Paul Haggis versus the Church of Scientology
The New Yorker has a long, long, LONG (25,000 words! More than 900 fact checks!) piece on Scientology, including an interview with Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning script-writer of films like Crash, Million-Dollar Baby and Quantum of Solace. Haggis (pictured right) has recently left the church. He says: "I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”
I know readers of this blog like their cult gossip, because my two articles on the Landmark Forum are the most popular stories on this site, so here's some highlights from what is a really fascinating story.
What Scientology promises you:
[Haggis] was soon commuting from London, Ontario, to Toronto to take more advanced courses, and, in 1976, he travelled to Los Angeles for the first time. He checked in at the old Chateau Élysée, on Franklin Avenue [a Scientology centre]. “I had a little apartment with a kitchen I could write in,” he recalls. “There was a feeling of camaraderie that was something I’d never experienced—all these atheists looking for something to believe in, and all these loners looking for a club to join.”
Recruits had a sense of boundless possibility. Mystical powers were forecast; out-of-body experiences were to be expected; fundamental secrets were to be revealed. [Scientology founder L. Ron] Hubbard had boasted that Scientology had raised some people’s I.Q. one point for every hour of auditing. “Our most spectacular feat was raising a boy from 83 I.Q. to 212,” he told the Saturday Evening Post, in 1964.
As many of you know, Scientology claims to make people 'clear', by ridding them of negative emotions from past events - including events in past lives - so that their true inner being, or 'thetan', is released. The trainee ascends up the ladder, from Operating Thetan level I, all the way to OT VII, which is what Haggis finally became. Ascending up the ladder involves an awful lot of 'counselling', in which your counsellor asks you about past experiences and registers your emotional responses using an 'E-meter':
Haggis was spending much of his time and money taking advanced courses and being audited, which involved the use of an electropsychometer, or E-Meter. The device, often compared in the press to a polygraph, measures the bodily changes in electrical resistance that occur when a person answers questions posed by an auditor. (“Thoughts have a small amount of mass,” the church contends in a statement. “These are the changes measured.”) In 1952, Hubbard said of the E-Meter, “It gives Man his first keen look into the heads and hearts of his fellows.”
The Food and Drug Administration has compelled the church to declare that the instrument has no curative powers and is ineffective in diagnosing or treating disease. During auditing, Haggis grasped a cylindrical electrode in each hand; when he first joined Scientology, the electrodes were empty soup cans. An imperceptible electrical charge ran from the meter through his body. The auditor asked systematic questions aimed at detecting sources of “spiritual distress.” Whenever Haggis gave an answer that prompted the E-Meter’s needle to jump, that subject became an area of concentration until the auditor was satisfied that Haggis was free of the emotional consequences of the troubling experience.
Haggis found the E-Meter surprisingly responsive. It seemed to gauge the kinds of thoughts he was having—whether they were angry or happy, or if he was hiding something. The auditor often probed for what Scientologists call “earlier similars.” Haggis explained, “If you’re having a fight with your girlfriend, the auditor will ask, ‘Can you remember an earlier time when something like this happened?’ And if you do then he’ll ask, ‘What about a time before that? And a time before that?’ ” Often, the process leads participants to recall past lives. The goal is to uncover and neutralize the emotional memories that are plaguing one’s behavior.
This counselling is very expensive:
David S. Touretzky, a computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has done extensive research on Scientology. (He is not a defector.) He estimates that the coursework alone now costs nearly three hundred thousand dollars, and, with the additional auditing and contributions expected of upper-level members, the cumulative cost of the coursework may exceed half a million dollars. (The church says that there are no fixed fees, adding, “Donations requested for ‘courses’ at Church of Scientology begin at $50 and could never possibly reach the amount suggested.”)
But recruits pay this amount because they want to clean themselves of the pollution of negative emotions (including any homosexual feelings - homosexuality is seen as a perversion by the Church, which is why Haggis, whose daughter is gay, finally left). Recruits want to get higher up the ladder, and in particular to get to OT III, where the true secrets of Scientology are revealed. After years of counselling, Haggis finally reached this level:
Carrying an empty, locked briefcase, Haggis went to the Advanced Organization building in Los Angeles, where the material was held. A supervisor then handed him a folder, which Haggis put in the briefcase. He entered a study room, where he finally got to examine the secret document—a couple of pages, in Hubbard’s bold scrawl. After a few minutes, he returned to the supervisor.
“I don’t understand,” Haggis said. “Do you know the words?” the supervisor asked. “I know the words, I just don’t understand.” “Go back and read it again,” the supervisor suggested. Haggis did so. In a moment, he returned. “Is this a metaphor?” he asked the supervisor. “No,” the supervisor responded. “It is what it is. Do the actions that are required.” Maybe it’s an insanity test, Haggis thought—if you believe it, you’re automatically kicked out. “I sat with that for a while,” he says. But when he read it again he decided, “This is madness.”
So what was in the suitcase? The OT III secrets were revealed in a Los Angeles court case in the 1970s, and were then published in the Los Angeles Times:
“A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the Times wrote, when the planet Earth, then called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of ninety planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. “Then, as now, the materials state, the chief problem was overpopulation.” Xenu decided “to take radical measures.” The documents explained that surplus beings were transported to volcanoes on Earth. “The documents state that H-bombs far more powerful than any in existence today were dropped on these volcanoes, destroying the people but freeing their spirits—called thetans—which attached themselves to one another in clusters.” Those spirits were “trapped in a compound of frozen alcohol and glycol,” then “implanted” with “the seed of aberrant behavior.” The Times account concluded, “When people die, these clusters attach to other humans and keep perpetuating themselves.”
This is what is revealed at OT III: the revelation that our inner Thetan is being attacked by parasitic demon forces.
Hubbard called this level the Wall of Fire. He said, “The material involved in this sector is so vicious, that it is carefully arranged to kill anyone if he discovers the exact truth of it. . . . I am very sure that I was the first one that ever did live through any attempt to attain that material.” The O.T. III candidate is expected to free himself from being overwhelmed by the disembodied, emotionally wounded spirits that have been implanted inside his body. Bruce Hines, a former high-level Scientology auditor who is now a research physicist at the University of Colorado, explained to me, “Most of the upper levels are involved in exorcising these spirits.”
The bizarre religious / supernatural / science fiction beliefs of Scientology are not just amusing - they're revealing of how, even when we try to free ourselves of religions, we end up re-enacting them and re-translating their primitive superstitious craziness into modern 'scientific' language. Scientology initially presents itself as a rational and non-religious organization, a 'technology', that provides people with a 'user's manual' for their minds and with scientific methods for self-transformation, like the 'E-Meter'. That's what sucks people in - the illusion of science. And then, after they have committed years and many thousands of dollars, the Church reveals that actually they are just as superstitious and bonkers as other religions. But recruits lap it up, because they long to be special, different, elite. They long to have superhero-like powers (and who doesn't long for these powers more than deluded and narcissistic Hollywood actors?)
Here's one great anecdote of the exalted powers that 'operating thetans' think they have:
[The actor] Josh Brolin says that he once witnessed John Travolta practicing Scientology. Brolin was at a dinner party in Los Angeles with Travolta and Marlon Brando. Brando arrived with a cut on his leg, and explained that he had injured himself while helping a stranded motorist on the Pacific Coast Highway. He was in pain. Travolta offered to help, saying that he had just reached a new level in Scientology. Travolta touched Brando’s leg and Brando closed his eyes. “I watched this process going on—it was very physical,” Brolin recalls. “I was thinking, This is really fucking bizarre! Then, after ten minutes, Brando opens his eyes and says, ‘That really helped. I actually feel different!’ ” (Travolta, through a lawyer, called this account “pure fabrication.”)
If you get all the way to OT VII, as Haggis did, then supposedly you become able to control other people with your thoughts:
Haggis finally reached the top of the Operating Thetan pyramid. According to documents obtained by WikiLeaks, the activist group run by Julian Assange, the final exercise is: “Go out to a park, train station or other busy area. Practice placing an intention into individuals until you can successfully and easily place an intention into or on a Being and/or a body.”
And yet, my God, that's exactly what Hollywood celebrities do, isn't it? They place intentions in millions of other beings' minds.
The head of the church, who took it over when he was just 25 after L. Ron Hubbard's death, is David Miscavige (that's him on the motorbike, next to Tom Cruise). Cruise says of him: "“I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant, a more compassionate being outside of what I have experienced from L.R.H. And I’ve met the leaders of leaders.”
Others are less complimentary:
The defectors told the newspaper that Miscavige was a serial abuser of his staff. “The issue wasn’t the physical pain of it,” Rinder said. “It’s the fact that the domination you’re getting—hit in the face, kicked—and you can’t do anything about it. If you did try, you’d be attacking the C.O.B.”—the chairman of the board. Tom De Vocht, a defector who had been a manager at the Clearwater spiritual center, told the paper that he, too, had been beaten by Miscavige; he said that from 2003 to 2005 he had witnessed Miscavige striking other staff members as many as a hundred times. Rathbun, Rinder, and De Vocht all admitted that they had engaged in physical violence themselves. “It had become the accepted way of doing things,” Rinder said. Amy Scobee said that nobody challenged the abuse because people were terrified of Miscavige. Their greatest fear was expulsion: “You don’t have any money. You don’t have job experience. You don’t have anything. And he could put you on the streets and ruin you.”
Jefferson Hawkins, a former Sea Org member and church executive who worked with Haggis on the rejected Dianetics ad campaign, told me that Miscavige had struck or beaten him on five occasions, the first time in 2002. “I had just written an infomercial,” he said. Miscavige summoned him to a meeting where a few dozen members were seated on one side of a table; Miscavige sat by himself on the other side. According to Hawkins, Miscavige began a tirade about the ad’s shortcomings. Hawkins recalls, “Without any warning, he jumped up onto the conference-room table and he launches himself at me. He knocks me back against a cubicle wall and starts battering my face.” The two men fell to the floor, Hawkins says, and their legs became entangled. “Let go of my legs!” Miscavige shouted. According to Hawkins, Miscavige then “stomped out of the room,” leaving Hawkins on the floor, shocked and bruised. The others did nothing to support him, he claims: “They were saying, ‘Get up! Get up!’ ” I asked Hawkins why he hadn’t called the police. He reminded me that church members believe that Scientology holds the key to salvation: “Only by going through Scientology will you reach spiritual immortality. You can go from life to life to life without being cognizant of what is going on. If you don’t go through Scientology, you’re condemned to dying over and over again in ignorance and darkness, never knowing your true nature as a spirit. Nobody who is a believer wants to lose that.” Miscavige, Hawkins says, “holds the power of eternal life and death over you.”
Sea Org is a religious fraternity within Scientology. Recruits sign 'billion-year contracts' to serve Sea Org, by doing manual labour and other work for the Church, for around $25-$50 a week. They are mainly based at the Church's international headquarters in rural California, known as Gold Base. It's a very disciplinarian organization. If you break the laws or upset the authorities in Sea Org, you get put into The Hole.
According to a court declaration filed by [former Inspector General of the Church] Mark Rathbun in July, Miscavige expected Scientology leaders to instill aggressive, even violent, discipline. Rathbun said that he was resistant, and that Miscavige grew frustrated with him, assigning him in 2004 to the Hole—a pair of double-wide trailers at the Gold Base. “There were between eighty and a hundred people sentenced to the Hole at that time,” Rathbun said, in the declaration. “We were required to do group confessions all day and all night.” The church claims that such stories are false: “There is not, and never has been, any place of ‘confinement’ . . . nor is there anything in Church policy that would allow such confinement.”
According to Rathbun, Miscavige came to the Hole one evening and announced that everyone was going to play musical chairs. Only the last person standing would be allowed to stay on the base. He declared that people whose spouses “were not participants would have their marriages terminated.” The St. Petersburg Times noted that Miscavige played Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a boom box as the church leaders fought over the chairs, punching each other and, in one case, ripping a chair apart. Tom De Vocht, one of the participants, says that the event lasted until four in the morning: “It got more and more physical as the number of chairs went down.” Many of the participants had long been cut off from their families. They had no money, no credit cards, no telephones. According to De Vocht, many lacked a driver’s license or a passport. Few had any savings or employment prospects. As people fell out of the game, Miscavige had airplane reservations made for them. He said that buses were going to be leaving at six in the morning. The powerlessness of everyone else in the room was nakedly clear.
Miscavige's wife, Shelly, has not been seen since 2006, when she apparently rebelled against her husband:
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. [Scientology spokesperson] Tommy Davis told me, “I definitely know where she is,” but he won’t disclose where that is.
Sea Org also has something called Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), which are basically prison camps where rebellious recruits can be imprisoned for years. These camps are under investigation by the FBI for slave trafficking:
[Two FBI agents] Whitehill and Venegas worked on a special task force devoted to human trafficking. The laws regarding trafficking were built largely around forced prostitution, but they also pertain to slave labor. Under federal law, slavery is defined, in part, by the use of coercion, torture, starvation, imprisonment, threats, and psychological abuse. The California penal code lists several indicators that someone may be a victim of human trafficking: signs of trauma or fatigue; being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures that prevent communication with others; working in one place without the freedom to move about; owing a debt to one’s employer; and not having control over identification documents.
Those conditions echo the testimony of many former Sea Org members who lived at the Gold Base. Sea Org members who have “failed to fulfill their ecclesiastical responsibilities” may be sent to one of the church’s several Rehabilitation Project Force locations. Defectors describe them as punitive reëducation camps. In California, there is one in Los Angeles; until 2005, there was one near the Gold Base, at a place called Happy Valley. Bruce Hines, the defector turned research physicist, says that he was confined to R.P.F. for six years, first in L.A., then in Happy Valley. He recalls that the properties were heavily guarded and that anyone who tried to flee would be tracked down and subjected to further punishment. “In 1995, when I was put in R.P.F., there were twelve of us,” Hines said. “At the high point, in 2000, there were about a hundred and twenty of us.” Some members have been in R.P.F. for more than a decade, doing manual labor and extensive spiritual work. (Davis says that Sea Org members enter R.P.F. by their own choosing and can leave at any time; the manual labor maintains church facilities and instills “pride of accomplishment.”)
One Sea Org slave who managed to escape, called John Brousseau, subsequently complained that he was ordered to work on luxury car fittings for Tom Cruise!
Brousseau says that his defection caused anxiety, in part because he had worked on a series of special projects for Tom Cruise. Brousseau maintained grounds and buildings at the Gold Base. He worked for fourteen months on the renovation of the Freewinds, the only ship left in Scientology’s fleet; he also says that he installed bars over the doors of the Hole, at the Gold Base, shortly after Rathbun escaped. (The church denies this.) In 2005, Miscavige showed Cruise a Harley-Davidson motorcycle he owned. At Miscavige’s request, Brousseau had had the vehicle’s parts plated with brushed nickel and painted candy-apple red. Brousseau recalls, “Cruise asked me, ‘God, could you paint my bike like that?’ I looked at Miscavige, and Miscavige agreed.” Cruise brought in two motorcycles to be painted, a Triumph and a Honda Rune; the Honda had been given to him by Spielberg after the filming of “War of the Worlds.” “The Honda already had a custom paint job by the set designer,” Brousseau recalls. Each motorcycle had to be taken apart completely, and all the parts nickel-plated, before it was painted. (The church denies Brousseau’s account.) Brousseau also says that he helped customize a Ford Excursion S.U.V. that Cruise owned, installing features such as handmade eucalyptus panelling. The customization job was presented to Tom Cruise as a gift from David Miscavige, he said. “I was getting paid fifty dollars a week,” he recalls. “And I’m supposed to be working for the betterment of mankind.”
Several years ago, Brousseau says, he worked on the renovation of an airport hangar that Cruise maintains in Burbank. Sea Org members installed faux scaffolding, giant banners bearing the emblems of aircraft manufacturers, and a luxurious office that was fabricated at church facilities, then reassembled inside the hangar. Brousseau showed me dozens of photographs documenting his work for Cruise.
You have to say...what the fuck??
And you also have to say, great journalism! Only American journalism would publish such a long, thorough and fascinating account. Thanks for a great (and probably brave) piece, Lawrence Wright.
Remember kids, it may start here... ...but it ends here!