Thursday, December 20, 2007

Blowing Its Top

Uncovering the true story behind Scientology
By Carl Kozlowski

For nearly twenty years, Tom Cruise has seemed like Hollywood’s Golden Boy, a movie star women loved and guys also thought was cool. He attributed his vast success to being a follower of Scientology, a self-help movement turned religion which claims the ability to “clear” its followers from all their problems. It seemed like the perfect match: the man with the perfect smile advocating for a group that offers perfection.

But in May, Cruise seemingly went apeshit. He suddenly announced his engagement to Katie Holmes, an actress whom no one had ever seen him with before late April. He leapt up and down on Oprah’s couch like a five-year-old on a sugar kick, generating derisive laughter across the planet. And just when you thought Tom could use a good dose of Ritalin, he was embarrassing himself on the “Today Show” by arguing that he knew more about psychiatry and its alleged evils than his interviewer, Matt Lauer.

Suddenly, people were wondering what was wrong with Mr. Perfect. And his attempts to pump up his church amidst all the publicity appear to have backfired, provoking widespread media coverage of Scientology that is reopening a 50-year history of overarching greed, fraud, judicial chicanery, near-terroristic threatening of the church’s critics, and the fact that the heart of the church’s beliefs center around the claim that every human’s stresses are in reality the souls of aliens attaching themselves to their bodies.

As if that’s not crazy enough, throw in tales of mysterious deaths, and an affidavit claiming that the church attempts to coerce abortions from its staff members, and suddenly, the perfect church doesn’t seem all that perfect – and a daring band of ex-members are making sure the full extent of its dark side is exposed.

The method they’re using to attack this multi-billion-dollar, multi-operational, worldwide dragon is surprisingly simple: they’re exposing Scientology’s darkest secrets, which for 50 years were only revealed to their top members, on the Internet. And like shedding light on cockroaches, the church’s leaders are desperately scurrying to stay alive by enshrouding as much information as possible in darkness.

Even better, it all started with a connection in Pasadena. For it was here, in the late 1940s, that eventual Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard – then a middling science-fiction author and accomplished ladies’ man – fell into the warped social circle of famed rocket engineer Jack Parsons, who proudly considered himself to be the Antichrist and frequently conducted orgies and other debauched events amid the wealthiest streets of Pasadena. According to a January 3, 2002 PW story on Parsons by Michael Collins, both Hubbard and Parsons shared a fascination with occultism and infamous black magic practitioner Aleister Crowley.

“There’s a lot of dispute about Hubbard’s connections with Parsons, because while there’s quite a bit of indications that he was involved in Parsons’ magic movement, Scientology claims that Hubbard was really an opposing undercover agent trying to expose them,” said Timothy Miller, a professor religious studies at the University of Kansas who specializes in “new religious movements,” the newfangled way of describing cults. “The term ‘cult’ has negative connotations and our work is supposed to be judgment-free and there is a consensus that we’ve already branded a group if you say it like that. On the other hand, we don’t whitewash anyone.”

Indeed, Miller points out that Scientology has been riddled with inconsistencies, mixing positive and negative qualities, since its very founding in 1950 by Hubbard, who created the church as a self-help movement after publishing a “modern guide to mental health” called “Dianetics.” For instance, they’ve proven to be one of the most litigious groups in America, barraging their critics and opponents with countless lawsuits and often outspending their way to victory, but speculation of whether some members have died as a result of the church’s “care” is much more questionable.

Miller, along with many other authorities on the church and ex-members, also takes issue with church leaders’ membership figures, in which they estimate eight million members in over 150 nations. Some peg the real total as low as 50,000 members whose excessive financial involvement propels the church’s unknown worth into estimated tens of billions of dollars.

He also takes issue with whether the church subjects its live-in members to slave labor, a frequent accusation in which critics claim that many Scientology staffers are subjected to working at least 60 hours a week for as little as $4 a week.

“People get very devoted to their religious, social and political causes, but to my mind, slave labor has to be something you don’t wanna do and you have to be locked up to do it,” said Miller. “But will they take your money? Yes, everything they can. Most religions want money, but they seem unusually good at it. The prices they charge are extraordinary, but people voluntarily pay.”

What constitutes “extraoardinary”, exactly? Scientology consists of an extensive series of highly invasive personal tests called “audits” and classes that a member must take to climb the church’s “Bridge”, a series of levels that gain them greater and greater insights into their allegedly “true” nature and a clearing of all the issues that vex their mental and emotional lives.

The problem is, that the big final lesson is basically a riddle: Now that you know what you are not, begin to find out what you are. Basically, the church offers a never-ending trip into the subconscious, only one that’s far less enjoyable than dropping out of college and following the Dead.

And most members never even get to that official final level – the biggest reward for those who don’t make it to the level of OT VIII (Operating Thetan at the eighth level), at which they’re also told they have the power to control time and space, can create universes and never get sick again, is to make it to OT III, where the first lessons about aliens and immortality come in.

“They have beliefs in reincarnation and past lives,” explained Miller. “And they believe that they are basically immortal, because the more dedicated members in an elite level called Sea Org sign billion-year contracts to work for the church. Imagine making it to the highest level and learning that it’s basically an endless loop of lessons and auditing that you’ll never really get out of.”

And along the way, members learn that their lifelong beef with their dad or their bad luck at finding well-paying employment doesn’t just stem from internal hurdles. Nope, those forces that are holding them back are really “thetans,” alien spirits that have been clinging to human bodies by the thousands ever since an evil intergalactic alien overlord named Xenu tried to imprison them on earth 75 million years ago.

By the time a member gets to hear these “truths” and feel stupid about them (many are rumored to endure psychic breakdowns upon realizing their years in the group have been all for naught), they’ve already typically been sucked in financially to the tune of $30,000 to $500,000, are considered by many critics to be brainwashed and likely have been “disconnected” from the lesser beings known as their families.

“What inspired me to join was I was looking for answers and solutions. I read ‘Dianetics’ and thought it was a solution for helping other people,” said Tory Christman, a former member now living in Burbank who spent 31 years in Scientology between 1969 and 2000 before quitting. “But if you think of Scientology like a pyramid, I got to the top and realized it was a scam. I was OT VII (the second-highest rank in the church) for seven years and they wound up saying we weren’t trained right and needed to retrain from scratch. A bunch of us finally went ‘forget it.’”

On the night she was interviewed, Christman was in a wryly witty mood. She had every reason to be happy, however, as she had just realized that that day was the five-year anniversary from the day she walked out on the group. As a result, she offered a sarcastic, no-nonsense assessment of Scientology and what she flat out terms its “evil” qualities.

Christman had worked her way up to the elite level of OT VII, a state in which she was nearly deemed clear of the thetans afflicting her body. Her duties within Scientology consisted of working for the Office of Special Affairs, a notorious “security”-oriented faction within Scientology that critics claim is responsible for the church’s frequent stream of lawsuits targeting their enemies, and even more unsavory tricks such as character defamation designed to scare opponents into submission under what is known as “Fair Game” tactics.

“I don’t think any of us say you should or should not have beliefs, but I speak out because of Fair Game where you can lie, cheat and attack those who differ with you,” explained Christman. “I was in charge of setting up phony accounts on the Internet that were designed to shut down free speech by blocking out opponents’ sites or trick-routing people to pro-Scientology sites when they were looking for opposing information.”

Along the way, Christman tried to join Sea Org, a branch of Scientology whose members are deemed more “elite” than others despite the fact they’re the only members required to sign the big billion-year commitment and they have to live in group settings while considerations of marriage and children are seriously frowned upon as distractions from working for the cause.

“The majority of members live out in the public, but the Sea Org gets young idealistic people to come in and save the planet and they give them a lot of power to control things and that’s how they keep them,” said Christman. “Who else would give people that young the power? I was auditing one of their kid authorities, and I was a member near the top of the Bridge whom they wouldn’t allow to walk down a hall alone, and I’m auditing a 17-year-old kid in a suit, having to say ‘Yes sir!’ to him.

“Kids get into that thing, and it’s a trap, a very bad trap. They really work on sucking kids in. I gave them my whole adult life. I don’t want to do the same unless they know both sides.”

For Christman, the will to leave came from her disgust with the most two-sided aspect of Scientology. There is perhaps nothing Hubbard claimed to hate more than psychiatry, which became an inexplicable obsession of his which many critics and historians believe stemmed from the fact he had a lifelong love of the sea that led him to join the Navy – only to be diagnosed as mentally unstable and discharged from the service.

Hubbard retaliated by inventing “Dianetics,” crafting a self-help philosophy that was supposedly gleaned from the best of the lessons he learned from diverse cultures while traveling the earth since childhood. (Numerous judges and historians have proclaimed Hubbard as everything from an outright liar to wildly exaggerating his life’s adventures, however.) And as Scientology flowed out from there, he made sure his followers believed that the answer to nearly every sort of affliction lay in “clearing” the body through auditing or taking a bizarre mix of vitamins and other allegedly natural materials rather than turning to traditional medical professionals.

The ironic, and even shocking, fact is that upon Hubbard’s death in 1986 at age 74 (so much for immortality), the coroner’s report revealed that he had “a bandaide affixed to the right gluteal area where 10 recent needle marks are recognized of 5-8 cm.” Meaning, the King of No Medicine had himself been shot in the ass with some goodies soon before his death.

And the fact that the “post mortem examination was refused because of religious reasons” also proved strange – as a member of the District Attorney’s office advised “immediate toxicology be performed on body fluids.” The fluids, which were not handed over easily by church officials, were also found to have traces of the anti-anxiety medication Vistaril.

“I speak out because I know tons of people who died in Scientology, and five kids who died after they tried to leave. Their fraud with guys like Tom Cruise telling people not to take meds, they can’t believe that in my world and have me shut up. Those are abuses that should not be allowed,” said Christman, who finally walked out after suffering grand mal seizures when the church refused to let her take epilepsy medications. “Hubbard was on meds all his life, and he had them the whole time.”

Christman certainly makes the Sea Org members sound devoted. In fact, drop by the old Hollywood Guaranty Building, which houses the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition museum at 6331 Hollywood Blvd., and you can see for yourself just how dedicated the little worker bees in their faux-sailor uniforms are. In fact, there’s two benches out front that are perfect for relaxed observation.

You might think that people with a billion years to spend might take their time strolling on a break to grab a Coke, but one thing nearly every one of the dozens of Sea Org kids this reporter has observed runs to and from the building as if they’re going to detonate if they’re not back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

But drop by a little before midnight, as I did on a Wednesday, and you’ll find a massive uptick in the comings and goings of Sea Orgs. Not only do they pour out by the dozens from the Guaranty building, which Christman terms the absolute hub of the Church’s financial operations, but numerous other little sailors come running towards the building from seemingly all over Hollywood Boulevard – a handy reminder of the fact that the outrageously wealthy church is the biggest real-estate holder in Hollywood.

Where they’re all headed is an unmarked, full-size bus that, according to Christman, takes them to their group living quarters after a healthy 12-to-16 hour workday. And while that might be odd already, there’s nothing creepier than watching the Sea kids line up like Stepford children and board the bus silently, looking straight ahead without speaking to each other onboard.

Regardless of what Professor Miller said about ‘cult’ being a potentially unfair label, it seems fairly apt at a moment like that. In fact, before I could spend another moment watching on the corner, a security guard taps my shoulder and insists on knowing what I’m doing there. My body almost jumps out of my skin before I stammer I’m waiting on a bus myself. And thank God, I indeed found one a moment later and hopped on to get the hell out of there and avoid a potential disappearance – even if the bus that saved me was heading in completely the wrong direction.

Kind of a perfect metaphor for joining Scientology.

“Hubbard was seeking a land base for what had been a seagoing operation for a long time, and he in the early ‘70s he decided to build in Clearwater, Florida. Until then, for years they were more or less chased around the world by police and refused berthing rights,” said Rich Lieby, a Washington Post reporter who started writing about Scientologists up close while working for the local Clearwater newspaper. “Hubbard was in the Navy in WWII so he called himself the Commander and transformed Scientology into the Sea Org, giving a nautical flavor to all the uniforms. “

Lieby’s recollections of the way Scientology operated in Florida – creating an East Coast outpost nearly more impressive than their expansive California holdings – sheds light on several of the business practices of Scientology. First, they used a front organization to buy the property, calling themselves the United Churches of Florida without actually uniting with other churches.

At the same time the Scientologists were building their national headquarters, the FLAG Land Base, in a town that was leery of a church that fixated on aliens, Hubbard’s wife and eight of his minions went on trial in Washington because of the fact they had waged a massive infiltration of the federal government through the use of phony IRS and Justice Department badges. The illegal activities were in the midst of Scientology’s battle with the IRS over receiving tax-exempt status as a legally sanctioned church.

While European countries had gotten wise early, with Britain banning the entry of Scientologists from 1968 to 1980 and Germany having already established their permanent ban on the church because it felt it was a cult of personality in the Nazi vein, the US government found itself reeling from the fact it looked the other way just a little too long. The Scientologists’ dream of morphing from self-help group to official religion had begun back in 1969, when Hubbard suddenly ordered crosses with discreetly odd designs – which were in fact modeled on his warlock hero Aleister Crowley’s Satanic Cross – planted in the lobbies of all the Scientology offices nationwide.

The Scientologists finally won their battle for tax-exempt religious status in a secret agreement with the IRS in 1993, but Hubbard wasn’t only hoping to avoid taxation of his vast holdings. In fact, he was canny enough to know that due to church-state separation, police and other authorities would be highly unlikely to investigate the Church’s operations. A final bonus was his knowledge that church divisions like Christman’s Office of Special Affairs could get away with utterly outrageous intimidation tactics – ranging from incessant phone calls and wiretaps to spreading flyers accusing critics of being pedophiles and filing enough lawsuits to drive opponents bankrupt via legal costs alone - because no one would ever believe a church could be that crazy.

Their biggest battleground in recent years, however, seemed to be on the Internet. Not only did they encourage members to post generic happy websites about their membership, but they also engaged in devious tactics such as Christman alleged earlier.

Yet Scientology couldn’t clamp down on free speech and cyberspace forever, and their membership is believed to have decreased sharply in the past decade as anyone is free to now read about the church and many of its “truths” on the Web. The latest wave of publicity, caused by Cruise’s aggressive proselytizing and anti-psychiatric arguments, is perhaps a desperate and clueless attempt to win back young minds and reverse the exodus.

“They’ve regularly exaggerated the health and membership of the group. A lot of their facilities are being closed,” explained Jim Lippard, a computer network security expert in Pasadena who helped fight Scientology’s 1994 attempt to stop the critical alt.religion.scientology Usenet news group. “Even Cruise can’t help them now because he fired one of the best publicists in Hollywood and replaced her with his Scientologist sister, all because Scientology has a paranoid view of the world that worked in the Cold War era but hasn’t been updated.”

Lippard is only partially correct on that front, however. The Internet has leaked tales of numerous Scientologists who have died under allegedly mysterious circumstances after committing insubordination or merely being deprived of needed medications, or of the bizarre deaths of Hubbard’s denounced gay son Quentin or current church head David Miscavige’s mother-in-law within days of her threatening to speak publicly about what she felt were church abuses.

And as those tales spread, renowned ex-Scientologist Arnie Lerma noted, the church realized it had to soften its approach and reinvent some of its techniques Gone were most of the hard-sell membership-drive techniques of the past, when church members were as annoying as Jehovah’s Witnesses in their attempts to make passersby take “personality tests” that allegedly would reveal the stressful areas Scientology could help a person eliminate.

As the head of, Lerma has drawn on his decade-long membership in Scientology to craft perhaps the most extensive and highly updated anti-Scientology website in the world. Lerma was actually working for Scientology in 1969, having joined at 17 after buying Hubbard’s tales of being a war hero and nuclear physicist. He was around for the early days of Clearwater and got to know Hubbard on a very close level.

Ultimately, that closeness to Hubbard would be key to Lerma’s breakup with Scientology, as he recalls falling in love with one of the founder’s daughters, Suzette. As marriage and family are frowned upon within Sea Org members as unnecessary distractions from church devotion, they were about to elope when she spilled the beans in one of her auditing sessions.

“I was given the option of leaving Florida with all my body parts intact if I told her the wedding was off, and that’s a quotable fact,” said Lerma. “So I told her and she cried. I was shocked like shock therapy and that woke me up. I was free.”

Indeed, Lerma has become one of Scientology’s most fervent critics, with his site tagging itself “Exposing the Con.” He says he was there the day Hubbard ordered the Satanic Crosses rolled into church offices, and watched in wonder as the church replaced its secular signs and symbols across the board with occult imagery designed to mislead the public and more importantly, the government into believing they were a fairly mainstream religion. By the time he was forced to leave, he had become the finance manger for the church’s publishing wing, Bridge Publications – a job that “required me to write checks to Hubbard all day.”

He has already experienced retaliation in the form of a raid on his house by Scientologists and US marshals who searched all his computer drives for the church’s copyrighted materials, such as information on thetans and climbing the Bridge. Yet he has soldiered on, as nothing was found worthy of shutting his efforts down.

In contrast, a decade ago Scientologist lawyers were able to launch 100 suits at a time against the former top anti-cult web group, the Cult Awareness Network, drive it into bankruptcy and then purchase the name to open yet another Scientologist front group that tries to assuage concerned family members with claims that membership in the church is harmless. The very fact that Lerma is up and thriving online is just one big sign that the church might be losing its grip.

“They love luring celebrities because they think it helps them win over countless more young people, and the celebrities stay with it both because every imaginable whim is catered to but because they’ve revealed every blackmailable secret in their auditing sessions over the years,” said Lerma. “Meanwhile, those stars’ needs are met by staffers who are either in it for life and vastly underpaid or by members who have run out of money for the church’s services and are basically slaving to pay it off.”

Just as the roots of Scientology began here in Pasadena with the bizarre friendship of Hubbard and Jack Parsons, its weaknesses with the Web also began here, in a Pasadena courtroom of the U.S. District Court. The case of the Church of Scientology International vs. Fishman and Geertz resulted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco denying Scientology’s appeal to seal its “upper level materials” about the OT levels, Xenu and other high-level church secrets.

The case began with a 1991 lawsuit against former Scientologist Steven Fishman and his psychiatrist, Dr. Uwe Geertz, after they were quoted at length in a classic Time magazine expose on the church. Fishman had been convicted several years before of taking part in a Scientology securities class action fraud scheme in Florida, and in order to defend himself fully in this lawsuit without a lawyer, he had won the right to use the previously secret materials in his defense.

Dr. Geertz’s attorney, Graham Berry, heard about Fishman’s materials, and offered to help him as much as he could for free. When the men teamed up to accomplish a staggering success against Scientology that finally enabled the “upper materials” to stay open and be read anywhere, the truth was finally free and available to anyone exploring Scientology on the Web.

“Robert Vaughn Young was a high-level Scientology executive who escaped the church, and he said the Internet would prove to be the church’s Waterloo and lead to their demise,” said Berry, who has spent the past decade as a living victim of the church’s retaliatory techniques. “I believe that’s self-evident with the fact Fishman filed a worldwide affidavit where the information on Scientology is on the ‘Net for free while its members traditionally paid up to a half-million dollars to reach the same level of knowledge.”

After helping win the Fishman case, Berry found his homosexuality outed on the Web, along with further accusations that he was a pedophile. Those lurid and patently false allegations were only the tip of the iceberg in which he believes that Scientologists set out to slander him on nearly every level and did manage to break him financially by tying up all his time through a string of lawsuits against him. The final blow came when Scientologists convinced the state’s judicial system to label Fishman a “vexatious litigant,” a label that cost him his ability to practice law in California and, amazingly, can’t appeal his way out of.

Yet even now, living off government assistance and the kindness of friends and acquaintances, Berry remains unbowed and to this day travels to conferences around the world to speak out against the church’s ruthless tactics.

“Scientology will never understand how strongly friends can support you and it drives them nuts that I’m not in a gutter somewhere,” Berry noted. “But I will not remain silent, for they already have done all they can against me. I have nothing left to lose, and sometimes that’s the most powerful state to be in.”

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