“It’s not a religion. It’s a business. Think of it as a triangle––the higher up you get, the more pressure to spend more. You always have to buy the next thing.”
Scientology requires acolytes to take wildly pricey courses. To pay their way to membership, countless California scientologists sold overpriced “meat” products to the poor.
In the summer of 1973, Conrad Romo, a 19-year-old boy from L.A. whose Catholic upbringing had been derailed by books like Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha and John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks—anything that “spoke of more than just this world”—turned on the TV and watched an advertisement for a new religion called “Scientology.”
The ad was catchy–a tight one-minute clip with a jingle from ‘70s radiostar Edward Bear and the vague promise of deeper meaning. When a phone number flashed across the screen, Romo took note.
“I’m a sucker for a little ad,” Romo, now a grey-haired Buddhist with a goatee, told The Daily Beast. When he phoned the line to hear more, the boy spoke to a woman who called herself “Spanky.” Later, he would recognize her as Spanky Taylor, a spokesperson for Scientology’s publicity arm, Axioms Productions, and John Travolta’s personal “auditor”—jargon for a kind of counselor. But in the moment, he thought she seemed cool. “Spanky had a really sexy voice,” Romo said, laughing. “I was intrigued.”
Forty-five years later, Conrad Romo would point to that advertisement as the genesis of a 14-year devotion to the controversial religious group. In some ways, Romo’s story of Scientology resembles so many of the survivor tales told by ex-members: he got seduced, spent years of his life and thousands of dollars on Scientology, and then “woke up,” confused and lonely, sometime in the late 1980s.
But in recent interviews with The Daily Beast, Romo and several other former members explained another aspect of scientologist life—one rarely reported on in the documentaries or chart-busting tell-alls—a niche industry that employed countless hopeful converts around Los Angeles and San Francisco for nearly a decade: selling meat.
For four years, in the name of Scientology and its charismatic, sci-fi-writing leader, L. Ron Hubbard, Romo drove a climate-controlled truck around greater Los Angeles, parked it outside food stamp stores, and hawked overpriced steaks to anyone who passed by.
“I’m a sucker for a little ad.”
When Romo spoke to Spanky, she told him to come down to a place on L.A.’s 8th Street, near MacArthur Park. It was a Friday night around 10 p.m., just after a lecture had ended. Romo was initially turned off, he recalled. The area was kind of seedy, he said, and Spanky hadn’t mentioned anything about a “church,” which sounded stodgy and Catholic. But Romo introduced himself. He signed in. A member silently led him to a private room.
In the room, Romo watched a short video of L. Ron Hubbard laying out the group’s basic tenets, and flipped through a copy of Hubbard’s best-selling text, Dianetics. The member asked him to buy the book, Romo recalled. “I said no and he left.”
Romo might have just walked out then and there, cult and meat-free. But as he was leaving, a bunch of members invited him to a party. He piled into a car with the group of good-looking young people. They were talkative and the party was fun, Romo thought, even though, as a rule, scientologists stay pretty straight-edge.
When the night was over, Romo’s new friends had convinced him to sign up for the first Scientology course, “Communications.” Hubbard allegedly borrowed many of his practices from other religions and Romo said the first course seemed lifted straight from Zen Buddhism. “It was a form of meditation where you just sit, doing nothing, being still,” he said. “As I recall, we would sit facing someone else. You just sit three feet apart from each other and you don’t blink. You’re just there.”
The class only cost $30 or $35, Romo said, and after he tried the first session, it seemed worth every penny: “I felt something kind of shift in me.” He signed up for the next class immediately after. The price was slightly higher, although still reasonable–but soon, the prices “just got crazier and crazier.”
Unlike most major religions, Scientology requires significant financial contributions from its members, by way of these courses and an alternative kind of therapy they call “auditing.” After the first course, students are encouraged to enroll immediately in the next level, so that they can begin climbing what members call “the Bridge,” a rising scale that promises to assist students to “go clear,” or reach the Scientology equivalent of Nirvana.
As in Romo’s experience, the first sessions for these practices are always the cheapest–some are now offered free online–but with each additional course, the prices soar.
“The whole thing is money,” said Tory Christman, a former scientologist whose ex-husband worked in the meat-selling circuit. “It’s not a religion. It’s a business. Think of it as a triangle–the higher up you get, the more pressure to spend more. You always have to buy the next thing.”
The mounting financial pressure on scientologists like Romo and Christman often forced them to find supplementary income, birthing a string of micro-markets that were dominated by members of the cult looking to payroll their way to “total freedom.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a representative from the Church of Scientology denied any official relationship with the pursuits of their membership.“Scientologists, like individuals from many religions, engage in a wide variety of professions,” a spokeswoman wrote. “Scientologists come from all walks of life and from just about every imaginable occupation.”
Even without official endorsements, however, insular Scientology markets sprouted up as early as the 1970’s, producing pockets of salesmen with specialties in pretzels, gold, black velvet paintings, aluminum etchings, Olympic flag tschochkies, chimney sweeping services, a weight loss drink called Slendernow, several different multi-level marketing commodities (including the billion-dollar nutrition business Herbalife), insurance, and–in Romo’s case–wholesale pork chops, burger patties and beef byproducts.