It's pretty long, so I'll just share the first part of it.
I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles as I navigated the crowded downtown streets. I could never get used to this part of town. The irony of this particular street was that it was lined with churches – Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, all kinds of American protestant religions and just about nothing else – and yet cars honked incessantly, the dirty sidewalks were littered with garbage and cigarettes, just like every other street I had driven down that afternoon. The pedestrians wore the familiar faces of middle-aged men with long greasy hair and beer bellies and deep wrinkles running like rivers down their faces; the expressions of delinquent teenage boys with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and giddy anorexic girls gasping with hollow laughter at every turn in the conversation. Staring at the sidewalk and keeping close to the walls were ragged women with their creaky shopping carts, those sighing mothers who had nowhere to put their children to hide them from the drugs. What Christian goodness abounded in these streets, full of people without teeth who would rasp out a long story about how their life came to be this way, how they ended up like this. That is, if anyone asked, but nobody did. A few businessmen in suits took long, hurried strides toward their destined buildings, their eyes glued to their blackberries while their feet automatically stepped around any who might obstruct their paths.
I had no desire to join this world, and I did pretty well in escaping it, parking my car underneath the building marked “Hubbard Foundation of Dianetics.” My head swirled with fantastic ideas about what lay inside the glass doors and up the elevator, ideas that I had been entertaining all morning in anticipation of my trip to the Church of Scientology: Cult leaders dressed in deep red robes and pagan masks descending stairs to prostrated worshippers surrounded by candles in a high-ceilinged, musty room decorated with strange orbs and scepters and cracked paintings of ancient scenes, an unintelligible chanting ascending to the arched ceiling.
The lobby was normal enough, with a pleasant arrangement of armchairs on one side and a bookshelf filled with shiny new books on the other. Each book was written by L. Ron Hubbard, who stared down at me with a slight smile in a black-and-white portrait above the receptionist.
“Hello,” I said, approaching the desk.
“Hello.” The balding man peered at me behind his thick round glasses. After a pause, “What can I do for you?”
“I am wondering...about the Church of Scientology,” I said slowly and with gusto, gesturing at my general surroundings. My triumphant beginning ended lamely, my arm flopping back down at my side.
“Are you taking a religion class?”
“No. I'm just curious.”
For a moment I was afraid he wasn't used to visitors like me, but my fears were put to rest as he unblinkingly picked up the phone and asked for someone named Jerri. Ignoring his questioning glances, I wandered aimlessly toward the bookshelves until Jerri arrived.
She was clad in some sort of colorful, flowy outfit; more like the kind that eccentric 60-year-old women wear than the robe of a sorceress. Extending her hand to shake mine, she said, “Hi Emily, I'm Jerri. If you come with me, I'll give you the tour of the upstairs.” I followed her the five steps into the elevator.
“Are you here for a class?”
“No. I just don't know very much about scientology, and I wanted to learn about it.” The elevator crawled up its shaft.
“How did you hear about scientology? A friend?”
“No. I really don't know anything about it. I mean, I've heard of it before, but not from anyone I know.”
My only knowledge of scientology was based on an early memory of me asking my dad what it was all about. “Oh, they worship science or something like that,” he said vaguely, “It's very strange.” My dad, of course, being the ultimate authority on all knowledge to his small daughter, was not questioned. Sometime this year, I sheepishly uprooted a grotesque prejudice against the so-called science worhippers. Rather hypocritical and un-Christian of me. My principles, usually so warm and kind, glared down at me from their throne and demanded I change my ways.
So here I was.
I followed Jerri out of the elevator and down through a comfortable living room lined with bookshelves, past a birdcage housing a large colorful parrot, into an unremarkable office with a window looking down on the city streets.
Jerri sat down in a chair behind the desk, and gestured for me to sit in the chair beside it. She asked me about college and my future and all that before getting down to business. “The term 'scientology' comes from the latin root 'scio,' which means 'to know.' To know...what?” She waited, her cloudy blue eyes staring me down.
“Um...the truth?” I guessed.
“To know how to know. And that's what scientology is all about. You can be any religion and still be a scientologist, because scientology just focuses on improving each aspect of your life. What do you want to change in your life?”
“Um...” Nothing came to me. I found myself pawing through the memories of a stranger, having trouble navigating my own brain to find the trees where my problems made their nests.
“Sometimes it's hard to answer that question,” she went on, seeing my blank expression. “But that's exactly what scientology can help with. It can help you understand what you need to improve.” She stood up. “There's a test that you can take, if you have time, to evaluate what you need to improve.”
I followed her quick steps out of the office and into a room with a long desk. “Here's the test. Don't think too hard about the answers; just put whatever best describes your answer.” She handed me a pencil and walked briskly out of the room.
I opened the binder she had given me and stared down at the typewritten questions. I picked up my pencil and started filling in bubbles. Do you have any particular hate or fear? Well, I've always had a strange fear of fishing lines, but it's not that serious. I marked the “no” bubble. Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it? What does that have to do with anything? Sure I do. I scribbled in the “yes” bubble.
After a while my thoughts wandered. I flipped to the back of the binder, all the way to question 200.
Two hundred questions?! I looked up at the chart in front of me, huge and yellow and laminated. It had a zigzagging line, indicating who knows what. Around some of the points in the line were little cloud things. Wonder if that has anything to do with the weather.
I got back to business, filling in bubbles all the way until “Could you allow someone to finish those 'final two words' in a crossword puzzle without interfering?” Blank white bubbles invaded my fingers and arms and eyes until I was drowning in them. Finally Jerri came to rescue me – too late, the last bubble was finally blacked out furiously by my pencil.
|Drawing of "Gonzo" by Hunter Thompson's partner/artist Ralph Steadman|