Our man in Paris, British journalist Jonny Jacobsen, is back with another great piece — this time, a lengthy review of the newest book recounting the journey into and out of the Church of Scientology.
Underground Bunker regulars will recall that Hungarian ex-Scientology member Peter Bonyai (pictured, right) helped us out with a story in April on the supposedly transparent and independent Central-European Religious Freedom Institute (CERFI). (Jura Nanuk, who heads up the lobbying organisation, had somehow forgotten to mention his allegiance to Scientology at the group’s website. Nor, so far as I can see, has the situation changed.)
Now Bonyai’s memoir of his 10 years as a Scientologist in Hungary is available in English, Money, Power, Servitude: Adventures in the Wonderland of Scientology. He translated the original edition himself and former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder stepped in to edit the English version.
Bonyai spent most of his 10 years inside Scientology in its “Sea Organization,” having been recruited to it at the age of 17 in 1995. “I was technically a minor, but it did not seem to be an issue,” he notes.
Bonyai’s description of himself at that age matches that of many adolescents: Intelligent, a little full of himself perhaps, but with a sense of unease, of dissatisfaction at the prospect of a conventional life pursuing material wealth. It was more than enough for a Scientology recruiter to work on.
Despite the fact that he had already read and dismissed Dianetics (recommended by one of his teachers) Bonyai was pulled in after taking the personality test in his home town of Pécs, Hungary.
The devastating test results, delivered with absolute conviction by a staffer who introduced herself as a Scientology “priestess,” shattered his adolescent bravado.
I was told that I was an irresponsible, nervous, unstable, and pathetic individual in urgent need of attention. She made sure that each statement hit home, and repeated them over and over when I expressed my doubts. She was adamant about the evaluation and gave me an unquestioning gaze each time I wanted to contradict her and explain myself. And she mentioned several times that Dianetics can help me to improve that condition. I was completely overwhelmed at the end of it and I felt totally devastated… Thinking it cannot get any worse and I could definitely use some help to address my deep-lying unhappiness, I decided to give Dianetics a chance.
Like many other new recruits, his initial experience of auditing – Scientology’s version of therapy – was also positive. The sense of relief he experiences after going over a minor point of emotional conflict, helped pull him deeper down into the rabbit hole.
But the very next past incident he tries to audit shows the dangers inherent in the Scientology’s system of therapy: “…[T]hat one went awry. I got a bit lost in the maze of my mind and started to see strange things. The mission auditor had to intervene so I could be freed from its effect.”
And there were other red flags, he writes, recalling the discomfort he felt at the take-no-prisoners tone of L. Ron Hubbard’s notorious text, Keep Scientology Working (“We’d rather have you dead than incapable”).
Nevertheless, he recalls: “I was still interested in becoming a real-life Jedi knight, so I chose to ignore that part of Scientology, which sounded like the teachings of a fanatical fundamentalist sect.”
For Bonyai then, the Scientology recruitment machine worked to perfection:
— a recruiter “found his ruin” — his weak points — via the personality test, and convinced him that Scientology had the solution;
— he was sold on the prospect of tapping into previously undreamt-of powers via Scientology;
— and the initial auditing high did not just whet his appetite for more but persuaded him to put aside any doubts he already had.
It is in this state that he takes the “Success though Communications” course, a simplified version of the training routines. The course seems reasonable enough at first.
According to Hubbard, the first phase was being there in a spiritual sense. The basic idea was to establish the elements of communication: being there, speaking to someone, ability to receive an answer, then answer that, repeat the unanswered question if needed, or steer the conversation back to its original topic (if needed), and to conclude the conversation.
Before long though, participants have moved on to more invasive exercises. In bullbaiting, he has to sit, unflinching, while his training partner subjected him to all kinds of verbal abuse. The object of the exercise is to not react, whatever the provocation.
Critics of Scientology – including many former members – have long argued that these exercises soften up new recruits, undermining their capacity for critical thinking to make them more receptive to the new belief Scientology is installing in them. Reflecting on the results of the bullbaiting exercise, Bonyai reaches much the same conclusion.
In retrospect, this ability was a blessing and a curse. It was undoubtedly useful to have greater tolerance to provocation, but it also blocked proper emotional reactions. It also had a hidden side effect (at least on me): I had a better tolerance of the crazy things going on in the Church. I was not disturbed too much by them, and I was able to put up with much more than I should have. This contributed to my prolonged stay in the Church by making me more susceptible to its indoctrination.
Later, when he takes the more hard-core version of the training routines, he experiences an even stronger sense of dissociation.
The experience I had … regarding these communication drills became even more intense: On [the] one hand, I became more forthcoming and brave during communication, but life also became a bit surreal. External stimuli had even less effect on me, which dulled my emotions and made me experience a strange feeling: I often felt like an outsider, detached from reality, having “stepped out” of real life.
(For more on these training routines, see Tony’s interview with Sea Org veteran Claire Headley.)
Bonyai is particularly good at explaining the appeal and the power of these early steps in his Scientology induction. He has taken the time to reflect on the nature of the machine that consumed him and his insights into this process make up some of the best parts of the book.
Very quickly, he writes, he was attributing anything good that happened to him to Scientology — anything bad of course, was down to his own lack of dedication to the movement.
The net result of this (you can observe this with the majority of the Scientologists) is a partial loss of the sense of reality, or a specific kind of financial irresponsibility where you can spend any amount of money on your own spiritual progress, as by doing so you believe you will achieve a better spiritual state, and money will thereafter find you mysteriously as a result.
This mindset of course makes it much easier for staff members to get money out of public members of Scientology, he points out. The upper echelons of the movement meanwhile adopt a more hard-headed approach to the world, including a barely concealed contempt for “public” Scientologists.
During training in Munich, Germany, Bonyai gets an early taste of the tremendous pressure on staffers to get results, no matter what — and to meet the Thursday 2:00 pm deadline.
Statistics were calculated and monitored on a daily basis. Staff members were mercilessly hounded if their statistics were not in the proper range to achieve a higher value by Thursday. Two major methods were used to increase productivity: There was some minor internal PR (pep talks, emphasizing the greatness of the purpose of Scientology, small rewards etc), but threats, yelling and enforced overtime were the favored methods.
When he runs into difficulty on a course and gets sent to ethics, the officer there decides the hostility of some family members to Scientology means he has to return to either handle their objections or disconnect — cut off all contact — from them.
Back in Pécs, he keeps up the training, learning how to evaluate the personality test — the same one that had pulled him into the movement.
This course had a special significance in my life. This is where my transformation started. I was originally a shy, idealistic and good-natured teenager, and I started to change into a charming, silver-tongued and unscrupulous clone of L. Ron Hubbard, who embodies the phrase “the end justifies the means… [The recruiter has] to find the vulnerabilities of the person and throw a lot of salt on these wounds and make it clear that this/these is/are a serious personality defect, which MUST be addressed, and of course, Scientology can do that. From time to time, the evaluation had to state that these are all scientific facts, not just personal opinions, as they are based on a scientific test.
(This bogus claim for the scientific basis of the personality test was a key factor in the 2009 French convictions of Scientology for organised fraud.)
Back in Munich, having reached an uneasy compromise with his family, Peter continues his training but is soon back in trouble with the org’s ethics officers — essentially for asking too many questions. So he decides to apply to join the Sea Org, to bypass what he suspects are the “suppressive” elements in Munich.
Having filled in the highly intrusive Life History Form (“46. Have you ever been involved in homosexual activities or sexual perversions?”) he signs his billion-year contract and joins Scientology’s most elite — and most exploited — cadre.
Sea Org life of course, is a completely different experience to being a paying, public Scientologist, or even a staffer on a five-year contract.
Peter gets used to seeing Sea Org executives bawling out their underlings.
László [Peter’s boss] assured me that this is pretty common in the Sea Org, and there is even a policy letter from Hubbard stating that you would need to shout at the dumb ones if that was required to get your job done.
But never in front of the public, paying Scientologists, …so his boss usually brought him to a basement office for the 10-minute yelling sessions.
Later, he describes another Sea Org executive in Copenhagen, an Austrian by the name of Walter Kotric.
He had zero tolerance for slackness, poor job performance and to put it mildly, he was not particularly fond of excuses… He also had a special ability: he was able to yell with incredible volume, intensity and intention, a skill he used frequently if he was not satisfied with someone or wanted to get instant compliance to an order. He had no reservations about getting physical if he thought the situation warranted it. He usually grabbed his victim, smashed or pushed him against the nearest wall and screamed at him.
Compare that passage with this account from former Scientology executive Don Larson, one of David Miscavige’s enforcers during his rise to power: “David Miscavige comes up, grabs him by the tie and starts bashing him into the filing cabinet,” Larson told Britain’s Panorama team for a 1987 documentary. “And he’s thrown out in the street; his tie is ripped off.”
A ‘heartless bastard’
By the time Bonyai is a fully fledged member of the Sea Org, he is well on the way to becoming, as he himself puts it, another heartless bastard — and this is another strength of the book. Bonyai does not shrink from describing just how objectionable he himself became during his time inside the Sea Org.
I was slowly turning into a cold, calculating, merciless and rather manipulative person, with the occasional streak of cruelty. Hubbard actually recommended or hinted at ignoring traditional values in his voluminous policy letters and bulletins about the Sea Org, citing the paramount importance of the mission of the Scientology movement, which overrode any other aspect of the situations in question.
Appointed to a post in middle management, Bonyai comes under instant pressure to get results — and he learns the rules fast.
One of my fellow “monks” summarized the most basic survival trick: If bricks start to fall, you better jump aside so they hit the guy directly under you. The classic “lick upwards, kick downwards” policy applied.
In order to survive as a member of middle management, I had to name a person responsible if the stats did not go up or downright crashed or there was a problem…and I had to present a handling (an ethics order, a punishment, ordering overtime etc.) which satisfied my seniors.
The favored method of getting compliance was “you do not go to sleep until it is done” and I learned to use it fast. Otherwise I would have to take the fall and suffer the consequences (overtime, reduced rations, no day-offs etc.).
A little later, he reflects, “ I … realized that finding a target to blame was a way to survive in the Sea Org, where impossible deadlines were an everyday occurrence.”
This is as good a summary of the Sea Org’s dog-eat-dog atmosphere as you could hope to find.
Very quickly then, Bonyai is turning into just the kind of rottweiler Scientology requires him to be. Two months into his Sea Org career and back home for Christmas, he is bragging to his horrified parents about how he handles his subordinates.
On Christmas Day, he phones one minion to pile the pressure on and ensure he has completed his work in time for the Thursday deadline. “My parents were a bit freaked out about my creepy new personality…,” he confesses.
But then this was the kind of executive Hubbard wanted, as Bonyai points out: “The fire-breathing product officer will be followed and supported when the wishywashy old pal guy will be stepped all over in the rush to follow a real leader.” (Hubbard Policy Letter, January 17, 1982 “What is an Executive?”)
“Now I knew the basics,” writes Bonyai. “I was ready to assist the expansion of Scientology with brutal efficiency and blast all barriers away.”
Promoted to a key recruitment post, he applies the same take-no-prisoners tactics, targeting the 16-to-21 age group “because it was rather easy to convince and manipulate them,” playing on their utopian idealism to overcome any doubts they might have.
With hindsight he can see the irony: not so long before, he too had been just that kind of idealist.
NOW NOW NOW!
Other details might shock anyone new to the way the Sea Org works, but will sound strangely familiar to Bunker regulars: A 15-year-old boy appointed director of personnel; translators falling asleep over their typewriters as the latest impossible deadline draws nearer. Orders from on high to get the product delivered NOW NOW NOW!
And there are the late-night visits to the whales, the rich public Scientologists, to get the cheque — however long it takes. Bonyai quotes Hubbard’s justification for this kind of foot-in-the-door regging.
“Hard sell means insistence that people buy. It means caring about the person and not being reasonable about stops or barriers but caring enough to get him reasonable about stops or barriers but caring enough to get him through the stops or barriers to get the service that’s going to rehabilitate him.” (“Copyrighting”, Hubbard Policy Letter, September 26, 1979.)
Bonyai’s own summary is better: “The ideal registrar was like an attack dog which locked his jaws onto the victim’s leg and could only be removed by hacking off that limb.”
Particularly disturbing is his account of how his cold-blooded Sea Org values lead him to sabotage his first marriage. Having persuaded his partner that they should marry, he quickly decides that she is holding him back.
The extremely Social Darwinist attitude fostered in the organization brought out the worst in me –- the woman did not meet my expectations, the woman had to be dropped… I decided to deal with the situation with the speed and resolve expected of a Sea Org member. I told my wife that I was going to divorce her and I would submit the papers to the court in week. She was devastated, tried to convince me to give her another chance, but I was adamant about my decision…The whole procedure was over in 15 minutes the following day and we were officially divorced. I was proud of myself. In my view I had effectively handled the situation and remained at cause, not letting my emotions and feelings influence my judgment.
Credit to Bonyai for having the courage to tell this tale.
Bonyai also sets out in some detail how he suffered from the perverse and arbitrary nature of Scientology’s justice system.
Part of the problem, he acknowledges, is that he had made a fair number of enemies during his scramble up the greasy management pole; and just as he had learned to find underlings to blame when things went wrong, so his bosses made him the scapegoat when it suited them.
More than once he is sent up to the European headquarters in Copenhagen for various disciplinary measures — committees of evidence and security checks.
On one occasion he is suspected of being a spy for Hungary’s National Security Office.
A specialist was flown in from Germany — a man trained by Miscavige’s direct underlings to conduct such special interrogations. The questions were not limited to suspected espionage activities — I had to confess every harmful act or transgression that sprang to mind during the sessions, even if these had nothing to do with the main line of questioning. Priest-penitent privilege did not [apply], so they could use anything I said against me. Finally, the sessions were videotaped.
A security guard sleeps in his room on a mattress in front of the locked door, the key tucked under the mattress. One of his fellow inmates on the punishment programme, a Norwegian woman, is being disciplined for having considered suicide.
‘Tom Fucking Cruise’
Peter survives several brushes with Scientology’s thought police, its heavy ethics. And each time, he returns to Hungary disgruntled but still persuaded that the problem is not Scientology but the way it is being applied.
Eventually, however, the back-stabbing, cut-throat atmosphere of Sea Org life becomes too much. “I started to slowly collapse spiritually,” he writes. But he still blames himself for failing to meet the impossible targets set by his superiors.
Then in 2004, Tom Cruise gets his Freedom Medal of Valor for services to Scientology.
Even as a dedicated Sea Org member, I felt his whole story was a gigantic insult to all hard-working Sea Org members. I had been working day and night for the Church for the last seven years, enduring all the extreme production demands, yelling, humiliation in the name of greater good etc. And then Tom Fucking Cruise gets a medal, despite the fact that he was only disseminating over the previous 1 or 2 years. By the way, I never really liked Tom Cruise — he was a kind of a symbol of what was wrong with mainstream US culture. He was not even a Sea Org member, just a public Scientologist, whom we considered loser dilettantes for not taking real responsibility for clearing the planet.
And yet, despite everything, he stays.
He even fights to stay in the Sea Org when, during yet another heavy ethics assault, he is told he could risk being declared a Suppressive Person and cast out of the movement.
I really wanted to believe that the new civilization envisioned by Hubbard was attainable. I did not want to desert my hard-working comrades and I did not want to be singled out as someone who had not helped if Scientology indeed succeeded in clearing the planet. I did not want to lose my wife either (I thought that she would leave me if I left the Sea Org for any reason), and finally, I was so deeply involved with the movement that I could not even imagine any realistic alternative to that life…
The other side of the coin of course was that he had no money, no qualifications and virtually no relationships outside the movement. “I was not on the best terms with my family either, so I felt I didn’t have any other viable options.”
During that final disciplinary cycle he is kicked out of the Sea Org and told to consider himself lucky that he has not been declared Suppressive (“by then I had started to believe I was a Suppressive Person”).
His second wife, Andrea, is isolated from him and comes under relentless pressure to to divorce him.
The worst month of my life ensued. I felt utterly destroyed. My big dream of spearheading the creation of a new civilization was crushed. I spent 10 years working for the Church, giving up on all my ambitions and career options. I spent all the money I ever had on Scientology. And the end result was practically nothing….All I could show in the real world was a high school education, a good command of the English language and a mysterious 10-year gap in my life where I was apparently off to save the world. I knew almost nobody who was not a Scientologist. I had been virtually living a bubble and knew little about the so-called wog world.
Despite the pressure on Andrea, she refuses to divorce him. They even meet in secret every night during the crackdown, and finally she defies orders and rejoins him (the book is dedicated to her).
But now Bonyai is a virtual outcast from the movement, with $9,000 in bills to pay for the all that free training he received while inside the Sea Org — and 1,500 hours of unpaid work to do as amends.
The journey out
Peter tries to rebuild his life as a public Scientologist, setting up his own business. But now he is on the receiving end of the hard sell he and his colleagues meted out to public members back in the day. His disillusionment is growing.
It was very hard to face the fact that I had been such a sucker and had fallen for a sleazy con game like the Church of Scientology. I was under such extreme control in the Sea Org, but now I had ample opportunity to look at Scientology from the outside. It was embarrassingly apparent that nothing of real importance or magnitude happened or got done in the Church…
His doubts grow as he takes advantage of the unrestricted access to the Internet he has outside the Sea Org. But the breaking point for Bonyai turns out to be one hard-sell assault too many:
This was the last straw. I had enough of the insatiable greed of Scientology. My only regret at this point was that it took so long — 10 years of hard work as a virtual slave and throwing $50,000 out the window. All the bitterness that had accumulated over these long years came out in a big burst of anger — screamed at the guy for using Mafia tactics and I told him I would not pay a fucking cent. My conscience was clear, I added, I did everything they asked and if they did not like the type of amends I did, they should get back to me in writing. I then hung up on him. When I put down receiver, I knew it was over and there was no way back. I was no longer a member of the Church. I could not care less about their weird rules, their lust for money and planetary clearing for that matter.
Learning more about the devastating effects of Scientology’s disconnection policy helps him shed any final illusions he had about Hubbard’s contribution to humanity and his journey out is complete.
As hard as Bonyai tries to explain Scientology terms along the way, this is probably a book best read by those already familiar with this particular brand of sci-fi totalitarianism.
Bonyai’s experience in the Sea Org may not have been as brutal as some other survivors.
But his analysis of how he was drawn and transformed by the Scientology machine, his honesty in owning up to what he did while under its spell, makes this book a welcome addition to the growing list of ex-member memoirs.
— Jonny Jacobsen
Camilla Andersson: Remembering Ann Tidman
Another great interview by Karen de la Carriere…
Your proprietor talks Mary Sue Hubbard
KABC Channel 7 does a fun job with the Mary Sue Hubbard house, with appearances by Karen de la Carriere and your proprietor…
Posted by Tony Ortega on September 2, 2014 at 07:20
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