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Media Articles - 1990s

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`Der Spiegel' Magazine Profile

What Germans think about their Narconon

October 21, 1991

The enterprising Scientology sect increases its profits thanks to the misery of addicts. The cover organization, Narconon, offers drug rehabilitation therapy that, in the opinion of experts and doctors in the field, is not only useless but also dangerous. Former drug addicts tell of spending five hours a day in the sauna and of brain-washing, including hours of monotonous repetition of meaningless phrases. Many families spend all their savings to cure their drug-addicted offspring but most of Narconon's graduates are no less addicted than when they went in. Former patients claim Narconon is only in it for the money.

Christoph Hubler, 22, from Switzerland slides around on his chair, scratches his thigh then his face. As the minutes pass he becomes increasingly restless. The apprentice metalworker desperately needs a fix. He last injected himself last night now it is already midday and the effect of the heroin has worn off. Christoph jumps up and rushes with long strides toward the bathroom.

He is a depressing sight, particularly for his father. Only a few months ago the Swiss electrician Hansjorg Hubler scraped together the francs needed to pay for therapy for his son. Now he says, It was all a senseless waste.

Christoph spent ten weeks at the picturesque Bavarian Schliersee. At Fiechhauson, 50 kilometers south of Munich, an ominous sounding organization called Narconon runs a home for all addicts midst the rolling pastures. They treat all types of addicts: alcoholics, people dependent on pills, and heroin addicts like Christoph. According to the organization's statute the patients are supposed to learn to lead a life of self-responsibility without their addictive drug.

A noble goal, but the reality looks different. Since Christoph was at the home he is more addicted than ever before. He not only shoots as much as beforethe countless red marks on his arms attest to thatbut he now also regularly throws back large quantities of alcohol. One arrives as a junkie, he says, and leaves as an alcoholic.

What happens in this idyllic location is far from a conventional drug therapy. The Scientologists who have 200,000 followers and turnover of 150 million Deutschemark (about 255 million dollars) a year in Germany alone use unsuitable methods to get people off drugs. The result is usually a new addiction. Instead of cocaine or heroin they provide the drug of the soul - Scientology.

The house set in the foothills of the Alps is one of many such centers run from the headquarters in Los Angeles. In Western Europe they already boast 500 homes in England, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Italy and other countries. And in the Bavarian center the first Russian is being trained. She will take the hardened ideology of Scientology back to her homeland, where alcoholism is widespread and the drug Mafia pursues its trade.

The desperate parents of the drug addicts, who entrust their children to Narconon throughout the world usually have no idea that they have become involved with a front organization of the profit-addicted Scientologists. For the Hublers Narconon was the last, deceitful hope. Christoph says, the Narconon people are addicted themselves, addicted to money.

While Christoph was rolling joints and drinking vodka with his pals at the Schliersee, Narconon employees were putting pressure on his parents. His father had to pay ever-increasing sums of money. In total Mr. Hubler paid over 15,000 DM.

Narconon closely follows the motto of the Scientology sect's founder, Lafayette Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986 at the age of 74. The discoverer of this pseudo-scientific hocus pocus, gave this advice: Make money, make more money, make other people make money.

The disciples at Narconon follow this order. It is officially an independent subsidiary of Scientology. The Scientologists have developed countless supposedly humanitarian initiatives around their church. One example is the commission for the violations of psychiatry against human rights. Another is the organization for the furthering of religious tolerance and interhuman relations.

In fact all these activities, like the drug rehabilitation program, are only to further the fame and increase the paying followers of the sect.

Therapy for addicts is a market with fantastic possibilities. ln former East Germany alone 2 million people are said to be alcoholic. Specialists estimate that about a million people are dependent on pills and over 100,000 take hard drugs. The health insurance spends about 800 million DM every year on the treatment of addicts.

With his sound nose for good business, Hubbard already prescribed his lessons for drug therapy in the mid- sixties. The purification of a novice Scientologist uses rituals like the ones used to treat addicts.

The American founder had a naive belief that the components of the drug are deposited in the lymph of the addict. With a purification rundown these substances are supposed to be washed from the body.

For that the patients, known as students at Narconon, take sweat cures lasting several weeks. They spend nearly five hours a day in the sauna.

Vigilli Venzin, a Swiss drug expert says the method is absolute rubbish and medically questionable. He says a short sauna wouldn't harm the addicts since they are easily cold. But more than two hours a day is far too much, unhealthy. Doctors specializing in the field agree, medically all trash says Klaus Behrendt of Hamburg's General Hospital Ochsenzoll. He runs the detoxification unit of the hospital and says intensive saunas for addicts is medieval.

Two days after the latest shot, heroin is broken down so much that it is no longer detectable. In very unusual exceptions this decomposition process can last a week, says Behrendt.

These days most addicts take several drugs at the same time. They take heroin or cocaine as well as codeine or the sleeping tablet Rohypnol. In those cases the withdrawal is totally unpredictable. Two weeks after the last drug consumption some patients still get cramps and hallucinations.

Experienced drug experts from the Munchen advice center, Con-Drobs attempt such complex detoxification only under constant medical supervision, says Gerhard Eckstein, the administrator of Con-Drobs, otherwise it would be much too risky.

At Narconon they aren't as concerned. The junkie is examined by Narconon's doctor, who lives 15 kilometers away, before starting the treatment, and after that the only doctor who comes is the emergency doctor. And that happens all the more often for the lack of supervision. Time and again one of the students collapses. The sauna is like torture, says Kurt Siegenthaler, 39, "but what comes after is even more dangerous."

Siegenthaler is also Swiss. He is alcoholic and sniffs cocaine. He spent a year at Narconon and survived the psychological suction the Scientologists practice on the drug addict.

After the cleansing ritual for the body follows the purification of the spirit. The first session for beginners consists of standing and staring each other in the eye for hours. After that they partake in a nonsensical dialogue. For example: Question: Do birds fly? Answer: Yes, thanks. Do birds fly? No thanks. Do birds fly? Maybe. The dialogue is repeated for hours.

In an advanced exercise, the patient stands before a blank wall. Organizer: Look at this wall. Answer: Thank you. Go over to the wall. Thank you. Touch the wall. Thank you. Turn around. Thank you. Then on to the next wall. The ritual continues up to eight hours a day.

The monotonous courses go on until the student has an experience of awakening. At some point you just take off, Siegenthaler describes. Christoph Hubler says,They all totally float.

Venzin observed the results of this brain-washing in his patient, 21 year old Susanne. After three months she was absolutely depersonalized. When she came back from the Narconon center she spoke like a computer. She only came out of the trance after two months and promptly relapsed into drug abuse...

Horst Niesel, the 43 year old head of Narconon for Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland claims to have a 50 percent success rate. But the pupils have other memories. Siegenthaler can't remember one client who stayed clean. After a few weeks they were nearly all there again, he says. An alcoholic from Berlin has been back over a dozen times. Most of them just can't do without Narconon.

The logical consequence of the detoxification cure is Scientology. The pupil learns during his endless sessions to give himself unconditionally to his trainer. The rehearsed drills are of no practical worth outside of Scientology. The addict can only make progress within the sect.

Narconon does not strengthen the patient's autonomy, as the propaganda claims, but rather weakens the people who have suffered years of disappointments and the worst despondence as drug addicts.

That is why this kind of therapy results in a new dependency. Narconon only achieves a transferal of addiction, says Axel Siefert of Munich's state drug advisory center, We don't send anyone there. Narconon is cut off from serious doctors and advisers. In the mid-seventies the Berlin branch managed for a while to obtain state drug program funds. But the error was quickly rectified.

The organization moved to Bavaria in 1984, first to Gmund and then to its present location, a former children's home on the Schliefsee. There is room for 40 addicts, but the building is usually only half full. The patient or their families have to come up with the fee of 120 DM a day. The rehabilitation course at Narconon is not covered by any medical insurance.

Narconon still finds people willing to admit themselves because the waiting lists are so long at other centers. Addicts have to wait three to six months to be taken in by Con-Drobs in Munich, and the waiting list in Switzerland for heroin addicts is up to two months. Narconon takes everyone immediately.

The aspiring patient only has to bring along enough money.

Narconon agents regularly do the tour of the fix-scene in search of new clients. The Scientology subsidiary even pays commission for new names and addresses.

Since the rent of the Narconon building is 12,400 DM a month, Mr. Niesel doesn't like to see his victims leave. New arrivals not only give up their identity papers, but also hand over all their cash. That way the patient finds it difficult to leave without permission.

Briska Vogt, 25, and her boyfriend Andreas, 27, who is a heroin addict, only lasted a week at the Schliersee. One Sunday afternoon the couple climbed out of a window and fled, hitching a ride to Munich. They had the police help them get their belongings back. But there was one good thing about the shock experience with Niesel's band. That week was such a nightmare for Andreas that he hasn't touched heroin since. The Narconon experience doesn't strengthen other inmates. Drug therapist Venzin knows of two addicts who have given themselves that final golden shot shortly after leaving Narconon.

Pius Keel, a confirmed Scientologist of 22, ended his stay at the Schliersee tragically. He got himself into deep debt for his community. After some time at Narconon he complained to his mother about the barefaced swindle. Narconon is only about money, he said. On September 14, 1990, after less than two months at Narconon, Pius packed his bags and threw himself under a train.