Several months ago, The Sunday Paper’s managing editor, Conal Byrne, noticed a bright yellow inflatable tent in the square in downtown Decatur. There was a sign offering a free stress test, so he thought he’d try it out.
He was hooked up to a device called an e-meter (see sidebar) by a polite middle-aged man who regretfully told him that he couldn’t seem to get a reading on him. It was at about this point that Byrne noticed literature for the Church of Scientology placed conveniently throughout the tent. There was no hard sell, no coercion of any kind. Byrne said thanks, walked out, and that was the end of it.
Suddenly Scientology is everywhere, with Tom Cruise’s shiny, happy face plastered on top of it. It’s so Hollywood—all good vibrations and celebrity smiles. But Scientology’s not new. It’s been around since sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard wrote a book called “Dianetics,” published in 1950, a year when America’s collective sci-fi imagination, fueled by the race to the moon, was soaring.
And Scientology’s not just a California thing. The church has one location in the metro area, on Mount Vernon Road in Dunwoody.
The Church of Scientology’s Web site introduces the organization’s aims like this: “The aims of Scientology are a world without insanity, without criminals, without war, where the able can prosper and where Man is free to rise to greater heights … And if you were to ask any Scientologist they would tell you it is a practical religion, with practical answers—tools that can be applied to achieve greater awareness and purpose in the here and now.”
Above all, it is an organization that claims to have the solutions to every problem, and in that way, it is no different from any other religion. But for those who have left it behind, life as a Scientologist stands in stark contrast to life before and life after it. The organization’s appeal, according to Timothy Renick, an associate professor of religion at Georgia State University, is its focus on the individual.
“It offers them a psychological and individualistic personal vision that is very much in contrast to the communal view of most other religions,” says Renick. “There is an individual aspect to it, a path to personal fulfillment without having to attend church or temple.” Renick points out that he personally has received their literature in the mail—part of their attempt, he says, to actively seek out academics to help dispel their cult stigma.
Karen and Peter Schless were living in Los Angeles when Peter wrote the hit single "On the Wings of Love" with Jeffrey Osborne in 1982. The success catapulted the Schlesses onto the radar of Hollywood’s sizeable Scientology community and they became members of the religion that same year. The idea, according to Karen, was that they would recruit celebrities for the group. By 1989 they were living at the Church of Scientology’s desert compound outside L.A., training others in its doctrines, taking courses themselves, and performing landscaping duties for $45 a week. Almost 10 years later, with the help of a friend, Karen “escaped”—her word for it—from the compound and flew home to Atlanta. She never spoke with her husband again. Their divorce was executed via mail. She had been, in the terminology of Scientology, “disconnected”—cut off because she had rebelled.
Today, Karen Schless runs a ministry called Wings of Love, which is aimed at sharing her story. She recently co-authored a book titled “Seven Secrets to Timely Beauty,” published by Harvest House Books and due to be released in July at the Christian Booksellers Convention. Last week, she got a call from a magazine to write an article “about the whole Tom Cruise thing” from her perspective as a former Scientologist.
"Tom Cruise’s experiences are bringing Scientology into the forefront,” she says. “I've been worried this would happen for almost 20 years. I was a member for 17 years. Tom is just a 'public Scientologist.' I worked there on the inside. I saw the other side that Tom doesn’t see."
Karen attempted to leave the desert compound—which she says was fenced in with chain link and barbed wire—in 1990 and again in 1993, before succeeding in 1998.
“It was a cult-like atmosphere,” she says. “We were under a 24-hour security watch. I got there in 1989. I asked, ‘Why the chain-link fence?’ and was told it was to keep out intruders. I later discovered it was to keep in the staff.”
She says that staffers at the facility were not allowed to have telephones, cell phones or personal computers. They were not allowed to log onto the Internet. They had a television, but it was later confiscated by security. They were not allowed to receive telephone calls from family or friends unless it went through a security guard who listened in. Women could not get pregnant if they wished to remain on staff.
“I knew a lot of women who were manipulated into having abortions," she says.
(Scientology literature states that the group believes that it is forbidden to destroy another human life, but there is some disagreement within its ranks, just as there is in other groups, regarding when a fetus is considered a living human being.)
So why don’t people leave?"When you first learn about Scientology you’re taught that it is very helpful to you—increases communication, healthier living, a drug purification program that helped us get off drugs—all those things are helpful in the beginning,” Karen Schless says. “But you start to question, ‘Why in the world am I involved in this?’”
By that time, members have often invested tens of thousands of dollars in Scientology’s counseling program.
“When you’ve invested that much money you look at your wisdom and if you’re not happy and you realize you’ve made a mistake, it’s really hard to admit,” she says. “You can kiss a couple hundred thousand dollars goodbye. Especially if your friends and families have been telling you it’s a cult. It’s very, very hard to bite the bullet and admit they were right. Many people stay in to protect their investment and not let people prove them wrong."
Schless concurs with media speculation that has pegged Tom Cruise as a recently confirmed OT VII—the second highest level attainable in Scientology. She says that if he's paid for all his services, he’s easily sunk $500,000 into the process. What’s more, the Church of Scientology may have amassed voluminous records of everything he’s ever done.
“Everything that he has disclosed in his counseling sessions, every personal detail in his life, every sin he’s committed, is all documented in folders,” she says. “As paying customers, we were told our files were confidential.”
But when Schless became part of the staff, she says she was shocked at the lack of confidentiality and the number of people who had access to the information in those files.
Aside from the financial embarrassment and the potential social embarrassment lurking in the files, she says the staff’s tight schedule made it difficult to get away. The staffers were allowed to drive cars to apartments they rented about five miles away, and this five-minute drive was the only time of day when Schless says she and her husband could actually be alone. Although even that was relative: They shared an apartment with another Scientology couple.
But that August day in 1998, in the searing desert heat, the schedule had changed for some reason and a window of time between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. had opened.
When the Schlesses had finished their landscaping shift and returned to the apartment to shower, Karen did what she always did, making it look as though she were sticking to the routine—preparing to do laundry. Hiding her toiletries among the “laundry,” she threw the basket in the backseat.
“A security guard was walking by and said 'getting an early start on laundry?' ‘Yeah,’ I said, and I drove away making it look like I was going back to base,” she recalls. “I cut through the highway that went to the Santa Monica freeway. I took that road into L.A. I had no destination, $48 and the keys to my car. In order for me to leave I had to leave everything behind including my husband. I had talked to him for 9 months prior to leaving and told him we needed to leave. He was very brainwashed and I realized I had lost him. He chose not to leave with me.”
Karen was a clothes designer for Scientology, which meant that she had contact with outside vendors. She called one of them, with whom she’d been having talks about God, and he provided her with a plane ticket and a way to the airport.
She flew to Atlanta, to her family, from whom she had been separated for 16 years.
The day she arrived, either her husband Peter or some member of Scientology’s security called every couple of hours. She chose not to answer the calls because, she says, she was afraid she would break down and go back.
Six months later she returned to L.A. to get permission to leave the group officially.
“If you leave Scientology unauthorized, they put you into a status called ‘suppressive person.’ You can’t just walk out. If you’re in a Christian church and you change your mind and you don’t want to be in that religion anymore you walk out,” she explains. “In Scientology they have such control and ownership over every aspect of your life that you believe you have to leave with their authority. I was still in that state of mind. I believed when I went out to L.A. I was going to talk sense into Peter. I have never spoken one word to Peter since the day I left Scientology. When he was calling my mother’s house he didn’t want to speak to me. He wanted to know about me, but he talked to her … In any case he refused to talk to me and he has never spoken to me. We got divorced by mail."
It took her a month to get the permission she sought.
Schless says that she was contacted by a publisher to co-write a script in 2001 about her experience. It was in editorial production when an attorney contacted the publisher’s legal department and told them if they produced the piece, there would be a major lawsuit.
According to Andreas Heldal-Lund, who maintains an anti-Scientology Web site dubbed “Operation Clambake” (“The Scientologists like to call everything an ‘operation,” he quips.) at www.xenu.net, such legal intimidation is par for the course. Heldal-Lund himself, a managing director for an American company in Norway, says that he is constantly in touch with his attorneys to fend off their harassment. He became interested in the group in the 1990s, after reading about a man who had successfully sued the church to get back all the money he’d spent with them.
Heldal-Lund has never been a member himself, but he anchors a network of former Scientologists who feel wronged by the church, and who check into his site from around the globe.
Local and national officials with the Church of Scientology did not return calls for this story. Edward Parkin, VP of Cultural Affairs at CoS in L.A. said that he would call us back for this article, but he did not. To learn more about Scientology from the church itself, visit www.scientology.org.
According to an article that appeared in the Boston Herald, Scientologists believe that a galactic ruler named Xenu brought billions of people to Earth 75 million years ago, stacked them around volcanoes, and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Their souls then clustered together and stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to cause people problems today.
Scientologists believe that information about their doctrine should come directly from the writings of “Source” (deceased founder L. Ron Hubbard). However, here are some tenets of Scientology as provided by Answers.com: