First reprinted, with permission from WILLAMETTE WEEK, in the inFormer.

Scientology has had such bad publicity recently that most people simply accept as fact that the church is a cult. And, truth be told, many of the complaints about L. Ron Hubbard's organization are fuzzy: that scientology is mind control; that members are tantalized by promises of enlightenment just around the corner; that the religion consumes lives. The criticisms come alive, however, when ex-scientologists tell their own stories.

Dennis Erlich of Los Angeles become involved in scientology more than two decades ago. He stayed in the organization for l5 years, eventually rising to become an executive. Yet despite the high position he attained in the church, his experience has much in common with that of many members. Last May Erlich started publishing the inFormer, a newsletter for former scientologists. He spoke to WILLAMETTE WEEK in late September. (1991)

I joined scientology in 1968. At the time I was 19 years old, married with one kid. It was a stressful time, and I was having difficulty coping with the stress. My wife had left to visit her mother -- she might be coming back, she might not. While she was gone I discovered scientology. Scientology was going to be the key to keeping our marriage together. They offered it all: counseling, training, support. It was like, "You have found the group that is saving mankind, and we'll save you, too." They promised total freedom.

Part of scientology is suspending one's skepticism. A person has to be willing to suspend his critical thinking. You are taught the group personality, and you are systematically shut off from critical thinking. They have it down to a science.

They start with a beginning lecture defining some principles of life that are basic but could still have useful applications. Communication formulas, for example. And it appeals to somebody who is looking for simple formulas to his life.

Then you're taken immediately to sign up for a communication course, which is basically drills. They're called "TRs," training routines. In one of them, you sit and stare at each other for hours until you can do it comfortably, without feeling anything. Sometimes you do it for days on end.

Then they have drills where one person sits and looks at another person while that person tries to make them react, the goal being to destroy spontaneity. It destroys a person's ability to react spontaneously and puts them under someone else's control. It's called "bull-baiting." For my daughter, whom I had gotten involved with the church, it had the effect of destroying her sense of humor.

Next, a person has to take a line from a book and say it to another person and just say the line with no expression, without any feeling or individuality. He just says it flat. Or somebody says something to him, and he acknowledges it with (one of) five scripted responses.

This is why parents whose children go into scientology have the common complaint of, "You look like a zombie." The drills induce a controlled, hypnotic trance state in the person. The drills take your very personal communications and make them very mechanical. And your essence becomes mechanical.

Higher up are "OT," or operating thetan, levels, which all deal with exorcism. Everything wrong with people comes because they are possessed. They're exorcised with little question-and- answer things. Of course, Hubbard only reveals this after you spend $50,000 to $100,000 on courses.

I have four daughters. They were all raised in scientology. When my wife came back from her mother's, she joined as well. I was in LA from 1968 to 1975, during which time I was on the staff of the LA scientology organization. I was trained as an auditor, or counselor. After that I was trained as a trainer of auditors: I was a quality control person for their courses.

In 1976 I signed a billion-year contract -- that's "billion," with a B -- and joined the Sea Organization, which is a paramilitary type of organization (that is the management arm of the church). I went to Florida, to the Flagship Organization. (The most advanced and expensive delivery organization in the cult.) There I was trained as the Chief Cramming Officer -- more quality control. That meant that I was in charge of cramming auditors. Hubbard defines it as "force-feeding data." I was the guy who brainwashed the brainwashers. I was on that post from 1977 to 1981.

In my 15 years with scientology I probably only gave them about $5,000. But, because I was on staff, I was able to get my courses for free. Without that I would have run up a bill of about $200,000. (This is called my Freeloder Debt by scientology.) Up until I joined the Sea Organization I got by working in jobs outside Scientology. That changed when I joined the Sea Organization, where you're housed and fed and given $17.50 a week. I didn't have a substantial savings when I left.

I left for a combination of reasons. I was 34 or 35 by then, so maturity has something to do with it. I had two of my daughters living with me at the time, and I didn't like the way children were treated there. The nursery was filthy, the kids were sick, there were outbreaks of lice and scabies. A big turning point was when my young daughter had a rash. I was applying lotion around her bottom, and little white worms started crawling out of her anus.

Within the organization, staff are very vicious to each other. They scream at each other, and there's lots of duress on staff. If you do something wrong, you can get busted and do "RPF" (Rehabilitation Project Force), which is a work camp environment. You can't talk to anybody, you have to run everywhere you go, dress in dirty clothes. You are assigned to take out the garbage and clean the toilets and do nothing else. I once spent 10 days in a basement under guard because I made a joke about the RPF.

For other people, leaving the organization can be difficult. Other people who want to leave are confined at times, or they are interviewed to death. They're "sec-checked," or security checked. They're put on the E-meter and asked any question that will intimidate them: Have you stolen anything, committed any crimes.

It is also difficult to leave because people think that they're in an organization that's going to save the world. They are led to believe if they don't have scientology to save their soul, they're going to someplace like hell. It's very much like the Christian Inquisition. The only trouble is, it's more like the rise of the Nazi Party. There's this absolutism.

These people intend to take over the world.

More personal accounts