When we walked into the recently opened Church of Scientology in Detroit, located downtown at 1 Griswold Blvd., a man in an ill-fitting black suit jumped up from behind the front desk and immediately told us to fill out a “survey,” asking for our full names, addresses, phone numbers, emails and reason for the visit: “Do you want to be more successful?” “Do you have deep insecurities from your past that are holding you back?”
“When you’re finished, you can go to the room on the left, and Tony will meet you,” he said.
A few days earlier I made a reservation for a tour, carelessly using my real name and email address. I realized that was a mistake when I received a message at 7:00 p.m. on Friday from the church “host” Tony, asking if I was a student and if my friends were also students, and “If so, would you please let us know? See you soon, Tony.”
This time I used false information and only my first name. My two friends who came with me, Dom and Annie, used false information as well.
Founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, the Church of Scientology was originally intended as a mental health science based on his writings on “Dianetics,” the study of the human as a spiritual being, before it was rebranded as a religion in 1953 for tax purposes.
Since its inception, the church and its core members have been convicted of a litany of crimes, including fraud, domestic espionage, illicit association, extortion, violations of labor law and practicing medicine without a license. The church has also been accused of money laundering, coercing members to have abortions, child slavery, ledging smear campaigns, brainwashing, organized harassment of journalists and institutionalized assault by executives levied against lower officials.
We hand in our surveys, and Annie notices an open guest book, grabs a pen and begins to write in it. “OH!” the man yelps, and throws his hand beneath hers. “This is only for … This is only for those who are ready for it,” he says.
We each nod, like nothing could be more natural.
We walk through the high-ceilinged lobby and bear left. The décor is anachronistic, aiming for posh 1950s New York Plaza Hotel but accomplishing something closer to a sterile hospital foyer accented with imitation gold. Lining the left wall is a large black-and-white portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard, next to a bookshelf with dozens of pristine copies of “Dianetics” for sale, each copy wrapped in a thin plastic. We pass under his gaze and enter a long, rectangular offshoot of the lobby filled with several media viewing stations. These stations each have a large television placed in front of an ottoman, with touchscreen controls at the base of the television so you can choose a video and adjust the volume. The videos cover topics like “The Analytical Mind” and “Past Traumas.”
We meet Tony here. He’s a heavier set man with a scattered dark beard. He’s also wearing a black suit and a strange tie that’s cream-colored lengthwise and brown at the knot. He shakes our hands and asks our names.
“What brings you in today?”
“Just interest,” I reply.
He brings us over to one of the viewing stations and tells us to take a seat. The videos will explain everything we could want to know. He selects one.
A disembodied voice begins asking us rhetorical questions while clouds fill the screen.
“In your own daily life, do you sometimes experience self-doubt? Negative thoughts? Unreasonable fears, upsets or irrational behavior? The painful experiences of our past clearly have an effect on our present behavior. But to what degree? And why?”
A woman appears on the screen throwing objects — clothing, a suitcase, memorabilia — out of her apartment window, shrieking, “It’s over! It’s over!” at a man standing below.
“What causes the mind to depart from rational thought? Behavior? That is the subject of Dianetics.”
The video goes on to describe, in so many words, the mind as a record keeper — that these past records are what keeps us from present happiness. It’s not clear to me what separates this from mainstream psychology, so I ask Tony. He replies that psychology studies not the whole person, but the brain and the functions of the body. I ask for a little more clarification. “It doesn’t address them as a spiritual being,” he presses.
He further explains the concept of the repressed mind with an analogy: “It’s like having a rock in your shoe. If you have a rock in the bottom of your shoe, you don’t know that it’s there. You walk around, your foot hurts, you’re changing the way that your gait goes, throws your back out, your hip starts to hurt, having problems in different places. It all stems from having a rock in your shoe, but until you find that piece that you don’t know about, you can’t solve it.”
He walks with us over to a shelf and picks up a golden machine. It has an oval face with a little black arrow that moves back and forth. The design looks like what science fiction writers in 1980s thought technology would look like in the 2000s: flashy, overly large, reminiscent of an old radio box refurbished and painted gold.
“That’s why we have auditing sessions. Auditors use these E-Meters to help find that rock.”
Tony says that there are dozens of people in the building trained to use these machines during sessions, wherein an auditor asks the subject pointed questions about themselves while the subject holds onto two metal clamps attached to the E-Meter. The auditor registers movement via the small, sensitive dial of the E-meter, and that movement apparently registers negative brain activity.
Annie steps up to test it out. She holds the two metal clamps, and Tony pinches her on her arm — “This is a tiny trauma, but it will register on the E-Meter” — and we all lean in to watch the needle. It wavers back and forth, and I can’t tell what the verdict is.
Tony follows it closely. “See, look how it moves,” he says. We all nod, assuming he can see something on that meter that we could not.
Tony was in the Navy before he became a Scientologist. Prior to enlisting, he studied psychology at a university but dropped out. He told us that L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” made far more sense to him than anything he read in his textbooks.
We walk around the left wing for a little while longer, asking him more questions about himself and the building.
The Church of Scientology of Michigan moved to this downtown location just a few weeks ago. The building dates back to 1927 and was designed by prominent American-Italian architect Corrado Parducci, who also designed the Masonic Temple and The Guardian Building just across the street. The church purchased the entire building and occupies all eight floors. Two are course rooms, where Scientologists study their literature. One is dedicated to auditing; one is a bookstore; one is a service center; one is administrations; one is for the executives; one is a chapel (on the day I visited, a christening was taking place there).
Before the building was purchased by the church, it was occupied by a bank. Long before that, it was the site of the first building on record ever constructed in Michigan, the Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church.
The Church of Scientology spent the last 10 years renovating the interior, and it officially opened on Oct. 14 of this year. David Miscavige, the leader of Scientology himself, gave an opening address. According to the church, the ceremony was attended by a crowd of more than 2,000.
Tony is visibly proud of the building and brings us to the old bank vault, which they’ve converted into a conference room. The ceiling is low. Tony’s voice is clear among a claustrophobic silence. Looking down over the white circular table in the center is another black-and-white photo of L. Ron Hubbard, the same as the one in the lobby. There’s a Keurig on a low rise shelf beneath a large television mounted to the wall.
I ask if we might see the rest of the of the floors.
“We have free personality exams on the fourth, would you be interested?”
The fourth floor is filled with more men in ill-fitting suits. A large one strides by wearing a Yankees beanie. A shorter, older woman dons a black turban. A man with a thin, sculpted beard wears two gold hoop earrings. Later, we learn his name is Eddie.
Tony brings us over to the Testing and Registration Center, and sits us down at four desks, each with exam books. The test is called the Oxford Capacity Analysis™ Exam, and there are 200 questions, each answered with a +, M (for “Maybe”) or -. Here are a few of them:
“60. Do you consider the modern ‘prisons without bars’ system doomed to failure?”
“98. Would you use corporal punishment on a child aged ten if it refused to obey you?”
“130. Are you aware of any habitual physical mannerisms, such as pulling your hair, nose, ears, or such like?”
“163. Would you like to ‘start a new activity’ in the place in which you live?”
By question 70 I’ve noticed that I’m profoundly hungover, and begin losing the ability to answer the questions earnestly, so I bubble them in at random, making zig-zags like I did in middle school science classes. Annie begins to do the same. A woman peers over from behind the registration desk, noticing our rapid bubbling. She chews her gum slowly and glances back down at her phone. We wait for Dom, who’s taking the exam quite seriously. Twenty minutes later (there was a School Smart™ timer on each of our desks) we hand our scantrons in together.
As we wait for our results, several people show up to stand next to the registration desk, and begin whispering to each other with worried expressions. Then the woman behind the desk asks Annie if she’d like to have her consultation first, and she agrees. She’s taken to one of several glassed-in conference rooms behind the registration desk and waves us goodbye. Dom is next, and he goes with Eddie, the man with the golden hoop earrings and the sculpted beard. About 10 minutes later, the woman finishes with Annie and calls me back.
I sit in a chair facing the window, which looks over the Detroit River. I can see the shoreline of Windsor, Canada with the bright Caesars sign above the city. The woman sits next to me at a white desk. She’s not chewing gum anymore.
“I’m Maya,” she says. “Have you ever taken a personality test before?”
Maya has a reserved aura, and hunches her shoulders over the desk as she talks. Her hair is dark and vaguely curly, her face noticeably round.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Cool. So this is a tool that we use — it’s not my opinion of you. It’s your opinion of yourself.”
I nod, and she pulls out a graph with my fake name and fake information in the top left corner. The graph has 10 sections, labeled A through J, and each section has a trait at the top and its counter at the bottom. “Stable” is opposite “Unstable,” “Happy” opposite “Depressed,” “Responsible” opposite “Irresponsible” and so on. The graph goes from +100 at the top, along the positive traits, to -100 at the bottom, along the negative traits. My graph is entirely in the negative half of the grid.
Maya is being cautious, and says with a tone of regret, “Right here is the normal area,” circling the top half of the graph, “And here … is where you’re at.” My graph put me at -100 for nervousness, -88 for depression and -79 for instability.
“So the results are … that it shows that you’re unstable…”
I nod again, and she lowers her voice.
“You’re … depressed.”
“You’re a really nervous person.”
“Sometimes you’re really active, sometimes you’re not active at all.”
“And then right here is aggressiveness. So you’re really putting yourself out there. Then … over here is … you’re kind of irresponsible.”
“But, you’re a pretty appreciative person.”
She looks up from the graph and smiles at me.
Maya lists the rest of my character flaws, and suggests that I am likely dealing with some past trauma from my childhood, probably something related to abandonment by parental figure. When she’s done, she asks me how all of this makes me feel.
“Well, it checks out,” I tell her.
Maya offers me some literature on upcoming courses, as well as an evaluation packet. The front reads, “This is your personalized route to happiness and success. Start today!”
She points to a pamphlet on a course titled “Personal Efficiency.”
“This personal efficacy (sic) course really helped me when I started out,” she says. “When I came in, I was like -100 on everything. Now I’m in the normal range.” When I later researched the course online, I saw it had a required seminar “donation” of $50.
Maya attended culinary school in California and was hoping to become a baker when she found the church. Struggling in a bad relationship, she took the Oxford Capacity Analysis™ Exam at a Scientology center in August, and subsequently signed up for some classes. In September, as the relationship worsened, she decided to leave California and work full time for the church. I asked if she still baked. She said yes, sometimes.
“The church really helped me work through things from my past,” she said. “I’m more confident now, my chart is better.”
When I hear the trajectory that led Maya to the church, I feel guilty, as if my half-hearted attempt at joining Scientology was a direct slight towards her, and one she didn’t deserve. But later, when Dom, Annie and I compared our graphs, we noticed they that each appeared disturbingly similar. We are all, according to the Church of Scientology, very nervous, very depressed, very unstable and very aggressive.
In my mind, the scam was too obvious. What cult would recruit you by saying you’re fine as you are? Certainly not one as successful as the Church of Scientology. Though their numbers have greatly diminished since their peak in the late 20th century, estimates hold that anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people worldwide are committed to Scientology today. Their reach is undeniable, and not just among well-publicized, powerful celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Average people dissatisfied with their lives continue to seek solace in the church.
Despite the documentaries, the exposés and the criminal charges, the church continues to successfully recruit members because there is no shortage of vulnerable people who crave the acknowledgement of personhood this sort of organization claims to offer. Ultimately, the escape that Scientology promises with just a few paid courses and some overpriced books is too enticing to deny when reality offers only duller truths.
For those who don’t have a support system in place when they’re distraught and need to be heard, I can imagine that it’s not strange and amusing for a kind woman with dark curly hair to hold their hands softly on a desk, look them in the eyes and affirm quietly, “You’re … depressed.” It’s a revelation.
Eddie, the man who spoke with Dom about his character insufficiencies, takes us to the elevator. As we wait for it to arrive, Eddie tells us that he went to Vermont for a year to play soccer on a full ride, but tore his ACL, so he had to quit the team and lost his scholarship. He went home for a year, and then did community college for another before transferring to New York University. He joined the church in 2011.
He mentions multiple times that his wife is upstairs, and that his kid is downstairs in the children’s room. In the lobby, we see a boy no older than 12 running around in a Pokemon T-shirt. This is Tony’s son, Jason. Tony tells Jason to go back downstairs.
Eddie brings us back through the lobby offshoot with the watching stations, talking quickly as we walk behind him. He grabs a plastic-wrapped book from one of the shelves and hands it to Dom.
“This one book more than anything else really helped me. This is the one that you should definitely get. Don’t walk out of here without that book. It’s only $20, it’s not like a big thing. I don’t know, a lot of people try to push it, but I don’t like to push it too hard. A lot of people need to take it at their own pace. I’m reading — you know what I’m reading right now? — I’m reading ‘Battlefield Earth.’ It’s like a fiction book, by L. Ron Hubbard. There’s a lot of technology in it. It’s about like aliens, this and that … Here, and this book too has all the stuff, it’s got impact, self reliance, communication, everything, you know it can like, bring your responsibility up, and I told you, if you want to do the seminar, just, I’ll give you my cell phone number, let me know when you come back, it’s only $30 more. I’m not gonna charge you $50, you know, that’s fucked up. A lot of people are pushy pushy but I’m not like that. We do have other small pamphlets, if you think you’d be into that, for like $5 dollars. It’s up to you guys, it’s about what you guys want to get out of it. DVDs too. Here, take one. Anything? No? Have you guys seen the vault?”