"What are Your Crimes?"
There is a phrase that you hear lot in Scientology circles and which, for many, sums up a lot of what is wrong with the movement.
When something terrible happens to someone – they fall ill, they have an accident – the kind of misfortune that would elicit sympathy from ordinary people, Scientologists often react differently.
“They pulled it in,” they say: which means they did something to bring it on themselves; that basically, it was all their fault.
At the Toronto conference on Scientology, one former member described a method of control the movement uses that takes this outlook to its logical extreme.
Chris Shelton spent 27 years in Scientology, 25 of which he spent on staff and a full 17 inside the Sea Organization, the movement’s elite cadre. Sea Org members sign a billion-year contract to serve the movement in this life and all future lives.
Shelton left in 2013 and today describes himself as a critical thinker. And that in itself is remarkable, said Jon Atack, the event’s co-organiser, as he introduced his talk.
“Most Scientologists do not recover, ever," he said. "And only occasionally do you find someone who has come out and started excavating.” Yet remarkably, Shelton had left the movement and thought his own way out of what Atack has long called the Total Freedom Trap.
Shelton started by acknowledging that a lot has already been said about the manipulative elements of Scientology. The movement uses a device called the electropsychometer, or e-meter, for its version of therapy, or auditing.
But the e-meter is also used as a kind of lie detector to get members to confess any ill intentions, or “overts”, towards the movement, he explained. Whatever a particular procedure is called – security check, integrity processing, confessionals – the aim is to get people to tell the auditor (their interrogator) what they have done wrong.
Shelton said he believed that security checking, introduced in 1960, represented the first overt attempts at mind control inside Scientology. He wanted to talk about a particularly abusive form of security checking used almost exclusively on Sea Org members: the Truth Rundown.
The Truth Rundown is “... the most powerful form of mind control in all of Scientology, and one of its best kept secrets…”: Chris Shelton
Sea Org members are told they are the most important people on the planet, that they are working to save the world. But they are also expected to work ferociously long hours in often brutal conditions, for $50 a week (when they get paid).
Naturally, in those conditions, some members have doubts about that billion-year commitment they signed up for. The Truth Rundown is one of the many techniques designed to convince them that whatever they thought was wrong about Scientology is in fact what is wrong with them.
The Sea Org’s punishment programme, the Rehabilitation Project Force takes care of the physical part of the re-education process. RPF-ers work even longer hours than the Stakhanovite standards of the Sea Org, and in even tougher conditions. They can only speak when spoken too; they have to run everywhere they go.
Increasingly, the Truth Rundown takes care of the psychological assault on those who have fallen foul of the system, said Shelton. “I did the RPF in 2004,” he said. And he, along with just about everybody else on the programme with him, had to do the Truth Rundown.
RPF is like a Maoist reconditioning camp and the TRD is a part of that, said Shelton. Nobody really trusts anyone else because there is a culture of denouncing each other on the slightest pretext.
The first thing the Scientologists running the Truth Rundown do is go through the personal files compiled on each member and find something they said that could possibly be construed as Black PR, says Shelton. Black PR, in Scientology, means something discrediting or damaging. It is something Scientology routinely uses against its enemies.
In this context however, the Scientologists are looking for something the subject said against the movement – say a complaint that staff never get paid. For Scientology, that is Black PR against the movement because it might discourage people to join – and never mind whether it’s true or not, says Shelton.
They sit you down and they confront you, says Shelton. And having found what it is you said they make you go into specifics, using the e-meter to push you to recall the first time you made this complaint.
Then, once they have rolled it back to that first time, they ask the killer question: what did you do just before, what “overt”, what crime did you commit? (An “overt” is Scientology’s term for a harmful act – which so far they are concerned is anything that harms the movement.)
They will ask you over and over again until you come up with something that satisfies you, says Shelton. For their job is not to look at the initial problem that motivated your complaint, he explains. “The idea is that you observed that incorrectly and have actually deluded yourself because of your own transgression,” he says.
The idea is to find out what you did wrong: and not just any old thing.
“You have to find not something petty but a serious overt, something along the line of the black PR that you are spreading,” says Shelton. “So you might have to go round and round on that a few times.”
“The idea is that your ‘overt’ is what you are holding in place to justify the black PR, so you have to admit to stealing the staff pay for example. So you may have to make up an answer to get through this thing.”
By this logic then, if you said something against Scientology, it’s only because you did something against Scientology: you are bad-mouthing the movement to hide your own crimes.
This helps explain why Scientologists often confront their critics by asking them repeatedly “What are your crimes?”
So with the Truth Rundown and other similar processes, such as the False Purpose Rundown, they are not just looking for the transgression but the evil purpose that motivated you.
And it works, says Shelton. “You think it is your fault. You come out thinking that you are bad and it is your fault.”
One of the strongest elements in Scientology thinking said Shelton, was the notion that everything is your responsibility. “Coming out of Scientology I had to get to grips with the idea that things happen in the world that have nothing to do with me,” said Shelton.
And one of the last shreds of Scientology thinking that he eventually shook off was the idea that “...if I get sick it’s because I’ve done something wrong … it took me over a year to get over that,” said Shelton.
Elsewhere, Shelton has described the Truth Rundown as “... the most powerful form of mind control in all of Scientology, and one of its best kept secrets…,” as none of the policy letters describing the procedure have ever been leaked. Yet most ordinary Scientologists are not even aware of its existence. He added:
[I]t depends utterly on the idea that one will make up memories to justify bad thoughts against Scientology or its senior members simply because one is using those false memories to justify evil intentions and black PR against Scientology.
For example, a person receiving the Truth Rundown can end up convincing himself that a beating received by a senior executive was something he actually deserved because of his own wrongdoing and was not because that senior executive is a violent psychotic...
[I]t's a demonstration of manipulating one's memories for the benefit of Scientology and to the detriment of the individual, who is made to think that everything bad that ever happened was somehow his fault alone and that he has to shoulder all the blame.
I'm quite certain this is not an accident. I think the Truth Rundown … was developed specifically as the ultimate enforcement of Hubbard's sick idea of responsibility being that you caused everything bad that ever happened and he caused everything beneficial to you.
Shelton’s talk got a positive response from many of the former Scientologists in the audience, who seemed to recognise the effects he was talking about.
Jon Atack, who has spent decades studying mind control/unethical influence, pointed out that what Shelton had described was the induction of false memories. It was extremely dangerous, he said, because you could end up imagining things and moving them over into memories.
Forcing people to perform this kind of intellectual backflip was called a double bind, something that ran throughout Scientology, he added. “And I never noticed it in all the time I was in Scientology.”
Recently, in an essay over at Tony Ortega’s website, Atack wrote about the paralyzing effect of the contradictions that Hubbard scattered throughout Scientology.
Top illustration: a schematic of the first "electropsychometer", or e-meter, designed by Volney Mathison in 1954. Second illustration, the Mark Super VII Quantum E-meter (creative commons licence, via Wikimedia).
Update for full disclosure: Since I was presenting a paper at the conference and would not have been able to make it over otherwise, the organizers agreed to cover some of my hotel expenses.