article

06.28.09

Is Scientology's Wall Cracking?

Several recent high-profile Scientology defections have led some to wonder whether one of the Church’s most visible members, John Travolta, may be next. Kim Masters reports.

Several recent high-profile Scientology defections have led some to wonder whether one of the church’s most visible members, John Travolta, may be next. Kim Masters reports.

The St. Petersburg Times ran an extraordinary three-part series on Scientology last week featuring interviews with some very high-level defectors. Among the claims: that 49-year-old Scientology leader David Miscavige, a close associate of the church’s biggest star Tom Cruise, dished out constant physical abuse to his associates.

One of the key sources in the articles, Mike Rinder, was assigned to deal with me when I wrote a 2005 magazine article about Cruise. A fallen-away Rinder speaking on the record is a big get, as any journalist who has covered Scientology knows. Marty Rathbun is a big name in Scientology circles, too. Both were high-ranking members of the Sea Organization, Scientology’s upper-level staff. Sea Org members commit to the job for one billion years (with breaks provided to accommodate childhood at the beginning of each new incarnation). They live in dorms and are not permitted to have children.

“Celebrities only talk to people who have a certain level of ‘clearance,’ ” says Nancy Many, an ex-Scientologist who served as president of the group’s Celebrity Centre. “The Scientology they get is not the Scientology that an ordinary person gets.”

Rinder says he endured dozens of beatings; he and Rathbun say they inflicted some, too, under orders from Miscavige. The articles say Miscavige exerts such influence that “managers follow his orders, however bizarre, with lemming-like obedience.” Rathbun now says he ordered the destruction of evidence after a member's death brought on investigations and litigation. He also was involved in one of Scientology’s biggest coups: getting the IRS to grant the group tax-exempt status.

Needless to say, the Church of Scientology vehemently denies the allegations in the series and portrays those who made them as embittered apostates seeking to wrest control of the church from Miscavige. So Rinder is now denounced as an apostate; if memory serves me, he used that word repeatedly when attacking the credibility of former Scientologists who spoke in my article about Cruise.

None of the allegations against Miscavige is likely to reach the ears of many Scientologists, especially celebrity members and the Sea Org members, who are not supposed to own cellphones, watch television, or surf the Web. “That’s built into them from day one,” says Tory Christman, who spent 20 years in Scientology. “Don’t look at the entheta—it will ruin your bridge to total freedom.” (In Scientology parlance, good news is theta news; entheta is the opposite.)

“You’re basically placed in a bubble, exactly like in The Truman Show,” said another longtime church member, Michael Pattinson. “You never hear bad news.” (Pattinson said the church had told him it could “cure” him of homosexuality but after spending more than 20 years and laying out hundreds of thousands of dollars, he concluded that the treatment wasn’t working.)

While fallen-away Scientologists think Cruise is firmly inside that bubble, some former Scientologists nurse hopes that John Travolta may be getting restless. A few who knew him during their time as members hope that he will question Scientology’s opposition to the use of medication following the death of his son in January. (Sixteen-year-old Jett Travolta suffered from autism and his death has been ascribed to a seizure disorder. Former Scientologists—including Christman, who says she has epilepsy and paid a high price after going off her meds at Scientology’s urging—say the church does not recognize autism as a medical condition.) But Travolta’s publicist says the star is steadfast: “He’s very much part of the Church of Scientology. There’s no change there.”

If that commitment is resolute, say fallen-away members, it may be because Travolta’s Scientology is different from that experienced by regular folks. “Celebrities only talk to people who have a certain level of ‘clearance,’ ” says Nancy Many, an ex-Scientologist who served as president of the group’s Celebrity Centre. (“Clear” in Scientology refers to a trouble-free state that doesn’t come cheaply or easily.) She adds, “The Scientology they get is not the Scientology that an ordinary person gets. It is purposely kept away from them.”

Christman says Scientology works hard to ensure that celebrity members are protected from negative information. She worked as a volunteer on and off for 20 years in the church’s Office of Special Affairs. One of her duties, she says, was keeping bad news about Scientology from John Travolta (or “keeping entheta off his lines”). When anti-Scientology demonstrators turned up at Travolta’s appearances, for example, her job was to keep the critics away from the actor.

One of the gospels of the anti-Scientology movement is an affidavit that another fallen-away member of Scientology, Andre Tabayoyon, provided some years ago in a lawsuit involving the church. He spent 20 years in the Sea Org until he dropped out in 1992. He described his time working at the Scientology celebrity hangout known as Gold—a lavishly appointed 500-acre resort near the high-desert town of Hemet, about 90 miles from Los Angeles. Cruise has been a frequent visitor there and former Scientologists have described Miscavige’s determination to fulfill the star’s every wish.

Gold features a full-scale replica of a clipper ship. (Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard—“the Commodore”—had a passion for all things naval.) Inside the vessel are a sauna, Jacuzzi, and large pool. The facility also includes a recording studio, film and sound-editing facilities and a nine-hole golf course. Tabayoyon, who declined to talk about Scientology when I sought his comment, told dark tales of forced labor and stories of individuals being driven to psychotic episodes.

In Tabayoyon’s time, according to his affidavit, only Miscavige was permitted to speak to Cruise when he visited the facility. When a gardener spoke to the star once, the affidavit said, it caused “a major flap.”

Cruise may still have a certain level of remove, though he certainly seems aware at this point that his enthusiastic public embrace of Scientology has not endeared him to fans. But former Scientologists say that for many still on the inside, the church walls are not as thick as they used to be. These days, “you can sit in your dining room, click on a little link and read about [Scientology],” Christman says. “Everybody’s connected. Before, if you left, you had nobody. Now there’s an army of people saying, `Come on out—we’re having a great time!’ ”

Certainly when I first wrote about Scientology in the pre-Internet era, reaching former members was not easy. There was a great deal of fear among those who had left and a journalist had to go through intermediaries to be connected with people who would not give their real names or provide phone numbers. Now there numerous people like Christman and Many who speak openly.

“We’re finally standing up,” Many says. “Everybody’s got their YouTube or Twitter videos. It’s the Web sites, the computers, the Internet age. We’re talking and the air is being cleansed.”

Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.