My grandmother so wanted to be free of my grandfather that she lied to make it happen. This arguably was the only lie she ever told. In 1951, a woman in California could not institute divorce proceedings against her husband without him having done provably terrible things to her. Whispers in my family suggested that a few terrible things had happened, not least of which were his affairs and his alcoholism, but these were the only two specifics ever confirmed to me. In any event, she so wanted to be free of him that she lied to the judge, confessing to her own adultery. The divorce was granted. My grandfather demonstrated little interest in his daughter, and so, from that point on, my grandmother raised my mother all by herself. My mother was four years old.
My grandmother never remarried; indeed, she never demonstrated any interest in doing so. She was a single woman and a single mother all throughout the 1950s and 60s, when this sort of thing was unheard of — and much frowned upon by society. Nevertheless, my grandmother was ahead of her time. She was a freethinking proto-feminist who gave no external evidence that societal disapprobation had any effect on her.
My mother told me a few stories from this unusual childhood during the Eisenhower era. Chief among them was the religious circuit my grandmother seemed to pursue, taking my mother to the services of a host of religions and their varieties, including Catholic, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Baptist, Quaker, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian Science, Religious Science, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, Baha’i, and Jehovah’s Witness. Keep in mind my grandmother was transporting her single self and her young daughter to all of these services during the 1950s. There were more religious varieties but that is all I can remember right now. I wish I had taken notes.
My grandmother was an avid reader and had among her collection works by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Will Durant, Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss, and other thinkers of the twentieth century. She also had the Kama Sutra; the Book of Mormon; at least three different versions of the Bible, including a Gnostic text and one book on the Apocrypha; a couple of different versions of the Koran; the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam; and various treatises on religious thought and identity. When she could, she enjoyed attending lectures and having her mind stimulated by the intellectual voices and fresh thinkers of her day.
If that woman wasn’t looking for something, I don’t know who was. The only specific advice on religion that she ever voiced to my mother was this: keep an open mind.
By the end of the fifties, my grandmother seemed to have given up on her religious pursuit and stopped attending any sort of services anywhere. But then, in 1960 or 1961, she came across a book which would have a profound impact upon herself and her entire family — for the rest of their lives.
That book was called “Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health” and it was written by L. Ron Hubbard.
During this time Hubbard purchased an estate in England called Saint Hill at which he established a seminal organization of the young religion he was calling Scientology. As well, he was a popular speaker and traveled around the world giving lectures about his research and discoveries. He made stops in Los Angeles and my grandmother attended at least one of his lectures at the newly established American Saint Hill Organization (ASHO). Before my mother graduated from high school in 1964, she had been introduced to Scientology by my grandmother and the two of them were taking courses at ASHO. When the Advanced Organization of Los Angeles was founded, in 1967, my mother was honored to be recruited to join staff. Unfortunately, she didn’t last long. There was a young man also on staff with whom my mother had an affair, which resulted in her becoming pregnant.
As surprising as it may sound to the modern observer of Scientology, and especially in light of Scientology’s reputation as a hotbed of infidelity and sexual shenanigans in the ranks, back then things were different. AOLA was a brand new organization and was very concerned with proper appearances. Scientology was still new and shiny. It didn’t want the controversy of an unmarried and irresponsible young woman who seduced impressionable young men. My mother was offloaded from AOLA staff while the man who inseminated her was reprimanded.
At this time, my grandmother, who had been so entranced with the magnetic L. Ron Hubbard at the beginning of the decade, became increasingly disillusioned with Scientology. She despised authoritarianism and patriarchy. She read with increasing concern the series of bulletins and policy letters that began to roll out of the Hubbard Communications Office that established, piece by ominous piece, Scientology’s ethics and justice system. When she witnessed that system exercised against her daughter in a dreadful display of patriarchal authoritarianism, she gave up in disgust. She could not believe that the man who had so inspired her with his message of self-help was the same man who was now instituting this authoritarian justice system. She felt betrayed and confused, and utterly — and permanently — withdrew from the religion.
Together, my grandmother and seven month-pregnant mother moved away from Los Angeles eighty miles northeast to the (then) small, desert community of Lancaster. While it was true that my grandmother and mother were disaffected from Scientology (and, in my grandmother’s case, permanently disaffected), it was also true that both of them were deeply affected by its teachings and, probably, never stopped believing.
About ten weeks after moving to Lancaster, I was born in my grandmother’s house, delivered by my grandmother’s hand, in complete silence, except for our cat Figaro, who would not keep his mouth shut, much to my grandmother’s annoyance. After I was safely and smoothly delivered in, apparently, a picture-perfect delivery, Figaro jumped up and sniffed me, wrinkled his nose, shook his head, and meowed at grandmother, who shooed him away. Given my affinity for cats (or, as I think of it, their affinity for me), my mother was reasonably confident that Figaro’s mewling had not given me any engrams, thank goodness.
Later, my mother would smile as she reminisced about those days as a young woman in Los Angeles. It was an exciting time to be in Scientology, toward the beginning, when it was new and everything seemed possible. While the world seemed to fall apart with wars, assassinations, and upheaval, Scientology was an oasis of hope, a way out — and up — with infinity as the only guide.
At least, that was how my mother remembered it. My grandmother’s expressive eyebrow belied her silence on the matter.