As a teenager, Maureen Bolstad hoped Scientology would help her treat her sick mother: very soon though, she witnessed the disturbing effects of its therapy.
Maureen Bolstad was only 11 in 1977 when she was first introduced to Dianetics.
Her mentor was the man her mother was seeing, Bill Ward. “He moved in and he had a bunch of books,” she recalled.
One day, she said, she was bragging to him about how she had a genius IQ and had been put in a special class for mentally gifted kids. If you think you’re so smart, he replied, try to read this book.
“He handed me the hardback Dianetics book and he said, ‘You’re probably just going to fall asleep after the first three pages.And I said, I’m smart, I can read this."
“Of course I did fall asleep after the first three pages because it is not that easy to read … I was stumped and I thought ‘Wow, I guess I’m not as smart as I thought I was.’”
Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health, L. Ron Hubbard’s first venture into the self-help field, was a bestseller when it was first published in 1950, despite being dismissed by scientists and mental health professionals.
Bolstad started to do some of Hubbard’s training routines with her new step-father. In one exercise, known as bull-baiting, one person has to try to provoke a response from their training partner, while the other tries not to react.
“I remember the bull-baiting part because he had dentures and I would get to where I could pretty much keep my cool and then he would pop his dentures out of his mouth – and I couldn’t deal with that.”
Ward told her that there were Scientology centres available where she could do more advanced courses. “But he wanted to work with me on it himself because he thought if I went into a church they would just try to get my money.”
Bolstad’s mother had serious mental health problems. “She heard voices and she tried to kill herself seven times,” she said. “You know every kid wants to help her Mom… and he said it would help my Mom if I learned these things.”
But her new mentor died of a heart attack, leaving her with no one to teach her. So when a Scientology personality test came through her mail box, she filled it in and went along to the local centre – the Steven’s Creek mission in Santa Clara, California – to get the results.
Scientology’s personality test is a list of 200 seemingly innocuous questions: Are you a slow eater? Can you be a stabilizing influence when others get panicky?
The movement says it provides a scientific summary of your strengths and weaknesses: expert witnesses in government reports and court judgements have repeatedly dismissed it as worthless.
But when the Scientologists at Steven’s Creek told her she had problems, it made sense to her. “They showed me my test results and said that I was sad and I guess I was kind of sad.”
With the money she had saved up from her newspaper rounds, she paid for a communication course – and since she needed a training partner, she paid for her little brother too. This was 1979, so she was 13 at the time; her brother was 11.
Early on however, she had a disturbing experience while practising auditing – the movement’s version of therapy – on her brother.
Using Dianetics techniques, she had got him to go back to memories from before his birth. (Hubbard claimed that people could remember not just pre-birth memories, but previous lives as well.)
“I got him actually to remember something when he was in the womb,” Bolstad recalled. “He was like floating around and hearing stuff.” But he did not seem to be getting any benefit from the experience.
Following her training, she asked him to describe an earlier incident – at which point he began recounting what sounded like something out of the Holocaust: scenes of torture and of bodies being bulldozed into a ditch, some of the victims still alive.
“I was absolutely shocked,” said Bolstad. Her brother too was in great distress and became increasingly agitated. “At one point he actually opened his eyes and started screaming ‘I don’t know where I am! I don’t know what’s going on!’” His eyes were bloodshot, she recalled.
“I got really upset because I thought, am I hurting my little brother?” Their supervisor came over and managed to calm her brother down, and when he came out of the session he had no recollection of the episode.
That was his first experience of auditing.
Bolstad was consumed with self-doubt. “I thought ‘How can you deal with extreme trauma in an individual and not know what you are doing?’ It seemed kinda odd to me. So they said ‘Yeah … you need to get more training so you know how to deal with this because your brother is a really tough case.’
“My brother? He was about 12. How can he be a tough case?”
Bolstad had put her finger on one of the main charges that critics of Scientology level at the movement.
A report by Kevin Anderson QC for the State of Victoria, Australia, in 1965 described it as “the world's largest organization of unqualified persons engaged in the practice of dangerous techniques which masquerade as mental therapy.”
At the time however, Bolstad was just a teenager. She allowed herself to be reassured by her new mentors, and because she could not afford to buy more courses, she and her brother agreed to work at the centre in return for more training.
“I never actually ended up getting any training – I ended up just working my butt off for them for like 18 years.”
Bolstad earned about $20 a week working at the centre after school and weekends (she was making more than twice that – $45 – from her three paper routes). But one of the reasons she persisted was she still hoped to be able to help her mother.
There were still things she noticed that made her uneasy, however.
“There was this thing called the posse back then.” The posse was a group of four or five people who would watch the room at any Scientology events to check for anyone there who didn’t appear sufficiently enthusiastic, she said.
“If they seemed kind of sad or if they left early or whatever, they wrote their name down and then later, three posse members or even maybe four would take that person in to a room and say ‘Okay we noticed you had some bad indicators at the last event, what’s going on? Tell us what’s going on with you?’ and interrogate them.
“It didn’t really mean anything to me when I was a kid, but then it happened to my brother – my little brother who was only 13 years old and the posse took him into a room and were asking him these introverting questions…”
Her bosses had invited her along because they wanted her to try her out for the posse. But she knew why her little brother was depressed: their mother was mentally ill and he was not doing well at school. “I mean he is not going to be like, smiling all the time...
“They just pummelled him with questions … ‘So what’s going on? Is there something you are doing in your life that’s wrong?’ … and my little brother just broke down and started crying. He was like shaking he was so scared.
“That was really mean. I didn’t know what to think or feel: I thought ‘This doesn’t make any sense to me.’”
Years later, when they talked about it together, her brother told her that his problems at school had been directly related to his work at the Scientology centre. "The work there took up so much of his time that he was missing classes due to lack of sleep," said Bolstad.
Kingsley Wimbush, the head of the mission at the time, was subsequently expelled from the movement during a purge of Scientology mission-holders, accused of unorthodox practices.
But Bolstad says that what went on in the posse was similar to what she subsequently witnessed inside the Sea Org.
In 1982, she heard about how Wimbush and a senior colleague, Clay Primrose, had been cast out of the movement. Scientology’s leadership had declared both men suppressive persons: enemies of Scientology and of humanity in general.
“I really didn’t know what it meant to be declared until I saw Clay and his daughter walking to the mall.” She offered them a ride down and then back again, later. But when she mentioned it to her boss at the mission, she was horrified.
“She said ‘They are suppressive! You are not supposed to talk to them any more,’ and I was like, ‘What? I’m not? I mean they’re people!’ and she said ‘No, you are not allowed – you can get declared for that too.’”
Her boss showed her the relevant entries in the Scientology literature.
Sure enough, in Introduction to Scientology Ethics, Hubbard lists the following as a suppressive act – one of the worst things a Scientologist can do: “Failure to handle or disavow and disconnect from a person demonstrably guilty of suppressive acts.”
Hubbard wrote in the same chapter: “A truly suppressive person or group has no rights of any kind as Scientologists.”
In 1982, soon after the expulsions, the Sea Organization recruiters showed up. One of them showed Bolstad photos of Scientology’s base at Clearwater in Florida, known as Flag Land Base.
When he pressed her to sign up for the Sea Org she explained that she wanted to finish high school: not a problem, he replied.
“He basically said if you join the Sea Organization we will help you finish high school, we will help you get an education and go to film school – that’s what I really wanted…” said Bolstad.
He also promised her three weeks a year to visit her mother and full-time Scientology training so she could improve her counselling skills. “I thought ‘Oh wow, great!’ Because I felt that I had messed up on my little brother and I still wanted to remedy that.”
None of those promises were ever honoured, she said.