book reviews by Jim Lippard
Times are tough for the Church of Scientology. Since Skeptic’s Scientology cover issue went to press near the end of 2011, the Church of Scientology has faced increasing media attention on revelations from high-ranking defectors as well as internal criticism over its strategy of continual fundraising to build “Ideal Orgs” (or, as some wags have dubbed them, “Idle Morgues”). The latter spilled over into public view as the result of an email sent to thousands of Scientologists on December 31, 2011 which argued that this fundraising violates L. Ron Hubbard’s policies, citing and quoting chapter and verse. The sender was (at the time) a Scientologist in good standing who was well known to members of the Church—Debbie Cook, former Flag Service Organization captain known as the “face of the Sea Org” for her appearances in Sea Org recruiting videos. The Church of Scientology sued her in January, but was embarrassed by her testimony in an open court hearing in February about the abuses she witnessed at Scientology’s “Int Base,” where executives were kept in prison-like conditions in a pair of double-wide trailers known as “The Hole.” The case was quickly settled in April, and Cook moved to the Caribbean and then to Mexico.
2013 is shaping up to be even worse for the Church. In just the first six weeks of the year three major critical books have been published and an hour-long critical documentary aired on cable television. On January 7, BBC journalist John Sweeney’s The Church of Fear: Inside The Weird World of Scientology, was published. On January 16, a documentary of Nancy Many’s My Billion-Year Contract, about her time in the Sea Org including her time in Scientology’s dirty tricks organization—the Guardian Office—aired on the new Investigation Discovery channel. January 17 saw the publication of Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, a book that grew out of his February 14, 2011 New Yorker story, “The Apostate,” a profile of Oscar-winning film director Paul Haggis’s noisy departure from Scientology. And last but not least, a memoir from the niece of the head of the Church of Scientology, Jenna Miscavige Hill’s Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, was published on February 5.
Timed to distract from the Many documentary and Wright book, the Church of Scientology paid $50,000 for an “advertorial” on the website of The Atlantic magazine on January 15. The piece, titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” argued that Scientology is growing like never before, citing the opening of numerous “Ideal Orgs.” The Atlantic’s “sponsored content” prompted such a backlash that the article was pulled from the website before the day was over. On February 3, perhaps in an attempt to garner some distracting publicity from Jenna Miscavige Hill’s book, Scientology purchased television advertising in several local markets during the Super Bowl’s half time to air an advertisement, titled “Knowledge,” which it had already released on YouTube on December 18.
Each of these books recounts a different slice of life experience with Scientology. Sweeney’s book reports the experience of a critical journalist as Scientology’s power to intimidate is beginning to decline, Hill’s book is about growing up as a third-generation Scientologist and family relation of the head of the Church, and Wright’s book focuses on Scientology as seen by its senior executive clergy and celebrities.
Wright’s book, Going Clear, is a carefully researched, detailed, and entertaining story that follows the life story of Paul Haggis from his youth in London, Ontario where he was first recruited into Scientology, to his successful career in Hollywood as a writer and director, with side trips into the life of L. Ron Hubbard, current head of the church David Miscavige, and other celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. In the process, Wright explains much of Scientology doctrine and history, often uncovering new facts not reported in previous books.
Wright begins with Haggis’ adoption of Scientology after being handed a copy of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics and being told, “You have a mind. This is the owner’s manual. Give me two dollars” (p. 3). Haggis becomes a representative of the typical public (and subsequently celebrity) Scientologist for Wright, who notes in the book’s introduction that “Few Scientologists have had a conversion experience—a sudden, radical reorientation of one’s life; more common is a gradual, wholehearted acceptance of propositions that might have been regarded as unacceptable or absurd at the outset, as well as the incremental surrender of will on the part of people who have been promised enhanced power and authority” (pp. xii–xiii). Haggis moved to Hollywood, became “Clear” #5925, and then established himself as a successful writer. Although he recognized that parts of Scientology seemed absurd—including in particular Scientology’s origin myth about Xenu the galactic warrior—Haggis has “no doubt…that he had gained some practical benefits from his several years of auditing and that his communication skills had improved” (p. 17). Because he was immersed in a community where Scientology was prevalent, with his wife, sister, and circle of friends as adherents, he came “to understand implicitly that those relationships would be jeopardized if he chose to leave the church” (pp. 17–18). These become some of the bars of the “Prison of Belief” of the book’s subtitle.
The event that ultimately led to Haggis’ departure from the church was the apparent sponsorship of California’s Proposition 8 by the Church of Scientology of San Diego. Tommy Davis, then still a spokesman for the church, said that it wasn’t actually the San Diego church that had adopted a position on the proposition, but “one guy who somehow got it in his head it would be a neat idea [to] put Church of Scientology San Diego on the list.” Davis got the church removed from the list (p. 310). Haggis, however, insisted that the Church of Scientology should issue a public statement disclaiming responsibility, while Davis declined, saying that a public statement would simply give undeserved attention to the issue. While Davis thought the issue was resolved since he heard nothing more from Haggis, Haggis began investigating criticisms of Scientology on the Internet. In the process, he came across a YouTube video in which Davis, acting as public spokesman for the church, falsely denied the existence of the practice of “disconnection” from family members or friends who are critical of the church. Haggis developed more reasons to leave, culminating in writing and sending a letter of resignation to Davis that used the church’s stance on homosexuality as the primary reason for his departure. Davis tried to bring Haggis back in to the church, but when Haggis gave permission for former #2 in the church, ex-member Marty Rathbun, to post the resignation letter on his blog, Haggis became a lost cause.
Wright’s book is an excellent introduction to the Church of Scientology, its history, and its doctrines, with a focus on the celebrity experience from recruitment to disillusion, and on what keeps current celebrity members involved. The odd experiences of Tom Cruise, who drifted away from the church only to be pulled back in, illustrate life at the very top of Scientology. David Miscavige, “chairman of the board” (“COB”) of the Religious Technology Center, who runs the church, lives a lavish lifestyle which Wright describes in detail, including his eating habits (dinner is a five-course meal, with a choice from two prepared entrees), sleeping habits (he regularly starts his day at noon, and ends at 3 or 4 a.m.), travel habits (he flies by Boeing business jet, accompanied by his hairdresser and chiropractor) and his acquisitions (he collects guns, motorcycles, automobiles, and expensive clothing) (pp. 271–272). Meanwhile, many Scientology staff work long hours for sub-minimum wage and dine on beans and rice.
The book is another damning critique of the Church of Scientology’s corruption, deception, and extraction of money from its members to build its “Super Power” building in Clearwater and its “Ideal Orgs.” Wright estimates that it has $1 billion in liquid assets and 12 million square feet of real estate worldwide, including 26 properties in Hollywood worth $400 million. There’s a stark discrepancy between Scientology’s claims and reality, which was presaged by Hubbard’s tall tales in his youth. While members think that Scientology was the product of scientific research by Hubbard, Wright’s re-examination of Hubbard’s life shows, once again, that Hubbard mixed his own tall tales and subjective experience with things he picked up from others—Korzybski, Parsons, Crowley, the U.S. Navy, and so on—to create the policies and doctrines of Scientology.
Wright’s book, though lacking the daring escape stories or depth of reporting on the Lisa McPherson case that are strengths in Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology, seems to me to more comprehensively describe Scientology doctrine and history than her account. Scientology has responded to his book similar as it did to hers, by denying its accuracy (resulting in numerous humorous footnotes in the book reporting Scientology’s absurd denials of reports by multiple witnesses). The only error I’ve seen noted in the book is his mistaken dating of Hubbard’s “tomato auditing” photo to 1968 (instead of 1959 or 1960), an error which is widespread apparently due to Life magazine’s attribution of the photo to the Evening Standard, January 1, 1968.
Wright closes his book with a comparison to other religions—Islam, Christianity, Amish and Mennonite communities, Christian Science, and especially Mormonism, a religion whose early history seems to have many parallels with Scientology. As Wright puts it, “Joseph Smith was plainly a liar” (p. 355). But such observations are unlikely to get through to the prisoner of belief, as Haggis found when he tried to persuade his friends in Scientology to read material critical of Scientology in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), only to be told by composer Mark Isham that “it was like reading Mein Kampf if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion” (p. 328). If a reputable newspaper criticizes your religion, it must be equivalent to Nazi propaganda and therefore not worth reading. But for those who do read the material, even if they first rationalize it away as the false complaints of unethical apostates, as Scientology encourages its members to believe, they often accumulate personal experiences confirming what they’ve read, which helps them find their way out. I hope that Wright’s book will help.
When investigative journalist John Sweeney set out to make a segment of the BBC documentary series Panorama about Scientology in 2007, he had some idea of the risks involved, but was unable to prepare sufficiently to avoid famously losing his temper in response to prodding from Church of Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis. The YouTube video of that outburst was picked up by the mass media and seen by millions.
This book, the first of three major books about Scientology published in the first six weeks of 2013, is narrowly focused on a specific set of events in 2007, when Sweeney conducted his investigation and interviews for what became Panorama’s “Scientology and Me.” What makes this book remarkable is that it doesn’t just include Sweeney’s perspective, it includes a Church of Scientology viewpoint, as revealed from recent leaks of internal documents and interviews with high-level defectors who coordinated the response to Sweeney’s investigation and who have now been speaking out. They were monitoring his activities, having him followed, and periodically confronting him, sometimes while he was in the middle of interviews with Scientology critics and defectors. The inside information shows how the Church, at a turning point in its history, dealt with a perceived threat.
While Sweeney received much less harassment than investigators of prior decades (notably Paulette Cooper, Joel Sappell and Robert Welkos of the Los Angeles Times, Richard Behar of Time magazine, and Richard Leiby of the Washington Post), it was apparently much more focused attention than recent investigators such as Janet Reitman and Lawrence Wright (so far as we know to date, anyway). Then-church media spokesman Tommy Davis and head of the Office of Special Affairs Mike Rinder were the key players against Sweeney, along with a “Communicator” apparently being told what to say by David Miscavige (like a Stanley Milgram “Cyranoid”). Though Rinder was nominally the senior, Sweeney perceived him at the time to be of lesser status—confirmed by the fact that Rinder had only been spending time in “The Hole,” a sort of prison for out-of-favor senior executives, but had been released to work against Sweeney. Rinder and Davis have now both left Scientology, though only Rinder is speaking out publicly.
Also noteworthy in Sweeney’s book is the record he establishes of Scientologists who have reached Operating Thetan III, yet are perfectly willing to lie by issuing false denials of familiarity with the story of the evil Galactic overlord Xenu found in that level of Scientology. Sweeney states: “A ‘religion’ that hides its core belief from the world is not a religion because a true religion must be open about itself to all.” But this is a tendentious definition of “true religion” (Sweeney attributes it to the Charity Commission in the UK) that excludes esoteric and occult traditions, as well as the Druze faith. It is in fact not uncommon for religious traditions to excuse both secrecy and lying to non-members about the secrets.
The book is somewhat marred by a number of errors including repeated misspellings of the names of Kirstie Alley, Kendrick Moxon, and the Kia Sedona minivan. More significant mistakes include an assertion that Hubbard was a friend of Aleister Crowley (they never met, though Hubbard lived with Crowley follower John Parsons in 1945–46 and borrowed elements of Scientology from Crowley’s work), and a claim that in 1993 the “Inland [sic: Internal] Revenue Service reversed its previous position and declared the Church a religion” (the IRS doesn’t determine what counts as a religion).
Sweeney’s book doesn’t cover the broad ground of books like Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear and Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology, but it is an entertaining and revealing look at the experiences of a journalist investigating Scientology at a turning point in its history.
Jenna Miscavige Hill was a third-generation Scientologist. Her maternal grandmother, Janna Blythe, started with Hubbard’s science fiction in the 1950s, was an advocate of Dianetics by 1957, and joined Scientology in 1969. Blythe and her husband and their nine children all joined the Sea Org on the ship Excalibur, but most returned to being “public” Scientologists after only a few months. Jenna’s mother, Elizabeth or “Bitty,” refused to leave the ship even though she was still a minor. On her father’s side, her grandfather, Ronald Miscavige Sr., also brought his whole family into Scientology when he joined in the 1970s. His two sons, Ron Jr. and David, both joined the Sea Org as teenagers. Jenna’s parents had been Scientologists for 15 years by the time she was born, though they both left the Sea Org beforehand. But just before she was two, they decided to rejoin the Sea Org, at about the same time her uncle David was taking control of the entire Church of Scientology.
Beyond Belief tells Jenna Miscavige Hill’s story of life growing up not only in Scientology, but in the Sea Org as a close relative of the head of the church. While her name gave her some occasional benefits, her family’s lifestyle was not like that of her uncle (described in Lawrence Wright’s book). Her parents’ positions in the Sea Org meant that in her early years she lived in a small two-bedroom apartment with another family, the Rinders. She would go for months at a time without seeing her mother, and would often see her father only once a week. She thought that joining the Sea Org herself held the promise of seeing her parents more often, and she signed her own billion-year contract at the age of 7. But the promise was a false one, and she saw less of them rather than more. Her exposure to the world outside of Scientology was virtually nil, and once she was in the Sea Org, even the life of a public Scientologist became foreign to her.
As a child cadet in the Sea Org, Jenna lived at a Scientology boarding school known as “The Ranch” in the California desert, not far from Int Base at Gilman Hot Springs, where her father and uncle lived. Her days would begin at 6:30 a.m. with cleaning, followed by morning muster, roll call, and personal inspections at 7 a.m. This was followed by “Chinese school,” where students would repetitively and in unison read aloud L. Ron Hubbard quotations written on sheets of butcher paper. All cadets had assigned work positions in a formal organizational structure with children as commanding officers. Seven-year-old Jenna’s assigned post was Medical Liaison Officer responsible for treating sick children (p. 55) and providing vitamins to the healthy. While Scientology didn’t permit the use of medicine for the treatment of pain or fever (“touch assists” were prescribed for such ailments), it did allow for MMR vaccinations (p. 57). At 9:15 a.m. was second muster, followed by “deck work” or labor intensive projects, which lasted until 12:45 p.m. on weekdays and all day long on Saturdays. Projects included laundry, pool cleaning, weeding, planting trees, digging trenches, and hauling rocks. Hard labor in the “Heavy MEST [Scientology acronym for matter, energy, space, and time] Work Unit” was assigned as punishment for underperformers (p. 61). After deck work came lunch and cleanup, followed by academic course work from 1:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. Following Hubbard’s educational methods, there was no formal instruction, but only self-directed study under the watchful eye of a “course supervisor.” Dinner and more cleanup ran from 6–6:45 p.m., and the study of Scientology until 9 p.m. Hubbard policy applied to all aspects of life, and courses had to be taken and their prescriptions followed for everything—how to clean a room, how to make a bed, and how to ride a bicycle (p. 80).
While Jenna found this environment unpleasant, she was afraid to complain about it to her parents and instead decided to run away with another unhappy cadet, stealing fresh eggs from a chicken coop that were reserved for her uncle. They were quickly apprehended and assigned to “lower conditions” as punishment, which forced them to work their way back into the good graces of their fellow cadets. She notes that this was actually the second time she had stolen her uncle’s eggs, having previously taken some and put them into a dresser drawer hoping to hatch chicks. When she was caught at that, she was forced to write a letter of confession to David Miscavige. Rather than getting in trouble, he “wrote…back and explained that my drawer was probably not warm enough for the eggs, and that I would need an incubator if I wanted to succeed in hatching them” (pp. 83–84).
Several of Jenna’s early experiences with her uncle, described in the book, depict him as a normal, kindly relative, even as she started to accumulate evidence that her parents were hiding something from her. For example, while living with her mother, who was a senior Sea Org executive in Clearwater with a nice apartment to herself, she would occasionally visit her mother’s office. Her mother told her not to be in the office when her Uncle Dave was there. On one occasion she heard him coming down the hall and tried unsuccessfully to hide, which he subsequently joked about with her (pp. 139–140). Her father similarly escorted her out of a situation where Miscavige was about to berate some staff over a sound system problem at a Scientology event (p. 141).
After her mother got caught having an affair and was put on the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), Jenna started receiving “sec checks,” E-meter sessions that were intended to uncover evidence of wrongdoing rather than self-improvement (p. 185). Her brother was also put on the RPF, and ended up leaving the church. In 1997, she saw people protesting the death of Lisa McPherson at the Ft. Harrison Hotel building in downtown Clearwater. Some picket signs made reference to Xenu, the Galactic overlord of OT III, which Scientologists are not permitted to know about until they are properly trained. Sea Org members were no longer permitted to walk between buildings, but instead were shuttled in vans with contact paper over the windows to shield them from seeing the dangerous material (pp. 221–222). The only error I noted in the book was Hill’s statement that the Lisa McPherson Trust, which helped organize these protests, had “a staff of five, four of whom were former Scientologists, the fifth was [funder Bob] Minton” (p. 220); Jeff Jacobsen and Mark Bunker were two LMT staff members who were never Scientologists.
The book continues with her life through the reconciliation of her parents and their departure from the Church of Scientology, and her decision to stay even though she was still under 18. The church remained suspicious of her loyalties and controlling of her life, which caused further friction when her love life was involved. An assignment to Canberra, Australia with her new husband gave her a level of exposure to the world outside of Scientology and a chance to examine information critical of Scientology online. Ultimately, she departed the church, reunited with her family, and became a co-founder of exscientologykids.org.
Beyond Belief is one of the better books by an ex-member. While she suffered nothing like the abuses of members who were assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), physically beaten by senior executives, coerced to have abortions, and separated from their spouses, her book is unique in a number of respects. I believe it is the only book by a third-generation Scientologist that describes life as a child of parents in the Sea Org, and certainly is the only book by someone in such a position who is also a relative of the head of the Church of Scientology. Jenna Hill didn’t advance very far “up the Bridge,” during her time in the church—she didn’t even become clear, let alone achieve any of the OT levels, and, like most of the general public who has heard of Xenu, she learned about OT III from the animated television series South Park (p. 372). Her lack of progress in Scientology and the occasional preferential treatment she received will likely be used by Scientology as reasons why her book should be disregarded. But the contrary lesson is probably the better one—her story shows that even members of the head of the Church of Scientology’s own family get mistreated, which is why David Miscavige’s brother, his brother’s family, and his own father have left.
About the Author
JIM LIPPARD is a long-time skeptic who works in the field of information security. He founded the Phoenix Skeptics in 1985, was its first executive director (1985–1988), and editor of the Arizona Skeptic (1991–1993). He was the first webmaster for the Skeptics Society (1994–1997), and president of the Internet Infidels (2003–2005). He co-founded one of the first Internet skeptical mailing lists with Toby Howard of the Manchester Skeptics in 1987, and the forteana mailing list in the mid-1990s. He occasionally blogs at the Lippard Blog and the Secular Outpost, and is actively skeptical on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. He has written for Skeptic, the National Center for Science Education, Creation/Evolution, Philo, and Skeptical Briefs, among other periodicals, and contributed to Joe Nickell’s Psychic Sleuths, Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, and Ed Babinski’s Leaving the Fold. He previously wrote about Scientology for Skeptic with Jeff Jacobsen in vol. 3, no. 3 (1995). He has an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona, and is a Ph.D. student in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology at Arizona State University.