Going Clear: Scientology and Dispelling the Myths About Cult Indoctrination

By Miranda Culp

There is widespread coverage of the damage groups like ISIS have inflicted on their neighbors and much conjecture about why Westerners would join groups that regularly broadcast journalist beheadings and destruction of ancient art.  How could any reasonably sane, educated person consider becoming a terrorist?

When the Waco standoff resulted in an entire community of people dying in a rain of bullets and fire and the response I often heard was, “well, they were all sheep, they just followed that guy to the slaughter.”

The problem with this basic ignorance and the lack of compassion that attends it, is that people don’t understand their own programming.  We have all been brainwashed, by our respective cultures.  From the moment we understand language, we start adopting assumptions and those assumptions are reinforced for us daily.

The Going Clear documentary was very close to home for me; quite literally, I grew up not far from the Scientology headquarters in Los Angles and many of my parents’ peers had a story about someone trying to talk them into a presentation or a free “audit”.  My main sense of the organization, according to my mom’s teacher and activist friends, was that it primarily pitched itself as a gay deprogramming operation for budding actors. It could convert you and you wouldn’t even miss your old lifestyle because you would become so rich and famous.

But there is another way that I relate to this story: when I was 19, I spent three days under the spell of a mad man like L. Ron Hubbard.  I had just moved from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz, CA. Unlike most of my friends in high school, I didn’t get into college and so I was drifting. Since many of my friends went to UCSC, I moved up there to go to junior college and get a job.

A young man who was an artist and musician, we’ll call him Michel, lived in the basement apartment of my old Victorian, and I was immediately captivated by him and his girlfriend, whom we will call Mandy, a tall willowy read head, also artsy and interesting.

One Sunday evening, after being gone all weekend, the couple came home and I knocked on Michel’s door to say hi.  They asked me to come in and when I opened the door, a small group of people was seated on Michel’s bed.  They asked me to join them and Michel and Mandy smiled warmly.

At the head of the bed was a tall, gorgeous African American man.  He had beautiful skin, close-cropped hair and perfect teeth.  His name was Joshua.

“Who are you?” he asked me. I gave him my name.

“Who are you?”  He asked again. I was confused.  Michel moved over so I could sit next to Joshua.  “I’m Miranda.” I repeated.

“No,” he leaned in, his eyes boring in to me, “who are you?” Everyone in the group sat and waited.  I think I must have giggled out of nervousness.

He tried again: “What are you?”

“I’m an..artist,” I stammered.

“Ah”, he smiled. “And how is that going?”

This went on and escalated, so that every time I gave him an answer he didn’t like, he would raise his voice, just a little, and show me with his body language that my answer didn’t please him. Meanwhile, everyone in the room sat and listened. When I looked at them for an explanation, they would just smile at me encouragingly.

After twenty minutes or so, this guy had uncovered my extreme doubts about my usefulness on the planet, he had sought out my anxiety about the state of the world and then presented me with a solution to both of these things at the same time. At his bidding, I called my parents at 11pm, to wake them up and tell them I was dropping out of school and joining the Blue White Dove Foundation.

I will cut to the chase here and tell you that Michel’s parents did some research on Joshua and discovered that he had done time for violent crime. With some digging in the Berkeley community, we found he had convinced over 80 college kids to quit school, empty their bank accounts and “follow” him. He had manipulated many of the women into unprotected sex, and he had convinced one woman to abandon her infant.

For those three days that I was with him, none of us ate or slept much. We did these exercises in his question-and-answer style and listened to him prattle on, borrowing from diverse sources such as Alistair Crowley and Prince.

It’s pretty obvious to me after watching Going Clear, that Joshua had some experience with Scientology because he had adapted many of their techniques. In the film, a former member of the Church describes his consciousness seeming to draw back in his brain and watch all the action from a pinhole.  I cannot tell you how accurate this is; it’s like the voice in your head is no longer your operating system, but it’s still talking.  There is a total disconnect between your inner voice and your actions.

Watch the trailer for Going Clear here.  It re-airs on HBO April 9th.

It’s not a complicated process to brainwash someone, it simply takes knowing where the vulnerability is and learning how to verbalize it in a way that resonates.  Religious leaders, politicians, lawyers and marketers already know this, in fact, there is a term for it in marketing: pain points.  If you know friction the customer experiences, and you can voice that pain point, the customer will go for the solution you provide.  Simple as that.

A cult leader is particularly deft at describing these pain points to you.  And once you have bought into the solution, even if you don’t believe it all the way, all of your peers are sold and self-doubt, the thing that got you there in the first place, does the rest.

For the young men that get indoctrinated into ISIS, there are probably so many questions that don’t have an answer: Why are so many members of my family being killed?  Why is there no fresh water? No access to food or medicine? When someone gives you the answer: “This is all the infidels’ fault. This is a holy war. You are chosen to stand up and fight. God wants you to fight.” There is suddenly order when before there was nothing but chaos and the directive is very clear.  Now you have a plan of action.

And when you are not eating or sleeping, or when you have experienced trauma, we know now that the decision-making part of the brain just shuts off, redirecting its precious energies to survival functions. This is how herd mentality works. It explains why totally sane, sweet people can be driven to the most heinous acts, because they stop individuating. The body takes over and goes with safety in numbers.

Scientology has ruined lives, vanquished the possibility of livelihood for thousands of children, and created a state-sanctioned human trafficking business that has racked up billions of dollars.  It has done all this by cashing in on the better nature of normal people, hard working, hopeful people whose only crime was self-doubt.

The good news about our suggestibility is that when people are presented with their options, they are still capable of making choices, even after years of submission.  Margaret Singer was a psychologist at Berkeley studying cult behavior at the time that I encountered Joshua.  One of the young men in our group had been embedded for 3 weeks and Joshua had convinced him that the end of the world was coming. After his parents contacted Singer and forcibly took him away from Joshua,  Dr. Singer’s secretary called right as he was about to jump out of the window and escape.  She said to him on the phone, “I was in a cult for 11 years and if your experience was anything like mine, the only thing you want to do right now is run.” That was the moment when the artifice collapsed for him, the moment when his consciousness broke free of the spell.

The former members of the Church of Scientology may have been just average people going in, but I can tell you first hand that in order to get out, they were nothing short of heroic. Some of them were embedded for 20 years, some of them had to leave behind partners and children. Some of them had to run like refugees and reenter a world where they had no money, no skills and nowhere to go.

We should do away with discussions that pigeonhole people into two categories: suckers and critical thinkers.  None of us think for ourselves; we are moved by the language around us.  Free will is a fragile construct based on that language.  The best we can do is try to become more comfortable with the human inclination to ask these questions and build our endurance for uncertainty.  That, and a healthy skepticism for anyone proclaiming to have all the answers.

Margaret Singer on language and how it is used in mind control: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9rj4R4QhQg

6 thoughts on “Going Clear: Scientology and Dispelling the Myths About Cult Indoctrination

  1. Do you know how people are inducted into Isis. I’m not sure it is the same as brainwashing, as you describe it. ISIS has political goals, not alone to do with religion or belief systems. To me it is and remains a mystery, one on which a whole lot more data is needed to get a clear picture. Some of the European and North American people in their countries become indoctrinated, which is a different process than brainwashing. It is a worldview, as well. To our Western sensibilities, torture, beheadings, women sold into slavery, are abhorrent, but, it seems to some people, such as those who join ISIS, do not. To them such heinous acts are simply meting out of punishment according to the specifications of a code of law, namely Sharia (or a particular interpretation/translation of Sharia. I don’t know if there are tools to evaluate the effects of indoctrination versus brainwashing.

    • Tomeg, I used the example of ISIS as a comparison to illustrate a larger point about vulnerability, but as far as I can tell, indoctrination and brainwashing are used pretty much interchangeably, the distinction being the level of consent at the outset. Both are invasive, ongoing methods for planting ideas and manipulating behavior. I should point out that Scientology absolutely subscribes to a worldview, while their aspirations are not overtly political, they clearly have a “change the world” philosophy (I would urge you to watch the doc 😉

      • From what I have learned about the demographics of ISIS is its “members” are Sunni Muslims whose homes, work, position, and lives were destroyed in a civil war between Shia and Sunni in Iraq. My hunch about some, probably not all, those from Western countries who go to the Syria and Iraq to join ISIS need no indoctrination, they are pre-disposed to hate Western European and American governments which, they believe, persecute and exploit Muslims (we do) to fight against one another by taking a side and militarizing it to perform their (European and American) bidding. But, fundamentally, it is a people who have been robbed of their land and holy places, homes, men women and children, schools, etc., fighting back by adopting a militant ideology and fighting for it. I just don’t see the parallels with Scientology, since the participants don’t need to be sold anything, they join because they freely choose to make the Sunni Muslims’ cause their own. In their own minds they are freedom fighters, and in any fight, rules must be broken, shibboleths must be brought down and destroyed. ISIS is basically our creature, which is why it is so difficult to quell. Interestingly, the Saudis, whose Wahabist school of Islam has produced, among many other terrorists, Osama Bin Laden, are very worried about ISIS, because its members also hate the Saudi Kingdom, much as Bin Laden came to hate his Wahabi overlords. ISIS is essentially fighting a war of liberation, which is at the same time a war against all Western values and monuments.

  2. When I heard you had written on the documentary, I didn’t connect it with your experience of “the cult.” You made something powerful here out of what for me was so terrifying and so outside of my understanding when it happened and afterwards. For years, I have wanted to talk to you about it but somehow felt I didn’t have the vocabulary to enter the conversation. Your writing has brought me to a new level of understanding, and I agree that our categories of who we are and what others are…they just don’t ever seem sufficient.

    • Thanks for saying this, Mom. It was an experience that took years of examination to parse out. I’m so glad this film is making the rounds, their secrecy was part of their power, and that is most often the case.

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