My Past Life in Scientology

By , Contributor

Randy McDonald

Skip Press mid-1970s

It was a perilous but wonderful time for me in the autumn of 1972. I was a homeless yet blissful nobody, like the line McCartney sang in "You Never Give Me Your Money": “Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.” I’d arrived in the middle of the night at Austin, Texas, hitchhiking down from Dallas with a backpack, a guitar, a portable Olivetti typewriter, and $249. This was everything I owned in the world, and I had nowhere else to go.

I’d been dropped off on the freeway in Dallas by my mother and stepfather, who wanted nothing to do with me. We’d driven out from Alabama; it was the last time I would see them for half a decade. I should have been scared to death but I’d been in worse situations, mostly due to them, partly due to having been a hippie. I’d been forcefully divorced from my family (which included three younger brothers I loved deeply) twice before, put on the highway with $20 by my mother, and dropped off on the highway near Dallas by my maternal grandfather and my mother's sister. And then there was the hitchhiking across the South. Once, I woke up on the side of a freeway somewhere in Louisiana. I’d slept in the grass the night before and somehow lost my wallet. I had 34 cents in my pocket. How I’d survived, who knows?

Back to Austin. I spent the hours before sunrise in an all-night coffee shop just off Interstate 35, a couple of blocks from the University of Texas campus, dawdling over a breakfast and asking questions of anyone who would listen about places to live. There wasn’t much you could do with $249, but the next morning I found a co-op house a block off Guadalupe Street, the main drag by UT, and I managed to get room and board paid for a month, leaving me with just over $100. I had a carpenter’s hammer, a measuring tape, and a tool belt in my backpack, along with a few clothes. Luckily enough, in a couple of days I found work as a carpenter and started making a living. My plan was to build up some money and start my career as a writer and musician. I’d never made a dime from either activity, but I knew I could if I tried hard enough. I was 23 years old, and utterly naive about how to make it in the world. Then something intervened, in the form of an introductory lecture on Dianetics and Scientology.

When I cashed my first paycheck, I had enough money to buy sheets and a bedspread for the mattress I’d been sleeping on. There was a mall nearby and I hitchhiked toward it to buy the bedclothes. I was feeling pretty good. I was stoned.

Being marijuaned was something different for me. In the previous six months, disillusioned with my hippie friends and a life that had spun almost into oblivion, I had made peace with my mother and stepfather long enough to stay with them in Alabama and work construction and save money. I hadn’t touched marijuana or much of anything — one beer, and a couple of aspirin another time was the extent of my substance abuse. I slept on the couch in the front room of their new FHA-financed house, and when I wasn’t working, I read books about Edgar Cayce and religions. I practiced yoga while listening to ragas by Ravi Shankar on the stereo — but only when everyone else was out of the house.

On to Austin. On that particular Saturday, Jerry, the rich fat kid across the hall who tripped and toked all day while reading science fiction and giving foot massages to the ladies of the co-op house, got me high. I figured why not, it had been a long time; what could it hurt?

Ha! That’s when kickass karma arrived in the form of Mike, an intense strawberry blonde young man in a bad blue suit and horrible yellow tie, behind the wheel of a Volkswagen bug. He asked where I was going and I told him.

“Hey, I’m going to a Scientology lecture,” he said, looking like a dock worker who'd been hit by a two by four. “Ever heard of it?”

I think I shocked him, given the resultant look on his face. “I read that it’s the fastest-growing religion on the west coast," I said. "I read a book called The New Religions.”

“Well, you should go to the lecture with me,” he replied. “It’s free.”

Free was my favorite word, but I envisioned a dozen businessmen in blue suits in a classroom setting, briefcases lined up perfectly by their desks. I was wearing a yellow wife beater tank top (no doubt to match Mike's tie), cutoff blue jean shorts, and sandals. “I don’t think I’d fit in,” I told him.

“Scientology can help you with that,” he said. “You’ll do fine.”

Within minutes, I was at the Scientology “org” (their term for organization) and Mike had disappeared. I was the only person in a back room listening to a lecture about "Dianetics, The Modern Science of Mental Health." Dressed in a tan corduroy suit with a yellow shirt (they loved that color) and dark green knit tie (ditto), bearded lecturer Bill Johonnessen explained to me the structure of the “reactive mind.” It sounded a lot like the subconscious, but who was I to quibble, I was stoned. I listened intently and made mental notes, only once wondering why Bill hadn’t asked whether or not I was stoned. I felt like it was obvious.

Finally he said, “So that’s how it works. Any questions?”

“Well, it kind of makes sense. But what I’m most concerned with is reincarnation. Do you folks believe in that?”

Mr. Corduroy Suit seemed taken aback, as though I was not your average, captured-off-the-street lecture attendee. “Sure,” he said, “but we call it something different. We call it ‘past lives’.”

“How’s that different?”

“It’s not, really. It’s just what we call it."

“Oh. So do you remember any past life you’ve lived? I think I do, and that kind of bothers me.”

“Sure,” he said without hesitation. “I was Chateaubriand.”

“I have no idea who that is,” I replied. “Or should I say, was.”

His face flushed red. I’d apparently committed a past life faux pas. “You know, famous man at the French court. Invented the steak named after him? Chateaubriand?”

“Never had one. I usually eat chicken-fried steak. But that’s interesting, I guess.”

“So what is it about this past life of yours that bothers you? Do you remember a specific identity or something?”

I hesitated. After all, I was still stoned and I'd been reading some of Jerry's fucked-up science fiction before I left the co-op house. Maybe I was tripping on all this? But Corduroy Suit seemed sincere. I’d never mentioned this to anyone but family before, and they’d gone silent when I told them. I shared now with Bill who I thought I'd been, a fairly famous author.

Dianetics Man’s mouth dropped open, the way my three brothers and aunt and uncle had reacted when I’d told them I explained I was going to be a writer because I'd done it before, in another life. That had taken place in a living room in Clayhatchee, Alabama, which was a very strange place to do yoga and talk about past lives.

“Well,” Bill said. “Scientology can help you with that. You should take our Communications Course.”

“How will that help me figure out if I really lived before? I’ve had these flashes of things out of nowhere, and it bugs the hell out of me. Makes me feel like I might be going crazy.”

Johonnesson explained that Dianetics “auditing” (their form of counseling) involved going back in your mind to earlier times, to find out where a problem started. He said I’d get some of that auditing on the second course, the Hubbard Qualified Scientologist course, and then I could find out for sure, guaranteed. But first I had to take the Communications Course, to prepare me for the auditing.

The course cost $35. That was a lot of money for me at the time, but I signed up. Two weeks later, I ended up pawning my guitar and typewriter to afford the course. Two of the registrars from Scientology took me to the pawnshop and collected the money as soon as it was handed to me. They were very insistent, and looked a little hungry.

So on September 26 I was supposed to start the Communications Course. Once again, I hitchhiked out to the Scientology org. I had trepidations, though. I finally decided I wanted a sign from God to assure me this was something I was supposed to do. We were a block from the Scientology place when the guys who gave me a ride began chattering about something in the sky — they’d never seen anything like it. Sitting in the back, I couldn’t see what they were talking about, but when I got out of the car I saw it. In the northeastern portion of the sky, there was a perfect double rainbow, one arched over the other. And along the western horizon at sunset, there were golden flashing lights everywhere. Some kind of storm was brewing.

I walked toward the Scientology course room, convinced I’d been given my sign. Or signs. In the next month, I would get the auditing Bill Johonnssen had told me about, and sure enough, I would find out about that "past life." What I hadn’t told him, though, was that I had something else in mind, a crazy idea. I wanted to find the person said author had married, a woman I was sure was reincarnated anew like me. Out of the billions of people on the Earth, I was determined to come across her and then—I calculated—my life would be magically transformed and the pain of my early years would seem like only minor inconvenience.

Funny thing was, I would achieve that goal, but it would require 16 years in Scientology and a great many more perilous adventures to get there. I didn’t know that on September 26, 1973. I simply knew that I’d received my sign and I had a Communications Course to do. I had no idea about the darkness of Scientology that I would have to experience, like Orpheus going through hell to find Eurydice, but even if I’d known on that rainbow evening, I probably would have remained undaunted, because love will cut through anything, and bring about miracles, and my adventure had begun.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is all too typical of why people of my generation got into Scientology back then. It was a very different time, and no one has ever told that aspect of the lure of Scientology. So here I am to share it with you. It covers a couple of decades, and a number of incarnations.

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Skip Press is an author and teacher who has been active in Hollywood for decades. He knows as much about the inner workings of celebrity Scientology as anyone alive.

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