His head emerging from a black turtleneck, a finger held out at the camera in a Toastmasters power pose, Tom Cruise tells the camera, “I think it’s a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist, and it’s something you have to earn.”
Cruise re-adjusts dramatically in his chair, his maniacal laughter and erratic movements reminiscent of that couch-leaping Oprah interview. Cruise is a key part of our interest in Scientology, and the Church has wielded his celebrity in order to develop its own. But how could a celebrity be convinced by such an unconvincing faux-religious sham? Cruise may not have been at Jonestown drinking the Kool-Aid, but it seems he has had a huge drink of Dianetics.
A similar delusion is currently being exposed by Campbell Live, as they air a series that looks into the Gloriavale Christian sect just outside of Greymouth. A strange faction of agrarian puritanical Christianity has been bred into those who live there, sporting Amish-esque costumes as though stuck in a time warp. The church is growing, largely due to what seems like a high fertility rate, with family sizes anywhere between 10 and 15 children. Gloriavale exhibits a lot more the “traditional” characteristics of a cult, and Campbell Live has seized on this at the right time. Everyone loves a good cult story.
Where Gloriavale has created a community of agrarian harmony, Scientology has created a disturbingly well-lit and choreographed celebrity church. Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief is full of gripping scenes of moral corruption. Based on the book of same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, Going Clear compiles a complex story of tax evasion, celebrity endorsements, an alien overlord named Xenu, and physical and psychological manipulation.
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Together, the book and the documentary provide the most comprehensive secular historic record that there has ever been about Scientology. The two work in tandem, the book providing incredible detail and solid facts, and the movie breathing life into the research. As a piece of journalism the book is very even-handed, abstaining from judgement and displaying both the positives and negatives of Scientology. It investigates and explains the structure and development of the religion with thorough investigation, legitimising it as a phenomena people are regularly drawn to. Wright lets the facts speak for themselves.
As director, Gibney is similarly removed. Neither author nor director dominates as a character in his exposé; Gibney is not Michael Moore-ing this shit. But in contrast to the book, the filmed interviews with ex-members or well known critics of the Church drive the work’s narrative. The result is far more condemning than its written counterpart: whereas the book is a balanced piece of journalism, the film is a positioned exposé of the inner truths of the prison Scientology creates.
Gibney selects a range of ex-members for his interviews, their time with the Church spanning from 15 to 30 years. The members recount the allure of the Church and the hope they found in joining, the attraction of the Church’s promise to erase neuroses and negativity. It’s impossible to argue with this. This is the same basis for other religions, as well as psychotherapy; they all promise positive changes to your life.
One of the most captivating ex-members is a woman called Spanky. Spanky rose up through the Sea Organization, Scientology’s naval paramilitary wing, and became an important figure in developing John Travolta’s career and relationship with the Church. Her tales of the control she was under are disturbing. A victim of the Church’s randomised punishment programmes, at one point she was sentenced to manual labour where the hours were 30 on, three off; sleep was a luxury. Her tasks included scrubbing bathrooms with a toothbrush.
While here, Spanky fell pregnant with her second child. The church discouraged pregnancy among the ranks of Sea Orgs as it distracted them from their greater goal (and their billion year contract). Because Spanky was a member of the Sea Org, her child was placed in the “cadets”, raised with other Sea Org children away from their parents. Spanky painfully recalls a visit to her daughter. The baby was writhing in a urine soaked cot, eyes glued shut by mucus and fruit flies lingering around her.
Spanky’s escape is one of the climaxes of the movie—a friend visits under the pretence of taking the child to the doctor; as soon as Spanky buckles up her child the door is pulled shut and the car speeds off. For Spanky, it was a literal prison break. The reality of her decisions had only become clear once her innocent child had been subjected to them.
Gibney portrays the church as a manifestation of the inner machinations of L Ron Hubbard’s mind. Hubbard’s allure is like the oily character in Fern Gully, voiced by Tim Curry; a heady mix of repulsion and sickly sweet smiles. A prolific pulp science fiction writer, in 1950 Hubbard penned the self-help manual Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. After the sales dried up, the book was padded out into a religious text.
Claiming that his fledgling, then-unrecognised religion should be exempt from tax, Hubbard took to the seas to avoid the IRS. After various attempts to infiltrate government departments to find leverage against the IRS, Hubbard’s wife and several others were imprisoned. Scientology finally achieved tax exemption in 1993. To maintain this status, the Church must spend its money on the “greater good”, which in Scientology’s case means real estate. Gibney takes great time to establish Scientology as a business, with real estate revenue at its heart. The Church has some serious property in Hollywood, and some seriously questionable aesthetic choices.
Going Clear takes time to break down the structure of the religion. According to Dianetics, humans have two sides to their brains—the analytic side, which is calculating and accurate and perfect; and the reactive side, where the neuroses live. Humans also carry Engrams, which are negativity imprints, sort of like a memory. An Auditor is a practitioner who listens and to computes the subject, recording their information, and asking probing questions.
During an audit the subject is connected to an E-meter, which consists of two cans with an electrical current transmitted through them. The current allegedly measures the mass of the subject’s thoughts. The energy is then transferred through to the reader where a needle responds to the thoughts. The auditor asks the subject questions about specific problematic moments, including those in “past lives”. By doing so the auditor expels the negative energies associated with the events, leaving the subject feeling lighter and euphoric.
In Going Clear, the auditing process is portrayed as a process of psychological abuse, designed to provoke guilt for crimes committed in “past lives”. The process shares similarities to Freudian theories of psychotherapy, Catholic procedures of confession, and Cognitive Behavioural Training, where thinking about the bad thing makes the bad thing less bad. LRH’s “discovery” of this approach is a total hack job.
Hubbard designed Scientology around the “Bridge”, in which each new level comes with an ever-growing price tag. The more auditing you undergo, the higher you get, until you reach level Clear. When you are Clear, your reactive mind has been cleansed and erased, and the subject is now, by Hubbard’s measures, “totally alert and totally capable”.
After Clear, new levels emerge. Thetans. And here, at Thetan Operating III you are allowed to access the dark heart of the Church. This is the moment you read Hubbard’s best (read: worst) piece of short fiction. Kept in a briefcase is a handwritten note telling the story of Xenu, who ruled the “Galactic Confederacy” 75 million years ago. Back then, the galaxy was a lot like the 1950s, and Xenu was equipped with DC-8 aircraft and hydrogen bombs. When Xenu decided there were too many aliens, he froze them, brought them to Earth, and blew them up. The alien souls formed disembodied “Thetans” and, like creepy little bacteria, they entered newborn babies and became the source of human neuroses and negativity.
When Hubbard died, the Church fell to his right hand man, the sinister Tom Cruise twin David Miscavige. Going Clear tries hard to capture Miscavige’s plasticity, presenting his reign as the tyranny of a power hungry maniac. Gibney devotes a long portion of the documentary to the many allegations of abuse levelled against the Church. Under Miscavige, the Church’s policy in responding to these allegations is called “Fair Game”: no defence, all attack. The campaign against the IRD saw some landed in jail, but for other lesser-powered foes, their attacks have simply been slander and shaming, stalking, harassment, abuse, and intimidation, all of which they deny. The most intense revelations were the extreme lengths the Church goes to attack its apostates. Lawyers and private investigators assist its reach; Tony Ortega, a regular critic of Scientology, claims they had gone after his elderly mother.
The case of Marty Rathbun illustrates the lengths the Church will go to fight any allegations. After leaving the Church, Rathbun was a key source for a 2009 expose by the St. Petersburg Times, which began a landslide of public condemnations of Scientology. In the five years since, Marty, along with his new wife and son, has been harassed every day by the “Squirrel Busters”, a body set up to silence those who leave the Church. A Squirrel Busters film crew has camped permanently outside Rathbun’s home.
One of the darkest and most warped allegations against the church emerges toward the end of Going Clear. Under Miscavige’s orders in 2004, the Church developed a site that became known as The Hole. The Hole was based at the home of Scientology—Hollywood—and consisted of a set of double-wide caravans joined together. It was essentially office space, turned into incredibly poor accommodation, with bars on the windows and doors, and a guard stationed at the single entrance. At any one time anywhere up to 100 of the top members of the Church were sent there against their will and forced to exist substandard living conditions for months.
Marty Rathburn and Mark Rinder, two ex-members who had held top positions in the Church, both recall ants roaming across the surfaces. The inhabitants were kept in a sleep deprived state, were subjected to tests of faith, and were psychologically abused through auditing. They were also tortured, including being sat in front of an air conditioner while cold water was poured over them, until they turned blue.
Miscavige also orchestrated a perverted game of Musical Chairs played to Bohemian Rhapsody. Rinder and Rathburn both recall the moment Miscavige revealed that the winner was the only one who got to stay. Their minds had been so warped from the lack of sleep and torture, the game turned feral. People were fighting desperately to stay in The Hole; to remain a victim of the Church’s torture. They began to rip at each other’s clothes and claw at their skin, vying for the glory of staying in this hell-hole. Ultimately—out of the goodness of his heart—Miscavige let them all stay.
More difficult to convey through words on a page are the Church’s aesthetics. On screen they come to life, informing so many of the Church’s most disturbing elements. From video footage of the church’s massive congregational events, to the airshots of their expansive real-estate collection, each boasting super-sized fonts emblazoned on their buildings, the iconography at play throughout the movie is an incredibly uncomfortable mix of naval militance and 1970s-era grandeur; it’s evocative of a space-age Nazi regime.
The most visible aspect of the Church are the faces and maniacal smiles of leader Miscavige, and poster boys Cruise and Travolta. Celebrity culture is an integral part of the fascination surrounding the Church. Innumerable photos show Miscavige and Cruise embraced in a hug or power handshake, each sporting equally demented grins and soulless eyes. Cruise was privileged enough to have Miscavige as his best man when he married Katie Holmes.
Scientology has perfected numerous techniques of control. The Church relies on its members’ disengagement from any criticism, and generates online slander campaigns to silence opposition. The takeaway lesson is how frighteningly easy it is to get hooked, especially if you’re in a bad place. Always put in your research before choosing your cult, people.
Oh yeah, did I mention Miscavige’s wife hasn’t been seen in public since 2007, and the LAPD settled a missing persons case privately. WHERE. IS. SHE.