Scientology’s apostates

So 25,000 words on religion — from The New Yorker–makes me pretty giddy. OK, it’s about Scientology, which continues to keep journalists fascinated for its celebrity draw and secrecy. But hopefully this kind of piece shows how religion can make really compelling journalism. You’ll find a little bit of everything in this piece: celebrities, money, abuse, family, sex, power, etc. Religion often touches all of that and more.

Lawrence Wright’s new cover story hooks on why screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who directed Crash and wrote the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, resigned from the Church of Scientology in 2009 after 35 years. Haggis, who has two daughters who are lesbians, departed after the church declined to publicly stand against Proposition 8, the California proposition that stated that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

The author carefully presented his reporting in historical context, drawing from numerous interviews and original sources. For the most part, he tries to plainly present some of the details, allowing the Church of Scientology to respond, and leave it to the reader.

The article cites a survey suggesting that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists. “That’s less than half the number who identify themselves as Rastafarians,” the author writes. The church does not offer an official membership number. Despite its small size, journalists (think the St. Petersburg Times’ and Rolling Stone) have found the secrecy and the celebrity side (think Tom Cruise and John Travolta) fascinating. Here’s a section that exemplifies the interest in celebrities.

Josh Brolin told Wright he once witnessed John Travolta demonstrate Scientology healing powers on Marlon Brando at a dinner party. According to Brolin, Brando arrived with his leg cut. Travolta touched Brando’s leg, while Brando closed his eyes. “I watched this process going on–it was very physical,” Brolin said. “I was thinking, This is really f****** bizarre! Then, after ten minutes, Brando opens his eyes and says, ‘That really helped. I actually feel different!’” Travolta denies it ever happened.

Normally, I’d love to pull out more sections to look at the good, bad and ugly, but this piece is too massive to do that. I suggest listening to the author’s fantastic NPR interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross for those behind-the-scenes details. For instance, The New Yorker assigned five fact checkers to the story (one fact checker full-time since August) and sent the Church of Scientology 971 fact-checking questions. Wright also explains why he loves to pursue religion-related stories, saying he loves to try to understand why people choose to believe what they do.

Wright also says that one of the most interesting parts of a meeting with a Church of Scientology spokesperson was discussing the founder of Scientology’s medical records. L. Ron Hubbard said that he was blind and a ‘hopeless cripple’ at the end of World War II, healing himself through measures that later became the basis of Dianetics, the book that became the foundation for Scientology.

Eventually, Davis sent us what is called a notice of separation–essentially discharge papers from World War II–along with some photographs of all of these medals that [Hubbard] had won. … At the same time, we finally gained access to Hubbard’s entire World War II records [through a request to the military archives] and there was no evidence that he had ever been wounded in battle or distinguished himself in any way during the war. We also found another notice of separation which was strikingly different than the one that the church had provided.”

Beyond celebrities, this essentially challenges the whole story upon which Scientology was built. There are also several allegations that leader David Miscavige abused his staff. Wright says that he’s spoken to 12 people who say they’ve either been beaten by him or have witnessed him beating other people. Then there’s the alleged disappearance of his wife.

Miscavige’s official title is chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, but he dominates the entire organization. His word is absolute, and he imposes his will even on some of the people closest to him. According to Rinder and Brousseau, in June, 2006, while Miscavige was away from the Gold Base, his wife, Shelly, filled several job vacancies without her husband’s permission. Soon afterward, she disappeared. Her current status is unknown. Tommy Davis told me, “I definitely know where she is,” but he won’t disclose where that is.

The Church of Scientology released an official statement to the article, calling it “irresponsible” and saying Wright rehashed already disproved allegations to “garner headlines for an otherwise stale article.”

Annoyed that he didn’t think to call Haggis first, executive editor of Esquire Mark Warren decided to whine a little bit, calling for a moratorium on coverage of the Scientology “creeps,” for five years when there are “bigger creeps” in the world.

Why all the fuss over Scientology, when your resources and time might better be directed at the finances, earthly corruption, and raw power of, say, the Catholic Church, an institution that wields influence incalculably greater than Hubbard’s itty-bitty religion?

…As much good and necessary journalism as came out of the Catholic pedophilia scandal, it still has been just piecemeal and fragmentary compared to the monstrous size of this global crime. And when compared to the ink spilled over Scientology during the same period, the coverage of Rome shrinks even smaller.

Maturity in action.

Back to the piece, I also listened to The New Yorker‘s weekly mp3 where the author discusses some of the journalistic uniqueness of covering Scientology. Because the leaders are so secretive, reporters tend to be more limited to writing pieces that uncover often negative details. Also, reporters tend to talk with people who have left Scientology or want to reform it, so that often presents a particular point of view. Mark Oppenheimer, for instance, wants more access.

So add this piece to your evening/weekend reading via e-mail, Kindle, iPad, Instapaper/Read it Later (or print it out, if you’re into that) and tell us what you think. If other blogs are any indication, I’m anticipating the same comment from someone named Louanne who copies and pastes responses about the “thinly veiled tabloid piece.” Welcome, Louanne. If you do chime in, please keep comments specific to the facts.

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  • Tracy

    Okay this is hilarious regarding Louanne. She/it IS all over the internet cutting and pasting standard Scientology responses. She claims she’s too busy to write her own stuff.

    I think she’s the last one at the celebrity centre still finding and commenting on Scientology articles. She’s awesome.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I can understand people’s urge to defend something, but I think we could look at this piece with some specific questions or critiques. Her comments seem very vague and reactionary.

  • Bert

    Louanne is part of Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs (OSA), formerly called the Guardian’s Office. It’s essentially their dirty tricks department. Among other things, 11 members served time for “operation Snow white”, the largest infiltration of the US government in history. They also were caught trying to frame Paulette Cooper for an alledged bomb threat in “Operation Freakout”.

    I have my beef with religion, but Scientology is not a religion by any stretch. It’s a cross between a cult and the mafia, with a very aggressive PR philosophy. Besides human trafficking, Scientology should be subjected to the RICO laws.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    I was hoping GetReligion would comment on this story, and am glad you also singled out that odd Esquire response. As I commented over at Belied Beat, it doesn’t pass the smell test — the argument is that we shouldn’t bother investigating abuses and allegations of wrongdoing because the group is small?! (Plus, any Catholic or religion reporter can vouch for the fact that the Catholic Church has gotten plenty of journalistic scrutiny in the past decade… And, it’s not a zero sum game.)

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Whoops, that should say Belief Beat — ah, mobile devices.

  • Meepla Burk

    I read the Wright article and it is wonderful. Haggis was open and honest. Hubbard only “got religion,” when Dianetics failed as a pseudoscience therapy. Hubbard was forced out of the therapy business, by the “evil pscyhiatrists” for practicing unlicensed therapy.

    In Scientology’s comic book “secret” theology, the evil psychs assisted tax collectors and Xenu, over 75 million years ago.

    In Hollywood, it turned into not only about self improvement but a “club for lonely atheists” (Haggis said something like that) and good for career networking.

    Their injunction against reading critical information about Scientology, such as the well-documented fraud of the founder, or the experiences of ex-members, is truly cult-like and totalitarian.

    It is time for Hollywood scilebrities to wake up, and I hope this article does it.

  • Meepla Burk

    By the way Sarah, Louanne is a propaganda worker for Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs. It is Scientology’s secret operations/propaganda/espionage wing.

    They are not ALLOWED to read articles critical of or even about Scientology. They call it “entheta.” Only L. Ron Hubbard is the source of everything that is true, about Scientology. For them Scientology is life.

    You will find that even the main spokesman is trained to not answer any questions about how they operate, or what they believe, except in the vaguest terms.

    For example, he calls their internal hard-labor prison camp, the RPF, a “religious retreat.”

    David Miscavige, their foul-mouthed violent little (he’s tiny) leader, is their “ecclesiastical leader” and must never be questioned, and hasn’t appeared on TV since 1992. He refuses all interviews, even thought the cult claims he can be interviewed by anyone.

    Ex-members reported that he beats his underlings over 15 years ago. It is not just a rumor. It is true. It is just no one has gotten it on video. Also, his taking over from Hubbard was a coup, more than announced or expected.

  • Jazzhands

    if you google Louanne’s cut and paste comment
    Google will spit back over 7 pages of links where the comments are posted.

    its a typical Scientology ploy that they wore out during the ARS days of the Internet.

    its akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater

    it does nothing to affectively alter anyones opinion of the article.
    Kudos to Paul Haggis for expressing himself
    as well as Lawrence Wright for writing it and researching it,and the New Yorker for publishing it.

    one of the many subjects brought up in the piece.and extremely well documented was L Ron Hubbard’s and Scientology’s fraudulent claims about his War record.

    Lawrence Wright documentation was well presented in this regard.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Generally, let’s stay off attacks and focus on this piece, please. Thanks for furthering ideas.

  • g_allen

    Very nice summary on the New Yorker article.

    I can tell you from living close to one of their “spiritual centers” they are a strange bunch. Individually they come across no different than devout Southern Baptists or Jehovah Witnesses. The underlying belief system is wildly different, thinking that they can do a few drills and their IQ will magically increase. What actually happens is they get cocksure of themselves and unable to take criticism. After spending about the amount of money it takes to purchase a nice home (in advance please!) they come away “knowing” that they are superior to the rest of us and in utter contempt to things like the medical practices and education.

  • Louanne

    What is really missing: Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is one of the most translated and read authors of our time, be it his fiction or non-fictions books. Contrary to the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, L. Ron Hubbard never even tried to make a living out of bias and rumors but is known for straight and honest communication with his readers and left it up to them to make up their own mind. As he said, “I have led an adventurous life and it would possibly be entertaining to read, but I doubt such a work would shed any background light on my researches and would not clarify my intentions or why I developed Dianetics and Scientology… . My intentions in life did not include making a story of myself. I only wanted to know man and understand him. I did not really care if he did not understand me, so long as he understood himself. I was the lesser part of my project. Some say this is unfortunate, but I do not find it so. I did not live to be understood, but to understand.” How right he was when he wrote this in 1966.

  • Louanne

    I might say something to these cowards that this they can divert from the subject by talking about me. It’s simple: all you got is propaganda trash that you copy and paste in “reader’s letters” and posting robots. If you are interested in a real conversation, go to my blog.

  • bob dobbs

    LOL, here’s one of Louanne’s copy-pastas where she left the document headers in,
    “Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:”"; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} This article is another thinly veiled tabloid piece repeating old and new rumors from people with an axe to grind with the Church of Scientology. The New Yorker author Lawrence “

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Okay, I need to do some trimming of the comments. Please do not attack each other. Focus on journalism.

  • Jazzhands

    25,000 words on religion—from The New Yorker despite it length is getting some well deserved praise Lawrence Wright is an outstanding writer to begin with.
    I listened to the NPR interview as well with Terry Gross.
    Mr Wright comments were well balanced and thoughtful, and they is reflected in his writing.
    for a difficult subject to cover Mr Wright did an outstanding job.
    Link where Louanne got her latest scripted cut and past message from.

    you didn’t think Louanne came up with it on her own now.did you.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Sorry, friends. This is not the place to talk about how you feel about Scientology.

  • John W Brandkamp

    This thread is itself a fascinating peek into the way of Scientology in confronting its critics. Any journalist who investigates a secretive group whether religious or political (think Lyndon LaRouche) knows that they’re going to confront a push-back from said group. And this thread is a good example of that. While I don’t think there’s a thing as absolute objectivity from a human standpoint, journalists can and should strive to amass a large and diverse collection of “facts” (scare quotes are there b/c I know many facts are themselves disputed things) about whatever story they’re writing. But as noted above, it’s hard to do that very thing when dealing a deeply secretive group. Which means that any writer about these kinds of groups needs to rely just as much on sociological and psychology assessments of these kind of group dynamics and how individuals interact with them. And that’s never an easy task. But nonetheless, they shouldn’t be cowed into silence just because they don’t or can’t amass “all” of the facts. The New Yorker, like the St Petersburg Times, have both done excellent work of ferreting out and analyzing the important information concerning Scientology.

  • MJBubba

    The New Yorker is to be especially commended for the extent of their fact-checking effort.

  • Louie Loueye

    Lawrence Wright, I am sure, and anyone who has personally researched the topic, knows that his story is only the tip of the iceberg. But even if the “human trafficking” was not occurring or if they cleaned up their act on human trafficking, the cult would still be a horror show. I could go on and there are many websites where people do.

    There is one part where the cult denies that there is a drill to stop people who are blowing. I, myself, did a drill to stop people who are blowing while a member of the cult. I do not know if the drill is still used.

    I clicked on Louanne’s commentary, and find it to be virtually the opposite of what I have known the cult of Scientology to be. Hubbard was a self-aggrandizing fraud. Reading Louanne’s commentaries show why the word brainwashed is used when describing the followers.

    I also checked expecting to find the doman name used but it is not. I hope some knowledgeable individual will one day put up an appropriate tribute page.

    I believe that Louanne and others are there so that people like me will devote our time to debating the merits of the Scientology supporters instead of denouncing Scientology itself. If I am right, Louanne is getting her way. Still, I get a certain joy from commenting on her mad rants. And one day she will be enturbulated and either be thrown out of the cult, or leave on her own.