Robin Stamm is the mother of Sasha Zbitnoff, whose story I webbed before. She kindly sent me a copy of the story she recently wrote. I am webbing it now - November 2003. The story is nicely balanced and interesting to read, with recounting of the negative aspects as well as the (sometimes spectacular) positive ones. One of the special things in this story is that we actually have here a person who managed to do most of the bridge for free within the staff, and actually finished it up as it existed at the time.
There's an old joke between me and a friend of mine about how I got into Scientology. She had just finished telling me she'd joined because she was seeking answers... about life, spirituality, and even supernatural powers. I admitted I hadn't been a seeker and, from a spiritual perspective, I'd metaphorically "gone for a walk" and wound up in Scientology.
There was a guy who interested me, though -- a committed Scientologist -- so it was Max who got me through the front door, and an overly-friendly blonde woman who convinced me to watch an introductory film, and an overly-friendly dark-haired woman who signed me up for my first step on the "road to total freedom": The Communications Course... only $25 please. It was 1970, I'd just turned 21 and had moved to Los Angeles with $30 to my name. But this was my chance to Get The Guy (the total freedom bit sounded like hype) so I went for it.
The "church" was housed in what might once have been a retail store. Windows spanned the front of the building and, once inside, there was a street level area (probably once used for display, but now filled with desks) and there was a higher level -- about three feet above it -- which led to the rest of the building.
My first reaction to the place was a silent question: "What's with all the photos of the ugly guy?" It turned out to be L. Ron Hubbard, genius. In time, I almost stopped noticing those photos: one of him at a desk with his chin resting in his hand; another with his chin resting in both hands; another on a ship with a sailor's hat; another of him smiling broadly; another -- a full body profile of him directing a film; and more, many more, in different sizes and frames.
I arrived for my first night of study and found there were maybe six of us signed up. I was teamed with another newcomer -- a woman also chasing a guy -- and we both learned three things that night: 1) she wasn't to come to class (aka "course") with curlers in her hair; 2) we weren't allowed to smoke in the course room; and 3) a 15-minute break was the only break we'd get during a three and a half hour period. We had to get permission to go to the bathroom, although we were encouraged to wait until break time.
During our break on the second night, my "twin" (the woman I'd been teamed with) and I decided to skip the rest of that night and go to her place instead. On the third night, we learned that was against the rules too.
About the rules: it would be many years before I understood the underlying reason for them and, in my opinion, the reason is money. The faster "parishoners" complete a step, the sooner they pay for their next step. Everything centers on people paying for -- and doing -- their next step. The "steps" themselves can be fun, but I wasn't to learn that right away.
Within a week, my twin and I had advanced quite far through our "checksheet" (a list of steps each student must do to complete a course). Our progress had moved along quickly because we couldn't wait to get it over with. One reason was the requirement that we sit in wooden chairs, three feet apart, facing one another, without moving for two hours straight. When we reached that exercise, we had to skip our break because it would have interrupted the two hours. It was painful. It was grueling. It was so meaningless to me, I cheated, moving the muscles in my rear end to keep my circulation going. I should note this exercise is considered to be a basic skill of a good Scientologist. Some people say they love it. My twin and I managed to get past it in two nights and it was the only time -- in 16 years -- that I did this exercise for longer than 10 minutes.
When I graduated from "The Comm Course", I was sent back to the dark-haired woman (now known to me as the "Registrar") who sold me on the "Hubbard Qualifed Scientologist" (HQS) course.... $50 please. By now, I'd found a job working in a temporary employment agency and, although $50 was a chunk of change, I still hadn't fully landed the guy, so I signed up.
By this time, my twin had dropped out, so I was teamed with someone new. There were more "drills" and, among them, one called a "Touch Assist" which is the process of touching another person at different places on his or her body, getting closer and closer to an area of pain or discomfort, and -- done right -- the pain is supposed to go away.
Every course has a "course supervisor" who's responsible for getting you through it in the recommended period of time. For the HQS course, we had a supervisor named Jacobus, who was as sweet as anyone you'd ever want to meet. I didn't like touching strangers and I didn't want to be touched by one, so I kept shying away from it. Jacobus was understanding... he let me slide... but he also let me know I wasn't going to get off the course without giving or getting a touch assist.
Then, fate stepped in: during a break one night, I lit a match and the matchbook burst into flames, burning my right palm. Someone rushed me to the course room and Jacobus told one of the students to give me a touch assist. I was in so much pain, I don't remember if it was a male or female who was touching me, telling me to feel his or her finger, but I did as I was told and ...after about 20 minutes....the pain literally, actually, and magically disappeared. The next day, there was some redness on my palm, but no blister and no sign of a serious burn. Maybe Hubbard was onto something. (Years later, I gave a touch assist to a woman with a fever of 104, and -- after about half an hour -- her fever broke. That, and the touch assist given to me for my hand, were the only times I witnessed a verifiable "touch-assist-result".)
I finished the HQS and was sent back to the Registrar who, by now, predictably wanted to sell me something. This time: the "Hubbard Standard Dianetics Course" (HSDC).... $500 please. I didn't have $500. I had no hope of quickly earning $500. But by now, I was living with Max (mission accomplished) and when the Registrar asked if I knew anyone with money, his parents came to mind. (The Registrar's technique of suggesting you borrow money is shocking at first, but you come to justify it -- "knowing" it's better than the alternative.) And that was how Doris and Nick came to fund my next step on the road to near total brainwashing.
I began the HSDC, this time with a new twin who is now an old friend. We liked one another well enough to make one another mad and we're still that way. I had more laughs with Ethel than I'd had in a long time. She also made killer chocolate chip cookies. And, she was quite pregnant mid-way through the HSDC, so she had to take a leave of absence before we could finish it. Her daughter was born 5 months before I gave birth to my son.
I also took a leave of absence when I was about 7 months pregnant. It was earlier than I needed to, but I didn't like studying without Ethel there, and I didn't like the subject very much. To be fair, I DID like the idea that reactions to early experiences can turn into fixed modes of reacting to similar (current day) experiences and that -- by identifying the initial experience -- you can release the subsequent accummulated pain. But I didn't like the fact that the system used to uncover the initial experience was one we had to memorize and use, word-for-word, with no freedom to improvise. That meant we couldn't really get in there with one another and follow the clues that pointed to the source of our troubles. Instead, we had to rely on a remote (and rote) method, and that annoyed the shit out of me. I still disagree.
One of the steps on my "Leave of Absence Routing Form" (right...you aren't allowed to just say you'll be back in a few months) was to talk with the Registrar, who told me it was highly recommended that I get counseling ("auditing") for my pregnancy.... $600 please. Oh me, oh my. I'd never been "audited". And, by then, I was starting to believe... just a little... that Scientology might really work. If getting auditing would help me and my baby, man... I wanted it. I told Max. He agreed. He paid. I got the auditing. Two months later, I went through natural childbirth at home, was in labor for 40 hours, had to sit during contractions, couldn't sleep the entire time, had really bad lower back pain and, in general, was miserable until I saw my newborn son. If the auditing helped me, thank God! I don't think I could have survived much more.
I stayed home with Sasha for six months, during which time -- to my guilty horror -- I suffered with a serious case of postpartum depression (something that wasn't supposed to happen after the pregnancy auditing.) And then, that date -- the one I said would be the end of my leave of absence -- arrived. I tried to get out of it but I got phone calls... lots of phone calls. I was to come back and finish the HSDC. Even Max agreed.
So, when Sasha was six months old, and happy to go to a babysitter (a nightmare to find a good one, but I finally found a great one) I returned to the HSDC. It took another 8 months to finish it. When I finally did, the now dreaded Registrar wanted me to pay for my next step: the Academy Levels -- four courses designed to address 1. communication; 2. problems; 3. upsets; and 4. false rightness.... $1,000 please. Oh me. Oh my. Who wouldn't want to address those subjects? Who had $1000? I said I couldn't do it and was out of borrowing options. So he sold me on the HSDC Internship... $150 please.
The HSDC internship meant I would give this auditing (counseling) -- which I didn't really like -- to people who were PAYING for it! Well! If someone is paying for something, I want them to get something from it, so I was a damned fine HSDC intern for...oh, nearly a year...10 months longer than expected. BUT, during this time, another miracle happened: I left my body -- fully, awarely, and without a doubt in my mind. It happened while doing an auditing process which, according to the written instructions, was designed to make people leave their bodies! It worked! It was exhilerating. It's the reason I know I'm not my body and -- therefore -- will survive death as we know it, in some form, at least. I began to really like L. Ron Hubbard.
Over the next several years, a series of events left me as a single mom with a home in the Los Angeles area which I'd purchased in 1975...just as the housing boom was taking off in California. That boom allowed me to borrow against the house to pay for Scientology services. In total, I spent around $65,000, which is far less than a lot of people spend.
One of the reasons I didn't spend more is because I became a member of the Church's staff, on a two and a half year contract, making $80 a week. I was trained as a course supervisor and was soon the Senior Supervisor of the "Saint Hill Special Briefing Course" (SHSBC) which had about 30 students when I took the job, and over 200 within six months because -- as a promotional scheme -- the price of the SHSBC was being raised by 10% each month -- so, if you wanted to do the course, you'd best jump on quick. For many months, I looked like an incredibly good Course Supervisor, with my "stats" going up every week, as new students enrolled every week.
Stats (statistics) are used in Scientology to measure productivity. If your weekly stats are up, you're golden. If they're down, you have to work extra hard to make sure they'll go back up. If you're clever, you won't allow your stats to get too high during any given week because that would mean you'd either have to outperform yourself the following week or, more likely, a spike in statistics would increase the likelihood that -- next week -- your stats would be down. If you're desparate, you might lie about them. And, for some jobs, the stat makes no sense. For example, if it's your job to fully handle negative PR, how do you staticize productivity? Are stats up...or down...if you have a week with no bad PR?
Eventually, the 10% increase "promotional offering" came to an end, as did new enrollments. All statistics leveled off. An investigation was done to find out WHY the trend had changed! Were these people that stupid? Why yes, some of them were.
In time, and through pure dumb luck, I was freed of my contract because I was unwilling to sign a new "billion year contract". I had come to love the job, and the students, and was sad to leave. I'm one of the few former staff members who can honestly say those words. Most staff members had difficulty getting off staff, even when their contract had expired. That's because they had to find their own replacement before they could leave and, in some cases (particularly jobs requiring extensive training) finding someone to take your place was a daunting task. Some folks got so frustrated, they just left and never came back. In my case, on my last night as Senior Supervisor for the SHSBC, close to 150 students gave me a standing ovation. I cried.
While I was a member of the staff, I was able to get a good deal of auditing for free, so I began to make my way up the "auditing side" of the "bridge to total freedom" (as opposed to the "training side"). I got auditing on levels 1 through 4: communications, problems, upsets, and false rightness, and then moved on to the first level of Confidential auditing -- a level called "Power Processing". The processes have since been posted on the internet, so I won't reconstruct them here. But there was one question which proved astounding. I was asked: "Who have you known?" I answered (almost without thinking) "Mark Twain". And then I went on to explain the impressions I seemed to be getting about my relationship with him: I might have been his wife in a former life, or a close female friend, and my name was something like Olivia or Ophelia, and I made him take things out of his books which offended me. Where did I get this information? I didn't know... it felt almost as if I was simply making it up. So after that day's "session" I went to my encyclopedia and read, for the first time, about Mark Twain's wife: a religious woman named Olivia who made her husband remove "offensive passages" from his writings. How could I explain what had happened? I still can't. I've since visited their home in Hartford, Connecticut and, despite yearnings to the contrary, nothing seemed familiar.
I continued with the auditing side of the "bridge" -- each level now considered confidential and, I believe, all are now posted on the internet. Eventually, I completed every available level. And then, Hubbard redesigned the "upper levels". By the time I left Scientology, I had worked my way through a few of the new ones, but not all of them.
The astonishing experiences I had with auditing, although relatively few in number, served as the basis for my belief that there was something true about it and, therefore, it was possible my doubts and questions -- particularly about the rules and "mind control" aspects of Scientology -- were misguided. The implication being that if I kept going, I'd eventually come to see how it all made sense. And thus, I became immersed.
I took Sasha to a Scientology school -- beginning with kindergarten -- fully believing he was getting the best possible education, my only friends were Scientologists, Sasha's only friends were Scientology kids, my job was with a company which employed only Scientologists, my accountant, car repairman, carpenter, painter, doctor, were all Scientologists. It was a community with shared aspirations, and -- for much of the time -- it was fun. But beneath the social veneer, I knew the sense of community -- and to some degree, the apparent success of the technology -- was based on mass agreement, rather than truth.
I never totally believed Scientology was the "only road to truth" or the "road to total freedom". I believed it was a good road that might help people, including me. I believe it's still a good road for some people, at least for awhile. But for people like me, who prefer to think for themselves and rebel when they can't, the flaws in the community -- and the technology -- become more visible over time.
There are thousands of funny, poignant, sad, and horrifying stories about Scientology and Scientologists, and I wish I could give them credit in the re-telling, but I don't think it's possible unless you've actually lived it. You can come close (especially if you've been a member of another cult) but you won't get it fully unless you've -- unwillingly -- given a standing ovation to a photograph.
Here's how that happens: at the end of every night of study, the course supervisor would gather the students together for those who wanted to share their successes (aka "wins") and, once they'd had their say, the supervisor would lead the group in three cheers to L. Ron Hubbard (LRH): "hip hip hooray, hip hip hooray, hip hip hooray", as everyone stood to applaud an oversized picture of "Ron". The same was done at Scientology events, often attended by hundreds (occasionally thousands) of people. When you're surrounded by a large group, all of whom are doing the same thing, the ludicracy of what you're doing can escape you. But when you get an honest glimpse of what you're doing, you eventually come to realize that you need to deal with the questions and doubts you've had all along.
I got that honest glimpse at a Scientology event, attendance to which was "manadatory". It turned out to be a sales pitch for a new auditing level -- coming soon to a Registrar near me. When it came time for the three cheers, I knew I was nearing the end...my applause was pure pretense.
When someone leaves Scientology, they become off limits to those who remain involved. You lose your friends, your job, your car mechanic, and the rest. The only way I could bring myself to lose all that was to accept the fact that the benefits of leaving outweighed the benefits of staying, and I reached that point before my son (and his father) had reached it. For several more years, I did my best to pretend I was a True Believer, because I wasn't willing to put Sasha in the position of having to decide between his mom and the only life he'd known.
What I eventually saw as wrong with Scientology was an accumulation of experiences that defied my common sense and personal freedom. For example, after I'd been involved for about twelve years, a new rule was introduced which prohibited all Scientologists from saying anything negative about Scientology or other Scientologists. Well shoot! There went half the fun! But also (and more importantly) there went freedom of speech. There was a rule prohibiting you from mixing (in the same glass) a God-awful tasting cal/mag drink with something that would disguise the flavor (never mind that you could take a sip of the cal/mag drink from one glass and then quickly take a sip of grape juice from another...and your body wouldn't know the difference). There was a rule about not watching television or seeing certain movies. There was a rule about looking up words in a dictionary: you had to understand every meaning of every word you looked up, so some students spent MONTHS on a single word because they'd go off on tangents (musical terminology, for instance, stemming from looking up the word "staff"). There were escalating efforts to get folks to spend huge amounts of money (up to $50,000 for a single "donation") regardless of financial viability. There were rules about nearly every part of life and if you broke those rules, you were sent to the "Ethics Officer" whose job was to make you see the error of your ways and get you to comply. And thus went freedom of religion.
When Sasha turned 18, he began his own evaluation of Scientology, and he eventually left it...leaving behind everything, and nearly everyone, he'd known. As his mom, I had mixed feelings: I was thrilled he was bright enough to question it, but it was painful to watch him start newly, with support from very few people. It's an awful position to put your child in, even though I know -- all too well -- how easy it is to believe you're doing what's best for him or her, and how group agreement reinforces that belief. This part of my history is so embedded in convolution, it's difficult to reason how I might have chosen more wisely, but it will always sadden me to know I had something to do with Sasha having to start newly, at a time when most kids have developed a familiar and comfortable base on which to build their lives -- college, romance, career, philosophy, and all the rest. To his credit, and my great relief, Sasha has done very well.
The best part of Scientology is leaving it! Shortly after gaining some distance from it, you rediscover your own thoughts and determination. You feel the freedom of no longer having to conform. You can study any subject that interests you, including philosophies NOT written by L. Ron Hubbard. You can say what's on your mind, you can stop drinking cal/mag, you can stop clapping at photos, you can look up words in dictionaries however damn-well please, and you can start saving money. Yes, you'll lose some friends but, in my case (with few exceptions) my friends also left. We share a rich history although we no longer dwell on it.
I stopped receiving mail from Scientology organizations many years ago, and shortly after that, I stopped thinking about it, except in passing. Some concepts are still useful. Most aren't.
I now know it's easier than you might think to get caught up in a dream and lose yourself along the way. But I also know you can come out of it... a stronger and wiser soul. And that's a nice bit of certainty.
Hip hip, hooray.
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