Signing up for scientology

Spirit of the Age: The Scientologists
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The Independent Culture
I DO not, to the untrained eye, look much like the artist formerly known as Ginger Spice. Nor, from the cut of my chinos, would you think I was as wealthy as John Travolta. But then there is nothing untrained about the eyes of the members of the Church of Scientology at their London mission in Tottenham Court Road.

A few days earlier, the said ex-Spice, Geri Halliwell, had been spotted around Hollywood carrying a copy of The Scientology Handbook. The 125- page tome is said to open doors among the folk of Tinseltown, where the new religion counts; Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Lisa Marie Presley and Travolta are among its adherents. Would this passport to prosperity work its magic for me? I entered the Tottenham Court Road shop to find out.

I did well in the 200-question personality test. That is to say, I failed. I was marked as unstable - without falling off the scale in the L Ron Hubbard copyright Capacity Analysis. I also was depressed, nervous, irresponsible, self-critical and withdrawn. I did not, it has to be said, recognise myself from the portrait. But the analyst ploughed on asking me impertinent questions about my private life.

There was no doubt, she said, that I would benefit from a course in Dianetics. She suggested a book by the same name. "Over 116 million copies sold," it said on the cover. A card inside told me I could purchase the full introductory package for only pounds 82. The analyst got 15 per cent commission, she told me with engaging honesty, but she thought I would be better just starting with the pounds 5.99 version. I thought so too.

I rang William Shaw, the author of Spying in Guruland, an admirably unsensational account of what goes on in Britain's cults, and told him about my results. I had ranked above normal only on Active and Aggressive. "You did very well," he said sardonically. "I laid it on so thick, that they thought I really was too awful to be worth having." I had not laid anything on at all, I said rather stiffly. I had answered all the questions truthfully. Oh dear, he said.

Still, I thought I ought to find out a bit more before signing up with Ginger. After all, the Church of Scientology has a controversial reputation, with lawsuits all over the world accusing it of aggressive, and on occasions unlawful, methods of recruitment. It has won some cases. But it has lost others, and also been described by a High Court judge as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous". A US judge branded its founder, L Ron Hubbard, a "pathological liar". The German government has placed it under security service surveillance, saying it is not a religion, but a cover for "economic crime and psychological terror". And the Internet is full of ex-members conducting vitriolic campaigns against their erstwhile colleagues.

So what, in the face of all that, could possibly be the attraction of the Church of Scientology? What could be the beliefs which produced such tenacious enthusiasm among its devotees? I went down to its British headquarters, Saint Hill Manor, near East Grinstead in West Sussex, to find out.

It is an odd place. The elegant 18th-century building once belonged to the Maharajah of Jaipur before L Ron Hubbard bought it as his family home in 1959. In the grounds, he designed a castle to accommodate his followers. Everything is lavishly appointed. There is a lot of money around.

The 300 staff moved around the grounds, dressed in dark-blue uniforms with epaulettes, in honour of Mr Hubbard's wartime career in the American navy. They have ranks, too. Graeme Wilson, the outfit's public affairs director is, he told me with a nervous shift in his eye, a petty officer.

Mr Wilson explained the basis of Dianetics - a non-directive form of counselling called auditing which uses a meter, like a lie detector, to monitor electrical changes in the skin while subjects discussed intimate details of their past. The process is designed to detect and remove "engrams" - the subconscious residues of traumatic experiences, accumulated during reincarnations, which hinder the spirit from expressing its unadulterated goodness. "It's a tool for life; a programme you can work through," he said.

But a lengthy quizzing on the theology of this new religion produced only a collection of vague paradoxes. "There is no dogma about the Supreme Being. Something is only true if it's true for you." Yet there is no relativism about Dianetics which has to be applied without individual variation: "If it's been found to work, why change it?" On aspects of traditional religion - such as sexual ethics and social justice - Scientology seems equally inexact. On the meaning of suffering, he offered no coherent response; evil, he seemed to feel, was merely the consequence of an unfortunate series of accidents.

So I asked to meet some ordinary Scientologists to see if things became clearer. Georgina Roberts, 26, an actress, was beaming with sincerity.

At the end of a long conversation she spoke of how, aged 14, she had become promiscuous. "It made me deeply unhappy," she said and turned to the handbook to show me the section which had "saved her". Like much of Hubbard's writing, it seemed merely common sense mixed with platitudes, dressed up in esoteric jargon.

Yet it seemed to have worked for the older folk. Murie Cheshire, a 76- year-old Scotswoman, spoke of how Scientology changed her life 26 years ago after divorce, a bad car accident and a crisis in her career had left her shattered. And Ken Eckersley, a 70-year-old, spoke of how auditing had cured his brother's asthma and his wife's psychosomatic infertility. It also allowed him to visit his past lives. It sounded wacky, I said. "I'm not wacky. I'm happy," he replied. And he looked it.

They say that Ginger Spice will have to cough up $100,000 (pounds 62,000) for the full Scientology package. "Impossible," Mr Eckersley said. So how much had it cost him? "Just about pounds 5 a day," he said. Over his 47 years in the fold, that makes pounds 85,450.

The young lady in the Tottenham Court Road shop had said: "You'll either decide it is not for you, or else you'll be back in a week." I hope she's not holding her breath.