[Paleopsych] NYT: (Scientology) Finding Stress, and Some Friction

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Finding Stress, and Some Friction
March 29, 2005


    A corridor of the Times Square subway station may not seem to be the
    ideal spot to conduct a carefully controlled psychological experiment.

    For one thing, the soundproofing is entirely inadequate. The
    confluence of a dozen subway lines creates constantly shifting sonic
    interference, ranging from mild to deafening, that an overlay of
    Peruvian panpipe ensembles serves to heighten rather than mask.
    Moreover, the place is often in a state of open field pedestrian
    stampede that would daunt a star high school halfback.

    But there, at the underground crossroads of the world, an army of
    people who call themselves testers had set up the tools of their
    trade: a pair of hollow metal bars hooked to a simple electrical
    meter, and stacks of a paperback book.

    They were volunteers from the Church of Scientology, and for the last
    six months, they had been stationed at red-clothed tables in Times
    Square and several other subway hubs, measuring the baseline stress
    levels in the brains of all passers-by willing to sit still for a
    minute and hold the metal bars.

    In addition to using their "e-meters" to compute the electrical
    resistance caused by traumatic thoughts, the Scientologists offered,
    for a "suggested donation" of $8, copies of their textbook,
    "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health."

    Last night, however, the Scientologists experienced a high-stress
    event themselves. Plainclothes detectives determined that the books
    were being sold, not given in exchange for donations, in violation of
    New York City Transit rules against unlicensed vending, said Paul J.
    Browne, the deputy commissioner for public information for the Police

    The detectives issued six people $50 summonses and ejected them from
    the Times Square station, Mr. Browne said.

    "There had been an agreement that they could stay there as long as
    they did not get in people's way, and did not sell the material," Mr.
    Browne said. "They did not live up to the agreement."

    Until yesterday, the Scientologists' claim that they were soliciting
    donations, not selling books, had been buttressed in practice by the
    legions of police officers who had left them alone.

    "In no way is it a commercial operation," said the Rev. John
    Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology of New York.

    "We've helped so many people here," Peter Davis, a 20-year-old
    volunteer from Louisiana, said yesterday afternoon, a few hours before
    the evictions. Mr. Davis, who like many of his colleagues wore a
    bright red parka emblazoned with "Get it. Read it. Dianetics," said
    that distractions like the ecstatic-looking woman playing a musical
    saw 20 feet away did not contaminate the results of the stress test.
    "What we're testing," he said, "is what's going on inside the guy's

    To be sure, most straphangers who raced by the table in recent days
    did not even glance over. But several curious people who did stop to
    take the free stress test did not seem bothered by the book pitch.

    Indra Seurattan, a customs broker visiting New York from Trinidad and
    Tobago, sat down opposite a volunteer named Kiersten, who asked her to
    hold the metal bars and focus on something that was troubling her. Ms.
    Seurattan, 42, thought about her job, which has become so demanding
    that she has not had a good night's sleep for more than a year.

    The needle on the e-meter slammed to the right. The diagnosis:
    definitely stressed. Kiersten explained that Dianetics could help her
    tackle all her problems.

    Ms. Seurattan was impressed. "I told her: 'I'm waiting on my friend
    and I don't have enough money. Maybe if I did I'd buy the book.' "

    A 17-year-old who gave his name only as Brandon told his tester about
    a quandary involving competing offers from two potential girlfriends.

    "She said, 'It's understandable that you might be stressed out,' "
    Brandon said.

    Brandon, too, said that if he had any money, "I would have bought the
    book. It seemed like it could help."

    Scientology, founded 50 years ago by the science-fiction writer L. Ron
    Hubbard, who died in 1986, claims to be one of the world's
    fastest-growing religions despite accusations that it is a controlling
    cult. Its many evangelical adherents include Hollywood luminaries like
    Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart

    Dianetics, the discipline underlying Scientology, posits that if
    people identify the unconscious thoughts and associations that are
    upsetting them, they can defuse them.

    Mr. Carmichael said that during the course of the subway campaign, the
    Scientology tables had become "part of Times Square, and part of New

    In fact, one of the posters sold last year to commemorate the 100th
    anniversary of the subway system was a cartoon of Times Square with
    many references to Scientology, including the stress-test table.

    A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent
    agency of New York City Transit, told The Daily News last October that
    the poster simply depicted "the actuality of Times Square and what is
    going on here."

    But New York City Transit appeared to have decided that what is going
    on is a violation of its rules.

    On March 11, the agency's lawyers wrote a letter advising Mr.
    Carmichael that while its rules allowed "solicitation for religious or
    political causes," solicitation was different from selling, which is
    not allowed without the authority's permission.

    Mr. Carmichael said that the $8 donation was not a requirement.
    Indeed, a sign sometimes displayed on the table near the books says
    "suggested donation: $8."

    But when a reporter presenting himself as a stressed-out New Yorker
    took the test and suggested a donation of considerably less than $8
    for the book, the tester, a young man in a striped tie, balked.

    "It's a fixed donation," the man said. "The money is just to recover
    the cost of producing the books."

    A saleswoman at a major paperback-book printer in the Midwest, who
    asked that her firm not be identified, provided an estimate for a book
    with similar specifications to "Dianetics," which has 700 pages, a
    black-and-white photo insert and a four-color cover. The price: $1.58
    per copy for 50,000 copies, not including. distribution and delivery.
    The church says it has published more than 20 million copies of the

    Charles F. Seaton, director of public affairs at New York City
    Transit, expressed puzzlement at the church's book distribution

    "A fixed donation," he said slowly. "Yeah, right."

    Shortly after the reporter asked the police about paying for the book,
    the detectives made their visit to the testers, Mr. Browne said.

    Mr. Carmichael said last night that he was talking with the police,
    and said that the Scientologists were protected by the United States
    Constitution. Mr. Davis, the tester in the red parka, said that in any
    case, moving copies of "Dianetics" was not the church's primary

    "Even if the guy doesn't buy a book, we've gotten him to take a look
    at his life and see what's troubling him," Mr. Davis said. "That's a
    service in itself. "We've had guys sit down who are thinking of
    committing suicide. I've had people who killed other people. Just by
    doing the stress test they realize, 'Hey, this is something I need to
    handle.' "

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