There are few organizations that elicit the combustible mix of disdain, curiosity, horror and sheer confusion quite like Scientology. A “church” whose methodology hews more closely to high-priced self-help seminars than the God-based spirituality of traditional churches, this brainchild of controversial “rainman,” L. Ron Hubbard, truly is the poster-child religion of our modern times. Complete with salacious stories of its highest-profile celebrities, tabloid tit-for-tats in response to media dissention, mob-like retaliation against heretics and “apostates” (as they so often brand their former members), it relies on a response playbook that can always be counted on in the face of journalistic exposé.
The most recent brouhaha has erupted in response to the just released book, Going Clear – Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and was named one of Time’s Top 100 Books of all time.
Clearly a guy with some bona fides.
As the story goes, Wright, in his position as a staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote a piece called “The Apostate” on Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis’ explosive exit from Scientology back in 2009; it won the 2012 National Magazine Award and became the basis of Wright’s new book.
Haggis, as you may know, is one of the most famous people to come out against Scientology; a top-line writer/director whose long career in Hollywood began in TV (most notably on the iconic 80s series, thirtysomething) and later moved in films. He won two screenplay Oscars (one for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, the other for Crash), as well as a directing Oscar for Crash. He is credible, smart, and very articulate on both his reasons for joining and leaving the organization, which he boldly labels a “cult.”
See his video interview with NBC’s Harry Smith:
That’s the set-up: two intelligent, highly honored, very credible men taking on one of the most notorious churches in the world, and how does Scientology respond? As it always does: attacking the messengers.
The Daily Beast very graciously (in this writer’s opinion) ran an editorial from Scientology spokesperson, Karen Pouw, in which she runs the standard Scientology playbook: everyone’s lying, he’s lying, anyone with criticism is an “apostate” or a “disgruntled suppressive person”; small factual mistakes are blown up into evidence of larger “untruths,” and no one, NO ONE who has ever left the church could possibly be speaking the truth. It’s the usual litany typically spewed from various sources within the church when anyone writes anything negative about the organization, but with a book and author this high-profile, all wheels must be spinning. The Daily Beast did their own analysis of Pouw’s rebuttal to Wright’s facts in, “Scientology vs. Lawrence Wright” … see what you think.
Before I go any further, let me offer some disclosure: I was an active member of Scientology for 10 years, extending from my early to late 20s. While I had some significantly negative experiences while a member, I left without any particular fanfare or backlash (I apparently wasn’t high-profile enough!). I had many friends within the organization who are now also out, many of whom I’m still close with. Some had very negative experiences, others less dramatic. I knew many good people while there; I knew many not-so-good people. I left, quite simply, because it ultimately did not represent my worldview, it did not offer me what I was looking for, and in my personal experience, compassion for those outside the church was lacking. It took years to fully deprogram my thinking, as it did for everyone I knew, and I still find myself stunned by their antipathy towards many methods of human healing, talk therapy in particular. Their darker, more insidious abuses are known and documented and merit the exact kind of exposure offered by Lawrence Wright’s book.
And with that insider perspective, I view the imbroglio over Going Clear with no surprise. Beyond The Daily Beast, the church also got in touch with The Atlantic magazine in late 2012 to purchase advertising space to coincide with the release of Wright’s book. Clearly this was meant to counteract – or perhaps, lure – the attention of interested readers. The Atlantic agreed in good faith, but what was supposed to be advertising turned out to be a rather shamefaced editorial called “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” (Miscavige is the group’s “ecclesiastical leader”), a journalistic embarrassment for The Atlantic that was widely mocked and ultimately taken down, as reported by The Huffington Post. The Atlantic further apologized with an unusually chagrined statement:
Regarding an advertisement from the Church of Scientology that appeared on TheAtlantic.com on January 14: We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out. We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge—sheepishly—that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.
Notwithstanding the mortifying snafu, one of Atlantic’s top writers, Jeffrey Goldberg, took to his own page in defense of his colleague:
Working with Lawrence Wright was one of the great pleasures of my journalism career. Even before I met Larry, at the New Yorker, I was a great admirer of his, and my admiration only grew as I got to know him personally, and as I watched him work. There is no more careful reporter in the world than Larry, and no one who is as thorough and as indefatigable.
That said, apparently Wright did get some dates wrong (damn that copy editor!), which gave Pouw and others their opening to editorially smear the writer. But the big facts, the salient points, the major issues? Like any good journalist, he put in his research work and has solid facts to back up his assertions. And while there’s plenty of material to cull (just Google “L. Ron Hubbard” or “Scientology” and the bombardment is biblical!), getting at the truth of Scientology, particularly from sources within the church is, frankly, impossible. Adherents are typically blind followers, mandated explicitly and implicitly to speak positively of the church under all circumstances. In my years of involvement, we were not only so thoroughly programmed to not have any criticisms, to express it publicly if we did was considered heresy and could result in all manner of undesirable consequences. Given that, unbiased, objective opinions from those still “inside” is literally not possible. Wright eludes to that in response to the criticism from church spokeswoman, Pouw:
Pouw’s overall complaint is that Wright refused assistance and never attempted to contact the church to confirm facts, other than asking “about a dozen esoteric and obtuse” fact-checking questions.
“I don’t know how many times she’s said that we only asked 12 fact-checking questions. We asked about 160! It’s just such a blatant lie that it makes me puzzled,” says Wright. He says the church provided little help, either responding to his inquiries after long delays, disputing the legitimacy of his questions, or not responding at all. “What they really wanted, again and again, was a list of my sources. And I wasn’t going to give that to them.”
Wright acknowledges Pouw’s point that his publishers in the U.K. and Canada have decided to pull the book because of legal concerns.
“It’s a big project to write, essentially, a history of a hostile organization that hides its data and tries to mislead you about its past. And if I’ve made mistakes they will be corrected,” says Wright. “But it is a monumental task to try to get at the truth of what goes on inside Scientology.” [Source. Emphasis added.]
Surely one of the most difficult things for the uninitiated to understand is how intelligent, well-meaning people ever end up in this organization in the first place. In a Salon interview with L. Ron Hubbard’s great-grandson, Jamie DeWolf, (L. Ron Hubbard’s great-grandson: Scientology is a brainwashing “cult”), the following points are made:
DeWolf said that Scientology leaders “prey on narcissism….[You’re] told you’re a God-like creature.”
DeWolf also explained how Scientology specifically tries to rope in celebrities, though they are often “insulated from the nastier aspects of it.” DeWolf said Elvis Presley turned down an offer to join Scientology.
As a former member, I have to take some issue with his “prey on narcissism” statement. While that might well be the intention of some leaders and recruiters, most people I met and grew to know while in Scientology were not narcissistic in any way. In fact, they there because they were looking for a spiritual path that was vibrant, contemporary and not weighted by the arcane traditions of “old time religion.” They got involved because, in the beginning, it seemed enlightened, hopeful, and exciting. They wanted to help themselves get off drugs, get happier in their lives; handle their families. They wanted to help others, make the world a better place; “clear the planet.” It was only through the experience itself, the slow unfolding of the “technology” and bizarre policies and philosophies, that many were led to an awakening of realization about the hollowness of its many promises, its calculated manipulations, its arrogance and exclusionary practices that often exhibited cruelty and lack of compassion. That is why I got out; why most people I know got out.
The narcissism DeWolf speaks of, however, can certainly be found in many of the church leaders (just watch a video of David Miscavage pontificating from the stage under banners and klieg lights…or even Tom Cruise on any well-known rant!). The sense of superiority within that element of the group is legion. Even when I was involved, it was understood that we were the chosen ones; pity was felt for those not enlightened enough to join us in the grand quest. And there was that obsequious pursuit of celebrities, as DeWolf mentions; a proclivity well-known amongst members and institutionalized in the recruitment goals and policies. While it’s likely even those adherents – the celebrities – may have joined for many of the same reasons non-celebrities did, by sheer virtue of their fame they are seen, and treated, very differently from the “normal folk,” something Hubbard and his leaders were unabashed about. Celebrities are considered the best possible PR for Scientology; the most desired result. They are the winners, the ones whose success is attributed to their adherence to the church. And given that status, many of the high level, very attractive, likeable celebrities of the church (i.e., Kirstie Alley, Erika Christensen, Elisabeth Moss, Beck, Jenna Elfman; yes…even Tom Cruise, who likely hasn’t been much help with the cause lately!) are willing to laugh down the “ridiculous” notions of the naysayers, speak brightly of their own glowing experiences; put a “pretty face” on the image of the Scientology brand. That most knowing folks realize their version of Scientology is unique to their vaulted status is, apparently, not relevant to them.
But I and others have often found it gut-wrenching to watch any one of the famous who sit in judgment of others in service of their defense of the church; giggling in dismissal of questions about the “dark side” of Scientology, when I, as many do, personally know, have witnessed or, in some cases, experienced that “dark side.” And there’s your narcissism: “my experience has been fabulous so they must all be liars.” It’s akin to the sibling of an abused child dismissing that child’s experience by saying, “Daddy never touched me so you must be lying!” (and not such an extreme example.)
What would have more integrity is if one of the interviewed celebrities told Barbara Walters: “I have not personally experienced a dark side, but if someone else has, that’s horrible and I hope they and the church work together to make it right.”
Or how amazing would it be if the spokespeople of Scientology came out and sincerely and honestly said:
“There are many good people in the church doing their best to do create positive change in the world. As in many large organizations, mistakes have been made, policies have been poorly implemented, unethical people have perverted the intent of good rules, and people have been hurt. We are deeply sorry for any hurt or damage that has been inflicted upon any current or former member of this organization, and will do everything possible to rectify that hurt and damage. We move forward with a goal of transparency and compassion and welcome any questions or suggestions.”
Can you imagine?? But that will never happen. Because this organization is not built on the notion of transparency, compassion and truth. Its very DNA is subsumed in the secrecy of invention, built on the foundation of science fiction, fantasy and obfuscation and true spirituality cannot thrive in that atmosphere. In a fascinating piece in the Daily Beast that documents the “tall tales” told by Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard while he was a member of the Explorers Club of New York City, his fantastical and highly creative “history” is explored in detailed text and compelling photographs. I urge you to take a look; it’s quite entertaining!
For many of us watching the rollout of Wright’s book from the sidelines, it’s interesting to see what “guns” the church pulls out this time in their exhaustive quest to shoot down criticism. Their predictable script, however, not only rings hollow after so many years of the same, it works to further alienate and create disdain. This is an organization that’s spent years in the practice of annihilating its enemies and is rife with written policy on just how to do that. Pre-Internet, that usually involved mob-like tactics of personal and professional harassment that often led to extreme duress and incendiary lawsuits. More recently, with the ubiquity of information available online, the church has been less successful in shutting down critical content; in fact, even its most mysterious and arcane spiritual philosophy regarding evil lords named Xenu and exploding volcanoes, once so secret it was considered deadly to reveal before a student was properly prepared, is now splattered all over the web in every permutation available. So far no one has died from reading.
The point is: like other controversial groups with zealot followers and blind allegiance as a mandate, the church of Scientology, as seen from the outside, is an extremist cult that dissembles for the sake of protecting its secrets. Transparency can only exist in an organization that has nothing to hide and a willingness to welcome and embrace all interested parties. But, as Lawrence Wright discovered, “…it is a monumental task to try to get at the truth of what goes on inside Scientology.” [Source]
But it is precisely Wright’s measured tone, his use of a scalpel instead of a hammer to dissect Scientology and its manifold abuses, which renders his conclusions all the more damning. Acknowledging that members of a religion can “believe whatever they choose,” Wright adds the important caveat that “it is a different matter to use the protections afforded a religion by the First Amendment to falsify history, to propagate forgeries, and to cover up human rights abuses.” Scientology critics, myself included, have long argued that the U.S. government should follow the lead of other countries and at the very least revoke the Church’s tax-exempt status, if not take harsher measures against it for a variety of criminal activities. Lawrence Wright’s courageous investigation is a warrant to act.
A conclusion many of us – those who have been inside as well as those peering from the edges – share.
[For more information on this and other Scientology matters, visit Tony Ortega's The Underground Bunker.]