Friday, January 9, 2009

A Complex Decision

By Kristen Tsetsi
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, October 2, 2008 12:48 PM EDT

"Hooterville" used to be the wholesome pastoral town depicted in the 1965-71 TV series Green Acres. Among Hooterville’s citizens were quirky farmers holding bent pitchforks and general store owners who were also the town postmaster, justice of the peace, and publisher of the local newspaper.

Not these days. “Hooterville” is now considered a physical state to aspire to by a select sect of the American female culture, and, as an abstract sort of “village,” it comprises nearly 2.5 million women who have opted to get breast implants.

The lightness of the name “Hooterville” belies what can often be a psychologically complex, and sometimes physically damaging, decision.

Breasts, it would seem at the surface, are an accessory at the whim of changing fads. Either that or nature has sorely failed women, who have ultimately decided: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery’s “ask-a-surgeon” page says that breast augmentation is “a proven way to improve the size and shape of your breasts.”

But this poses a question or two, such as, what does it mean to “improve” the size and shape of a breast? Who’s deciding what the “correct” size or shape is? And when did a regular breast first start to need “fixing,” anyway?

It seems it was at least as early as the late 1800s, when Rubenesque curves were “in” and surgeons would inject a woman’s own fatty tissue into her breasts to give her the desired ampleness to suit the times. After that, women tried everything from glass balls to ox cartilage to change their breast shape and size.

In the flapper era of the 1920s, thinness and small breasts were at the height of popularity and women would bind their breasts to make themselves appear flat-chested. But later, in the 1940s and ’50s, big breasts made a comeback and another differently barbaric procedure involved rotating the patient’s chest wall tissue into the breast to add volume.

Reasons behind augmentation

Why so many women are eager to surgically alter their breasts is a question asked even by one plastic surgeon.

“When I have a young woman — unmarried, early 20s — come in and she has a beautiful body, B cup, and says she wants a C, I want to know why,” says Dr. Stephen Brown, a Hartford plastic surgeon who has performed thousands of breast implant surgeries at an average of 100 per year.

If you ask the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the benefits of breast augmentation surpass simple physical “improvement.” Its Web site,, boasts that “plastic surgery — whether cosmetic or reconstructive — encourages and promotes a strong, positive self-image.”

It goes on to say, “Even a small change on the outside can create an extraordinary change on the inside, allowing an individual’s self-confidence to flourish.”

Brown, who’s taught in the field for 30 years, says that while he’s a member of that society and others, he doesn’t agree 100 percent with the sentiment.

“Self-esteem should come from within,” he says. “Can plastic surgery improve you a little? Yes, if you’re also working on it from within. Any surgery we do can kind of give them a lift, but it’s not going to really change their life. It’s not going to be a life-altering alteration.”

Still, the promise of better self-esteem, which is not proven and has in fact been argued by the American Psychiatric Association, is working.

In 2007 alone, the number of women who had breast augmentation surgery was 399,440, according to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. That’s a nearly 82 percent increase over the 220,000 women who received the surgery in 2001.

Help with free implants

There’s even an Internet site designed to help women get free breast implants. At, a Web site co-founded in 2005 by California resident Jason Moore, testimonials grace a full Web page.

“Hey guys and gals! I have returned home to find myself in Hooterville!!!!!” writes one young woman after discovering her new breasts were paid for.

At, women — whom Moore says are mostly in their late 20s who have had children and want to “repair” their bodies — post their pictures online and become part of an online community in which they vie for the attention of male “benefactors.” Benefactors buy “message credits” for as low as $1.20 that are used to send messages to the women. Each message sent earns credit toward the woman’s procedure.

In February, 83 women raised enough money for implants. As of early April, that number had reached 120.

“We had 21 success stories in the month of January, and 19 in March,” Moore said in a telephone interview. “The highest age of a successful woman was 54.”

“Success stories” are women on the site who receive fully-funded implants.

In February, benefactors numbered 20,000. Now there are up to 40,000, Moore said.

The breast industry is clearly a successful one. Before creating, Moore, who has an MBA in marketing, had tried starting two other Web-based businesses — one in e-mail security and one in computer hardware. Both failed.

“There are a lot of men really into breasts, so it’s very successful,” Moore said.

Complications abound

The list of 25 implant-related complications compiled by the federal Food and Drug Administration, most of which would require non-surgical treatments or re-operations and possibly removal of the implants, isn’t much of a deterrent to breast buyers.

The list includes breast pain, asymmetry, toxic shock syndrome, wrinkling or rippling, hardening of tissue, and chest wall deformity.

Brown says the most common complication is contracture, the hardening of the scar tissue that holds the implant in place.

“It tightens or shrinks, and it squeezes the implant and makes it feel harder,” Brown says, noting that contracture occurs in between 5 and 10 percent of saline implants, but with the older gel implants, it would occur in as high as 50 percent of the cases.

Another complication he sees a lot of — “It’s more common than I’d like to see,” Brown says — is malformation of the breast after implants are inserted under the muscle, a technique he says too many young people see online and think is the best way to go. Sometimes it is, he says, but sometimes it isn’t.

When it isn’t, “the implant stays high under the muscle, but the tissue descends with age, so you have this weird vertical up-and-down. Particularly if you had implants done before you had children, or had them done after pregnancy and then had another child,” Brown says.

And then there are the really serious complications.

National Cancer Institute studies found that compared to other plastic surgery patients of similar age, women with breast implants were twice as likely to die from brain cancer, three times as likely to die from lung cancer or other diseases, and four times as likely to commit suicide, according to a report contributed by the Implant Information Project of the National Research Center for Women & Families.

Why suicide?

The American Psychiatric Association’s online magazine “Monitor on Psychology” explains that researchers speculate that some surgery recipients may have unrealistic expectations of the surgery’s results, or have certain personality characteristics that predispose them to suicide.

“If someone’s got a really nice figure, what are they looking for” in breast implants? Brown says. “Why do they want to put something foreign in their body? If it were my daughter, I would discourage her. I would say, ‘What’s going on? What’s wrong?’”

Self-esteem issue debated

As for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ claim that plastic surgery boosts self-esteem, the magazine article notes that there are no firm results indicating plastic surgery boosts self-esteem, improves quality of life, or heightens self-confidence in the long term.

Brown says the only patient to ever come to him for implant removal was 40 years old, and that her reason was that she didn’t “need them anymore.”

“That was her quote,” Brown says. “I think it was really a matter that when she was younger, she felt more insecure about herself.”

The nice thing about implants, Brown adds, is that they’re completely reversible. Once an implant is removed, the skin and breast tissue will usually return to the original shape. Unless a woman gets implants that are too large, he clarifies. If the implant is too large, the skin and tissue will stretch too far.

The implant will also be uncomfortable if too large, he says.

“I won’t give anyone a D cup,” he says. “It won’t be comfortable. Most women with natural D cups will get surgery to make their breasts smaller.”

Brown then remembers one woman he did, in fact, give a D cup. “She was 6 feet tall and had a C cup and wanted to fix her proportions.”

Brown adds that some surgeons, if offered the money, “will put in whatever the woman wants because they don’t want to lose the patient.”

He believes it’s wrong not only to provide too large of a cup size, but to give implants to women who want the surgery for what appear to be unhealthy reasons.

“There may be instability, they may be crying a little bit, they want it too much, they may feel like they’re entitled to have it done. They’re just not giving good reasons for wanting it,” he says.

Brown has turned people away and told them to come back in six months to a year.

He also calls the parent-to-daughter breast implants graduation gift, a trend that became popular several years ago, “wrong,” psychologically.

“It sends out the wrong message,” Brown says.

His ideal breast implant patient, he says, is a woman in her 30s who has had children and is happy but “wants to fill a bathing suit or feel a little sexy in a cocktail dress.”

When women just want to feel feminine, Brown says, is when breast implants make the most sense, such as after a mastectomy, or — as stated before — after children or in the case of a deformity.

But sexiness and self-confidence aren’t inherently found in a C or D cup.

“Marilyn Monroe was a B cup — not even a large B cup — and she’s one of the sexiest women that ever lived,” Brown says.

He also provides actress Debra Messing of the television series “Will and Grace” as an example of confident small-chestedness.

“She’s flat-chested, and she isn’t running out getting breast implants,” Brown says.

The Rape Trail: America Doesn't Get it

By Kristen J. Tsetsi, Stacey A. Silliman, and Laura F. Alix
Published: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:09 AM EDT

No one says to a mugging victim, “Well, you did have your wallet with you.” When someone is carjacked, no one says, “You should have expected it; you were in your car.”

Why is it, then, that when a woman is sexually assaulted, she’s asked, “Were you drinking?” or “Why were you walking there?”

After Melissa Bruen, editor of UConn’s The Daily Campus, wrote an account of her own sexual assault over Spring Weekend — during which her attempts to fight off one of the men was reportedly met with, “My, aren’t we feisty tonight?” — an opinion column in the Journal Inquirer by Managing Editor Chris Powell asked, “Is it really ‘blaming the victim’ to note that there will always be predators and that to get drunk and hang out with thousands of other drunks looking to lose their inhibitions is to ask for trouble? Is it really ‘blaming the victim’ to wonder whether someone who is about to receive a university degree should have learned as much by now?”

Powell suggests Bruen should have known better than to walk home on what’s infamously known as “The Rape Trail.” He suggests that the name itself should cause people — presumably women, as they’re the most frequent rape victims — to “wise up.”

Yes, that’s blaming the victim. The victim is blamed when her judgment is called into question, and the action of her attacker is not.

Bruen’s top was yanked down by a second attacker, who then grabbed her breasts and said, “You think that was assault?”

And she should have known better?

When a woman is sexually assaulted, the male attackers are often left out of the discussion — as if they’re little more than bystanders, or simple animals with no self-control.

Maybe they are.

After all, Bruen was “breaking the rules.” She admitted she had been drinking that evening. She said she was wearing a tube top, clothing most wouldn’t consider modest. And she was alone — albeit surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of her fellow students — on the night of her assault, while walking “The Rape Trail.”

When the victim of an assault admits she wasn’t following the rules, doubt is cast, and people wonder what she could have done to prevent the assault.

But you can do everything “right” and become the victim of an assault. And you can do everything “wrong” and remain unscathed.

Rather than focusing on what women should be doing to avoid being attacked, it’s time we devise a set of rules to teach young men:

• If a woman is drunk, don’t rape her.

• If a woman is unconscious, don’t rape her.

• If a woman is walking alone at night, don’t rape her.

• If a woman is wearing a short skirt, don’t rape her.

To put it as simply as possible, there’s never a time when rape or sexual assault is justified or understandable.

And while we disagree with Powell that Bruen should “wise up,” we do agree with his assertion that the university should try everything in its power to prevent the drunken debauchery of Spring Weekend each year.

Other schools in other states, notably the State University of New York at Cortland, have gained injunctions against student parties like Spring Weekend that can lead to assaults like the one described by Bruen. The school took action, with the help of then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, to eliminate what was called the Block Party, a public nuisance and safety hazard for students.

In addition to preventing the yearly spectacle of Spring Weekend, however, UConn should think about how it responds to sexual assault or rape claims. Instead of wondering why a woman would wander down a trail by herself, we should ask why there are places on a state university’s campus nicknamed after violent crimes. Why is there not a consistent effort to root out and eliminate these places — where women are afraid to go without protection, and where violent men feel they have a safe haven?

The Connecticut Law Enforcement Agency Uniform Crime Report notes that in 2006 there were 18.1 rapes per 100,000 people in the state compared to 3.1 murders per 100,000 people.

The United States has the highest rate of rape among countries that record those statistics. It is four times higher than Germany, 13 times higher than England, and 20 times higher than Japan, according to a Web site for a University of Rochester based group Men Against Sexual Assault.

More than 40 years ago, one of our mothers was wearing a nonprovocative sweatshirt and jacket when a man dragged her into an alley and threatened to rape her.

Why, even in 2008, are women still told that our behavior or clothing is somehow directly responsible for the reprehensible behavior of otherwise rational males? Why is attention not focused on what’s behind their independent and conscious decision to molest, attack, overpower, humiliate, and violate their victims? Why are we asking, “Was she walking alone or drunk?” and not, “What the hell was he thinking?”

We must impress upon the young that sexual assault is unquestionably unacceptable. We must do it so successfully that by the time they’re adults, if a woman is sexually assaulted, the first question, the only debate, will center on the attacker and his behavioral defect.

Kristen J. Tsetsi, Stacey A. Silliman, and Laura F. Alix are staff writers for the Journal Inquirer.

Lifetime's Desperation could kill its cash cow, "Army Wives"

By Kristen Tsetsi
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 12:54 PM EDT

As Lifetime Network’s “Army Wives” is picked up for a third season, hailed for its accurate depictions of the lives of women living on an Army post, it might be unpopular to label the show as one lacking in accuracy and frantically clutching at dramatic straws.

But if the critique fits…

A recent episode of Army Wives contained such a gross inaccuracy for the sake of dramatic action that, had it been true, most Americans would no doubt skip work to protest the heartless military.

In the episode, which aired July 14, the character of a female sergeant is about to deploy, but her husband has eight months left in Iraq, and she has a daughter at home.

“Surely you have a backup in your family care plan,” says General’s wife Claudia Joy.

But she doesn’t have a backup. And when Claudia Joy tells her husband she fears the sergeant will refuse to deploy, the General — who really should know better — says that if she does, “She’ll get arrested.” Again: if the sergeant doesn’t abandon her daughter, the Army will arrest her.

In fact, the Army doesn’t want its soldiers to orphan their children. It even ensures a family care plan is in place prior to a deployment. In real life, under Chapter 5-8 of Army Regulation 635-200, a soldier in that position would have been given “Involuntary separation due to parenthood,” which is a general or honorable discharge. Or, as happens at the end of the episode, she might have her deployment deferred while she tries to find someone to care for her daughter.

But, never mind — the key is drama, and the storyline ends with Claudia Joy as a hero. Though as a general’s wife she’s not in the Army, she is repeatedly given incredible military influence in the show and, in this episode, is the one to make the sergeant’s deferred deployment possible.

This is but one example of “Army Wives” writers struggling to create conflict when there is already so much real-life strife inherent in today’s military climate. It would behoove the writers to trust their ability to use existing dramas without relying on wild contrivances.

Having been married to an Army officer who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, news last year of Lifetime’s new drama documenting the lives of wartime military spouses enthralled me. “Finally,” I thought. “Their story will be told.” I say “their” because by that time my husband was no longer in a position to deploy.

I was thrilled for this reason: In under five seconds, I can name more than six movies that offer insight into the soldier’s story (Platoon, Casualties of War, We Were Soldiers, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Thin Red Line, Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Blackhawk Down). The closest Hollywood has come to exploring the psychology and emotion of having a lover at war was the 1984 movie Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn. More recently, a few brief scenes were given to women left behind in We Were Soldiers. Otherwise, even HBO’s "Band of Brothers" and "Generation Kill" has, until Lifetime’s “Army Wives,” neglected the surreal and complicated experience of waiting for a loved one to make it through a war.

It was this inattention that led me to write Pretty Much True..., a novel that forces readers to experience the raw and intimate drama of a deployment through the unapologetic eyes of a young woman whose soulmate is sent to Iraq in 2003.

It was after the book published that “Army Wives” first aired, and I was excited that yet another medium was being used to propel the experience into the public arena. This year, each time I watch an episode I wince, hoping the writers have taken their time this time … that they’ve focused on the sublime torture of waiting and wondering that plagues every person caring for a deployed soldier … that the writers found a way to portray the intense pain of imagining a lover’s death, or the ease with which misunderstandings wreak havoc … that they didn’t twist another relevant storyline into something unseemly. And almost every time, the episode unfolds tainted by the common ploys Lifetime is guilty of using to excite its audience: affairs and male domination.

For example, in the July 14 episode mentioned above, Denise’s deployed husband Frank doesn’t like Denise’s sudden, uncharacteristic habit of “trolling around” on a motorcycle. He fears she’s becoming too independent.

In other words, he’s stuck in sandbox-limbo and is afraid his wife’s life is gliding along without him, if not ahead of him.

To create an understanding of what these people go through, the writers could have easily left it at that: Frank’s increasing frustration with what he imagines might be happening, and Denise’s hurt and frustration at having done nothing wrong and not knowing how to convince her husband otherwise. When any conversation could be the last, it is this need to be understood that causes incredible emotional friction.

Instead, the writers throw in an extramarital attraction. Next week, one of the wives will tell Denise, “I know what it’s like to have a husband away.”

Denise makes the third of five main characters to have an extramarital interest (last season it was Pam and Roland). As if an affair is the crisis apex of a deployment, as if the audience is too base to appreciate a more complex conflict.

Don’t misunderstand. I think “Army Wives,” for all of its faults, is an important and often entertaining show. I even have a favorite “wife” (Roxy). And at long last, television is recognizing a significant portion of the population involved in these Afghanistan and Iraq wars who were previously largely forgotten, except as yellow-ribbon stereotypes.

Perhaps I’m just angry after having expected so much.

Lifetime has a unique opportunity to do something substantial. The soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are real people who really are coming home dismembered, or really not coming home at all. The loves they leave behind often go from one day to the next experiencing incredible fear the person they love will die any minute. The pain of the loss is felt before it even happens, and is quickly replaced by passionate elation at the arrival of an email or an unexpected phone call. It’s disorienting and intense. And most of the negative emotions are compounded by guilt for feeling anything negative at all while living the “cushy” life at home.

If Lifetime wants to air a show about life on a military post during peacetime, then let it be trite and contrived. But not while something real wants to be written. Lifetime is throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give screen time to a story that’s been inadequately explored. So far, anyway. Because many Army Wives episodes seem to have been written the week prior to airing, changes could probably be made fairly seamlessly. Now that it’s been picked up for a whole new season, there’s still plenty of time for redemption. And if Lifetime can’t handle it, I’m sure HBO can.

Clearing the Air: A first-time visit to the Church of Scientology

By Kristen J. Tsetsi
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, July 24, 2008 11:31 AM EDT

After actor Tom Cruise, a well-known Scientologist, criticized actress Brooke Shields’ use of antidepressants to treat postpartem depression in 2005 — later claiming in an interview with the Today Show’s Matt Lauer to be something of an expert on the history of psychiatry, a practice strongly opposed by Scientology — I wanted to know more about the religion.

Not about the field of Scientology itself; plenty of articles had been written and/or posted on the Internet by ex-Scientologists (including founder L. Ron Hubbard’s son, L. Ron Hubbard, Jr., who reportedly changed his name to Ron deWolf in the early 1980s).

Anything else there was to know could be found in any one of the many books written by L. Ron Hubbard. To name a few: “Dianetics;” “Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought;” and “What is Scientology?”

What wasn’t available was something offering a glance inside the church itself — what did it look like on the other side of the front door? And what would a conversation sound like between a Scientologist and a first-time visitor?

It was easy enough to find churches near where I lived at the time in Rochester, N.Y. — there’s a large one on Main Street in Buffalo, N.Y., and a small mission in Ontario, N.Y.

I called the mission first to find out when services were held, and the woman on the other end of the line had a list of questions.

“What got you interested in Scientology?” “Have you read anything about it?” “What book are you reading?” “How far into the book are you?” “Where did you buy the book?” “Have you read any of L. Ron Hubbard’s other books?” “What area of your life are you hoping to improve?” “What about Scientology appeals to you?”

After trying my best to answer honestly — I got curious years ago after seeing a copy of “Dianetics” lying around; I’d read a little about it; I was reading “Scientology: Fundamentals of Thought”; I bought the book online; I hadn’t read any of the other books; I wanted to improve my capacity for patience — I was told services were held Sundays at 11 a.m.

Deciding to visit

It was only Thursday, so I decided to visit the Buffalo location, which had weekday hours. When I called to verify they were open, the woman who answered the phone said they were, asked me when I thought I’d be there, and took my first and last name and phone number.

After I hung up I got in the car and hit the interstate, but a few minutes into my drive the weather turned bad, so I headed home.

On the way, I wondered whether I should call the church to say I wouldn’t be coming. But then I thought, “Nah. What do they care? I’ll just show up tomorrow.”

I also wondered whether they would call me when I didn’t show up.

“Nah,” I thought.

Half an hour after I got home, my cell phone rang.

It was a man who said his name was Neil. Neil was calling from the Church of Scientology to say, “Hi! I’m just following up on your call earlier. You wanted to come by?”

I explained why I hadn’t made the trip and told him I planned to come sometime the next day. But Neil wanted details.

“When do you think you’ll be here?”

“How long does it take you to get here?”

“Do you think you can be here in the morning?”

“Why don’t you plan on being here between 10 and 11 a.m.? Actually, 10 o’clock works best for me, so how about that?”

He also asked the same questions the woman from the mission had asked. I answered, probably sounding a lot less interested than I had the first time.

Neil and I ended the phone call, both of us saying we looked forward to our meeting.

Inside the church

Having had limited exposure to churches of any kind, I had no idea what the Church of Scientology would look like inside. Online articles hinted at a high level of secrecy inherent in the organization, so I hoped for something resembling the dungeon-like setting used in the movie, “The Skulls,” a fictional story based on the secret Yale society, Order of the Skull and Bones.

I envisioned torches. Cinderblock walls. Cement platforms for symbolic sacrifices or other rituals. Something sinister.

Outside, the building was architecturally beautiful. Housed in a 110-year-old structure that was once the public library, the Buffalo Church of Scientology was identifiable only by a black Cross of Scientology affixed to the building’s curved, exterior corner and a sign above the main entrance.

The Cross of Scientology is the primary emblem of the Church of Scientology.

Going inside was a lot like walking into a business office. A woman sat at a reception desk in the lobby, and an open doorway just ahead on the right led to something I couldn’t see.

The introduction

I told the woman who I was and she stood up, went to that open door, and said, “Neil.”

Neil, in his early 20s, came out to the lobby and shook my hand and smiled. He wore black pants, a white shirt, a burgundy tie, and glasses.

He invited me through the doorway, which led into a vast room with tall windows, shelves that stood from the floor to the windowsills, and — on the right half of the long, rectangular room — four work stations, each with a large desk and an extra chair where people like me sat for initial interviews.

Overlooking the entire floor was a second-story office above left with a floor-to-ceiling window. A balding man — also wearing the black pants, white shirt, and burgundy tie — paced behind the glass with a telephone to his ear.

The bookshelves surrounding the workstations held copies of every imaginable publication written either by Hubbard or by Scientology organizations that base their writings on Hubbard’s ideas.

Displays about 7-feet-tall and 20-feet-wide lined much of the rest of the walls. These high-tech billboards — solid and molded into wide waves like an undulating flag — bore simple diagrams complemented by illustrations to explain such Scientology concepts as the journey from “pre-clear” to “clear,” and the “Tone Scale.”

A “pre-clear,” as defined by Scientology, is a person who is receiving Scientology or Dianetics auditing on his or her way to becoming “clear.”

A “clear,” Scientology says, “is an unaberrated person and is rational in that he or she forms the best possible solutions on the data he or she has, and from his or her viewpoint. The clear has no engrams which can be re-stimulated to throw out the correctness of computation by entering hidden and false data.”

In the middle of the room stood a faux wall with a flat screen monitor mounted to each side showing videos of Scientology advertisements.

I didn’t listen to them, because I’d just realized I wasn’t carrying my car keys. I interrupted Neil, who was explaining a display board, to tell him I had to run outside to find out whether I’d left them in my locked car.

I had. But there was nothing I could do just then, so I hurried back to the church, where Neil waited in the entry.

The tour

One wall display explained the state of a person’s calm (or lack thereof) before and after reaching the level of “clear.” On the display, the same man is pictured with three different facial expressions. Behind him, a sky-blue background.

—Image 1: Man looks frustrated, angry. He’s sneering, or snarling. Hovering like the angel and devil from old cartoons are the words “Reactive” on the left, surrounded by a cluster of squares in varying shades of red, and “Analytical” on the right, the nice blue background behind it.

—Image 2: Man looks much less frustrated, but still a little disgruntled. On the left, the red squares around “Reactive” have dissipated some, and “Analytical” remains the same.

—Image 3: Man smiles widely. “Reactive” has disappeared because the man has become completely analytical. This means he has become a “clear.”

According to Neil, who said his parents were Scientologists and who himself fully entered into the study at age 11, the reaction time of a “clear” is half that of a “pre-clear.”

“Clears’ aren’t busy thinking about damaging events from their past before they react to what’s happening right now,” he said.

Which explains why Cruise, in a 2004 video posted on the Internet site YouTube, says a Scientologist “is the only one who can really help” at an accident scene.

I asked Neil, while looking at a series of car accident scenes on a display, “What if you don’t have anything damaging in your past?”

He shrugged and smiled. “It’s for other things, too — whatever is holding you back from achieving your goals.”

Private screening

After looking at more displays, which Neil read to me one by one, he ushered me into a small, classroom-sized movie theater to watch Hubbard’s “only taped interview.”

I was alone. For 45 minutes I listened to Hubbard’s exchange with a young male journalist who asked questions so I suspected they were prepared by Hubbard himself.

In the film, Hubbard outlined the goals of Scientology, insisted on it not being compared to psychiatry or psychology, and denied claims that Scientology was anti-religion.

The interview ended and the credits rolled. I wondered, off and on throughout the interview, whether Neil would open the door to the theater the second the screen went black.

He did.

He then took me out to sit with him on a set of sofas near the two-sided faux wall mounting the flat-screen monitors. He sat near the end of one sofa, facing me, and I sat toward the opposite end of the other, facing him. The space between the sofas might have been two feet.

He slid down toward the end of his sofa so that we were, as much as possible, directly across from one another.

Neil asked some basic questions I’d already answered on the phone: how much did I know about Scientology? What did I think Scientology was for?

The E-Meter

After a few minutes of that he brought me to an electro-psychometer, or E-Meter, called a “religious artifact” on one Scientology Web site. It was a small machine connected to what resembled two tin cans, and I was allowed to sample it.

An E-Meter is used in auditing — or personal counseling — sessions and, Neil explained, senses subconscious thoughts. As the subconscious experiences unpleasantness or other emotional stimuli, the needle registers those thoughts through the pulses it receives from the hands holding the two cans, and it reacts by bouncing.

I couldn’t stop watching the needle. It certainly did jump. When it did, Neil said, “See that? What were you thinking there?”

I had to be honest. “I was wondering if the needle would jump.”

I put the tin cans down.

“I guess in a real session the person being audited isn’t watching the needles.”

“No,” he laughed. “The auditor is the only one who can see it, and he uses it as a guide. It helps him determine which questions to ask.”

He moved us to his desk, which was just behind the E-Meter. I sat in the chair at the end, and he settled into his.

For the next half-hour, Neil asked more questions. What did I want? What was keeping me from achieving my goals?

I answered truthfully.

“Scientology can help you with all of that,” he said. “Once you’ve gone through auditing, you find you do better. You learn that what you think is a big deal is nothing more than a problem to be solved. Once you reach that point, the point of clear, everything just gets better and better. You find yourself with more and more things to handle, but only because you find you can handle more.”

Attaining ‘clear’

He added that people who reach “clear” rarely get sick and even decrease the number of accidents they might have otherwise had, and this includes tripping, running into things and, I imagine, locking keys in their car.

Neil also told me Scientology can raise the IQ.

“I’ve kind of hit a plateau,” he said with what seemed to be genuine modesty. “Once you reach a certain point, it’s kind of hard to get much higher.”

I smiled, said, “Yeah,” and laughed a little. Boy, didn’t I know it!

Neil recommended I take a $35 course in Dianetics, a “spiritual healing” course and also the title of Hubbard’s first book.

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “I’ll see how things go at the Sunday service.”

He said I needed the help of Scientology and that he could tell I was serious about it.

Neil watched me. He’d been watching me pretty closely the whole time.

When I’d first arrived, one of the displayed charts he presented was the “Tone Scale” chart. The lower a person is on the scale, the more difficult they are to deal with. I’d pretended to study it, watching Neil peripherally as he studied me.

When I’d nodded, as if to say “done,” Neil told me he was so skilled at reading people he could tell immediately where they fell on the scale.

“I get a handle on people pretty fast,” he’d said.

It was getting late, so I asked for a phonebook to find a local locksmith to let me into my car. While I looked through the pages, Neil said, “You have clear goals, but you just need someone who’s trained to help you get rid of the obstacles being created by your reactive mind.”

He added that he was glad to have someone who was genuinely interested.

“Sometimes you get people who don’t want help,” he said, flipping through a binder of personality charts. He explained that each person’s chart showed personality improvements after a month of auditing sessions.

“Why would someone come in if they don’t want help?” I said.

“Oh, just to cause a disturbance,” he said. “To make trouble. You have people who cause problems in the bank. People who cause problems with the cashier at a gas station. Some people just like causing trouble.”

I went back to looking through the yellow pages.

“How often do you lock your keys in your car?” he said, and I remembered what he’d said earlier about “clears” having fewer accidents or mishaps.

“A while ago, it was all the time. Then I stopped. Now it’s happening again.”

I could feel him creating lines to read between. I had to defend myself. “I just — if I mess with something inside my car before I get out, I seem to forget about my keys.”

I dialed the number to the locksmith.

Neil must have been convinced — or was he convinced he’d convinced me? — because he got up to talk to a man who was on his way out. As he stood, he muttered, “I need to catch this guy so I don’t lose him.”

Twenty minutes later — it took the locksmiths that long to break into my car — I was driving home under a blue, cloud-spotted sky.

Curiosity satisfied

Last month, I visited the New Haven Church of Scientology with a friend whose own curiosity piqued when I told her about my experience in Buffalo. The small brick building at 90 Whalley Ave. houses a two-story Scientology center, complete with classrooms, scads of Scientology-based books, and pictures of famous Scientologist actors John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston.

Those working there, however, offered no pitch beyond answering questions, and asked few questions, themselves. My friend and I left strangely disappointed.

They're Not Kidding: Childless and Loving Every Minute of it

By Kristen J. Tsetsi

Journal Inquirer

Published: Monday, March 31, 2008 1:22 PM EDT

On any given weekday morning in millions of households across the country, parents yell down hallways and up the stairs for children to come to breakfast.

Cereal falls into bowls, spilled milk pools around the salt and pepper shakers on the counter, backpacks zzzzip, and shoelaces get double-knotted for safety.

Kids are shuffled out the door and onto the school bus.

In significantly fewer households, however, the scene is less chaotic. An alarm goes off and a shower runs. Somewhere, a toaster pops an English muffin, the sound interrupting the subdued drone of an early morning political commentator on TV. A woman slips on her shoes, turns off the television and grabs her travel mug filled with hot coffee before leaving for the day.

She doesn’t carry a diaper bag, has no idea what a “binky” is, and hasn’t tripped over a toy since she was a child and the toy was her own.

She is, by some, considered a curious anomaly, the evidence of which can be found in book titles such as, “Unwomanly Conduct: The Challenges of Intentional Childlessness,” by Carolyn M. Morell; “Voluntary Childlessness: The Emergence of a Variant Lifestyle,” by Ellen Mara Nason; and “Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness,” by Laurie Lisle.

The titles suggest there is much to explore and study about women who don’t want children, but conversations with “childfree” — a preferable term to “childless” by many — women hint at fairly simple reasons for the life choice: lack of interest and personal preference.

An individual choice

“Women, like men, are individuals,” National Organization for Women co-founder Sonia Pressman-Fuentes says. “Some are suited to motherhood; others are not. Some want to work outside the home; others do not. Or women may want to do some of these things at certain times in their lives and not at others.”

Teresa Barton, a Killingly resident who hopes to form a Connecticut chapter of the Canada-based childfree social network called “No Kidding!,” says, “The fact that I had strong women — my mother and my paternal aunts — taking care of me made such a strong impression on me that I didn’t need to be married or have children to be happy and to help others.”

As self-explanatory as the decision may seem, there’s still the question of all those titles filling up the self-help sections in Borders and Barnes & Noble.

Joan C. Chrisler, who has published several books on women’s psychology and is the Psychology Department chairwoman at Connecticut College as well as an American Psychological Association and Association for Psychological Science fellow, provides a possible reason driving efforts to explain or analyze voluntary childlessness:

“There’s the assumption that there must be something wrong with you if you don’t want children because that is supposed to be women’s ultimate fulfillment,” Chrisler says.

“There is a pressure in our culture for women to have children. I think all women know that it exists. As soon as heterosexual women get married, people start asking them when they’re going to have children. Strangers ask.”

Mother’s Day mania

Chrisler, who doesn’t have children, says she is often driven crazy on Mother’s Day by repeated wishes for a “Happy Mother’s Day.” She says that when she responds by telling the well-wishers she’s not a mother, they say, “Have a happy day, anyway!”

People simply expect a woman her age to have had children, she says.

“And if you don’t become pregnant within what people think is a reasonable amount of time, they start to worry about whether you have infertility problems.” Chrisler adds, “They wonder if they should feel sorry for you.”

Barton says even her progressive and liberal friends in Killingly are shocked by her choice to not have children.

“They think that we’re here on earth to procreate,” she says.

A Jan. 17 Associated Press article headlined, “More U.S. babies born, fertility rate up,” supports the notion that the U.S. is, at least currently, a nation of procreators. In the U.S., 2006 was named a “baby boomlet” year because more babies were born nationwide that year than in any of the previous 45 years.

Several factors are listed as contributors, such as the decline of contraceptive use, a drop in access to abortion, poor education, poverty, and cultural differences. Even so, a number of women, particularly educated women living in New England, are choosing not to have children.

The question, for many, remains: why?

Pressman-Fuentes says that in the 1930s and 1940s, every girl and woman was expected to have marriage and children as primary life goals, but times have changed.

“The sea change I’ve witnessed since those days, largely the result of the second wave of the women’s movement and the availability of birth control, is that women now have choices,” Pressman-Fuentes says. “We have moved from stifling, narrow options for over half our population to a society where, more and more, all choices are open to both sexes.”

Chrisler says this is true especially if the women are educated.

“They can choose a demanding career, which they weren’t able to do before,” she says.

Choices and consequences

But that the choice exists doesn’t mean it can be made without consequence.

Chrisler says there are several negative stereotypes attached to women who don’t want children: they’re cold; they hate children; and/or they’re selfish.

“The reaction I hate the most is when people ask me, ‘How does your husband feel about you not having children?”’ says Phoena G., a 35 year-old woman who runs a Web site called “Happily Childfree.”

She prefers not to reveal her name or location because she and her husband want to avoid a possible backlash from their family-oriented, military community.

Phoena says she is insulted by the implication that she requires her husband’s approval to remain childfree, or that she’s somehow cheating her husband out of his “rightful children.”

“Why would people think I’d marry someone who doesn’t feel the same way I do?” Phoena says.

Chrisler falls outside of the child-hating stereotype with her love for her nephews and nieces, and says, “There are a lot of women who enjoy other people’s children, but they just don’t want to be mothers.”

Regardless of what might be a negative perception of childfree women, Pressman-Fuentes says the choice to have or not have children is a boon to women and their families.

“Women today have the opportunity to reach their maximum potential” as career women, wives, or mothers, she says.

Chrisler says even romantic relationships have been proven to benefit from being childfree. Not only is there less stress caused by sleeplessness and errand-running, but couples without children have more money to spend on fun activities because they’re not saving for college tuition and weddings for their children.

“It’s absolutely true,” says Tina Dalton, a 35-year-old Minnesota mother to a son, a daughter, and a step-daughter. “Being in a second marriage and choosing not to have children with my husband now, we do have a lot more money for fun activities.”

She adds, “Babies are stressful and hard on marriages. You’re not a wife, anymore; you’re a wife and mother. Everything’s about the baby.”

Unavoidable judgment

And even mothers aren’t free from judgment by other mothers.

Dalton, while expressing how much she enjoys the time she gets to spend with her husband during the summers when her children leave to visit their father, reiterates again and again that she loves her children and wouldn’t trade them for anything.

As if she’s been conditioned to do it.

“I got a dirty look from someone the other day at work when I said I love my summers,” she says. “She was like, ‘Don’t you miss your kids?’ Yes, I miss my kids desperately, but when they go to their father’s I don’t have to do their laundry, or do their dishes, or drive them places. I take advantage of things I don’t get to do normally, like things with my husband. We can hang out on the couch. Sleep in late.”

Jenn, a 38-year-old childfree woman from Ontario, Canada, says, “I love the freedom! Honestly. My husband and I volunteer, and it’s an on-call, emergency type situation, which means if I had a child, I would rarely be able to go when called.”

There are many things she loves that she couldn’t do anymore if she had children, she says.

“When women can follow their bents and make the most of themselves and their lives,” says Pressman-Fuentes, “their families benefit, and the entire society benefits.”