Book Review: The Mind Game by Norman Spinrad

By Jim Lippard

The following book review was originally published in The Arizona Skeptic vol. 5, no. 6, May/June 1992, p. 7.

Book Review
The Mind Game by Norman Spinrad
1985, Bantam, 342 pp.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, my girlfriend and I stopped by the Dianetics Testing Center on Hollywood Boulevard for a "free personality test" from the Church of Scientology. After spending about twenty minutes answering "yes," "no," and "don't know" to oddly worded questions about whether one enjoys inflicting pain on animals or frequently laughs at things no one else finds funny, we were both told that we had serious personality defects which Dianetics could correct. The brash, chain-smoking pregnant woman who did our post-test interviews was emphatic about that. We declined to spend any money, however, and left the Center to continue our walk down the star-studded sidewalks, where we observed a sign advertising the "L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition" on another Scientology building on the other side of the street. (Later on during our vacation, we noticed the Scientology Celebrity Center, which is presumably where such Church notables as John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kirstie Alley get their auditing done.)

When I discussed our day's events with the friend I was visiting, he was reminded of a book he had recently read. He took it from his bookshelf for me, and I read it over the next couple of days.

The book was Norman Spinrad's The Mind Game. It is the story of Jack Weller, director of a grade-B Saturday morning television show called Monkey Business (starring a chimpanzee) and his wife Annie, an aspiring actress. At the invitation of a friend they attend a social gathering at the Celebrity Center of a movement called Transformationalism. Jack hopes to schmooze and meet people he can use as stepping stones to an improved career, but Annie becomes more interested in Transformationalism and its founder, former science fiction writer John B. Steinhardt. At first Jack tolerates his wife's interest in Transformationalism and pays for her courses. But as she begins devoting more and more of her time to it, he becomes annoyed and pressures her to end her involvement with the group. Instead, the group issues Annie a "life directive" to either leave the movement or her husband, and she chooses the latter.

Jack discovers that if he wants to see his wife again, he must successfully complete the Transformationalism education process and achieve "fully eptified consciousness." Or, from his perspective, he must convince the Transformationalists that he has been completely converted to their way of thinking without actually becoming brainwashed in the process. To this end, he enlists the aid of a deprogrammer (or is he a reprogrammer?) named Garry Bailor.

Jack undergoes "block auditing," a process of diagnosis which creates a "psychomap" of the psychological blocks which prevent him from being Transformed; "meditative deconditioning," a process which eliminates these blocks; and a "life analysis" by Gomez, a secretive and wily "Monitor," a member of an elite class of Transformationalist overseers. Gomez knows that Jack is trying to fake the impression of conversion, but engages in tactics designed to make sure that in the process, Jack is genuinely changed. (The twists and turns of the psychological drama are somewhat reminiscent of The Prisoner TV series--Jack learns to manipulate lower level Transformationalists, who fear that he is a Monitor.) In the end, Jack's character does seem to be transformed, but not exactly in the way that Transformationalism intended.

Spinrad's Transformationalism is clearly patterned after Scientology. Early in the book, Jack explicitly draws the comparison:

He had heard of Transformationalism, dimly. It was one of those consciousness-raising cults, like Arica, EST, or Scientology, of which he had a low and jaundiced opinion. (p. 5)
Even descriptions of Transformationalism buildings are similar to Scientology's Hollywood centers:
The Los Angeles Transformation Center was a small converted hotel in Hollywood, just south of Sunset Boulevard and just west of Cahuenga, not too far from several studios. A fading tan stucco building eight stories high with a dirty red-tiled roof; a brand of cheap hotel common to the area. (p. 38)
Spinrad's book offers a convincing description of social and psychological pressures that can lead people to conform to an unusual belief system. In the end, much is left unresolved, including whether there is anything really beneficial to Transformationalism or not. (For the most part, it seems clear that Spinrad's opinion of Scientology/Transformationalism is that expressed by Jack on p. 5. But there is also no question that Jack benefits from his exposure to the cult.) The book is an enjoyable and suspenseful journey into the world of Transformationalism, and could possibly also work as a vaccine against getting caught up in a group like Scientology.