Lawrence Wright on Scientology and Hollywood
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright recently sat down with KCRW's Kim Masters for a lengthy interview to discuss his new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The book investigates the inner workings of the Church of Scientology, its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the relationship the church has sought with Hollywood. The book started with a 2011 New Yorker article about former Scientologist and Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis.
Given the sensitive nature of Wright's book, KCRW reached out to representatives of actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who declined to comment on the interview. The Church of Scientology sent a detailed response to the book and interview.
The response is reprinted here in full.
Excerpts of this Lawrence Wright interview hit KCRW's airwaves across multiple shows.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright talks about Scientology, its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the particular relationship the Church has with Hollywood. His new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, began with his 2011 New Yorker article about former Scientologist and Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Paul Haggis. Listen
To The Point
Going Clear author Lawrence Wright talks about how the Church of Scientology got started, founder L. Ron Hubbard's decision to court Hollywood stars, and the challenges of reporting on an institution known for its litigious past. Listen
Live, on February 28th. KCRW, Writers Bloc & The Hollywood Reporter Present:
UPCLOSE: Kim Masters in conversation with Lawrence Wright
KM: I want to start by laying some groundwork, because a lot of people, even though people sort of have this notion about Scientology, you spend a lot of time in your book setting the groundwork of how Scientology came to be. And you know, you portray the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, as a bigamist, as a wife beater, as one of the most amazing liars who invented all sorts of stories about his experience in World War II, and his degrees in Nuclear Physics... And when you write it, and people read it, it becomes very difficult for people to, for me as a reader, you say, I cannot believe that anyone would follow this guy to the corner grocery, much less in the creation of this religion. So, what do you attribute that to? Obviously charisma.
LW: Well yeah, he was a prototypical, charismatic leader of a new religion. And he was a spellbinding character, he had a special talent for bringing young people in particular under his spell. And you know, they had a narrative of his own life, which to some extent may have been fabricated -- about being a heroic figure in the war, or how he had been blinded and crippled by his wounds and had healed himself. Because at a point where real medicine had not been able to take care of him. And this was a very compelling narrative in post-war America. The therapeutic culture was just beginning to take root and he wrote this book Dianetics, in which he proposed that you can solve your own problems --your neuroses and fears yourself -- just by reading this book. Boy, it swept the country. It dominated the New York Times bestseller list for a long time and it really became the prototype for so many of the self help books that followed.
KM: Yes and he had been an extraordinarily prolific science fiction writer. It felt to me that he, at some point, because Scientology theory involves a galactic warlord Xenu, and billions of years ago bringing these souls that he calls Thetans to the planet Earth and blowing them up and volcanoes -- all of this saga feels a lot like science fiction, except, I don't know, maybe at some point he started to be confused himself, do you think, about what he actually made up and what he believed?
LW: Kim, I think that he believed it. I know a lot of people that will think he's a fraud and a con man, but if that were the case, at some point, he would have taken the money and run. Instead, he spent virtually all of his time, all of the days he had to live, exploring this inner landscape of his, writing about the cosmology that he was inventing and the bureaucracy he was creating to sustain it. So, you know, the level of commitment was really extraordinary. Also there's an interesting internal coherence to the whole body of thought, so it's like a breadcrumb trail into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard. Once you enter the Church of Scientology with every step you take you go further and further into his mentality.
KM: I'm curious, do you think he started out kind of making it up and became enmeshed in his own creation?
LW: It's a possibility. I think that's what happened with, when he wrote Dianetics, and he wrote this book in a month, and based it on studies that had never actually taken place. It was very ingenious in many ways, very patronizing in others. But I think he had a theory of human behavior and it was expressed in Dianetics. And it rewarded him immensely. I mean, he became very wealthy. Although he lost his money, and he lost control of Dianetics. And I think that creating the Church of Scientology, after that, was for the money, for the control, and also, for the tax exemption. So those things made it a logical next step for him.
KM: The basis of Scientology in some ways is the idea of “going clear” -- ridding your spirit of burdens from past events from this life or previous lives. Thetans, which are spirits that have been roaming the planet and planting themselves in your body -- and correct me if I'm misstating any of this --and the way that you then become what is called an Operating Thetan is through auditing... and auditing, why don't you describe that.
LW: Auditing is a kind of therapy that Scientology practices. The difference between that and the usual experience of therapy is that between you and the therapist, who is called an auditor in Scientology, there is a machine called an e-meter and if you're being audited, you hold these two metal cans -- in the early days they were Campbell's soup cans that had the label stripped off-- and they're connected with electrical wires to a meter and a small current runs through it and what it actually measures is your Galvanic skin response. It's really one-third of a lie detector.
KM: Right, it's like an element of that.
LW: Yes, and, but according to Scientology, what it measures is your thinking, the mass. They think your thoughts have mass and that actually the e-meter measures the movement of that mass. In any case, just imagine that if you are in a therapy session and you're on a lie detector, how that would change the equation if you believe in the validity of this meter, the e-meter, then you can be led into some pretty novel and sometimes, perhaps dangerous, back alleys. For instance, many people in auditing remember past lives, past existences, and when they have these memories they may not have very much substance at the beginning. But the e-meter tells them they're true. And the auditor asks them to put a little more, you know, imagination in it, you know-- walk down that street, turn the corner, what do you see, who's there. And eventually these confabulated memories acquire real substance, especially if you believe that the e-meter is telling you all along that this is real. And, this comes as great news to people... to think I've lived before...
KM: I'm immortal.
LW: ...And, I may live again.
LW: Yes, I'm immortal. I'm an immortal being.
KM: If I go up the bridge to total freedom, which is what Scientology promises that you will achieve.
LW: Right. Yes.
KM: So, when you are audited, and this is kind of a key element to the celebrity element I think of Scientology. You are asked specifically, pretty much, to name any deed you have done, especially if it might be embarrassing, illegal, cause problems for you if it were known widely.
LW: Absolutely, these confessions are essential to the auditing process, and according to some of the former members I've talked to, many of these sessions are recorded, and they go on file, and if you turn against the church they can be used against you.
KM: So they've got quite a dossier on their members.
LW: They do, on everybody.
KM: There's a concept in Scientology of being a “suppressive person” or a potential trouble source.
KM: And one of the basis of Scientology is, if you're doing it right, you should have no problems-- you should not get cancer, you should have no issues in your marriage. If there is such a problem in your life, it is because you are doing it wrong.
LW: That's right. And it may be because someone's standing in the path of your spiritual progress. For instance, if you go into the Church of Scientology and somebody close to you says, ‘I don't think that's a good idea, I think that there's problems in that church.' Say that's your mother. The church would say, you know ‘I think she's a suppressive person in your life, and you're gonna have to make a decision, because if you want to proceed along the course of our path to spiritual enlightenment, you cannot be associated with that suppressive person, your mother. You are a potential trouble source because of that relationship.' And so, if you do not disconnect from her...in other words if you do not break off relationships, any kind of conversation with your mother, then if you don't do that then you will not be able to proceed up the ladder of spiritual progress. In this way, Scientology breaks people loose from people that are close to them, and absorbs them more into their own community.
KM: Which becomes a very big deal when somebody wants to leave, because they're giving up their family.
LW: That's right. Oftentimes I've spoken to people that have all of their family in Scientology, and when it comes to the point that they want to leave, it's wrenching, it's a terribly hard decision, because they know that those people that choose to remain inside Scientology will never speak to them again.
KM: This turns us to the question of celebrity in particular, I mean, I would say just to kind of, summarize, that to many people who have issues in their lives who feel that they want attention, that they want a solution, that is the appeal of Scientology. There's a passage on page 207 which describes in particular why celebrities would be drawn to Scientology, and I would appreciate it if you would read that for us.
LW: By his actions, [David] Miscavige showed his instinctive understanding of how to cater to the sense of entitlement that comes with great stardom. It was not just a matter of disposing of awkward personal problems, such as clinging spouses, there were also the endless demands for nourishment of an ego that is always aware of the fragility of success, the longing for privacy that is constantly at war with the demand for recognition, the need to be fortified against ordinariness and the feelings of mortality and the sense that the quality of the material world that surrounds you reflects upon your own value, and therefore, everything must be made perfect. These were qualities Miscavige demanded for himself as well. He surrounded Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman with an approving and completely deferential environment, as spotless and odorless as a fairytale. A special bungalow was prepared for their stay at Gold Base along with a private rose garden. When the couple longed to play tennis, a court was rehabilitated at significant expense. Miscavige heard about the couple's fantasy of running through a field of wildflowers together, so he had Sea Org members plant a section of the desert. When that failed to meet his expectations, the meadow was plowed up and sodded with grass. Miscavige assigned them a personal chef, Sinar Parman, who had cooked for Hubbard and had a high-end gym constructed that was mainly for the use of Cruise and himself. When a flood triggered a mudslide that despoiled the couple's romantic bungalow, Miscavige held the entire base responsible and ordered everyone to work sixteen-hour days until everything was restored to its previous, pristine condition.
KM: Turning to this issue again of celebrity, the idea of pursuing celebrities originated with L. Ron Hubbard.
LW: Yes, it was from the very beginning, they established the church in Los Angeles, and Hollywood was always something that he was interested in. He was an aspiring screenwriter himself.
KM: Until the end of his life, thought he might be a filmmaker right, I mean, late in his life.
LW: He did. He absolutely had this longing to be. Actually, I think Cecil B. DeMille was really the man who really created Hollywood in many respects. As a matter of fact, Hubbard hired Cecil B. DeMille's son, Richard, to be his assistant, and he constantly courted people that would be helpful to the church. They published a list of prospective Scientology prospects such as Marlene Dietrich and Walt Disney and Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope and Howard Hughes - people like that.
KM: Groucho Marx - I think was on that list.
LW: He wanted an avatar, a star that could be Scientology's representative in the world-- an exemplary figure, but, you know, that figure was so elusive. Gloria Swanson came into the church for a while. Steven Boyd, an actor. Rock Hudson walked in for a bit, but he got angry at the auditor who wouldn't let him go put more coins in his parking meter, so he stormed out. But there was always, on the horizon, the idea that one of these great stars would become a member of the Church of Scientology, and that would allow the church to take over the entire movie entertainment industry.
KM: Now, and I think, Hubbard actually had a very detailed plan and set of instructions how to bring in these stars-- this idea of finding a fear that could be addressed.
LW: Well everyone who goes into Scientology is asked to name what is the thing that is your ruin-- the thing, the spoil in your life that stands in the way of your complete and utter happiness. And this is a very personal and powerful question. For someone, for instance like Paul Haggis, who was a writer-director that I had profiled in The New Yorker, forms a big part of this book - his ruin, what was bothering his life, he had a troubled romantic relationship, and the church promised to help him with that, and, he says, it did. He went into the church with his girlfriend, and they took some courses on communication, and they worked on their relationship. It was like therapy, and it did help them. So, it might be your career. There are any number of things...
KM: A child who had issues, for example.
KM: And then you would make the point that this could get worse, unless it's addressed, and then there's the answer, and then that would be Scientology.
LW: Scientology solves all those problems.
KM: So, when you'd then come in as a celebrity, you're living in a way, as you alluded to earlier, it's quite different from what certainly, the average what they call a “public Scientologist,” meaning a regular rank-and-file Scientologist, would experience, and especially the Sea Org, and I'm gonna ask you to describe the Sea Org.
LW: The Sea Org stands for Sea Organization was created by Hubbard in the early 60s, when...
KM: I'll just interject quickly, that Hubbard had an obsession with naval stuff...and called himself ‘The Commodore' and sailed around on boats, so that's...on ships of various kinds, so hence, the Sea Org.
LW: Right, he had a little private navy. He got all these young people that were in his church to join the Sea Org, and they became the clergy. Originally they were just the people on the ships with him, and many of them were really young. There were, you know, some early teenage girls, for instance, that formed what was called ‘The Commodore's Messengers.' They were eleven, twelve, thirteen-years-old for the most part. They wore hot pants, and...
KM: Platform shoes, you say?
LW: Platform shoes, which could not have worked very well for those decks.
KM: On a boat, right.
LW: But they became, you know, very, very close to him. He was like their parent, and they took care of him. They put him to bed in the morning, and they drew his bath in the morning when he got up. They carried his cigarettes around for him, and they also, when he wanted to issue an order, he would call a messenger into his office, and he would say, ‘Go up and tell the captain, ball him out and say this and this and this.' And you know, this girl would go up to the captain's quarters and imitating as exactly as possible Hubbard's tone of voice would curse him out using exactly the same words, and people lived in fear of these young women, they would respond to the girl, “Yes, sir,” because they were actually speaking to Hubbard's proxy. And as a matter of fact, this continues today and in Sea Org culture, when you're speaking to a superior, you always - no matter the gender - you always say, “Yes, sir.”
KM: So, the Sea Org members, they are, they are what they call, “On post,” meaning “on duty” 24/7. They live in dorms, right, essentially.
LW: Yea, very spartan quarters. Oftentimes, you know, multiple families together. It's, yeah, they live, you know the preponderance of them are in two places. One is in Clearwater, Florida, where the spiritual headquarters of the church is maintained, and the other group is in a place called the Gold Base, or the Int Base, which means International. It's the international headquarters of the Sea Org, and it's in a desert compound about ninety minutes...
KM: Outside of Los Angeles. Yeah, near Hemet.
LW: Exactly so. And, it's very isolated. It's surrounded by a fence with spikes on it. It's got motion detectors and there are guards, and you know the Scientology, the church officials say it's to keep people out. But it also serves a function of keeping people in.
KM: This Gold Base that you mention, it's maybe a good place to compare and contrast how Sea Org members live. There's quite a celebrity - Tom Cruise has been very well treated there, and...
LW: Oh yes.
KM: ...it's kind of a playground for a celebrity, and as opposed to the Sea Org members who are paid - I don't know, it used to be $50 a month, right?
LW: It's $50 a week.
KM: A week, sorry.
LW: You know, and all their supplies are purchased out of that. When you join the Sea Org you get two pair of pants and two shirts and that's your allotment for the rest of your life. And so, and you don't always get the full $50, you're often fined for various infractions, and also you're expected to contribute to presents for the leader.
KM: And that would be David Miscavige, the head of the church.
LW: Yes, David Miscavige.
KM: Meanwhile, Tom Cruise would come out there to the Gold Base and would be wined and dined, and has a personal gym, and the Sea Org member is eating quite a different diet and working extraordinary hours.
LW: I, one of the people that was involved in the finances of the church told me that the average meal for a Sea Org member was a fraction of that of a prisoner in the California prison system. Whereas a bus, I mean a truck each day from Santa Monica Seafood would arrive with lobster and fish from all over the world, New Zealand lamb would be flown in, you know, the table for David Miscavige -- every meal he had two meals to choose from that were prepared for him. And, you know, he ate quite well. He told his chef at one point on an airplane, he was reading one of these muscle magazines, and he said I want to look like that, so they prepare six meals a day for Miscavige and for his wife when they were together, and you know, the opportunity to choose alternatives at each meal, each calorie is measured out, and these are, you know, sumptuous meals, very, very high quality meals, and meanwhile, you know, many people in Sea Org are living on very poor rations, to say the least.
KM: So which, of course, I'm sure begs the question, why would you be in the Sea Org?
LW: Well, people join the Sea Org because they have a mission, and the mission is to clear the planet. That means to bring everyone to the awareness of Scientology's teachings, and to eliminate the irrational fears and neuroses that drive mankind into plagues and wars and genocide and racism. This is the mission, and it's a noble mission. People, you know, people join Scientology and the Sea Org for different reasons, but typically they are good reasons. They want to solve problems in their lives and they want to help other people.
KM: Yes, and they are quite sincere about that, they think they're saving...
LW: That's right.
KM: ...literally saving the planet.
KM: What about Tom Cruise, do you think that...you know, I'm going to address in a second, the kind of information that comes to a person like Tom Cruise about Scientology... but do you think, first, that he believes that he is saving the planet, as well?
LW: I think he believes it fervently. I mean, one can look at the video that was posted a couple of years ago where he extols the virtues of Scientology, and to an outsider he looks like a raving fanatic but to someone who's inside Scientology and especially inside the Sea Org, this is routine. This is the way that people feel about Scientology and the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, and he is a fervent believer in the teachings of Scientology.
22:30 KM: Now, one of the things that happens in Scientology is, and especially for a celebrity I guess, would be that negative information about Scientology is dismissed as false and in fact, preferably, especially if you're in the Sea Org or you're Tom Cruise, you're not supposed to be even aware of and reading this stuff.
LW: No, not at all. In fact, a few years ago Scientology was passing out sort of, internet nannies, so Scientologists would have filters on their computers to keep out anything that was negative about Scientology. It's considered to be, in the term of the church, “entheta” or an “interbulating influence,” something that's confusing and agitating and there's no reason to look at it.
KM: Right, you know, I have to say, having written about Scientology in the past and the jargon of Scientology which is extensive, I mean seriously I'm sure you're aware that if you speak to someone in Scientology you would need a glossary...
LW: It's fascinating.
KM: But I found some of the words kind of charming, I like “interbulated.”
LW: I know, I like “interbulating.” “Randomity” is one of my favorites. But, there's -- and I give credit to Hubbard for being very inventive-- he was a real writer and he created a lot of neologisms that are very useful and the thing is that it creates a kind of linguistic labyrinth for people who are inside the church, because it's difficult to express who you are and what you feel to outsiders because they just don't have the language.
KM: Yes, it's a very colorful but specific language. Now, to your earlier point, you know one of the people I interviewed, her job was to keep “entheta,” that information, off of John Travolta's lines. That means, in Scientology speak, that he doesn't hear the criticism.
KM: Now, this bubble. You feel that somehow a star, like a Tom Cruise, has some kind of an obligation maybe, to inform himself. Maybe you can set the table a little on this, but there are some very dark deeds that have been done in the name of Scientology -- people separated from their families, but also pretty much imprisoned.
LW: Yeah, there are re-education camps that people are confined in for years on end, like the President of the church, the nominal president of the church, his name is Heber Jentzsch, had been, you know, confined for seven years and it's... to me a striking comparison of, you know the life of a celebrity inside the church and that of a Sea Org member can be told in the story of this young man that I interviewed who joined the Sea Org when he was 11 years old. Now, this is not unusual, lot's of children are recruited into the Sea Org, some much younger than that.
KM: And we should just mention that actual Sea Org adult members are not permitted to have children, so the only children who would be in Sea Org would be people who have been recruited into Sea Org.
LW: Right, and they're brought into the Sea Org-- this young man Daniel Montalvo joined at 11. He was at one point sent to Clearwater and one of his jobs there was to help clean out the asbestos in the old Fort Harrison hotel they had purchased there. And he said he wasn't given any protective equipment. Then, while he was in Clearwater, Tom Cruise came to receive some additional auditing, and Daniel was one of the little pages who guarded Tom while he was in auditing, and I just wonder what Mr. Cruise thought when he looked around and saw children attending him, wonder, you know, if he thought ‘where are their parents?' ‘why aren't they in school?' Later, Daniel went to California and in Los Angeles he was working two jobs for the church, and his nighttime job was at Bridge Publications where they published all these lavish books that they put out. And one of his jobs was to cut the thumb notches in the book, you know like the notches like you see in an unabridged dictionary. There was a machine, it had a very sharp blade of *(sound effect)* and he was operating it, you know, and...he cut off his finger.
KM: At what age would this have been?
LW: He was 16 years old, and he was taken to a hospital and the escort from Scientology said it was a skateboard accident. Now... I know that the church says that they obey all the child labor laws, but the labor laws in the state of California specifically state that kids are not supposed to be around heavy machinery at that age, and that kids that age are supposed to be in school, so I'm puzzled, I'm scratching my head about how that happens.
KM: One of the key people in the book, as you said, is Paul Haggis, the director of Crash, and a very successful TV writer who, for many years, was in Scientology and went up the Bridge to Total Freedom, I think became an OT-7, an Operating Thetan 7 or 8?
LW: Seven. It was the highest at the time.
KM: ...Highest at the time. You know, lots of courses for which you pay a great deal of money, to achieve that. His own daughter was illiterate at 11.
LW: That's right.
KM: So, this is not somebody else's kid, this is his kid, so I think that he addresses, through you, this question of deluding yourself about Scientology.
LW: Yeah, she was placed in a school that followed Hubbard educational techniques. And, you know, children are largely self-guided, very little in the way of instruction, and it may work for some people but in the case of Paul's middle daughter, you know, she had a very, very difficult time, and she didn't graduate from high school until she was 20.
KM: It's just not something that they put an emphasis on, in the conventional sense, Scientology schools. You know, the thing that is interesting to me in that is not just the plight of the child but the parent not... not somehow rationalizing that.
LW: Yes, and I think that, of course, Paul and his wife were in the middle of a bitter divorce and I think his children were, you know... to some extent they were left to fend for themselves. But, just on the notion of Scientology educational techniques, Tom Cruise was put into play. This is a characteristic use of celebrity in Scientology. He was sent to Washington to, under the first President Bush, to lobby Rod Paige, who was the Secretary of Education, to incorporate Scientology techniques into public education. And... no, I mean, he actually-- that's one of the assets of a celebrity, is that someone like Tom Cruise, you can see anybody. You know... they will happily take that meeting and take your thoughts seriously. Again and again, we've seen Scientology celebrities put into play for their disputed notions of education and drug rehabilitation, criminal reform and so on - all of these based on Hubbard's techniques. And it's only because the stars that they have in the church, that these hearings are granted.
KM: I'm gonna come back to this in a minute because... it is interesting, the impact of stars, but I want to just pause to talk about the two biggest celebrities, I think, in Scientology: John Travolta and Tom Cruise. You talk about John Travolta-- I gotta say you come very close to outing John Travolta in the book, and you mention that David Miscavige, the head of the church, referred to him with a very unpalatable gay slur internally. How do you analyze that fraught thing between John Travolta and Scientology?
LW: Well, Scientology...one of the implicit promises of the Operating Thetan levels is that you will be cured of any of these neuroses and fears and perversions, as Scientology would see it, including homosexuality.
KM: I should say, they disavow at this point that they see homosexuality as a perversion, do they not?
LW: It's difficult for them because in their, you know, their scriptural literature written by L. Ron Hubbard, the original writings had numerous gay, anti-homosexual remarks, and some of this was purged. And of course, when I was talking to the church I asked them and they said, ‘There's nothing worse you can say... that we would alter the words of L. Ron Hubbard.' And I said, ‘But you did, didn't you? Weren't these gay slurs taken out of the literature of the church.' And they said, ‘Well yes it was removed... we found that that actually wasn't what he said. We went back and listened to the tapes,' and so on. I said, ‘You mean, they were inserted into...' ‘Yes.' Well, who did such a thing? You mean, somebody inserted language that was not Hubbard's into his books and nobody noticed it? Essentially, that's what they say, and that's the reason they've taken that stuff out now. But inside the culture of the church, everybody knows what he said. And it's still very much a part of the culture.
KM: And of course there are sources who are in the church for years who have said on the record that they had been told that they would be cured of being gay if they stayed in the church.
LW: Yes, and...
KM: So, John Travolta is an interesting case here because he presumably... well you could explain what ‘Dead Agenting' is and how that might have been deployed against John Travolta.
LW: Like every Scientologist, everything that John Travolta had to say in auditing was recorded in his file, and so, who knows what he said… or what damning or embarrassing things might be in there but we do know that he told Bill Franks, who was one of the top executives in the church, “My auditing files are confidential, right?” At the same time that that was happening, the church was worried that Travolta was going to put distance between himself and the church, and they assigned a member to go through his files and compile what's called a “Dead Agent pack.” In other words, black material that can be used against him if he ever were to step away from the church.
KM: I know that, when you mentioned in the book, and I had heard from myself people who were former Scientologists... that when his child died, Jett, a lot of people expected him to leave for maybe an entirely different reason.
LW: Well... Jett was autistic. Although they didn't admit to that for a long period of time, but.... He was on medication, and it was anti-seizure medication, and they took him off of it. Now, I don't know why they took him off. I do know that the church condemns the use of psychotropic medicine, which included this category of medicine, because of Hubbard's diatribes against psychiatrists and any kind of medicine that deals with psychotropic problems, such as autism. Now, I don't know why they took it in the first place if they believed that and why they took it off, but he did die of a seizure.
KM: Yes, and so there was certainly some questions in the minds of former Scientologists as to whether that would become an issue. Apparently not, right?
KM: I mean, he's still there.
LW: Of course celebrities always have a special place. There are innumerable examples of special treatment of celebrities. For instance, Nicole Kidman. Her father's a psychologist, which in Scientology world would be a suppressive person, a very dangerous personality and therefore she would be a potential trouble source, and a liability for Cruise and for the church itself, but... she was not asked to disconnect from her parents, but the church was always suspicious of that particular relationship.
KM: But as you say, special treatment is not uncommon for celebrities.
LW: Right, and... you know, the case of Tom Cruise and Katie and his daughter, you know... All these things, they raise questions in the minds of Scientologists about, well... why isn't he having to disconnect from her, from Katie, because if it happened to us we would have to disconnect.
KM: Yes, exactly, and he has not been asked to do that.
KM: I just wanted you to talk briefly about Tom Cruise's relationship with David Miscavige. Very close. This is the head of the church again.
LW: Yeah, they're similar in many ways. They're very dynamic. They're short in stature, but powerfully built men. And they each came to prominence at an extraordinary young age, at a time when their peers were all apprenticing in their professions. You know... at the age of 25, essentially, Miscavige was in charge of the church and Tom Cruise was the biggest movie star in the world. So, there weren't very many people like them, and I think there was a great sense of recognition in the two of them. Cruise obviously responded to Miscavige's very commanding nature. And, according to an ex-Scientologist, he modeled the character that he played in A Few Good Men on David Miscavige. And Miscavige clearly enjoyed the relationship with this international celebrity, and he certainly appreciated the access and expansion that Tom Cruise brought to the church.
KM: Of course, ironically, Cruise has also brought some of the most negative attention to Scientology. I mean, you can publish any number of things about Scientology, but when you bring up Tom Cruise, it becomes viral.
LW: Yes, that's true, you know but Tom's also suffered because of his relationship with the church. You know, I think that he and other celebrity members of Scientology really suffer a kind of public relations martyrdom because of their religious beliefs. So, you can say that, you know, Scientology is a network to stardom, as many people in Hollywood like to say, but the truth is I think that's it's really a very difficult cross to bear for so many of these people.
KM: That has certainly been true for Tom Cruise, so... I know. Now, let's just talk a little bit about the process here. When you wrote The New Yorker article that was the kicking off of this book, it's about Paul Haggis' defection from Scientology, you had to do extensive fact checking. You sent over 900 questions, I think, to the church. And they responded by showing up with 47 binders and a team of lawyers.
LW: Right, it was an epic day. It was probably one of the most interesting moments in my entire journalistic career. The whole point for me was to interview Tommy Davis, who was the chief spokesperson of the Church of Scientology. And, I had arranged to go out to L.A. He was going to take me through Scientology, as he said, over Labor Day weekend so we'd have enough time, and I flew out at The New Yorker's expense, and I spent Friday there and Saturday there, and finally at three o'clock Sunday afternoon, he comes and says that he's not gonna take me through Scientology. He's not gonna talk to me. He just wanted to have the opportunity to tell me that face to face. Well, thanks a lot. I mean, you could've told me that over the phone. But I got him to agree to answer fact-checking questions. Maybe he didn't really understand the implications of that, where The New Yorker's concerned, but we did send him, the first volley was 971 fact-checking questions, and we did it because we wanted to get the church's perspective. We wanted to get, you know, we want to get their... input. And, it's not a hostile action, nor is it really obligatory, but it is a professional thing to do and so, eventually the church decided to respond by sending a team of four lawyers plus Tommy and his wife, Jessica Feshbach, to The New Yorker, and so we had a meeting that lasted the entire day, and in these 47 volumes were responses to the 971 fact-checking queries, but moreover, you know, what I regarded them in as when I looked at these binders, all lined up, 7 linear feet, this was a book. It was just laying out, I mean, in fact Remnick -- David Remnick -- the editor of The New Yorker, during a bathroom break, he called me aside and said you know what you got here, you schmuck, you got a book. It was an intense day, but it was a productive day, and actually it was a more productive day with the Church of Scientology than I've had since. After that, Tommy kind of disappeared and he... eventually, he wasn't heard from, and I couldn't reach him, and he's still listed as the chief spokesperson but I heard that he had blown.
KM: Yeah, rumor has it. Yes, we've heard that he has blown, which is Scientology speak for leaving. And his wife, Jessica, I will mention is.. was Katie Holmes' handler...
LW: That's correct.
KM: ...in the early days of her relationship with Tom Cruise, so they're quite a couple, too, if they're not around anymore. I don't think that anybody has interviewed him, yet.
LW: Well, I actually did find him. He's living in Texas, he's selling real estate, and he told me that his views... he didn't want to talk, but he said that his views hadn't changed at all. And... I tried to ask him another question and he said ‘I don't have to answer your questions anymore.'
KM: I think we should just mention that the church has denounced everything you've written as false, basically, in short form.
LW: I'm sure they'll denounce everything I said on your program as well.
KM: That, too. But, nonetheless, obviously you stand by your reporting.
LW: Yes, indeed.
KM: And, did they cut you off at a certain point? In terms of interviews?
LW: Yeah, when I first started I was granted access to people that were in the official church. So I interviewed, you know, Anne Archer and her husband... and Mark Isham, who's an Emmy-winning composer, and several other people. But at some point when Tommy told me he wasn't going to talk to me, that access stopped entirely. What's a little chilling about Scientology, you know, even just as public members, not the clergy, is that people simply, you know, it's one mind in that way that you are absolutely cut off and I was told that any access that I wanted to have to upper-level members of the church had to go through the spokesperson through email. They wouldn't even talk to me on the phone. But I repeatedly asked for access to members of the church's executive leadership, and it was repeatedly denied.
KM: So you never got to interview David Miscavige, for example.
LW: No, I never did, and you know he hasn't talked to the press for, you know, more than 20 years, so it's not a personal insult, but... he, I think he's got a lot to answer for. You know, I had 12 people tell me that they had been physically beaten by David Miscavige, these are some of the top executives in the church.
KM: And, well quite a number have left.
LW: And a number of them have left, but, you know, if the church wants to deny, and they have denied that this happened, I think that Miscavige should come out and face his accusers.
KM: David Miscavige's devotion to Scientology is such, as you say in the book, that his dogs are sort of honorary Sea Org members?
LW: Right, he likes to dress them in sweaters, Sea Org sweaters with captain bars on their shoulders, and you're supposed to salute as they pass by.
KM: Now, let me just ask you, you know, journalists who wrote about Scientology back in the day -- well the biggest cautionary tale is Paulette Cooper whose life was absolutely upended. She was sued, I think, 19 times, and framed, and indicted, and terrible, terrible, terrible. That was a long time ago, and the church has disavowed some of these tactics. They haven't sued anybody in quite a number of years, either -- they used to sue media outlets and other adversaries, perceived adversaries, routinely. But what about now? I mean, they're certainly a quick hand with the lawyer letter, and I'm sure you could paper your office with some of those, right?
LW: Yes, indeed. We've had plenty of legal threats.
KM: Plenty of legal threats -- what about other threats? You know, just recently Joel Sappell who just recently has written, a lot of very important series in the LA Times, in the mid 90's, write about how he believed his dog may have been drowned...
KM: … because there was an attack mode in Scientology, you know, that anything you do to an adversary is OK. So, how concerned are you?
LW: I don't think about those things, I feel like if you dwell too much on what might happen you can't really do your job, and you know, my last book was about Al Qaeda, so you know, Scientology for all it's ills, is not a terrorist organization, and you know I just...see, I think this story is an ideal story for an investigative reporter. There are all these allegations, there' s a lot of confusion, there are charges flying back and forth and the government seems paralyzed and unable to do anything, so what else is there but an opportunity for an investigative reporter to go in and try to find out what really happens there.
KM: Not to mention pots of money.
LW: Well they've got plenty. More than a billion dollars in cash reserves, according the ex-members, mostly in offshore accounts. So they're very well fortified, they may not have very many members, they've got lots and lots of properties. But what they really have is a lot of money and a whole lot of lawyers.
KM: Well you say the government's paralyzed, and it's been, of course hugely important to Scientology to have a tax exemption as a religious organization...
LW: Oh yeah, key.
KM: ...which was granted in a somewhat unorthodox way by the IRS some years ago. Why is the government, to this day, paralyzed. Because for a while there they were after Scientology, hammer and tong, and Scientology was infiltrating, literally infiltrating the government and L. Ron Hubbard's wife went to prison for that.
LW: Yes, indeed. Indeed. What happened was the church campaigned vigorously for a tax exemption which would give them the vast protections of the first amendment guarantees of freedom of religion. And in the process of that campaign, they launched more than 2,400 lawsuits against the IRS and individual members of that agency. It completely... crippling the effectiveness of the IRS it was, it's astonishing to think about, you know, one rather small organization having that kind of effect on an American agency. And part of the deal that was worked out in 1993 was that those suits would be dropped. And they were. And the government recognized Scientology as a religion and as a consequence many of the practices that seem so alarming and even illegal to many Americans, actually protected by the first amendment, have been noted so by courts. So, Scientology is, as I said, surrounded by lawyers, very carefully controlled in that way, and has lots of money to defend itself.
KM: And, of course the tax exemption spared Scientology, from paying an enormous bill.
LW: Yeah, they owed a billion dollars that they didn't have, at the time, it would've gone out of business. But, thanks to that tax exemption, Scientology continues.
KM: So you've researched Muslims, Christians, Branch Davidians, Al Qaeda. So is it hard for you to understand why a Scientologist chooses to be a Scientologist? It is harder to understand that choice, for example, than to understand why someone would join Al Qaeda or become a Branch Davidian.
LW: No, I think that every religion, you know that actually prospers, has something to offer, and Scientology does. I mean, a lot of people told me how much they got out of Scientology, especially when they first went in. They had a personal problem...they attended to it and they felt like they were rewarded. But there are other things about Scientology that are very, very profound in people's lives that make a difference and sometimes people - process of auditing for instance - discover that they've had past lives Well, that comes as good news because, you know, if you've lived in the past, you'll live again. It means that you're an immortal being. And, some have had the experience in Scientology terms, of going “exterior.” In other words, of having an out-of-body, paranormal experience. Well, if you've had that happen to you, you've discovered a past life, you've been able to leave your incorporated being and roam the universe. It's that you actually believe those sensations - well, what I say to you about Scientology is not gonna have very much effect because your life is already been transformed in ways that logic has nothing to do with.
KM: Of course the fact that people actually do die, it's only temporary.
LW: It's hard to account for, but it's... it does happen, and... you know the promises of Scientology are not fulfilled. The Operating Thetan superpowers that they're supposed to have... all the talent that goes to, belong with becoming clear, nobody actually ever achieves those things, but those promises are so alluring that people want to believe in them.
KM: Lawrence Wright is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and writer for The New Yorker magazine. His latest book is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Thank you so much for coming in today.
LW: It's been a pleasure, Kim. Thank you.