Testing Openness to Scientology

Maria Hill administers a stress test to Nkosi Aqize at a Church of Scientology booth at Farragut Square.
Maria Hill administers a stress test to Nkosi Aqize at a Church of Scientology booth at Farragut Square. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 12, 2005

The sign advertising "Free Stress Test" beckoned Marian Prescott as she crossed Farragut Square, and she found herself settling into a chair beneath a yellow tent and taking hold of two metal poles hooked up to a device that the tester said could detect psychic strain.

"What did you think of?" asked Kelly Turrisi, the tester, as the needle on the electrometer jumped to the right.

Prescott tilted back her head and laughed. Work. Her husband. What else?

Turrisi, 19, leaned forward, her eyes concealed by oversize black sunglasses that matched her black outfit. She asked Prescott a few more questions. Did she and her husband argue a lot? What was happening at her job? What was happening in her life that she most wanted to change?

Then Turrisi handed Prescott a paperback book, "Dianetics" by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the back of which promised advice for living without "insecurity, negative thoughts, depression and irrational behavior." All Prescott needed to own this trove of wisdom was to fork over the "suggested" donation of $8.

"It's an amazing book," promised Turrisi, reciting the names of a few famous Scientologists, including John Travolta and Isaac Hayes, as well as Tom Cruise, whom she described as "one of the most well-known actors on the planet."

Prescott, 40, a management consultant who lives in Olney, had expected a test to check her blood pressure or her heartbeat when she sat down. A book? About Dianetics? She put her hands up to her face and shifted in her seat.

The pitch was, well, stressing her out. She stood up and went on her way.

Unfazed on that afternoon last week, Turrisi waited for her next subject. She and her colleagues, all employees and volunteers at the Founding Church of Scientology, retain an unceasingly sunny disposition as they staff their booth, which for the past six months has made appearances at Dupont Circle, a few blocks from the church's 20th Street headquarters, and Union Station, Farragut Square and the Springfield Mall in Northern Virginia.

The Rev. Susan Taylor, the D.C. church's president, said the stress test is a way for the organization to spread the message of Scientology, a faith movement that acolytes have lauded for helping people gain control of negative emotions but that skeptics have dismissed as a cult. "It goes back to" the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Taylor as she retreated from the table to the shade. "After 9/11, it was realized by many people the amount of stress is incredible, and we feel we have some tools that can be beneficial."

Among those tools are the electrometers, which come with an array of dials and a roving needle. Taylor described the device as a "religious artifact used as a spiritual guide," not a "psychological or scientific instrument."

"It helps them focus on something," she said of how people benefit from the test.

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