A friend is involved in Scientology. Should I interfere?

I've studied fringe religious movements and I know the dangers they pose. What is my role here?

By Cary Tennis

Published December 4, 2007 11:34AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

As an undergraduate, I picked up a hobby of reading about fringe religious movements. As a result, I became pretty familiar with the Church of Scientology, to the extent that a layman hobbyist can be. I also casually knew a couple of folks involved, though I wouldn't call them close friends.

Anyway, I recently developed a friendship with someone, and as it was going along, I picked up fairly quickly from the things that she was discussing that she was a Scientologist. If I wasn't as familiar with the church as I am, I probably wouldn't have figured it out, so it wasn't as if she was trying to tell me.

I chose to ask her about it, and my worry about her involvement showed. I didn't bring up any of the really horrible facts about the actions of the church, but I did honestly express my concern about the organization. She told in general terms how she had been recruited, and that she had been involved for over a year, but not many other details. However, she gives the impression to all but her closest friends and family that she is not a Scientologist. She also believed I was invading her privacy and was pretty angry.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I had dropped the subject at her request, but I am still greatly concerned. She did say she would talk to me about it sometime, but it has been over a month and she hasn't brought it up.

I don't believe her non-Scientologist friends have expressed much concern because they aren't aware of how dangerous involvement can be. But I don't know for certain. Her family has been shut out of the discussion because of their opposition. Our friendship has become more distant, but we are talking.

My question is, Should I start asking her about Scientology again? I know I can't change her mind or convince her to leave. The church is much better at that than I am. But I'd like to keep the avenues of communication open, just so there may be some way to reach her in the future. Complicating that is the fact that we were not so close to begin with. Should I be pressing this issue? Am I overstepping some bounds? I am genuinely concerned about her emotional and financial well-being, and I worry quite a bit about her.

I guess I'm just kind of at a loss about how to proceed.

A concerned acquaintance

Dear Concerned Acquaintance,

I had a bout with Scientology when I was about 20.

Let me tell you a little bit about what I was feeling at that time. I felt a fear that something was terribly wrong. I was filled with unexpressed rage. I felt powerless. I felt hopeless and without direction. I felt fearful that I would never make anything of myself. My parents had recently divorced, and my friends were all off at college making successes of themselves, while I had failed to do the necessary paperwork to get into a good college. I had done some work at a community college in north Florida but had come back to south Florida. I had no home to retire to, since my parents had split up and sold the house. They were both going from apartment to apartment. I was living with one and then living with the other. I had no job.

I believed, simplistically, that there was some one tragic wound, some one traumatic event in my past, that if I could just get at and remember it or perhaps relive it, I would be freed from this messy human frailty. I thought that if there were just some method ...

You know that abstracted, glazed look that Scientologists get, that steely, cold, rationalistic, power-hungry force field around them?

Scientology looked pretty good to me at the time. It looked like power. It looked like a solution: Not to feel, not to be confused, to have a rational framework, to be able to change the weather. Especially the part about being able to change the weather looked good to me. Who says you can't change the weather using your mind? Who says? Just some asshole scientists?

I liked the nautical aspect of it, as if we were all on a big ship. Captain L. Ron Hubbard was out there on the big white ship sailing the seas, and we ensigns were carrying out his noble work in the big, orderly house full of bustle and optimism and auditing with tin cans. It was a little like "Star Trek" -- or like Steve Zissou!

I liked the auditing: Well, somebody's attention was on me! I liked that. I could express a little of my pain. It's the same kind of attention you get in actual therapy, although you can keep the wall up much easier in Scientology. You can simply report these events from your past and do not have to bring your whole self to bear on them. You just report them and magically you're supposed to be rid of them, these troubling, irrational events, these injuries, these engrams. The distanced, hyperrational style of it appealed to me, as though the mind were just a machine.

I think now that at the bottom of that dream of power and perfection is fear and pain, and spiritual loneliness and isolation. There is some emotional wound, a fear of being vulnerable, a fear of letting anyone know how scared we are and at the same time a grandiose belief that if we can just find a system that can fix us, we will never have to join society and be simply a citizen among citizens. If we can find the system that trumps everything, we can always remain special and different and unique and better than the rest. And it exempts us from recognized and accepted tests of merit -- scholastic achievement, work success, marriage and family, gaining a solid reputation, finishing projects, making art, that kind of thing.

My advice to you, in dealing with your friend, would be to try to reach her emotionally. Try to form a bond with her and be there for her as somebody she can talk to honestly. Who knows what hell she is going through. If you try to take on the Scientology thing head-on, and argue with her about it, all you are doing is reinforcing in her mind the fact that you don't get it. You don't get the enormous appeal of this. And why not? Because you do not feel what she feels. And what does she feel? She might not talk about it explicitly. She may display a placid exterior. Nonetheless, my guess is that she is having the same kind of problems that I was having, the same unvoiced fears, the same desperate need to appear in control, to not let anyone know that she's desperate. So if she can be comfortable in your presence while feeling the way she feels, she may find herself coming to trust you, and she may be able to use you as a sounding board to air her doubts and fears. Just accept her. Talk of your own feelings at this time in your life. Talk of your own difficulties and how you are facing them.

If she hears you talk of your own challenges, she may tell you that you need Scientology auditing. You don't have to disagree or change her mind. Establish a bond of reality between you so that she can talk about what is really going on. Help her to remember who she is. Stick with her through this. Perhaps if she can keep one foot in the world of our reality, she will not become enmeshed in Scientology as a cult. And if she does become enmeshed in it to the point that she tries to cut off all contact with the rest of us, well, you will have the best chance of anyone of remaining in contact with her.

From my perspective, it is an unfortunate choice to join a cult, one that takes us farther from self-discovery rather than nearer. But for people in unacknowledged desperation, it can be a safe haven for a while, as it was for me.

As it turned out, while I had great emotional vulnerabilities, I did have an independence of mind such that, even though I was not able to express emotion, I was able to make choices. And I chose to ditch the Scientology thing and do lots of drugs instead. Who knows what was the smart thing. It's just what happened.

There is no telling what she will do.

My hope is that you stick with her through whatever she is going through.

Buy Cary's book

"Since You Asked," a collection of your favorite columns by Cary Tennis: On sale now at Cary Tennis Books. Buy now to receive an autographed first edition!

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Religion Scientology Since You Asked