A well-dressed man with glasses in a suit. Tom Cruise. Kidnapping. These are the images I associate with Scientology. So when I meet Cornelius, I'm surprised that I am staring at a overweight man who just removed his white fedora, looking more like a software engineer than my notion of a Scientologist.
I'm here because I've set up an appointment to have my personality tested. Self-improvement has always been an interest of mine. I don't care if it's a life hack or a pro tip, I'm always looking at ways to better myself and my situation. So when I received a flyer that promised the opportunity to "test the 10 key personality traits that determine your future success and happiness," I was interested. After months of delay, I made an appointment to take a personality test at a Scientology testing center.
While I had no intention of joining the cause, I did intend to have some meaningful dialogue. I had never spoken face-to-face or even computer-to-computer with a member of the Church of Scientology. They had access to the internet just like I did, and I figured they'd see at least some of what's been written about Scientology in the past. I wondered what would make them join and stay committed to the cause.
Between family members, like-minded friends, and a self-curated Twitter feed, I am surrounded by those who share my opinions. I thought I would expose myself to an alternative school of thought to make myself stronger, just like babies who are exposed to allergens develop a strong immune system.
The entrance of the Seattle Church of Scientology looks like a cross between the office from "The Office" and a museum dedicated to L. Ron Hubbard.
The church I visited was devoid of any people of color. The people coming in and out of the church were a diverse array of white: clean cut, fat, old, hippie, but nothing other than white. I also realize criticizing a Church of Scientology in Seattle being "too white" is like criticizing a spot on the Sun for being too hot, and move on.
Before I can meet with Cornelius, whose name I've changed because I did not tell him I was a journalist, I take a 200 question personality test known as the Oxford Capacity Analysis test. I tried to strike a balance between taking this as fast as fucking possible and answering honestly. Questions range from the innocuous "Do you often sing or whistle?" to the oddly specific "Do you get occasional twitches of your muscles when there is no logical explanation for it?" It seemed like a very standard personality test spliced with very specific questions meant to suss out whether you're fit to carry out secret missions.
After my results are processed, Cornelius sits with me to discuss results.
"How much do you know about Scientology?" he asked.
"Not much, actually. Coming in with a pretty blank slate, I'd say." That wasn't entirely true; I'd seen at least half of that South Park episode on Scientology and read a few articles about it.
Cornelius showed me a graph that distilled my test results into three sections. I tested to be extremely depressed and slightly paranoid of others. I regretted the haste in which I filled out this form.
When I said I wasn't sure about the validity of these results, Cornelius assured me that "the test works." He showed that I was a person with a high sense of certainty, so I had been sure about my answers. We discussed my graph as a whole, and he showed that in areas it is much below the average threshold. (See below.) This is bad, he noted. He explained the test assessed me in three sections: how I view myself, how I view others, and how I view life/work. Poorly, poorly, and pretty good, respectively.
"We're in the business of raising graphs," he told me next, which is something I could imagine him saying while putting on his tie in the morning.
After I expressed interest in his personal journey with Scientology, Cornelius told me how his reading of Dianetics convinced him to move his family near a Church of Scientology roughly 15 years ago, so he could help people rid themselves of "the reactive mind," which he described as the part of your mind that holds on to previous events, only to use them against you.
Ultimately, we decided my haphazard test-taking skewed the otherwise bulletproof Oxford Capacity Analysis. If I am to have a proper assessment, I'll need to take the test again. I leave, and my man Cornelius wishes me well. We hope to see each other again soon—something he may not have said directly, but clearly communicated to me with his eyes.
When I grab a Lyft back to my apartment, I can tell my driver is cautious of me: "Hi, Ashwin? … I am behind the Church [of Scientology], I'll see you in a moment." I get in the car and conversation seems more sterile than normal. I had not even joined the Church of Scientology yet, and I was being judged for it. Perhaps this was just another part of the personality test.
My second meeting at the church was much more fruitful. The assessment showed that I am not as depressed as before, and the other factors seem more stable. While going over the results, Cornelius and I got into a deep conversation discussing the difference between being happy and content. According to the assessment, I do not feel fully responsible for the things that happen to me, which I feel is fair, because no one can possibly be fully responsible for everything that happens to them. But I was wrong.
"It's like playing a game of chess, you have to select out certain things in your life that you don't know about, so you can have a game," Cornelius told me. "Like if you played both sides of the chess board, it's not much of a game… you have to start letting things go in terms of control so that you can be interested. It would be very boring if everything you wanted to have happened to you happened."
The progression from personality test to the "upsell" on more Church of Scientology education was more convincing than expected, at first. I came with the intent that I'd never set foot in this establishment again. But for a fleeting moment, I considered taking one of the self-help classes out of curiosity. In that instant I saw myself taking another course, curiously, until I amassed so much Scientology knowledge that I'd be forced to join, unwilling to part with the sunk costs. I'd be another member of the Scientologist cause, like the flyer guy would have wanted. My urge to attend subsided.
Cornelius explained that there are classes I can take to help improve my personality test results. Class titles range from "Scientology Tools to Organize for Success" to "Scientology Tools for Effective Leadership." The literature Cornelius shared with me contains some of the most simple, yet confusing statements I've read in my life.
The conversation became measurably more awkward. After our chat and Cornelius's assessment of my personality and all that it lacks, I asked what's next. Reading Dianetics, the Church of Scientology's canonical text, is the next step, Cornelius tells me.
I tell him I'll think about it, to which he gives me the salesperson's go-to follow up question: "What's there to think about?" After I explain that I like to research things on the internet, I am propositioned.
"I'd like you to buy the book today," he said.
I told him I wasn't going to do that. I had some reservations about the church, and told Cornelius I had consulted with my family after the first meeting. I mentioned my mother is a psychiatrist, and I had recently unearthed the church's stance on psychiatry.
"Well, that's an area I don't have a particularly high degree of interest in," he said.
I told him I believed that psychiatry at this point has too much proof to be denied or dismissed as a pseudoscience, so the stance of the church was a bit alarming to me.
"Well, I'll leave that one for you," he told me.
"I do know that everything that I've looked at is based on facts. So, the drugging of the military and increase in suicides, as an example," Cornelius stated nonchalantly. I wanted to punch him.
"I'm not saying your mom is a part of this," Cornelius said, to reassure me that my mom was not an evil person. This put me at ease.
"You can't measure brain chemistry. Maybe your mom knows. But I've never seen how you measure someone's serotonin levels. It's highly subjective, based on analysis of symptoms and stuff like that." Cornelius was beginning to sound less scientific. (You can, by the way, measure serotonin levels via urine.)
We went on to have a rather pleasant email back-and-forth, as Cornelius followed up on his half-developed lead.
I went to get my personality tested for multiple reasons. I wanted to learn more about myself, and also was curious to learn more about the Church of Scientology. For example, I now know the Church of Scientology will give you a discount on their office coffee. I also learned that two hour-long sessions and a verbose email thread with a Scientology member will not touch on anything science-related. What's most peculiar to me is L. Ron Hubbard's background in creative fiction writing, highlighted right in the lobby of the Church. Scientology is clearly a made-up thing, and would be a great plot for a TV series or movie, not necessarily a real-life commitment.
I'd recommend the experience to anyone—unless you're already a Scientologist or actually interested in joining. Because if you actually join, that's probably bad. For everyone else, it's a great exercise in perspective. Seeing questions in the test like "Is your life a constant struggle for survival?" remind you that things could be worse. Having a person ask prying questions, criticize your mother's profession, and propose theories that upset your current way of thinking, are great ways to test your personality. Seeing someone so dedicated to a cause is inspiring. I hope everyone gets to find their "Scientology," one day, like Cornelius has. I just hope it's not Scientology.