Lawrence Wright on Scientology's "broken community," and the complicity of Tom Cruise and John Travolta

The author of "Going Clear" on the explosive new documentary and the coming "cataclysm" within Scientology

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 11, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Lawrence Wright; still from "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"         (AP/Arthur Mola/HBO/Photo montage by Salon)
Lawrence Wright; still from "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" (AP/Arthur Mola/HBO/Photo montage by Salon)

Needless to say, the Church of Scientology and its secretive leader, David Miscavige, will not be overjoyed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s explosive new documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” But the film’s depiction of the celebrity-centric self-help sect as a micro-Stalinist police state -- dogmatic, autocratic and plagued with internal violence and abuse – is only part of the problem. What may be even worse, from the church’s point of view, is that Gibney and his collaborator and central interviewee Lawrence Wright (who wrote the exhaustively researched nonfiction book on which the film is based) depict Scientology as declining and beset by crisis, for all its real estate wealth and reflected Hollywood glamour.

Miscavige and his minions remain well insulated by their millions, but Wright believes the church is now down to a few thousand active members. In terms of pure numbers, there are far fewer Scientologists in America than there are Sikhs or Wiccans or Rastafarians. (Scientology may be on a numerical par with Zoroastrianism, an ancient faith that is likely to die out in another generation or two.) Furthermore, Scientology’s celebrity glitter, which drove the church’s growth in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has faded considerably. Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology’s biggest Hollywood names, are now over 50; there are certainly younger professional actors in the church, including Elisabeth Moss and Michael Peña, but they are nowhere near as prominent or as outspoken. (Will Smith has consistently denied being a Scientologist, although he’s good friends with Cruise and appears to have been influenced by Scientology doctrines.)

During the years of work that led to Wright’s book and then to this film – which opens in limited theatrical release this week, ahead of its March 29 HBO premiere – Scientology officials declined all invitations to tell their side of the story. Instead, the church’s only response has been to issue blanket denials of virtually every allegation attested to by former members. There are no secret Scientology prisons for internal dissidents and malefactors; Miscavige has never physically abused his church underlings; Scientology officials had nothing to do with engineering the split between Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and did not recruit and groom a new girlfriend for Cruise from within their ranks (who then displeased Miscavige and was promptly dismissed).

All those things are lies, the church will tell us in its manicured ads and professionally crafted videos, lies spread by disgruntled ex-members out for petty vengeance. The corollary to all these denials – and it’s an extremely important corollary – is that Scientology is a genuine religion with a spiritual message meant for the betterment of all humanity and not, say, a business enterprise or a cult group. (Yes, one could argue that all religions have elements of those things, but as Wright and I discussed, there are some tangible differences.) If the Internal Revenue Service were to revisit its 1993 determination that many of Scientology’s interlocking corporate entities were tax-exempt religious organizations – a decision made, as the movie makes clear, under extreme duress – the results would be catastrophic for the church, or at least for Miscavige’s era of one-man rule.

Wright and Gibney insist they are not trying to cripple or destroy Scientology, but rather to compel it to face its misdeeds, acknowledge the diversity within its ranks and open itself to the world – to become the “real” religion, in other words, that it claims to be. Last week I sat down with Lawrence Wright in New York to discuss whether Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard actually believed his own gospel, how the rumors that have long surrounded Cruise and Travolta affect their relationship to the church and how Hubbard did or did not resemble Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism. A longtime New Yorker writer, Wright began covering Scientology with his 2011 article about Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis, a longtime Scientologist who became the church’s most prominent and vocal apostate.

I was interested to see how a powerful and dense nonfiction account could be opened up into a movie. A friend of mine asked me whether the movie could really compete with your book, and my response was that it has a power that is an entirely different kind of power.

What is interesting to me about film, and documentary film in particular, is that I can write about these people and you trust my judgment more or less, but when you’re confronted yourself with humans who are right there on the screen telling you their story, you make a judgment yourself that is conclusive. You believe it or you don’t believe it, and that’s what a documentary can do. I think these human stories that are in this film are so affecting that it’s going to cause a cataclysm inside the church that may be helpful to Scientology.

Yes, and it’s not just that. You can tell us about the atmosphere of crazy at a Scientology event but to actually see it, to see the combination of Las Vegas and Nuremburg or whatever – that’s quite another matter.

The Leni Riefenstahl sets and stuff like that. Alex did a fabulous job of assembling that footage, and it was really hard to get it. The church is very jealous of that. Moreover, the broadcast networks wouldn’t license any of their Scientology footage. I think a very craven response, on their part. It just demonstrates the anxiety that still pervades the press and especially the television press.

You just said that you think this film could provoke a crisis that might help Scientology. I think it’s useful to point out, as you have done many times, that you did not actually set out to do a gotcha or an exposé.

Why bother? It’s the most stigmatized religion in America. An exposé, so what? But it is really interesting to understand why people are drawn in to the church. What do they get out of it and why do they stay? If you can understand that, in reference to a belief system that most people regard as very bizarre and has a reputation for being incredibly vindictive and litigious, then you might understand other social and religious and political movements that arise and take very good, kind, idealistic, intelligent, skeptical people and turn them into people they wouldn’t otherwise recognize.

The larger question here that you’re beginning to hint at is what makes a religion a religion? What does that word mean? The IRS has its own ideas, but …

Let’s start with the IRS because they’re the only agency empowered to make this distinction. It’s not exactly stocked full of theologians either. The way they determined that Scientology was a religion was to make a deal, because they were under legal siege of 2,400 lawsuits. Essentially, Scientology bludgeoned them into this tax exemption, which now denominates them as a religion. Previously, they were seen as a business enterprise and that’s the way they are seen in some European countries. Also, they are seen as a cult or a sect in Europe. But we call them a religion and I’m willing to accept that. It stretches the boundaries, clearly, but if you think of a religion having a set of scriptures – well L. Ron Hubbard still holds the Guinness record for the number of titles by a single author, as far as I know, more than 1,000. It’s a record that’s very hard to eclipse. Everything he wrote is considered a scripture by Scientology, even his novels.

Really? “Battlefield Earth” is a work of scripture?

Yes, it’s all scripture. It’s tax-exempt. There’s a huge body of work, not all of it fiction, having to do with ethics and psychology and so on that the church considers its literature. It functions as a community. Really, a religion is only separated from the rest of society by a circle of beliefs. So in that sense, sometimes the stranger the beliefs and the more exotic, the more bound together the community inside that circle is, and I think that’s true of Scientology. There is an origin story that may be a little bit bizarre, but bizarre beliefs are common in religion because religion is a belief in irrational things.

Yeah. The origin story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not all that dissimilar.

No. There’s an interesting parallel there, and in fact, according to former members, David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology, likes to model himself on Mormonism. If you look back in the 19th century, the Church of Latter-day Saints was the most persecuted sect in our history.

Absolutely. They were outcasts.

Chased from one state to another. Their leader was assassinated by a mob. They were a new religion that was easily discredited. Any religion created after the invention of the printing press had a higher obstacle to overcome. Mormonism is fascinating because it went from being the most hated religion in America to the point where in the last presidential election there were two Mormon candidates running for president, one of them got a nomination, and their religion was scarcely mentioned at all. [Wright refers to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, briefly a Republican candidate in 2012, as well as to Mitt Romney.]

It’s not seen as any stranger than being a Baptist or a Catholic now, I don’t think.

And that could happen to Scientology, but not if it doesn’t change its ways. Scientology certainly has enough money to endure, and it has an ample supply of lawyers who can protect it. What it doesn’t have is an expanding membership base. It’s the opposite. It’s contracting and it’s facing a crisis in that regard.

You have indicated that you think there are no more than 50,000 practicing Scientologists now.

At most. In the statistical abstract of the United States, only 25,000 Americans identify themselves as Scientologists, which is half the number who call themselves Rastafarians, so that may orient it for you.

I was going to say, the number of Wiccans is probably many times larger than that.

Oh, there’s no comparison. But even though the numbers of actual church members is probably very small, the number of ex-members is substantial. The number of people who have been through Scientology -- some may have gotten something out of it but other people have been wounded by it, families have been broken apart -- that’s quite a substantial group of people. It’s hard to measure it because the church lies about its statistics, but whenever I go out and make talks and so on I’m constantly encountering people that had been in the Sea Org, which is essentially the Scientology clergy, and had escaped, or people who had lost family members and had never been able to talk to them again. I’m deeply impressed by how much damage has been done to people because of the practices inside the church.

It occurs to me that one difference between Scientology and other religions is that they have zero tolerance for what you might call semi-apostasy. I spent much of my childhood in a largely Mormon town in rural California, and there were a lot of kids who drank and smoked and had sex but were nominally Mormons, the people sometimes called “Jack Mormons.” Of course that’s not approved of, but no Mormon would deny that such things happen, and it’s not like they were exiled from their families because they drank a beer. Every religion has those people, who identify but don’t really follow the creed. Scientology doesn’t have those people yet.

Another parallel that’s interesting: My first book was about the Amish. It was set in a little valley in the center of Pennsylvania that’s famous among anthropologists because of its schismatic face. There were three different buggy colors denominating different groups of Old Order Amish. There was the white, the black and the yellow. Then there were Mennonites who were affiliated but no longer a part of the Amish circle. But if your daughter was a yellow-buggy type and she married a white-buggy guy, you would never talk to her again even though you would live in the same valley. They would get along with each other as long as they’re not related. In Scientology that is termed “disconnection.” In Amish society it’s called “shunning.” Whether one or the other, it’s cruel and shattering. People love the Amish, they treat them like endangered penguins or something; they’re adorable. But they are a fanatical sect. It’s a beautiful culture and I loved our experience there but it’s hard to condone the practice of shunning. They see that as the only way of preserving their religion. So it’s not unique to Scientology, but it doesn’t mitigate the damage.

What we don’t see in the film, and basically do not find in your book, is any current Scientologist defending or even admitting these practices. So what is the rationalization? It’s not even something they publicly acknowledge.

Well, you know, Alex sent an invitation to a number of people to participate in the film and they declined. In a way, this whole thing started with a lie, that Tommy Davis, who was then the head spokesperson for the Church of Scientology, told on the news one night when he was asked about disconnection. He said there is no such policy in the church. Paul Haggis happened to see that and as it happened, his own wife’s family, they had to disconnect from her parents. So he knew very well that there was such a practice and that this was a lie that the church was propagating, and that inflamed him. So that led in part to his disaffection and when he resigned it started a ball rolling that became my article and the book and the avalanche that is the documentary.

A lot of attention will focus on the material about Tom Cruise and the allegation that David Miscavage and other people within Scientology deliberately sabotaged his marriage to Nicole Kidman. I can’t say that I’m immune to the allure of those stories, God knows. But I’m wondering how you understand that stuff in terms of the larger narrative of the church. Why is Cruise’s status so important to them?

The Church of Scientology was set up in Hollywood for a reason. L. Ron Hubbard realized that there is something Americans really do worship, and that is celebrity. From the beginning he put out a list of prospective Scientologists to recruit and it included some of the most famous people in the world, like Walt Disney or Howard Hughes. Some of them he actually got. Gloria Swanson, who was a big silent screen star. Rock Hudson was in for a while. They were actually successful in recruiting celebrities. But the point was to use them as pitchmen, like sports stars on Wheaties boxes. If you get these celebrities who say, “I’m a Scientologist,” then other people will look at the success and the glamour that is affixed to that personality and say, “Well, that could be me. Maybe Scientology has something to do with their achievement in life.” They got John Travolta, at one time the biggest star in the world, and then Tom Cruise, similarly onetime biggest star in the world, and then Will Smith, who says he’s not a Scientologist but has created a school based on Scientology techniques, also at one time biggest star in the world.

That’s very powerful, especially if you’re a young person in Hollywood who wants to make it in the acting business. That is a big pool that Scientology attempts to recruit. If you’re standing in line at Central Casting in order to try to get a part as an extra and someone is passing out brochures saying, “How do you get ahead? How do you get an agent? Come to the Celebrity Center and Scientology will show you how,” that’s a very powerful lure.

Clearly in the 1980s and 1990s, Scientology was seen by a lot of young actors as possibly giving you an edge if you were up against 400 other people for a part.

Why wouldn’t you think that? Indeed, there were acting schools like the Beverly Hills Playhouse, one of the most prominent acting schools in Los Angeles, which was affiliated and taught by a Scientologist. When I first started this, I had written about al-Qaida and I was talking to joint terrorist forces around the country, and someone asked what I was doing next and I said, “Scientology.” It had nothing to do with terrorism, but this detective was hanging back and as the meeting broke up he came up to me and said, “Well, I used to be an actor and I was training at Beverly Hills Playhouse under Milton Katselas,” this legendary acting teacher, “and they led me into Scientology. My job was to sit in the back of the room and look at the young students and pick out the broken ducklings,” he said. “The ones you could see were having trouble. I would go up to them and I would say, ‘There’s a course at the Celebrity Center, I think it would help you,’ and funnel them and then Milton Katselas would get a cut from the fees that they paid to Scientology.”

A lot of people went through that. So the reason I single out Tom Cruise and other celebrities is that they have a moral responsibility to demand change inside their church -- which is committing abuses and they know about it, it’s not a secret. But they’re the ones who have been selling Scientology and are responsible for people coming into the church. Some of those people have been harmed and I think it’s on them to demand change.

But is a reform movement within Scientology that leaves the church with something like its current beliefs even conceivable? We can conceive of such a thing in the Catholic Church, and we can conceive of such a thing in Islam, because even from the outside we see considerable diversity within those faiths and a lot of internal debate. I don’t see that in Scientology.

It’s burdensome because every word that L. Ron Hubbard wrote is supposed to be scripture and that makes it really awkward. Although the way the church has dealt with it, let’s take the question of homosexuality. When Hubbard was writing in the 1940s and 1950s, homosexuality was scorned in the general culture. He reflected that and shared it. He talked about how homosexuals are perverts and they’re at the level of treason and the lowest level of humanity. That prejudice embedded itself in Scientology. Because it was written in the books it was hard to step away from.

Then the books changed, and I asked Tommy Davis, at that time the international spokesperson, “What happened? All these references to homosexuality have gone.” He said, “Well these are the actual words of L. Ron Hubbard. We have the tapes.” I said, “Well, how did all those references to homosexuals get into those books originally?” He said, “We don’t know. Some bigot put them in.” There may be a way in which Scientology can readjust some of its doctrines by pretending they never happened in the first place.

Well, didn’t the Mormons go through a version of that in the 1970s, when they finally decided that black people were not accursed after all?

Not exactly. The thing about Mormons is they believe that their leader is a prophet and communicates directly with God. So he got the word from on high about that one, just like when they decided that they didn’t believe in plural marriage any longer, and so on. Scientology isn’t as adept as that. It can change. It’s got $3 billion in assets; it’s got a lot of lawyers. So it’s positioned to be able to change. But the thing is, there’s only one man who runs Scientology, and he took almost his entire leadership and imprisoned them in double-wide trailers. There’s no checks and balances inside the church. It’s one-man rule.

Miscavige strikes me as a little bit more like Stalin than like the pope. The pope has to manage an enormous political bureaucracy, and multiple competing seats of power. Miscavige simply got rid of everybody who stood up to him.

Or he kept them on and intimidated them so much. I’ve spoken to 12 people who said they had been physically beaten by David Miscavige, and many other people who witnessed it. He rules by terror, and those who question him are beaten into submission and/or locked up in one of these reeducation camps.

You and I and everybody else are going to be cautious in addressing this question, but here goes. When you talk about the celebrities associated with Scientology, the two biggest are male movie stars who have been surrounded by rumors about their sexuality throughout their careers. One might draw the inference that their fear of being compromised in some way is tying them to the church. Is there a way you can discuss that?

Yeah, I’m not worried about it. I talked to a former member of the Church of Scientology and he said that at one point when John Travolta was said to be considering leaving, this former member was tasked with going through his auditing folders. Auditing is a form of therapy and confession where very intimate details of your life are revealed. Your closest secrets are revealed and secretly recorded in some cases. His job was to assemble everything that could be used against Travolta in case he decided to leave. I don’t know what those things are or how they influenced the question of whether John Travolta remained in the church or not. But the fact is he’s still in the church, he’s aware of the abuses, and he’s done nothing about them.

So whatever embarrassing personal information may exist about John Travolta and Tom Cruise, the Church of Scientology knows what it is.

Oh, I think so. I think that they’re complicit. There was one case where a woman fled the Sea Org and tried to escape. They tracked her down and they sent John Travolta’s plane to pick her up and bring her back. John Travolta, of course, knew about Spanky Taylor [his former assistant, interviewed in the film] being confined in a church facility, and he did nothing about it. They maintain a place for Tom Cruise on the Sea Org Base in Southern California right near where “The Hole” is, the reeducation camp where all the top executives, more than 100 at one point, were confined, some of them for years. They were sleeping on the floor in an ant-infested trailer, with physical abuse going on, within eyesight of Tom Cruise and his little villa. He’s, of course, received the service of so many of these Sea Org-ers who have refurbished his house, painted his car, built a limousine and an airplane hangar for him.

How much of a problem is it for the church that their two biggest celebrities are both on the north side of 50 and not nearly as big as they once were?

It’s a sign of how the attraction of Scientology has waned. There is no new John Travolta or new Tom Cruise who could be the public face of the church. I have spoken to stars who had thought about going into the church and then pulled back. They got close because Tom Cruise and John Travolta are, everybody says, wonderful guys. People like working with them, they’re charming, they publicly state how much they’ve gotten out of the church. So they’ve become very big attractors, especially for people who are beginning to emerge into that very crazy celebrity world where you want to have some solidity in your life.

It’s often true that people who go to Hollywood with these dreams of becoming a movie star, they do so when they’re really young. They’ve just graduated or maybe they didn’t even finish high school. It’s a young person’s game and you risk everything. Your friends are going to college, they’re going to law school, they’re going to medical school, and you’re going to go to Hollywood and eat dog food and hope that you become a movie star. You’re in a very vulnerable state and Scientology comes along and says, “We can help you.” Just to be noticed at that level is gratifying and not only do you not need to go to college, you jump over that. “The teachings of Scientology will lead you to a far higher place where you can be told things about your existence that nobody else will know and you’ll gain powers that are superhuman in nature. Also, we’ll treat you as the special human being that you are.” That’s what draws people in.

Well, that sounds great. Haggis talks about this in the film, but can you say more about what people get out of being Scientologists? Is it primarily about that kind of affirmation, that sense of shared community? Which is, I suppose, the basis of all religion.

That’s one big thing. You become a part of a community and it can be a very supportive community. But there are other things. If you are a spiritual seeker and if you are in auditing, which is this technique where you use the e-meter, many, many Scientologists have had the experience of remembering past life episodes.

And feeling really convinced by that experience.

The e-meter substantiates it in their minds. The e-meter is a transformative tool for Scientology. It’s the science of Scientology.

It appears to create scientific validity for something that would otherwise be dismissed as fantasy or hallucination.

Right. If you have an image in your mind and the needle moves, the auditor might say, “What was that?” “Oh I don’t know, I just had an image of a spaceship.” “Well, go back to that. What’s going on?” So you begin to think about what it was. “Well we were in some sort of space war and the planet – Oh, my God, it might have been my home planet.” This is all a past life that you seem to be remembering and the needle is saying, “This really happened to you.” Well, this is good news because it says to you that you’ve lived before, so you’ll live again. You’re an eternal being, just as Scientology said you are. A Thetan, an immortal being.

It’s actually brilliant. It combines something we have to conclude is innate to human existence, which is the desire to search for levels of transcendent meaning that are not evident to us in our everyday life, with the 20th century mania for science and objective standards of measurement. That’s genius.

And marry that to celebrity. Wow, that’s a lot.

The Christian churches can promise you an afterlife, but they don’t have a scientific instrument that seems to prove it’s real.

Right, and I think that the foremost captive of the e-meter was L. Ron Hubbard. Someone who was very close to him told me that he was almost enslaved by it, that he said that “it can see just below the level of consciousness.” In other words, that it knew you better than you knew yourself. It knows what you’re going to think before you think it. So he spent much of his life alone in a room with an e-meter probing his innermost thoughts. That’s where those 1,000 books came from.

That leads to a question that you have obviously thought about, which is to what degree Hubbard actually believed in something that he appears to have invented out of whole cloth. One could ask the same question about Joseph Smith and about the Prophet Muhammad, I suppose, but with Hubbard it’s so recent. A lot of people from the outside conclude that he was just a con artist and a liar: He dreamed this up to make money and that’s it.

If he was really a fraud or a con artist, at some point he would have taken the money and run. He had plenty of money and he was not extravagant. He’d buy nice cars and stuff like that, but he was not an extravagant liver. What he did was to seclude himself, pretty much all of his life, alone with these cans in his hand, trying to discern what was going on inside his mind. That’s why Scientology really is a trip into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard. And the deeper you go into Scientology, the more like L. Ron Hubbard you become. That’s the danger of it.

Do you mean because the deeper you go into it, the crazier the theology becomes? Xenu and the souls trapped in volcanoes and the ancient atom bombs and all that stuff?

Craziness doesn’t have anything to do with how successful a religion might be. Religions prosper in large part because of the communities that they create. If you look at Mormonism, it’s a very appealing community. It takes care of itself, there are active charities, it’s got a successful work ethic. Whatever you might think about the authenticity of their theology or their history, it’s immaterial in terms of how the religion itself actually functions. With Scientology, it has a very strange set of beliefs, but right now it has an incredibly dysfunctional and broken community. That’s the difference. Scientologists are told not to look at anything critical of the church, most of them don’t. They put blinders on. It’s our hope that some of those blinders will come down and Scientologists will take a look, and then try to change the religion themselves. There’s very little that we can do other than bring awareness to people about what’s happening.

It seems like one of two things needs to happen. Or maybe both. David Miscavige has to go, probably, for anything to change. Or the IRS must be convinced to take a second look at Scientology’s tax-exempt status. Would that cause the church to collapse?

I don’t know. The church has a lot of money, so that doesn’t seem to be its problem. The problem has to do with the dysfunction at the very top of the church. And that can be fixed, but it would take some of these celebrity members to demand it, I think. It’s in their power, and I feel like it’s a moral responsibility for people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta who have benefited from the church and who have sold the church all over the world to take it on themselves.

”Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” opens this week at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York, the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco, with more cities to follow. It will debut March 29 on HBO.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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