Why Do Scientologists Accept the Xenu Story?
For going on 17 years I've been writing about Scientology, and over that time there's one question that has come up again and again.
South Park's rendition of Xenu
Why don't Scientologists, when they've been in the organization long enough to reach the legendary material in "Operating Thetan Level Three" -- the stuff about Xenu the galactic overlord which made for a great 2005 episode of South Park -- bust out laughing and walk away?
Tom Cruise and John Travolta and thousands of other Scientologists have moved on beyond the space opera stuff in OT 3 (Cruise, for example, has moved up to OT 7), and for some reason, they accepted the Xenu story and never looked back.
When I've been asked that question, I had a ready answer that I'd put together after talking to many ex-Scientologists who told me their own experiences.
But now, I realize that the answer I was giving was wrong. The reason why Scientologists accept the story about Xenu and disembodied alien beings infesting this Earth is actually much simpler, and much more mindblowing, than I ever realized.
In the past, Scientologists had convinced me that their long, gradual indoctrination was so insidious, by the time they were allowed to read L. Ron Hubbard's strange OT 3 story -- which has a galactic overlord solving an overpopulation problem by bringing billions of disembodied alien souls to this planet 75 million years ago -- their critical reasoning skills were so eroded, they would accept anything.
I remember Jason Beghe, for example, telling me that other religions have their angels and demons, so was a story about alien spirits from another solar system really all that harder to believe? I could see what he was saying, but after spending so much money and time -- hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years of dedication to reach OT 3 -- wasn't it a shock for Scientologists to learn that this was what their religion is really all about?
Some ex-church members I met did admit that they had negative reactions to the Xenu story, but by the time they learned it they had already spent so much of their lives invested in Scientology, they really had no personal will to walk away -- at least at that point.
But then, recently, I had a new realization about what church members go through before they get to OT 3.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed a man named Dani Lemberger, and he made me understand the "whole track" and auditing better than anyone else had before. (In auditing -- Scientology's spiritual counseling -- a subject holds onto the sensors of an e-meter while an auditor asks questions prescribed by Hubbard, encouraging the subject to remember events earlier and earlier. The purpose is to remember and then disarm traumatic memories that happened in your past lives, and helps you move toward becoming "clear." As you do so, you gain a view down your entire "whole track" of existence as an immortal spirit, called a "thetan.")
For my story about Dani and the mission in Israel that is splitting away from the official church, I interviewed Lemberger for hours and sat, mesmerized, as he told me about his whole track auditing, during which he saw himself millions of years ago, leading groups during different lifetimes and on other planets. Over the eons, he said, he had lived lifetimes during which he had a tendency to get his head chopped off when his people rebelled.
Dani was serious. (And he's also a successful businessman with an MBA who characterizes himself as a "skeptic.")
Lemberger made me realize something very basic about Scientology that, for some reason, had never really sunk in before. And it is this...
The reason Scientologists accept Hubbard's bizarre story about Xenu is that by the time they reach OT 3, they have been "remembering" their own outlandish space opera "whole track" stories during auditing, perhaps for several years.
Why question Hubbard's tale about mass alien genocide 75 million years ago, when you've been "seeing" yourself as some kind of Buck Rogers fighting enemies and bedding beauties from one end of the galaxy to the other?
With this new realization, I went back to some of my ex-Scientology sources to put it to them: had they been holding out on me a little about their own Star Wars-like adventures?
Several of them admitted that yes, even ex-Scientologists long out of the church can be somewhat reluctant to discuss the wild things they "remembered" about their past during auditing. But I pressed them -- tell me about your adventures from millennia past.
"I blew up a water dam that destroyed a third of the cities that were downriver of it. That would be about 300 million years ago -- but you would say something like '346,767,813 years ago' to your auditor. I think it was on some planet that started with the letter 'V'," says Chuck Beatty, and he laughs, knowing how ridiculous it sounds.
Even after I had explained what I was asking, it took me some while to pry that answer out of Chuck, who is, just about anyone will tell you, the most forthcoming and talkative source of information on Scientology in the world.
Tiziano Lugli was the same way. He spoke to me at length about his own auditing and the entire progression of the OT levels. But I had to keep pushing him until he finally coughed up one of his whole track events...
"It was 250,000 years ago, in a space ship, and I'd gathered all these people from these planets, and I'm implanting them with mental pictures and then throwing them down to the earth, a prison planet," Lugli said. "I was the guy in charge, and I'm responsible for this prison planet. The feeling of that responsibility and what I went through freaked me out for a year."
And that's really the purpose of "remembering" such material -- Scientologists believe that if they can recall and "handle" things that happened to them eons ago, it will solve whatever problems they have going on in their current lives.
"At the end of a session you feel invincible," Lugli says. "You've been having planets built and destroyed. After that, you come out into this normal world and you feel like the most powerful person around because you've been traveling through space and time."
Marc Headley pointed out that if you're having those kinds of experiences, Hubbard's story about a galactic overlord is just not very surprising.
"OK, so there's a galactic overlord named Xenu. Big deal. That's not the craziest thing you're going to hear on your way to spending three hundred thousand dollars," he says, referring to the ballpark figure for what it takes to get through the years of services to get to OT 3. At the upper levels, such counseling reaches about a thousand dollars an hour.
But during their journey to OT 3, not everyone has such outlandish "memories," they all pointed out to me.
Amy Scobee, for example, told me a pretty mundane story about seeing herself in a scene from about two centuries ago (which, even though it was rather tame, she asked me not to share). Other memories she worked with were almost contemporary.
She just didn't have wild space opera experiences the way some others did. So when she she reached OT 3, I asked her, how did it hit her?
"I did wonder if it was true," she says. But when she then ran the auditing routines involved in the level, the e-meter's needle seemed to indicate that what the material proposed -- that disembodied alien souls were hovering around her -- seemed to be confirmed. "It's weird. I don't know what to say. I didn't feel like I went through that incident, but the needle was going wild, so I had to assume that someone had."
I also called Jefferson Hawkins, who I've always considered one of the smartest, most level-headed of the ex-Scientologists who speak out about their experiences. He laughed as soon as I explained why I was calling.
"I ran a lot of that stuff, as anybody does, and people don't want to talk about it because it's kind of silly when you get out. But when you're in it's very real," he says.
And Jeff's "whole track" auditing memory? "I was a navigator on a space ship, and it had this very complex navigation system that I was in charge of and I could describe it in great detail," he says. "It was just very vivid. I could see the equipment and could describe it."
He points out that Hubbard had suggested these kinds of stories in his books and lectures, talking about waves of "invader forces" that had colonized the solar system.
"As a kid I was a real science fiction fan. And the idea that this stuff had actually occurred millions of years ago -- it was crazy, but in a good way," he says.
So these Scientologists, in their auditing sessions, were "remembering" pretty mindblowing stuff. But there was a catch -- they weren't supposed to tell other church members about it.
Lugli describes the scene to me: "You would go to the restaurant at the Sandcastle Hotel in Flag [Scientology's spiritual mecca in Clearwater, Florida], and everyone is out of session, saying things like, 'Wow, this really blew me away! I've never handled more charge in one session!' But you can't actually say what happened," he says.
However, people would violate the rules and spill secrets about their past lives, they tell me. Some folks just couldn't help themselves.
"It was a status thing," Hawkins explains. "I knew probably four or five Scientologists who told me confidentially that they were Jesus."
And in the 1980s, he remembers, "there was this fad for a while that people were all remembering that they were Nazis in World War II, and that's why things were so screwed up in their present lives," Hawkins says. "That's why they had to be so active in Scientology, to atone for what they had done in past lives."
I also pointed out to Jeff that there seemed to be another status thing going on -- the better Scientologist you were, the farther back in your whole track you could go, retrieve incidents, and handle them. Hubbard himself seemed to promote this idea, that if his followers could travel back hundreds of millions of years, he was so advanced he was going back trillions of years. (Astronomers tell us the universe itself is only about 14 billion years old, but that didn't stop Hubbard.)
Hubbard claimed that he'd visited Heaven 43 trillion years ago and then a trillion years later. And, as we pointed out (and Beatty gave us credit for being the first ever to do so), when Hubbard died, Pat Broeker showed a number with 347 digits on it to the audience when it was announced that Hubbard had merely left his body in order to continue his research on another plane.
That number, Broeker told the audience, represented in years the farthest back in his whole track that Hubbard had been able to go at the end of his life.
We did the math, and here's what that number represented...
24 billion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years.
That's some time travel!
So you see, 75 million years ago is not really such a big deal, and Xenu and his alien overpopulation problem isn't going to scare off your average spacefaring Scientologist.
Someday, I'd love to hear Tom Cruise's whole track tales. They must be something.
UPDATE: I'm at a gathering of ex-Scientologists this morning, and when I saw Roger Weller, he said, "I wish you would have asked me about my whole track stories." Well, Roger, I can always add it to this post!
I've written about Weller before -- he filled me in on what Scientology was like back in the heady days of the late '60s in Greenwich Village. He's right now wearing a T-shirt with a photograph of himself with Mick Jagger, who he had given a Hubbard book. The T-shirt's slogan: "Me & Mick: Smoking Dianetics, L.A. 1972"
I asked Roger about his past-life auditing.
"I had this one incident where I had so much grief," he says. Even though the auditing session happened in 1968, he still remembers it vividly. "I was on this planet, and there was this beautiful woman on a beach, a blonde."
There were knowing chuckles around the table. Roger smiled, but he said this was actually a sad memory for him.
"I was working in government, I was flying in space ships. I was at this planet, and I knew that it was going to get knocked out. I couldn't warn anybody about this, because I was working for this group," he says. "It was going to happen in a month or something, so I was able to leave, and the memory I was left with was this blonde on the beach that I was betraying."
I asked him when he thought it had occurred. He said it was some millions of years ago, but he couldn't be more exact. "When you couldn't pinpoint the time of the memory, you would point. I remember pointing at a direction in the room," he says.
"It was so real to me. But it was disjointed. That's how auditing is, it's in fragments. I might have cried for an hour."
I thanked Roger for that glimpse of his auditing. Now, if I can get some other people at this gathering to cough up their own stories. If so, I'll add them here...
Just talked to Dan Garvin, a 25-year veteran of Scientology (10 in OSA) who left the church in 1991. Here was the whole track experience he shared with me...
"It was trillions of years ago, before the universe we know it was in its present form. Somebody had made a planet -- I didn't like it or I was jealous, or they beat me to it and I was going to make one of my own. So I just blew that other one up. I had come up with some kind of technology, a super nuclear bomb," he says. He added that he didn't actually set off the bomb, but left it at the planet he wanted to get rid of so that someone else coming along would trip it.
Dan tells me that it was very unusual to be asked about this. I told him that I was surprised that it took me this long to question people about their whole track experiences. For some reason, it's not something that comes up often, even among ex-Scientologists.
Claire Swazey gives us a glimpse from the other side: It was 1976, she was only 19, and she would later go on staff at the Albany mission. She was helping another Scientologist do self-analysis (a light form auditing), when he went whole track on her.
Claire says that she never really went space opera in her own auditing, but when she was auditing the young man, he started talking about space ships.
"He was on a space ship, looking down at the planet below, and there was all this carnage, people killing each other with ray-guns," she says.
I asked her what went through her mind at the time. "I remember that I had to keep my auditor's hat on and not show any surprise, and I encouraged him to say whatever he wanted to say. A 'holy shit' might have crossed my mind," she says.
Inside Edition Debunks the E-Meter
"It has nothing to do with spirituality. It has to do with sweat, salt, and grip." -- electrical engineer Steve Fowler.
More from Narconon in Oklahoma from Fox's Marisa Mendelson
Another great report by Mendelson, following up on yesterday's news about the death of Narconon patient Stacy Murphy: a parent frantically tries to get her own daughter out of the facility.
In this story, like so many others, a concerned parent put her child into a Narconon center with no idea that it was connected to Scientology. When are state officials going to realize that playing down that connection is part of Narconon's shady ways?
Scientology's president and the death of his son: our complete coverage
What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids
Scientology's new defections: Hubbard's granddaughter and Miscavige's dad
Scientology's disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group
Scientology leader David Miscavige's vanished wife: Where's Shelly?
Please check out our Facebook author page for updates and schedules.
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.