Before becoming the gender outlaw we know and love today, Kate Bornstein was Al Bornstein, husband, father, and strappingly handsome lieutenant of the Church of Scientology’s Sea flagship vessel. In this selection from her memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate details the events leading up to her excommunication from the Church.
In Europe, Scientologists wrote us checks made out to the Religious Research Foundation, a shell company that maintained a Swiss bank account that was in no way linked to the Church of Scientology. Any money we deposited would be used in the service of the Church without having to pass through any country’s tax system—it’s a common business practice used by many international organizations. Of course, L. Ron Hubbard had no connection with that Swiss account because it was vitally important to keep all his personal finances on the up-and-up so that no enemy of the Church could use any inadvertent financial glitch against him. But that was unthinkable—(a) because he was so powerful, and (b) because he had both the Sea Org and the Guardian’s Office to protect him, and we protected him fiercely.
So, life was . . . great. Thanks to my high income, I’d become a Sea Org star. Crew members actually lined up at the doors to send me off on tour, or welcome me home. It all came unraveled on a sunny autumn day in Zurich, 1982. I had just finished making a sizable deposit to the Swiss bank account. I was out on a quickie one-week tour on my own; Becky was back in Clearwater. This was my first time inside the bank’s home office. What a beautiful old place it was! The reverence for wealth was manifest in the severe architecture, lightly touched here and there with tasteful elegance.
I was waiting for the teller to return to his window with my receipts when a clerk appeared at my elbow and asked me to step inside the office of the vice president of the bank. Now, this had never happened to anyone else on my staff in all the time we’d been making deposits at this branch, so my antennae went up. I allowed the clerk to usher me in to the huge office of what very well might be a member of some vast international Swiss banking conspiracy.
An older gentleman was seated behind a desk across the room from me. Dignified, tastefully attired. I started to cross the room toward him, but this old guy gave me a big smile, all teeth. He got to his feet, came around the desk, and offered me a handshake. You must understand: for a Swiss banker, that’s an expression of true love. For a Swiss banker, that’s beta wolf.
“Mr. L. Ron Hubbard,” the old guy said to me, “the bank so appreciates your business all these years, and it’s such a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
Oops. No, this was much more than an oops—this was a genuine oh fuck! Some SP inside the Swiss banking conspiracy had obviously broken into the files of the Religious Research Foundation and falsely linked them to the Old Man. Fuck, fuck, fuck! I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I was a far superior being to the old man—lying to him came easy.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “But I am not this Mr. El? Hub Hubbard? Of whom you speak.”
By then, we were both visibly pale. My mind was racing with worst-case scenarios—and the old guy realized that by naming me, he’d violated some strict law of Swiss banking privacy. We froze, our eyes locked in a long awkward silence. Then we each forced a laugh at the silly mistake, we said our goodbyes, and I strolled casually out of the bank.
There was no such thing as a cell phone. I walked across the city square to my hotel, where I placed a call from the pay phone in the lobby. I couldn’t trust that the phone in my room wasn’t tapped. I called a secret number and reached a telex operator in Denmark. I spoke to her guardedly, but she got what I was saying and fired a message off to Florida that there was some plot afoot that warranted investigation, and I would stand by for orders. The answer came back almost immediately: I was to travel now, now, now to Sussex, England, where the Church owned Saint Hill Manor and an estate of considerable size, with several buildings for advanced classes, as well as UK’s FOLO [Flag Operations Liaison Office].
My cervical dystonia was in full bloom—my neck was stuck, turned severely to the left and tilted to the right. A bout of dystonia that strong always brought with it a series of searing headaches, the kind where that’s all you can pay attention to: the endlessness of the pain. Nevertheless, I took the next flight from Zurich to London, and the first train I could catch from London to Sussex. It was late when I arrived, and I was given a room reserved for visiting officers and missionaires. I took a few tablets of Empirin Compound and slept maybe four hours.
The next morning I reported for debrief to the guy in charge of all the Church’s European finances. I told him everything I’ve just told you, only in much more detail. For three days, I held my chin tightly so I could look at the guy while I was talking with him. Then orders came down for me to come on home on the next available flight. I was going home! I’d done a good job helping to uncover this plot against the Old Man. With the stress release, my bout with dystonia slowly wound down and I slept in fits and starts on the overnight flight back to the States.
As I stepped off the plane in Tampa, I was met at the gate by seven tall, muscular young guys in Sea Org officer uniforms. Heh. I was still the superstar. But it did strike me as odd that I didn’t recognize any of these officers, and I knew personally every senior officer in the Sea Org. The young men had serious faces—they told me they were members of the newly formed Financial Police. I’d never heard of that.
“What’s going on here . . . sir?”
“You’ll find out, and don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, mister.”
One for one, they outranked me, so there was no questioning their authority. We drove back to Sea Org headquarters in silence. My neck was again throbbing and threatening to wrench itself around to the left. A migraine-like headache was just beginning to break through the surface of my consciousness. All I wanted to do was get in bed with Becky—she knew how to hold my head just so. But straight away, these guys escorted me into a cold, damp hallway in the basement of the Fort Harrison Hotel. Two of the Financial Police sat me down on a metal folding chair, then took up more comfortable chairs for themselves on either side of me. I couldn’t say a word—I still hadn’t been spoken to.
After three hours, the other five officers showed up—showered, freshly shaven. I smelled sour to myself and I had a five o’clock shadow that rivaled Richard M. Nixon’s. The seven officers escorted me down the hall into a room set up with a table and an e-meter. Now, mostly when you’re audited, you’re in a small room with one other person, the auditor. There’s never more than the two of you. But now, one member of the Financial Police sits across from me, operating the meter. Two big guys are standing behind him, two more big guys stand behind me, and one more big guy stands at the door. Years later, I’d find out they call it a gang-bang sec check. One of them spoke.
“How long have you been an agent for a foreign government?”
“What the fuck?”
“Thank you,” says the big guy across from me.
Now, he didn’t say thank you because I’d told him anything he felt grateful for. He said thank you because in Scientology you’re supposed to verbally acknowledge anything that anyone says to you. You use words that show you’ve heard the other person—Thank you, OK, Good, Very Good, and so on—words that show you’ve heard the other person. It’s actually quite a civilized way to talk with people, letting them know you heard them. So he says Thank you, then a guy behind me says,
“How long have you been a drug addict?”
“What?!” I turned too quickly to face the guy and blinded myself with a bolt of pain.
And now I’m going to paraphrase the real honest-to-goodness questions fired at me, over and over for six hours:
Have you ever embezzled money?
I thought to myself, y’know, I never did—it never crossed my mind—and even if I’d wanted to, Scientology finance procedures were foolproof and they would’ve found me out simply by the paperwork. Was my 2½ percent commission embezzlement?
Are you now or have you ever been a drug addict?
Ever? Was I addicted to Empirin Compound? In college, I chainsmoked marijuana and drank beer. But they knew that about me already, and I’d completed my Scientology counseling on drugs—so I was free from their harmful effects, and free from the need to take them. That made me not an addict. I answered no, and the needle on the e-meter agreed with my call.
Have you ever bombed anything?
Goodness gracious no. Skipper Bush and I once threw cherry bombs into a construction site dirt pit late at night. Did that count? No read on the meter.
Have you ever murdered anyone?
Nope. Haven’t ever had to.
Have you ever raped anyone?
Nope. Haven’t ever had to.
Have you ever had anything to do with a baby farm?
To this day, I’m not sure what they meant by baby farm, and I’ve been too timid to give it a google.
Do you collect sexual objects?
I answered that no, I don’t—which was technically correct. Two days earlier, I’d thrown out my most recent collection of tranny porn before I flew from Zurich to London.
Thank you. Do you have a secret you are afraid I’ll find out?
I was beginning to wish I’d kept some of the secrets I’d revealed in counseling sessions over the last twelve years. Once you leave, all that confidential information is fair game for the Church to use against you. Nah, they knew all my secrets. The meter kept verifying that I was clean as a whistle. And then . . .
Are you upset by this security check?
“You’re goddamn right I’m upset about this security check.”
Well, that led to a two-hour trail of related questions only to discover that I was upset by the security check because I’d done nothing wrong.
“Have you ever had unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”
“Not a one,” I answered. “Ever.” But why wasn’t he personally pinning a medal on my chest for pulling his ass out of the financial fires? Unless the Swiss account actually did belong to him, in which case . . .
“OK. That read on the meter. I’ll repeat the question: Have you ever had unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”
“Not unless you’re telling me that the Religious Research Foundation is a bank account that funnels money into the Old Man’s pockets. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Good. Have you ever had unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”
For two more hours, they quizzed me about all the possible unkind thoughts I could ever have had about L. Ron Hubbard, until the meter convinced them I was OK on that score.
“Thank you. How long have you been a spy for a foreign government?”
“I am not a spy, I’m tellin’ you. I’ve been a loyal officer for twelve fucking years.”
“OK. What enemy group are you working for?”
And they kept asking me those kinds of questions for a total of six hours, carefully watching the e-meter for any signs that might reveal my evil deeds. Six hours, no evil deeds. Finally, the guy across from me played his ace. He said I’ve got a choice: I can do three years of hard physical labor, sleeping a maximum of six hours a night on a cold cement floor, eating only table scraps, and talking only with other bad people like me who were relegated to the months-old Rehabilitation Project Force. I could either do that, he said, or I could leave and be excommunicated from the Church of Scientology for the remainder of all my lifetimes ahead of me. The young officer told me that he’s going to live into the future as a hero.
“Without Scientology, you are gonna degrade into a mindless slug of a spiritual being. You’re gonna be a body thetan, attached to the toe of some street bum.”
So help me, that’s what he said. I didn’t thank him for saying it. It had been twelve years since I failed to acknowledge something another person said to me. I’d been holding the cans for six hours—you can’t ever let go of them. That meant I couldn’t hold my head straight, and my dystonia had once again begun to twist my head painfully over my left shoulder—a move that this guy interpreted as my not being able to look him in the eye.
What was he saying? Sleeping on a cement floor with this neck? And he never answered my question about the Old Man and the Swiss bank account.
It had to be true. Daddy was a liar and a cheat—I could deal with everything else about Scientology but that. My mind shattered like a plate glass window in a Mack Sennett comedy.
“You excommunicate me,” I said, and so they did.