Lawrence Wollersheim of Golden looks like a normal person. He's someone who could blend innocuously into the background. He doesn't look like a heretic, a crusader against evil or someone bent on causing the downfall of a religion. But depending on who you talk to, he's been called all three.
There is a war raging between Wollersheim and the Church of Scientology that has been going on for a 15 years. According to him, he is simply a librarian whose mission is to educate the public on the destructive cults of the world, primarily Scientology, a group he was a member of for 11 years.
In the time he was actively involved with the religion, he claims to have wasted more than $150,000, been the victim of coercive mind control, witness to and participant in covert smear campaigns against agencies such as the American Medical Association and privy to secret cult intelligence information reserved for only the highest-level members of the religion. Listening to Wollersheim speak of his experience with Scientology is like hearing someone describe a bad dream from which he is unsure whether or not he has awakened.
The Church of Scientology paints quite a different picture of the situation. According to Deb Danos, the director of the church's Office of Special Affairs, which is based in Denver, Wollersheim is a loose cannon, an ex- member with "an ax to grind," who is on a one-man crusade to bring about the destruction of a religion in which he has committed crimes of ethics. She feels that he is out to make a name, and a profit, for himself as a "superstar in the underworld" by going down in history as the man who brought down Scientology.
Wollersheim operates the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network, or FACTNet (303-530-1942), a non-profit computer bulletin board service, based in Boulder, that posts information on cults, primarily Scientology. He is quick to refute the theory that he is out to profit from the church and the postings on the bulletin board, stating that since he left Scientology, he has made about $15,000 as an expert on the organization.
"I drive a '85 Dodge Omni with a front end so damaged I can't afford to fix it," he says. "Who's making money?"
He is equally quick to oppose the disbanding of the religion.
"When you destroy a cult or a secret society, it fragments into 50 little ones which are difficult to control and regulate. If anything, we want to keep Scientology in one nice little grouping so that we can watch what they do and warn people. Fifty little Scientologies are far worse for cult victims than a huge monolith." The Church of Scientology claims 8 million members worldwide; Wollersheim says it's more like a half million.
"Number two, you cannot destroy evil. Scientology is core evil; its philosophy is core evil. Not its people, its people are like me, basically good people looking for ecology, or world change, or spirituality, but the philosophy is core evil."
The church regards almost all of the information that is posted on FACTNet as false and fictitious, bordering on religious persecution. Wollersheim has offered to post any reply the church may have to anything on the board under an adjacent menu item, an offer which only one Scientologist has taken him up on and of which Danos says she was unaware.
Wollersheim also invites the church to pursue litigation against him if it feels that what is posted on the bulletin boards is libelous or false in any way. Danos has indicated that church leaders intend to.
That Scientology is an official religion is indisputable. The Internal Revenue Service declared the church an organized religion in 1993 by granting it tax- exempt status, ending decades of debate and litigation that has dragged the name of Scientology and its founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard, through the scandal mill more than once.
The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954, four years after the publication of the book Dianetics; the Modern Science of Mental Health , by L. Ron Hubbard, upon whose prolific writings and tape recorded lectures the teachings of Scientology are based.
On the surface, these teachings are not much different than what one might expect to find in a spiritually diverse city such as Boulder. The basic beliefs are that humans are made up of three elements: the body, the mind and the thetan, which is the actual individual. Hence, one is a thetan who has a body and a mind. According to the church, the thetan is immortal and has already lived a multitude of past lives. The thetan is held back from realizing his or her immortal potential due to the presence of negative thoughts and associations called engrams that reside in the "reactive brain," what is commonly referred to outside the religion as the subconscious. Only after the engrams of all the thetan's past lives have been erased from the reactive mind will he/she then achieve a self-aware state called "clear," and therefore set the stage for further upper- level teachings.
Scientology claims to provide the only accurate process for eliminating engrams: "auditing," a service the "parishioners," or members, are required to pay up to $1,000 an hour. After a successful audit, one can "go clear" and become an Operating Thetan, or OT.
During auditing, an auditor asks a specific series of questions designed to draw attention to certain areas of the person's psyche that need cleansing. Individuals are attached an "E-meter," a negative-energy measuring device.
The lower levels of enlightenment are easily accessible to the public, providing, of course, that a prospective parishioner has the money to attain the knowledge. What comes later, after extensive auditing and the attainment of higher and costlier OT training are stranger ideas, according to Wollersheim. It is rumored that once one begins OTIII education (the third level out of eight, after one has gone clear), he or she is taught that thetans are actually aliens who were banished long ago to the earth by an intergalactic ruler named Xenu. The true aim of Scientology, says Wollersheim, is to reveal this alien nature to the subject to prepare him for an intergalactic war that will take place in the future.
"This is how insane this gets," he says. "But you have to move into their cosmology. They believe we're an alien force reincarnate on Earth to take over the planet to go back and fight the galactic war. It makes sense, you know, in that mindset. But as you and I sit and I'm eating my bagel, it makes me look like a fucking lunatic."
Robert Anderson went clear in 1976 and has attained the level of OT IV. He is the president of the Dianetics Center in Boulder, a Scientology mission where those interested can get audited, purchase life courses, etc., located across the Pearl Street Mall from the courthouse. He says he has never encountered any teachings about Xenu in Scientology, did not know about an intergalactic war being waged, nor about any banishment of alien races to the earth. Danos says the upper teachings of Scientology are kept secret because it is impossible for someone who has not been through all the consecutive levels to see them in their relationship to the whole body of Scientology. Without that context, "There is the possibility that it can be upsetting."
"Jessica," an ex-Scientologist who was an auditor, administered thousands of hours of auditing during her 20 years in Scientology's equivalent of the priesthood, the Sea Organization. The Boulder resident feels there is another reason the information is kept under tight wraps.
"There's a lot of stuff that's secret when you first walk in ... and it's secret for a good reason," she says. "It doesn't make any sense."
By the time a parishioner gets to the "sci-fi stuff," which is how she describes Wollersheim's description of the teachings about aliens and Xenu, the Scientologist is so hooked on everything that he or she has been told up until that point that believing what is presented is not as big a stretch as it may seem.
"It's a real exciting thing, you know? It's like being told that you, as a member of the human race, you and everyone around you, we've all been through this sort of combination of a cops and robbers shoot-out and some kind of weird Saturday morning space cartoon," she says. "There's a sort of a thrill about it and partly because of the way it is presented. It's presented to be secretive; it's presented to draw you in to give you the idea that you're only being allowed to see this because you've already done these other things. It's a little bit like The Emperor Has No Clothes ; just no one pops that bubble, no one says that the emperor has no clothes."
What Wollersheim thinks is more immediately sinister to the well-being of the members of the church than the pending space war is what he calls the Fourth Reich, a secret intelligence operation that he believes is at the core of the religion and operating in a frighteningly similar way to Germany's wartime Nazi party.
"The Scientology techniques are basically based on covert hypnosis," he says. As the involvement with the religion gets farther along, he explained, the members get more suggestible and less resistive to these subtle hypnotic techniques. "The reality of the organization overrides and negates your own personal truths. This is what's most dangerous because their system manufactures individuals who don't operate truly on individual decisions. It's a very dangerous organization because it manufactures zealots and fanatics."
One of the more frightening organizations of the religion is the dreaded Rehabilitation Project Force, or as he commonly refers to it, the "American gulag," which works as detention for the Sea Organization.
It was designed, according to church literature, for Sea Org members who have committed "serious and/or continuous ecclesiastical violations" and are sent to the RPF for intensive counseling and rehabilitation.
Those in the Sea Organization do nothing but eat, sleep and breathe Scientology. The church has fleets of ships on oceans where members who have signed billion-year contracts with the church devote their lives to studying Scientology.
Wollersheim feels the purpose of RPF is to strip Sea Org members with a dissenting opinion of his/her identity. Jessica recalls the RPF on the Flagship Apollo, the ship that Hubbard lived on at times, as being constantly malnourished as a form of punishment.
Anderson, of the Dianetics Center, thinks the entire line of thinking qualifies as "absurdity."
"Do I look like a neo-Nazi satanic cult member?" he asks.
He is quick to assure that if he were to ever find out about any of the things that Wollersheim says happen as a matter of course, he and other Scientologists would "raise a ruckus."
Danos and Anderson maintain that the idea of mind control is unfounded and "ludicrous," that there is no way that any suggestive thoughts could be implanted through auditing. Auditing, they say, does not cause psychosis, it prevents it.
Despite the various accusations and denials, there is no avoiding the foul light that often shines on Scientology's scandalous past, in particular the writings of several policies of the church by Hubbard himself.
The infamous Fair Game Policy, which was repealed by the church in 1968, but according to Wollersheim, is still very much in effect, states that an enemy of the church, "may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline to the Scientologist ... (the enemy) may be tricked, sued, lied to, or destroyed."
Scientology has always been seen as a litigious organization, going back to Hubbard's writings.
In 1955, Hubbard wrote in A Manual on the Dissemination of Material , "The purpose of a lawsuit is to harass and discourage rather than to win. Don't ever defend. Always attack. Find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace. ... The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his professional demise. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly."
Both Anderson and Danos agree that there were problems in the past with a few renegades within the organization's Guardian's Office, the headquarters branch of the church that dealt with "external affairs," who took the policies of Hubbard too far. Those instances, she says, were dealt with, and the Guardian's Office was disbanded in the early 1980s due to the scandalous activity of a minority of members. In its place is the Office of Special Affairs which deals with legal aspects of the church, community outreach and public relations, according to the church's literature.
Wollersheim has heard the "renegade" response before.
"There were no renegades," he says. "Renegades were sent to the RPF."
"Yvonne" is an alcoholic who credits Scientology for putting her back in charge of her life. The Broomfield resident has spent $8,000 in the six years she has been in the church for auditing, life courses and the Purification Rundown, a rigorous detoxification of the body's fat cells through a regimen of exercise and nutrition that is administered at the Dianetics Center.
She says the experience has been worth every dime.
"For the first time, I read what I already knew," she says. "I was validated. My life is here as a result of Scientology."
Danos and Anderson point to people like Yvonne as examples of the type of focus and direction Scientology can provide in people's lives.
"We're not doing anything to anybody but helping," she says. "And that's the truth."
The good thing about the Dianetics methodology, Danos says, is that people actually see the results of their work firsthand and can tell immediately if something happens. She says that if a parishioner is unhappy with the results of a course or an auditing session, the money is refunded.
"We operate by hard fact, not philosophies. Our job is to make people better in life," says Anderson. "I don't want people here who don't want to get better. If someone doesn't want to be here, don't come. That door swings both ways."
Yvonne is still a "preclear," receiving auditing for the eventual attainment of "clear" and later, the OT levels. She feels that Scientology can help her handle any problem in life and enable her to achieve any goal she sets her sights on. Before Scientology, she was mired in an abusive relationship, struggled with alcoholism and was having difficulty at work. Now, she says Scientology has allowed her "to move forward." She is out of the old relationship, starting to control her drinking and has changed careers for the better.
Wollersheim is unimpressed with such testimony. He says the only thing the mission sold Yvonne was some common sense. According to him and other ex- Scientologists, there are benefits to the outer levels of Scientology. But he also feels that they are designed to draw preclears like Yvonne into a deeper level of commitment to the church, a commitment they say becomes more and more difficult to break.
Jessica joined the religion at the age of 17 and signed a billion-year contract with the Sea Org when she was 21 to prove that her devotion to the religion was as immortal as she was.
While she waited to turn the requisite age of 21 to sign the contract, she followed what she called the "professional route," becoming an auditor in order to receive price breaks on auditing and courses for herself, but not before borrowing money from her brothers' inheritances to get started. She was one of four siblings in Scientology and she says she embraced it wholeheartedly.
"I was so committed, I was so intensely positive that Scientology contained the answers to human suffering," she says.
Being a professional auditor, Jessica saw the results of the applied technology firsthand, and it was witnessing these "miraculous shifts in people's awareness and consciousness" that made her believe all the more in what she was doing.
"We believed because of these sort of periodic little explosions of exciting cognition and thoughts and insights," she says. "We really thought that we were having honest changes."
Things began to look less rosy for Jessica while she was involved in auditing mothers whose children were in a Scientology nursery, a memory that causes her to shudder visibly.
"Nurseries in Scientology are like something that Charles Dickens never conceived of," she says. "They make Oliver Twist's life look fairly routine."
She says the children were "herded together" in a small space and assigned a nanny that she says was unfit for any other position on the staff.
"The kids were in the care of people who were inattentive, careless, uncaring," she says. "This kind of thing could have happened anywhere. It does happen everywhere."
It was then she realized that motherhood rivaled her devotion to Hubbard. She promised herself that she would never allow a child of hers to be put into a nursery.
Years later, when she discovered she was pregnant, she and her husband moved to Denver to open the Scientology Organization, the main Scientology center in Denver, and hence avoid the nurseries.
(Danos says she ran a Scientology nursery and there were no problems and that the children were happy.)
But things somehow went awry, and Jessica and her husband found themselves on a Scientology list for RPF rehabilitation three years after living in Denver. She cannot recall all of the charges against them, but does remember enough to call them a "bunch of trumped-up bullshit." One of the charges was "placing Scientology and Scientologists at risk," something she says was common to a lot of people who found themselves on a black list and could mean any number of things. She says she can't remember specifically why she would have been placed on the list.
The family moved to a Sea Org land base in Clearwater, Fla., where she and her husband were put on a rigorous work and study schedule. Her daughter was required to go into the nursery that she vowed she would never send her to. The changes Jessica noticed in her daughter were immediate.
Their stay in Florida did not last long.
"We blew. We escaped in the middle of the night," she says. "It was clandestine, it was furtive."
She considers her departure from the religion an escape in the truest sense of the term. Under cover of night, the family made its way to the car, which was parked on an upper level of a parking garage. With the engine silent and the lights off, they rolled the car down the ramp so as not to awaken members of the RPF who were sleeping in the garage.
Jessica has long since been declared a "suppressive person," or SP, an individual who, according to the church, "works to upset, continuously undermine, spread bad news and denigrate other people and their activities. ... The fact is they oppose anyone doing better in life."
The label would not bother her except for the fact that two of her siblings are still in Scientology and it is generally not considered good for a Scientologist to be in contact with the SP. Her siblings went one step further and issued her letters of disconnection along with a Scientology policy letter on ethics with the areas highlighted they felt pertained to her. Disconnecting, according to the church, is simply a matter of a Scientologist exercising one of "the most fundamental rights of man," deciding not to communicate with a particular person.
Jessica's sister also issued a letter of disconnection to her own 20-year-old son, Jessica's nephew, when she found out that he was visiting an SP behind his mother's back.
When Wollersheim finally followed a girlfriend's advice and left the religion, he was confronted in a restaurant by someone Wollersheim says was an agent of the intelligence office.
"He came up to me and he said, 'I want you to remember this. Never, ever tell a priest, a psychiatrist, a doctor or anyone ever what's happened to you in Scientology.' That was the last official words of the Church of Scientology to me.
"I guess I didn't comply."