No Longer At Sea: Kate Bornstein Talks Scientology

Kate Bornstein is a trans activist and writer who first gained notoriety with the 1995 release of Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. Now a staple in college courses, that book remains controversial for questioning the male and female gender binary. 

Always forthcoming, Bornstein has nonetheless avoided writing, until now, about one period of her life: the twelve years she spent as a staff member in the Church of Scientology. Recently, I caught up with Bornstein to discuss her new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger.

You say you wrote this book for your daughter—what do you mean by that?

My daughter, my ex-wife and my grandkids are all members of the institutionalized Church of Scientology. By canonical law, they’re not allowed to talk with me because I am “evil.”

My daughter was born into the Church of Scientology in the early 1970s. I left in 1981 when she was nine. And you know, I needed to leave. It was the end of twelve years, and I had to get the fuck out of there. I’ll be saying “fuck” here—you can change it if you have to! [That’s OK, carry on. -Eds.] Anyway, I figured, I’m 64 years old. I won’t be around much longer. If she ever wonders what happened, I want it there for her.

Do I hold out hope that she will read it? Not really. Do I hold out hope that her kids will? Maybe, but then they were also born into Scientology.

And yet, you write so frankly about sex in this book—

I doubt my daughter will ever read it, but if I really want to give a picture of myself to my her, it must include the sex. Also, I am really sick and tired of puritanical fucking America. There is a presumption that a parent can’t talk freely with a child about sex—or playfully, or frankly. I want to break that mold. I know it will be hard for them to read. In particular, I really struggled with how to present the sado-masochism, but I think I made it playful enough for them to deal with.

Also, when I wrote my last book, Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws, I knew my audience consisted of people who were suicidal or nearly so. That audience stayed with me, and I knew I couldn’t pull any punches with them. These are kids whom I consider my children, and they consider me their “auntie.” 

If they picked up a book, and they saw there was no sex in it or that I’d soft-pedaled the sex, it would be a betrayal.

When I spoke with Janet Reitman about her book, Inside Scientology, she suggested that excommunication—along with the designation of “Suppressive Person”occurs when ex-members create negative publicity for the Church. Why do you think the Church was so quick to “disconnect” (as Scientologists put it) from you?

Because I was a high-ranking Sea Org member at the time, there was no other reason for me to leave other than being a Suppressive Person. I wasn’t kicked out. I was offered a choice between leaving and spending a couple of years incarcerated on a ship as punishment. I said no, and I left.

You refer in the book to some tenets and practices of Scientology, like silent birthing rites, that you still find useful or insightful. Could you say more about that?

I don’t really buy into what they call “engrams”—that is, the idea that bad images are recorded in your unconscious memory from birth. But the quiet birth just makes sense. If someone is in pain, they don’t need to hear anything except “I love you.”

Now, the Scientology birthing ritual that Tom Cruise makes his wives follow is very by the book. We didn’t do that. We just said, “Please be quiet out of respect.” We didn’t explain unconscious recordings in mental image pictures. Fuck, who needs that?

In Scientology, I also got used to people saying “thank you” when I spoke. I still like it when people acknowledge me when I’ve said something. I spent twelve years with people who did that, and it became a nice part of communicating with people. I think it’s polite and facilitates communication when you acknowledge another person. Scientologists do it compulsively just like they stare into each other’s eyes when they talk. I’ve been able to find a resting point for that, but I like the acknowledgement.

The biggest thing I took from Scientology—which I actually had before Scientology from Zen Buddhism and the writings of the Essene Jews—is simply the idea that the body is the temple of the spirit. How do you otherwise reconcile this crazy notion of bodies and spirituality? Except with the notion that the spirit is using the body to have fun and get around in the world.

And on top of that, the spirit has no gender!

I also think the “emotional tone scale” is useful, but only if you use it really carefully because it can be really manipulative and dangerous.

You write that you realized the tone scale was a great way to recruit people.

I was temporarily assigned to the post of Director of Promotion. At the time, I didn’t have anything to promote, so I just read books by [Hubbard]—these were the only books I was really allowed to read.

The man was obsessive about details, so he detailed this numeric tone scale, and I studied that. Lord knows where he got the numbers from, but 1.0 on the tone scale is fear, 1.1 is covert hostility, which is the tone level of all Suppressive Persons. 1.5 is anger.

He said all you have to do to bring someone “uptone”—or put them in a better mood—was to speak half a tone to a full tone above the other person. Any higher, they won’t listen to you. Any lower, they’ll be really bummed out. And I thought, “We can use that in advertising.”

But then you say that Hubbard co-opted your idea in ways that became abusive.

Well, he twisted it to use with staff whose statistics—or production—were low. If a person’s statistics are going down, they’re at “fear” or “apathy” on the tone scale. The only thing you can do at that point is holler at them, and that will bring them up tone. [Hubbard] mostly used it to argue that it was okay to yell at people who were not producing. He made screaming at people a canonical order. You wouldn’t coddle people; you’d scream at them. That kind of management doesn’t help anyone.

What are statistics?

Everybody in Scientology, including non-staff members, has a statistic. Everybody is expected to produce a “Valuable Final Product” or service that helps forward Scientology’s goal of taking over the planet—they really do want to take over the planet. 

So, for example, if your job is sales, how much money did you make? If your job is course supervisor, how many students did you graduate? If you’re not a staff member, the statistic is based on how many new people you brought into the Church in any given week.

What’s the plan after they gain control of the world?

Oh, they’ll move on to the next planet. That’s the reason for the billion-year staff contract.

How do you think the Church has changed in the decades since you left?

When I first thought about writing the book, I thought I was dealing with the same Scientology I remembered, but I’ve since realized that it has changed. It’s becoming a real religion, and that’s spooky! We never thought of it as a religion back then! We would call it a Church, but we would “wink” because we were fighting to get tax-exempt status. But I know that Scientologists today believe that it’s a Church—a religion—and it is becoming one.

It has also become increasingly doctrinaire. If something went wrong while Hubbard was alive, he would just say, “You know, this didn’t work, let’s try something else.” But now that he’s gone, you really can’t fuck with anything he said.

Their notions about marriage, sex, family, and children—lumped together and called the Second Dynamic—have changed. Now, if you want to have a baby in the Sea Org, you’re reportedly told to get an abortion. It wasn’t that way before. We wanted a baby, so we had to leave the ship. That made sense—we didn’t want a little baby tottering around on a ship where she could fall overboard.

Did you ever think current Church leader David Miscavige would become the power-hungry autocrat he is reported to be?

No, he was just this nerdy kid. No one really liked him. He was one of the Commodore’s Messengers [or attendants], and in those days, most of the Commodore’s Messengers were girls. (During the ’50s and ’60s that was considered a “sissy” occupation for boys.) I think he tried to overcompensate for that and for the fact that he’s a small man—a Little Napoleon. If you believe reports written today, he’s gone over the edge.

Of course, you should take this with a grain of salt since I’m a Suppressive Person. Scientologists would tell you that everything I say could be a lie to get you to say bad things about Scientology.

I was interested in the concept of “truth” as you describe it in the book. On one hand, you suggest that as a Suppressive Person, as a trans person, as someone who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, you are always already marked with this presumption of dishonesty. And rather than critique those stereotypes, you seem to take them up as a badge of honor. Why did you choose to do that?

This is the first book by an ex-Scientologist that isn’t self-published since William S. Burroughs wrote one in the 1970s. All the rest were self-published, so my publishers wanted to be careful. They’d ask, “You’re not going to tell any lies, are you?” And the more I thought about it, I saw all the different places where, yes, I lie. When you sell, you lie. When you’re in the depths of Borderline Personality Disorder and are not coping, one of the things you do is lie. As a Suppressive Person, you lie. And I’m a storyteller and playwright. There’s another place where I lie!

Then it hit me that I honestly thought some of the lies I’ve told were true, and that got me laughing. Once when I mentioned the incredible story I’d always heard about my family, my brother said, “No, Grandpa Max wasn’t a Red Russian fighting for freedom.” I was shocked, and at that point, I said, “Well, I just don’t know anything for sure.”

I think it’s interesting that the biggest wound that Harry Potter receives in the series is the scar across the back of his hands—“I must not tell lies.” That wound gives him the most pain, and I think that was smart. Once I got those words “I must not tell lies” tattooed in my handwriting on the back of my hand, it worked in a way. I look down at it, and I go, “Oh, yeah.”

Memoirist and playwright Mike Daisey recently got into trouble with NPR for fabricating details of his trip to observe a factory in China. His argument was that he writes as a memoirist, not a journalist. At what point does a memoir become a work of fiction?

Well, the easiest part was writing about [my daughter] Jessica. I have so few memories of her that they are bright and shining. It was like transcribing what had happened. I have just over a dozen pictures of her, and I look at them all the time.

More broadly, I think everything you write is a work of fiction. About a year ago, they discovered that Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is a big fat lie! He didn’t do any of that shit! He took his dog across the country, but investigators couldn’t verify the details. When that happens, it forces you to think, “Wow, what’s that about?”

For one thing, I have some great dialogue in the book, but I can’t remember exact words. When I write dialogue, I’m thinking, “Okay, this is what I remember, and I want you to share the truth of what I remember as best expressed in that way.” (Of course, if I was writing a novel, oh my god, I would tell such big lies.) But even in writing a memoir, I had to squeeze 50 years of my life into less than 300 pages. I had to cover for people who didn’t want to be named such as [BDSM partners] “Sailor” and “Lula.” I squeezed time down.

If you read the book carefully, you’ll see that dates really don’t quite match up, and that’s because of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-related Swiss cheese memory. I made a timeline and tried to follow that sucker, but even when I saw the final corrected proofs, I found two completely wrong dates in the book. But none of that gets in the way of the truth of my life and experience.

Reitman spoke of LGBT ex-Scientologists who joined because they felt it would “cure” them and became disillusioned when it didn’t work. It’s interesting that you were drawn to it for completely different reasons—you were drawn in by the idea that thetans, Scientology’s “eternal souls,” have no gender. Could you say more about that?

The religious paths that have always drawn me have been paths of paradox—Zen Buddhism and the Dao chief among them. Scientology has paradoxes, but none that they celebrate. For example, if thetans have no gender, then why should homosexuality and transsexuality be such a big deal? We all know that thetans have no gender, but because homosexuality is evil, and everyone knows that, we’ll accept the “truth” over the more basic truth that thetans have no gender. That’s a paradox that they don’t own, and the only explanation is the unconscious homophobia and transphobia of the day. A lot of the religion came out of homophobia. Think about it—one of the key symptoms of a Suppressive Person is sexual perversion.

I got the sense from Inside Scientology that the Sea Org is a deeply puritanical group in which sex before marriage is strictly prohibited. But you mention an orgy that took place aboard the ship. How did that happen?

There were lots of orgies on the boat! It shifted in 1972 when Hubbard saw that all of this extramarital sex was getting in the way of statistics. That’s when he came up with the Sadie Hawkins-based idea: if a woman proposed to a man, and the man and woman got married, he would promote her one grade in rank. That was the first move toward institutionalized heteronormativity within Scientology.

By all accounts, there was no sexual impropriety with any of the young girls who served as his Messengers. People saw him more as a father figure.

That’s not quite true. There was no genital sex or inappropriate touching. But what would you call it when you have a 16-year-old girl sitting by the side of your bed as you get out of bed in the morning, powdering your feet, and pulling on your socks? There is a sexual subtext to that, so yes, he was a dirty old man to that extent.

In any case, all of us—not just the Messengers—saw him as a father. He never said those words to us, but it was the role he filled. All of us just wanted his approval. A smile from him could brighten you for a month! And a harsh word from him could set you to thinking about suicide.

I love the South Park episode about Scientology, “Trapped in the Closet.” Why does Tom Cruise lock himself in the closet? Because Hubbard doesn’t think he’s the world’s best actor.

We all craved his approval that way, and now that he’s dead the only way you can get his it is by doing exactly what he wrote—or what Miscavige says.

What made Hubbard so compelling?

He was a charmer. All you wanted from him was a smile. He was magnetic. Some people have that ability to charm people to protect themselves. He would stare into your eyes whenever you were talking to him, gaze at you like a cobra staring down a rat—and you were the rat! It was scary.

Could you describe the kind of sexism you saw in Scientology?

One of the most important policy letters Hubbard ever wrote was “The Responsibility of Leaders.” In it, he retells his version of the relationship between Manuela Sainz and Simón Bolívar. In it, you find every patriarchal problem that feminism has ever had to deal with. Yes, women can be strong but only in the support of their men. His wife, Mary Sue Hubbard, had the highest position you could have, that of Guardian. What better position than to be the one L. Ron Hubbard could depend on? It was the second highest office in the organization, on par with the Sea Org.

For Hubbard, one of Simón Bolívar’s biggest sins is the fact that he never married Manuela Sainz. He should have legitimized it! Then she would’ve been safe because he would’ve been able to protect her. Everything in that policy points to blatant misogyny. This was originally a 20-page policy letter, and they were almost never that long. So it was obviously important to him.

But it’s not the sort of sexism you might find in fundamentalist Christianity, in which women sometimes cannot take leadership roles. It’s more mainstream misogyny, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, and in that respect, he was ahead of his time. We thought it was amazing that women could rise to powerful positions and get real responsibility. But it has a lot to do with income. What are the statistics? If I could double my production by having three women in charge of a project, I’d do it because thetans have no gender! When it came to production, the idea that thetans have no gender was convenient for them.

How did you end up on the boat?

Well, Hubbard got the idea for the Sea Org in 1967 because nearly every country he had been in had some sort of law against him at that point. And he was very fond of quoting some naval manual (who knows if it ever existed) that said, “When you’re at war, the best place for your fleet is at sea, whereabouts unknown.” He said this was the big mistake of Pearl Harbor: Roosevelt knew it was a time of war—he should’ve kept his fleets at sea, whereabouts unknown.

The Sea Org’s favorite word to describe itself was “fabian.” It meant secretive, hard to find, mysterious.

In a book, Mission Into Time, Hubbard wrote that he had been Cecil B. Rhodes in a past life, and that he could even then remember where his buried treasure was. He wanted to go to Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—to recover the loot and take over the country. The Rhodesian government got wind that he was trying to do this, and they blocked him from entering the country.

Of course, it didn’t matter because he never spoke about it again after learning that Rhodes was gay.

People often say they remember being an important historical figure.

I was never famous in any of my past lives—I was many different women though. But you remember what you want to remember when you look into this stuff. And this gets back to lying again. We build ourselves a worldview, and we lie to make the worldview less painful. What stopped me from transitioning was the accepted worldview that “trannies are freaks.” I bought into that lock, stock, and barrel. I did not want to be a freak. I finally refused to believe it anymore. Yes, I’m a freak, but I don’t give a damn. This is the truth of me, and I can still do good things in spite of the freaky truth of me.

When did you come to this conclusion?

It’s complicated. It has to do with the Scientology L-Rundowns, spiritual counseling sessions that give you superhuman abilities. L-10 gave you the ability to do whatever you wanted to do whenever you wanted to do it. L-11 gave you the ability to have whatever you wanted whenever you wanted to have it. But L-12 gave you the ability to be whatever you wanted to be whenever you wanted to be it for something like 25 hours. When my uncle died and left me $10,000 in the late 1970s, I spent it and got myself L-12.

The auditor just went through all the permutations of the verb, “to be.” And then he would go through all the mental charge and emotion/reaction you associated with the notion of being something: identity. And I think it worked! Here I am now—I wanted to be a girl, and I am! I could be their biggest fucking success story. So, yeah, I would recommend L-12 to anybody to this day. It’s a good exercise.

But you don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do it. Just go to the thesaurus and look at the word “be,” and really have a look at it.

Anyway, from that point on, I didn’t see any point in not being a woman. Every Scientologist has something called a Wants Handled—that is, whatever big thing is ruining your life. My Wants Handled was that I wanted to stop wanting to be a woman, but that never ever happened. Instead, it paved the way for me to sail into it and be extremely successful at it.

That’s why I’ve always been out. I mean, for the first year, yes, I was closeted just like every other trans person was in those days. But eventually, I found it easier to just say, “Yes, I’m transsexual.” This was a big step. People were not saying that in the mid-’80s. And later I realized, “Wait, I’m not a man, I know that, but now you’re saying I’m not a woman either? Well, you’re right.” That was the whole point with my book, Gender Outlaw—I’m not a man or a woman. Which is another way of saying thetans have no gender, only now it’s called postmodern theory.

What do you think the future holds for Scientology?

Well, there is currently a split between institutionalized Scientology and independent scientologists. The independents are more moderate, but I have not heard them demand an end to the worst abuses. I mean, I’m sure there are independent scientologists who believe there should no longer be disconnections. I’m sure there are independent scientologists who believe that the notion of Suppressive Person is getting way over-fucking-used. And those who are against the child labor abuses and coerced abortions that are going on.

But I haven’t heard of independents who’ve criticized the idea of Keeping Scientology Working, or KSW. Tom Cruise calls it that—the gleam in his eye is all about KSW! In L. Ron Hubbard’s words, you have “shatter” Suppressive Persons. I have not heard that challenged.

It’s all about taking over the world and making the able more able. That means showering privilege on people who already have privilege: movie stars, business leaders. And why do they cater to the privileged in this way? They’re the ones with money.

Are you worried about facing KSW?

That’s why I waited so long to write this book, but they haven’t come after me yet. My guess is that, in their arrogance, they’re thinking, “Who would listen to a freak like that?”

If it gets to the point that people seem to be paying attention to what I’ve written, yeah I might get into some trouble. But what have I got to lose? I’ve already revealed everything in the book. You asked why I write about sex? Because I was determined to share everything. That makes me feel free.