Scientology: The Story You Haven’t Heard

Illustrated by ELLIOT SALAZAR.
Scientology is a story told in headlines. We know it through tabloid exposés, South Park parodies, and that time Tom Cruise went weird on us. But, what do we really know about the average Scientologist — aside from what we've read on Wikipedia? In the last decade, the church has claimed exponential growth in membership, reporting an estimated 8 million members. And, though many have claimed inflation in those numbers, even if we take the lowest available estimate of 25,000 practitioners, it's clear that the vast majority of those people are not Tom Cruise.
They're Elaine*. Aside from requesting that we use a pseudonym, she appears to be a typical millennial in most respects. A petite, excitable, 30-year-old woman living in midtown Manhattan, she runs an event-planning business, watches Sex and the City reruns, and is dying to get a cat. Elaine is the kind of person you stick with at the cocktail party when you don't know anyone else. She's chatty, open, and doesn't scare easy. She swears a lot.
It's something not often mentioned about Scientologists: They're people persons. When I reached out to church representatives in May, asking if they might connect me with an average member to profile, I was naturally wary of conversion attempts (and, secretly wary of whether or not they might work). But, though Elaine gave me a frank and detailed look inside the world of her faith, she never once offered me a personality test.
What started in the 1950s as a fringe organization based on the theories of writer L. Ron Hubbard now claims more than "9,000 churches, missions, and affiliated groups" worldwide. The church's teachings offer potential members "a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one's true spiritual nature and one's relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe, and the Supreme Being."
Elaine and I met up on a wet afternoon in early summer at the church's Times Square location, where she was hosting a small art sale featuring Israeli artists. The church often rents out its large event hall to outside groups, and Elaine helps oversee the arrangements. Like many practitioners, she invests much of her time assisting with Scientology events and activities. She also works with a Scientology-sponsored drug education program. Like many of these sponsored associations, it's been accused of covertly pushing Scientology rhetoric in the secular world. But, if I was concerned about conversion tricks, both Elaine and the church were eager to show me they had none up their sleeves.
The event hall was lined with bright, graphic murals depicting the golden symbols of Scientology, and capped with a bronze bust of L. Ron Hubbard himself. A small clutch of church volunteers chatted in the corner, but otherwise the room was empty and quiet enough to hear the trumpeting score of an introductory film playing on a loop in the screening room next door, should any curious visitors decide to drop in.
Although her father was (and remains) an active Scientologist, Elaine was not raised as one. Growing up in suburban Long Island, she was brought up and bat mitzvah'd in her mother's Jewish faith. She currently identifies as a Jewish Scientologist.
She came to Scientology after her first year of college. "I had a difficult time in my life," she explains, alluding to the "difficult time" most young adults encounter around the same age. The typical 19-year-old might barrel on through with a philosophy course and a case of beer, but Elaine instead reached for a book from her dad, called A New Slant On Life. An early work of L. Ron Hubbard, the book seemed to speak to her directly.
"It was very practical and wasn't complicated, and it was, like, everything I thought, on paper. It was, like, weird!"
A New Slant On Life promised to deliver "Scientology truths that describe conditions in your life and exact ways to improve them." It was the catalyst that inspired Elaine to buy a package of auditing sessions at her local church.
Auditing sessions are sold in 12.5-hour blocks, and can cost between $850 and $2,500, depending on the rank of the auditor. Many have likened Scientology auditing to Catholic confession or talk therapy, and it is indeed a similar process, except for the electrodes in your hands. While holding these e-meter sensors, the subject answers an auditor's questions in a lengthy process of self-discovery. Difficult memories and experiences (referred to as "engrams") are recalled and verbalized until the engram no longer registers a negative impact on the subject. Elaine describes it as "getting rid of bad experiences."
It's not unusual for new Scientologists to become hooked on auditing after only one visit. Kirstie Alley wrote of her own conversion, which allowed her to quit cocaine in a near-miraculous instant: "I had one Scientology session and never did cocaine again," she stated in her memoir. "Not a single speck."
Elaine soon signed up for the Purification Rundown. Like all of Scientology's programs, it costs an additional fee, but it is a necessary step toward becoming a high-functioning Scientologist.
"The first barrier to spiritual betterment — or mental or emotional betterment — is drugs and toxins, because they fog your memory," she explained of the Rundown. Hubbard believed these toxins were stored in fat cells. "So, you run to get your circulation going," Elaine says of Scientology's method for cleansing the body. "The drugs come out of the fat and go in the bloodstream. That's why people have flashbacks and so on. Then, you go in a sauna and you sweat it out." The program prescribes high-dose vitamins to enable this release. "The body doesn't let go of things unless it's supplemented with something else. You take vitamins so your body is willing to get rid of the bad stuff and use the vitamins to build up. And, when you finish it, you've basically gotten this all out of your body."
These steps are repeated daily for up to a month. Then, the real work begins.
This is a reported story, written by a respected journalist. At Refinery29 we tell young women’s stories, and this is the story of one young woman. Readers are welcome to discuss the content of the piece and the issues it raises. You are welcome to disagree vehemently! However, attacking and abusing our writer is not an acceptable use of our commenting section. Please let’s have a respectful conversation. — Mikki Halpin, Editorial Director
Illustrated by ELLIOT SALAZAR.
That was more than a decade ago. Since then, Elaine has been an active practitioner, persistently working her way up The Bridge — the metaphorical path Scientologists progress on via coursework and auditing. Basic courses cover everything from communication to child-rearing to financial responsibility. Between the cost of the classes and auditing packages, Scientologists may spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on this work. But, Elaine maintains that, "It's not an endless process that goes on forever. It's a very definite result that you're going for."
That primary goal of this work is to achieve "the state of Clear," a milestone level in the church. Achieving Clear indicates a kind of mystical state of heightened mental capacity and power in life. One of the church's proclaimed goals is not simply to help individuals achieve Clear, but to "clear the planet" of all "insanity, war, and crime."
Elaine achieved the state of Clear in September 2013, after 11 years in the church. When you're Clear, "you feel better," says Elaine. "You feel the way you always wanted to feel."
The state of Clear is the gateway to the more mysterious upper echelons of Scientology, and once I learned Elaine had reached it, the elephant walked into the room. Well, the alien, actually. She nudged me into the Xenu question one afternoon over coffee at Starbucks, saying, "Don't worry about offending me," and crowing, "That's what I was waiting for!" when I asked for her position on the subject.
For the record: Yes, she believes in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, but she says, "It has nothing to do with Scientology."
Though aliens are apparently part of Scientology's theology, the church claims that media reports on the topic are "misstatements, distortions, and outright lies" created on the Internet "to ridicule Scientologists and denigrate their actual religious beliefs."
And, it's true that this part of the story gets an undue amount of bad press when you consider two things. First, many (if not most) people believe in the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth. Secondly, all religious origin stories are weird — and rarely a factor in someone's day-to-day practice of faith. How many Christian or Jewish women walk around thinking they're literally descended from some guy's rib?
There are far touchier subjects in Scientology than ETs. In recent years, numerous books and articles have alleged details of abuse by David Miscavige, current leader of the church. Horror stories of forced labor, physical assault, human trafficking, and the threat of virtual imprisonment in The Hole have painted a picture of the group as a sinister cult rather than the mild, outlying religion it may have previously been seen as. One of the most prominent celebrity Scientologists, Leah Remini, recently left the church in a vicious media storm over her statements about Miscavige's leadership. Remini also filed a missing persons report for Miscavige's wife, who had not been seen in public for seven years (police later confirmed they'd made contact with Shelly Miscavige, though she has still not made any public appearances).
Elaine isn't having it. "I've met David Miscavige several times, and he's amazing," she says with conviction, detailing his work on the new Scientology center in Florida, his accessibility and openness, and her esteem for him as a leader. As for the allegations of abuse, she brushes them off as rumors. Her own experience with Miscavige has been nothing but pleasant, and, as she says, "You can really only judge a person by their actions."
Despite Miscavige's bad press, the church's outward face is really its celebrity contingent. Early on, stars like John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Tom Cruise became the sunny faces of Scientology. The new generation of Scientology stars — including Elisabeth Moss, Beck, Erika Christensen, Danny Masterson, Laura Prepon, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis, and Jason Lee — will more often than not drop a "no comment" when asked about their church, but they are nonetheless beloved and promoted by it. Elaine has nothing but praise for the high-profile membership.
"It's definitely helped in a lot of ways… I think they're a good example of what the possibilities are," she says. Elaine admits that not all celebs are so open about their affiliation, noting that, "there are a lot more people involved who aren't necessarily public about it." She believes we have a long way to go when it comes to tolerance of Scientologists — a scenario she compares to the Spanish Inquisition and the persecution of the Jewish people. "Being a Jew, you always have the mindset of the Holocaust and what happened… The fact that history is repeating itself is just a disappointment."
This is a reported story, written by a respected journalist. At Refinery29 we tell young women’s stories, and this is the story of one young woman. Readers are welcome to discuss the content of the piece and the issues it raises. You are welcome to disagree vehemently! However, attacking and abusing our writer is not an acceptable use of our commenting section. Please let’s have a respectful conversation. — Mikki Halpin, Editorial Director
Illustrated by ELLIOT SALAZAR.
Clearly, she isn't one to hold back when it comes to defending her beliefs. This seemed like a good moment to bring up another tolerance-related issue, so I asked Elaine about the church's stance on homosexuality — a place where many religions fail to be inclusive. "There isn't one," she replied.
Nevertheless, the church came under scrutiny in 2009 when Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis publicly left the flock, citing one branch's alleged support of Proposition 8, as well as what he called a persistent and "hidden anti-gay sentiment." Haggis' allegations were chronicled in Lawrence Wright's explosive New Yorker story and in his subsequent book, Going Clear.
Elaine brushes off the allegations. "The Paul Haggis thing is another example of ridiculousness," she says. "Most people don't have so much drama."
In response to Haggis' departure, then-spokesperson Thomas Davidson released a statement saying, "The church supports civil rights for everybody, regardless of sexual orientation, race, color, or creed. We are a minority, too; we understand what it's like to be persecuted."
Yet, Hubbard wrote that gay people were "quite ill physically" in Dianetics. True, his stance was in step with the bigoted beliefs of the 1950s. But, despite the church's public statement, it hasn't addressed or removed these sentiments from its literature.
But, as with all faiths, practitioners often choose to cherry-pick from their religious texts. Elisabeth Moss told The Advocate that she believes Scientology is inherently supportive of LGBTQ rights. "Personal freedom is a very important concept in my religion," she said. "And, I translate that to sexual orientation. If we're all supposed to have the right to the life that we want to lead, then that should apply to the gay community."
When asked for her stance on homosexuality, Elaine said: "I have an aunt who's a lesbian, a cousin who's a lesbian… I have a great-aunt and uncle who died from AIDS. I have another cousin who's mulatto." She continued counting off, "I have Jews, Italians — I have everything in my family, and I'm close with all of them."
Elaine knows she doesn't fit the Scientologist stereotype, which is why she is all the more eager to tell you that she is one. She's made a conscious decision to be open with friends and colleagues about her beliefs.
"I thought, You know what? I'm going to be the girl that everyone knew who was just like them, who was in the sorority, who was Jewish, white, into Louis Vuitton — you know, all this shit. So, they could at least say, 'I know a Scientologist, and she's my friend.' There definitely are times when I think about whether or not I want to tell someone because of their reaction. But, then I say to myself, It's such a good thing, and there's nothing to hide."
This is a reported story, written by a respected journalist. At Refinery29 we tell young women’s stories, and this is the story of one young woman. Readers are welcome to discuss the content of the piece and the issues it raises. You are welcome to disagree vehemently! However, attacking and abusing our writer is not an acceptable use of our commenting section. Please let’s have a respectful conversation. — Mikki Halpin, Editorial Director
This piece does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Refinery29.

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