Photos by Candice M. Giove.
Gathered in a room at the New York Public Library Jefferson Market Branch at the Avenue of the Americas and West 10th Street a group listening to an ex-Scientologist evaluated their traits.
Bright? Of course. Curious about the world around me? Sure. Idealistic? Sometimes. Like being the recipient of a compliment? Who doesn’t? Take risks? From time to time.
So when Paul Grosswald, a former Scientologist-turned-anti-cult-lecturer, instructed those who checked off at least three of the nine general statements on a handout to raise their hands, everyone’s digits reached towards the ceiling.
“You are exactly the type of people that cult recruiters are looking for,” he said — which, of course, elicited a peal of laughter since New York City Skeptics, a group of local critical thinkers, was hosting the event last Saturday.
Intellectual or not, Grosswald believes that anyone could be susceptible to cult recruitment. Stereotypes play less of a role in a cult catch than a recruiter striking during one of life’s trying times. A book for Scientology recruiters he brought along instructed those in the field to find a person’s “ruin.” It included a chart of common problems and Scientology courses, films and books as remedies.
“Nobody leads a charmed life,” he said. “We all go through points in our life when we’re vulnerable.”
In 1989 the Church of Scientology took advantage of Grosswald’s teenage troubles. Lured in by a personality evaluation, Grosswald dedicated six months of his life to the cult and dropped out of college to join the Sea Organization. His quick-acting parents intervened before he embedded further into the group.
After his departure from Scientology and now with decades of hindsight, Grosswald spends time speaking out against their practices and those of other cults that perform mind control to keep members believing. During his short time as a Scientologist, Grosswald said they swayed his thinking through hypnotic activities like auditing.
The Church of Scientology, and other cults like the Unification Church, he said, conquered thoughts in the ways psychiatrist Robert Jay Laftin’s outlined in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A study of brainwashing in China. Laftin’s “Eight Marks of a Mind-Control Cult” include placing people in the organization’s environment, creating mystical illusions, demanding purity, making people confess, implanting the idea that their way of thinking is superior, communicating with jargon, making the mission more important than any individual, and establishing the idea that outsiders have no right to exist.
Grosswald hopes that spreading this knowledge will prevent people from getting suckered into joining dangerous cult groups. His tell-tale signs may be helpful, since nobody would approach you on the street asking if you wanted to join their cult. Recruitment is much more subtle.
The former Scientologist moved from behind his podium and placed a chair next to it. He released an accordion of printer paper containing the names of global front agencies for the Moonies. The paper unfurled many feet below him. “This is to give you an idea of how sophisticated it is,” he said. “If I gave you the Scientology list it would be just as long.”
The L. Ron Hubbard Dianetics Foundation hooked Grosswald twenty years ago, while he was a sophomore at Hoftra University on Long Island. Vexed by a lack of major and an angst-ridden romance, the young Grosswald decided to fill out a lengthy questionnaire titled “Are you curious about yourself?” which had been handed to him on Times Square. He was called in to hear the results of his analysis.
The analysis concluded that he had girl problems, he lacked a life path, and that he was socially awkward. “I came out of there feeling like, wow, that was the most incredible personality analysis ever,” he said. “They know everything about me!”
He now compares their analysis to James Randi’s horoscope experiment, in which people made the same general horoscopes fit their personal situations. In Randi’s test everyone received the exact same predictions and everyone believed that it zeroed in on their lives.
But after receiving his personality test result, the possibility of setting himself straight seemed worth the $95 fee for the Hubbard Dianetics Seminar.
Grosswald first learned auditing, which he said, is a form of hypnosis. “People have a lot of misunderstandings about what that means,” he said. “I think people assume hypnosis is when you swing a watch in front of somebody’s face and put them into a deep sleep and then they act like a chicken on stage.”
But during auditing, critical thinking skills slip away, he said, leaving a person in a trance-like state where they become susceptible to suggestion. “I never fell asleep or lost consciousness so I never realized that this was actually what was going on,” he said.
The Church of Scientology employs other techniques to shut down thought. Grosswald said they practice “training routines” – which seem like a sinister spin on childhood staring contests. A supervisor intently watches at an underling and barks “flunk!” at the subject’s slightest move. Then the exercise begins all over. By the time Grosswald left, he could sit with an impenetrable stare for three hours.
In another exercise called “bull-baiting,” a supervisor shouts at a Scientologist, sometimes using things ripped from the records of their auditing sessions, to elicit reaction. Again, the subject learns to turn the mind off and sits with a blank expression.
The Church also wrested control of his mind through word-clearing exercises. (The organization has its own dictionary.) They also force adherents to display their understanding of words and ideas much the way kindergarteners do by making them arrange paper clips, clay and other objects to illustrate concepts.
They prevent members from learning information about beliefs upfront, Grosswald said. The story of Xenu only comes after a Scientologist invested years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into the organization. So by the time many reach the OTIII level – where the Sci-Fi population control tale is revealed – some people commit suicide or walk away, he said. But some realize they’ve put too much into it to stop and continue onto the next level, he added.
“At the point where you see body Thetans crawling on your arms, you’re psychotic,” he said.
Grosswald did not make it that far along the Bridge to Total Freedom.
After being involved for months in the organization, an incredibly attractive southern belle and a friend from the Church convinced him after five hours of emotional torture to quit school and join the Sea Organization. He signed a billion-year contract and moved into a compound on West 48th Street.
“My parents went ballistic,” he said.
While in their service he earned $35 a week, working 14 hours for six days scrubbing toilets. Sea Organization officials then made him an offer to move to California.
His parents remained persistent and phoned the Church of Scientology demanding to see him. According to Grosswald, his father ultimately wound up threatening organization leader John Carmichael in Scientology jargon. “He said, ‘If I don’t see my son by Wednesday you’re fair game.”
The Church of Scientology permitted Grosswald a 45 minute outing. His parents, his aunt and his best friend, however, kept him in a car speeding along the Long Island Expressway to a hotel where exit counselors were waiting.
Those counselors put many, many questions in his head. Then they handed him the story of Xenu. As his parents recall his face whitened. The Church convinced him that reading those materials prematurely would cause death.
Back at the Church, Grosswald spilled the evening’s events to Carmichael. He also told him that his father warned, “For every person you recruit, we’re going to keep ten people out.”
The Church of Scientology deemed Grosswald a security threat and threw him out. “They couldn’t have me running around telling people about Xenu,” he said.
It took him about a year to recover his cult exit. He went back to school, finished his degree and went on to earn a law degree — magna cum laude — from Brooklyn Law School.
He would love to take on the Church of Scientology in the courts, but with a three-year statute of limitation most victims of brainwashing aren’t ready to take action at that point.
“I’m dying for someone to bring me a case,” he said.