I am my own person—the words of her epiphany, what they call a realization, only six weeks earlier repeat in Amory’s mind as she paces back and forth outside the meeting room, feeling nothing like an independent young woman. It took her nineteen years to understand this simple concept, not for lack of mental ability but because the idea is strangely absent from her world.
The walls of the hallway are painted a cold, gray-white color, and the floor is a similarly hued linoleum, which sticks, ever so slightly, to the soles of shoes. The fluorescent lights screech and cast a sterile glow in the room as she counts her steps from one end of the building to the other—twenty-two if she walks at her normal pace, but only eighteen today. Sweat glazes her palms while she waits for her performance results to be posted. It’s Thursday Basics—Thursday afternoons at 2 pm when stats for the week are revealed—the moment of truth.
In the dead middle of one of her laps, the commanding officer of her division charges through the hallway as if the fate of the planet rests on his shoulders. Amory stops mid step and freezes in a salute as he passes. One pace beyond her, he halts and turns back. His brow hardens as an impenetrable gaze assaults Amory. He barks, “You better get your stats back up soon!” His words are the color of coffee grounds and echo down the hall like stones thrown in an empty cavern.
Her heart sinks at his order. She forces her lips into her trademark sad smile, which hides the ghosts that haunt her relentlessly, and nods in the affirmative at his shadow. There is no reply she can give, no defense. Work performance is measured by weekly statistics, or stats, that evaluate how well people meet their targets. Stats say it all. Amory has been in liability for the past month, which is a sentence no Sea Org member wants to endure. It means that you are in a condition worse than non-existence and are labeled an enemy of the group.
Amory is sure that her numbers are not up, but the secret she has been guarding for the past six weeks is driving her feet into constant movement that does not quiet her heart. She cannot let anyone find out why her stats are down.
Amory has counted ten sets of eighteen steps by the time her commanding officer reaches the end of the hallway and posts her division’s weekly results. But even after great anticipation, she must force herself to look. She flips through page after page, trying to find her graph. When she finally sees it, the downward sloping line sends a shock of fear through her body. Her arm goes limp, and the pages slip from her fingers. Her eyes glaze over, and the graph’s lines and letters blur into grotesque shapes that dance across the page and into the recesses of her mind where nightmares are born. For a moment, she tries to deny that the chart exists. But that, of course, is impossible. Life revolves around stats, and job performance is everything. Amory would never be able to ignore her evaluation results.
The sound of her boss’ voice behind her snaps her back to reality. “Amory. You’re still in liability.” Every word out of Erika’s mouth sounds like an accusation even if it is intended as praise, which this phrase is not. She has the appearance of one who has been hardened by years of battle. Her skin desperately clings to her frame, as if it wants to retreat but fears the repercussions. The lines around her mouth and on her forehead have frozen into deep valleys designed to trap her enemies. Her eyes shoot daggers at anyone who dares to questions her command.
Amory rubs her temples in an effort to relieve the headache she has had consistently for three weeks. Much of the recent coursework Amory has completed covers the subject of communication. The lesson has been: always remain in control with the correct emotional tone. A positive intonation conveys a message of strength while a negative one shows weakness. Amory fixes a smile on her face and tries to convey the correct level as she says, “Yes, Sir.” But the effort feels futile. Erika has the upper hand, and no matter what she does, Amory is the loser.
Erika continues her barrage. “This is unacceptable. We have important work to do, and you’re dragging this project down. You’re a liability to the group! You must not want us to succeed!”
Amory tries to think of a response, but no words come to mind. She feels sweat retreat down her curved spine. “I’ve been trying,” she finally musters, but can’t force her eyes to make contact with Erika’s, another important communication tool. “Sir … I’ve been on post every day until later than everyone.”
“Well that’s not good enough! You better improve your performance soon!” Amory could be a murderer, but if her stats were up it wouldn’t matter, and she would be hailed as the most ethical person in the building.
“I will, Sir. I’ll do everything I can,” she starts to plead. She hates herself when she sinks to this level, but there is nothing else she can do. She must surrender completely if she wants to remain in good standing with the group.
“Well, make sure you do. I don’t want to have to schedule a security check.” With that Erika storms off and leaves Amory to wait by herself until the meeting begins. Just the threat of a sec-check is enough to motivate Amory to do anything to improve.
The building where Amory works, HCO, is right in the heart of Los Angeles at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine—around the corner from the iconic Capital Records structure and down the street from the Hollywood Wax Museum. Stars line the sidewalk, but Sea Org members don’t know any of the names on them because it’s against Church policy to watch television. The only actors they know are Tom Cruise and John Travolta, dedicated Scientologists. HCO is a twelve-story beige structure that takes up half a city block. The architect must have been allergic to round, soft shapes as each angle is fierce. HCO looks like every other building on the street, except for the fact that the street-level floor doesn’t have any windows so no one can see inside, making it an enigmatic fortress in a sea of bustling life. Towering four stories above the roof are billboard-like letters spelling out SCIENTOLOGY, advertising services to the cars passing below and to anyone who happens to look towards the sky. People in Sea Org uniforms—perfectly ironed navy-blue pants and light-blue button-down shirts with creased sleeves—swarm the block. They hustle in and out of the entrance, never loitering outside. There is an urgency, a sense of panic almost, as if the world depends on them.
Amory searches the floor for a quiet place to think. She sees her faithful vending machine up ahead and instinctualy digs in her pocket for the four quarters needed to buy a box of Frosted Flakes, the sustenance of choice for her, her sister Riley, and best friend Daisy when they are too disgusted to eat the cafeteria food. But as soon as her fingers enter her pocket, she remembers that she has no money. Her wages, little that they are at fifty dollars a week, are commandeered while she is in liability status. She can’t even buy a box of cereal after six weeks of no pay.
Amory crumples into the first seat she finds and spends her few solitary moments writing up her overts and withholds in an effort to make a plausible case for where she went wrong. An overt is any crime committed against The Church—and any crime is against The Church—and a withhold is an overt act a person is not admitting. The weekly ritual of Thursday Basics includes analyzing stats by writing up overts and withholds so that everyone can see what sins they committed and improve their performance in the upcoming week. Amory knows she will have to confess her crimes later in auditing to the ethics officer, so she decides to begin devising her response now. She sits down with a piece of paper and a pen and thinks about specific evils she has committed. She taps the pen on the paper, trying to think. After a few moments she writes:
- I did not call Carly back and follow up with her when I saw that she hadn’t completed her course on time.
- On Monday the 30th of June 1995, I was at work in HCO. I was going through my battle plan for the day. One item was to follow up with everyone in the training course and check on their progress. I called five people. Then it was lunch time, and after lunch I needed to report to muster. When I returned to my office, I didn’t look at my battle plan again, and I forgot to follow up with Carly.
Amory looks at her list and is satisfied that she wrote something down. She cannot admit, not yet, the true cause of her poor performance, so she tries to find credible decoys. She taps the pen again, thinking. She knows there has to be more she can put down on paper, but her mind is blank.
Meeting time is quickly approaching. Amory’s friends trickle into the room. They all smile at her, but they know better than to fraternize with the downstat. After all, Amory is a liability to the group, and they have been barred from communicating with her. They continue their conversations with each other as they take their seats. She taps her pen faster as she stares at the overt on her paper, searching for more. She could lie, as she has done many times, and just make up a story about why she is still in this condition. Perhaps she could spin a tale about how she was sick and try to invoke sympathy from Erika, but decides against such an impossible strategy. She could place the blame on her recruits. After all, they are the ones not finishing their coursework. But she knows Erika will not accept that excuse. They are her responsibility, so she must find a way to motivate them. She decides to concede that she does not understand what she is doing wrong. Maybe that way, one of her friends will remind her of overts she has committed that she can add to her list.
* * *
Amory began Thursday Basics when she was six years old. At the Cadet Org, the teachers turned the dining hall into a space for the young children to complete their conditions formulas. Everyone’s statistics were posted to a huge wall, organized by the different divisions. The charts were laid one on top of the other so the children had to look through everyone’s stats to find their own. They were simple graphs, with the weeks on the horizontal X-axis and the performance units on the vertical Y-axis. The charts were easy enough to read—a line going down or straight across was bad and a line going up was good. Even a six year old could see that.
Amory and her friend Daisy were in the Ethics Division. They had just started their posts as missionaires and completed their first week of filing in the basement of an old hospital building The Church purchased and converted into offices. Amory and Daisy were best friends. They were together so often that the teachers confused their names even though they looked nothing alike. Amory had heard so much about stats and conditions formulas from her sister Riley, who was always good, so good in fact that she was the highest ranking ethics officer for her group in the Cadet Org.
Amory was excited to see her stats and the work she accomplished. She found her friend amongst the crowd of nearly one hundred children. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” Amory squealed and grabbed Daisy by the jacket, pulling her in the right direction. Weaving through the crowd, the girls ran over to the giant wall with all the charts.
Amory flipped through the pages—down line, down line, up line, even line, steep down line, even line. Her eyes stopped at one steep down line. It was Tony’s graph, and it had the word “Liability” written in bold letters at the top of the page. Oh … liability, Amory thought. She wondered what he did. Seeing all of the graphs, Amory noticed a lot of kids were downstat.
She finally found her chart. Her heart sank when she saw the word “Non-Existence” written in bold letters across the top of the page. She didn’t know how to read, but she had been taught the states of being by her teachers. She knew that the word “Non-Existence” was one of the lower conditions. How could this be? She thought. Amory had worked so hard filing the entire week. She had even finished the box she was supposed to finish, staying late every night. She stood in shock, her eyes cast down to the floor in shame.
Before Amory had time to figure out her own condition, Daisy asked her if she had seen Tony’s graph. Daisy was more competitive than Amory was, always interested in how she could look better than the other kids in front of the teachers. Amory, on the other hand, seems to excel without trying, and the teachers were always impressed with her actions. The girls walked towards Tony, trying to be inconspicuous. They hid behind the other children who had circled around him as he went through his conditions formula, what all of them had to write up in order to analyze their stats and improve their current state of existence.
Number one: decide who one’s friends are. They heard Tony say, “My friends are the Scientologists, the good upstats.”
Number two: deliver an effective blow to the enemies of the group. They saw Tony look around the room. There were two boys playing in the corner, not doing the conditions formulas they were supposed to be writing. Tony walked up to them and told them, “You’re bad. I don’t agree with you. You’re being a downstat.” Deliver an effective blow to the enemy.
Number three: Make up the damage one has done by personal contribution far beyond the ordinary demands of a group member. Tony’s damage was that he didn’t do his job of cleaning the dishes the day he was sick. Now, he had to make up the damage and then some. He walked over to one of the teachers and asked if he could clean up all of the dishes for dinner that night, which was above and beyond his normal duties since he usually cleaned up with a couple other kids. She agreed. And now, the last step.
Number four: apply for re-entry to the group by asking permission of each member of it to rejoin. Tony had to receive permission to rejoin the group from each cadet. He said to them, “I didn’t do my job of cleaning the dishes yesterday. I wanna be in your group. Please let me join.” He repeated it over and over and over, almost one hundred times. Most children agreed and signed his paper. But the cadets who had dish duty with him refused. They said to him, “No, you haven’t done enough. You need to do more.” Tony had to agree to do their dishes for the next three days before they would sign off and let him rejoin the group. For one little boy, not even that was enough.
Billy made Tony get down on his knees and beg to be let back in. “How do I know you really want it?” Billy taunted.
“I want to be in the group. I promise,” Tony begged. “Please! Please sign me off!”
His head growing from his imagined sense of power, Billy replied, “Ok, I will, but only if you do my dishes for the next week and serve me my meals at mess time.”
Tony was relieved—he could finally rejoin. “Anything! I’ll do anything! Thank you Billy.” By the time he had all of the signatures he was exhausted from the battle.
Amory would never forget that afternoon.
* * *
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