Lawrence Wright on Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison Of Belief
HH: I am back with a special couple of hours. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College will be along in hour number three, but this hour and next I’m talking with Lawrence Wright, no stranger to the program, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, Pulitzer Prize for that book, of course the New Yorker’s, one of the great writers for that amazing magazine. He has a brand new book out called Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood And The Prison Of Belief. Lawrence Wright, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
LW: It’s a pleasure to talk to you again, Hugh.
HH: I must say, I’ve been doing broadcasts for 22 years, and I have done well more than 10,000 interviews, not with callers, but real interviews. I’ve never been at a loss to begin, find a place to begin, because the book simply left me flabbergasted. I’m wondering if you’re running into that.
LW: Well, it is a jaw-dropping story, and I was really very, very grateful to run into it, and to have the opportunity to tell the story. But it is, you know, it’s a saga. It’s got great characters, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, is one of the most amazing people I ever had the chance to write about, with controversy swirling around him and around the institution that he created.
HH: How much did you know when you sat down to do the profile of screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, that for the New Yorker a few years back, how much did you know about Scientology when you opened that chapter?
LW: Well, when I was in college in New Orleans, I had briefly lived above a little Scientology mission of some sort, and met some of the people there. And they showed me the E-meter and so on, so I, long, long ago, I had been acquainted with it. And I was always really curious, like most Americans, about what is this esoteric religion, why do they believe these things, and why do certain notable personalities lend their credibility to an organization that is looked upon with such suspicion and even fear by many Americans?
HH: You know, I’m 56, and growing up and going to college in the 70s at Harvard, and you had the Scientologists downtown in Boston often offering you personality tests. In fact, most people my age have been offered a personality test. But also, the warning was around don’t really mix it up with these people. You don’t really want to get involved. And there were other religious groups getting started then – the Unification Church and the Transcendental Meditation movement, and a variety of things. They all got mixed into that weird 70s thing. So did you approach the subject with that wheezing of an organ in the background warning you that this might be an adventure that would have some pretty perilous turns in it?
LW: Well, the Church of Scientology has a well-earned reputation of being litigious, vindictive towards critics and defenders and reporters. And so I certainly looked at it with from the point of view that there were hazards involved in it. And when I first started working on the article for the New Yorker, we took into account that for instance, there was a Time Magazine expose of Scientology in 1991. And the Church sued Time Magazine and the reporter, losing every step of the way all the way to the Supreme Court. But it cost Time more money to defend itself than any other suit in its history. So we took those things into account, but on the other hand, it was such a great story, and so important, you know, there are so many allegations of abuse and involuntary confinement going on inside the upper levels of the Church. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for an investigative reporter to walk in and see what’s actually happening.
HH: Well, there’s not only the great story that I will be spending most of our time with on the next couple of hours, but as I approached the book, I also did so with my hat on as a professor of Constitutional Law, who knows New York Times Vs. Sullivan very, very well. And I thought the book is one of the most carefully presented, lawyered and reviewed books that did not lose its reportorial edge or its writing skill. But it was done very, very carefully, culminating in your account of your September, 2010 meeting in the offices of the New Yorker with the Dunkin’ Donuts sign blinking in the back.
HH: And I wonder if you thought this book was more arduous because it had that layer of having to anticipate litigation, because the Church has been slandered in the past, but it’s also been aggressive in its use of defensive attacks in the past. Did that create an extra burden?
LW: Well, it certainly made me more cautious. I felt, you know, the Hurt Locker, where the guy is defusing bombs for a living.
LW: Well, that felt a little like I just don’t want to cross my wires here. So you know, the New Yorker, when we did that story, by the time we published it, we had five fact checkers on the story. And then when I started working on the book, I hired two fact checkers on my own to query the Church and other people who are involved in the book, just to make sure that we try to get our facts as close to accurate as possible could.
HH: I’ve got to tell you, from the perspective of someone who’s been profiled by the New Yorker as well, Nick Lemann did that a few years back for me. I had to deal with the fact checking bureau. And they were like locusts over my time. They ate up my time. They wanted every pair…
LW: Yeah, I’m sympathetic, Hugh. There is, it’s an onerous process.
HH: So how did the Church of Scientology, they brought all those binders to New York, but they couldn’t possibly have cooperated in the way that I or most ordinary people would cooperate with the New Yorker fact checking department.
LW: You know, originally, the Church, the international spokesperson, Tommy Davis at the time, had said that he was going to take me through Scientology, you know, with the idea that he’s going to really show me the Church’s perspective, and then didn’t do that, backed out of that agreement. But he agreed to respond to fact checking queries, and I’m not altogether sure he knew what that meant, what he was in for. The first volley of fact checking queries from our checkers was 971 questions.
LW: And that’s what elicited that all day meeting and the 47 white binders of material and so on. But that was only the first volley. You know, there were well more than a thousand queries all told, and five checkers pouring over it. We all understood what was at risk, and we always try to get the stories right. Mistakes are often made no matter what you do, but we labored extra hard to try to get this article to be as correct as it possibly could be.
HH: Well, let me begin with a hat tip to David Remnick and the rest of your colleagues that you’re very gracious towards in your acknowledgements and in your afterlogue in this book, because it took a lot of effort and money for them to set you on this trail, and it’s produced a very important book. But I’m glad you took the time. I’m not surprised, but I’m glad you took the time to let everyone know how supportive they were in the course of doing this, because it is, it’s just an epic undertaking. That said, in the two minutes left in this segment, Lawrence Wright, let’s do the 30,000 view. How big is Scientology?
LW: Well, they say it’s between eight and ten million members. And yet polls that have been done about American religious affiliation find that only 25,000 Americans identify themselves as Scientologists, and former Scientology executives say that real Scientologists, or members of the International Association of Scientologists, and they say that only about 30,000 in the world. So the answer to your question, Hugh, is somewhere between 30,000 and ten million.
LW: And I tend to think that there are more Scientologists than 30,000 for sure, because I’m constantly impressed with the number of people who have come to me and tell me about family members they’ve lost into the Church, and the breaking up of families, the amount of damage that has been done, especially to families, is so extensive. And so I can’t really put a number on it, because the Church won’t ever be honest and open about its membership. But…
HH: And it has at least a billion dollars in liquid assets, and hundreds of millions more, if not billions more, in property. In fact, they just recently purchased my old television studios, KCET, where I co-hosted a nightly news show for a decade. So they are obviously not cash strapped right now. They keep buying some of the most expensive turf in the world.
LW: Yes, they do. It’s a hallmark, and of course they are, you know, a religion, and much of that property is tax exempt, so it becomes a really good investment for the Church.
HH: But you mentioned three tiers – public Scientologists, celebrities, and then the Sea Organization. I would add, would you think it’d be fair, a very, very inner circle at the very top of the organization, sort of a very small group of people?
LW: Well yeah, there is that executive strata, but the truth of the matter is, Hugh, there’s only one person that runs Scientology, and that’s David Miscavige, the head of the Church. And there are other officers, but he has essentially total control.
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HH: This is an American phenomenon, Scientology, that has now gone international, founded by L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology dates its founding to the publication of the book, Dianetics in 1950. It is now led by its second complete leader, David Miscavige. I think they call him, COB? Is that correct?
LW: That’s correct, yeah, chairman of the board.
HH: And so two men have run this organization for close to seven decades, and I’d like you to give us profiles of both of them if you could in this segment, a few minutes on L. Ron Hubbard, and a few minutes on David Miscavige.
LW: Well, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder, was born in Nebraska and raised in Montana. He was born in 1911. He was a very interesting figure, because there are two narratives in his life. And if you are a member of the Church of Scientology, the narrative goes that this is the most important man who ever lived. And he created a spiritual technology, not a faith, exactly, but a technology that can lead you to enlightenment. And he did this according to that narrative, because after World War II, he was left crippled, blinded and crippled from war injuries. And medicine was unable to heal him, so he healed himself using techniques that he later developed into Dianetics. Now there’s nothing to support his assertions in the medical record or in his war records. He was never injured in the war. He had conjunctivitis and ulcers. But that’s the extent of his injuries. But the legend is that he healed himself, and then he went out into the world and healed the world through Dianetic. People look at him and they say well, he must have been a con man, he must have been a fraud. Yet if he really was a fraud, or a con man, I think at some point, he would have taken the money and run. He never did that. He spent his whole life writing this extraordinary theology of Scientology, and outlining the bureaucracy that supports it, and constantly writing. I mean, as a writer, I have to say he holds the Guinness Book of World Records with more than a thousand books published.
HH: Oh, that’s remarkable. And you depict him at some points going into almost a trance as he wrote, almost…
LW: Yeah, it seems like he was doing something like automatic writing. And when…he came out of this pulp fiction mold. He wrote for these old pulp magazines in the 40s, 30s and 40s, and he would put in a roll of butcher paper into his typewriter, and then just type manically at a ferocious speed until he was finished with it, and then he’d take a T square and rip it off, send it to the publisher. He claimed to have written more than 100,000 words a month, more than a million a year. That’s an extraordinary output.
HH: And that automatic writing, when I was reading this closely, put me in mind of the tales of Mohammed producing the Koran, or Joseph Smith producing the Book of Mormon. And you also make an analogy in this book that David Miscavige is to L. Ron Hubbard as Paul was to Jesus, or Brigham Young was to Joseph Smith. Now there are reasons why we can argue about that for a long time, but explain a little bit about Miscavige’s relationship to L. Ron Hubbard, and who he is, and how he has run the Church.
LW: Well, David Miscavige joined the Church as a young teenager, and became a member of the clergy when he was 16 years old, dropping out of high school. And one of the major differences between the two men, Hubbard and Miscavige, is that Miscavige was raised in Scientology. People like to, a lot of Scientologists like to say that Miscavige took Scientology away from the original vision of the founder. But he’s as much a product of Scientology as a person who influenced it. To extend the analogy to Brigham Young, Scientology wouldn’t exist right now if it weren’t for the way Miscavige went about getting a tax exemption for the Church. And in 1993, Hubbard had decided before he died that the Church wouldn’t pay taxes. So by 1993, the Church owed a billion dollars in back taxes. And it faced, it didn’t have a billion dollars, so it just faced extinction. And so they had to get this exemption. And the way that David Miscavige went about it was to launch more than 2,300 lawsuits against the IRS and individual agents, hiring private detectives to follow agents around at conventions to see who was drinking too much, or fooling around on the road. And whatever distinctions the IRS makes about what is a cult and what is a religion, and it’s an organization poorly suited to make distinctions like that, but part of the deal was that those lawsuits would be dropped, and the private investigators called off. And so in 1993, Scientology was granted the status of being a religion, and then afforded all the vast protections that the 1st Amendment of the Constitution allows to religious organizations.
HH: So Hubbard and Miscavige are extraordinarily charismatic and authoritarian figures, and we’ll come back to the IRS investigation and a couple of other things. But I want to go back to the founding narrative, because, by the way, in your meeting with the Scientology team at the offices of the New Yorker, was that tape recorded?
LW: Oh, yeah.
HH: Because there’s a quote in here where Tommy Davis, their international spokesman, says to you, if Hubbard had not been injured, then, “The injuries from the war that he had handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handles, because they were injuries that never existed. Therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie. Therefore, Scientology is based on a lie. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.” I may have got some of those quotes a little bit wrong, but…
HH: So he, it all goes back to the war record of L. Ron Hubbard by admission of their spokesperson.
LW: Yeah, and that, you know, when he said that, I think everybody in that room on the New Yorker side of the table, our eyebrows went up, because that’s a testable hypothesis.
LW: So when Tommy laid it out like that, the truth is, we had already filed a Freedom of Information request to the military archives in St. Louis, but we were on deadline and so on, but to make sure we got those, what were 900 pages of his military record, to make sure that, well, to respond to Tommy’s statement. And I think the record is very clear.
HH: That he did not have the military record that he said, nor sustained the injuries that he attributed to Dianetics curing.
LW: No, and it’s, you know, he was embarrassed about his war record. In more candid observations elsewhere, he admits he had a terrible war. In the record, there are several embarrassing incidents where he spent, he was the captain of a little sub chaser, and off the coast of the U.S., the Pacific Coast. He thought that he ran into a Japanese submarine, and spent a day and a night dropping all the explosives they had on what turned out to be a log, apparently. And then later, he took a little gunnery practice on Mexico…
HH: I know, it’s a pretty astonishing episode.
LW: And it turned out to be an ally, and maybe a mistake. So his war record was not, was blemished.
HH: I’ll be right back with Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear.
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HH: In the second hour, we will focus more on the Church and its modern manifestations with Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and the other stories with which you might be familiar. But to get us there in this and the next two quick segments, I want to get us from 1950 to when David Miscavige takes over for L. Ron Hubbard. But in those immediate years after the war, Lawrence, he involved himself with what you call, “A galaxy of occultists. His son, Nibs Hubbard, who’s estrange from him, tells you, “What a lot of people don’t realize is that Scientology is black magic just spread out over a long period of time. Black magic is the inner core of Scientology, and it is probably the only part of Scientology that really works.” What is Nibs Hubbard talking about there?
LW: Well, after the war, Hubbard had a house trailer, and he drove down to Southern California, and became involved with a black magic circle led by one of the most intriguing people named Jack Parsons. Parsons was head of this lab that became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at UCLA, and he was also the head of this OTO, which was an organization that based its beliefs on the teaching of Aleister Crowley, this British kind of a black magic figure or sexual magic, as Aleister Crowley talked about it. And Parsons had access to a fair amount of money, bought a mansion in Pasadena, had a sixteen car garage. So he started advertising for tenants, and must not believe in God was part of the, in the ad. And he wanted esoteric figures – bohemians, artists, singers, and so on, and he got them. A lot of very odd people moved into this mansion and followed the teachings of Crowley. And then L. Ron Hubbard shows up. It was actually Robert Heinlein, his good friend, another science fiction writer, who introduced him to this circle. This became a very influential part of Hubbard’s experience, because the way that Parsons taught this was this is a religion. This is a way that people can change their lives. And I think that reading Crowley, and coming under the sway of what was a very charismatic figure in Jack Parsons, Hubbard really began to think thoughts about what he could do in the future.
HH: Oh, it’s just creepy, actually. And then he launches on, this is the thing I kept trying in my notes for the interview, Lawrence Wright, to chart where he lived. He went off on like Ricochet Rabbit around the country. He lived in, what, Wichita, Kansas, Queens, Florida, California, Gilman Springs, Washington, D.C., London, at sea…
LW: Right, Savannah, Georgia, yeah.
HH: From that time forward, he was just an endless rolling stone from that time of Parsons later.
LW: He was…it’s true, he was constantly on the move. And it’s interesting to wonder exactly what motivated those moves. A lot of them, I think he was just a restless figure, and he was looking for, well, you know, for instance, he ran off with Jack Parson’s girlfriend, and so there was a need for him to get out of town. Later, when he went to sea, I think the fact that he’d been made unwelcome in a number of countries, and it was under indictment in France, and so he decided that he just needed to make himself scarce and hard to find.
HH: Oh, it’s just bizarre. Now I want to make sure we anchor the dates as well. The Dianetics comes out in 1950. When did Hubbard invent the E-meter on which so much depends?
LW: Well, that came…after Dianetics, Hubbard made a lot of money. It was a huge phenomenon in this country, Hugh. There were Dianetics clubs everywhere. And then he lost that money. He even lost control of the name Dianetics. And so in 1954, he created the Church of Scientology, and by that time, one of his followers had come up with the E-meter.
HH: And that, from that comes an endless cycle of books, E-meters auditing and money, such as when we come back, it launches an international effort to, it spreads across the globe, and he goes to sea in a fleet of ships. And we’ll tell you about the story of that when we come back.
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HH: In this segment, Lawrence, I want to talk a little bit about Scientology and governments. I am a big free exercise fellow. I do not like government control of or supervision of religion. I believe strongly in allowing people, you know, if it’s of the Lord, it’s going to be proven true. If it’s not, it’s not going to work out. And as a very orthodox Christian, I’ve always thought that’s the way government should stay far away from these things. And you have quite a book within a book here on the history of new religious movements in the United States, and indeed around the globe, especially those have gone very, very badly wrong. But explain to the audience, you know, the IRS began its audit in ’63. The Australian government all but declared Hubbard and his people criminals, the German government has waged an ongoing campaign against Scientology. This is not really what happens to most religions. I’m not a fan of this, but explain to people why it happened.
LW: Well, it’s not the beliefs that set governments ajar. It was the practices of the Church. And that continues to be a problem for the Church. I mean, lots of religions have esoteric or bizarre beliefs. And that’s fine. In fact, I think irrational beliefs are the very nature of religion, and it’s what separates the religious community from the wider society. It’s the beliefs, not the language or the race or whatever. So there’s nothing wrong with what people choose to believe. In Scientology, however, there are some practices that are, I think, arouse the interest of the government, and of course, of investigative reporters like me. And in particular, when I was working on the New Yorker story, I came across an FBI investigation. They were looking into the abuse of, the physical abuse, of upper level executives of the Church by the leader, and also involuntary confinement. There are these reeducation camps that the Church maintains, especially one on their 500 acre compound in a desert in Southern California, where most of the top level executives have been confined, some of them for years, like the president of the Church is a nominal post. But his name is Heber Jentzsch. He was confined in what was, he said, a double wide trailer for seven years.
HH: You mention on Page 282, Valeska Paris, “She was held against her will for twelve years at sea.” I made a note and I said libel per se unless you can back that one up. Did your lawyers say to you Lawrence, that’s risky to say held against their will for twelve years?
LW: Well, this is her own statement. And she’s been on television and defending this statement.
HH: Okay, so why haven’t they been prosecuted? I mean, if they are, that’s, I wrote down blackmail, allegations of kidnapping…
HH: Child labor, human trafficking…
LW: Well, there was a trial, or there was a case in Colorado brought by two former members of the clergy, Mark and Claire Headley, who were protesting the fact that they were working for essentially slave labor since they were children when they joined the organization. And they had been prevented from leaving. They actually had to escape, as many have had to escape from this compound. And so they were claiming that this violated human trafficking laws. And that indeed was the nature of the FBI investigation. But the court ruled that these practices were protected by the Constitution, by the 1st Amendment of religious guarantees. And so when that happened, the FBI dropped its investigation.
HH: You see, I’m familiar with the Tony and Susan Alamo foundation litigation, again from my 1st Amendment work. And so I don’t understand why the IRS abandoned this. If half of this is true, then the IRS has criminally failed the United States. And if it’s not true, they ought never to have begun this in the first place.
LW: Well, I wonder, you know, Miscavige described the relationship with the IRS as war. And the IRS lost that war. I don’t know if they’ve got the stomach to go back to war with Scientology and its billion dollar war chest.
HH: That’s just amazing. I mean, it really left me unsettled that they began it, and that they ended it this way. Good reporting, by the way, fascinating stuff. Now it’s not just the United States government. I mentioned Germany and Australia. But they also, L. Ron Hubbard pulls into Morocco in the middle of a coup. That’s a bizarre…everything in this book is bizarre.
LW: Everything…it’s such an amazing story. The nice thing about the fact that the Church has been so intimidating to a lot of other reporters, perhaps, is that the story was still there to be told. It’s not that others haven’t told wonderful, you know, stories about Scientology, but it’s, as a religion, it’s underreported and underexplored by academics. And I’ve written about a lot of different religions. I’ve written about the Mormons and the Amish, and of course radical Islam and a number of them. And my shelves are full of books about these different religious organizations. But the literature on Scientology was pretty impoverished. And so that seemed to me to be a great opportunity to go find out more about what is really a very poorly understood organization.
HH: And so much will surprise even omnivores. I’ve read all of Robert Kaplan’s work, and he’s covered King Hassan a lot, and a lot about Morocco. So how I missed the coup with Ron Hubbard in the tent with the jets strafing them, I don’t know. But you’re right. There’s a lot here that no one will have ever seen before. What was the most surprising story, just sort of anecdote in the course of doing your work on this?
LW: I guess the thing that upset me the most was the exploitation of children who were recruited into the Sea Organization.
LW: …their clergy, at alarmingly young ages. And there was this young man named Daniel Montavo, who joined when he was 11, and then was sent when he was still a young teenager to Clearwater, Florida, which is where they maintain their spiritual headquarters. And one of his first jobs was to clean out the asbestos from the old hotel they bought there. And he says he got no protective equipment. One of his tasks while he was there was to serve as a page for Tom Cruise, who was getting some upper level training. And he wasn’t the only child around these quarters. And I often wondered if Mr. Cruise looked at these kids and wondered why they weren’t in school, and where their parents are.
HH: More on that when we come back from break.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, it’s a short segment, so I thought I would use it as sort of a stand in for this category of person, Paulette Cooper, either the first of the persecuted, or the first of the apostates, depending on whether you’re outside of the Church or inside of the Church. Take a couple of minutes and tell people about Paulette Cooper and what happened to her.
LW: Paulette Cooper, to begin with, a Holocaust survivor, who was, got interested as a reporter when she was a young woman in the Church of Scientology. This is in the 70s, one of the very first exposes of the Church. And she wrote the book called The Scandal Of Scientology. The Church tried to frame her, in fact, actually successfully did frame her. A woman posing as Paulette made threats against President Gerald Ford, and then another occasion, the Church of Scientology went to the FBI with what they said were bomb threats, that she had sent them, and then had her fingerprint on them.
HH: But she was indicted. She was actually indicted.
LW: She was indicted.
HH: So when I read that, I thought to myself, she must actually be guilty of these things.
LW: Well, you know, it wasn’t until 1977 when the FBI conducted a raid on Scientology headquarters, and they found a file called Operation Freakout, which the Church described its efforts to get Paulette Cooper either incarcerated, imprisoned or committed to a mental institution. And all of these, you know, the harassment, the following, the hiring of private investigators to follow her, and Paulette even thinks that there was one person she says that was assigned to be her friend, and she actually thinks that he was planning to kill her. This is a horrible, horrible incident. You know, there were moments when she thought of killing herself. She felt like she was losing her mind.
HH: Did the United States government ever apologize to her for indicting her?
LW: Oh, I don’t think so. I mean, you know, what happened is that she begged for a lie detector or truth serum, and the government said we don’t do that. So she went on her own to a doctor who gave her truth serum, and then gave the report to the FBI. And that really did arrest their attention that she had passed this test, and she had taken it voluntarily. So they backed off. They didn’t proceed on the trial, and then suddenly, you know, they had that FBI raid in 1977. So everything came to a halt.
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HH: In this hour, I want to focus on the Hollywood part of the story, Lawrence Wright, and I must say, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing celebrities. And of all the people whose names roll through this book as having had at least a dalliance with Scientology, the one that I have interviewed that I’m most surprised by is Oliver Stone, who you could never have persuaded me after spending an hour with him a few years ago, that he would have had anything to do with Scientology.
LW: Well, he said it was mainly the girls that drew him into the Church, and in that case, it’s a believable…
HH: Yeah, but explain, as you say on Page 138, “L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, had the cultivation of famous people, or people who aspired to be famous, was a feature of Hubbard’s grand design” Unpack that for the audience.
LW: First of all, he started the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles. He began it at the Celebrity Center in Hollywood. And early on in the Church’s career, the goal was to recruit celebrities into the Church. There was a magazine, a Scientology magazine, with a list of prospective Scientology spokespeople to be recruited. And they included Bob Hope and Howard Hughes, Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney. I mean, these were some of the most famous people in the world. Some notable people did join, like Gloria Swanson, who was a star of silent movies, and Rock Hudson actually walked into the Church for a little while. And there were a number of different…Steven Boyd, an actor, and at that level, they never got that big fish at that point that they wanted. But the goal was to take over Hollywood and cultivate young people who were coming into Hollywood to try to make a career as a movie star. And I guess the first of the big fishes they landed was John Travolta, who was not a big fish at the time. He was, when he was making his first movie in Mexico, an actress gave him a copy of Dianetics and did some counseling, some Scientology counseling on him. And he had the experience that many people report in Scientology of having, of leaving his body, of having what they say inside Scientology as going exterior. And then he came back to L.A. and was in a Scientology class, and told the teacher that he was trying out for this role on Welcome Back, Kotter. And so the teacher had everyone in the classroom orient themselves towards ABC studios, and telepathically send the message that John Travolta is right for the part. And he got the part. So he always attributed Scientology with putting him in the big time, as he says.
HH: And then what followed on was what you say is, “The whispered assertion that a network of Scientologist existed at upper levels of the entertainment industry eager to advance like-minded believers.” And that wasn’t without foundation. I do not know much about Milton Katselas. I might not even pronounce his name correctly. But he was a legendary acting coach and a Scientologist to whom people could turn for advancement and honest to goodness dedication to their lives and their professional careers that did speak to this sort of a network, didn’t it?
LW: Right, yes it did, and I’m glad you put your finger on Milton. Milton Katselas was a legendary figure in Hollywood, you know, lots and lots of great stars got their start in Milton’s class. But he was a dedicated Scientologist. And Scientologists pretty much ran his operation, and they would steer people into courses at the Celebrity Center in order to, and Milton got 10% of whatever they paid to the Church, so he had a high incentive to do this. But a lot of the Scientologists, the acting Scientologists that you know of, went through that course and found Scientology through Milton. Anne Archer, for instance, Jenna Elfman, a number of people that you associate with Scientology, got their first taste of it in Milton’s class.
HH: So what does the Church do for actors? Or was it Milton doing it for them, and then they confused his training with Scientology’s input? Or what does Scientology do that it does make so many people in Hollywood successful?
LW: Well, let’s look at the kids that are going to Hollywood, often times just like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, they drop out of school, they’re not very well educated. It’s a young person’s game. So a lot of these people go to Hollywood when they’re really young in order to try to make it. And they feel insecure. And they’re in a town where there are thousands of other people just like them with the same burning ambition, and trying to get the attention of anybody is hard. And here is the Church of Scientology. If you are a young wannabe actor, you’ll probably go on Wednesday afternoons to Central Casting, which is a real place. And it’s where aspiring actors sign up to be extras in movies and TV shows. And Scientologists will be walking up and down the line passing out brochures, saying how to get ahead in the industry, how to find an agent, and come to the Celebrity Center. We’ll help you. So here are all these young people finally getting someone who pays attention to them, and then they look at the people that are in Scientology, you know, just to talk about Travolta and Cruise and Will Smith, who says he’s not a Scientologist, but he has created a school based on L. Ron Hubbard’s educational techniques. Each of these men at one point in their lives was the number one box office star in the world. And that’s very compelling to young people who want to follow in that tradition.
HH: And also, writing credits. Paul Haggis had, I mean, he did Crash, he did the boxing movie with Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby.
HH: He’s obviously, I’ve never, I don’t think many people will instantly recognize his name who are not in the business, but they have lots and lots of successful people. So is there something they’re offering in the courses, in addition to sheer numbers, that is producing an edge in Hollywood?
LW: I think a lot of people have been helped by Scientology. I don’t want to give the image that it’s, that everything Scientology does is bad. Many people have told me that they got something out of their experience. And others, like Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, still credits Scientology communications course that he took with helping him with his stand up comedy. A lot of times, if you go into a Scientology church, they will ask you what is ruining your life, what is standing in the way of your professional or your economic, spiritual goals? And everybody has something that they’d like to improve, and Scientology has a menu of courses that are designed to help people figure out these things. And they have a form of therapy. And many people find that healthy.
HH: Let’s, before this segment is over as well, give the short history of how Tom Cruise, probably the most famous Scientologist ever, came to be in the Church.
LW: Well, he married Mimi Rogers, whose parents had been, they were long time Scientologists. And Mimi had, she was actually Kirstie Alley’s roommate, but she had a center, a kind of a Scientology counseling center, that she and her former husband ran. And so for several years, Cruise secretly took auditing, and the head of the Church didn’t actually know that Tom Cruise was a Scientologist. And when he found out, one of the first orders of business was to get him out of Mimi’s hands.
HH: And so his relationship developed to the point that in his second marriage, Paul Miscavige, the successor to L. Ron Hubbard, is his best man.
LW: Yeah, in fact, in the next two marriages, David Miscavige was Tom Cruise’s best man.
HH: And so at this point today in 2013, is his relationship with the Church as strong as it ever has been?
LW: Let’s say there have been periods in his life where, in Cruise’s life, where he’s put distance between himself and the Church. And this time in his life right now is a very difficult one. You know, he’s just had another divorce, he’s trying to maintain his relationship, no doubt, with his child. It’s pretty apparent to nearly everyone, I think, that Scientology was an issue in his marriage. So…but he’s made statements recently that reaffirm his commitment to the Church. It’s difficult for someone like Tom Cruise to walk away from Scientology even if he was inclined to because of all the statements he’s made in favor of the Church, and yet, honestly, Hugh, I think he bears a certain moral responsibility to examine the product that he’s been selling so conspicuously for so many decades.
HH: Oh, that’s very clear from your book, on Page 361. “No one bears a greater moral responsibility for Scientology than Tom Cruise.” I’m sure he’s read this book a couple of times, and that line has to stick out to him.
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HH: Lawrence, I don’t think I’ve recommended any book more in the last many years than The Looming Tower. In fact, I won’t engage in serious conversations with other journalists about the War on Terror unless they’ve read it, because I think it’s just indicative of knowing the basics. There is a paragraph on Page 207 in Going Clear that’s going to get that status, and it reads this way. “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 the 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 feelings of mortality, and the sense that the quality of material world that surrounds you reflects upon your own value, and therefore everything must be made perfect.” Wow, that’s a paragraph. How long does, how long have you been thinking about celebrity, which is a subject within the subject of Scientology?
LW: Yeah, you know, celebrity is a fascinating phenomenon. I guess it’s true of most other cultures, but in America, you know, celebrity is so important, and I think one of the brilliant insights of L. Ron Hubbard is that celebrity is a kind of religion. We can compare American celebrities with British royalty and so on, but in some respects, they stand in as kind of minor deities. And that was, I think, very much in Hubbard’s mind when he decided to start his church in Los Angeles.
HH: The reason I focus on this is that one of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, said Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important. And I was thinking that no one can really take seriously the eschatology of L. Ron Hubbard, which I’ll have you describe in a second, in fact, I heard you interviewed by my friend, Michael Medved, and you spent some lighthearted moments talking about it. But there’s got to be something at the center of it that is true to attract people, and I think it’s this, they understand the religion of celebrity.
LW: Yeah, I think that, you know, it’s…part of the appeal of Scientology has always been that we manufacture success. We will help you get ahead, and in many different ways, but obviously professionally, if you’re in the entertainment business, Scientology is a big feature there. And it’s a cultural fit. You know, if you’re going to be, try to be a movie star in Hollywood, probably you’re not going to be a member of, like, a Pentecostal Church. It’s culturally a bad fit. You know, but Scientology deliberately aims to be a good fit for people who have those kinds of aspirations. And it’s not surprising that people feel more comfortable being around other people with similar goals.
HH: Can you in a nutshell, to contrast it with that, describe the higher doctrine, if we want to call it that, that L. Ron Hubbard revealed to the faithful?
LW: It was, there are several different levels of spiritual attainment inside Scientology. And when you get to the level that’s called OT-3, it means operating thetan level 3, and that’s a rung on the ladder of Scientology, in that level is revealed what was the closest, most closely guarded secret of Scientology, which is that the universe was created four quadrillion years, and that 75 million years ago, a galactic overlord named Xenu had decided that the galaxy was overpopulated, and it was a galaxy very similar to the one that L. Ron Hubbard was writing in at the time. So Xenu brought in surplus people, and ostensibly for a tax audit, and had them frozen and then placed into spaceships that resembled DC-3’s and taken to Teegeeack, the prison planet, which is Earth, and dropped into volcanoes. And then on top of that were atomic bombs dropped into the volcanoes, and the spirits were exploded and went out into the atmosphere, and then netted, or caught in a net, and then reeled back in and subjected to several days of watching on a screen, like a movie screen, visions of modern life like contemporary England, images of the Church, of Jesus and so on, so that all these implants, as he describes it, became a part of our lives. And that’s, you know, it’s bizarre. It’s science fiction, as Hubbard himself describes it, space opera. And yet there are a lot of religions that have very bizarre beliefs. And so Scientology has been singled out and ridiculed on South Park and on the internet, because these things, all these secret beliefs got out in the courtroom in the middle 80s. And since then, Scientology lost control of what was really very important to it, which was its secret messages.
HH: Yeah, David Mamet wrote the book, The Secret Knowledge, at the end of which he says the secret knowledge is that there is no secret knowledge. And that’s very important to understand. But what happens when Scientologists hear their secret knowledge pushed out over the internet and broadcast to the world, and recorded in detail in books like Going Clear? Does it shatter belief?
LW: I’m sure that Scientology has suffered terribly since their beliefs became part of the popular culture. And I think that fewer people joined the Church because of it. But bear in mind, Scientologists are strongly discouraged from looking at any material that criticizes the Church. Very few Scientologists will read my book, I think, because the Church is so strict and so aggressive in trying to prevent people from exposing themselves to criticisms of the Church that might bring into doubt their relationship.
HH: That was breathtaking when Paul Haggis revealed he had never under…you know, I’m constantly reading about Christianity. I’m intrigued by my theology. And Paul Haggis never did that.
LW: Well, eventually he became the one who did. That was…but you know, one of the things I love about the fact that I was able to talk to Paul is I wanted somebody that the reader could identify with.
LW: People are always saying you know, how can intelligent people believe that kind of stuff? Well, you know, intelligent people believe many different things. But here is Paul Haggis, two time Academy Award winning writer and director, who very intelligent, very skeptical, very knowledgeable man, and yet for 34 years, he was a member of this Church, and never looked at…there was plenty of news about Scientology. And all the stuff about the abuse at the top and so on has been published elsewhere many times. He had never looked at that. He…because the Church says, they call it an inturbulating influence, Scientology speak, and they actually encouraged members at one time to put these monitors, sort of computer nannies, on their computers to block…
HH: Oh, it’s a world of voluntary seclusion from the internet.
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HH: You mentioned as we were going to break, Lawrence, speaking Scientology, I’m telling you, I had, you know, PTS – potential trouble source, SP – suppressive person, EPF – estates project farm or something, FLAG, Gold base, Happy Valley, golly this took a while. You had to kind of get a second language down, I assume.
LW: It’s true, and there’s…Hubbard was very inventive in language, and he was constantly coming up with new words that didn’t necessarily describe new concepts. But they created a kind of Scientology speak that made it difficult for people inside the Church to communicate what they were saying to people outside of it. And people who have left Scientology, if they’ve spent their lives in it, they, it takes them a while to catch up with what is regular English and what is Scientology.
HH: Now has Scientology entered a third phase, from persecuted to normalcy? Or is it remaining the persecuted and the quickly into court, and the hyper-vigilant, hyper-aggressive, strike back at apostates and investigators?
LW: Well, it’s still very, very hostile to defectors and critics. But I think Scientology is at a turning point. And there’s going to be a reckoning, I feel. All this, these allegations of abuse and involuntary confinement, the stress that’s place on families that are made to, as the Church terms, disconnect from people that don’t believe in Scientology? These things are creating a tremendous amount of turmoil. And I know the Church has a lot of money. And it has certainly got a lot of lawyers. But it is, I think, hemorrhaging members, and it’s not going to exist if it cannot come to terms with what’s going on inside the organization right now.
HH: One of the things that may help it is the fact that its war on psychiatry, which predates a great deal of the current backlash against psychotropic drugs, does feather in. Tom Cruise’s two famous exchanges with Matt Lauer, which you detail in this book, there are a lot of people who have nothing to do with Scientology, who are deeply concerned with the pharmalogicalization of youth. Does that help give them cover?
LW: Oh, sure, it does. And I think, you know, there are a lot of…I have a lot of mixes feelings about some of these drugs. No one can read the studies of how many kids are on Ritalin and so on, and without becoming concerned that we are overmedicating especially our young kids. And so the Church has a point. But the origin of the hostile stance towards psychology and psychiatry inside the Church actually comes from 1950 when L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics, and he sent it to the, sent the manuscript out to the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations hoping that they would acclaim it as a work of genius. And they looked at it as just psychological folk art. They couldn’t make heads or tails of it. And it really became an object of derision. He never forgave that, and ever after, psychiatry became the chief enemy in the universe. It’s responsible for all the ills that plague humanity, from racism to genocide to terrorism, everything you can imagine is the fault of psychiatry.
HH: That comes through in the book. Now objectively, does Narc Anon work, their anti-drug treatment?
LW: Narc Anon is having a lot of trouble right now, because they’ve had a number of deaths at their facilities. The theory behind Hubbard’s drug treatment program is that these drugs get into our cells, and they need to be purged. And his approach is to put people who have had drug experiences in saunas for five to eight hours a day interspersed with exercise and massive doses of niacin, which causes a kind of flushing feeling in your skin. And you, the sensation is that you’re purging your body of these toxins. Kelly Preston is, has been a spokesperson for this in the past, and she said that she had a sunburn that she got when she was a 12 year old girl in Hawaii. She had a bathing suit that had little circles cut out of it. And she saw the sunburn coming back and being purged. So people have sensations such as that.
HH: And…but this is, any kind of medical support for it at all? Or is it correlation is not causation, but if you simply go away from the drugs long enough, you’re off the drugs?
LW: There’s no medical support for the purification run down.
HH: All right, that’s what I wanted to make sure, because I couldn’t quite figure that out.
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HH: Wrapping up a couple of hours with Lawrence Wright about his amazing new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood And The Prison Of Belief. Lawrence, before I forget, I wanted to ask you. Do you believe anything? Are you a religious observer?
LW: No, not now. I was a very religious teenager in Dallas, and went away from that, although I’ve always been fascinated by the power of belief in people’s lives for good or ill. And as a reporter, I’ve covered many different religions, and also just been involved in societies or situations where religion played a powerful role. And I think honestly, it’s far more important in people’s lives and shaping people’s lives than politics is.
HH: Now towards the end of the book when you talk about your initial reportorial assignment among the Amish, I began to ask myself, because I spent a lot of time talking to atheists and varieties of religious…I even put out an e-book called Talking With Pagans, about my conversations with Dawkins and Hitchens and Sam Harris and the rest of them. But I couldn’t peg you. I had never asked you before. Were you a Protestant? Or were you a Catholic?
LW: I was a Methodist in Dallas, Texas, and the church itself was not so strident, but I was a part, I got involved in a religious youth group in high school, and became very involved in that. But religion lost its grip on me personally, and…
HH: And when did that happen, in college?
LW: Yeah, in college.
HH: Interesting. Now there’s a lot of religious history here, as I mentioned earlier. You’ve got Heaven’s Gate and Hale-Bopp, you’ve got the Aum sect in Japan, People’s Temple, Branch Davidian, the Order of the Scholar, I mean, there’s a lot of the bad stuff here. But generally speaking, as you stand back from 30,000 feet, and putting aside the abhorrent and the unusual sects and all that, is religion good or bad for the planet?
LW: Well, that’s a really difficult question to answer. You know, I was just looking at the paper yesterday, and thinking about how much of the strife in the world right now has religion behind it, you know, the bombing in Pakistan of Shiite funeral yesterday, and then the Catholic Church is embroiled in all this cover up of sexual abuse on the part of priests. Just thinking at the front page of the paper, and you cannot help but be struck by the fact that religion causes harm. And yet, you see so much in the world, it’s religious people who reach out in times of crisis, and actually make a difference.
HH: And then you look at communism and the 60 million dead, or you look at North Korea, or any of the authoritarian regimes that are secular in origin. That’s why I’m wondering if on balance, and I’m a Christian, and I believe it is true, but on balance, even to someone who isn’t a believer as you are, don’t they have a much less bloody record than the communists?
LW: That’s not a very appealing comparison, Hugh.
HH: No, no, I’m just trying to say in the popular culture, the campaign against faith is omnipresent. And I look at…
LW: I just, yeah, I think that religion can do good or can do harm, as any profound believe can shape people into different people. And one of the things I’m fascinated by is how good people, and I think most of the people who go into Scientology do so because out of the goodness of their heart, and they want to solve problems in their life and help humanity. But what’s fascinating is how that impulse to do good, and to think for yourself, can then be subverted. And then what comes out of it is not good sometimes. That’s, it’s that turning point that I find so fascinating, because it still gets to the question of why do people believe that, and why do they do that in the name of their religion and so on. The question is what, to me, is when do they turn, and how did that happen.
HH: And here’s the big question. As we talk, the Cardinals are assembling in Rome to go into their conclave to select the leader of the biggest, and by the way, the conversation with Frank Flynn in here is fascinating as to…before you start throwing stones, take a look at the world’s oldest and most famous religion and how it runs…
HH: And I’m Catholic, so I get it. But what would you hope they look for in a leader of the most powerful, influential church on the planet, given your study of religion and all that it does bad, and all the good people who go into it, and all that it might achieve? Who do you want to see wearing the slippers of St. Peter at the end of this?
LW: Well, I’m not a Catholic, but I think one of the reasons the Pope resigned is that it’s difficult for the Church to regain its balance with all these sexual abuse cover ups without having a different face at the top. And it should be somebody fresh. And I think Catholicism is in a crisis moment in itself. And it’s going to need to have a different approach. I think reexamining priesthood is something that Gary Wills is talking about. I think that’s a very interesting subject. And making it more of a laity organization than it is now, that might be a way of salvaging, especially in areas where like in the U.S. it’s very hard to find priests.
HH: You see, I go back at the end of Scientology, at the end of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood And The Prison Of Belief, thinking that anything that is not transparent is a big alarm, that people ought to be very worried about secret knowledge.
LW: Yeah, I think that’s a very good lesson to draw. When you put a curtain over your behavior, there’s a tremendous danger in committing actions and then hiding them that you don’t want the public to see.
HH: So the next pontiff, if he is transparent and open, and even to the…if you believe something to be true, for example, as I believe that the priesthood is supposed to be male and that that is ordained by Church teaching, that you ought to defend it at length. If you’re going to defend the unborn, you ought to do it at length, but in the open, Lawrence Wright. And I think Going Clear is a great testament to dangers of, the sinister nature of anyone who does not want to answer questions without binders and binders and binders of facts. What are you doing next?
LW: This is a question, Hugh. I’m looking right now. To me, the big mystery of creation is not process, and there are all these workshops on process and how to write and so on. The mystery is what do you want to devote your life to. And every time I finish a book or a major project, it’s the same as having lost my job.
HH: Oh, I hope the New Yorker puts you on a plane to the Vatican tomorrow.
LW: I actually have been thinking about that.
HH: Oh, I think you ought to go. If you go, call us and tell us what you find out. Congratulations, Lawrence Wright, on another amazing book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood And The Prison Of Belief. I’ll be right back.
End of interview.