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Sex in the Sub-City


Right after college, I moved out to Portland, Oregon. My main reason for moving there, which now strikes me as amusing, if not downright sad, was to become a rock star. That's right. I wanted to be a rock star, and thought for some reason that Portland was the place to go do it. While that never happened, I did land a job that got me some attention, as a film critic at a local newspaper. The newspaper, called the Paperback Jukebox, was a bi-weekly arts and entertainment periodical, that most people just read for the listings. It also had CD, book and film reviews, and the occasional article, usually about local bands or various events. Even though the job paid squat, I got to see a buttload of films for free, which, at the time, was fine by me. Usually I trashed the things, as they already had someone to review all the good art films, and I'd have to go to all the cheesy Hollywood ones:

"Having to sit through this film was like getting a barbed wire enema. Administered by Richard Simmons. Naked. After a long work-out."

"The two hours I spent watching this film are a blur; but I did come up with fifty new ways to kill myself."

"Bad movies such as this one are like smelly farts: every moron seems to produce them. Especially in the summertime."

But it was still great fun.

After a while, in typical fashion - my need for constant change and frustration with any kind of routine about the size of Roger Ebert - it got old. I wanted more, to write actual stories, to go underground and dig up some dirt, to infiltrate something, to do some real reporting. I asked Julie, the editor, if this would be okay, and she said fine, as long as she liked the idea. The next day I had it. She loved it, and I eagerly began preparing for my new undercover adventure. Following the lead of Hollywood's finest - John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Juliette Lewis - I was going to be a Scientologist.

Every time I was downtown I'd pass by one of their centers - they had several - these large, bright buildings, complete with gargantuan marquees advertising their cause and stacks of books in the windows. I was equally fascinated and freaked-out by them, always wondered what went on behind those large glass doors, and now I was going to find out. One afternoon I walked into their main building, which had a large sign outside that read: "Free personality test. Inquire within." A man met me in the lobby, and I told him that I wanted to take the test, that I was interested in pursuing my spiritual development, and that his organization seemed like the right place to begin. He greeted me warmly, telling me that I was indeed correct, that he could help me, and led me to a room with a copy of the test. He offered me some coffee, which I politely refused, having watched too many documentaries on cults - the Moonies, the Branch Davidians - and was worried that it was laced with something.

The test was extremely long, and took almost an hour to compete, filled with ridiculously general questions, many that seemed to overlap: "Have you ever felt depressed? Have you ever felt unworthy? Do you sometimes make remarks you later regret? Are you prejudiced against your own school or team?" Some were just plain stupid: "Does emotional music have an effect on you? Do you bite your fingernails?" The thing was obviously designed to play to one's insecurities, to make the person taking it appear like they were beyond reproach, and how lucky they were to have taken it under the auspices of Scientology, where they could be saved! I answered the questions as truthfully as I could, which meant yes to most of them, and when I finished it I handed it to the man, who immediately processed it.

Upon viewing the results, I was planning to act suitably disaffected and in dire need of help so they would take me seriously, but I hardly needed to. What should have been a rising and falling graph depicting my emotional status, was instead a straight line that ran across the bottom of the page, underneath the mark that said: "Normal." It made me out to be depressed, paranoid and anxious, even suicidal. The guy watched as I looked at the results and then stared deep into my eyes. "It looks like you've come to the right place."

He then introduced me to one of his associates, a very pleasant and upbeat woman who took me into another room, a copy of the results before her. She echoed the man's sentiments, and said that I had chosen wisely to seek help from them, as it looked like I really needed it. I played right into this, and told her that since college I'd felt lost and alone, was prone to mood swings, and was at a loss at to how to proceed. She said that she could help me, that scores of others before me had been helped, and all I had to do was to sign up for an introductory course, which started at seventy-five dollars.

"But you guys are a religion, right?" I said. "Like a church or something?"

"Yes, that's correct."

"Well, going to church doesn't normally cost anything."

"You still have to give to the collection plate."

"True, but that's like what? A dollar? I'm sorry, but I can't afford the class."

"But I really think you should take it," she said, smiling and opening her eyes wide, wide, wide. "Think about it this way: what's money compared to spiritual happiness? A small investment now is nothing compared to the future riches you'll acquire with greater self-esteem and strength."

"But I don't have the seventy-five dollars."

"Couldn't you save up if you wanted to?" she asked, her smile fading. "It's really not that much when you think about it."

"Isn't there any other way? Don't you guys have regular meetings or anything? What about volunteer work? I could sweep the floors or something."

"No, I'm afraid we don't do that."

"Oh, well I guess I'll have to think about it." I needed more information to write the story, so I asked her if she wouldn't mind telling me a little bit about the organization, what, exactly they were all about, what I'd learn if I did indeed take the class. To this she gave me a vague explanation about how their founder L. Ron traveled extensively with his grandfather who was in the navy (do they allow small children on naval vessels?), and what he witnessed all over the world greatly disturbed him: everywhere, people were unhappy. Also, people were struggling to survive (he was fucking astute). He decided he wanted to find a way to make people's lives better, and used his science fiction books to finance extensive psychological research (a small investment for future riches?). Thus, Dianetics, and eventually Scientology, was born.

She went on to describe the basic philosophy. According to Hubbard's research, the brain was divided into two parts, the active mind (conscious) and the reactive mind (subconscious). The former housed all productivity, artistry and positive thought. Everything that held someone down, whether it be fear, insecurity or painful memories, was located in the latter. To bridge this gap, his program worked to completely eliminate the reactive mind. The successful candidate was then "clear," and able to live a healthy, productive, unobstructed life. I didn't really get this, and didn't think it made much sense, let alone jived with my own personal philosophy. I was all about the unconscious.

"What about dreams?" I asked her. "They stem completely from the subconscious. Do you guys stop having them or something?"

"We don't really deal with dreams," she said, growing annoyed with my questions. She then handed me a brochure of the various classes they offered, and told me again that I should really think about taking the introductory class. I asked her if I could just come over occasionally and hang out in the center, hoping to soak up some of the Scientologist vibe, but she said that wouldn't be possible. Then she stood up and told me she had something else to take care of, and led me to the exit.

When I left I was a little disappointed. I practically had nothing to write about, so I mainly resorted to an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek rendering of my experience. I wrote how I was never left alone like in a real cult, how the people I met had twinkling, other-worldly eyes like Charles Manson, how I was expecting at any second to be kidnapped and brainwashed, where I would ultimately have to be saved and deprogrammed. I also included a copy of my personality test with the flatline at the bottom. Because I had heard horror stories about acts of retaliation from the group (if I've strangely disappeared now you know why), I wrote the piece under the alias L. Russ Hubbel.

When the issue first came out, nothing much happened. There wasn't any local reaction, except for mild amusement, and I was sure that my fears had been unwarranted. Then, a week later, we started getting reports from people that they couldn't find the paper anywhere, that none of the stores or kiosks that usually carried it had any in stock. We always printed off more copies than were necessary, and this had never happened before, so my first reaction was that the story was so good that people were nabbing them left and right. But this was the farthest thing from the case. The Scientologists had, in fact, gotten wind of the piece, and snatched up every issue they could find.

Then we began receiving a series of threatening phone calls from them. At first, they simply declaimed the piece, forcefully requesting to speak to me, wanting to know my home number, my address. When they realized that this was not going to happen, they started calling back repeatedly, not even saying anything, just to tie up the phone lines. They did this for weeks, apparently having operatives working around the clock with nothing to do sans dial and re-dial our number.

Then it got worse. They began showing up at our office, several of them at a time, demanding to speak to me. What they wanted I had no idea, but they were so aggressive and nasty I didn't want to find out. Following Lisa's advice, I stayed away from the place, and didn't even leave my apartment, for fear I'd somehow be recognized and attacked, kidnapped, killed. I became a virtual hermit, only venturing outside to go the supermarket, and even then I'd wear a hat and sunglasses. I was scared to death, although, truth be told, it was pretty exciting. My first real piece and people wanted to kill me. And, just to be on the safe side, when the Scientology threat abated - they still called the office, but only infrequently, and had stopped making personal appearances - I went back to the film reviews.

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[email protected] | December 2001 | Issue 21
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