How I was reduced to black despair by 'caring' "church's" personality test
by Julia Llewellyn Smith
For hours afterwards I was shaking. It was an idyllic sunny afternoon when I walked into the "Church" of Scientology on London's Tottenham Court Road but when I walked out an hour later I was cold inside. In the intervening time, I had been told that at times I could be a "total bitch"; that I was over-critical that others felt uncomfortable around me; that I was so withdrawn it was almost impossible for anyone to form a close relationship with me.
My interviewer also told me that I was so timid I was failing in every area of my life. On several occasions, I felt close to tears. Having arrived feeling fine about myself, I left wanting to curl up in a ball and never go out again.
I had just undergone the Oxford Capacity Analysis test, the "free personality test" offered at 30 centres across the country. Anyone who has walked past one of these centres will have been accosted by a smiling young person offering something that sounds as fun and harmless as a quiz in a women's magazine.
Yet Ian Howarth, of the Cult Information Centre, which has received "numerous" complaints about the Scientologists, urges people to avoid these centres at all costs. "Too many people walk in for a laugh and end up on the inside, parting with thousands of pounds," he says.
Bonnie Woods, a former Scientologist who has counselled more than 300 families affected by the "religion" says: "I have been in mental asylums and seen the effects that recruitment into Scientology might have on someone who is vulnerable. People think that if you are not a basket case, you will be protected from the Scientologists. But in fact, anyone of any age going down the street can be just as susceptible as anyone else."
Scientology has been described by Judge Latey in the High Court as "immoral and socially obnoxious... corrupt, sinister and dangerous". The cult now claims to have about 100,000 members in Britain and eight million worldwide. Yet right now Scientology is attempting to revamp its image. This month, it embarked on a pan-European "crusade" to gain new members. Great play has been made of its celebrity followers - Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley are all members of the "Church".
Recently, adverts have started to appear on the London Underground. "Scientology helped me to achieve my goals," reads the caption and the cult (despite many attempts Scientology has failed in its quest to be defined as a religion in this country) now plans to advertise on national television.
A "What is Scientology?" exhibition at the Selfridge Hotel in central London, presents the organisation as a bit eccentric but basically harmless. It gives glossy information on Scientology's founder L Ron Hubbard, a former Hollywood scriptwriter and science fiction writer, who reportedly told a colleague that the easiest way to become rich was to start a religion. He died in 1996 with £410million in his bank account.
Hubbard (who claimed to have visited Venus) believed that 75 million years ago an evil prince called Xenu ruled a galactic confederation. When he visited Earth he brought alien beings called Thetans who inhabit humans' bodies. The Thetans' enemies are Engrams, disruptive forces planted in our universe from outside the galaxy. Through "dianetics" -a type of therapy devised by Hubbard - the Engrams can be driven out and we can achieve spiritual peace.
A dianetics video at the show depicted a woman being "audited" - asked by another Scientologist to go over and over a traumatic event or Engram, in this case a row with her husband about going to a party. After many repetitions, the Engram was purged. Then it was on to the next trauma.
As a process, this would surely take a lifetime to complete. Bonnie Woods agrees. "As soon as you have finished one course there is another and then another after that," she says. "If you ended up doing them all you could spend in the region of £200,000."
This year, Bonnie, 50, was awarded £55,000 in damages from the Scientologists, after they distributed leaflets around her home in Sussex denouncing her as a hate campaigner. Scientologists picketed her house, terrifying her two daughters.
"I was studying psychology at college and never thought I could get involved in something like this, yet I ended up giving all my savings to Scientology and working for them, in terrible conditions," she says. "If I hadn't had to go to hospital for a while, I might never have got free. The myth is that only slow, suggestible people join cults. Statistically, it has been shown that recruits are usually highly intelligent, highly motivated individuals. 'Body routers' - the people who stand in the street and invite you in - are trained to look for people like that."
I was convinced that someone like me - level-headed, well-educated and cynical - could never be affected by something as ludicrous as Scientology. I felt relaxed as I entered their "church" - in reality a dilapidated building with a shabby shop front. Inside, I was handed the "personality test". It consisted of 200 questions, requiring you to tick a box saying Yes, No or Maybe. They included: "Would you buy 'on credit' in the hope you can keep up the payments?" (No); "Do you rarely suspect the actions of others?" (No); "Do you have little regret on past misfortunes or failures?" (No). Around me, five young people - mainly women and foreign - were filling it out enthusiastically.
I waited for 10 minutes while the computer analysed the test. Then a man introduced himself to me as Paul and took me into a booth, with a copy of my "graph", a computer analysis of my answers. It showed that while in some areas I had "good" marks; in others they were appalling. Paul was concerned about this. Was I aware how much these problems were holding me back? Shouldn't I tackle them? Wasn't it a real worry that I was so busy looking after my friends that I forgot to attend to my own needs? Weakly, I agreed.
In retrospect, I may appear pathetic. At the time I was genuinely shocked. The problem with the Oxford test (it was, according to Bonnie, devised by a merchant seaman with no psychological training and no connection with the city or University of Oxford) is that it pinpoints your weaknesses quite accurately. Some of the things Paul said were true. Only later it occurred to me that there had been no mention at all of my good points. I felt embarrassed to be so shaken, but according to Bonnie, my reaction was normal. "The Scientologists put you in a vulnerable position," she says. "They hammer home your inadequacies. The technique is designed to make you suggestible and vulnerable."
Next, it was time for the hard sell. I was ushered into another room, and greeted by Raj, a young man with wide, staring eyes. He was much kinder than Paul, explaining how dianetics could help me.
Raj showed me details of the dianetics course he recommended. How much would the course cost? "£20," Raj said. For 20 hours of instruction, it seemed like a bargain. "Listen," said Raj. "I'm telling you this as a friend, not as a Scientologist. Why not just go for it? It's only £20? What have you got to lose?" Later, I learned that this is standard Scientology sales patter. Scientology's income is estimated at £200 million a year, with additional assets of £270 million.
My name may now be put on a Scientology blacklist. Journalists, along with homosexuals, are not allowed to become Scientologists and those who have criticised the cult in the past say they have been persistently harassed."What is extraordinary is that the Scientologists are now saying 'Find out for yourself'," says Bonnie. "Well I did find out and by my speaking out about what I didn't like, I can expect to be harassed for the rest of my life."
© Express Newspapers Ltd
[includes picture of Julia Llewellyn Smith standing outside the Tottenham Court Road org]