Why am I a scientology watcher?
There are a couple of motivations — a moral one and an intellectual one. I have discussed my moral impetus in other places. It is simply abhorrent to me to see people’s spiritual hunger exploited and perverted — which is what cults do. I have my reasons for that, but those are deeper waters than I wish to take you into right now. Right now, I want to share a bit of my intellectual mindset as a sci-watcher. Someone who has never been in the cult, but is nonetheless compelled to speak out against it. Why do I care about this, out of all the wrongs in the world?
I have been fascinated by psychology and abnormal human behavior since I was a very small child. If you find that hard to believe, you probably don’t know me. People who know me know that I have always been scary-smart. When I entered kindergarten I already knew how to read and write. I was tested and labeled and so on — a true wonder kid. I always had a huge appetite for learning. If there was something I found interesting, I would find ways to learn more about it, and devour everything I could.
My elementary school was THE case (literally) for educational inequality and busing in my city. Busing began when I was 6 years old and it had many implications for a kid like me. I was educated at a time when an extremely gifted little black girl (like me) was a golden opportunity for all the progressive white teachers around me. Not to indict their motives; it WAS the times. In any case, I was encouraged to indulge every intellectual curiosity, and I did. I have maintained that habit to this day.
“Abnormal” psychology was one of my areas of curiosity. I always wanted to understand more about why people do what they do, especially when they do things that are disturbing or harmful. How do people wind up thinking and feeling the things that compel them to be destructive and do harm? That is a question that drives me, to this day. I saw the Jonestown images as a child, and the made-for-TV movie about that tragedy. I took it as evidence that people can be fooled into ANYTHING, once something in particular goes wrong. This was an aspect human nature, in my view; so many examples in history of people following a leader on a crazy or evil mission. I wanted to understand more about that.
I was far more interested in the “Manson Family”. I saw that TV movie too, and I guess that piqued my interest. But mostly, I was born on the day of the murders, and in a strange way I always felt marked by that fact. I read as much as possible about the case. (I know far more about those murders than a healthy person should.) It led to an intense curiosity about the strange extremes of human behavior, and why and how people are led to those extremes. Jim Jones was much easier to understand, as a typical authority figure — a minister. No surprise he was able and willing to abuse that authority. Charlie was a homeless, dirty drifter who had spent years in prison. He was no authority on anything other than cons. Yet, he managed to seduce wealthy famous people, strong and capable young men, and sheltered suburban daughters. He enticed some of them to murder. WTF?
My curiosity has always been, what makes people do such things? What is the dynamic between cult master and cult member, that facilitates shocking breaches in general human mores against murder, graft, sexual abuse, and so on? There are a lot of opinions, a lot of facile explanations available in the marketplace of ideas. After years of undergrad and graduate study in psychology, I have encountered most of them. But none that satisfy me. For me, it remains an open question: why and how do people get involved with cults?
Scientology caught my attention in the eighties, because there was a girl I met at my after-school job who was on her own at age sixteen. She told me that her parents had left her to fend for herself, because they wanted to dedicate themselves to working for their church. That “church” was scientology. I was so curious to know more about what kind of religion would lead parents to abandon their teenage daughter to be homeless, and I soon found a book about L. Ron Hubbard at the library, Russell Miller’s Bare Faced Messiah. Once I read that book, I was intensely curious to know more about this bizarre cult, and I have watched it ever since. Although I kind of turned away after they bought out CAN, and it seemed they were gaining legitimacy with their celebrity schills. After the apparent progress made by critics in the eighties that seemed to promise an end in sight, it seemed the media was too scared to write anything but puff pieces and ignore the dark side of scientology, and that was just too hard to watch. Still, my familiarity with the crazy things that actually happen to people in cults was very helpful in my later work. I just didn’t have the time or desire to keep up with their latest shenanigans.
With scientology in particular, there was a dearth of information, or people willing to talk about it, for a long time after the Time magazine article and subsequent lawsuit. Other cults were mostly ignored, except by the tabloids. There wasn’t much for cult-watchers to see during those dark days of the early nineties. The flowering of the Internet has changed all of that. It is so easy to watch scientology now, and boy is it fun to watch! It remains fascinating to me in a way no other cult can be. It is a current affair, the crazy is not all in the past the way it is with other cults. When you know it is happening NOW, it is much more compelling. You can even communicate with the people involved directly, get information straight from the source.
Of course, finding Tony Ortega’s blog at the Village Voice really renewed my interest. What a surprising and wide-open window into the fascinating phenomenon of scientology’s practices and impact. This is a man who knows his subject, and is committed to reporting on it as thoroughly as possible. Watching this thing unfold in real time is an amazing experience. Then, soon after I began following Tony’s blog, the comments began to function as an extension of the stories. That is the part that got me hooked. Being able to participate in and influence the discussion about this whole topic, in a public forum, is deeply gratifying. All my reading and study, and personal experience, can actually be of service in a small way.
So, now you know more about why I care about the topic of scientology. It all started with Charlie Manson…