Review of Steve Cannane, Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia, ABC, 2016

1.         My Two Scientology Stories

Before I come to this book, let me tell my two Scientology stories. First, I was a university student, walking near Central station with a friend, in about 1976. We were stopped and asked the questions accurately noted at p.209 of this volume: what three things do you want from life? Upon our answering in the terms usual for idealistic youth, we were asked  if we would like to see something which could help us realise those desires. We said yes, and before we knew it, were individually completing a sort of psychological profile assessment in the Scientology offices near Central Station.

 After the test, we met someone for results. I was told that I was quite balanced. So balanced in fact, that I did not need what they were offering. My only issue, they said, was that I had something of a tendency to keep people from getting too close to me, and could be a little volatile. But these issues were not too bad, they said. Scientology could help me improve yet further, but there was little point, they said, as I was highly intelligent and quite sane enough. As you can imagine, I found their assessment generous, but did not dispute it.

 When I saw my friend on the street, he was thunderstruck. He had been told that he had many serious issues to deal with. “There is a special subclass for people like me,” he reported. He said that he had been told that he was actually too vain and delusional for Scientology: that what he needed was beyond the ordinary, and unless he could find a lot of money, he would not be able to afford the extensive and intensive work needed. I laughed, but he didn’t. They had hit him where it hurts. One thing they allegedly said, which if they did, proves the Scientologists to have been not only accurate but prescient, was that he would have trouble holding down a regular job.

 So that was my first experience: both my friend and I were told not to bother with Scientology, although for quite different reasons. I cannot say I disagreed with their conclusions, and I respected their actually disclaiming my need for their services.

 The second Scientology story I have to tell relates to Cheryline (if I remember her name correctly), briefly a clerk at the Australia Government Solicitor’s Office, where I worked between 1985 and 1988. I am pretty sure I met her in 1986. Cheryline was a middle–aged lady, terribly well-presented without being ostentatious. Perfectly efficient and unfailingly polite. We quickly established a connection based on mutual respect. Not long before she left, she said to me that she could understand me better than the other clerks because she was a highly trained in Scientology. She had done a great deal of work in their US centres, she told me. If I recall correctly, she had decided that Scientology had not been the same since L. Ron Hubbard (who had recently died, but whom she still respected with a fervour) had stopped taking an interest in its daily affairs.

 Cheryline still had the greatest belief in the methods Hubbard had taught, but believed that the Scientology organisation had nothing to teach her now. I wish to be clear: she did not criticise the contemporary organisation. She certainly did not criticise Hubbard: she believed that he had willed to die so that he could learn more as a disembodied spirit. Cheryline wished to do the same, as she had cancer. But as I recall, she would not allow herself to be termed a Scientologist. Her position was simply that when you enter Scientology, you quickly learn what is of value, you quickly acquire the discipline, and then it starts to become an organisation for the sake of organisation. She did not use these words, but what she described to me was diminishing returns. Cheryline was not at the AGS terribly long. When she left she wrote me a beautiful note which I kept for quite a while. I still remember her at the altar sometimes. She was a good woman.

 2.         Steve Cannane’s Book

 I cannot help thinking of Cheryline as I read this interesting book. The contents have been adequately reviewed elsewhere, but I must say that I was surprised, even unpleasantly surprised, to learn that the old Scholasticate at Marist Brothers Dundas, where I spent many happy hours as a child, is now the Rehabilitation Project Force headquarters. It is like learning the your old school is now a prison, because that’s what RPF is: a prison where the inmates have been conditioned into believing that it’s good for them to be there, and those who wake up inside this conditioning, like the hero of the story with which the book opens, are prevented from doing so. For another thrilling tale of escape from Scientology’s clutches, see pp. 236-240 – your heart will be in your throat (a sign that the sense of hanging on the edge is causing you to become more conscious of yourself). We have to call what is described in this book this by its proper name: slavery in confined imprisonment.

 Cannane sets out to show how uniquely important Australia has been in the history of Scientology: and in this he succeeds. It is uneven in parts, for example, he barely mentions the High Court decision of 27 October 1983. But his style is journalistic, meaning, he focusses on telling stories. It is a compelling tale, although the end peters out with the story of Mark Rinder, and no conclusion of any length. It is worth reading. I am writing this review in order to recommend it, but the subject matter is of the first importance.

 3.         Critique

 I have read several other books on Scientology, and I have read some by L. Ron Hubbard and watched him and other Scientologists speaking on YouTube, but I won’t review all that now. Rather, I would like to focus on two matters which Cannane deals rather poorly with: first, the fact that many people find a sense of purpose in and for their lives through Scientology; and second, the “technology” which Hubbard taught.

 As for the first point, it is not that Cannane does not observe that there are some good aspects about Scientology, although sometimes he leaves you to infer that (see pp. 161, 177, 213, 214 and 334). But what Cannane affords too little space to, while those who were inside Scientology see it quite clearly, is that many people are thirsting to help humanity, and some of these have found their way in Scientology. People have an altruistic desire. We are, as many have said before, “purpose-seeking missiles”. And a purpose which is of aid to our brethren is quite compelling. Even though his only real motive was to earn money and have his will, Hubbard was shrewd enough to harness the good intentions of people.

 There is more to this desire than simply a sort of outreach: it is based, I would suggest, upon the desire to be fully myself, to be whole, in the sense of integrating mind, feeling and body into one individual and ever-present consciousness which serves an aim. A person who is one in himself feels his relation with others. He desires to help. As Catholic theologians used to say in the days when they were wise and not merely educated: the good is self-diffusing.

 I would go even further and say that that the wish for wholeness and the attendant philanthropic desire are themselves offshoots of the innate wish to holiness. We are made to want God. If we have been conditioned or otherwise led to disbelieve, then that quest for the divine finds another outlet: and it is good if it is one which genuinely does good.

 The presence of just this desire for holiness, and what stems from it, the wish to be whole within oneself and aid others reach that wholeness for themselves, even at the cost of self-sacrifice, is the untold actor in this story of the success of Scientology.

 My old friend Cheryline had this goodness in her, and Scientology could not quench it. Rather, it fed it when she met it, and when she sensed that Scientology was changing, she quietly withdrew.

 This brings me to the second aspect: the “technology” Hubbard brought. Read pp. 213-214 to see what is meant by this. The methods used by Scientologists, such as “reach and withdraw”, seem to me to have to do with bringing attention or consciousness to issues. They work, in so far as they do, because of the importance of attention, the power of consciousness. It has nothing to do with the outlandish mythology with which later stages of Scientology are bedecked. This is why the earlier stages of Scientology are more beneficial than the later ones. Other memoires of time spent in Scientology bear this out. People come in, find something helpful, and then, although it becomes less and less useful, their ongoing faith is based on the fact of what they found when they arrived. As is said, first impressions are critical and often decisive.

 4.         Conclusions

 It is wrong to just dismiss Hubbard. Learn from him. Hubbard did teach people to define the words they use, and to make sure they understand the basics before they go onto higher matters. In other words, he imposed an intellectual discipline. As well as the sense of camaraderie within his organisation (which I do not underestimate at all), some of Hubbard’s ideas such as that of the “reactive mind”, are actually not at all bad.

 Of course, Hubbard was often fraudulent, as Cannane shows. Of course the much-vaunted cures, where they do occur, are better explained in scientific terms than in those which Hubbard uses. Further, as seems inevitable, once you start to say that a psychological approach can heal physical sickness, it is only a step away to saying that if one is sick then the person has a psychological problem that they are not addressing, and that is but a step away from blaming the sick person for their sickness, and becoming callous in the face of it (p. 245: I have attempted to explain the coldness which Cannane notes there).

 But I can understand how people with little exposure to science, psychology and deeper religious traditions, could fall for it. This partly explains why Scientology tries to keep its people within an intellectually sealed word. If they ever realised how much of its better ideas were taken from what was current at the time, and then dressed up in science fiction (Hubbard having been, by some accounts, not just a good but a great science fiction writer), they would not stay. But they have nothing else to compare the Scientology system to, and so they stay, because they did find something there.

 In addition, the doctrine of the Suppressive Person and “dissociation”, the latter not so different from the Muslim treatment of apostates, helps to keep those inside just where they are. And here we start to see where the decay of Scientology really began. As Hubbard’s empire grew, he become devoured by it. He wanted to hold it together to an extent which was psychotic (the material on his motives n pp. 63-64 is fascinating). The cruelty which had previously been reported in his private life (e.g. allegations that he strangled his wives), and the megalomania which had, by several reports, been there, combined to produce a tyrannical regime which became the very opposite of anything helpful for humanity.

 These people will stay in Scientology unless and until they realise that it is no longer what it had been, and that the methods used by some Scientologists are actually inimical to the good which it initially seeks. Scientology has become the opposite of what it was painted to be, but that process began during the life of Hubbard.

 It is also, I would suggest, artificial to look at the rise of Scientology without looking at what was happening in the world around it. Cannane has some insight, but I am not sure he appreciates that the needs Scientology promoted itself as meeting had in fact been capable of being met within other systems and by other faiths, most especially, Christianity.

 In fact, the success of Scientology is, in a significant part, due to the failure of contemporary Christianity to hold to its supernatural principles (Hubbard competed with Christianity, hence his use of a Christian cross with a star behind it as a symbol of his Church). Particularly in the 1960s, when Catholics started to let discipline go, and even to despise it, this left the field open to Scientology and its ilk (I can still remember when the Latin archbishop of Sydney unwisely dropped fasting, and allowed people to “choose their own penance, which meant they chose nothing at all, and what is worse, lost a good practice which had built up a sense of community).

 People, especially young people, wish to be challenged. They wish to be given missions and hard tasks. Just at the very time that the Church decided that “Mission” was a bad word, here came Hubbard with his mission to save the planet by making it “go clear”.

 I feel, in the end, that if people do not understand why others are attracted to Scientology, they will never understand it. It is sad, very sad, that as Christianity withdrew from the culture by trying to adapt its truths to the culture, the void was filled by things like this.

 Joseph Azize, 13 November 2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *