I live in a neighborhood in Buenos Aires called Barrio Norte. I quite like it. It’s central and close to just about everything. Now, even though I’ve lived here for several years, I can’t say that I know it intimately. My everyday obligations keep me out of home for most of the day so I rarely get to take a stroll through the hood during the daytime. Even on weekends, when I’m not nursing a hangover indoors, I usually take the trek a few blocks north towards Palermo and hang out in the parks there instead of exploring my area. I just don’t know the streets that surround me that well.
The few times I’ve been able to wander around, there’s always a surprise. It’s like discovering a whole new world; darkened corners that I have drunkenly trudged through in the pitch blackness of the night are completely re-contextualized in the clear of day. Businesses I never knew existed. Mom-and-pop stores that close up at 5 PM. And then, every once in a while, a horrible, brainwashing cult.
That’s right. Recently, during one of those early morning walks through the neighborhood I discovered that I discovered that I, in fact, live three blocks away from a Scientology center.
First off, I should apologize to any reader of mine who happens to identify as a Scientologist. This is the part of the entry where you label me a Suppressive Person and dig up dirt from my past to attack me with. I’ve been fascinated with this church for the better part of a decade now. Their incredibly shady history, their absurdly wacky belief system, their almost-sociopathic response to criticism (“destroy them“) and the fact that their constituents see absolutely nothing wrong with signing up to a religion started by a science fiction writer who famously said “you want to make real money? Start a religion.” I’m sorry, Scientologist friends, but your religion is shady and creepy as fuck.
So when I realized that I lived so close to one of these places, I had a bit of a freakout session. You have to understand. Living in South America, I sometimes feel like I live in relative isolation to some of the things that are present in the pop culture radar. I had always seen Scientology as something that happened over “there”– “there” being the US, TV, The Internet, whatever magical, mythical land where all pop culture maladies and anomalies reside. Where David Hasselhoff and Morrissey have tea and biscuits while Rickrolling each other. Some mythical, mystical land far away from me. “There”. Certainly not … three blocks away from me.
For a few days I mulled over what to do. Right outside there was a huge poster for a free Personality test– the same I had seen Stan take on that hilarious South Park episode (again, “there”). The personality test I had read about from countless sources, which is advertised as showing you your potential for success but really just tells you how depressed you are and how much you need their help to improve yourself. I wanted to see.
That afternoon, I told the people at work about it. Many of them were amused and encouraged me to take the test. Others told me to be careful. “They’re known to chase people down the street, stalk them, follow them home”. And really, is it so smart to go into an organization that is infamous for its deeply rooted corruption and Machiavellian tactics, as well as being directly responsible for many lives being ruined and even the death of one Lisa McPherson? I had to think about this.
A few days later, I went for another one of those Saturday morning constitutionals. Curiosity go the best of me. I walked in.
Well, not really. I actually hesitated at the door, but one of the staffers got a hold of me before I could get away. I was escorted inside and given the test.
I think the strangest part of the whole experience was the staff’s demeanor. The young girl who greeted me at the door was super upbeat and friendly (“Oh, hi there! Do you want to take the test?” “Gee, I dunno…” “Ah, c’mon! Why not? It’ll be fun!”), the slightly older girl working the desk inside was super serious and seemed even annoyed by my presence. Once I was done with the test, they had seemed to switch personalities. The first girl was cold and looked exasperated while the other one greeted me like a cheerleader on ecstasy. She escorted me to a dark room where I was shown a 40-minute film about Dianetics that seemed half late-evening Power Juicer infomercial, half episode of ”Touched By an Angel”. I was told to watch it while they calculated my results.
I don’t think it’s the same recruiting movie that’s become so famous over the Internet. Notably absent were the bright, shiny mugs of Kirstie Alley and Tom Cruise talking about the wonders of Scientology. In fact, I think the fact that Scientology isn’t actually recognized as a religion in Argentina (this particular facility was posing as a “self-help” center– a life-coach type service, I guess) had a lot to do with the toned-down experience. I was the only person in the makeshift screening room, and I watched with contained amusement as the video explained the– shocking– revelation that human beings are essentially shaped by past experiences. No mention of thetans or evil Lord Xenu, disappointingly enough.
When the video ended, I walked out and the second girl sat down with me and read me the results. Wherever they pulled this girl out of, she was a lousy saleswoman. She started off with “the results indicate that you need our treatment”– talk about subtlety– and then proceeded to tell me how depressed, aimless and irresponsible I am. She seemed to have very little understanding of what the chart actually meant. She didn’t explain the results, and whenever I inquired on a particular point, she’d go off on some bizarre tangent about the human mind being a reactive machine. She tried selling me 12 hours of auditing time (which I’ve heard consists in a whole lot of sitting around and staring blankly into space) to help improve my perceived deficiencies. I said I was interested and told her I’d be back later, because “I needed to think about it”.
She let me go with a smile and a firm handshake. Didn’t follow me to the streets or anything like that. I was pleasantly surprised, and for a minute I thought “gee, she seems awfully friendly and well-adjusted, crappy salesmanship aside. And, you know, some really cool people are actually part of this scary cult. And, you know, I think I’m actually considering buying some of that auditing time. Maybe just a starter’s course or whatever. After all, you know, who am I to knock it until I’ve tr–OH. Oh. I see what you did there. Clever wench.”