Rants & Essays
Scientology - A Dangerous Cult Goes Mainstream
By Richard Behar
By all appearances, Noah Lottick of Kingston, PA., was just
a normal 24-year-old looking for his place in the world. Then he discovered the
Church of Scientology. In less than a year, he paid more than $5000 to the
group. His behavior became strange. He remarked to his parents that his
Scientology mentors could actually read minds. When his father suffered a major
heart attack, Noah insisted it was purely psychosomatic. One day, he burst into
his parents' home and demanded to know why they were spreading "false rumors"
about him - a delusion that finally prompted his father to call a
It was too late. After his outburst, Noah disappeared. Then,
a few days later, the young Russian studies scholar jumped from a tenth-floor
window of a New York City hotel and bounced off the hood of a stretch
limousine. When the police arrived, his fingers were still clutching $171 in
cash, virtually the only money he hadn't yet turned over to the
His parents, nearly catatonic with grief, tried to
reconstruct Noah's last days. Earlier, a Scientology leader had told Mrs.
Lottick that he had heard Noah was at the church just hours before he
disappeared. But after the body was identified, Scientologists claimed they had
no record of his visit. They even haggled with the Lotticks over $3000 their
son had paid for services he never used, insisting that Noah had intended it as
The Church of Scientology, started by science fiction writer
L. Ron Hubbard to "clear" people of unhappiness, portrays itself as a religion.
In reality, the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by
intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.
At times during the past decade, revelations in the media
and prosecutions against Scientology seemed to be curbing its menace. But now
the group, which is trying to go mainstream, threatens to become insidious and
pervasive than ever. It attracts the unwary through an array of front groups.
In Hollywood, Scientology has assembled a roster of stars, including John
Travolta, Kirstie Ally, and Sonny Bono.
According to the Cult Awareness Network, which monitors more
than 200 "mind control" cults, no group prompts more telephone please for help
than does Scientology. Says Cynthia Kisser, the network's executive director,
"Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most terroristic and the
most lucrative cult the country has ever seen."
"This is a criminal organization, day in and day out," says
Vicki Aznaram, who was one of Scientology's six leaders until she bolted in
"ENGRAMS" AND "THETANS." The founder of this enterprise, who
died in 1986, was part storyteller, part flim-flam man. Born in Nebraska in
1911, Hubbard falsely described himself later in church brochures as an
"extensively decorated" World War II hero who was crippled and blinded in
action, twice pronounced dead and miraculously cured through Scientology. His
"doctorate" from "Sequoia University" was a fake mail-order degree.
Until 1950, Hubbard was a moderately successful writer of
pulp science fiction. Then he produced one of Scientology's sacred texts,
DIANETICS: THE MODERN SCIENCE OF MENTAL HEALTH. In it he introduced a crude
psychotherapeutic technique he called "auditing." Hubbard argued that
unhappiness springs from mental aberrations (or "engrams") caused by early
traumas. He created a simplified lie detector (called an "E-meter") to measure
electrical changes in the skin while subjects discussed intimate details of
their past. Counseling sessions with the E-meter, he claimed, could knock out
the engrams, cure blindness, and even improve a person's intelligence and
Hubbard kept adding steps, each more costly, for his
followers to climb. In the 1960's the guru decreed that humans are made of
clusters of spirits (or "thetans") who were banished to earth 75 million years
ago by a cruel galactic ruler named Xenu. Naturally, those thetans had to be
"Make sure that lots of bodies move through the shop,"
implored Hubbard in one of his bulletins to officials. In another, he wrote:
"Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money. However
you get them in or why, do it."
When a federal court ruled in 1971 that Hubbard's medical
claims were bogus, Hubbard sought First Amendment protection for Scientology's
strange rites. His counselors sported clerical collars. Chapels were built,
franchises became "missions," and Hubbard's comic book cosmology became "sacred
During the early 1970's, the IRS proved that Hubbard was
skimming millions of dollars from the church, laundering the money through
dummy corporations in Panama and stashing it in Swiss bank accounts. Eleven top
Scientologists, including Hubbard's third wife, Mary Sue, were sent to prison
in the early 1980's for infiltrating, burglarizing and wire tapping more than
100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations.
By late 1985, the IRS was seeking an indictment of Hubbard for tax fraud.
Hubbard, who had been in hiding for five years, died in 1986, before the
criminal case could be prosecuted.
Most cults fail to outlast their founder, but Scientology
has prospered since Hubbard's death. High-level defectors say the parent
organization has squirreled away an estimated $400 million in foreign bank
accounts. The cult is now run by David Miscavige, 31, a high-school dropout and
second-generation Scientologist. His goal is to attain credibility for
Scientology in the 1990's.
SHAMS AND SCAMS. Shortly after Hubbard's death, the church
retained Trout & Reis, a respected Connecticut-based firm of marketing
consultants, to help shed its fringe-group image. "We were brutally honest,"
says Jack Trout. "We advised them to clean up their act, stop with the
controversy and even stop being a church. They didn't want to hear that."
Instead, Scientology resorted to a wide array of front
groups and scams. Among them:
1. PUBLISHING. Since 1985, at least a dozen Hubbard books
have made best-seller lists. Scientology now claims that sales of these books
now top 90 million worldwide. In reality, Scientology buys massive quantities
of its own books from major retail chains to propel the titles onto best-seller
lists. A former B. Dalton manager says that some books arrived in his store
with the chain's price stickers already on them, suggesting that copies are
2. CONSULTING. To recruit wealthy and respectable
professionals, Scientology works through a web of consulting groups that hide
their ties to the cult. Sterling Management Systems, formed in 1983, is
typical. It has been ranked in recent years by INC. magazine as one of
America's fastest-growing private companies (estimated 1988 revenues: $20
Sterling regularly mails a free newsletter to more than
300,000 health-care professionals - promising to increase their incomes
dramatically. The firm offers seminars and courses that cost $10,000 on
average. But Sterling's true aim is to hook customers for Scientology. "The
church has a rotten product, so they package it as something else," says Peter
Georgiades, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents Sterling victims. "It's a kind
of bait and switch."
Dentist Robert Geary, 45, of Medina, Ohio, who entered a
Sterling seminar in 1988, says he endured "the most extreme high-pressure sales
tactic I have ever faced." The firm told Geary that it was not linked to
Scientology. But Geary claims they eventually convinced him that he and his
wife, Dorothy, had personal problems that required auditing. Over five months,
the Gearys spent $130,000 for services. Geary contends that Scientology not
only called his bank to increase his credit-card limit, but also forged his
signature on a $20,000 loan application.
3. HEALTH CARE. Health Med, a chain of clinics run by
Scientologists, promotes a system of saunas, exercise and vitamins designed by
Hubbard to purify the body. It solicits unions and public agencies for
contracts. The chain is plugged heavily in the book DIET FOR A POISONED PLANET,
by David Steinman, who concludes that scores of common foods are dangerous.
"HeathMed is a gateway to Scientology, and Steinman's book is a sorting
mechanism," says Prof. William Jarvis, head of the National Council Against
Health Fraud. Steinman, however, denies any connection.
4. DRUG TREATMENT. Hubbard's purification treatments are the
mainstay of Narconon, a Scientology-run chain of over 30 alcohol and drug
rehabilitation centers - some in prisons under the name of "Criminon" - in 12
countries. Narconon, a classic vehicle for drawing addicts into the cult, now
plans to open what it calls the world's largest treatment center on an Indian
reservation near Newkirk, Okla. (pop. 2300).
At a 1989 ceremony near Newkirk, the Association for Better
Living and Education presented Narconon with a check for $200,000 and a study
praising its work. The association turned out to be part of Scientology itself.
Today the town is battling to keep out the cult.
5. HIGH FINANCE. In the stock market, the practice of
"shorting" involves borrowing shares of publicly traded companies in the hope
that the price will go down before the stocks must be bought on the market and
returned to the lender. The Feshbach brothers of Palo Alto Calif. - Kurt,
Joseph, and Matthew - have become the leading short sellers in the United
States, with more than $500 million under management. Enthusiastic
Scientologists, the brothers are the terrors of the stock exchanges.
In Congressional hearings in 1989, the heads of two
companies claimed that the Feshbachs and another trader, now their partner,
spread false information and posed in various guises - such as a Securities and
Exchange Commission official - in an effort to discredit their companies and
drive the stocks down. Sometimes the Feshbachs send private detectives to dig
up dirt on firms, which is then shared with business reporters and fund
managers. The Feshbachs claim to run a clean shop. But Robert Flaherty, editor
of EQUITIES magazine, says they "have damaged scores of good start-ups."
BURYING ENEMIES. Scientology also devotes vast resources to
squelching its critics. One of Hubbard's policies was that all perceived
enemies are "fair game" and subject to being "tricked, sued or lied to or
Those who oppose the church - former members, journalists,
lawyers and even judges - often find themselves engulfed in litigation, stalked
by private eyes, accused of or framed by fictional crimes, beaten up or
threatened with death. Psychologist Margaret Singer, 70, retired adjunct
professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an outspoken
Scientology critic, now travels regularly under an assumed name to avoid
The church's most fearsome advocates are its lawyers.
Hubbard warned his followers to "beware of attorneys who tell you not to
The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to
Scientology's goal is to bankrupt the opposition or bury it
under paper. Boston attorney Michael Flynn, who helped Scientology victims from
1979 to 1987, personally endured 14 frivolous lawsuits, all of them dismissed
Scientology's critics contend that the U.S. government needs
to crack down on the church in a major, organized way. "It shouldn't be left to
private litigators," says Tolby Plevin, a Los Angeles attorney who handles
victims. "Most of us are afraid to get involved." But law enforcement agents
are also wary. "Every investigator is very cautious when it comes to the
church," says a Florida police detective who has tracked the cult since 1988.
"It will take a federal effort with lots of money and manpower."
So far the agency giving Scientology the most grief is the
IRS, whose officials have implied that Hubbard's successors may be looting the
church's coffers. Since 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the denial of
the tax-exempt status of the cult's California Church for 1970 to 1972, a
massive IRS probe of church centers across the country has been under way.
The IRS and FBI have been debriefing Scientology defectors
for the past three years, in part to gain evidence for a major conspiracy case
that appears to have stalled. Meanwhile, Scientology keeps raking in millions
of dollars. For in the end, money is what the cult is all about.
"Their so-called therapies are manipulations," says Dr.
Edward Lottick, Noah's father. "We thought Scientology was something like Dale
Carnegie. I now believe it's a school for psychopaths."