Scientologists' Stress Tests In Jackson Heights Raise Questions

Queens Chronicle/February 3, 2005
By Neille Ilel

Dipika Palit said she liked "Dianetics" because the techniques in the book helped her to concentrate. "There are lots of things (in the book) that help you not to think so much," she said, noting that thinking too much is a major cause of stress.

Palit discovered L. Ron Hubbard's tract on living a healthy life, part self-help, part religion and very much controversial, in the last few weeks when followers set up a table offering free "Stress Tests" at the 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue subway station in Jackson Heights.

After flipping through a Bengali version of "Dianetics" several times, she bought it for herself, and then encouraged others from her women's group, Workers Awaaz, to experience the test. On Tuesday she brought a friend from the group to take the stress test. Her friend subsequently purchased "Dianetics" in Bengali as well. Palit said the Workers Awaaz group, made up of South Asian women who often work 50 hours a week as housekeepers and domestics, could really benefit from the advice in "Dianetics."

Commuters passing through the station, the second-busiest in Queens, have likely noticed about half a dozen people beckoning riders to sit down at their folding tables and take a free stress test. Scientologists, who first began offering the tests in Times Square and Grand Central Station last October, were so pleased with the response that they started another operation in Queens.

Reverend John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology in New York, said that by setting up shop in Queens, they are reaching out to a community that is a natural fit for their brand of self-help. "People who are looking for something new and better are interested in Scientology," he said. "Immigrant people have hope, don't they?"

Critics charge the group is a cult, and is targeting a vulnerable immigrant population. David Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a vocal critic of the organization, said Scientologists have been mired in controversy in the mainstream media, so targeting limited-English speakers makes sense. "They're less wired, less likely to find critical information," he said. "There's not a lot of anti-Scientology information in Bengali."

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said if the group is indeed selling books on MTA property it is breaking the law. Charles Seaton, a spokesperson for the MTA said religious groups like the Church of Scientology are allowed to give away literature, but they may not sell anything in subway stations.

"If they are selling books," confirmed Deirdre Parker, a spokesperson for New York City Transit, "it is a commercial enterprise and that is definitely not allowed." She said the agency would look into the group's activities in the coming days.

"For New Yorkers, problems are something to be solved," Carmichael said, explaining the popularity of the stress test. He said the test helps people focus on the cause of stress in their lives so that it can be confronted. When asked if they were allowed to sell books in the subway stations, Carmichael said the group has a relationship with the MTA and was not doing anything against the rules.

In response to claims that he is preying on vulnerable immigrants, he responded, "I think that's really patronizing. The people we've met in the immigrant population are as smart and as wise as anybody."

The stress test makes use of a device called an "E-meter." The E-meter consists of two metal cylinders that a subject holds. The device then measures "electrical charges associated with thought," Carmichael explained. The tester asks the subject to think about people or things that are important to him or her, and then queries the person about their thoughts when a high or low reading occurs. "You can actually see a thought," Carmichael said.

But many say the E-meter and its claims are nonsense. "The idea is just to get you talking," Touretzky said. "It's just a way of breaking the ice." Once they make you feel comfortable, the representatives try to sell you a book or a class, he added. He used a barnyard epithet to describe the device's scientific validity.

The Food and Drug Administration was also skeptical of the device's efficacy, and after a 1971 court case, required that it bear a warning stating it is not to be used for medical purposes. The judgment read, "It should be noted in the warning that the device has been condemned by a United States District Court for misrepresentation and misbranding under the Food and Drug laws, that use is permitted only as part of religious activity."

William Goodrich, counsel for the FDA called the device, "a couple of juice cans that you'd hold in your hands, and the sweat would generate this electrical charge between, and it would show on a little gauge."

Ann Lowe, another vocal opponent of the church, said "The 'Stress Test' is just another deceptive recruiting practice, with no basis in scientific fact. The E-meter used is only a crude measurement of the skin's electrical resistance, not a high-tech stress-testing instrument. The operators of the E-meter and the interpreters of its results are not skilled or trained psychologists, just members of the Church of Scientology." She went on to say that the group also has a 200-question personality test, which just wouldn't work as well in a public setting.

In the interest of this piece, this reporter sat down with a tester named Steve and took the stress test at the subway station last Friday. As I was waiting my turn, he was finishing up with an Indian man who had just bought "Dianetics" in Bengali. Seated at the next testing station was an older lady who was being given the test entirely in Spanish.

When I sat down, Steve, a middle-aged man with a kind demeanor, sat very close to me and stared directly into my eyes. He asked me to hold onto the metal cans and to think about an important person in my life.

Before I could pick a person to train my thoughts on, he excitedly told me he was getting a high reading and asked me whom I was thinking about. Perplexed, I told him I hadn't settled on someone yet. We tried again with the same result several times.

It was difficult to connect the "high readings" on the machine with anything meaningful going on in my head, and I began to get nervous as Steve leaned ever closer to me and asked me increasingly more personal questions. Throughout the session, he pointed out pictures in Dianetics that could be applicable to my life.

After the session was finished, he tried to sell me a copy of the book. After some back-and-forth, I was able to convince him I didn't have $8 in cash, which incidentally, was the truth. As I was getting up to leave, he told me I should consider getting a new hat as the one I was wearing was less than flattering. Since he had been so empathetic before, I left with the distinct impression he had turned on me after I refused to buy the book.

"It's a matter of taste," Carmichael said when I related my experience. Certainly the technique hits the right note with some people, since the table in the Jackson Heights subway station is never lacking interested commuters, and in the few minutes I was there, more than one book was sold. Buyers of the books were also asked for an address and phone number.

Touretzky emphasized that the danger was not that a person might pay $8 for a book, but that they would be sold ever more expensive classes and eventually be controlled by the church.

"Let me be clear," he said, "they are a cult that maintains a high degree of control over their members." They run a lucrative bait and switch operation, which promises its members ever-higher states of emotional freedom as long as they pay thousands of dollars for classes. "It's all about lying to people," Touretzky said.

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