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Scientology: The Story

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Paul White/AP Images
Tom Cruise and David Miscavige, head of the Church of Scientology, at the grand opening of the new Scientology church in Madrid, September 2004

Not to be read home alone on a stormy night: Going Clear, Lawrence Wright’s scary book about Scientology and its influence, with its accounts of vindictive lawyers and apostate captives confined in the “Hole,” a building that held dozens of people at a time. It’s a true horror story, the most comprehensive among a number of books published on the subject in the past few years, many of them personal accounts by people who have managed to escape or were evicted from the clutches of a group they came to feel was destroying them.

Wright’s report on the rich, aggressive organization (now we are supposed to say “new religious movement”) infiltrating the government and intimidating judges seems even more immediate now that we’ve seen the giant Scientology ad at the 2013 Super Bowl, and the Scientology “advertorial” on the website of The Atlantic, before it was hastily taken down—both perhaps intended by the Church of Scientology as damage control ahead of the publication of Wright’s evenhanded, chilling, and distinctly circumspect investigation. There is more damage as well in the latest survivor memoir among a gathering plethora, this one by Jenna Miscavige Hill, Scientology leader David Miscavige’s niece, who was born into its peculiar, circumscribed world, to a family of Scientologist grandparents and parents on both sides.

Scientology, founded in California in the Fifties by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, was at its beginnings a straightforward method of psychological self-help. It claimed that a follower, by improving his mental health and communications skills, could become happier and more successful in life. The group was especially opposed to two fashions of the times, drugs and mainstream psychiatry, both of which, ironically enough, are sometimes prescribed for someone who succeeds in breaking away from a long involvement in a group that seems to have become domineering, secretive, and greedy to the point of erasing the good it was intended for.

The exact number of Scientologists today is a matter of conjecture, whether the twenty-five or thirty thousand officially registered or the eight million the Church claims. According to Wright, it has at least $1 billion in liquid assets (one knowledgeable former insider says $2 billion), and property estimated at about the same amount, making it among the richer world religions, its money gained from sales of its materials for self-help, from smart investing, and from contributions wrung from its followers. People guess that Tom Cruise, its most visible disciple, has given millions, as have others with names less well known.

Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his judicious and wary book about Islam, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), seems to have a particular ability to understand and explain issues related to religion, recovered memory, fanaticism, and deviance—and the nerve to withstand objections and threats. With this set of qualifications, he is able to put Scientology into its broadly American social setting. Reviewing Wright’s book, which isn’t being published in England because of libel laws, the Web version of the English newspaper The Guardian notes (rather woundingly) that

Scientology is a neat reflection of the worst aspects of American culture with its repulsive veneration of celebrity; its weird attitudes towards women, sex, healthcare and contraception; its promise of equality among its followers but actual crushing inequality…. It is, in its own dark way, the inevitable religion to emerge from 20th-century America.

1.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, born in 1911 in Nebraska, was more like Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale—gurus born in the late nineteenth century who were apostles of self-reliance and the evils of drugs—than like such mind-expansion seekers of the Sixties as Timothy Leary, Michael Murphy, or Ram Dass. The young Hubbard led a knockabout life of adventure, ambitious but failed projects, and a period in the Navy in World War II, hence the naval theme in the uniforms prescribed for his close lieutenants. He had talent as a writer, and evidently a good deal of personal charm.

In Wright’s presentation, he began like one of those slick, often attractive, self-made characters of Fifties films, played by Jimmy Stewart, with a lot of incorrigible spirit, and, in the beginning anyhow, maybe a sincere wish to help mankind, along with making a name for himself and a buck. He developed as charismatic leaders do, into a character like the one reportedly based on Hubbard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the recent Paul Thomas Anderson film The Master: sleazy, manipulative, cynical, and alcoholic.

A recent search of the archives of the Explorers Club in New York, an exclusive, serious century-old body with honorary members like Scott, Amundsen, Perry, and Byrd, turned up periodic communications from Hubbard, who, however much he may have been co-opted as a guru, continued to foster the Explorers Club’s view of himself in the nineteenth-century tradition of gentleman scholars making scientific contributions from their vicarages. Though the rest of his life may have been spoiled by his own frailties, allowing followers and dependents to push him in directions of self-indulgence and infallibility he found hard to resist, he apparently needed to see himself as a serious thinker, and maybe even was one. Wright notes, “Hubbard’s thought could be compared with that of other moral philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard,” though he tactfully doesn’t venture what the exercise in comparison would lead us to conclude.

Hubbard’s reported sayings and deeds could also suggest a tongue in cheek—people have attested that they witnessed a barroom bet he made with fellow sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein that he’d like to start a religion because that’s where the money is. His personal trappings might come from a Busby Berkeley musical—he ran a corps of teenage girls, the “Commodore’s Messengers Organization,” that wore sailor hats, white hot pants, halters, and platform shoes. He’s quoted as saying in one of his lectures that some people worried about the Prince of Darkness, adding “Who do you think I am? Bwahahahaha.” Moral philosopher or charlatan, he ended his life in relative simplicity in a double-wide trailer, working to the last on his books, with millions in the bank.

From Wright’s outline of the tenets of Scientology, or by dipping into Hubbard’s 1950 book Dianetics itself, you find nothing particularly alarming or enlightening either:

A science of mind is a goal which has engrossed thousands of generations of man. Armies, dynasties and whole civilizations have perished for the lack of it. Rome went to dust for the want of it. China swims in blood for the need of it…. No quest has been more relentlessly pursued or has been more violent. No primitive tribe, no matter how ignorant, has failed to recognize the problem as a problem, nor has it failed to bring forth at least an attempted formulation.

The language is in the simple, genial, and tutelary tone of a person devising an ontology from scratch, with the help of Will and Ariel Durant and the entries for Newton, Buddha, and John Stuart Mill in an old edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica; he invents some new-age terms for familiar concepts—“the awareness of awareness unit” instead of “consciousness,” and so on. Hubbard’s words are taken by his followers as papally inerrant, and one of the complaints by some current Scientologists is that the present leadership is tampering with the sacred texts. Some fallen-away members call for a Reformation, along the lines of Martin Luther, to recover what they see as LRH’s original vision, and expose the corruption that they feel has crept into the institution, as it has into other religious hierarchies.

The initial appeal and utility of Scientology seem mainly to be the speeded-up process of psychotherapy by which a follower or “preclear,” “audited” by another, “trained” Scientologist, moves toward an eventual goal of becoming “clear” of hangups by digging up traumatic events in the past, abetted by holding a “cylindrical electrode” in each hand through which the preclear’s reactions register on a meter (called an “E-meter”). In conventional terms, the patient or preclear is dredging up repressed memories (“engrams”), thereby being freed of their damaging effects, much as mainstream psychiatry tries to do. The Beat writer William S. Burroughs, an early enthusiast, described it in a letter to Allen Ginsberg: Scientologists “do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.”

Though Wright gives a long description of Scientology’s beliefs, it’s still hard to get a sense of how “the method” really works. In a 1955 revision of his original Dianetics, Hubbard describes six main procedures to master in order to progress, and the one dramatized in Anderson’s film resembles “8-C,” the “Opening Procedure.” Hubbard called it “one of the most effective and powerful processes ever developed” for self-understanding.

It begins with the auditor directing the “preclear” to look at something in a room, walk over to it, touch it, let go, step away, and then repeat this performance, along with certain verbal commands. This process seems to go on and on, but Hubbard explains that “the main error which is made in the Opening Procedure of 8-C is not to do it long enough. It takes,” he said, “about fifteen hours…to bring a person into a completely relaxed and Self-Determined state of mind regarding orders.”

I have noticed that Scientologists often seem to have a glazed look, as anyone would after fifteen hours of doing the simple repetitive act he describes; it’s worth noting, too, that to pay an auditor to sit there for fifteen hours would cost a lot in the normal world of psychotherapy, so it’s no wonder Scientology would have relied on unpaid, convinced believers as auditors.

Hubbardian techniques may work perfectly well. Modern life privileges fast therapies: aversion, “life coaching,” primal screaming, rebirthing, pillow fights, fasting, high colonics—instead of the more leisurely and expensive divagations of traditional psychotherapy. All forms of therapy depend on the energy and belief of both client and therapist, qualities abundant in Hubbard and his followers.

As a person gets clear, he gets to be an OT (Operating Thetan), then an OT level II, III, and so on, moving over a “bridge” toward enlightenment. Thetans are what we are in essence, independent of our present bodies according to an elaborate sci-fi mythology of human origins. “I had always believed that I was a Thetan,” Jenna Hill says; coming out of Scientology, it was a shock to her to realize maybe she was just a human being with only one life.

To climb up to the bridge in Scientology is expensive, perhaps in proportion to what the church thinks you can afford and find worth the expense. Some people go into bankruptcy to stay, some balk and leave, but Scientology is a moneymaking outfit, like Avon or Herbalife, getting revenue by giving each person a bonus for recruiting others to the sales force, so that besides conviction, there’s a financial incentive to serve the group. Participants’ earnings—“stats”—are expected to be always rising, or else they face punishment and demotion.

The Hollywood actor Jason Beghe estimates that he spent nearly $1 million on Scientology donations, material, and courses. One of Wright’s principal informants, Paul Haggis, a successful and talented television and screen writer and director (Casino Royale, Crash), also spent a considerable fortune. Haggis was a Scientologist from 1975, when he was twenty-one, until 2009, thirty-four years later, when he’d become disillusioned, and was also successful and prosperous enough to withstand the pressure and bullying he knew he could expect to punish his defection.

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Church of Scientology
John Travolta, Kelly Preston, and their daughter Ella Bleu at the opening of the Church of Scientology Mission of Ocala, Florida, May 2011

2.

One of Scientology’s attractions for well-functioning Hollywood people like Haggis is that clearness is supposed to lead to professional success as well as personal contentment, and some “public” Scientologists feel that it has worked for them. Tom Cruise is a “public” Scientologist, getting on with his successful film career, attending Scientology events, and auditing when he can. Successful people like Cruise or Haggis, both raised as Catholics, are a far cry from the stereotype of people forlorn and needy, picked up by Moonies at bus stations. Wright brings in the work of the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton:

In facing the commonplace charge that psychiatry, or the Marines, or Catholic schools all engage in forms of brainwashing, Lifton developed a set of criteria to identify a totalistic environment.

These include isolation, enforced loyalty, sleep deprivation, and confession, all features of Chinese Communist and Stalinist techniques of “psycho-politics.” There is evidence that Hubbard knew of such techniques and may have looked into them for his own purposes.

According to Wright’s account, much of the actual physical abuse of which Scientology has been accused seems to be reserved for the most devoted resident members, who live in Scientology-owned hotels or in vast compounds in California and Florida, and are induced willingly to accept disciplines like being locked in a closet or “Hole” for weeks, even months at a time. In L. Ron Hubbard’s day, young children were isolated in ships’ chain lockers, or made to work long hours at painful manual tasks. In 1977, Wright recounts, the FBI raided one of the punishment quarters, and saw people miserably stuffed into cubicles wearing overalls, with filthy rags on their arms, in total darkness. The agency was induced to ignore this when none of the people asked to be rescued. “Despite federal laws against human trafficking and unlawful imprisonment, the FBI never opened the door on the RPF [Rehabilitation Project Force] again.”

Several deaths have come to public notice, and a number of people, for instance the leader David Miscavige’s wife Shelly, have not been seen in years, though a church official claims to know where she is. (Several of Wright’s informants described being beaten by Miscavige, and each claims to know of many more beatings, something they will talk of now but denied while they were members.) The same church spokesman tells Wright that “the only people who will corroborate [the abuse stories] are their fellow apostates…a pack of sanctimonious liars.” With many of the abundant details of abuse Wright presents, he meticulously includes Scientology’s denial of them. For instance, talking of the leader’s alleged brutality, he writes, “Gale Irwin says she confronted him, and Miscavige knocked her to the ground with a flying tackle. (The church denies all charges of Miscavige’s abuse.)” And, it must be admitted, at its worst it’s Brutality Lite compared to, say, the Gulag under Stalin. It’s more like the Magdalene Laundries, those sinister girls’ reformatories usually run by nuns, now being investigated by the Irish government about its own complicity in contracting with them.

Nonetheless, Wright includes numerous accounts of broken health, mental breakdown, and suicides among members and former members. Many speak of feeling permanently damaged, or of needing years to “heal.” The book weaves together tragic stories of people who tried to escape the group and didn’t, through failure of will or restraint by the church. In some cases they were physically prevented from leaving. A number of Wright’s informants who did get away have also written accounts of their own, detailing the appalling depths of abuse they submitted to. They remember cleaning floors with toothbrushes and being made to crawl for hours on all fours on astroturf until their bare knees bled, but are unable to quite account for why they would have done so.

Many have made videotapes, but the plumpish pleasant-looking people you see telling their stories or that you read about aren’t really able to put across why they would accept being made to go through a day standing in a garbage can. Their stories are strangely similar, a certain flat affect in itself testimony to the lasting effects of indoctrination and the effects of fear—or, at least, to the absence of literary models. One, Nancy Many, tells us that once she had “blown” (the Scientologist word for escape), she went to a writing workshop in hopes of getting the skill to do justice to her story of twenty years of loyal service as a high-up official, her mounting doubts, her psychotic break.*

The simple declarative sentences of accounts by former members are still sometimes unfathomably mined with Scientology speak: “The next time I saw my brother he seemed genuinely hurt by being named a List One Rock Slammer.” Having lost its imaginative leader, with his gift for inventing words like “enturbulate,” Scientology awaits its poet or novelist; it was not to be William Burroughs, though he recommended it to Allen Ginsberg: “I have a new method of writing…. I tell you: ‘Find a Scientology Auditor and have yourself run.’”

Like Burroughs, many ex-members claim to have gotten some benefit from the Scientology training, and continue to believe in the good parts of its teaching, above all its self-help techniques. There are ex-Scientologist groups for support and healing, made up of fellow escapees, who grasp the mysterious hold such groups have on their members, and can employ the auditing methods to help break it. Many are eager to expose the abuses inside the church. Their bitterness toward the present leader, David Miscavige, seems widely shared. People leaving the fold often will find themselves victims of vindictive harassment, Internet accusations, sometimes from fictional or quasi-fictional groups or websites like ReligiousFreedomWatch, or other Scientology front organizations pretending to be neutral public interest groups. The church has a baroque flair for imaginative persecution.

There are by now several generations of kids who have grown up in upper-echelon Scientologist families and known nothing besides the regimented, austere life of the inner circles. Jenna Miscavige Hill describes being raised from age two with other children in a sort of kibbutz-like common nursery, the Ranch, where they would see their parents for an hour a day, and otherwise were kept busy with communal chores and rather minimal lessons, much of the content focused on the rules and concepts of Scientology and the words of the Founder. They had daily instruction in math, geography, reading, and so on—but were expected to teach themselves. Appropriately enough, the only book that Hill mentions reading, apart from things by L. Ron Hubbard, is Alice in Wonderland, which was in one of their drills. As seven-year-olds,

we got calluses and blisters. We had cuts and bruises. Our hands lost feeling when we plunged them into the frigid water of the creek bed for rocks. When we pulled weeds from the scorched summer earth, our hands burned from the friction and stung from the nettle.

“No matter how sick a kid was,” Hill writes, “we never used drugs to relieve pain or reduce fever.” Almost every aspect of their existence was E-metered and graphed. Jenna and a little friend tried to run away when they were seven. When she was twelve, she enthusiastically joined the elite squad, the Sea Org, made up of officers of the church who paradoxically come in for the most disagreeable treatment by the leaders. Eventually her parents extricated themselves from the Sea Org, but Jenna was by then deeply indoctrinated and stayed in. At eighteen, after she married another Sea Org member, they began to reinforce each other’s doubts:

More than ever before, Dallas and I began to feel that this whole thing had been made up, and that LRH had just kept going and going with his stories, making it up as he went along.

The people who went in as children have scant supply of references shared with the rest of “wog” society, which they had been taught to despise. David Miscavige, the present leader of the church, himself dropped out of school at sixteen. Another account of disillusion is Marc Headley’s, who also joined at sixteen because his mom went into Scientology, and he had nowhere else to go. He went along with it for fifteen years, working up to a responsible position in Scientology’s film and video production, incidentally developing expertise in electronics. A billion-dollar organization requires a lot of competent staff, and you can see how for many, the daily work of management or organization or technology was in itself enough to keep them involved for years, until they experienced some peculiar persecution that landed them in the Hole, undergoing something painful or degrading.

3.

Lawsuits, in Wright’s account, are Scientology’s principal weapons against its outside critics, designed to “harass and discourage rather than win.” He himself is understandably careful writing about this notoriously vindictive and litigious group; he uses flurries of quotation marks, citations, and attributions: “according to Brousseau, ‘Cruise was drooling’ over the [flashy] motorcycle,” or “in the eyes of the world press, Scientology had murdered Lisa McPherson,” carefully avoiding anything actionable.

The need for such caution might in itself be an eloquent confirmation that Scientology has lots to hide. Wright’s book is a tribute to fact-checkers as well as to his personal courage. When an early segment of Going Clear was to appear in The New Yorker, to forestall threats of legal action from an organization that has been accused of blackmail, harassment, and suing people into bankruptcy, despair, and even suicide, there was a meeting among Wright, editors of The New Yorker and the magazine’s lawyer, the two main fact-checkers, four Scientology lawyers, and two executives of the church. The checking had taken the two checkers six months, with help from three more. The hardback publisher, Knopf, is also receiving calls from Scientology lawyers, though so far, they say, so good.

They had plenty of examples of the risks they were running: Paulette Cooper, who wrote one of the first exposés, The Scandal of Scientology, in 1971, reported she was subjected to death threats, nineteen lawsuits, wiretaps, and such inventive harassments as complaints to her co-op board that she was a prostitute, and having her name and phone number written in public men’s rooms. At the instigation of people unknown, she was framed for mailing bomb threats, indicted by the government for perjury, and became anorexic and suicidal before being exonerated from the felony charges.

One of Wright’s most shocking accounts reveals how the IRS was intimidated into allowing Scientology the status of a religion: Wright found that when in 1993 the IRS sent a bill to Scientology for $1 billion in back taxes, Scientologists infiltrated it, IRS agents were threatened, their lives became a sea of legal and domestic torments. “Some government workers,” according to Wright, “were getting anonymous calls in the middle of the night, or finding that their pets had disappeared. Whether or not these events were part of the Scientology onslaught, they added to the paranoia many in the agency were feeling.” The agency had to defend against more than two thousand legal actions. It eventually capitulated to the church’s campaign of lawsuits and harassment, reduced the amount owed to $12.5 million, and most usefully for the Scientologists, acceded to its wish to be categorized as a religion, which saves it untold sums of future taxes. (Scientology has not been given official recognition as a religion in France, Germany, Greece, and Belgium, among other nations.)

These disturbing reports may have practical implications for the rest of us. Apart from its damage to individual lives, Scientology, according to Wright, has mounted an unprecedented program of infiltration of government agencies and bodies—even private organizations like the American Medical Association and the Better Business Bureau. If society should demand an investigation of its outrageous tax break, who could do it? One would say Congress, but that isn’t a body known for its indifference to lobbies and pressures. The Church beat back an earlier attempt to investigate the tax issue, and Wright gives numerous examples of legal processes that are suddenly canceled or reversed when a witness, expert, victim, or even judge changes his/her mind about Scientology or suddenly retires in the face of pressure, allowing it to elude accountability.

Wright gives an account of Scientology’s resolute prosecutions of its critics; it cannot tolerate apostasy or independent conclusions, and often pursues fallen-away members it seems from mere vindictiveness as well as to protect its “secrets.” He notes that “one might compare today’s Scientology with the [Mormon] Church of Latter Day Saints, a new religion of the previous century,” mentioning parallels between the two groups that include “wealth, secrecy, lying leaders.”

Wright’s mention of Mormons suggests another question: unlike the way John F. Kennedy was asked about Catholicism, Mitt Romney, during the recent presidential campaign, got an extraordinary pass on the possible effect of his Mormon faith on eventual policy decisions. Some of Romney’s views were hinted at in his remarkable statements about women, though the “binders full of women” might have reflected the corporate boardroom as much as a patriarchal church. But you can’t help but wonder whether a Scientologist candidate would have been asked about his beliefs involving Thetans and the infallibility of L. Ron Hubbard. What explains the reluctance of the press, or anyone, to bring up religion? Do we feel it needn’t be mentioned because it is of no practical significance? Or can we assume that believers in any religion are formed according to its tenets, which might affect the rest of us, like, say, Paul Ryan’s radical Catholic sacrifice-the-life-of-the-mother views or Ayn Rand influence, which he was frank in acknowledging but were rarely mentioned?

Wright’s conclusions are cautious, but leave us with the central question: How far should government go to protect people who voluntarily involve themselves in harmful practices? Jenna Miscavige Hill probably sums up Scientology for most of those who’ve left:

To me, the Church is a dangerous organization whose beliefs allow it to commit crimes against humanity and violate basic human rights. It remains a mystery to me how, in our current society, this can go on unchecked.

Our laws, in fact, bend over backward to protect our right to be Scientologists or any other thing, and though violence and harm have been held by the courts to be reasons to rescue people, intensive indoctrination has not.

Jenna Miscavige Hill now sounds so forgiving, so appreciative of the world around her, so lacking in self-pity, you might almost conclude that a Scientology childhood is a good foundation for the character. Mark Rathbun, after his disillusion with David Miscavige, is still a believer in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, and ministers to hundreds of others like him who continue to practice Scientology outside the church. It’s certain that any merit of Hubbard’s methods and thought is being lost through misguided institutional paranoia and secrecy. William Burroughs summed it up in 1970 when he attacked church policies of secrecy:

There is a basic incompatibility between any organisation and freedom of thought. Suppose Newton had founded a Church of Newtonian Physics and refused to show his formulae to anyone who doubted the tenets of Newtonian Physics?

As for Scientology being like America in general, The Guardian mostly has it wrong. Repulsive admiration of celebrity—guilty; inequality—guilty. But with respect to women, sex, contraception, and health care, The Guardian must have been thinking of the Tea Party and its pro-life ideas; whereas (although the church has denied advocating abortion) the published accounts, in which members of Sea Org are told not to have children, or to “terminate their pregnancies,” recall the Chinese Communist Party.

Letters

Scientology: The Story’ May 23, 2013

  1. *

    Memoirs by people who have left Scientology make fascinating reading. See, for example, Mark Rathbun, The Scientology Reformation: What Every Scientologist Should Know (CreateSpace, 2012); Mark Rathbun, What Is Wrong With Scientology?: Healing Through Understanding (CreateSpace, 2012); Amy Scobee, Scientology—Abuse at the Top (Scobee, 2010); Nancy Many, My Billion Year Contract: Memoir of a Former Scientologist ( CNM, 2009); Mark Headley, Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology ( BFG, 2009); and Kate Bornstein, A Queer and Pleasant Danger (Beacon, 2012). 

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