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.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Chapter One: Going Home

I woke up in the dark, the grim reality of my life seeping into my consciousness like a poison. Around me, I could sense the forms huddled on rough-hewn makeshift bunk beds, softly breathing. I could feel the mass of them around me, vaguely see their clothes and towels hanging from the bunks, smell the unwashed bodies.

I couldn’t sit up, as I would hit my head on the bunk close above me, so I slid silently out of bed. The others had their own work schedule, getting up an hour after I did and returning after I was asleep. That was fine with me ­- I had developed a taste for solitude.

There were six of us sleeping in the tiny room. No closets, just one chair, a desk, and a broken down dresser. I found my jeans and a clean T-shirt where I had left them, neatly folded on top of the dresser, ready for morning. I pulled on thick socks and my big workboots, and found my heavy hooded coat under the bunk bed, where I’d stashed it. I shook it out to dislodge any spiders - what we lacked in storage space we seemed to make up for in insects. I dressed quietly in the dark and went out into the hall and down the creaking staircase. The old house was dark and quiet, except for the squish of my steps as I went down the stairs, still damp from last night’s rainfall. The stairs were cluttered with every bucket and pan I had been able to find, each now full of water, with the ceiling still sporadically dripping.

It was March in the high desert, and the nights were still bitterly cold. Outside, a feeble light was starting to break through the cloud cover. I could see the black tangled silhouettes of trees against the grey dawn, and the long, matted dry grass that surrounded the house. Somewhere, I could hear a few birds starting to wake up.

The house was called Old Gilman House, or “OGH” - a big two-story ramshackle house built in the 1920’s. Decrepit beyond repair, it now served as a detention center for those of us beyond redemption, the “non-persons” slated for “offload” from the Church of Scientology’s Sea Organization. The three or four acre compound surrounding the house was completely surrounded by a razor wire fence, with lights and motion sensors every few feet. Aside from the five buildings on the property, there were several storage trailers. Security cameras and round-the clock guards kept an eye on us to make sure we didn’t try to escape.

The OGH compound was at the northeastern corner of a 200-acre property in San Jacinto, California, known to the locals as “Golden Era Productions,” but known by its staff as the “Int Base” – the international headquarters of the Church of Scientology, where I had worked for the past fifteen years. And now it was my prison.

Karsten, the night Security Guard, was on the porch. He gave me a nod as I came out. A hawk-faced German with short, close-cropped blond hair, Karsten kept watch during the night and handed out the work orders in the morning.

“I found these in your room yesterday,” he said, reaching into a box and producing two magazines, a Newsweek and an Entertainment Weekly, several months old. “Why do you read such trash” he asked me, in his thick German accent. “So you can masturbate to the pictures?” He indicated the photograph of a pretty actress on the cover.

“I like to know what’s going on in the world,” I replied. The outside world I’ll soon be a part of.

“I don’t need to know what’s going on,” he replied. “All I need to know is that it’s bad out there in the wog world and Scientology has the solutions. That’s what L. Ron Hubbard says and that’s all I need to know. People laugh at me because I don’t know who the President of the United States is,” he added. “I don’t need to know that.” He threw the magazines back in the box. “You don’t need this garbage.”

Karsten was in many ways the “ideal” Sea Org worker. He lived in a small room on the OGH compound with a single cot and no visible possessions. He wore the same faded brown Security uniform every day, which he would carefully wash in a broken-down washing machine in a back room of the Gilman House. Every time the machine went on its spin cycle it would shake the old building like a passing freight train. Karsten wasn’t married and seemingly had no interest in women. The only thing I ever saw him read was a folded piece of paper he carried in his pocket with the Scientology Axioms printed on it, which he would pore over for hours, his lips moving slightly as he struggled to memorize them.

Karsten gave me the work order for the day, clearing brush around the perimeter fence, and I left the porch. Around the Old Gilman House were a group of run-down, one-story buildings that served as staff housing. Most of the Base staff lived in Hemet, at an apartment complex rented by the Church. But some senior staff were not allowed to live in town so were required to live on the Base in these houses. Behind one of these was a lean-to shack, crammed with staff luggage and belongings, and, in the back, an old refrigerator, where I found some granola and yogurt, which I ate out of a Styrofoam cup. I washed out the cup and put it back on top of the refrigerator for future use.

Picking up a shovel and rake from the tool shed, I headed for the perimeter fence. I liked to be out and working well before any of the “regular staff” got up. I was, after all, a criminal, an “untouchable.” Weeks ago, early in my incarceration, I had made the mistake of taking a shower in the morning in one of the staff houses, the only house with a shower or bath, and, coming out, ran into a woman who then screamed at me and ordered me to clean the bathroom from top to bottom with alcohol before she would deign to use it. “You are filth!” she screamed in my face.

The encounter left me stinging with shame and humiliation. In the eyes of the other staff I was a degraded criminal. Hubbard said that people only want to leave the Sea Organization because they have crimes, so it was important to prove me a criminal and prove Hubbard right. In my daily Security Checks, I would sit for hours, holding on to the “cans” of the e-meter, while an auditor asked me over and over about what crimes I had, what were my evil acts. It went on and on. I just wanted it to be over, so I confessed to anything – treasonous thoughts, hidden vices, secret hatreds. And all of it was then announced publicly at staff “musters” – more and more proof of my criminality and my unworthiness to be a part of the “elite” Sea Organization.

Once, I would have burned with righteous anger. I would have challenged every accusation, demanded to be heard, demanded justice. But no more. I was done, finished. I felt hollow, emptied out. I had reached the end of the line. After 35 years working for the Church of Scientology, I had become an untouchable, a non-person, a Suppressive Person scheduled for “offload.” You are filth.

So I avoided other staff; lived in my own world, a sort of hurricane’s eye, my calm refuge in the midst of the chaos around me. Now I showered at dinnertime, when no one was around. Mornings, it was straight to work. There, clearing brush, clearing away dead trees, carting away rubbish, I could just be alone, and think.

It wasn’t being kicked out of Scientology into the outside world that frightened me, even though I had no idea where I would go, or what I would do. My greatest fear, my greatest nightmare, was being suddenly called back to duty. It had happened three times before. I had been banished, “offloaded” to a distant work camp, never to return, only to be mysteriously and inexplicably brought back, seemingly because they could not find anyone else to do the work I was skilled at. Three times. Back from exile to the hell of life at the Int Base – the sleepless nights, the threats, the intimidation, the bullying, the beatings, the degradation. The stuff of nightmares.

No more. I wasn’t going back. Not ever.

Late one night, about three in the morning, I had been rousted out of my narrow bunk bed by one of the Security Guards, Matt, who was acting as my “handler.” He took me to a room in the old house for an interview. It was lit by a bare bulb and reeking of mildewed carpet from the leaks in the roof. There were no chairs, so we stood.

“So, how are you doing?” he asked me, in a casual tone that belied his true intent. “Have you made any progress on your Conditions?” The “Conditions” were Hubbard’s coded, rote formulas for dealing with situations in life. During the evenings, I was supposed to be “working on my conditions,” applying the formulas for “Treason” and “Enemy” so I could work back into the group’s good graces. I knew he hadn’t woken me up in the middle of the night to make small talk. I’d been through this before – the inquiries about one’s “progress” meant only one thing - he had been sent by some executive to find out if I was “ready to go back on post.” I think he expected me to be remorseful, chastened, propitiative, ready to go back and serve the cause again.

“I’m not doing any conditions,” I replied.

I might as well have slapped him. He was silent for a moment, absorbing my treasonous statement. “If I was you,” he warned me, “I’d be begging on my knees to be sent to the RPF.”

I’d never been sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force, but I’d worked with them daily during one of my forced exiles from the Base. It was a group of probably 150 to 200 people, all working in the lower reaches of the “Big Blue Building” in Los Angeles, and all dressed in identical grey T-shirts and black jeans. Out of sight of the public Scientologists, they lived and worked in the basement corridors, sleeping in squalid dormitories, packed 20 or 30 to a room. They worked in the wood shop every day, making furniture for the “orgs” – the Scientology Organizations. They received a few dollars a week pocket money, if that, and were not allowed to speak to anyone outside the group. No phone calls, no radios, no magazines, no internet, no contact with the outside world. They never left the building. Some of them, like my friend Caroline, had been there for three years or more. It was a virtual slave colony.

“I’m not going to the RPF,” I told Matt “And I’m not going back on post.”

“Then you’ll be offloaded out of the Sea Organization,” he told me. “Out of Scientology. You’ll be declared Suppressive.”

“Fine,” I told him. “Then do it.”

Now, as I methodically cleared the brush around the perimeter fence, I had plenty of time to think about the future. The brush was thick, and I tore it out by the handfuls, piling it up and carting it off to a compost pile. It was important to clear a wide swath next to the fence so the Security Guards on motorcycles - the “Rovers” - would have good visibility and could race along the perimeter to intercept any breach in the fence – in or out. I had to be careful not to set off the motion sensors. Once I had inadvertently touched the fence with a tree branch and soon heard the roar of a motorcycle as the “Rover” came to see what was up.

The mindless work was my sanctuary. I relished my solitary hours. After months of sleepless nights and constant abuse, to just be alone in nature, with no one else around, was calming. I became interested in every detail of my little world. Once, after I’d taken down a small tree that was too near the security fence, I was looking at the cross-section of the trunk and saw that the pattern of rings was beautiful. I took my saw and sliced off a thin section of the trunk and kept it. I still have it to this day.

One day I was weeding one of the garden patches and discovered a nest of baby rabbits. They were so amazing, so small. That night in the dormitory I violated my rule of silence and mentioned the baby rabbits I’d seen. One of my fellow inmates, Darius, became incensed.

“Here we are about to be offloaded from the Sea Organization," he wailed, "and all you can talk about is baby rabbits?” Darius was desperate not to be offloaded – his father, Greg Wilhere – was a top exec. He spent his evenings writing petitions to be allowed to stay. But I was in a different place. In my mind I was already gone. And other things were important to me now – the cross-section patterns in a tree, a nest of baby rabbits, the wheel of the stars at night, the way the sun bathes the hills in warm light in the morning.

A line from the Janis Joplin Song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” kept going through my mind. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. It was true. I had nothing left to lose. They had taken it all. So there was nothing more they could threaten me with, hold over my head. They no longer had any power over me, and, in an odd way, I was free of them at last.

I looked out across the valley. The OGH compound was on a slight rise, at the bottom of the foothills that rise north of the Base. I could see all the way to the highway that wound down out of Lamb’s Canyon. In the dawn light I could see headlights, and I thought about being out there, driving up that road, going anywhere, anywhere but here. A thought formed in my mind: I want to go home.

But where was home? I had worked for the Church of Scientology for 35 years, since 1968. I had been all over the world – Edinburgh, Copenhagen, North Africa, the Caribbean, Florida. My mother, who lived in Santa Barbara, had passed away in 1999. I had lost contact with my daughter and didn’t know where she was. My brother was my only living relative. And I wouldn’t be able to talk to him, as he was still in Scientology, a “public Scientologist” receiving Scientology services. According to Scientology’s disconnection policy, as a “Suppressive Person,” I was forbidden to talk to him.

And my wife Cathy? She was lost to me forever. She would remain in the Sea Org. She had stood by me through three previous offloads from the Base, believed in me despite constant pressure to leave me. But this time it was too much. I was being offloaded from Scientology, a Suppressive Person. She gave in to the pressure finally and filed for divorce. Or so I was told. One day the Security Guards showed up with the divorce papers, and made me sign them. Maybe she’s been coerced to sign as well. But what else could she do? The last night we spent together, before I was sent out to the OGH compound, we had held hands in the darkness, knowing what was coming, looking at the emptiness ahead, the loneliness. I hadn’t spoken to her since.

I chopped away at the weeds, blinking back tears.

I want to go home.