Scientology's Hard Sell

The New York Inquirer/February 22, 2007
By Cat Spencer

If you've ever been to any large retail store, you know what it's like to be greeted at the door by a salesperson with a warm smile. They are eager to help meet your needs, and they are grateful you chose their establishment. You may even feel guilty for not purchasing anything, if only because of one employee’s cheerful disposition—after all, they were helpful, weren't they? And they might be upset to lose the commission gained from your purchases. Nevertheless, in this capitalist society, you have a choice where to put your money, and it often makes all the difference in the world.

When fellow Inquirer editor Liz Keenan and I made our way through a chilly Times Square in December, we weren't sure of the exact location of the Scientology center. We knew it was somewhere in the forties, but it wasn't until we spotted a man in a bright red jacket emblazoned with a Church of Scientology advertisement.

Before entering the center, Liz and I made a pact: under no circumstances would we allow ourselves to be separated. Then, like a naïve child entering a doctor’s office, I was alarmed when Liz asked to take the stress test on the Hubbard Electrometer, named after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and I was asked to make myself busy elsewhere.

Strolling around the center waiting area, one thought danced around my head: “These people have some serious cash.” Perhaps, it had something to do with the fact that their welcome center is run very much like a retail store.

Not too long after the holidays, I went into a Best Buy to look for an extension cord for my headphones. As I entered, there was a greeter at the door repeating the phrase, “Welcome to Best Buy!” I was asked by countless clerks if I needed help and was given personal (if not perfect) service when trying to locate my desired item. Mesmerizing flat-screens and interesting gadgets were displayed in tantalizing fashion. So it was at the Scientology center, though the only thing for sale seemed to be a belief system.

I adopted the façade of a green, susceptible girl who was in a serious but controlling relationship. When I took my turn at the e-meter, Nicole (the names in this story have been changed) fiddled with the dials—think 1950s science fiction—and asked me to think about something. I did happen to think about my real boyfriend, whom I love dearly, and the needle spiked. “Woah,” said Nicole. “You’re really stressed out! What were you thinking about?”

“My boyfriend,” I replied.

“Are you guys having a lot of problems?”

I asked Nicole what the e-meter measured exactly. Heart rate? Electromagnetic pulse? “No,” she said, excitedly. “It sends a small current through your body, so it’s actually, like, measuring your thought!” My pulse quickened. I was nervous my disbelief would show and had to use every ounce of strength to stifle my laughter. Nicole concluded that I was having some serious issues with my boyfriend and that I needed Dianetics now. On the survey sheet which I was asked to fill out after viewing the film, I had indicated that I was interested in ridding myself of engrams, so I think Nicole guessed I was full of them, hence her question about my problems with the boyfriend.

Nicole’s solution to my problems was merchandise. She whipped out a package of materials that came to a grand total of $150. I politely declined, saying that my boyfriend and I were on a tight budget and that I was not at liberty to spend more than $10 without consulting him first. I could see Nicole’s eyes gleam with desire: here was a person who could be easily controlled by others. She asked if I wanted to have a private, individual consultation with a Scientology counselor. So much for my pact with Liz.

Nicole introduced me to Carter, a middle-aged man who seemed more like a car salesman than a spiritual advisor. I told Carter that I was interested in learning more about engrams, and he led me into a small office far from the front door of the center, and Liz, and forty-third street, and safety. Would I be questioned? Would I be found out? Would the jig be up? Carter asked me to sit down, and immediately dove into the pitch. “We’d really like you to come to our conference. Would you like to register?”

“How much is that?”

“Fifty dollars for the first session.”

“I really can’t afford that. My boyfriend and I are on a tight budget.”

“Is he home right now? What’s his number? I’m sure he’d understand that this is something you’re doing for yourself and the relationship. Can I give him a call?” Carter reached toward the phone on his desk and picked up the receiver. My eyes widened.

“He’s out to dinner right now”—which was true—“and I really don’t want to bother him.” Just then, my cell phone rang. Ironically, it was my boyfriend calling from his dinner. I casually hit the decline button and slipped my phone back into my bag. “I really can’t afford that right now.” Carter reminded me about the merchandise package (books, a DVD, audio discs of Hubbard giving lectures), and told me that if I couldn’t attend a session, I should consider purchasing these items. I repeated that I could not afford to.

Carter then asked me what time I usually woke up. I said 10:30AM, because the following day was a Sunday. He told me to try to get up early, that he would call first thing in the morning, at 8:30AM, and that he would speak to me and my boyfriend about attending the conference. This was too much. Relenting I gave him a fake telephone number and conceded to registering for the conference without paying. This was the second time I had been asked for my contact information, which made me nervous. Usually, places that ask for your contact info do so in order to bombard you with mailed leaflets, calls, or spam. As it is, I usually don’t give out my contact info, at least my real contact info, to people I don’t know, so I certainly wasn’t going to give it to a member of a religious organization who had already proved to be so aggressive in their handling of me.

I thanked Carter for his help and quickly left the office. At this point, I was more than ready to leave. I’ve experienced aggressive salespeople, activists, and even religious people before, but nothing could have prepared me for that. Something was very wrong, and I could feel my adrenaline surge as Liz and I left the center and walked out into the winter evening.

Money. That’s all it was about as far as I could see. It wasn’t about spiritual enlightenment, helping people, or making my life better. They wanted to take me for my hard-earned dollars through persuasion, aggression, and good old-fashioned guilt tripping. (Don’t you want to get better? Then buy this book! Attend this conference!) It was Madison Avenue thinly cloaked by religion. At least advertising companies are blatant about what they are trying to do. It’s a known fact that advertisers try to make consumers feel like they are lacking, and that the solution to their problems will come once they purchase that beer/shoe/yogurt/lipstick/cruise/handbag.

You hear about Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt; religious doctrines have relied on the tactic of shaming people into better versions of themselves. With Scientological guilt comes auditing and indoctrination. With auditing comes money—not just hundreds, but thousands of dollars worth of treatment. I’ve had people try to convert me before, so I am familiar with what that feels like. But it never felt like a sale, and I never felt pressure to purchase something. (Usually, people who want to convert you are more eager to shower you with gifts.)

As much of a hard sell as I am, I did end up relenting and spent $8 on L. Ron Hubbard’s famed self-help book, Dianetics. I freely admit that I am ashamed I helped their cause, especially with so many other worthy causes out there that could have used my money, but they were unrelenting in their shilling. I only hope that for those searching for spiritual guidance at the Church of Scientology their checks bounce.

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