batch of amphetamines, but I gave it to him regardless. We all seek help in different ways. Some people turn to drugs. Some people turn to therapy. Some people find salvation in the form of a religion that promises self help. One could argue that they’re all a waste of time and money but hey, who am I to judge? I was drunk at 4 o’clock.