Taking down the Church of Scientology

A new documentary intimately investigates the dangers of this cult phenomenon.

The Church of Scientology of Los Angeles, (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Church of Scientology of Los Angeles,
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was great publicity. I only wish they had attached the showtimes,” filmmaker Alex Gibney, creator of a controversial new film on Scientology, wrote me in an email recently.
If you knew him, you too could just imagine his mischievous grin when penning those words.
Gibney scored a publicity victory that few filmmakers could even dream of: a full-page paid ad in The New York Times. It was filled with fury and assaults on him and his work.
“I knew they would go after me and try to defame me, but the ad surprised me,” Gibney told me. “How do I feel now? Great. I was surprised when I saw it. How often does anyone see their picture (not a bad picture; they could have done worse) attached to a full-page attack ad?” An Oscar-winning, well-respected director and screenwriter of political documentaries, Gibney is once again in the eye of the storm. In just a few days, his new film will be screened in the US and across the world: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
Nowadays, the 60-year-old Gibney is considered one of America’s most influential documentary filmmakers. Indeed in 2010, Esquire magazine crowned him “the most important documentarian of our time.”
He studied at Yale and went on to UCLA’s prestigious film school. For the last 30 years he has written, directed and produced documentary films and television series.
In 2007, he won an Oscar for his film Taxi to the Dark Side, about an Afghani cab driver falsely arrested for his alleged involvement in terrorism, then beaten to death by US servicemen. Other works include Gonzo, on the life of legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson; Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, about the New York governor hooked on hookers; and We Steal Secrets, the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. This is just a sampling of his work over the last decade.
His newest film is a whirlwind account of Scientology, a cult which proclaims itself to be a religion, and which using sophisticated psychological methods of brainwashing, harassment, exhaustion, punishment and threats, enslaves the hearts of its followers and wrests control not only of their souls, but their possessions as well.
In an exclusive interview with the Magazine in New York a few weeks ago, and in emails since, Gibney told me what really inspired him to make this film.
“While I had been offered the opportunity to do a film on Scientology before, I wasn’t interested until I read Larry [Wright]’s book [on the subject],” Gibney explained. Lawrence Wright is an American journalist and screenwriter who in 2006 won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11, which, together with Gibney, he adapted into a documentary film.
About a year ago, Wright penned the script for Camp David, a play about the 13 days of talks in September 1979 between US president Jimmy Carter, prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, which led to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Wright sent Gibney the galleys for his new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief – and Gibney was hooked. The two creators reunited and began working on their film, which bears almost the same name as Wright’s book. The text deals mainly with the cult of Scientology within Hollywood, and the famous believers from the silver screen, including actors John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and, most famously, Tom Cruise.
Wright’s book, which was published in 2013, delves deep into the history, organization and leadership of the cult, based on conversations with some 200 past and present Scientologists. Wright says that over the course of his research, he received warning letters and threats from the church’s lawyers and celebrity members.
Wright himself is interviewed in the film.
Gibney’s film tells the story of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard through testimonials, many of them from senior members of the cult who left it, and archived visuals from cinema, television and newspapers.
ALTHOUGH MANY of the details of Lafayette Ron Hubbard’s life are unclear, there are a few indisputable facts. He was born in 1911 in a small town in Nebraska, spent a few childhood years in Helena, Montana, until his family moved to Asia and the South Pacific – where his father, a marine, was stationed.
Hubbard studied at George Washington University, but never completed his degree. Instead, in the 1930s, he began to write science fiction. He was a prolific writer who composed more than 1,000 books – a Guinness record.
During World War II, he followed in his father’s footsteps and served in the Marines, even commanding two warships. He was removed from his position twice, when it became clear he was not cut out to be a commander – including damning reports about his fabricated claims that he had sunk enemy ships.
After the war, he moved to Pasadena, California, and joined a secret cult founded by a disturbed rocket scientist named Jack Parsons. It was there that Hubbard met his future wife, Sarah. The members of the cult dealt in sorcery, black magic and wild sex. According to Gibney’s film, it was through his involvement in the group and friendship with Parsons that Hubbard realized the power of cults, and their ability to enrapture and bind mass numbers of people.
The Church of Scientology’s self-publicity, which perpetuates the myths of its founder, describes Hubbard as a wunderkind who took up horseback riding before he learned to walk, a “pioneer of science” and “nuclear scientist.” The church attributes many accolades to Hubbard’s military career, claiming he was wounded in a maritime battle – though his medical records show he was hospitalized at that time due to ulcers.
Investigative journalistic reports on Hubbard describe him as a “pathological liar,” a “megalomaniac,” and even “mentally ill.” One of his sons, in an interview with the media, described him as “greedy” and defined the cult of Scientology as a “criminal organization.”
Hubbard’s other son killed himself by inhaling gas.
After leaving the sorcery cult, Hubbard and his wife moved into a caravan. They lived hand to mouth, supported mostly by his small stipend as a disabled veteran, and his odd jobs writing stories and doing maintenance work on yachts.
Hubbard’s breakthrough on the path to fame and fortune came when he invented Dianetics, a system of ideas and activities that try to explain the metaphysical connection between the mind and body. Hubbard called the practice “the modern science of mental health” and maintained, in the highly exaggerated manner which characterized him, that its contributions to humanity could be matched only by the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel and the arch.
The method’s basic principle lies in the claim that a person’s mind “records” and remembers every experience and event of his or her life, even when unconscious.
The strong or painful memories, which he called “engrams,” are stored in “the reactive mind.” During a process which Hubbard called “auditing,” a person is able to revisit the experiences and thus “clear” his stock of engrams from the pain and harmful memories.
Those who reach a state of “clear” will enjoy a more active, functioning and sophisticated brain, which will increase their intelligence, enable them to have a photographic memory and heal them of physical illnesses, which Hubbard asserted were all psychosomatic expressions emanating from the mind – not from the body.
In short, Hubbard taught that anyone who followed his doctrine would achieve eternal happiness.
The articles he submitted to scientific journals on the Dianetic method were rejected as pseudoscience and charlatanism.
That didn’t stop the masses from enthusing over the method and embracing it. Hubbard’s book, aptly named Dianetics, was an immediate bestseller when it was published in 1950, and it made Hubbard a rich man. Practitioners came out of the woodwork across the US and abroad. The groups attracted celebrities and artists, including the author Aldous Huxley, who passed the “auditing process.” Believers paid $5,000 – a hefty sum in 1950s terms – to undergo treatment.
But the success didn’t last long. His marriage collapsed and after an ugly battle, Sarah left him. Hubbard started a new family and fell into debt, but managed quickly enough – through his charisma and talents as a swindler – to get back on his feet. This was thanks to his decision in 1952 to found the Church of Scientology, which used Dianetics as a basis of its practice.
The church was a centralized and dictatorial organization, a cult of personality woven around Hubbard – the ruler of its every facet. The new “religion,” like Dianetics, drew in the public over the course of the 1950s and ’60s, with branches popping up around the world, even as Hubbard continued to adopt strange new theories to tack on to the Scientology doctrine.
Hubbard declared the world was created by aliens 60 million years ago. He said he saw visions, and that in his past life he was an Italian prince who hunted wild boars in Mongolia. His repertoire was filled with delusional and wild tales.
The church sold itself as a recipe for getting high without drugs, Wright wrote in his book. Its power of attraction was magnified – how could it not be? – by the Hollywood stars and other celebrities that joined its ranks. Leonard Cohen and Rock Hudson, followed by Travolta and Cruise, were some of the best ambassadors for the new so-called religion.
Hubbard was the leader of a movement newly numbering in the tens of thousands, even the hundreds of thousands.
His idea was simple, Gibney’s movie explains: Everything good that happens in your life is thanks to the church. Anything bad that happens is because of your own indiscretions.
IT WASN’T long before the authorities and media in certain countries – Australia, New Zealand and Britain – started investigating the church over allegations of fraud and tax crimes (primarily tax evasion). The US followed suit with a similar investigation soon after, when the church was summoned to pay hundreds of millions in taxes. Hubbard fled the US , turning his church into a “Sea Org” fleet; purchasing three ships, he sailed for Mediterranean ports with his followers.
Hubbard was now a fugitive. In the late 1970s, a French court convicted him, in absentia, of fraud.
At a certain point, Hubbard returned to the US, and spent the remainder of his life – until he succumbed to a stroke in 1986 – seized by paranoia. He moved every few weeks from one hideout to another, submerged in conspiracy theories. His mental and physical health deteriorated and his once-dictatorial reign over the church began to wane. One of his young aides, David Miscavige, slowly started taking control, and to this day is still its undisputed leader.
The student has become the teacher.
In his efforts to ramp up Scientology’s power of attraction, Miscavige enforced new rituals and practices which, according to the film, adopted and mimicked the activities of the Nazi Party. Colorful and powerful symbols were designed and elaborate ceremonies were organized during the church’s conferences, complete with flag marches and laser shows.
The “priests” wore uniforms of cloaks and shiny garments.
Miscavige was much more aggressive than his predecessor, and eventually managed to persuade the IRS to grant Scientology the official status of church, thus resolving all the problems Hubbard had left him to contend with vis-à-vis the tax authorities. The tax exemptions enjoyed by nonprofit religious organizations in the US turned Scientology into a rich and multi-armed octopus worth some $5 billion, even as its membership has declined to just around 50,000 today.
Over the years, criticism increased within the church itself over Miscavige’s dictatorial ways and his threatening behavior; more than a few lawsuits are currently under way against him and Scientology.
Testimonials have emerged, some of them in the film, of child labor, forced family separations and turning children over to “rehabilitative” institutes, which appear to be no more than juvenile prisons.
The list goes on.
In one of the most interesting parts of his film, Gibney describes Miscavige’s special relationship with Tom Cruise. As Gibney tells it, the church was the primary force involved in Cruise’s divorce from his longtime wife, actress Nicole Kidman.
Miscavige and his assistants were concerned that Kidman and her father, a well-known psychologist in Australia – psychiatry and its related branches being something Scientology is vehemently against – would persuade Cruise to leave the church. They hired private detectives to follow Kidman, listened in on her phone calls and gave Cruise the expert opinion that she was not the appropriate mate for him to raise their adopted children.
The church’s efforts emerged victorious.
Cruise divorced Kidman, and to this day, he remains an essential asset to the cult. In return, the church provides him with anything he wants – cars, special motorbikes and all the sexy young women he desires (although rumors of his and Travolta’s homosexuality persist). Both Cruise and Kidman refused to respond to a request for interview from Gibney, or to the allegations made in the film.
According to the film, the church arranged a meeting between Cruise and a young actress by the name of Nazim Boniadi, now known for her role in the Homeland series; the church primped her for the meeting. The relationship didn’t last long and Boniadi was quickly penalized. Her next jobs consisted of the most degrading work, including cleaning the church’s toilets and floors with a toothbrush.
Gibney says Cruise essentially embodies the Scientology vision of success and enslavement. According to the director, Cruise knows well that the church is exploiting and abusing its workforce, paying its laborers 40 cents an hour; and is trading in women and children, abusing them physically and mentally through torture.
Yet Cruise has not spoken out against these practices or the church’s conduct.
We further explored the story behind the film.
Why did you decide to make this movie?
Larry Wright sent me the galleys for his book; we had worked together once before on a film called My Trip to Al-Qaida, based on his one-man play about researching and writing The Looming Tower. While I had been offered the opportunity to do a film on Scientology before, I wasn’t interested until I read Larry’s book. What hooked me was the idea of the “prison of belief,” how intelligent, perceptive people could be drawn into a belief system that imprisoned their better judgment, so that they found themselves doing appalling things in the name of religion.
I was interested in Scientology in particular: What kind of religion involves itself in human relationships and then tries to destroy them in the name of religion? But I was also interested in the light this story might shed on the unfortunate and seemingly irrevocable human need to embrace what Larry calls that “terrifying certainty” of blind faith – a faith that can be political, ideological or religious.
Do you have a political/religious/ideological agenda?
I didn’t have an agenda to begin with; I began with a series of questions about the prison of belief. For that reason, I spent a lot of time asking the subjects of the film what they liked about Scientology.
In particular, I wanted to know about the appeal of auditing.
Beyond that, however, I did sense that a film on this subject might raise broader questions about the way blind faith offers, for many people, simple solace in such a complicated world. Yet that simple solace can also lead to a world in which the ends (salvation or the victory of political ideology) justify brutal means. It strikes me that this theme is particularly applicable to the Middle East; look at Jerusalem.
Can you elaborate on the obstacles you faced along the way?
It was hard to get anyone to talk on-camera for this story; one of the reasons was the fear of Scientology. It was also hard to obtain archival materials for the very same reason.
I understand that the church tried to threaten you.
The threats against me were mostly legal.
The church also mounted a PR campaign against me, claiming I have been unfair. It should be noted that the church took out a full-page ad – including my picture – attacking me in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, even though [leaders] of the church had not seen the film. Talk about the prison of belief! But the church has been far more brutal toward its former members, using surveillance, harassment, methodical slander and a brutal policy called “disconnection” to punish its critics and former members.
What role did Tom Cruise play?
Cruise has benefited enormously from his association with Scientology. He has been the recipient of what amounts to slave labor by the clergy (known as the Sea Org), who are paid 40 cents per hour to work for the church – and for him in particular. The church has also groomed women for his “consumption” as girlfriends.
Furthermore, Cruise is well aware of the alleged abuses of the church – including child labor, human trafficking, physical abuse, torture – and does not speak out about it, which is effectively an endorsement of the abuses.
What is the message of the film?
I resist the idea of a singular message. I hope that my film will act as a provocative vehicle to get viewers to think about the issues raised. But I do hope the film will cause Americans to wonder about why we are effectively subsidizing Scientology’s abuses by condoning its tax exemption.
More broadly, I hope the film will provoke us all to think about the prison of belief and the way that we all lock up a portion of our minds in exchange for the comfort of that terrifying certainty of blind faith.
Yet that parochial certainty is what undermines the golden rule and a sense of common humanity. If we are only loyal to our own tribes, rather than universal principles, then we are on the road to ruin.
Please feel free to add whatever is on your mind.
I think I’ve said enough – probably more than is good for me.