There used to be a lot of mystery surrounding Scientology.
But now, on the verge of the release of two major documentaries about the church (Louis Theroux's Stairway to Heaven and Alex Gibney's Going Clear), little of that mystery remains. It was chipped away over the years, by blogs and message boards, South Park episodes, and tell-all books.
Which is why it's odd to me that, as a resident of Los Angeles, the Scientology Capital of the World, I know nothing about what's happening in the many Scientology-owned properties around my city. And when I say many, I mean many. A quick poke around online suggests there are at least 30 Los Angeles-based buildings that are owned by the church or the various organizations they've set up to do their bidding.
I decided to explore as many of Scientology's properties in the city that are open to the public as I could (with the exception of the standard Scientology centers that every city has, because I refuse to believe there is a single person reading this who hasn't gotten drunk, stumbled into one, then giggled their way through a " personality test").
The first stop on my tour was the Renaissance Restaurant, a high-end dining spot located inside the hilariously named Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International in Hollywood, which, even without the Scientology association, may be the most sinister looking building in the entire city. Luigi's Mansion remodeled by Leslie Nielsen's Dracula.
I went for dinner there one recent evening with several friends. The inside of the Centre, like all buildings owned by the Church of Scientology, was generically nice and slightly dated. Like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air house, or the lobby of an airport Hyatt.
The menu offered the kind of food that I imagine rich people in LA like to eat. Dishes with names like "confit duck risotto," "gluten-free quinoa crepes," and "pan fried chilean sea bass" littered the menu. The waiters had thick Lumiére-from- Beauty-and-the-Beast French accents which matched the overall vibe of the restaurant a little too perfectly. More than one person at my table independently suggested that the waiters might have been faking their French accents in order to make the space appear classier.
The food was, by the accounts of all those present, "fine." It was also surprisingly cheap for a place with white table cloths and French accents (I had the quinoa pancakes and a beer, which came to about $20).
Outside the restaurant, in the main portion of the building, was an office that a plaque identified as belonging to L. Ron Hubbard. Someone who worked in the building saw me checking out the room and explained to me that the church maintains offices for L. Ron at most of their churches so he'll have somewhere to work when he comes back to earth. Which is nice of them.
After dinner, we were offered a tour of the building, which we accepted. If you go here for dinner, DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE. The building that houses the Celebrity Centre used to be a hotel in Hollywood's glory days, where like, Betty Davis and Clark Gable stayed, so I thought it might be kinda interesting. But it turned out to be pretty much a solid hour of a church member talking at us about how great Scientology is as my dining companions shot me HOW THE FUCK DO WE GET OUT OF HERE looks.
One very odd thing happened while I was there, though. At the start of our "tour," the church member giving it asked everyone in my group what our names and professions were.
Not a single member of my party was honest about what they did. We all lied. This is because there's something about the Church of Scientology that makes people paranoid and nervous. Especially if they're a writer.
In the past, the Church of Scientology was able to pull off some impressively diabolical stuff against writers. Like the time they managed to frame a journalist they didn't like for terrorism by planting her fingerprints on a fake bomb threat.
Obviously, with all their recent (non-consensual) transparency, these kind of shenanigans are no longer possible for them. They're being watched by people, and these people have the internet. If they were to try anything on the scale of their previous actions in this day and age, it would destroy them.
For instance, it seems their response to the upcoming HBO doc about them has been laughably weak, seemingly limited to a Twitter account they've set up to tweet about the film and its subjects, which, despite paid promotion, only has 501 followers as I write this. A far cry from the fake terrorist plots of the past.
Anyway, back to the Celebrity Centre. I told our guide that I was, rather unbelievably, a "construction worker," to which he responded, "Really? Are you sure you're not a writer? Because you look like a writer."
If this had been any other place, with any other people, I would just shrug it off as a coincidence. I do look very similar to many of the images that come up when you google "male writer," and absolutely nothing like the images that come up when you google "construction worker."
However, this was not any person. This was a person who was a representative for a group that once framed a journalist in a fake terrorism plot. And, as such, I spent the next few days pausing in my day-to-day activities to audibly ask myself, "How the fuck did that guy know I was a writer?"
This didn't stop me from returning to the Celebrity Centre a few nights later to watch Jurassic Park, which was being screened as part of an event series the church does in the summer called Franklin Friday Night Cinema, where they screen classic movies in the centre's garden.
I paid $5 to get in, and was told the money was to benefit some organization with a title so generic I assumed it was one of the nonprofits that the Church of Scientology sponsors (like " the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights" or "Applied Scholastics") to help the Church do its bidding. HOWEVER the website for the organization being benefitted suggests they're a legitimate charity. So that's good.
Given the seemingly innocuous nature of the event series, and the fact that its name does not contain the word "Scientology," I'd assumed this would be some kind of subtle brainwashing session.
But the vibe was totally fun and decidely un-brainwashy. There was even free popcorn and a dino photo booth set up. Unfortunately, due to my previous Celebrity Centre encounter, I was too scared to give the photographer my real contact details so she could send me the photo (duh), so I never got my dino photo. Boo.
Also, if you have aspirations of stardom, the Celebrity Centre hosts regular "talent showcases."
Their website doesn't really specify what the purpose of the talent showcases are. It just says they're "seeking singers, dancers, comedy acts, musicians" with no mention of why they're being sought. I called the woman who organizes the showcases to ask what she wants from these people, and she said that the showcases were "auditions," but wouldn't elaborate on what exactly the auditions were for. Which is pretty ominous.
The Church has previously been accused of using free acting workshops at the Celebrity Centre as an excuse to solicit people disguised as a "legitimate industry event." A claim the Church denies. "There's so much interest in Scientology," Greg Leclaire, vice president of Celebrity Centre, explained to the New Yorker in 2008, "We really, really, really don't have any inclination or the time to talk to someone who's not interested."
Next on the agenda was the Hollywood Christmas Parade, an event that has been happening in LA since the 20s.
The parade route goes past several buildings owned by Scientology on Hollywood Blvd, which may be why the church takes part in it every year.
Though various attempts have been made by the city of Los Angeles to make the parade a competitor to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, you've probably never heard of it (unless you live in LA and have been stuck in the traffic generated by its road closures).
I attended the most recent one, which featured a Church-sponsored parade balloon (of a pirate, for some reason), a float promoting The Way To Happiness Foundation, as well as Nancy Cartwright walking alongside a car that had the words "Nancy Cartwright" written on the side (Nancy, who provides the voice of Bart Simpson, was recently named a "Patron Laureate" by the church in recognition of a $10 million donation).
We've written about the Psychiatry: An Industry of Death Museum before. It's a museum founded by The Citizen's Commission on Human Rights (an organization established by Scientologists to "investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights" (i.e. to push the Church's anti-psychiatry agenda). As in all instances of the Church taking a stand against something, there is absolutely no chill on display here.
It would be quite easy to make a measured case against psychiatry, as the psychiatric industry has been responsible for some fairly fucked up things. But, as the name would suggest, the Psychiatry: An Industry of Death Museum has zero interest in measured. The exhibits in the museum attempt to blame the psychiatric industry for pretty much every bad thing that has ever happened. They have displays on how psychiatry is responsible for everything from Columbine to slavery.
Much of it is based on exaggeration or outright lies (for instance, they claim that 9/11 is the fault of the psychiatric industry because al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is a psychiatrist, when he's actually a surgeon). But it's presented in such a dramatic, breathlessly over-the-top way that it's DEFINITELY worth a visit.
Also, to add to the museum's feeling of general creepiness, you have to give your name and occupation when you enter the building, and also leave your bag at the front desk. When I got my bag back from them to leave, I noticed it was partially unzipped. Had it been partially unzipped when I handed it to them? Almost certainly. Did I let this stop me from having a paranoid meltdown over it? Definitely not.
A little farther north is another Scientology-owned museum, the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition. Which, as the name suggests, is an exhibition dedicated to the life of L. Ron Hubbard.
When I arrived at the museum, I was told that I would have to wait for an hour before being able to go inside, as nobody is allowed to tour the space without a guide, and the lady at the front desk would have to find someone to cover for her so she could show me around. It didn't suggest to me that this is a place that gets many visitors.
The exhibition itself was surprisingly (and exhaustingly) in-depth. It had about 20 different exhibits, each dealing with different chapters in L. Ron's life.
All of the unsavory stuff that you already know about L. Ron—for instance, the time he said that the problem with China was " too many chinks"—was left out.
Though I had been a little annoyed about having to wait an hour to get in to the museum, the above life-sized diorama depicting a scene from Battlefield Earth made it totally worth it.
A mile to the west lies another Scientology-owned attraction, the L. Ron Hubbard Theater, which hosts weekly live performances of short stories L. Ron wrote.
The theater is located inside the headquarters of Galaxy Press, which is yet another company set up by the Church, this time to publish and promote the written works of L. Ron.
As I walked into the building, I was stopped and told I needed a member of staff to escort me through the building to the theater space at the back. As the staff member was leading me through, he turned to me and asked, "Are you an actor? Because it feels like you're acting right now." As he said this, I noticed that all of the other guests were walking through the building on their own, sans escorts. Now, admittedly, I am a very paranoid person. As I write this, there's part of a Post-It note stuck over my laptop's webcam that's been there since I read an article on webcam hacking about two years ago. But this definitely made me a little freaked out.
To enter the performance, I was offered the choice of paying $10 for a ticket, or buying a book "that we donate to charity." I went with the option of donating a book to charity, as I wasn't super into the idea of giving my money to Scientology.
Once inside, I found out that the book I had purchased to donate to charity was actually a book by L. Ron Hubbard, and the charity it was being donated to was Toys for Tots. I know this because before the evening's performances started, a man came out on stage to brag that the Church is the world's biggest donor to Toys for Tots.
Just let that sink in for second: A spokesperson for the Church was boasting that they are the biggest donor to Toys for Tots, because they make their members buy books that they themselves publish, which are then forced upon needy children.
Sorry, underprivileged kids of America. I'm gonna donate some Nerf Guns or something to make up for this.
As I sat waiting for the performance to begin, I listened in on the conversation happening at the table next to mine. There was a young girl who seemed to be a new recruit. "Do you ever read other fiction?" a senior-looking church member asked her, while gesturing to some of the L. Ron Hubbard books that were on sale in the room. "I only read L. Ron Hubbard," he went on. "And you'll find most of the other people here do, too. It's got everything you need."
Before the main event, there was a performance by the Jive Aces, a British jive/swing band who are known for giving out Scientology literature at their performances.
After the Jive Aces had finished playing, some actors took the stage to act out one of L. Ron's Western stories. Did you ever do that thing in school where the teacher was talking, and you would do everything you could to concentrate on not zoning out, but then you'd realize that you were concentrating so hard on not zoning out that you hadn't been listening to anything the teacher had been saying? That was my experience with the radio play. I tried with everything in my being to pay attention to what was being said. But it was so, so, so, so, so, SO boring that it was impossible. I guess when a writer has over 250 pieces of fiction published over the course of his career, some of them are going to be duds.
Over in Glendale lies another property the Church manages, The Way to Happiness Foundation. The building is in a pretty retail-heavy section of Glendale, and houses a publicly-accessible exhibition space, as well as some offices.
After spending about 20 minutes inside the building reading their pamphlets, looking at the exhibit, and chatting to their staff, I still had no fucking idea what they do. So I spoke to the woman working the front desk. She explained what the foundation did for about ten minutes, but was somehow never actually specific about what the foundation does. Which was genuinely quite impressive. From what I can tell, they print booklets containing a moral code that L. Ron invented, and they give those booklets out to people for free.
The woman made lots of claims about the good the Foundation has done around the world. One thing that she said stuck in my mind because it seems very, very untrue, but I have no idea how to fact check it: She claimed that the crime rate had dropped by 50 percent in Colombia after the foundation had provided the country's police with their educational materials.
It should be noted that, with the exception of a couple of pictures of Nancy Cartwright, I didn't see anything in the building that made it clear the foundation was related to Scientology. I had a quick look around online just now and saw that the Church has been accused of starting the foundation as a way of getting their literature into schools without anyone noticing it's related to Scientology.
I rounded off my tour at the Pacific Cafe, which is located in the basement of the Church's Hollywood headquarters (a.k.a. the Big Blue Building). The Pacific Cafe, as you may have guessed from the title, is a cafe. It sells pretty standard office-canteen type stuff. Drinks, granola bars, sandwiches, etc. This is unimportant. What is important is that as I was making my purchase (Scientology-branded lip balm and a cup of coffee), the woman serving me greeted me by USING MY FIRST NAME.
After a full 30 seconds of reeling in horror, I managed to say to her, "How do you know my name?" (in the exact voice that Drew Barrymore uses when realizing the phone voice knows her boyfriend's name in Scream). The lady responded, "Didn't I serve you in here this morning? No? Must have been someone who looked like you."
Which means one of three things: One, the woman genuinely mistook me for another person who has the same name as me (unlikely). Two, she was psychic (also unlikely). Or three, I have no idea. Genuinely have no idea how that woman could have known my name. All I know is it was incredibly creepy and confusing and I became so paranoid that I convinced myself there was poison in the coffee I'd bought so I threw it out without even taking a sip. And now I have to get plastic surgery to change my appearance and find a new place to live. Bye!
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