Natalie's everyday reality is one of total immersion in all things Hubbard. Scientology kids are raised in a very different manner than mainstream kids. Most of them, like Natalie, have been educated by special tutors, and enrolled, as Natalie was when she was younger, in private schools run by Scientologists that use a Hubbard-approved study technique. Most kids are also put "on course" — enrolled in classes at the church that teach both children and adults self-control, focus and communication skills. Natalie was put on course, upon her own insistence, when she was seven or eight years old. Between school and church, life was "kind of a bubble," she says.
It is a steamy night, and Natalie is dressed in a sleeveless black Empire-waist blouse and tight jeans; her short, bitten nails are painted red. She lights a Marlboro Menthol. Smoking is Natalie's only vice. She neither drinks nor takes drugs of any sort — "once in a grand while I'll take a Tylenol," she says. "But only if my headache is really bad." She admits this with embarrassment because Scientologists consider many illnesses to be psychosomatic and don't believe in treating them with medicine, even aspirin.
Like all Scientologists, Natalie considers her body to be simply a temporary vessel. She thinks of herself as an immortal being, or "thetan," which means that she has lived trillions of years, and will continue to be reborn, again and again. Many Eastern religions have similar beliefs, and Natalic is quick to note that Scientology is "actually a very basic religion. It has a lot of the same moral beliefs as others." What's special about Scientology, Natalie says, is that it "bears a workable applied technology that you can use in your everyday life."
"Technology," or "tech," is what Scientologists call the theories, methods and principles espoused by L. Ron Hubbard — "LRH," as Natalie calls him. To the devout, he is part prophet, part teacher, part savior — some Scientologists rank Hubbard's importance as greater than Christ's — and Hubbard's word is considered the word. Hubbard was a prolific writer all his life; there are millions of words credited to him, roughly a quarter-million of them contained within Dianetics, the best-selling quasiscientific self-help book that is the most famous Scientology text.
Published in 1950, Dianetics maintained that the source of mental and physical illness could be traced back to psychic scars called "engrams" that were rooted in early, even prenatal, experiences, and remained locked in a person's subconscious, or "reactive mind." To rid oneself of the reactive mind, a process known as going "Clear," Dianetics, and later Scientology, preached a regressive-therapy technique called auditing, which involves re-experiencing incidents in one's past life in order to erase their engrams.
Natalie is a fan of auditing, something she's been doing since she was a small child. Most auditing is done with a device called the electropsychometer, or E-meter. Often compared to lie detectors, E-meters measure the changes in small electrical currents in the body, in response to questions posed by an auditor. Scientologists believe the meter registers thoughts of the reactive mind and can root out unconscious lies. As Natalie explains it, the E-meter is "like a guide that helps the auditor to know what questions to ask." Sometimes, she says, you might not remember certain events, and you might not know what is causing your problems. "But they'll just dig it up until you go, 'Holy shit, was that what was going on?'" She smiles. "And afterward, you feel so much better."
Natalie has just begun her path to Scientology enlightenment, known as the Bridge to Total Freedom. There are specific stages, or "grades," of the Bridge, and the key to progressing "upward" is auditing: hundreds, if not thousands, of sessions that Scientologists believe can not only help them resolve their problems but also fix their ethical breaches, much as Catholics might do in confessing their sins. The ultimate goal in every auditing session is to have a "win," or moment of revelation, which can take a few minutes, hours or even weeks — Scientologists are not allowed to leave an auditing session until their auditor is satisfied.
So far, Natalie has gotten much of her auditing for free, through her parents, who have both worked for the church. But many Scientologists pay dearly for the service. Unique among religious faiths, Scientology charges for virtually all of its religious services. Auditing is purchased in 12.5-hour blocks, known as "intensives." Each intensive can cost anywhere from $750 for introductory sessions to between $8,000 and $9,000 for advanced sessions. When asked about money, church officials can become defensive. "Do you want to know the real answer? If we could offer everything for free, we would do it," says Rinder. Another official offers, "We don't have 2,000 years of acquired wealth to fall back on." But Scientology isn't alone, church leaders insist. Mormons, for example, expect members to tithe a tenth of their earnings.
Still, religious scholars note that this is an untraditional approach. "Among the things that have made this movement so controversial," says S. Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, "are its claims that its forms of therapy are 'scientific' and that the 'truth' will only be revealed to those who have the money to purchase advancement to the various levels leading to 'being clear.' It is this unvarnished demand for money that has led many observers to opine that the entire operation looks more like a business than a religion." Clearing the stages along the Bridge to Total Freedom is a process that can take years and cost tens and often hundreds of thousands of dollars—one veteran Scientologist told me she "donated" $250,000 in a twenty-year period. Other Scientologists can wind up spending family inheritances and mortgaging homes to pay the fees. Many, like Natalie's parents, work for their local church so they can receive auditing and courses for free.
Both of Natalie's parents are Clear, she says. Her grandmother is what's called an "Operating Thetan," or "OT." So is Tom Cruise, who is near the top of Scientology's Bridge, at a level known as OT VII. OTs are Scientology's elite — enlightened beings who are said to have total "control" over themselves and their environment. OTs can allegedly move inanimate objects with their minds, leave their bodies at will and telepathically communicate with, and control the behavior of, both animals and human beings. At the highest levels, they are allegedly liberated from the physical universe, to the point where they can psychically control what Scientologists call MEST: Matter, Energy, Space and Time.
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