Though it is 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, the Church of Scientology visitors center I am exploring is bustling with activity. It’s so full of people that I have to serpentine my way around bodies to get to my test-taking station. Still, it is so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
The test-taking stations are spartan, just a row of desks agains the wall, each with a small electronic timer and a jar of #2 pencils. Surrounding these desks are a myriad of sales displays, offering hundreds if not thousands of books and videos by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — any of which, I have been assured by the nice woman at the front desk, would make a great gift. As I said, it’s mid-afternoon on a workday, but all of the test stations are filled will people who, like me, are busy filling out scantron sheets.
The test we are all taking is the Oxford Capacity Analysis™, the proprietary “free personality test” Scientologists use to both rate and entice new members. (If you have ever passed a Scientology Church, you’ve likely seen a sandwich board inviting you to take this test.) When I signed up to take the test an hour prior I asked about the name, and the nice woman at the front desk explained to me that the test was developed by a team of scientists at “the university.”
“The university?” I ask, my eyebrows shooting up despite myself.
“”Oh yes,” she nods enthusiastically, mistaking my incredulous expression with one of confusion. “Oxford is a very famous college in England, you see. It’s filled with the world’s greatest minds. It’s why they chose to make the test for us, because they recognized the brilliance of what L. Ron Hubbard was doing.”
She’s wrong about this, of course. The Oxford Capacity Analysis™ is in no way affiliated with Oxford the university — or, for that matter, Oxford the dictionary, shirt, press, or comma. Nor was it developed by a team of scientists. Indeed, it wasn’t developed by a team at all. It was actually created in 1959 by Ray Kemp, whose credentials outside the Church are vague, and whose sole qualification as best I can tell was that he was a friend of Hubbard.
Not — and I want to be absolutely clear about this — that the nice woman at the front desk is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. She seems to genuinely believe what she tells me, her face beaming with pride. I consider correcting her, but quickly decide against it. Partially because it feels mean-spirited to walk into someone’s place of worship and fact-check them, but mostly because I am trying to keep a low profile. I am writing a feature story for Marie Claire magazine about Shelly Miscavige, the wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige. For years, Shelly has been the source of countless online conspiracy theories surrounding her “disappearance.”1
When I initially reached out to the Church’s public relations officer/press liaison, I got back an email that was comically terrible.2 In response to my request to interview someone of their choosing to get a better understanding of Scientology, I got a snide comment suggesting that if I really wanted to know why I didn’t go find a Church and ask someone there. So I decided to take them up on this bit of advice, and, while I was there, at least begin their recruitment process in an attempt to find out what all the fuss was about. And in the world of Scientology, recruitment begins with the Oxford Capacity Analysis™.
The Oxford Capacity Analysis™ can best be described as a poorly written Myers-Briggs knock-off. Full disclosure here that I tend to reject all such aptitude tests, on the same basis that I reject books that tell you what your dreams mean: A unicorn in one’s dream might well symbolize a phallus to one person, the daring to imagine the impossible to another, and the insipid poetry of girls I dated in my early twenties to me. The Oxford Capacity Analysis™ test is far worse than most of these tests, however, because Ray Kemp’s writing is so shoddy that it’s often difficult to parse what a particular question of his means.
Take this question:
59. Do you consider the modern prisons without bars system ‘doomed to failure’?
Where do I even begin with a question such as this?
For one thing, I have no idea what Kemp meant by “the modern prisons without bars system.” Was Ray Kemp one of those people who believed we coddle criminals? Was he referring to those cushy so-called “white-collar” prisons? Or, alternatively, is he referring to solitary confinement, where you don’t even have bars to look out of? Also, why is “doomed to failure” in quotes? Are the quotation marks meant to infer emphasis? Source material Kemp forgot to notate? Sarcasm? And even if I do decide that, for example, his question refers to coddling criminals and that the quotation marks are in error, how do I answer the question in a way that communicates my feelings on the matter? Responding with a NO might imply that I do not in fact believe prisoners are coddled. Or it might mean that I think they are coddled in a way that is not healthy for society, but as long as the government funds it it will continue into perpetuity — neither ideal nor “doomed.” What, really, does a YES or a NO answer to this question even mean?
The Oxford Capacity Analysis™ has been evaluated by a variety of independent academic institutions. Not surprisingly, all of them have found it to be completely unreliable as a way to measure anything. Still, the Church has full faith in the test, to the point that the test itself has not been edited or changed at all since it was first penned half a century ago.
When I turn my test in, I note my doubts about the reliability of the test to the person collecting my scantron.
“Oh, it’s entirely reliable,” he assures me with a smile. “It’s science.”
“What if I didn’t answer the questions honestly?” I ask.
“It’s so scientific,” he answers, “that it even scores you correctly if you try to give fake answers.” I wait for a wink, a smile, anything to show me that he’s kidding me. But he’s not.
“How could it possibly do that,” I wonder out loud.
“Science,” he says with absolute confidence.
After the Oxford Capacity Analysis™ they ask if I have another fifteen minutes to do a second test, and I tell them I do. The second test is more straightforward. It’s a kind of basic IQ test, and it measures my ability to solve simple logic problems of the cannibal-native-missionary sort. I complete it as best as I can, flag down someone to take it be scored along side me Oxford Capacity Analysis™, and then wander around the visitor center waiting for the results.
Mind you, I’m pretty sure I know what the results are going to be.
Before scheduling my visit, I have been reading up on the Oxford Capacity Analysis™. According to every non-Scientology source I have read, the sole purpose of the test is to make you feel s**ty about yourself. No matter what you answer, I have read, the test results will tell you that you you are a terrible, pathetic, and loathsome creature. And sure enough, at one end of the visitor’s center there is a bank of glass cubicles, where a dozen test-result interpreters are reviewing test results to a dozen glum faces. So I know in advance that a representative is going to tell me in great detail exactly all the ways in which I am terrible, pathetic, and loathsome human being, and then they will offer me a sure fire way to become a better one: Scientology. I answered all the questions as honestly as possible, and as I browse through the countless pieces of L. Ron Hubbard merchandise I find myself wondering in what ways the Oxford Capacity Analysis™ will find me lacking as a person.
“Are you Tod?”
I glance up from the book I am reading3 to find a smiling man. His name tag reads “Henry,”4 and he is impeccably dressed in a perfectly fitted grey, three-piece silk suit accented with an expensive-looking plum tie and matching handkerchief. His wire glasses slightly magnify his sharp blue eyes; his pepper-and-salt hair and beard are both neatly trimmed. He looks more like a handsome television actor playing the part of a successful investment banker than he does the employee of a place of worship. When I acknowledge that I am indeed Tod, he smiles (perfect teeth!) shakes my hand (firm but warm!) and invites me upstairs to his office.
I am slightly worried about this. Everyone else is taken to one of the cubicles in the visitor’s center, while I am being ushered upstairs and out of public view? Is it possible they know I’m here to do research for an article? If so, are they angry? Is Henry an attorney bringing me to someplace quiet to threaten me with lawsuits, the modus operandi of the Church when dealing with anyone that talks about them in public? Part of my brain dismisses this as paranoid. But the other part is running through the entirety of my actions coming here, to make sure I haven’t accidentally crossed some ethical or legal line unawares.
Henry’s office is enormous. Behind his desk are built-in bookshelves filled with hundreds of volumes, the spines of which all sport the name L Ron Hubbard. Rather than sitting behind it, Henry pulls up a chair next to mine, and puts the results of the test on the desk.
I have seen a copy of an example results sheet online, of course. It’s essentially a bar graph, where each bar represents the measurement of a particular aptitude or quality of personality. Midway through the graph is a small darkened area where, if your bar lands, you are deemed pretty good. Scoring above that mid-range point in any one of the areas measured is considered a cause for celebration of your advanced state. Coming in below, of course, indicates to exactly what degree you are a terrible, pathetic, and loathsome creature. As I glance at my results, my first thought is that I must be looking at it upside down. But I’m not. I haven’t been brought upstairs because I have transgressed; I’ve been brought upstairs because I rocked the test.
Somehow, the Oxford Capacity Analysis™ has measured me and found that I am an awesome, advanced, superior human being.
The worst score I get is in the category that scores happiness, but even that is pretty high. Still, it is the one that Henry focuses on as a way to pitch to me what Scientology might have to offer. He notes that even though I must be happier than most people, I must surely struggle with depression from time to time. When I explain I really don’t, he appears perplexed.
We talk for hours, Henry and I, as he attempts to find out where I’m unfulfilled and I try to get a better understanding of his faith. Despite this dance, it’s actually a pleasurable experience. Henry is both kind and intelligent, and generally a terrific human being. He says that he fell into Scientology in his early twenties, after having lived an unhappy hippie lifestyle in search of answers. Scoff if you will, but the Church and its teachings seem to have had both a profound and a positive effect on Henry’s life. He’s grounded now, he says, and more stable with a wife he loves and three beautiful, amazing children. Better, he says his job is to take people who are where he used to be, and try to get them to be where he is today. There is no question in my mind that everything Henry believes about Scientology is bunk. But there is also no question that, for whatever reason, that bunk has been as transformative to him as my parent’s coming to Christ was for them.
By the time we are finished, the visitor’s center is closed, and so he takes me down to unlock the doors and let me out. We shake hands, thank one another for our time, and go back to our perspective universes.
For the next several weeks, whenever my wife and I have a disagreement about anything, I bring up my Oxford Capacity Analysis™ results.
“Sure,” I say repeatedly, “we could do it your way. Or we could go the way that the one of us who has been proven to be an advanced and superior human being thinks we should go. Which sounds more logical to you?” Whenever I use this argument, she just shakes her head and rolls her eyes, ignoring the obvious.
She just doesn’t understand science.
Image credit: Church of Scientology building, via Wikipedia.
- I should probably note that despite all of these online conspiracy theories, Shelly Miscavige is not in fact missing. In 2013 King of Queens actress Leah Remini filed a missing person’s report on Shelly. The LAPD promptly met with Shelly, and called reports of her disappearance “unfounded.” The story of where she is and what she is likely doing with her life is rather complicated, so I will punt on all of that for this post. [↩]
- Seriously. It was a textbook example of everything your organization should never, ever do from a public relations standpoint when talking to the press. It was weirdly hostile, brazenly condescending, and it answered exactly zero of my questions, opting instead to answer questions I hadn’t asked and didn’t care about. In response to my assurances that I did not want to treat a story on one of their members as celebrity tell-all gossip, for example, the liaison officer gave me half a page of celebrity tell-all gossip for me to use. Collectively, all of their communication with me was so bad that I actually found myself wondering if the Church actually wants bad press. [↩]
- Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science, if you’re interested. [↩]
- Actually it doesn’t, because that’s not his real name. But we’ll call him Henry here. [↩]