- Members are checked if they are ‘Clear’ – which costs £82,000 to achieve
- Cameras and audio monitor Clearwater site to keep a check on followers
- Newcomers must undergo ‘purification of toxins’ which involves sweating out in a sauna
I’d been pinched – hard – in some kind of strange lie-detector test and seen rooms where people went to be ‘purified’.
I’d spent an hour subjected to a gruelling and invasive ‘personality’ test and revealed my deepest inner thoughts as if hypnotised.
I’d also been invited to cross the Bridge To Total Freedom – but, in a panic, instead I found myself running away from Scientology as fast as I could – after just a day as a guest of the controversial religion.
I look back on my visit last week to Scientology’s Florida headquarters to celebrate July 4 as one of the most unsettling experiences of my life, and yet it all started so innocently…
The invitation from the Scientologists had suggested we celebrate Independence Day at ‘the Friendliest Place in the Whole World’. Why should I refuse? The event sounded fun. There would be a barbecue, pool games, live music, a petting zoo and fireworks – just like other celebrations across America.
However, there was a hint that this party would be different. The invitation also said: ‘Get briefed on Scientology’s exponential expansion across the globe, our penetrating 4th Dynamic Dissemination Campaigns and a full view to our future.’
It had been sent to a close relative of mine who had briefly worked for Scientology almost a decade ago, inviting him to the Florida town of Clearwater, Scientology’s spiritual headquarters – where Scientologists own more than 200 shops, restaurants, hotels, banks and small businesses.
Almost 9,000 members live and work here, alongside non-Scientologists. They run schools, day-care centres and a drug-rehabilitation clinic.
Given that Katie Holmes had reportedly just ended her marriage amid fears Tom Cruise planned to send their daughter Suri to Clearwater – known to Scientologists as ‘Land Flag Base’ – my curiosity was piqued and we decided to go along.
Bizarrely, the invitation did not mention times or venues. We called into the opulent Fort Harrison Hotel – owned by Scientologists – to ask for directions. A security guard stopped us. We showed him the invitation and my relative explained that he had previously been a Scientology staff member and still received event invitations via email.
‘Name?’ the guard asked my relative, striding to a computer. He tapped it in and the screen filled with information. Our information. My new home address was there. How did they have such personal details and why was this data accessible on a hotel lobby computer?
The guard looked at the screen and raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re Clear?’
‘Clear’ is one of the very highest levels within Scientology. The status had either been conferred on my relative without his knowledge, or there was a mix-up in the system. The cost of reaching this level is estimated at $128,000 (about £82,000) and Clear members are among the church’s most trusted.
‘It says you’re Clear,’ the guard repeated before giving us directions to the Sandcastle Spiritual Retreat, where the party was being held. We’d passed the first hurdle.
Scientology symbols are everywhere in Clearwater; on plaques, in paving stones, and engraved into the architecture. Security cameras are on all Scientology properties and even hidden in the shrubbery. Every move and, no doubt conversation, can be monitored. It feels incredibly sinister.
The town is dominated by the Church’s £57 million Super Power Building which will, eventually, be a centre for learning. Construction paper covers doors and windows so I couldn’t see what was inside and no one could tell me when it would open.
The Sandcastle – another Scientologist-owned hotel – was a ten-minute walk. There was live music and a bouncy castle in the grounds, red, white and blue balloons tied to the patio furniture and smoke rising from the barbecue. Families wandered around in bathing suits. I relaxed.
But again, the second we entered the lobby, we were interrogated by a guard. Who had sent the event invitation? Where were we from? Eventually, another computer was consulted.
‘Ah, you’re Clear,’ the receptionist smiled. We purchased our day tickets and made our way out to the swimming pool. Children laughed and splashed all around us.
Later, sitting in the shade, I turned to my relative and asked whether he had seen the bizarre series of posters – featuring, among others, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley promoting Scientology movies – that lined the Spiritual Retreat’s lobby walls.
He stared at me in dismay and it was only then that I noticed a small camera and audio device poking out of a bush close to my chair. I felt panic.
Had they heard me mocking the posters? ‘Why don’t we get out of this sun and watch a movie?’ he said.
While my companion organised a film screening, I explored. Just off the lobby was a large gift shop and cafe. There were stacks of merchandise featuring L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder: books, films, pads and pens.
One wall was dedicated entirely to brightly coloured vitamin-pill bottles. ‘The vitamins are for use during the purification process,’ it was explained by an older lady who had approached me.
‘When we start services, it’s important to rid our bodies of our former life’s toxins, whether it be from pesticides, alcohol or drug use.
‘You can see the rooms just down the hall where we spend several hours a day during purification.’
I went to see the ‘purification rooms’ – which were nothing more than a small gym and sauna.
I retraced my steps to find my relative waiting, about to be subjected to a two-hour DVD celebrating L. Ron Hubbard’s life.
‘I understand you’re new,’ a Scientologist said to me. ‘I’ll take you to be tested and assessed.’
The testing centre was a short walk away and I was placed in the care of a young woman around my own age.
At the centre, after a short DVD introduction to Scientology, I was hooked up to the infamous ‘e-meter’, an electronic device used during ‘auditing’. The e-meter is supposed to indicate whether a person has been cleared of the spiritual impediment of past experiences.
To illustrate how I was holding on to bad experiences, I was pinched and told to recall the pinch over and over again. Instead, to see what would happen, I silently recalled scenes from The Sound Of Music. Unsurprisingly, the e-meter did what was expected and I was told I was carrying painful memories that were holding me back in life.
What did she recommend? ‘A personality test. You must answer a series of questions before I can assess what steps you need to take.’
I spent the next hour under observation by Sea Org members – elite Scientologists – while I answered hundreds of questions such as ‘Do you smile much?’ and ‘Does life seem vague and unreal to you?’
The test results were analysed by computer – yet more data to be stored away, no doubt – and I was told that I’d tested as extremely nervous and irresponsible. ‘Are you nervous?’ the woman asked. ‘Do you take too much on in life and feel as though you can’t cope?’
I’m usually a private person but I opened up by talking about my occasional feelings of inadequacy and my need to strive for perfection.
Why was I telling her things, I wondered? I remembered reading that many Sea Org members use hypnosis techniques when communicating. I didn’t believe I’d been hypnotised but I’d certainly said much more than I’d intended.
‘You’re an extremely smart cookie who could move up The Bridge very quickly,’ the woman said.
‘The Bridge To Total Freedom’ is the training process by which Scientologists try to reach the state of being ‘Clear’. They can then move on to higher levels.
‘I’d like to start you on the Hubbard Qualified Scientologist and Dianetics Book Courses,’ she said.
‘You could finish those in a matter of weeks. Each would cost just $60.’
I was led into a classroom filled with people studying. ‘You will study here for a few hours per day. We have lots of different study rooms in this building, including ones specifically for children.’
‘How old are children when they start services?’ I asked.
‘They start as soon as they can read and write.’ I thought of Katie Holmes and Suri.
‘You need to begin your purification process, too. That ranges between $3,000 and $5,000 and you’ll need to spend several hours a day sweating out the toxins of your life while adhering to a strict vitamin regime. You can start that today.’
Things seemed to be moving far too quickly. Surely she didn’t expect me to sign up for these things now?
‘Well, actually I’d like to have my relative look over your course recommendations and see what he thinks, if that’s OK?’ I said.
‘That’s fine. Give me your cell phone number so I can find you during the fireworks.’
Suddenly everything seemed to be a demand, the atmosphere had changed. I gave a false phone number, promised to meet her and then bolted.
Back at the Spiritual Retreat, I found my companion. It was already dark. Suddenly, I longed to go home. As the fireworks exploded, we were already on our way out of Clearwater, checking periodically to see if we were being followed. Why I thought we might be, I can’t explain.
I’m already receiving emails inviting me back for more special events but I won’t be returning.
In fact, I will never set foot in a Scientology-owned building again.