|Scientologists’ Stress Tests In Jackson Heights Raise Questions
|by Neille Ilel, Western Queens Editor
||February 03, 2005
Palit said she liked “Dianetics” because the techniques in the book
helped her to concentrate. “There are lots of things (in the book) that
help you not to think so much,” she said, noting that thinking too much
is a major cause of stress.
|The E-meter (photo by Michael O’Kane)
Palit discovered L. Ron Hubbard’s tract on
living a healthy life—part self-help, part religion and very much
controversial—in the last few weeks when followers set up a table
offering free “Stress Tests” at the 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue subway
station in Jackson Heights.
flipping through a Bengali version of “Dianetics” several times, she
bought it for herself, and then encouraged others from her women’s
group, Workers Awaaz, to experience the test. On Tuesday she brought a
friend from the group to take the stress test. Her friend subsequently
purchased “Dianetics” in Bengali as well. Palit said the Workers Awaaz
group, made up of South Asian women who often work 50 hours a week as
housekeepers and domestics, could really benefit from the advice in
Commuters passing through the
station, the second-busiest in Queens, have likely noticed about half a
dozen people beckoning riders to sit down at their folding tables and
take a free stress test. Scientologists, who first began offering the
tests in Times Square and Grand Central Station last October, were so
pleased with the response that they started another operation in
Reverend John Carmichael, president of
the Church of Scientology in New York, said that by setting up shop in
Queens, they are reaching out to a community that is a natural fit for
their brand of self-help. “People who are looking for something new and
better are interested in Scientology,” he said. “Immigrant people have
hope, don’t they?”
Critics charge the group is a
cult, and is targeting a vulnerable immigrant population. David
Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon
University in Pittsburgh and a vocal critic of the organization, said
Scientologists have been mired in controversy in the mainstream media,
so targeting limited-English speakers makes sense. “They’re less wired,
less likely to find critical information,” he said. “There’s not a lot
of anti-Scientology information in Bengali.”
the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said if the group is indeed
selling books on MTA property it is breaking the law. Charles Seaton, a
spokesperson for the MTA said religious groups like the Church of
Scientology are allowed to give away literature, but they may not sell
anything in subway stations.
“If they are
selling books,” confirmed Deirdre Parker, a spokesperson for New York
City Transit, “it is a commercial enterprise and that is definitely not
allowed.” She said the agency would look into the group’s activities in
the coming days.
“For New Yorkers, problems are
something to be solved,” Carmichael said, explaining the popularity of
the stress test. He said the test helps people focus on the cause of
stress in their lives so that it can be confronted. When asked if they
were allowed to sell books in the subway stations, Carmichael said the
group has a relationship with the MTA and was not doing anything
against the rules.
In response to claims that he
is preying on vulnerable immigrants, he responded, “I think that’s
really patronizing. The people we’ve met in the immigrant population
are as smart and as wise as anybody.”
test makes use of a device called an “E-meter.” The E-meter consists of
two metal cylinders that a subject holds. The device then measures
“electrical charges associated with thought,” Carmichael explained. The
tester asks the subject to think about people or things that are
important to him or her, and then queries the person about their
thoughts when a high or low reading occurs. “You can actually see a
thought,” Carmichael said.
But many say the
E-meter and its claims are nonsense. “The idea is just to get you
talking,” Touretzky said. “It’s just a way of breaking the ice.” Once
they make you feel comfortable, the representatives try to sell you a
book or a class, he added. He used a barnyard epithet to describe the
device’s scientific validity.
The Food and Drug
Administration was also skeptical of the device’s efficacy, and after a
1971 court case, required that it bear a warning stating it is not to
be used for medical purposes. The judgment read, “It should be noted in
the warning that the device has been condemned by a United States
District Court for misrepresentation and misbranding under the Food and
Drug laws, that use is permitted only as part of religious activity.”
Goodrich, counsel for the FDA called the device, “a couple of juice
cans that you’d hold in your hands, and the sweat would generate this
electrical charge between, and it would show on a little gauge.”
Lowe, another vocal opponent of the church, said “The ‘Stress Test’ is
just another deceptive recruiting practice, with no basis in scientific
fact. The E-meter used is only a crude measurement of the skin’s
electrical resistance, not a high-tech stress-testing instrument. The
operators of the E-meter and the interpreters of its results are not
skilled or trained psychologists, just members of the Church of
Scientology.” She went on to say that the group also has a 200-question
personality test, which just wouldn’t work as well in a public setting.
In the interest of this piece, this reporter sat
down with a tester named Steve and took the stress test at the subway
station last Friday. As I was waiting my turn, he was finishing up with
an Indian man who had just bought “Dianetics” in Bengali. Seated at the
next testing station was an older lady who was being given the test
entirely in Spanish.
When I sat down, Steve, a
middle-aged man with a kind demeanor, sat very close to me and stared
directly into my eyes. He asked me to hold onto the metal cans and to
think about an important person in my life.
I could pick a person to train my thoughts on, he excitedly told me he
was getting a high reading and asked me whom I was thinking about.
Perplexed, I told him I hadn’t settled on someone yet. We tried again
with the same result several times.
difficult to connect the “high readings” on the machine with anything
meaningful going on in my head, and I began to get nervous as Steve
leaned ever closer to me and asked me increasingly more personal
questions. Throughout the session, he pointed out pictures in Dianetics
that could be applicable to my life.
session was finished, he tried to sell me a copy of the book. After
some back-and-forth, I was able to convince him I didn’t have $8 in
cash, which incidentally, was the truth. As I was getting up to leave,
he told me I should consider getting a new hat as the one I was wearing
was less than flattering. Since he had been so empathetic before, I
left with the distinct impression he had turned on me after I refused
to buy the book.
“It’s a matter of taste,”
Carmichael said when I related my experience. Certainly the technique
hits the right note with some people, since the table in the Jackson
Heights subway station is never lacking interested commuters, and in
the few minutes I was there, more than one book was sold. Buyers of the
books were also asked for an address and phone number.
emphasized that the danger was not that a person might pay $8 for a
book, but that they would be sold ever more expensive classes and
eventually be controlled by the church.
be clear,” he said, “they are a cult that maintains a high degree of
control over their members.” They run a lucrative bait and switch
operation, which promises its members ever-higher states of emotional
freedom as long as they pay thousands of dollars for classes. “It’s all
about lying to people,” Touretzky said.
©Queens Chronicle - Western Edition 2005