It was muggy in the city and hot as hell, so I figured it was as good a day as any to escape the heat by taking an introductory personality test at the Church of Scientology's New York headquarters. It's appropriately located in the theater district, with a Broadway-style marquee out front and flat screen televisions outside playing clips about the church on loop.
The lobby was blandly corporate, with a staircase leading down to a glassed-in library and L. Ron Hubbard quotations written large on the walls. Conspicuously missing was my favorite Hubbard quote of all—"Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be start his own religion."
I checked in at the front desk and was introduced to a sweet woman about my age with the easy charm of a sorority sister. She led me down the stairs and had me fill out some basic information—my name, address, occupation. I said "in flux" for everything but my name, which is not actually a lie, since I just moved to the city and I'm looking for work.
She smiled reassuringly and crossed the rest of the questions out. Aimlessness is apparently not a disqualifier for Scientology—perhaps it's even a qualifier (At this rate, though, I'd never be invited to the Celebrity Centre of New York, where Elisabeth Moss and Greta Van Susteren go to detox when they're here).
She sat me down at a small desk with a 200-question multiple choice test: The Oxford Capacity Test, a "scientific" personality test devised by Hubbard to get new recruits in the door. Once they've identified your flaws, they can point you towards any number of introductory courses to get you started on your way to immortal perfection. If you're curious, you can take the test here—but you'll have to head to your local Scientology center to get it assessed.
I went back and forth between trying to answer honestly and trying to beat the system. "Is your life a constant struggle for survival?" I mean, yes, technically? But I filled in the "no" bubble, anxious to avoid any question-specific concern trolling during the analysis.
Immediately after came, "Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?" Slam-dunk, I thought, coloring in the "yes" bubble extra-dark.
"Do you intend two or less children in your family even though your health and income will permit more?" You're allowed to write longer answers on the back, but I figured "can barely care for a dog" wouldn't help my results.
I was surprised by how emotionally exhausted I was by the end of the 200 questions. There were a lot of questions about depression, fear of responsibility, and at least four on nervousness around loud noises. Many seemed directly related to how good you'd be at taking up with a cult: "Would the idea of making a complete new start cause you much concern?" (Yes) "Do you prefer to abide by the wishes of others rather than seek to have your own way?" (No) "Are you suspicious of people who ask to borrow money from you?" (I don't know, are they trying to sell me on a self-help philosophy that might actually kill me?)
Once finished, I visited the bathroom to type up some notes on my phone. When I came out another woman had appeared to retrieve my test and whisk me up two flights of stairs to an airy balcony overlooking the lobby. It was littered with balloons for an upcoming event. "Dianetics" books, pamphlets, and something that looked like a board game were arranged on shelves everywhere, giving the place a gift-shop feeling.
Along the wall were three television screens with a selection of themed videos and awkward little ottomans in front of each. She sat me on the edge of one and showed me how to scroll through a bunch of videos on Hubbard. They started with his early life—apparently he rode a lot of horses around Montana as a kid and was a child prodigy—but I got bored with them pretty quickly and started spacing out.
The first woman retrieved me and took me downstairs again for the I.Q. test. I sat at the desk again, with 30 minutes to answer 80 questions. They were standard-issue I.Q. questions, like object rotation and dividing string proportionally. My brain was turning slowly into mush. This is how they break you down, I decided. 280 multiple choice questions over two hours. Cult indoctrination, SAT-style.
When I was done I went back upstairs to watch the rest of the videos while they graded my test. On the second screen a montage of bad things happening to people played behind a soothing voice over, like a supercut of infomercials with great production value.
Anything that's wrong with me, I learned, is a product of my "reactive mind," which stores bad events, or "engrams," and replays them inconveniently, like mild and universal PTSD. The soothing, middle school health class tone of the video started to lull me into a sense of understanding.
The goal of Scientology is to remove these engrams (with courses and books and other purchases that add up to around $128,000 total). On the other side of that investment lies the state of Clear, "a person who no longer has his own reactive mind and therefore suffers none of the ill effects that the reactive mind can cause," according to the completely fascinating Scientology glossary of terms.
I moved to the last television, looking forward to the end of my education. It launched into a video about how we're all connected to the universe, and our souls are called thetans, and something else, I wasn't really paying attention. I took this opportunity to tap out some surreptitious notes on my phone, nervous they'd catch me and put me in a gulag facility with their ex-"First Lady" Shelly Miscavige, or at least kick me out before giving me my test results.
A text came in from my boyfriend—"you ok?"—but before I could answer it, someone arrived to shepherd me into a cubby-like office with no door to have my results explained. If I didn't text back soon, hopefully my boyfriend would report me missing.
Here, too, "Dianetics"-branded products were prominently displayed for sale (various websites report that people who interpret the tests are given a 10-15% commission on product and course sales). The cubby was claustrophobic, and I sat my butt all the way back in the chair to put an extra six inches between me and the woman analyzing my personality.
She pulled out my charted test results. It looked very scientific, a spiky line graph with a "desirable" range through the middle. The reading started out promising.
"Your I.Q. is very high," my analyst told me, but her eyes suggested I was a dire case. "That's your potential." Unfortunately, almost everything else was in the "attention urgent" part of the graph, including my depression, nervousness, critical personality, and "lack of accord."
She circled each dot in turn, reading out of a booklet what these things meant for my life (no, I couldn't take home a copy of the explanations; they're copyrighted property of the church). She had a fortune teller's ability to hone in on my sensitive spots. I'm horridly critical, she told me—"it's very difficult to be around you."
I'm great! I'm charming! I thought, a touch stung and a little panicked. She pressed for details about how this had ruined my life.
I searched for the blandest answer possible. "It probably hurts my relationships?" She nodded sympathetically, inviting me to tell her more. "I can be mean."
"Uh huh," she clucked, leaning forward over my test. "And your communication is very poor."
I got a little defensive. "I think my communication is pretty good?!" Listen lady, I'm real good at—fuck, she was getting to me. I consciously unclenched my fists and pressed my spine into the back of the chair. I am a leaf on the wind. I am a—
"But with all of this criticalness—" She circled the point repeatedly for emphasis. "What could you be communicating?"
The good news: for the low, low price of $75 ($50 for a course and $25 for "Dianetics") I could make people like me again AND raise my I.Q. as much as ten points.
I demurred, telling her it was a matter of finances, a touch concerned she might have some irresistible psychological tricks up her sleeve. It's not a matter of finances, but priorities, she told me sternly.
I leaned forward and nodded solemnly, trying to present a front of sincerity. I was itching to get the hell out of the cubby. She told me she'd be happy if I just bought "Dianetics" for "only 25 bucks" (a stiff markup for convenience—it's listed for $13.57 on Amazon).
"I'm positive they have it at my local library," I said, grabbing my purse off the floor and hugging it to my chest.
Exhausted, I thanked the woman maybe four times and told her I'd really think about taking a course. Emerging from the cool lobby onto the miserably humid sidewalk, I turned back briefly, wondering if a few more minutes in the A.C. was worth $75. But no. I walked away fast, feeling satisfied with my critical, unlovable self.
Cult name: The Church of Scientology
Year founded: 1953
Spiritual leader: L. Ron Hubbard
Most famous member: Tom Cruise, Beck, half of Hollywood
Slogans: Man is an immortal spiritual being.
His experience extends well beyond a single lifetime.
His capabilities are unlimited, even if not presently realized.
Sample Ranks: Pre-clear, Clear, Operating Thetan ("At the level of Operating Thetan, one deals with his own immortality as a spiritual being.")
Should you join this cult? Scary, expensive, and the founder was pretty up-front about just wanting to separate rich people from their money. I'd pass.
Cult Rush Week is an ongoing series in which Cat Ferguson attends introductory and informational sessions for cults and other esoteric organizations in the New York area. If you know of a cult, email her.
[Photo by lukatoyboy/flickr]