I do remember when I was a university student seeing the glassy-eyed young students selling second rate (a bit dry or petals missing) flowers on the major thoroughfares of Boston. I remember reading all the newspaper accounts and finding out these people were somehow part of a "cult," before I understood what that meant.

I learned about Sun Myung Moon, now in his 90th year and somewhere in South Korea, who some may have thought was the Messiah of the second coming.

There are all manner of myths and confusions and business about the “moonies.” Let us say, there are at the very least serious questions raised and I would not counsel going near this group. A cult is simply an organization where those who are at a point of great transition in life, and thus prone to a great insecurity, find themselves seduced into a group membership. This is not a difficult thing to do.

Whether someone is a freshman student away from home for the first time, or a senior who is getting pressure from the family that it is time to start earning a living, it is not hard to see how an easier solution than facing an economically questionable and not particularly emotionally supportive world, could be, well, seductive. At one time I was curious about what brainwashing and cult membership meant. I wondered if there were a positive way to use this sort of thing. Well there is, of course, but nobody is going to put time or effort into it. For the structure of a cult seems to include a group of inner elites who benefit in terms of money or notoriety or both. Perhaps necessary as a cult grows, there is expected to be a second group of folks who are staff, who may profit a little in some ways but basically do the bidding of the elite. I have never been directly involved in "deprogramming" or such, but I have had patients who have spent time in cults, and later returned. They all report similar experiences. When they first join, they immediately move from their loneliness and fear into communal situations, usually including sleep deprivation. They are given what seem to me (and generally them, in retrospect) the most superficial of ideologies, told basically that they learn them, serve the group, and will be cared for by the group.

A corollary of the ideologies will always include adopting the group as a new family, and cutting off all contact with families of origin. This may sound stern, but is generally, at this point, surprisingly easy, for the insecurities of the stage of life where a person is generally recruited often involve family. They disappear like snow in July when someone adopts the ideology -- and the uncritical neo-family. One of the things I love most about humans is their indomitable spirit. Call it faith, call it soul -- people survive things like punishment and torture and horrible things that make no logic or sense at all, and come out amazing and wonderful, in ways that I can't put together biochemically but have seen so many times that I know they are as real as the air that I breathe. I salute and celebrate them, for cults thrive on secrecy and upon separation from other social constructs, so those courageous souls who leave do so under tremendous pressure.

I have now seen and read enough that I believe Scientology to be a cult that fits the above definition, with the possible exception of its celebrity members, who are treated differently than run-of-the-mill members. The worst risk for these celebrities may be that their intellect and judgment are called into question when they mouth the teachings of Scientology. Then again, Southern California is a place I believe to be the epicenter of anti-intellectualism, where people worry more about the tiniest physical detail (that I could not find with a microscope placed to the skin) than they do about ingesting potentially life threatening combinations of substances.

I have been here long enough that if other places are like this, I may have missed it. Anyone out there thinks Tom Cruise could have a genius level IQ? He admitted in an interview in a Spanish magazine, XL Semanal, that he was diagnosed with a learning disability when he was 7 years old. He credits Scientology with helping him overcome this disability.

One Scientologist who is undoubtedly literate, screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, and Crash – which he also directed, winning two Oscars in 2006) made major news when he broke away from the “religion.”

This has been much reported:

Moreover, this person's literate letter of resignation has been reported, verified, and the like; it talks about political contributions, and anti-gay stance and such, taken by the upper levels of the "church."

What happens when one leaves – whether it be Scientology or one of the more mainstream churches?

There is an excellent documentary “Secret lives of women: Extreme Beliefs.” I have been through this and other videos. I think these people are real. They tell stories about the "Sea" organization, an elite group of upper level Scientology staffers. There are a few things reported by more than one person that appear to be some kind of pretty serious infractions of human rights. First, there are reports of out-and-out corporal punishment, particularly attributed as high up as the director of the "Church." There is a detoxification ritual that was presented as a form of punition (corrective punishment, usually used in ancient judicial sentences such as flogging). Although amounts were not quoted, use of a very large dose of niacin has been reported, as part of a protocol apparently used as punition. Now it is pretty impossible to have either a deficiency or excess of niacin on virtually any kind of human (western) diet I can think of, but excess Niacin (given from external souces -- somebody showed a GNC bottle in the video) can indeed get people into trouble. Liver damage, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea – well, you don’t need the whole list to know it just isn’t good.

For this I cite the (online version of) the Merck Manual, a book I devoured (and tried to memorize) and lived by for many years and consider one of the best references out there. I think we can all be pretty sure nobody checked for uric acid, blood glucose, or transaminase levels.

This "ritual" also included sitting in a sauna for several hours a day.

You might recall a couple of years ago when some people at a mystical New Age retreat with a self-help guru died in a ceremonial sweat lodge.

It is hard to find details about the dangers of excessive sauna as nobody seems to have voluntarily sat in one for several hours daily, let alone with potentially toxic levels of niacin on board. Amy -- the person in the "Sea Company" -- did this without questioning whatever authority told her to do so, reporting on the video there was "grey stuff" coming out of her skin; something I will not even guess the composition of. Her family is still part of Scientology and contact with them is not possible for her. Here is what I believe to be the most "official" website of Scientology leavers.

This is the newspaper which I believe to have the longest running in-depth coverage of what seems to really be going on inside this “church.”

It is not that long ago that I visited the "Psychiatry Kills" museum in Los Angeles, operated by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) – established by the Church of Scientology -- with my husband and my research-psychologist friend. I am aware of and appalled by some of the abuses, and actually agreed they had located some of the historic and cross-cultural problems of psychiatry. Of course, many of their examples were ancient and long before psychiatry – or medicine – was really established. But even up to modern times, horrible things have been done to the mentally ill, sometimes in a misguided effort to help them, sometimes in the name of research, and sometimes just to get them out of the way of “normal” society.

Of course, the staff never knew who I really was, as both my friend and myself said only we were "teachers" by profession. We asked about solutions for problems. They had little to say except a lot can be done by "natural methods" and vitamins. They ask for a lot of personal information on their sign in sheet, wanting to add you to their mailing list. I certainly didn’t want a bunch of mail, phone calls and possibly personal visits from Tom Cruise to recruit us for their anti-psychiatry crusade – and of course to become Scientologists. Rest assured, they did not learn our name or whereabouts. The ironic fact is that these people refer patients to me. I’m on their list as someone who uses natural treatments and speaks out against pharmaceuticals. They must subscribe to that philosophy, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and it is just that kind of logic that led us to support Saddam Hussein (and many other dictators around the world) until it became expedient to do away with him as an “enemy.”

I can see how people who make more emotional than intellectual decisions may have been taken in by “Psychiatry Kills.” It’s a very effective propaganda presentation – lots of audio-video displays, hardware (torture implements) and lots of factual abuses – as well as many specious claims that the ordinary tourist will just gloss over. And they never mention Scientology. They give all the credit for CCHR to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz.

As for celebrities, they have their "own" Celebrity Center (various cities such as Los Angeles, London, Paris, and others) – usually a lovely castle-like building, where everyone knows the famous are treated like the Gods of this religion. No other religion courts "celebrities" for Public Relations purposes -- for marvelous success stories of how well they have done with what seems like a pseudo-ideology, within an institution that can only be called a "cult."

Once in Canada, when I was still a resident neurosurgeon, I wandered into a Scientology storefront for a "free personality test." It was a Meyers-Briggs and they found I did not have enough conflict for them to offer me very much, much to their disappointment. They did not think I even needed a going over with their "e-meter," which I have since learned is essentially working on the same technology as a lie detector. People often make decisions based on what is easy and what is emotional as opposed to what they have thought through.

For this reason, I am begging -- stay as far as humanly possible away from Scientology, unless you are a low IQ celebrity who likes to be fawned over and to use words without understanding them.

At the very least, go read the principal website of Scientology Leavers. Perhaps the most touching of the videos is the speech of a young woman, pregnant and unable to tell her family (who are still Scientologists) about her state. She says there is no freedom greater than to go where you want and do what you want, and to feel that now is worth all her troubles. Such freedom ought not to be taken for granted.

Author's Bio: 

I'm The Renegade Doctor because I broke away from the conventional wisdom that keeps doctors overworked, underpaid, and chronically miserable.

Estelle Toby Goldstein, M.D. is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is licensed to practice in the state of California. She holds a valid license from the DEA to write prescriptions, but is an expert in nutritional therapies involving vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other cutting-edge treatments. Her philosophy includes working with other professionals to get the best treatment for her patient. Medical specialists in other fields, psychotherapists and alternative practitioners are among her allies in her pursuit of optimum treatment for her patients.