A couple months ago I sat down and watched The Master for the first time. It is late 2019, and the film was released in 2012, so I am only seven years late.
It wasn’t that I had particularly avoided the film. I recall watching the trailers before its release. Somehow they just didn’t quite grab me and I forgot about the film.
But just like the time I forgot about that 20 bucks I left in my jacket pocket—only to find it years later—I got a little rush when I was trying to figure out what to watch one night and The Master came to mind.
First of all, how could you go wrong with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix? And in the same movie? Really!? And I hadn’t seen the film? It must have been a fantastic time for movies that month back in 2012, or I had something very pressing to tend to!
But this year I finally corrected the oversight and watched the film.
I knew that comparisons had been made between the film and Scientology, but I was vague on the specifics.
Having now watched the film, let’s explore some comparisons.
I understand the inferences
I want to acknowledge that no one who hasn’t spent extensive time in Scientology would likely know the subtle variations that make all the difference, and I understand why the inferences are made.
The “Informal Processing” scene in particular, between Dodd (Hoffman) and Quell (Phoenix), has been compared to the therapy of Scientology.
Let’s look at the comparisons.
Processing and Alcohol
Both Dodd and Quell have an alcoholic drink immediately before their session.
It is in fact prohibited in Scientology for a person undergoing processing to have any alcoholic drink within the 24 hour period leading up to that session. Basically you have to be stone-cold sober, and lucid.
You also must be well rested and well fed. These are checked for at the start of every session.
This is actually one of the reasons Scientologists are known for being into healthy lifestyles via diets and vitamins and cleanses and so on. It’s considered a kind of tacit prerequisite to processing to have your physical self in as good shape as you can get it.
While Hubbard only requires adequate food and sleep, and the absence of drugs and alcohol, Scientologists may take this further into generally healthy lifestyles, though fads come and go.
I have never heard of a person undergoing processing in Scientology while intoxicated. Perhaps it has happened. If that is the case, hopefully it was resolved swiftly.
Processing and Acknowledgments
Probably the most important difference between Scientology and the scene in the movie is that Dodd rarely acknowledges the communications of Quell. In fact, he pretty much barrages him with question after question.
This is an interesting subject to tackle. Let’s start with the way Hubbard says it should be: each and every single communication offered by a “patient” must be acknowledged by the “practitioner”. Yes, every time. Always.
Scientologists in training to be practitioners do drills where random communication is offered to them, which they must suitably acknowledge. These drills are set up to get progressively more difficult, on the idea that at the most advanced level they emulate real-life and thus can be used in real life.
So, at first the practitioner is allowed to acknowledge in any old way. But once he or she can at least do that, then the work begins. By the end, if the originator of the communication in the drill feels any concern (and I mean literally any concern) with an acknowledgement, the drill is not passed.
The drill is practiced during periods of study until such a time as all communications offered can be adequately acknowledged. And boy do the communications offered start coming from crazy-land! That is because the practitioner is expected to be able to acknowledge appropriately no matter what a patient says.
What are concerns that call for the drill to continue? Over-Acknowledgement is one (“ok, fine, fine, yes, ok, fine”). Under-Acknowledgment (“hmmm”). Cutting someone off before they finish. Being rude via acknowledgement. Using the same acknowledgement over and over again and thus being stale. Not really meaning the acknowledgement. Acknowledging without actually taking in the communication and understanding it. Using an inappropriate acknowledgement (“my mum is in the hospital” acknowledged by “that’s great”). The list goes on.
The failure of Dodd is that he usually does not acknowledge at all. But more than that, his pauses seem to infer that he is in fact not entirely happy with Quell’s answers.
I found watching the scene made me uncomfortable, which is I believe its intention. It’s a wonderful scene, well crafted and executed. Masterfully acted. But it isn’t Scientology.
Processing and Evaluation
A distinct different between Dodd and Scientology is Dodd’s use of “evaluation” in the session. Evaluation is telling a person what to think or how to think about something.
The whole premise of Scientology processing could be said to be “let the patient figure things out on their own”. It is strictly forbidden for the practitioner to provide data to the patient. Doing so not only negates the workability, but usually makes the patient worse off, as he or she is now less likely to be thinking for themselves.
Such evaluation also comes from “height”, in that many patients will view their practitioner with a level of authority. Thus, to allow a practitioner to evaluate for the patient circumvents the goal of the processing in the first place: to facilitate in the patient a greater sense of self-determination and awareness.
All this being said, out of session, I have never experienced evaluation quite as I have from the occasional Scientologist. In fact, I have found most people are quite hesitant to evaluate for others.
So I really do understand why people can be upset with Scientology. Evaluation shouldn’t occur, but it can occur, and has occurred. Such instances should be corrected with care.
Processing, “No Blinking” & “Infringement”
The “no blinking” in the processing scene is a good example of a mash-up of concepts.
“No Blinking” comes from the communication drills, not processing. It is for the practitioner, not the patient.
However, it is not even really for the practitioner. It is mentioned by Hubbard that blinking can, in theory, be avoided if one is utterly in the present moment, confronting the world (or a patient): really just “being there” for him or her. Blinking is postulated to be one of these “everybody knows” things that might not necessarily be.
But it is not required. Maybe it was at one stage earlier on. Perhaps. It isn’t now.
The “infringement” is also from the communication drills. But the word actually used is “flunk”. This is used, for example, when a bad acknowledgment is given, and the drill is repeated.
I have seen “flunks” used correctly (nicely), and incorrectly (rudely, aggressively, etc.). But again, this is for the practitioner in training, never a patient.
The Oxford Capacity Analysis
The Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA) is the source of the questions used in the Processing Scene, though most of the questions are not word-for-word.
The OCA is a tool used by the Church of Scientology to attract people to their services. I believe it wasn’t created by Hubbard, but he acquired it and it is now owned by the Church of Scientology.
Personally, I don’t like the OCA. I feel it has a “right or wrong” approach, promoting that there is a “correct way to be”. I much prefer Jordan Peterson’s “Understand Myself” (understandmyself.com), or the MBTI approach (16personalities.com).
The OCA, for me, well… I’ve taken it many times. And it started to become a sort of “standard” I was trying to hold myself to. In a way, it became a method of self-evaluation and self-invalidation. If I were to take it again, I personally wouldn’t be overly concerned with its results.
As for the Processing Scene in The Master, the OCA is not used in Scientology Processing. It may be used before and after, as a method of evaluation of potential progress, but it is not employed as a method in itself.
Still, it was interesting seeing it used that way. Such questions are entertaining in such a setting, but useless to therapy.
Is Processing Recorded?
No, generally not.
I am aware of it occurring though. The stated reason is just like when you hear that message when calling into a call centre: “…for training and coaching purposes”.
Do such recordings get used for other purposes? Well it hasn’t happened to me, though I can imagine it might have occurred elsewhere.
My take on it
While The Master is brilliantly crafted and acted, and many elements of Scientology are referenced, they are thrown together in a mash-up for entertainment that negates any real-world use of the techniques and concepts as portrayed.
Fact is, no Scientologist in their right mind would act the way Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman’s character, supposedly inspired by Hubbard) does. Such an approach would invalidate any good that there might be in Scientology.
It is a bit like someone with the parts to a car, but put together all wrong, and incomplete. I guess technically you have “a car” or “part of a car”, but you sure can’t drive it.
Now, I’ve said here “no Scientologist in their right mind would act the way Lancaster Dodd does”. That there have been people involved in Scientology who have not been in their right mind is a given, so really all I am saying here is that The Master is not like the theory of Scientology, though I can imagine it has been practiced that way from time to time.
Hopefully that practice is in the minority.