Friday, April 18, 2008

Chapter Two: The Canyon

Sierra Madre Canyon, 1967


"Man, wait till you hear about this!"

Jerry, his mop of red hair flying, burst in on my quiet Sunday afternoon.

"Hear about what?’ I asked, looking up from my book. I was lounging in my favorite piece of furniture, an old barber’s chair from the 1920’s that I’d found at an antique store and installed in my living room. It had a padded leather seat and fancy grillwork, and, by pushing a few levers, one could adjust it to a reclining position. I uncoiled myself from the chair.

I’d known Jerry since we were kids. Now I was living with his sister, Dixie, and we let Jerry live in the spare bedroom of our rented house in Sierra Madre Canyon. With Jerry around, life was never dull, and today was no exception.

"Scientology," said Jerry. "I was just over at Doug’s house, and there were a couple of guys up from LA talking about it."

It was the first time I’d ever heard the word.

It was fall, 1967. Fresh out of art school, I was striking out on my own at last, working in LA as a commercial artist and renting a house in The Canyon, a quirky, colorful collection of tiny summer houses tucked up in the foothills about 30 miles northeast of LA. A stream ran through the Canyon in a concrete wash, and it was spanned by wooden footbridges. This was home to a motley collection of artists, intellectuals, and nonconformists, and over the last few years had seen an invasion of long-haired kids – hippies. I enjoyed the freewheeling friendliness of Canyon life.

My mother lived just a few minutes away in suburban Arcadia, and I visited her often. She had been widowed since 1960, and was now all alone as both my brother and sister were away at college.

The Summer of Love had come and gone, and the dream of peace and love had, for me, started to get a bit stale. I was prime draft age, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I was called up and sent to Vietnam.

I was very much involved in the anti-war movement. When Lyndon Johnson came to LA and stayed at the Century Plaza Hotel, I joined about 20,000 others in an anti-war demonstration outside the hotel. We were met by thousands of LA cops, who waded in to the demonstrators, striking anyone they could reach with their clubs. I remember seeing one young girl, she couldn’t have been more than twelve, with blood streaming down her face. Jerry, enraged, had picked up an unopened soda can and was about to launch it at the nearest cop when I grabbed his arm and held him back. More violence wasn’t the answer.

But what was the answer? It wasn’t drugs - I had given them up six months earlier, after a bad acid trip. That was a dead-end street. I was looking for another answer, and weekends like this one would often find me poring over books on yoga, meditation, psychocybernetics, hypnotism, anything I could get my hands on. Like most of the kids in the Canyon, I was looking for something. So Jerry had my attention.

"So what is Scientology?" I asked. "What were they saying about it?"

"They said it’s scientific," Jerry tried to explain. "It’s a sort of scientific way to reach spiritual enlightenment. They said that they had a way to clear away the things that keep you from your potentials."

Jerry’s enthusiasm, as usual, was infectious. We decided to go down to the "Scientology place" in LA the next night and check it out.

The "Org," short for Organization – we would soon get familiar with all the jargon - was down on 9th Street, near McArthur Park, in a big old house. As we entered the lobby, I saw it was packed with people, talking, laughing, smiling. And what amazed me was that they were all ages and types. Old grey haired people talking animatedly with young long-haired kids. The "generation gap" seemed to be suspended.

The Los Angeles Org on 9th Street

The lecture hall was large, and there were about 100 people in the audience. Jerry and I found seats in the back. A young man with dark hair and movie-star good looks came out and introduced himself as Seaton Thomas, and proceeded to give us a lecture about Scientology. He was an electrifying speaker – intense, funny, eloquent. He talked about a part of the mind called the Reactive Mind, which stores up all of the painful things that happen to you, and then throws them back at you at moments of stress, causing you to think and do things you don’t want to – to "not be yourself."

He interrupted the lecture in several places to show a black and white film of the Founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard seemed to be a pleasant guy, humorous and outspoken. He was a colorful character – the lecturer told us he’d been an explorer, a sailor, he’d led expeditions and studied many different races. Of course this was many years before Indiana Jones, but he seemed to have some of that aura of maverick panache. And he seemed to be a bit of an anti-establishment rebel, something that, of course, appealed to me. Everyone referred to him as "Ron."

Seaton ended by describing the State of Clear – what a person would be like without the Reactive Mind – vibrant, sane, intelligent, rational, dynamic. He seemed to fix each one of us with his electric gaze as he concluded the lecture:

"I’m Clear. You can be too."

I was hooked. I headed straight for the bookstore. I bought three of Hubbard’s books, Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought, The Problems of Work, and Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science. I spent the next weekend reading, plowing through all three books in two days. The next Monday, I was down at the Org again, signing up for the Communications Course, a week long course to teach you how to communicate better. I certainly wanted to do that – I had always considered myself to be shy, awkward around girls, hesitant to speak up in a group. If I could get more confident, that would be great.

The course consisted of "TRs" or Training Regimens, a series of drills, we were told, that were used to train Scientology auditors. The drills were printed on long foolscap pages in red ink, with an impressive heading stating they were "Technical Bulletins." We weren’t just studying someone’s vague theories, no – this was a technology. It was scientific. We drilled and drilled, and I was exhilarated to find myself talking easily to my "twin" (drill partner) – a very pretty girl.

At one point, a feeling of peace came over me, and I seemed to be outside my body. When I told the Supervisor about this I was told that yes, this is a usual experience in Scientology, called "exteriorization." You are not your body, I was told, and as you gain more and more awareness through Scientology, you gain the ability to leave and return to your body at will.

Wow. Leaving your body. I went to the bookstore again, this time looking for something wilder. I saw a book on the top shelf called A History of Man with a picture of a big spiral galaxy on the cover. "I want that one," I said.

"Er..that’s a very advanced book," the Bookstore Officer said. "Maybe you’d like to start with something more basic?"

"No," I replied, "that’s the one I want." I spent the next few days poring through it. Space Opera. Past Lives. It all seemed so amazing – I was completely electrified. At one point, I felt sick and went to the bathroom and threw up. "Wow," I thought, "if a book can cause that effect on me – it must contain some real meat!"

My girlfriend Dixie was less than enthusiastic about Scientology. She didn’t share my enthusiasm and wanted no part of it. Down at the Org they told me about "Suppressive Persons" or "SPs" who didn’t want people to get better and so would try to stop them from pursuing any betterment activity. Maybe my girlfriend was like that, they suggested – maybe she just didn’t want me to get any better. I began to resent Dixie’s criticisms of Scientology – I felt like she was attacking me personally. We began arguing more and more, and finally it came to a head.

"It’s either me or Scientology," she yelled.

"Well, I’m not going to give up Scientology," I told her. "It’s too important.

That was it – she moved out. A few days later she came with her new boyfriend and got her furniture.

But I was too into my new life to get too hung up in it. Many others from the Canyon were getting involved in Scientology, and we started to hang out together.

One weekend, Jerry and I went hiking with some others from the Canyon, climbing up a ravine in back of the houses. One of the girls who was with us, Linda, had trained as a Scientology auditor. Jerry and I got into a swordfight with a couple of old tree branches, and by the end of it, the branches were in splinters and my right hand was covered in blood from a zillion tiny cuts. Linda took me to the stream, washed my hand in the cold water, and then proceeded to do what she called a "touch assist," touching my hand over and over and telling me to "feel her finger." Well, it was a magical moment, enhanced by the fact that Linda was rather pretty and I was enjoying her company and her touch. When she finished, I looked my hand over and couldn’t see a scratch on it. That impressed me.

"How did you do that?" I asked.

She smiled. "That’s Scientology." I determined that I wanted to be an auditor.

That Christmas, my brother Kimball came home from Arizona State University.

"I’ve got something to tell you about!" he said excitedly.

"No, shut up," I said, I’ve got something to tell you that’s more important!"

We went back and forth like this for a few minutes until we realized we were both talking about the same thing - Scientology. He’d been introduced to it by his girlfriend, Cathy Mullins, who worked at the Tempe Scientology "franchise."

He ended up staying in LA, moved into the house with me and began working at the Scientology Org. They could only pay him a few dollars a week, so I ended up supporting him as I was making decent money as a commercial artist. But I figured that was my contribution to "the cause."

And that’s how we started to look at it. As a cause. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and South Central erupted in violence. The Vietnam War was still raging and I was due to be called up for service any day. The anti-war rallies seemed futile – they weren’t going to change anything. We had to get rid of people’s Reactive Minds! Then they would see that war and violence were wrong, that it was not sane. They would become rational and ethical and sane. This was the answer. We had to Clear the Planet.

My brother and I started auditor training on Academy Level 0, which taught you how to audit someone on the subject of communication. To graduate, I had to find someone to audit, so I found a girl who wanted auditing, and ran the processes on her. I was nervous as hell, and I think she was too. At the end she was thrilled with the results, and I was just as pleased. I was on my way.

I had a new girlfriend, Crystal, a beautiful green-eyed blonde. She was part of the crowd that showed up in the Canyon on weekends, wanting to be part of the hippie life. She would come up from Orange County on weekends, and our time together was intense.

Then, midweek, she showed up at my house in a taxi, which I had to pay for. She said that her parents had put her in a mental institution, and she had escaped by climbing a wall. Of course, I had already been instructed by the Scientologists at the Org on the evils of psychiatry, so her story really got me going. With my newfound confidence, I decided to take the bull by the horns, and I drove her back to her parents house in Orange County – Jeff the auditor on a mission of mercy! I sat and talked with her parents for about an hour and finally convinced them to not send her back to the mental institution, but to allow her to study Scientology. I was amazed at my own pluck – I had saved Crystal!

I told my mom I was going to marry Crystal. She gave me a wry look that seemed to encompass all of my crazy girlfriends and romantic notions. "Just wait a while before you make any decisions like that," she wisely advised. On the subject of Scientology, she was reserved but tolerant. "I don’t know anything about it," she told me, "but if you kids are into it, it must be OK."

Finally, the inevitable happened. I received a letter from my Draft Board ordering me to a pre-induction physical examination. I was being drafted into the army.

I was getting auditing at the time, and this came up in my sessions as what they call a "present time problem." My auditor, an older guy I looked up to, tried to calm me down.

"Look," he said, "a pre-induction physical really isn’t a physical examination at all. They’re trying to see if you’ll fit into a group, if you’re a follower who won’t make trouble" He advised me to do the opposite of everything they asked me to do. "If they tell you to have your form in your right hand, have it in your left. And stay away from the other inductees – be a loner. I guarantee you’ll end up in a psych interview."

Handling the "psych," he told me, was a piece of cake. "Just introduce a ‘comm lag’ – a communication lag – into everything you say. When he asks you a question, wait ten or fifteen seconds, then answer him."

Was it really that simple? I went to the physical exam, shaking with nervousness, and followed his advice. Amazingly, I did end up being interviewed by a shrink, and even more amazingly, walked out with a temporary deferment. I was elated.

But it was only temporary – my auditor advised me to take the "Minister’s Course" and get ordained as soon as possible.

I started volunteering down at the Org what I wasn’t on course. I had started receiving their magazines, which were very poorly designed and laid out. I thought since I was a commercial artist, I could help them to make it look better. I went down one evening and the Dissemination Secretary took me into a back room where there was a drawing board. He pulled out some sheets of photo paper.

"These are the ‘shooting boards’ that we receive from World Wide," he told me. "We just fill in the local information."

Right away I could see that was where the problem was. The "shooting boards" (which was what they called the camera-ready layouts) were very poorly done. I began to think that to really contribute, I would have to go there.

"What’s World Wide?" I asked.

"That’s the world headquarters of Scientology," he explained. "It’s located at Saint Hill Manor in England."

Wow, England, I thought. That would be a cool place to live. I had traveled throughout Europe as a student and had loved England.

Kim and I started talking over the idea, and the more we talked about it, the more we wanted to go. To be at the center of Scientology, to live in England, to be able to do design work for them – that had to be the best of all possible worlds. And to be far away from my draft board. Jerry got excited about the idea, and his friend Zane wanted to come too. It was the future, and it was good.

We started selling off or giving away everything we owned, and packing up what little we would need for our new life. I said goodbye to Crystal and we made vague plans for her to join me later. I put together a portfolio of my design work to show the people in England. And by mid-June, 1968, the four of us were boarding a plane at LAX, bound for London.

3 comments:

DWeaver said...

Way Cool...that definitely was the way it was!

anonymous said...

What an amazing story. From the counterculture where the whole world seemed opened to you, you started on a spiritual path-- and became closed-minded without even realizing it!

John said...

Jeff--

I know the Canyon. I know the timeframe.
It was exactly as you said.
I lived a very similar story:
Seaton Thomas, the Draft Board,
many girlfriends, thinking about
going to England, working with Ron.
This went on for 21 years until one day I woke up and realized "the dream is over." Imagine that.