In January 2008, America saw one of its most familiar movie stars talking in a most unfamiliar way. “The thing is, I just go through that tech,” says Tom Cruise in a YouTube video introduced as “Tom Cruise on Tom Cruise, Scientologist,” the star wearing a black turtleneck as a jangly guitar version of the “Mission: Impossible” music plays. “And it literally is, it’s not how to run from an SP, a PTS/SP, [it’s] how to shatter suppression, confront and shatter suppression, you apply it, it’s like” — Cruise snaps his fingers — “boom.” With a glassily menacing stare, he adds, “Because they don’t come up to me and do it. They don’t do it to me. Not to my face.”
Beyond the sheer trippy weirdness of watching Jerry Maguire say things like, “It’s our responsibility to educate — create the new reality,” one of the things that most confused viewers of Cruise’s video was the unintelligible language: abbreviations like “PTS/SP,” jargon like “tech” and “suppression.” Yet such language is an essential feature of Scientology, one that colors the thinking of people in the religion — even long after they leave.
Scientology’s power over its followers is coming under new scrutiny because of the HBO documentary “Going Clear,” which premieres March 29 and is based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the same name. As Wright reported, Scientology has long relied on an arcane lingo that helps induct adherents into founder L. Ron Hubbard’s complex mythology while also isolating them from the outside world. “I’ve had a lot of former Scientologists tell me,” Wright said to me, “that it took quite a while for them to sort out what was a real word and what was a Scientology term.”
Hubbard began his superlatively prolific writing career in the 1930s as a sci-fi author for pulp magazines like Astounding Science-Fiction. At the time he started work on “Dianetics,” the ur-text of Scientology, he was corresponding with a group of prominent sci-fi writers who were all influenced by the ideas of Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski believed that semantic training — correcting the flaws in abstract language that block one’s understanding of concrete things — could help cure various emotional and physical disorders. In part inspired by Korzybski, “Dianetics,” published in 1950, introduced a wide array of neologisms, jargon, and acronyms designed specifically for Hubbard’s new program.
Hubbard liked putting quirky twists on existing words: “Enturbulate,” using the Latin root from “disturb,” means “to upset”; to “hat,” as a verb, is to train for something; “havingness,” “beingness,” and “as-ising” (making something vanish) also pop up frequently. Many of his terms describe the central practice of Scientology: the “audit,” a space-age twist on Freudian psychoanalytic therapy. An “auditor” questions the subject, called the “preclear” — who is held back from spiritual progress by the “engrams,” or recordings of traumatic memories, in his “reactive mind,” a negative unconscious contrasted with the “analytic mind.” The goal is to discover the “basic-basic,” the subject’s original harmful memory, which sometimes dates back to before birth.
If the audit succeeds, the engram is released, the reactive mind dissipates, and the preclear becomes “clear.” The more auditing you do, the farther you advance “up” the “Bridge to Total Freedom” — the rigid hierarchy of the church, with its own set of complex levels and titles.
As Hubbard developed his growing religion, through doctrines sometimes called “tech” or “technology,” he added some more metaphysical terms. “Thetan” means “soul,” often in context of “going exterior” — having an out of body experience — or “returning,” in Scientology jargon, to a past-life event. The thetan is the continuum between all of your reincarnated lives over time; it’s also what travels outside of your physical body when you go exterior. Then there were words to describe the aliens who, 75 million years ago, ruled the Galactic Confederacy under their lord Xenu, until a civil war during which billions of thetans were dumped on the planet Teegeeack (now known as “Earth”). Today, these “body thetans” glom onto people, causing mischief, and must be cleared to ensure one’s psychic health.
Scientology was constantly battling different governments and government agencies throughout its early years, and Hubbard stayed on the move for decades. The movement added a range of vocabulary designed to weed out the good Scientologists from the bad. A “PTS/SP,” as Cruise put it in the video, is the acronym for a “Potential Trouble Source/Suppressive Person.” A Suppressive Person is, as Wright quotes Hubbard, someone who will “knife with violence anything calculated to make human beings more powerful or more intelligent.” A Potential Trouble Source is someone at risk of becoming an SP. An SP or PTS might make him or herself known through “overts” and “withholds”: expressly attacking the group or refusing to admit an overt. A “Degraded Being” or “Dog Case” is someone unclearable, beyond the reach of auditing. Non-Scientologists are called “wogs,” from the derogatory imperial British term for dark-skinned people.
Wright describes the work of psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, who studied totalitarian regimes, and who analyzed what he called the “thought-terminating cliché” among Chinese Communists: a phrase, such as “bourgeois mentality,” that dulls all further questioning. The language of Scientology works in a similar way, Wright says. “[Hubbard’s] idea was to create a totalistic universe in which all questions are answered,” he told me. “Let’s say if you are asking a question about somebody else’s behavior, and the response is, oh, he’s an SP. . . . In other words, he’s a suppressive and you shouldn’t give credence to anything he says.”
In a July 2014 thread on xenu.net, one of the main ex-Scientology forums, user “i-Betty” wrote: “many exes have said that the ‘lingo’ is one of the last things they lose when they leave Scientology; it has become ingrained over the years.” Wright said that Scientologists who “blow,” or leave the religion, still find themselves constantly translating back and forth. Like Cruise, Scientologists become trapped within what Wright called a “linguistic grid” — inside which they are incomprehensible to the outside world, and can only speak to each other.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.