Friday, December 09, 2005
SUNDAY MIRROR INVESTIGATES: INSIDE TOM CRUISE CULT
-We go undercover to spend 4 weeks in the weird world of Scientology -5 hours a day in a sauna 'will purify the soul'.. at a cost of £1,100 -No sex if you're pregnant and you can't ever talk to a sick child
By Sharon Van Geuns
FIVE hours a day in a steaming sauna for three weeks at a cost of just over £1,100...and my sullied soul will be purified. At least that's what I am promised.
Welcome to religion, Scientology-style.
For one month I have been following in the footsteps of the controversial cult's most famous torchbearer - Tom Cruise - to discover just what Katie Holmes, his 26-year-old pregnant fiancee, is facing as one of the Church of Scientology's latest recruits.
I resolve to tell them I am pregnant too. Is it really true I would have to give birth in absolute silence? And what other strange rites - apart from the sauna purification programme - would I have to follow?
A High Court judge once dismissed the organisation as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous" but I arrive at their London HQ in Tottenham Court Road prepared to be open-minded.
Over the course of the next few weeks I see and hear things that leave me feeling very uncomfortable.
I learn I should be silent in the presence of a sick child - even if an ambulance needs to be called. Instead of calling for help I would have to "find a bit of paper" and write down any instructions to a passer-by.
I am also asked to pass Scientology material to a teacher friend, to get the cult's message across to schools.
And I discover at least one member of staff is sometimes paid as little as £10 a week. Like many others, my first encounter with the Church is outside one of their centres. As I make my way towards the building I am accosted in the street.
"Hi!" and suddenly a face is beaming up at me. "Want a free stress test? All you need to do is answer a few questions and we can tell you exactly what areas in your life are stressing you out the most," says the girl. "Then we can tell you how to combat them."
This is Louise. "Please sit down," she says, before I have even had a chance to answer. The "test" is set up outside the front entrance. I am asked to hold two metal handles attached to to a machine with a dial. After a series of questions, it's determined that I am "highly stressed".
"You're at the right place," says Louise. "We can restore calm and control over your life." Inside, most of the staff are young and several are from overseas. Louise, 24, is from Australia and has been working here two years.
She instantly probes me about my life. "What's the relationship like with your boyfriend? Your mother?" I feel uncomfortable, but strangely compelled to reveal some of my deepest secrets to a complete stranger.
Louise says my troubles will be eased by taking a number of courses on offer at the centre. They are designed by the cult's founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1982. He established the Church of Scientology in the 1950s after claiming to have discovered the mysterious "truth" about human existence. I am introduced to a procedure called "auditing". It's a crude form of counselling which involves sitting opposite a person, getting them to close their eyes before taking them back to a past experience.
You are supposed to take them through the experience time after time until they become "cheerful" about it.
As I am new, I am sent for a practice session. I am not expecting to find myself face-to-face with a 3ft soft toy in the form of Winnie the Pooh.
The bear sits opposite me. Behind him sits Mike, who will answer on the bear's behalf. I address the bear and read from a card of instructions. "Please locate an incident you feel comfortable facing," I say to the bear, trying hard not to laugh. "Well, there is this one time," says the bear, or rather Mike. "My pot of honey was stolen. It really upset me." "Very good," I read, from the card. "Go to the beginning of that incident and go through it and say what is happening as you go along."
"OK," says the bear. 'Well I was out walking...' And so it goes on. For half an hour. I am now apparently ready to listen and audit a "real-life" person.
Louise calls me the next day and asks me to come in. At the centre I meet Ajay, who has big problems. With no professional training I talk to him about his strict Hindu background, and how he is struggling to accept that his virgin girlfriend dated men before him. I can't voice an opinion. Afterwards Ajay says he feels better for talking about it, but nothing has really been resolved. Edith, who had been supervising us, dismisses his concerns by telling him he simply needs more "auditing".
Ajay and I had paid a fee of £34 for starting the beginner's auditing course. If we want more auditing we will have to pay around £15 a session. Next in the programme is "Purification" - the sauna treatment. To reverse the spiritual and mental effects of drug use, you are encouraged to sit in a hot sauna for up to five hours a day for up to 21 days.
This will apparently rid the body of toxins and focus the mind. It will cost £965 - but the books and vitamins needed on top come to an extra £150. Later I discover that no scientific evidence exists to prove the sauna treatment works.
I ask for information regarding pregnancy. I am introduced to Sarah, a senior course administrator at the centre and a mother of five.
She tells me some very odd things. "The main thing to do when you're pregnant is to learn to keep silent if you hurt yourself. Anything you say can be registered in the baby's mind and may affect it later in life." She also tells me to avoid sex during pregnancy. "You might put stress on the baby or squash it and thereby cause an engram (negative experience in their memory)." Scientologists believe birth should be done in silence. I ask Sarah how she dealt with the pain.
"Not easy," she admits, "but it will save a lot of auditing in the future for the child." I ask about the belief that parents should not make a noise in the presence of an injured child.
Scientologists believe that anything a child or person hears during a painful experience will come back to haunt them later in life. How, I wonder, will Katie Holmes cope with not being able to whisper comforting words to her child when he or she is sick?
I mention a teacher friend of mine. Immediately a woman asks me whether I am able to get any Scientology literature to my friend, so she can take it into her school. I say I don't feel comfortable with this.
But by the end of the third week at the centre it is easy to see why Scientology is popular. I found a whole new set of friends who seemed to really care about me. If I am late or miss a session they call me. When my car window is smashed by vandals I get three phone calls within a couple of hours asking how I am.
I decide to take up an invite to the Church of Scientology's UK headquarters in East Grinstead, West Sussex. To my amazement, I find myself among 5,000 cheering and chanting followers in a sumptuously-decorated marquee.
I am even more amazed to see Tom Cruise himself has flown in, bringing a bemused-looking Katie with him. Another two celebrity Scientologists, John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston, are there too, but I can't get anywhere near any of them because they are in the VIP section.
Next day, back at the centre, I'm offered a personality test - the results suggest I am "very unbalanced". I'm also told I am irresponsible, depressed, and highly critical. Louise suggests I take one of their "Personal Values and Integrity" courses - at a cost of £48. Over a coffee Louise confides that as a staff member she gets benefits, including free "auditing" and training. To my dismay, she says sometimes she earns as little as £10 a week.
It is clear that Louise and her colleagues (who work at the lower ends of the organisation) are on a bonus-style scheme. If they bring in a lot of people like me, and sell a lot of courses and books, they earn more money.
Louise believes in "the cause". Unfortunately for her, I don't. I have found the whole experience very disturbing and this was where I parted company with Scientology.
Katie Holmes might have bagged one of the most eligible men in the Church but I don't envy her one tiny bit.
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