Like a Minotaur in a maze, Scientology is an incredibly difficult beast to pin down. But I wanted to try. I’ve watched loads of documentaries on the subject, and Heather (aka 2Summers) shares my obsession with this rather unconventional religion – she almost peed her pants when I suggested we visit the L. Ron Hubbard house in Linksfield (well on Linksfield Ridge to be precise). Prior to our excursion, I had never met a Scientologist, and I only knew about Scientology via three sources: Wikipedia, ex-Scientologists from the aforementioned documentaries, and Tom Cruise.
Before going to the house and interviewing its director, Puneet Dhamija, I’m given a stern warning from a friend of mine, who comes from a family of ex-Scientologists. She tells me that I should just stay the hell away from them, or, failing that, not give them any real details. “And for God’s sake Ang, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
We arrive at the L. Ron Hubbard house just after a storm. Puneet is wearing a white collar shirt with a black blazer, pointy leather shoes, and his buckle has a star on it. His handshake is firm. He’s effervescent, quite good looking, and reminds me of Aziz Ansari (if Aziz Ansari was slightly grey, wore glasses, and was a PR person for the Church of Scientology).
According to Puneet, the L. Ron Hubbard house in Linksfield was built between 1951 and 1952 (at least, that’s when the blueprints were approved). It was originally owned and built by a Greek wood merchant: the floors are teak, the doors Burmese teak, the thresholds Japanese oak, the wall panels Oregon pine. About 10 years later, the Greek merchant left, and L. Ron Hubbard moved in. He lived in the house for six months, from September 1960 to March 1961, and it’s been painstakingly restored to exactly how it was when he stayed in it.
“It took six months to chip away at plaster that the previous owner had covered the walls with, and two years, day and night, to restore the house to its original condition. It took two years prior to that to collect L. Ron Hubbard’s belongings [although some are replicas]. There are six houses like this in the world.”
Puneet starts us off in the living room. The first thing that catches my eye is a zebra hide, spread-eagle in the middle of the slasto floor. There’s also a little desk in one corner, with a shiny black rotary phone (kids today would call it ‘vintage’) and a green-hooded lamp with a brass bass. In the other corner is a bookcase, with one of Hubbard’s suits suspended in a glass cabinet, a quasi-apparition in formal attire.
Why was L. Ron Hubbard in South Africa? Mostly, he wanted to expand pre-existing Scientology in the country (as well as the then-Rhodesia; he also lived there for three months). By the early ‘60s, Scientology was gaining popularity all over the world, and he wanted to ‘spread the word’ far and wide. While here, he also proposed an end to apartheid and equal rights for all (his amendments to South African law, as well as a ‘constitution’, are framed above his desk in the living room). In fact, by 1961, Hubbard saw Johannesburg as “the busiest [Scientology] Central Organisation on earth” –so it’s no coincidence that the bust of him, displayed in his main office, was sculpted by a South African, Coert Steynberg (all recasts of this bust are now found in every Church of Scientology), as well as the fact that the first official ‘Clear’ was a South African (but I’ll get into Clears and engrams and thetans and E-Meters in a bit).
Puneet guides us into another room, which is filled with science fiction books, photos, and various L. Ron Hubbard ephemera. He shows us black and white photos of the man as a boy, the man as a teenager playing a bugle, and an obscure landscape image of single-file Native American tepees on a hill.
Hubbard was born in Nebraska (in case you’re wondering what the ‘L’ stands for, it’s Lafayette). Scientology legend has it that he could read, write, and ride horses at three. He met Blackfoot Indians when he was six and apparently they shared their knowledge with him, and made him a blood brother. His father was a naval officer and the young L. Ron used to travel a lot with him. He also joined the Scouts and was America’s youngest Eagle Scout.
Puneet adds, “At 16 he went with his father to Guam. At 17 he worked on a Japanese merchant ship, so he travelled to Asia – India, China, Japan, the Philippines. His photo of the Great Wall of China appeared in National Geographic.” Puneet points to an impressive image of the wall, in one of the display cabinets. “He studied the Vedas in India, and realised that Asia has so much knowledge about the human condition, yet there’s so much suffering there. But basically, he wanted to bring science and spirituality together.”
According to Puneet, by the age of 19 Hubbard had travelled extensively, but he had to return to the US to study civil engineering at George Washington University (he also attended the first lectures on nuclear physics here). To add to the cult of personality, Hubbard got a pilot’s licence before he turned 21, and he was a professional in more than 21 different fields, including photography.
He also headed a “motion picture expedition” in the Caribbean to make a documentary about different cultures. I ask Puneet why. “His purpose was to study Man to isolate a common denominator among every human being – and he discovered it was to survive.”
“He also got his captain’s licence to sail ships – he loved the water, the ocean is the safest place in the world.”
I ask why, again.
“Well, in times of war you’re safer in the ocean than on land. And it makes you more competent.”
This makes no sense to me. What about torpedoes and U-Boats and shit? But, it does connect some dots in relation to the Scientology ship, Freewinds, which is a huge ship based in the Caribbean that Scientologists use for all sorts of things: it’s the home of the Flag Ship Service Organization (FSSO), which is, according to Scientology.org, “a religious retreat ministering the most advanced level of spiritual counselling in the Scientology religion.” That advanced level is Operating Thetan VIII (that’s eight, for those who suck at Roman numerals), and you can only do it on the ship. But, again, I’ll get to that, just stay with me.
Puneet continues, “When he graduated from university it was the Great Depression – he made a living by writing stories. He wrote 271 novels, with 19 on the New York Times Best-seller List. He used 16 different pen names.” Puneet pulls out a little card, with different names on it.
“He could type 94 words per minute, and he wrote 50 scenes a day for his screenplays.”
Out of everything she’s heard so far, Heather seems most impressed by the 94 words per minute factoid.
G, who’s joined us again out of pure curiosity, suddenly chimes in, “Is there an overlap between Scientology and his science fiction novels?”
“Those who have read his novels say that his work appears fictional at first – after all, most of them are set in the year 3000,” Puneet replies. “But the truth is so unbelievable, you have to present it as fiction.”
Puneet continues with Hubbard’s life story. “During the Second World War he was a lieutenant and captain of a ship, but he got injured and was taken to a military hospital. While he was there, he observed that, despite medical attention, not many of the patients got better. So he went to the medical library and started studying medical science; he discovered that medical science has a name for every part of the body, and the structure and function of each part. But he was more interested in thoughts – and in these books, there was no mention of the mind.”
Puneet leads us into the next room, which has more books. He stops and looks at us. Then poses the philosophical question, “What is ‘mind’?”
I reply that it relates to consciousness, but otherwise it’s a complex question to answer.
“Ok,” says Puneet, and looks at Heather, then G. “What is the colour of the door of your house?”
Heather: Um, brown.
Then it’s my turn. Puneet’s eyes are vibrating with excitement.
I repeat his question, “The colour of the door of my house?”
Puneet: You have a house, right?
Me: Yes, I do. I feel like this is a trick question.
Hearty laughter from Puneet and Heather.
He asks me again, with a slight pause after each word.
“What. Is. The. Colour. Of. The. Door. Of. Your. House?”
I’m still convinced it’s trickery.
Puneet (with great exuberance mixed with frustration): Life is simple! I’m telling you, life is simple!
“Ok,” I concede. “… brown?”
Puneet: Oh my God!
After our battle of wills, he continues, “OK, when you told me the colour of the door of your house, did you see a picture of it?” We all nod. “That picture is your mind. Every moment of your life your mind is recording pictures, every micro-second, including sounds, tastes, smells, feelings. And it has nothing to do with the physical organ of the brain itself. The mind does this to help you make survival-based decisions; the better your decisions, the better your chance of survival.”
“So,” he adds, “Why do people do things that are not good for their survival?”
Heather and I mumble a soft, inarticulate “dunno” in staccato unison. G looks at a bookcase.
“Do you get angry sometimes?” The question is posed to Heather.
“Yeah, sure,” she responds.
“Do you decide to get angry? Where does it come from, if you don’t consciously decide to get angry?”
“As you go through life, some of the experiences you have are painful. So the mind stores all your experiences in the analytical mind – the moment you hit pain, it switches off, trips the switch, and a back-up kicks in, which is the reactive mind, and which stores all your painful experiences, both physical and emotional. In the future, when the mind experiences a similar circumstance to a previous painful experience, it prepares you for the pain – which helps you survive – but this isn’t always a good thing. It can come in the form of allergies, phobias.”
“So to get rid of this reactive mind, L. Ron Hubbard developed Dianetics, and he tested it out in the military hospital. A person is asked to remember a painful experience, they relive it a couple of times, and the incident is eventually refiled from the reactive mind to the analytical mind. Now you can use that information if you like, but it no longer controls you. This process is called auditing.”
The book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health is what Hubbard is most known for; after its publication it became a worldwide best-seller (it was on the New York Times Best-seller List for 28 consecutive weeks, and it’s now in 50 languages). Disclaimer: I haven’t read it, but I do know that Scientology really took off after it was published (there are now 11 000 churches in 167 countries). According to Scientology.org, Hubbard identified the source of “human aberration” as the reactive mind, a normally hidden but always conscious area of the mind, and certain traumatic memories, called engrams, are stored in it. Dianetics describes counselling (called auditing) techniques, which Hubbard claimed would get rid of engrams and bring about huge therapeutic benefits.
He also posited that the mind starts recording memories and events prior to birth, and Scientologists believe that if a woman gets hurt while pregnant, the baby experiences the same emotional pain. These are called prenatal engrams, and Hubbard believed that what took place before you were born also subsequently influences the present you. Scientologists believe in reincarnation – which, I think, is clearly an influence from Hubbard’s time in Asia.
“You’ll always remember events, even if they were too early in your life – they’re there, just in the recycle bin of your mind,” adds Puneet. “Even previous lives. It’s not hypnosis, it’s not psychology. Dianetics is a fool-proof way of solving problems. In Scientology you know exactly what’s going on, you’re in control.”
At this point I must mention that Scientologists are vehemently against anything connected to psychiatry. Vehemently. Again, I cite Scientology.org, “In Dianetics, Hubbard specifically names hypnotism and psychotherapy as dangerous and impractical. Nearly all other methods of alleged mental science are based on principles that are quite opposed to the principles of Scientology. Psychiatry and psychology in particular treat Man as a “thing” to be conditioned, not as a spiritual being who can yet find answers to life’s problems and who can improve enormously.”
Whatever you do, don’t mention “Freud”, “Jung” or “antidepressants” when you’re hanging out with a Scientologist.
Puneet takes us through to Hubbard’s main study. At the back there’s a large, elegant writing desk, with his bust behind it, and two chairs. I ask Puneet if Heather can take a photo of me in L. Ron’s chair. The answer is a definitive no, but Heather gets this shot of me in the chair opposite.
We head to the kitchen, which has swirling, slightly hypnotic blue tiles (“It took three attempts to match them exactly as they were,” Puneet informs me), and ‘50s-style, white furnishings. The fridge, with its big, silver pull-handle and rounded edges, is so proto-hipster. There’s also a little curved couch made from red pleather. It reminds me of small-town America in the movies, and I half-expect a name-tagged waitress with big hair and bad make-up to ask what I’d like to order. Or whether I’d like some Kool-Aid. It’s cinematic suburban retro, but it’s not homely; it’s spotless and sterile.
Puneet takes us outside to see the pool. It has a wooden diving board, and I imagine L. Ron, in whatever swimming attire Scientologists wear, gingerly shuffling to the edge, then plopping off it. The pool is pristine, and its fibre glass geometry shape shifts. There’s also a kickass view of a post-storm Joburg skyline. The cityscape glistens. A dog with a grey muzzle bumps up against me and wags her tail.
“Is that your dog?” asks G.
“She lives here. And I also live here,” replies Puneet.
That’s a no, then… We laugh. He doesn’t.
I ask him to tell me his story.
“I was born in Punjab, but my whole family is from New Delhi, so I lived in Delhi for 26 years. I had questions in my life. The questions started when I was about six, when my 86-year-old grandmother told me that this planet is a jail. I agreed with that because I had to go to school every day. I thought that if my grandmother believed that, and she goes to a Hindu religious leader every week to chant and pray, she must know something – but she never told me how to get out of the jail. I saw that my cousins were unhappy; you get married and then that becomes a jail, work becomes a jail. It made no sense. And another question I had was, why did we need life insurance if we’d just be reincarnated anyway?
“During the summer school holidays I stayed with my cousin, who was 22. I had the best time with her, but she suddenly passed away. Everyone said God called her to come back home. That didn’t make sense to me, either.
“I went on to read Dale Carnegie, and school became a fight to succeed. I did my CA, and during that time I’d attend free lectures about motivation. I attended all of them. In 1997 I tried Vipassana, which is held for 10 days of silence. I felt I was going somewhere with it, but it was too slow. It had the answer to my questions, but not fully. I paid half my salary to do a mind control course. Still no answers. Reiki, I did that. The Hare Krishnas weren’t logical at all. I got my first job, and I ended up in the UK. Then September 11 happened, and that question about my cousin came back.
“Nothing made sense – I knew, deep down, that something really wasn’t right. Two years later I quit my job, and I tried out Scientology at a small centre. I went for a personality test, and a graph showed that my happiness was in the minus figures. By that time I realised that I needed to do some Scientology courses – I did one on how to study, as well as how to improve and maintain relationships with others.
“Then I moved to Australia to do my Master’s. Here I found a large Church of Scientology in Melbourne. I worked there part time for a year, and it was my job to bring people in. When you’re inside you are able to read stuff – and I realised that Hubbard’s writings from the ‘60s still made sense today. A recruitment agency from the Sea Org came from Sydney, and I joined. We sign a contract for one billion years, but it’s not a legal document. I believe that if I work for Sea Org from 9am until midnight every day, there is a slim chance that the planet will become Clear.”
The Sea Organization is essentially a religious order, and Sea Org members are akin to clergy. According to Scientology.org, it’s “composed of the singularly most dedicated Scientologists—individuals who have committed their lives to the volunteer service of their religion”.
It was established in 1967 and used to operate from a number of ships, hence its name. The organisation has still kept its name, but now it’s mostly land-based (barring Freewinds, which is entirely staffed by Sea Org members). All Sea Org members wear maritime-style uniforms and have ranks and ratings. Sea Org members work long hours, and their expenses are provided for by the Church of Scientology.
I ask Puneet if he’s married. He flashes a wedding ring, then takes out his wallet. He shows me a photo of a blonde women. “Afrikaans,” he smiles. He tells me she’s also a Sea Org member, and she runs a large Scientology call centre, called The Continental Liaison Office, opposite Jeppe Boys. I ask if they have kids. He tells me that Sea Org members aren’t allowed to have children, as it wouldn’t be fair, and it would distract them from their mission to help Mankind.
“I am essentially a Scientologist monk,” he adds. “In Australia I was the deputy finance manager for the Church of Scientology in Sydney. I made the bank balance double in two years. Then I was told that I had to go to Florida – we were a pool of people who had to be sent to other countries to spread Scientology. We have the fire in our belly. I was then sent to SA. You have to prove your calibre for each post; I’ve been here for eight years. My whole game is to get people to L. Ron’s house, to figure out what their challenges are in life, and to give them a solution.”
We go back into the house, and he takes us to another room.
“So you want to know about Scientology, right? You want to write this blog post about it?”
Yes, I answer. I won’t lie, I’m incredibly curious about all of this. But also quite freaked out.
It’s a bit dark inside the room, and there’s a large table in the middle. A flat-screen TV is against the wall, and there’s a lot of Scientology paraphernalia. I pick up a pamphlet.
“That’s one of our current campaigns – it’s about the weapons we have against psychiatry,” says Puneet.
“You wanna watch a video? Only four minutes.”
He pops in a DVD and dims the lights in the already darkened room. There are lots of really happy looking people on the screen; a Watchtower in technicolour.
VIDEO [narrated by smarmy-sounding American man]: “Scientology is a religion that provides you with the tools to find the answers to life’s questions, your own truths about your life, and you. But, who are you? Are you a body? If you have your appendix removed, does your personality change? Are you any less you? You instinctively know that your body is something you have, not what you are. So if you’re not your body, what are you? Your mind? Your mind is far more accurate than any computer, it has a memory bank containing pictures – all the memories of all the things that have ever happened to you. When you think of something, you get a picture of it. But if you can see these pictures even when your eyes are closed, what is it that’s looking at the pictures? It’s you. You are a being, an intelligence, a consciousness, that part of you that’s aware of you being aware. In Scientology, we use the word thetan, which is taken from the Greek letter theta, which is a symbol for thought or spirit. We use thetan to avoid confusing it with other concepts involving the soul or the spirit. You have a body; you are a thetan. Scientology offers tools for you to increase your abilities, and reach your full potential in life. The subject in Scientology is… you.”
I ask him why it’s called the Church of Scientology, because it doesn’t seem at all church-like.
“Scientology is not really a belief system, you can achieve spiritual freedom by meditating, by chanting, by fasting, by praying, or, by reading. Scientology provides the resources for you to read; if it makes sense to you, you continue, if not, you find something else.”
“So why do people call it a cult?” G pipes up, with no fucking warning. My palms are damp.
“Think about it,” says Puneet. The words merge into each other in quick succession like linguistic lemmings, so it sounds like ‘thinkbouit’. I notice that he sometimes has a bit of an American twang, and now is one of those instances.
He leans in, and looks G straight in the eye.
“Have you met a Scientologist?”
Puneet: So where do you get your information from? The media?
Me: Tom Cruise
Puneet: The media, banking, pharmaceutical, oil, insurance industries, they’re all controlled by same group. Do you know that?
Heather: Oh, who’s that?
Me: The Illuminati
Puneet: The Rothschilds
Puneet: You don’t need war to kill people, the media is your latest weapon. You make a person not credible. The media creates that for Scientology.
“So are ex-Scientologists making everything up?” I ask. I realise the territory is getting as slippery as my palms.
“What’s an ‘ex-Scientologist’?” counters Puneet. “They’re the people who were in Scientology, but they couldn’t handle reaching the high levels, so they feel they have to be right, no matter what.”
“But that’s a separate topic,” he adds.
I nod, vigorously. “Ja, I don’t want to make people angry.”
“Exactly. What if people start chasing you?”
“You should do a course,” he continues.
“No I don’t want to do a course.”
“Sorry, wrong English – one does a course. That course handles one aspect of life. We don’t have to call you a Scientologist, bye-bye you can go. Life is good, I’m sorted.”
“So you can freely leave?”
“Pfft! Yes, it’s like, go away!”
“Anyway,” he changes the topic. “Scientology will have eight TV channels from next month in the States. We have a channel dedicated to psychiatry.”
Remember I mentioned the reactive mind versus the analytical mind? Scientologists believe that when you no longer have a reactive mind, you’re a Clear. It’s only after you’re Clear, that you can advance to the higher OT (or Operational Thetan) levels.
I ask Puneet about the levels. He quickly clears everything off the table, and lays out a giant poster with red text – which illustrates the sequence of the levels (from the lowest, called Purification Rundown, right up to OT XV), as well as one’s state of awareness (from Unexistence to Total Freedom). He won’t let Heather take a photo of the poster. I ask why.
“Someone will see it on the internet and they’ll go crazy again,” he replies.
[A quick Google search will reveal images of the chart – but I won’t add a link to this post. There are different images, and it’s a little confusing to figure out what is the most recent version, but charts with the ‘New’ OT levels are updated versions].
I ask Puneet what happens when you get to the top, the OT XV level.
“We haven’t released that yet.”
Closer inspection of the chart reveals that from the current highest level OT VIII, there are seven even higher levels with the word ‘unreleased’ next to them, as well as under the column ‘abilities gained’, the sentence “confidential until released”. According to Puneet, these levels do exist, but they’ll only be made available to Scientologists once the Religious Technology Centre (RTC), who are the copyright holders of Scientology teachings, decide to ‘release’ them. Apparently OT IX and X (that’s levels nine and 10) are due for realise ‘soon’. A man by the name of David Miscavige is the head of the RTC – he’s like the pope of Scientology. He comes from a Catholic background, but at 16 he joined the Sea Org; a year later he was selected to work directly with L. Ron Hubbard, and according to Scientology.org “no Church executive in history ever received more direct communication from L. Ron Hubbard than Mr. Miscavige”.
“Which level is Tom Cruise?” I ask.
“As far as I know, Tom Cruise is OT VII,” replies Puneet. “John Travolta is OT VIII; he has to audit himself [solo audit] because his speed of thought is so fast.”
He adds, sagely, and with more twangs, “When you reach OT, you’re operating on a spiritual level, and life is just like, awesome.”
It’s generally thought that OTIII, also known as The Wall of Fire, is where Scientology moves from self-help vibes to extra-terrestrial, but I’m not going to expand on that, as I haven’t done it myself, and neither has Puneet. Once again, a Google search can direct you to various information (even a WikiLeaks page from 2008, which the Church of Scientology views as a copyright violation) – but whether that information is valid or not, is up to you to decide, because a lot of it is secret and/or unverified.
Back to auditing, and the poster with all the levels. The levels are divided into two sections: one is for auditors, the other for those receiving the auditing. It’s a bit like priests and parishioners, but not quite. Puneet explains that you can only be audited by someone who is at the same level as you, in the auditor equivalent. The process of auditing involves the auditor asking the auditee questions, and said auditee is hooked up to a machine called an E-Meter – which is a bit like a lie detector, as it supposedly measures your physical reactions to the questions being asked. There’s a needle with markings on the front, which apparently moves according to your reactions; watch Miscavige talk about an E-Meter in this old clip (1992) from an ABC Nightline interview he did. It’s like going to confession in a police station.
Puneet proceeds to give Heather an impromptu audit (without an E-Meter, which can also be done), in what has to be the most unsuccessful audit in the history of Scientology.
Puneet: When was the last time you got hurt?
Heather: Maybe I need to think about it for a – oh, wait, I cut my finger last week.
P: When was that?
H: Last Saturday
P: Where were you?
H: I was at my friend’s house, trying to slice a piece of cheese for myself
P: What colour was the cheese?
H: It was white. I think. Or yellow. I don’t know
P: What could you smell?
H: I think we were about to have eggs
P: And what could you hear?
H: My friends talking
P: How were you feeling at that time?
P: Look at the finger, what does it look like?
H: Now it looks fine
P: No, I mean then. What did the finger look like then. At the time?
H: Ok I guess
P: Did you see the blood?
P: How did that make you feel?
H: I wasn’t crazy about it
Puneet: Ok, but usually it’s more intense – your eyes would be closed and you’d be reliving the incident. Maybe crying. So all I’m doing is listening, not giving advice. Just asking more questions.
“I’m not trained to audit or use an E-Meter,” he says. Then, in an American accent he jokingly adds, “I’m a public relations officer for the L. Ron Hubbard house in SA!”
I ask him how much an auditing session costs. He says the last time he checked, it was a hundred bucks an hour, for auditing sans the E-Meter. I ask how long it generally takes to get audited.
“Depends on how insane you are,” he says.
We don’t go into the actual costs of the levels themselves (which are known to be prohibitively expensive, but are called ‘donations’), but I do ask Puneet how he manages to afford them – he explains that by being a staff member, he gets to do them for free. Another cheaper avenue, apparently, is to rather take the auditing route, and co-audit with another Scientologist as you go.
I learn that the Church of Scientology hasn’t stopped its expansion into Joburg – along with its massive headquarters in Kensington (on Langermann Drive), in 2008 the Church bought the Kyalami Castle, which it plans to use as an ‘Advanced Organisation’ (see here for a snippet about this in the official Scientology news publication, Freedom).
Before it’s time to wrap things up, Puneet asks if he can take a photo of Heather and I for his “weekly report”. I decline, but Heather poses. He’s surprisingly relaxed about the fact that I don’t want to give him any of my personal information, either (he asks us if we’d like to fill in a visitor’s book). I was expecting a Jehovah’s Witness pressure, but it never came.
I think about Puneet’s words: “the truth is so unbelievable, you have to present it as fiction.” Scientology’s truth is undoubtedly stranger than science fiction, but a guy being raised from the dead, ascending into heaven, and coming back to earth at some undisclosed point in the future, isn’t? I’m also reminded of a quote I’ve seen before on Facebook: “You are a ghost driving a meat-covered skeleton made of stardust riding a rock floating through space”.
In the car on the way home, my mind no longer has the ‘don’t drink the Kool-Aid’ refrain.
All I can think of, is that we’re made up of stardust and truths.
Stardust and truths.
To see more images of the L. Ron Hubbard house from @Summers, go here
To arrange a tour of the L. Ron Hubbard house in Linksfield, contact Puneet Dhamija on 081 306 8227 or visit this website.