Scientology: Slave Labor, Beatings, and an FBI Investigation?

The New Yorker spends 24,000 words detailing the secretive church's doings

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Scientology is more than just the reason no one takes Tom Cruise seriously anymore.  It's also--according to defectors, who are condemned as liars and much worse by the church--a very expensive and sometimes violent cult. Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis is the Church of Scientology's most high-profile ex-member, and he talked to The New Yorker's Lawrence Wright about why he left his religion of 34 years. A few reasons: support of an anti-gay ballot initiative in California, reports of beatings by church leader David Miscavige, re-education work camps, billion-year contracts for children, and other unpleasantries.

The final straw for Haggis, who has two gay daughters, was the church's support of Prop 8, which stripped gays of the right to same-sex marriage. But that incident got him digging into the church's other problems--and he was shocked at what he found.

By the numbers:

$400,000+: Amount Haggis spent on Scientology courses and other initiatives.

$150,000: Amount Haggis's wife Deborah Rennard spent on coursework.

$100,000: "Freeloader tab" charged to Sea Org members--members of Scientology's internal religious order--who want to leave the church.

$50: Weekly salary of many Sea Org members

$13: Actually weekly salary of many Sea Org members once they've been docked for various infractions

2: Number of Purple Heart awards Scientology claims founder L. Ron Hubbard received during his military service.

0: Actual number of Purple Hearts Hubbard received.

50: Number of times former church spokesman Mike Rinder says Miscavige beat him

14: Number of defectors who say they were victims of--or witnessed--Miscavige's beatings.

1: Number of ongoing FBI investigations into the church.

Below, a selection of some of the most interesting revelations about the secretive church in Wright's story:

On how Haggis felt when he was permitted to learn Scientology's secret origin story:

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.”

Scientology's secret origin story:

“A major cause of mankind’s problems began 75 million years ago,” the [Los Angeles] Times wrote [after obtaining secret Scientology documents in the 80s], 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.”

Haggis's daughter, on how kids raised in Scientology are unprepared for the regular world:

Haggis put his daughters in an ordinary private school, but that lasted only six months. ... At a regular school, they felt like outsiders. “The first thing I noticed that I did, that others didn’t, is the Contact,” Alissa told me, referring to a procedure the church calls Contact Assist. “If you hurt yourself, the first thing I and other Scientology kids do is go quiet.” Scientology preaches that, if you touch the wound to the object that caused the injury and silently concentrate, the pain lessens and a sense of trauma fades.

First rule of Scientology: Don't make jokes about Scientology!

[Scientology spokesman] Tommy Davis, at Cruise’s request, was allowed to erect a tent on the set of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” where Scientology materials were distributed. That raised eyebrows in Hollywood. Haggis says that when he appeared on the set Spielberg pulled him aside. “It’s really remarkable to me that I’ve met all these Scientologists, and they seem like the nicest people,” Spielberg said. Haggis replied, “Yeah, we keep all the evil ones in a closet.” ...

A few days later, Haggis says, he was summoned to the Celebrity Centre, where officials told him that Cruise was very upset. “It was a joke,” Haggis explained. Davis offers a different account. He says that Cruise mentioned the incident to him only “in passing,” but that he himself found the remark offensive. He confronted Haggis, who apologized profusely, asking that his contrition be relayed to “anyone who might have been offended.”

On how Scientology forces members to cut off contact with skeptical relatives:

In the early nineties, Rennard wrote to the International Justice Chief, the Scientology official in charge of such matters; she was informed that she could talk to her parents again. A decade later, however, she went to Clearwater, intending to take some upper-level courses, and was told that the previous ruling no longer applied. If she wanted to do more training, she had to confront her parents’ mistakes. The church recommended that she take a course called P.T.S./S.P., which stands for “Potential Trouble Source/Suppressive Persons.” “That course took a year,” Rennard told me. [The battle, during which Rennard's parents paid money and did hours of community service as penance, lasted until April 2007, when they sued to see their grandkid.]

On cult-like devotion to Miscavige:

[Many ex-members say Miscavige beat their staff. Scientology counters that no, it was the detractors who were violent.] Haggis noted that, if the rumors of Miscavige’s violent temper were true, it proved that everyone is fallible. “Look at Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he said, alluding to King’s sexual improprieties. “How dare you compare Dave Miscavige with Martin Luther King!” one of the officials [trying to convince Haggis to come back] shouted. Haggis was shocked. “They thought that comparing Miscavige to Martin Luther King was debasing his character,” he says. “If they were trying to convince me that Scientology was not a cult, they did a very poor job of it.”

How Scientology tracks you down:

Last April, John Brousseau, who had been in the Sea Org for more than thirty years, left the Gold Base. He was unhappy with Miscavige, his former brother-in-law, whom he considered “detrimental to the goals of Scientology.” He drove across the country, to south Texas, to meet Marty Rathbun. “I was there a couple of nights,” he says. At five-thirty one morning, he was leaving the motel room where he was staying, to get coffee, when he heard footsteps behind him. It was Tommy Davis; he and nineteen church members had tracked Brousseau down. Brousseau locked himself in his room and called Rathbun, who alerted the police; Davis went home without Brousseau.

On the mysterious disappearance of Miscavige's wife:

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