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After days of record warmth, all is gray. First sheets, then trickles, of rain come down. Through the storefront windows at 1011 Nicollet Mall, the Church of Scientology of Minnesota seems bright, open and warm. Posters advertise personality, toxicity and IQ tests -- free and immediately available. At one of the tables abutting the windowpane, a young man in a black hooded sweatshirt diligently fills in small ovals on a test. Bright paperbacks and posters of golden, erupting volcanoes frame the space around him. Come, step out of the rain -- and discover your full potential.
As I step inside, a kind- and weary-looking man jumps from his post at the front desk to greet me. It's raining, I tell him, and ask, what is this place?
He extends his well-muscled, lean hand -- the hand of a laborer. He is Bernie, a volunteer, and says this is the Church of Scientology. It basically believes you are a soul inhabiting a body that can get toxic, so the church helps you clear it and reach your potential.
"You see," he says, his eyes opening a little wider, "you are so much more than you've been taught you can be."
He reaches for one of the thousand or so books on the shelves as one might reach for a bottle of medicine, haltingly yet reverently.
"This book," he begins, "saved my life."
An American flag is pinned over his heart on his navy zip-up jacket. His pinstriped gray and white shirt is tucked neatly into a pair of blue pants. I ask how he got involved in Scientology.
Bernie owns an auto diagnostics business. Things got stressful, so he took a management course; the teacher used a "tone scale" to help him discern and deal with people's basic dispositions. Like all of these books, he says, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard developed this chart, and, look, here it is.
Bernie opens one of the thinner, cheaper ($3.75) books and displays the realm of human beings divided into strata, from the gray and glowering at the bottom, to the clear and serene at the top.
"You see," he says, pointing to the darkest circles, "not everyone is on your side. About 2 percent of people in the world are Suppressive Persons; they want to keep you from being happy."
With the exception of the clear circles at the top, each type or tone goes along with certain illnesses. Suppressive agents cause most illnesses, Bernie explains. Take someone he knows, he says, locked up in a mental hospital because "he didn't have this technology to deal with the abuse in his past."
The lines in Bernie's face run deep -- creases across his forehead, ravines from the corners of his mouth to his chin, light gray eyes turned down at the corners like a sheepdog's - I turn to another thin, coloring book-like publication on the rack. Why the public relations book amidst these communication and basic Scientology guides?
Bernie smiles, recalling when he first told friends of his newfound religion, and how they dismissed it as "that cult from California." But, he says, that book taught him how people just make things up about things they don't know about. And -- since Scientology has the power to change so many lives -- some, like the mental health industry, are afraid of it hurting their bottom line.
On a table next to the rack are free tickets to a marriage video that is "now playing." When does this show again? "Oh, it's all set up and ready to go, let me get Troy."
"Sorry," I tell the young, tall, athletic-looking man who has bounced out from behind the wall of books and cubicle dividers, "I have to go."
I ask Bernie if he'll be here tomorrow. No, he says, he is "just a volunteer, but Troy's here every day."
I ask if what he's learned has helped him with business.
Yes, he still owns his busines. But "it's too toxic" -- it makes him ill, and he has to think of his health.
I load up with free glossy booklets and head into what's now a drizzle.
On the bus, the pamphlets yield multiple definitions of Scientology. It seems to be a complete and total system or way of thinking, rolling science, philosophy and psychiatry all into one mega-thought system. One claim, however, is consistent: Scientology in any of its forms offers "practical solutions" to every problem in the world -- debt, war, depression, fatigue, anxiety. I just I had to define my problem.
I say hello to a woman in a pinstriped brown and black outfit at the front desk, and Troy emerges in his pressed shirt, tie and gray slacks. "You're back!" he says with a flash of his even white smile.
The brochures seem contingent upon taking the personality test, I explain; I only have a half-hour, is that enough?
Indeed, this will help it all come together, he says, and the test only takes as long as I need it to.
The woman at the front desk sets to her task, which involves calling people out of the phone book. I resist the urge to interrupt and ask what certain test questions are meant to reveal: "Do you intend two or less children in your family even though your health and income permit more?" "If we were invading another country, would you feel sympathetic towards conscientious objectors in this country?" and "Would the idea of inflicting pain on game, small animals or fish prevent you from hunting and fishing?"
I answer honestly, "yes," "yes" and "yes."
By the time I finish (about 10 minutes) I've admitted to allowing "external noise" to disturb my concentration, being "a slow eater" who is "touchy about certain things about [my]self" and occasionally "feel[ing] compelled to repeat some interesting item or tidbit."
Troy takes the non-computerized answer sheet and retreats into the cubicle space for processing.
He doesn't complain about my skipping the blanks for address and phone number, having given just a first name and a rarely used e-mail address.
I return to the rack containing Bernie's "tone scale" to browse.
I hear Troy take a call. He gives directions. Pause. Then he explains: "Scientology is a church, it believes you are a spirit inhabiting a body -- is Saturday the only day you can come in?" (Troy isn't there on weekends.) Pause. "It's about science, but it's a church, it's about practical solutions -- it's like one plus one equals two."
While he talks her into coming in before Saturday, I pick up another glossy life manual by or based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard, then flip through the Scientology bible, "Dianetics."
Words here don't seem to mean what they mean on the other side of the windows; they are twisted into new terms, such as "evolutes: evolves, develops," or "file clerk: Dianetic auditor's slang for the mechanism of the mind which acts as a data monitor...".
Then there are whole new terms, like "preclear: an individual entered into and undergoing Dianetic therapy; from pre-Clear, a person not yet Clear."
Troy emerges with the prognosis: I'm down on seven of 10 counts, below "normal" and in an "unacceptable state," in need of "immediate assistance" as I suffer from: depression, a lack of accord, being critical, not being outgoing enough, nervousness, irresponsibility and being unstable or dispersed.
I stammer, try to explain/defend myself as Troy's finger points to each of my documented downfalls: well, I can be blunt, but I'm also the primary caregiver in my family, so how can I be irresponsible?
Troy explains that responsibility is not "like, 'Do I pay my bills on time or vote.' It's like, are you causative or do you let life happen to you -- like cause and effect. Don't I want to take control of my life?"
I don't feel out of control, so I shrug my shoulders. Troy cocks his head, smiles, and moves his index finger to my most significant problem -- the one point on the chart Troy has drawn a small cloud around: I'm depressed.
I had no idea.
Do I find that I'm often energetic for a few days, and then hit a low again? Not beyond a normal energy cycle, I reply.
Am I scattered, doing too many things at once?
I like doing lots of things; otherwise I get bored.
Troy laughs a little and leans back in his chair. "Let me ask you something: What's the one thing in your life you'd like to improve?"
Well, I did wake up recently feeling like something is missing in my life. I mainly ducked in because of the rain and because I work Downtown, but I did think the tools in this place looked attractive, like they could help me figure out what's missing. Maybe this isn't the right tool? Is this Oxford Capacity Analysis from Oxford University? No, says Troy, he thinks it was developed in the town of Oxford, though. Then he moves on.
"What brought you in here? Usually people say they want to get more out of life or communicate better - be more expressive."
Huh, maybe that's it: I need to do more artwork.
Troy looks puzzled for a moment then leaps up to "go get something." He comes back with Hubbard's "A New Slant on Life."
"This book changed my life," he says. "I gave it to all my friends."
He opens and points to the table of contents - it covers most areas of human interest, the answers to questions that have tormented philosophers for centuries.
How can one man know so much?
"Well, he's an amazing guy," Troy responds.
L. Ron Hubbard is the best-selling author ever in the world, and as a writer, he experienced things he wrote about. He became a logger to write about logging, he worked on ships as a fisherman.
Wasn't he mainly a science fiction writer? Didn't I read something about other worlds by him when I was in high school?
"Well, I don't know if you would've read it in high school, but yes, he published books in the '20s to fund his research. In 1950, he put it all together and created Dianetics."
"Even in 30 years of research, how could he figure all of this out?"
Troy decides to tell me a story. At Hubbard's last birthday party (an event celebrated annually even though he died in the '80s), a servant of his in South Africa talked about how he lived in a black area of town despite the fact that he was white. Hubbard was eventually thrown out for his anti-apartheid work.
Wow, I never heard about that. How did he have the time to fight apartheid and figure Dianetics out?
Troy smiles and explains that he never got too into knowing the man's history; Troy was more interested in utilizing the principles in the book.
It's been over an hour. I walk to the woman at the front desk and ask for a take-home version of the test, for my husband. Behind me, I hear, "Let me show you something," and with that Troy has another thick paperback in a young black man's hands.
"Yeah, yeah," says the man, who is wearing a mid-length black leather jacket, "I had a couple friends read it and they said it was real deep."
On my way out, take-home test in hand, behind me I hear, "Let me ask you something: What's the one thing about your life you'd like to change?"
Over breakfast at Hell's Kitchen, "Josh" -- me -- completes the exam guessing how a super-Scientologist would answer. "Josh" doesn't prefer a few close friends but prefers a wide net of familiars; he wants us to breed like rabbits, which, of course, he has no problem shooting. He also feels comfortable telling others every opinion he has, even if he can't prove what he's saying and is generally not influenced by his emotions in his personal interactions.
This time, another man sits at the front desk. He seems preoccupied, but looks up when I come in. He extends his long thin hands to take the pink fold-up test, but withdraws when I tell him it's for my husband - and I could get him to take it but not to come in.
"Well, it isn't much use without talking about it with somebody," he says softly, but with deep concern.
"Well, I'd like to see how our charts compare."
An easygoing manager-type approves running the results. Her informal black suit brings out her auburn hair and peach-colored cheeks. After just a minute or so, she comes back with them. "This is a nice looking chart," she says, indicating the eight of 10 counts where Josh/superman is in the "optimum range."
He's aggressive, responsible, outgoing - very impressive. But there are a couple areas where he's just normal: he can be critical and isn't very appreciative. If I'm interested, there's a solution - a glossy little book on marriage and the primer, "Components of Understanding."
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