I attended a Scientology service a few years ago as part of a Stanford psych course taught by Phil Zimbardo. My assignment was to act as a target of social influence, to evaluate the techniques that Scientology used to recruit new members, and the situational factors that made ordinary people susceptible to joining.
I remember the people I met that day: Tina, the thin, beaming woman who gave us a tour of L. Ron Hubbard‘s velvet-roped office and led us through recitations of the Prayer for Total Freedom; the ordained Scientologist, Ruth, who directed us to “Spot some spots on the front wall. Spot some spots on the back wall,” during a Group Processing exercise; and Sam, the big, red-haired man who expressed concern for my situation after evaluating the results of my personality test. At the time, I wondered, What drew these people to Scientology? What compelled them to stay?
This last question becomes even more pertinent to the four high-ranking Scientology defectors interviewed for the three-part St. Petersburg Times report, The Truth Rundown.
The Times released this hard-hitting report last week, exposing a culture of violence that permeated the highest levels of the Church. The report focuses on leader David Miscavige‘s sadistic temper: how he physically assaulted staffers in conference room smackdowns, pressured them to publicly confess their sins to peer groups, and even isolated them as “suppressive people.”
One of the most telling incidents was a violent game of musical chairs that Miscavige set to “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
Prove your devotion, Miscavige told them, by winning at musical chairs. Everyone else – losers, all of you – will be banished to Scientology outposts around the world. If families are split up, too bad. To the music of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” they played through the night, parading around a conference room in their Navy-style uniforms, grown men and women wrestling over chairs.
Why did these defectors endure Miscavige’s torture for so long? Why not just leave?
“You put your life into the church and you do think that is your route to freedom,” former Celebrity Center Network head Amy Scobee said. “There are a lot of great things about it…and you don’t want to throw that away. You don’t want to risk it.”
High-ranking members of the Church, like Scobee, often lose touch with the outside world because they start on staff in their teens. They’ve never had jobs, no high school diploma, no bank account, no driver’s license. The church is all they’ve ever known.
Staff members often rationalized Miscavige’s insane behavior, trying to reconcile the hostile work environment with the teachings of Scientology.
According to Mike Rinder, former chief spokesman of the Church, Scientology preaches self-reliance. You alone control your environment, your condition in life is no one else’s doing but your own. But just as strongly, Scientology holds that if you leave the church, something is wrong with you. Somewhere in your past is an “overt,” a transgression.
“It becomes a big sort of dichotomy,” Rinder said. Staying in an unhappy situation is no way to control your environment. “But if I leave, I’m doing something wrong, too. It’s like a catch-22.”
Read more reactions to the Times report.