I Stayed at the Scientology Celebrity Center Posing as a German Rock Star
Poor John Travolta. If you’ve seen the HBO documentary Going Clear it appears that the Church of Scientology has trapped the actor into a lifetime of service to Planet Xenu. If he balks, the cult will reveal the Look Who’s Talking star’s deepest, darkest secrets, obtained during private auditing sessions at the Scientology Celebrity Center.
Located in Hollywood, California, the Center was established in 1969 by Yvonne Gillham, a Sea Org member who worked alongside the church’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The Center was intended for "artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world through Scientology.”
As Hubbard put it: “Celebrities are very special people and have a very distinct line of dissemination. They have communication lines that others do not have and many medias to get their dissemination through.”
Hubbard’s fascination with celebrities dates back to at least 1955, when he disseminated an in-house newsletter titled "Project Celebrity." The goal of the project was to encourage his staff to heavily recruit celebrities into the church. Hubbard offered staff members a list of celebrities and asked them to choose one to write to. According to his newsletter, "We will then allocate this person to you as your game."
Project Celebrity involved hunting the rich and famous down like prey, with the goal of getting them to come to the church for an auditing session. "Having been awarded one of these celebrities,” Hubbard wrote, “it will be up to you to learn what you can about your quarry and then put yourself at every hand across his or her path, not permitting discouragements or 'no's' or clerks or secretaries to intervene, in days or weeks or months."
Their efforts were a success. Many famous people became swept up in the church’s teachings. According to Hugh B. Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, Scientology holds a strong appeal for celebrities.
“It claims to give you ultimate power over your own mind, self, destiny, so I think it fits well with an actor personality,” he said in an interview for Beliefnet.com. “These aren't people who need more wealth, but what they do need, or often want at least, is some kind of spiritual validation for their wealth and lifestyle, and Scientology is a religion that says it's okay to be wealthy, it's okay to be famous. In fact, that's a sign of your spiritual development.”
A few years back, as part of a book project, I checked myself into the Celebrity Center in Hollywood to find out firsthand how Scientology treats celebrities. Wanting to get the full treatment, I posed as a famous rock star from Germany under the pseudonym Dieter Lietershvantz. The name of my fake band was Nein! Nein! Nein! (translation: No! No! No!) and I’d come to the Celebrity Center on advice from my manager to help excel at my music. I made sure my friends knew where I was going and when to come and get me.
Dressed in black, I make a huge rock-star entrance into the Center, located at 5930 Franklin Avenue. The church bought the building, which was originally called the ChÃ¢teau Ã‰lysÃ© and is modeled after a 17th-century castle, for $1 million in 1973. Former residents include such notable figures as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart. Now the Scientology stars who attend events at this establishment include Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Juliette Lewis, Kirstie Alley and Beck.
Inside the Church
Inside, all the employees are dressed identically, with white shirts and matching ties and slacks (shorter, feminine ties and skirts for the women). They scurry about like little busy Scientology worker ants. For the sake of pulling off the charade, I hoped nobody could speak German.
"Yes, Mr. Lietershvantz. We've been expecting you," says the smiley woman behind the front desk.
A heavyset, similarly smiley man comes out of his office. I learn that his name is Leonard.
"Hello, Mr. Lietershvantz," he says, offering his large, sweaty hand. "Let me show you to your room."
Though everyone is smiling, I feel an undercurrent of tension. There's plenty of time for us to make small talk as we take the slowest elevator ride I've ever endured.
"Are you a Scientologist, Dieter?"
"No, I'm a musician." I point to my guitar. "The manager of Nein! Nein! Nein! thought Dieter should stay here." I pat my chest.
This makes Leonard happy. "Many people in the entertainment business stay here," he says. "John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley."
Finally, we reach my room, and Leonard leaves me with my personal valet, Beatrice. I've been introduced to three people in five minutes, all with similar smiles. Beatrice is of nondescript European origin. She questions me about my accent.
"Where are you from, Mr. Lietershvantz?"
Guess what? The third person I meet can speak fluent German. She starts rattling off German faster than I can pretend to follow.
I let her finish, then pause for a moment and clutch my heart.
"Ah! So good is it to hear German again!"
I look misty-eyed and practically hug her. It's as if they knew the intentions of my ruse and brought Beatrice in to foul me up.
Before leaving, Beatrice smiles and reminds me I can get a complete tour of the Center by going to the front desk. I tell her “danke schon.”
After eating all the complimentary fruit, I go to the front desk. A grinning woman named Lillian greets me. She takes me to an office where I meet a large, jovial woman named Rosemary. Now I’m alone with Rosemary in an office that looks like a gift shop.
"So you're a musician, Dieter? What kind of music do you play?"
Rosemary seems confused, though keeps smiling.
"Oh. That's just great." Rosemary's eye contact grows stronger. "Many entertainers are involved with Scientology. John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley...."
Dieter Is Examined
We leave the office and commence the grand tour. I follow at Rosemary's heels, mumbling in fake German. She shows me everything from the weight room to plaques engraved with L. Ron Hubbard's philosophies.
We enter a fancy, roped-off office on the first floor. There's a large desk, a bookshelf and pictures of boats lining the wall.
"And this is L. Ron Hubbard's office."
"The actual office used by L. Ron Hubbard?"
"No. Each Scientology center has an office for L. Ron Hubbard, decorated in a way he would like it."
"Oh, so the office was used when he was visiting, ya?"
"No. He died before this hotel was refurbished."
Someone should mention to this lady that dead guys don't need offices. Especially offices built for them after they’re already dead.
We return to Rosemary's office, where she introduces me to the E-Meter, a device devised by L. Ron Hubbard that measures electrical resistance and skin conductance.
"You hold the two electrodes, and your mental state is checked on the E-Meter."
Rosemary hooks me up. I’m hoping this doesn't erase my memory of the past Harmon Leon.
"Recall a traumatic experience," she commands.
I think about puppies and rainbows.
Rosemary points to the E-Meter. "Look! You can see the traumatic experience registering here. Our courses can help eliminate the pain caused by that memory. Now think of a pleasant experience."
I imagine a nuclear holocaust.
"The E-Meter records how you are content with that thought. Now let me give you the personality test."
I'm handed a 200-question quiz.
"Maybe you would prefer to take the test in German."
I'm caught off guard. I almost laugh.
"No, English is fine."
The questions are phrased in such a way that if you answer incorrectly, you’ll be branded a socially and morally corrupt person. "Would you use corporal punishment on a child, age 10, if it refused to obey you?"; "Do people enjoy your company?"; "Do you often feel depressed?"; "Are you in favor of class distinction?"; and "Are you a slow eater?"
Halfway through the test, Rosemary returns. Bored by the stream of questions, I raise my hand.
"Dieter would like to complete this exam in German!"
She hands me a version written in German. I quickly finish. Rosemary enters my responses into a computer. When they’re ready, she shakes her head.
"Why don't we go in here and talk about your results."
We enter a tiny room just large enough to fit a desk. Rosemary closes the door.
"Dieter, this is the lowest personality test I've ever seen."
I feel slightly honored.
"This section of the graph determines that you had a very traumatic childhood experience. Dieter, what was that traumatic childhood experience?"
There's a large box of Kleenex on the side of the table. I guess they expect you to cry as they play on your insecurities.
"She was crushed...."
According to Rosemary, I'm still holding that emotional baggage with me. It shows on the graph.
"Also... never was Dieter allowed to watch television!"
This gets less of a response than the mother-anvil trauma. Rosemary explains that I'm unstable, depressed and withdrawn.
"Dieter, is it true that at times you are not considerate of other people's feelings?"
I roll my eyes.
"We have courses which can help you deal with your childhood traumas and depression," she says.
"But Dieter's music is about childhood traumas and depression. Listen to the album A Coffin Is Home."
"Our courses can make your music that much better. You'll find yourself writing about brand new things."
"If Franz Kafka were not depressed, would his writing be just as good?"
Rosemary's smile grows. She thinks she's going to gain ground in her argument.
"I think his lyrics would be even better. He would have a whole list of new things to write about!"
I tell her to listen to his latest album, The Metamorphosis.
Rosemary's eye contact becomes more intense. She goes back to the chart.
"Is there someone you feel is holding you back in your attempts to reach your goals? Perhaps you feel like you're under their thumb?" She pushes her thumb again the desk to emphasize her point.
"Ya! It is my manager!" I make an angry face.
"And what does he do?" She's still pushing her thumb against the desk.
"He wants the name of my band changed from Nein! Nein! Nein! to Ya! Ya! Ya!"
Dieter Is Interrogated
Rosemary thinks it's time to meet someone else. We go into yet another office occupied by a smiling woman named Karen, who's wearing the same outfit as Rosemary. I assume Karen is an important Scientologist, because her office is almost as nice as the unused L. Ron Hubbard office.
Rosemary leaves. I'm positive she's going to send out for the Scientology thugs.
Now I’m alone with Karen.
"So, Dieter, you're a musician."
"Many entertainers have come here. John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley...."
No more kidding around. They brought Karen in for the hard sell. Her eye contact is more intense than Rosemary's.
"Do you do drugs, Dieter?"
She nods. She knows my type.
"Do you do coke?"
"What drugs do you do?"
I rip apart a Kleenex. "I take aspirin... nicotine...oh yeah, and heroin."
Karen explains about courses that help purify the body of toxins, which she says are only holding me back. She goes on to explain about the church’s many, many other courses in great detail. She doesn't blink once during her explanation.
I'm starting to get delirious. My German accent is going in and out. I almost feel like I’m being hypnotized.
I soon find myself standing next to Karen in front of a wall of books. Several of these large hard-cover books—marked with large pricetags—are being put into my hands. I think to myself that Scientologists are smarter than Christians, who only have one book to sell.
Everything is starting to get blurry. I might snap soon. I need to make my excuses and leave. Panicking, I point to the clock on her desk.
"Oh no! It's after 7! Dieter does aerobics every night precisely at 7!"
Karen is sensitive to my concern and comforts me. I tell her I'll come back tomorrow. She tells me to come back later tonight. In the meantime, she'll have someone put a movie on the cable station in my room. I thank her and leave.
Waiting for the elevator, a smiley man approaches me. "Would you like a tour of the Celebrity Center?" I pretend that I can't understand English.
L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition
The next day I go down to the street to visit the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition, which illustrates the extraordinary life of the man who made himself god of his own religion. The one-and-a-half-hour tour is located in one of three buildings the Scientology Church owns in Los Angeles. The building is completely empty except for a tiny, grinning Swiss woman behind the desk.
I cough up the admission price. The tour won’t begin until other people show up. I learn a few things while waiting. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, owes her whole career to Scientology. Also, L. Ron Hubbard described himself as an adventurer-explorer-writer-humanitarian.
Finally, a Danish couple shows up and the tour can begin. The tiny Swiss woman is relieved from her duties behind the desk so she can take us into "The Hall of Hubbard." It starts with the early years. Here are a few trivia facts:
- Hubbard was once America's youngest Eagle Scout!
- Hubbard sailed to the Far East at age 16!
- Hubbard once scaled an erupting volcano!
- Hubbard wrote Hollywood screenplays for gangster and western serials!
Helen shows us hundreds of pulp-fiction novels Hubbard wrote in his early years, then leads us to a small theater. A curtain opens, and the four of us sit in the dark, watching a medium-sized imitation volcano erupt. A screen drops from the ceiling and we watch a film on Dianetics. It's filled with plenty of bad acting by people with blotchy skin. I realize I've seen this film before. It’s the same movie Karen arranged to play in my hotel room.
The second half of the tour consists of propaganda promoting the church. We see an exhibit on the history of the E-Meter. We see a short film on the dangers of drug abuse. We see a wall of numbered photos titled "20 Ways to Live a Scientologist Life." A beautiful song called "Ways of Happiness" starts playing in the background.
After two days of religious propaganda and acting-induced paranoia, I’m ready to get the hell out of Scientology world. I return to the hotel, pack my belongings, and head downstairs to check out. Because I stayed and didn't convert to Scientology, I feel like I'm skipping out on paying my bill at a restaurant and if caught, they'll make me do the dishes.
I get to the front desk and am met by the portly Leonard.
"I hope you had a wonderful stay, Mr. Lietershvantz. Will you be back to the Celebrity Center soon?"
"Dieter will not return!"
Luckily, my ride is waiting for me. I ask my friend to snap a few photos in front of the Scientology Celebrity Center sign, for posterity's sake, and drive away.