Mary Johnson interview

THE SUNDAY TIMES JULY 27, 2003 (IRISH EDITION) NEWS REVIEW 5

INTERVIEW

MAEVE SHEEHAN meets Mary Johnston

Listening to Mary Johnston recall her brief but devastat­ing dalliance with he Church of Scientology brings to mind the Stepford Wives. In the movie men turn their spouses into obedient robots. In life, scientology turned Johnston into a near-automaton.

She spoke in jargon. The “fixed dedicated glare of the scientolo­gist” became her standard facial expression. .’When exposed to nega­tive thoughts about the religion, she went for “repair” counselling. Her sceptical brother-in-law was a “suppressed person” (which also means anti-social, according to sci­entology’s glossary of terms – its founder, the late L Ron Hubbard, was a hack science-fiction writer).

Johnston withdrew from her fam­ily and alienated her friends. Even when her sister Margaret crumpled in despair at her apparent automa­ton state, Johnston could at first only manage a pat on the back.

“As a person with a background in languages, I once challenged the bad grammar that Hubbard used. And it was like I had blasphemed. I had to go back and read the stuff again and again,” says Johnston with exaggerated eye rolling.

Her comedic rendering of her story would be hilarious if it weren’t so traumatic. She spent two and a half years, and more than €2,OOO, on the Church of Scientol­ogy. Then, thanks to her sister’s interventions, she had an epiphany, realised she had been “sold a pup” and sued. Her case was dramatically settled in the High Court in March after 31 days of testimony. The protagonists decamped; leav­ing observers curious to know why, after six weeks, one of the longest-running civil actions in the state was settled so suddenly. The Church of Scientology is certainly not afraid of court jousting – it is probably the most litigious “reli­gious philosophy” in the world.

Despite its lofty aims of world peace, sanity and advancement, its methods of self-analysis have been criticised and drawn accusations of cultism. Nevertheless, its followers include a host of Hollywood stars: Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Lisa Marie Presley.

Presumably there is a clause in the settlement that prevents us from finding out who “won” in the

case of Johnston Vs the Church of Scientology. Two months after the settlement, Johnston is willing to talk for the first time about her case but with extreme caution. What everyone really wants to know is “How much?”

“No comment,” she says politely and repeatedly. She is not prepared to risk a re-run in court, and who could blame her? Scientology is known for facing down its enemies; its handbook urges followers not to turn the other cheek. Aged 40, she appears confident and tough, far from the stereotypical cult follower. Did she ever blame herself for getting involved in the first place?

“Yes. For years afterwards, there is a sense of ‘How could I have

been duped?’” And now? “I don’t blame myself at all,” she says. “I think that the techniques that are used are extremely coercive and s manipulative and dangerous, and

bind people.”

HER first brush with the so-called religious philosophy (Johnston calls it a dangerous cult) was in 1992, aged 29. She says a friend introduced her. It emerged in court that he was a housemate. She didn’t know it was anything to dc with a church but by the time she did, she was hooked. “Anybody who joins a cult has to be vulnera­ble in some ways. Some groups that are termed cults generally have a hidden agenda,” she says.

Born in Dundalk, where she was convent-educated, she got the best Leaving Cert of her class and scored the highest marks in Ireland for Italian. At Trinity College, she studied Russian and French, and crammed a two-year marketing course into one. She played inter-­provincial squash for Leinster and ran her own business, a sports equipment shop in south Dublin.

She doesn’t recall being particu­larly angst-ridden and had a lot of friends. But she did have her share of tragedy. Her father died when she was 12 and her brother was killed in a car accident. She also had two abortions, which she had be kept secret from her friends and family. Those abortions were to or become a painful issue in the subsequent legal action.

By the time she was 29, her friend decided she was ready for auditing – a form of scientology counselling that involves repetitive examination of personal experiences and traumas. (In scientotogy terms, it’s wrong not to talk about your “sins”.)

The process can be dangerous. .”Let’s say it’s a childhood event, and you recount it from beginning to end – you may go over it again and again,” says Johnston. “You are meant to pick up other pieces of – as they call it – data, but I believe that sometimes, you may actually he creating a false mem­ory.” When she ran out of traumas to re-live, she had to scrape her per­sonal barrel of secrets, and she divulged her most personal – her two abortions.

Despite her misgivings, she con­tinued to be reeled in. The so-called counselling “created in me a feeling of euphoria, so it became like an escape mechanism after a hard day,” she says. Within a year, the robot was born. “I was going to courses all the time,’ she says. She practised staring routines so hard that afterwards her vision was dis­torted. By 1993, she had signed up

to the scientologists for a billion years. She admits that she had lost her critical faculties by then. She picks up a newspaper.”I wouldn’t have read this if you had written a negative article about scientology because I would know that to read it would cost me money to be ‘repaired’,” she says.

“When there was an article in the Evening Herald about Tom Cruise I asked inside, ‘Did anyone see it? They said, ‘No, you shouldn’t read that.’ It meant you would get upset would have to be repaired by repair auditing, which at the time would have cost maybe £100 an hour.” Her family became increasing worried. Her sister began researching scientology. Armed with a Panorama documentary and bundles of critical literature she summoned Johnston to a family meeting at her home in Edenderry, Co Offaly, in May 1994.

Johnston knew what was coming and consulted her scientology mas­ters. They taught her how to deflect her sister’s onslaught. “I had been drilled on how to speak to them. I had people in the mission playing my mother, my brother-in-law, my sister and I sat and did a one-on-­one drill,” she says, rolling her eyes in disbelief

On the appointed day, she was due at 2pm but was late – part of her tactics. She repeatedly dodged the hard questions and interrogated her sister on the source of her infor­mation. Eventually, her mother left the room. Her sister started to cry.

‘They (scientologists) have a tonal scale of emotions, and sympa­thy is low on it. So I was torn between that and comforting my sis­ter, and I was confused at the feel­ings of compassion that were rising up inside me,” she says. But John­ston could no longer resist her sobbing sister. Eventually, she says, “something inside me broke.”

The spell was lifted. If proof were needed, it came that night when Johnston‘s brother tele­phoned to ask how things were going. Johnston answered the phone with a quip that would land her in several £100 repair sessions: L Hubbard speaking…”

“He knew that it was okay then,’-‘ she says. “That was me. That was my giddiness.”

The sisters talked long into the night. ‘When I woke up the next morning in Edenderry, I knew that l had been involved in something that was deceptive and dangerous to me. It was like a sudden revela­tion of truth.”

It took seven years for her case to come to court. In that time, she feared that her secrets, revealed in confidence, would come back to haunt her. The scientologists knew more about her personal life than anyone else she knew. Anonymous letters circulated claiming that she had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church and hinted insidi­ously at her character. In the run-up to the trial, she claims a man called to her shop asking questions about her. Another photographed her in a pub.

Even when the case opened, there were other ordeals. She had to confess to her mother about the abortions, which featured in the case. A couple of weeks into the hearings, Johnston was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having spent seven years to get that far, she never entertained the notion of quit­ting. ‘Was I to say, ‘Sorry lads, I have to pull the plug – not feeling too great’?”

She opted for chemotherapy and ploughed on. Her hair fell out. She fell asleep in court. “It was a chal­lenge. No, that’s being facetious. It was unbelievable,” she says.

Toward the end of the interview, it becomes clear Johnston has found God. She talks about eschew­ing formal religion for Christianity. She has “a relationship with Jesus Christ?’ but is dismissive of the sug­gestion that she has substituted one religion for another. “I was bought up as a Catholic but the day I came out of scientology I knew Jesus was alive, and I knew that l had been rescued, not just in a physical sense,” she says.

Johnston has no regrets. A settlement may have denied her a judg­ment but she says: “At the end of the day, I got to say what happened to me. It was widely covered in the media and I think people can jump to their own conclusions.”

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