It’s been a rough century so far for the controversial Church of Scientology. A religion — a reluctant Internal Revenue Service granted that status in 1993 in a truce to end a resource-gobbling hailstorm of lawsuits by the church — that seemed ascendant along with other elements of “new age” thought in the late 20th century has of late been battered by bad PR.
From Katie Holmes’ high-profile, swiftly executed divorce from the world’s most prominent Scientologist, actor Tom Cruise, to the defection of some of the highest ranking officials of the church and a flurry of critical books, some critics say the religion is on the run.
The most recent books targeting the church are New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief” and the deeply personal memoir, “Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape,” by Jenna Miscavige Hill, the feisty niece, now 29, of all-powerful church leader David Miscavige.
Created out of whole cloth by the pulp science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, the sci-fi-inflected, commercially focused church often claims some 8 million adherents worldwide. More recent and objective surveys, including U.S. government census data, indicate there are probably less than 100,000, and perhaps as few as 40,000.
Taking its cue from the defection of film director Paul Haggis, once one of the church’s vaunted celebrity members, Wright’s weighty tome is long on facts and fascinating, well-documented research.
Reading about Scientology’s founder always holds a voyeuristic pleasure. While not quite as packed with bizarre detail as Janet Reitman’s excellent 2011 investigation, “Inside Scientology,” Wright’s book once more delves into the contradiction that was Hubbard. Though Hubbard is held in the highest esteem by followers — even revered as a kind of god — Wright debunks many of the his grandiose claims.
For example, while official church history claims he was “one of the first nuclear physicists in the United States,” in fact he failed to graduate from college and earned a D in the only entry-level physics course he took at George Washington University. Where Scientology mythology portrays him as a war hero, for example, his official U.S. Navy records — and even Hubbard’s own assessment — portray him as undistinguished. .
Over the years, Hubbard larded his creation (he’d told many friends that starting a religion would be the quickest way to make big money) with hundreds of “policy letters” and almost criminal pronouncements; under his “fair game” doctrine, for example, any means, from libel to murder, is acceptable when facing critics of the faith. Wright carefully describes his long years building his increasingly autocratic bureaucracy from ships on the high seas. But again, if you are looking for the juiciest details — the creation of the Commodore’s Messenger Organization, a cadre of attractive teen girls who wore white hot pants and halter tops and were among his most trusted servants — Reitman’s book is more titillating.
Wright does his due diligence in revealing Hubbard’s hastily scribbled Scientology creation story from the late 1960s. That sci-fi scenario claims that humanity’s problems are caused by “thetans,” the spirits of aliens murdered by the tyrant Xenu some 75 million years ago. Hubbard told his followers that this information was so powerful that they would be destroyed if they knew about it before spending tens of thousands of dollars to reach the “level” where they could hear it safely.
In truth, Scientology’s mythology isn’t especially weirder than that of many religions — it’s the analog of flying horses, talking asses and snakes, golden tablets, for the age of technology. But at least the world’s major faiths don’t’ demand that followers pay for the privilege of finding out what they are.
Many people have heard whispers of Hubbard’s oddness, but most don’t know much about the church today except that actor Tom Cruise is its most prominent promoter. In fact, since the founder’s death in 1986 in a debauched state after six years of self-imposed hiding (followers were told he “dropped his body” to conduct further spiritual research), it’s become even more autocratic. A young, charismatic and powerfully self-willed Scientologist, David Miscavige, cannily wrested control of the church from all challengers immediately after the founder’s demise and has never relinquished it. Many critics, including some of the church’s highest ranking officers (for a religion, Scientology is curiously loaded down with military-sounding titles, acronyms and sales pitches) say Miscavige has turned the church into a dictatorial entity driven solely by the need for profits that treats members of its putative clergy, the Sea Organization, as little better than indentured slaves.
Wright details Miscavige’s domineering leadership, under which Sea Org members could be sentenced to what amounted to hard labor for alleged transgressions and prominent members of the church hierarchy disappear from public view, including the still-official president, Heber Jentsch, and Miscavige’s own wife Shelly, never to be seen again. Wright also details numerous accusations of Miscavige’s physical attacks on members, even high officers. The book portrays an organization that sounds more like a Stalinist nightmare than a religion; its dirty tricks, surveillance and sophisticated attempts to smear critics are truly disturbing.
Jenna Miscavige Hill’s book is the polar opposite of Wright’s careful investigation, a breezy, touching, tragic personal story that, if anything, leaves the reader more shocked and horrified about the church.
Hill was raised like other children of the church hierarchy in the ‘80s and ‘90s, at “The Ranch,” a remote California compound where kids were segregated from the non-Scientologist world, provided free labor, rarely saw their parents and were subjected constant to Scientology techniques.
“The conditions we worked under would have been tough for a grown man, and yet any complaints, backflashing (talking back to superiors), any kind of questioning was instantly met with disciplinary action,” she writes.
Because of Hubbard’s belief that children were merely “thetans” in little bodies, they were treated more or less as mini-adults, and they didn’t know any better. Just like any Scientologist, they were subject to continual “auditing,” a kind of in-depth confession session conducted with Hubbard’s “e-meter,” a galvanic-skin monitor that works something like a lie detector. They were instructed to admit all “overts” — basically, sins — and “withholds,” or secrets. The machine was always right, no matter what, and Hill recalls making up transgressions just to be done with a session.
At 13, she was required to “detail every single sexual experience, including masturbating, that I ever had” — though she’d had none. “I knew I had to do it, but it was hard to understand why the church needed this information,” she writes. “Even though I had nothing to hide, I felt like the church was asking me for information just for the sake of having it, almost asking for material they might blackmail me with that served no Scientologic purpose.”
A rebel at heart, Hill has fond early memories of an “Uncle Dave” with a human side who loved and protected her. But as the years wore on, he grew less tolerant of her independence. Eventually, from behind the scenes, she believes he masterminded efforts to prevent her marriage to another Sea Org member, a series of events that finally led to her escape.
Today, unlike many who have still believe in Hubbard’s “tech” despite fleeing Miscavige’s autocratic regime, Hill is done with Scientology entirely. Though soft-spoken and hardly intimidating, her recent media appearances have caused some to call her “Scientology’s most powerful enemy.”
“Beyond Belief” is the perfect title for the book. It’s deliberately light on Hubbard history and the quirks of Scientological belief, but the cumulative weight of sometimes banal, sometime horrific treatment of Scientology’s second- or third-generation members is a potent indictment. It’s hard not to feel deep sadness and protectiveness for the blond-haired girl on the cover and by extension, all the other kids who have endured the church’s brutality.
Wright’s book, supported by nearly 50 pages of notes (not to mention frequent disputations from the church — “*The church categorically denies all charges of Miscavige’s abuse” — that make clear how secretive and defensive it is), is likewise an excellent addition to the growing library of books critical of Scientology. It’s straight-up journalism, jammed with documented information, denser and more sober than Reitman’s shorter, but also entertaining and informative book.
Some critics now proclaim the church is finally meeting its match in the cumulative weight of bad PR. Perhaps. But with billions of dollars in assets — culled from adherents and curiosity seekers who paid for its countless, expensive “services” —and Miscavige’s almost frightening tenacity, the church remains battle-tested and determined. It would be foolish to count it out just yet.