“I won’t see Mission Impossible 4, because if I do my money supports Scientology.” ~Random Internet Fella
“Yeah, but you saw New Years Eve, which means your money supported Christians, Jews, and bad filmmaking. Of the three, bad filmmaking is the worst, because I don’t really see much of a difference between Scientology, Christianity, or Judaism.” ~My Response
* * *
In 1989 I moved to Boston, MA, to attend the Berklee College of Music (Motto: “For just $40,000, you get a degree that makes you unemployable!”).
Newbury Street—a happening little avenue filled with many nifty little shops—was close by, and when bored my friends and I would often meander the length of its eight blocks. We would pop in and out of eclectic stores and coffee houses, and when the weather was nice be politely harassed by well-dressed people asking, “Would you like to take a personality quiz?”
For the better part of two years, our answer was “Nope,” but one day a trio of idiots out carousing—my friends Barrett, Peite, and I—were bored enough to say, “What the hell: Yes.”
We thought it would be a quick, five-minute process of being asked silly questions while standing on the street corner, but the cute young woman—and of course she was a cute young woman; you think we would have stopped to talk to a man?—told us to follow her lead and headed north. Well, shit. This was going to eat up more time than we had initially planned, but decided to Prefontaine it across the finish line and followed along.
We walked several blocks to Beacon St. where a Scientology Center awaited us. It was a magnificent, old school converted-home, made of brick and with a castle-like rounded spire on the corner—a tower from which Rapunzel could drop her lockets and be rescued, so to speak. Little was known about Scientology back then, and the Internet didn’t exist for anyone to simply Google-up and Wikipedia an explanation. Basically, we had no clue what we were getting into.
We were shown in, and immediately two things happened: first, our recruiter was greeted as if Norm from Cheers. Everyone knew her; everyone loved her. Everyone was happy, smiling and ready to shake your hand.
“Angela! So happy to see you! Who’s this? Nathan? Nice to meet you Nathan, I’m Bob! We’re happy to have you with us today…”
It was a neat trick used to make lonely people feel welcome and relaxed; “Wow, everyone here is like one big happy family. I should hang out with them, and then I’ll be popular, too!” Conversely, it made me wonder what Kool Aid everyone was drinking. There’s naturally friendly, and overly friendly. This was the latter by a mile, and I became suspicious.
The second thing to happen was the most important event of the day: divide and conquer. Like a wingman removing the fat chick from her delicious friend, we three traveling companions were separated from one another and taken to different sections of the main room. Once isolated, we were introduced to the person who was going to administer (or monitor) our “Personality Quiz.”
(Naturally, we were all left thinking, “Wait… we came here on the whim of talking to the pretty girl… Where is… Hey she’s leaving…” Very bait and switch classic; use beauty to bring in the gangly and awkward college student lacking self-confidence, then have said beauty skedaddle her pear-shaped heinie away. Kudos, Scientology. Kudos)
The personality quiz was a 200-question test, something not unlike you’d take in school using a #2 pencil. With each question, you would fill in an answer corresponding to your feeling: “Yes or mostly yes,” “Maybe or uncertain,” or “No or mostly no.” The quiz is copyrighted, so I cannot verbatim them here, but they were basically:
- Is it tough on you when you fail?
- Do you ponder whether too much money is being spent on social security?
- Are you biased in favor of your own school, college, club, team, etc?
- Do others bully you around?
And so on.
By the time I got to the end, I was bored beyond words. The problem with personality quizzes is they reduce specific situations to severe generality. Reality doesn’t fit into a quiz; how I may respond to a situation one day might not be the way I respond to the same situation any other. Given that, I cannot answer “Yes” or “No” to a base question and expect an accurate result.
They took your answers, applied them to a simple algorithm, and graphed a chart that described all your quirks. Naturally, as they were selling a cure, you needed to be sick, so all shortcomings—real and invented—were pointed out ad nauseam. Following that, you got a lengthy explanation on how Scientology could help improve you.
(As far as I know, you always needed improvement)
Now, here’s the thing about one of my traveling companions, Peite: he’s a goddamned genius. I don’t mean genius as in “I’m using a glamorous word to say ‘he smart,’” I mean he’s a “solve a Rubik’s Cube in a minute” genius. Example: you know the hack scene that pops up in awful movies every now and again—Die Hard 4, I’m looking at you—where a bad guy is described as having said “I could bring down the Internet in 30 minutes”? Those villains are based on Peite and something he actually said to a United States Senate Committee in 1998. Because of that meeting, he now works for the government combating cyber terrorism.
(Well, that meeting and the fact he was always hacking into places he wasn’t supposed to be, like NASA, for example. [For the record, Peite was what is known as a true hacker. He never went into to cause damage, just nose around. Intellectual curiosity and all; not credit card theft or anything like that])
So, it took Peite all of two seconds to glance at the Scientology personality quiz and figure out how to play it like a fiddle. He asked the auditor how often he took the quiz and was told, “I take it quarterly, and I advance every time.”
“But if you take it so often, you know how to answer the questions in a way that allow you answer in a way that gives you the results you want to see,” was Peite’s response.
“That’s impossible!” the auditor proclaimed. “This is such an advanced, mulit-layered exam, it would take years to break the code!”
Peite laughed and began explaining to his auditor how the con worked, showing him how by answering certain questions using a pattern, he could shape his graph in any way he desired.
When challenged on this stance, Peite threw down the gauntlet, saying that if they let him take the test twice, he would show them the highest score on one, and the lowest score on the next.
Peite was immediately asked to leave. No thanks, no convincing, just “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” If there’s one thing grifters don’t like, it’s being called on their scam.
That left Barrett and I in their clutches. Talking to Barrett twenty years later, he doesn’t recall exactly what happened to him, but I do remember their attempt to indoctrinate me.
My auditor was an impressionable young woman—most cultists are young and impressionable, which is why we had been targeted ourselves—and apparently had never seen results like mine before. As she was looking everything over, she became quite nervous, and eventually called a supervisor over to consult. He looked at my results, looked at me, back at the results, and became concerned himself.
I was baffled; what were they looking at?
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I do know that when they dropped the bomb, it was big, and hilarious.
“Mr. Timmel,” my auditor began, the supervisor standing over her nervously. “We have conferred, and fully believe you have the makings of a… serial killer.”
It was all I could do to not bust out laughing.
I have been told I have a wonderful poker face; that I can lie like I breathe and that it can be hard to get a bead on me when I choose. I don’t often play the game, but when I do I take it full tilt. Instead of denying or decrying the accusation (or results), I instead narrowed my eyes slightly and went silent. I hardened my jaw line ever so subtly and stared at my auditors. I began giving one-word answers to their questions; yes, no, ok, no. What the hell, right? If they thought I had it in me to be a murderer, why not play the intimidating aspect of my being up?
My examiner became unable to look me in the eyes, and the supervisor went to gather up a 3rd person for the meeting; apparently he felt they needed backup.
A security posse in tow, I was taken into a front room—I’m fairly certain it was the corner room, meaning the “spire”—and asked if I would watch a film explaining the benefits and workings of Scientology.
I was amenable, and while I don’t remember much about the set up—my memory would love to play games with me and say it was shown on an old fashioned reel-to-reel projector like from a 1970s classroom, but I bet it was a TV/VCR combo—I do remember the movie.
In the movie, a football player is in a game, and is badly injured during a play. Right before he passes out, the last thing he hears is, “He’ll never walk again…”
And fade to black.
When he wakes up in the hospital, OMG, he can’t walk! The doctors are stumped; everything looks just fine physically, but he can’t walk! No one knows what to do.
The middle part of the movie is fuzzy—I don’t remember how many people examined him; maybe psychiatrists and therapists—but someone obviously eventually figures out the last phrase he heard before losing consciousness. Once they realize that is what’s blocking him mentally and explain to him that his legs are just fine, BAM! He’s cured. Like the Miracle Worker teaching Helen Keller “Water,” our boy can walk again. Praise Xenu.
It was all I could do to not treat the mini-film like the most uproarious comedy I had ever seen and laugh throughout it. The whole time it was playing I sat there thinking, “Really? This is the shit they’re using to convince people to join them?”
(Many years later, when Anonymous leaked the famous Tom Cruise “Holy-shit-is-he-insane?” interview, I was immediately flashed back in memory to 1991. If you haven’t seen the video, at one point, Mr. Cruise becomes intensely serious and states that as a Scientologist, when you see an accident you know you are the only person who can help. Upon hearing that, I pictured him at the site of an overturned car, shouting at the injured: “You are fine! You will walk again! No negative thoughts! No negative thoughts!”)
Following the movie, I was asked how many courses I wanted to sign up for, and delayed answering by either stating it wasn’t for me or that I needed to sleep on it. They may or may not have asked for a phone number or other contact information; my feeble little brain does not remember such specifics.
Barrett finished his session somewhere around the same time as me, so we went outside to re-connect with Peite.
* * *
Walking back home, we were confused. What the hell was that place? What was Scientology? And why would anyone take an interest in it?
At our dorm, we bumped into a comrade of ours named Josh, and when he asked what we’d been up to, we told him.
Josh grew concerned; “You heard about that place, right?”
We hadn’t before today.
Josh proceeded to weave the tale of one of our former classmates, a Berklee student who had run into a butt-ton of trouble with Scientology. He had gone in for the personality assessment, and walked out several hours later having signed on for a handful of courses. The audit sessions were to be “free;” he was getting a scholarship to participate. There was, however, a clause: if he were to leave the group, he’d have to pay everything back. This was to the tune of $70,000, give or take. He had to drop out of school and was flown to California, where he, presumably, was standing on street corners and asking, “Are you interested in taking a personality quiz?” in order to work off his debt.
Admittedly, that is a 2nd or 3rd hand story. It has no names, uses sketchy details and in no way valid in a court of law. As if timed by God, however, the very next week, on May 6th, 1991, Time Magazine ran a cover story on Scientology called “The Cult of Greed.” It detailed everything we had heard from Josh, only using full names and specific situations.
Because of the fine print in Scientology contracts, people had lost everything they had trying to get out. Scientology had pressured the weak-minded to take out extra mortgages on their house to pay for extra auditing classes, and when the money ran out Scientology vanished like a bandit in the night. One person had even committed suicide, Scientology had left him so beaten down and optionless.
It was scary, scary stuff, and we had been inside their lair.
Because we were young, dumb, and bored, the next day Peite, Barrett and I marched over to the Scientology building to ask the fine folks inside what they thought of the Time Magazine article.
We were denied entrance.
Well, fuck them, we laughed. Now you’ve shown your colors, so we’ll show ours. We decided to stand on the sidewalk and ask people going in if they knew what they were getting into.
Within a minute, a young couple—probably students like us—came storming out of the center. She was frightened; he was furious. Like out of a movie, he turned and yelled “FUCK YOU” to the building, shoving twin middle fingers high into the sky to accentuate his point.
We chatted a moment; he had been shown the same film I had, and didn’t like the fact that upon arrival they had been separated. We showed them the copy of Time we had with us; they agreed Scientology was evil. Within minutes, three representatives from the center were outside and in our faces.
In full candor, I will admit my memory of this event is fuzzy. I called Barrett and asked for his recollections, but sadly could not jog his brain cells for information that exceeded what I already knew.
I remember a woman, and possibly two men. I cannot tell you what they looked like, how they dressed, or anything other than this: one or all of them were very angry, and the question that was demanded of us was: “Who sent you?”
We were three college kids, punks, bored, just being belligerent, and they were reacting as if an enormous conspiracy was being put in place.
“WHO SENT YOU? WHO SENT YOU?”
The question kept getting shouted.
“We’re going to call the police!”
“Go ahead,” I taunted. “This is a public sidewalk.”
“WHO SENT YOU?”
To date, it is one of the most extreme cases of full-blown paranoia I have ever seen or experienced; it ranks right up there with right-wing Christians who go into panic mode whenever gay marriage makes advances in society.
The idea three long-haired music students wearing band T-shirts and torn jeans had been sent to bring down Scientology was absurd, but the representatives in front of us were acting like they were uncovering a conspiracy of 9/11 proportions.
(Or, origins-of-Scientology proportions, should you be so bold)
The trio of angry auditors eventually went back inside, and we three adventurers wandered off, and after that brief week, I didn’t have any interactions with Scientology for over 15 years.
* * *
In 2006, I was in San Francisco, and saw a “Free Stress Test” sign on the sidewalk. Copies of Dianetics were in boxes next to the table, and I was more than familiar with the look of the E-meter used by Scientology auditors, so I smiled and said I’d love to hear their pitch.
The woman administering the test smiled back and gave me two handles to hold—handles hooked to the E-meter—and explained they would be used register my stress levels. She would read me a series of either questions or statements, and I would give up all my secrets without even understanding how. After the test, they’d tell me (no matter what my results were) how Scientology could help me.
Except, here’s the problem: as she reviewed everything, I noticed something beyond obvious, that the handles responded to pressure. Within a half a second I realized what was about to happen; they were searching for involuntary reaction.
Immediately I prepared to mess with the system. I slowed my breathing pattern and put myself into relaxation mode. I then made sure that every reaction I had to her stimulus was controlled, not spontaneous.
“Think of being stuck in traffic,” the woman stated, and I lessened my grip on the handles ever so slightly. The E-meter registered a drop in tension, and the needle slid to the left.
“That’s odd,” she said, and started fiddling with knobs. “OK, do you like animals? Think of your favorite childhood pet.”
Ever so subtly I tensed my hands and the needle skyrocketed.
“How strange,” the woman frowned, and adjusted the knobs again. “Did you have a bad experience with your pet?”
“Nope,” I smiled. “She lived to an old age and passed away naturally. I loved my kitty.”
“Well, think about how you’d feel if someone close to you was hurt…”
The needle relaxed.
“Imagine a nice field on a summer day…”
The needle shot to the right.
“Imagine feeling trapped…”
“Fluffy bunnies with wiggly noses…”
This went on for five minutes, with her proclaiming something must be wrong and continually adjusting knobs after each statement.
As she confusedly examined her machine, I took the time to ask her why she was interested in Scientology and what she got out of it. She refused to answer. I prodded a little, and very politely brought up “Rumors involving people who lost their life savings to the Scientology, only to find it involved alien ghosts living in our bodies.”
That was the final straw; I my session was terminated and I was asked to leave.
“But we’re on a public sidewalk,” I explained. “I might not be able to sit in your chair”—I stood up—“but I’m still curious as to why you’re interested in Scientology and alien ghosts.”
She refused eye contact with me, so I left.
* * *
The long and short of this all is: I don’t care who worships what, unless it affects me. If someone gets wrapped up in drugs, Scientology, alcohol, or Christianity, they were going to get wrapped up in something sooner or later. Each item listed has pros and cons, and each can be damaging when taken too seriously. Join Scientology and they take all your money. Become a Catholic and you or your son (or both) get buggered from age 6 to 14. Join Islam and… Christ, there’s too much to even get into regarding Islam.
Regarding the stories of people signing away their houses or going $100,000 in debt to take Scientology courses: in my mind there is very little sympathy. I don’t cry when reading about the deaths at Jonestown, because if people choose to willingly buy into something absurd, they shouldn’t be surprised when the end result is damaging to them. Personally, I find politicians using religion to legislate a country more frightening than people signing away their life savings to any cult. Call me crazy like that.
There is, however, one reason I would put Scientology outside the “true religion” spectrum, and that’s the fact it charges for everything. Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and any other religious figure that is a staple in religious history gave away their knowledge. Scientology says: “I can save you if you sign on the dotted line and give me a huge sum of cash.” This is a business model, not a religion.
Then again, as I type those words I remember that religion actually is a business. Maybe Scientology should just be commended for its naked honesty.
Either way, going all the way back where this started: Mission Impossible 4 was a lot of fun.
I saw it twice.
And I still like Tom Cruise.