From L. Ron Hubbard possibly forging his war documents to the church incarcerating hundreds of members in a pitch-black basement, here are the most startling revelations reported in Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
More Rastafarians Than Scientologists?
According to a former spokesperson for the church, there are only 30,000 members in an organization that church members are “forcefully encouraged” to join, the International Association of Scientologists. A survey called the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates only 25,000 Americans call themselves Scientologists. “That’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.” (The Church of Scientology claims 8 million members worldwide—supposedly the number of people who have donated to the church. A recent ad claims 4.4 million new members every year.) The church has $1 billion in liquid assets, and in terms of cash reserves this figure eclipses the holdings of most major world religions. It claims to own about 12 million square feet of property around the world, with 26 of them in Hollywood, valued at $400 million. At its headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., it owns 68 largely tax-exempt pieces of land worth $168 million. The Sea Org is the church’s clergy, a navylike core estimated at around 3,000 to 5,000 members. Most of them join when they’re children, rendering services with barely any pay.
Hubbard’s Hollywood Career
When he was 23, Hubbard married Margaret Louise Grubb, or Polly. To support his family, he began writing pulp fiction with tremendous speed and imagination. On New Year’s Day, 1938, he had a dental operation under gas anesthetic, and he believed the secrets of the universe were revealed to him, and he began to concentrate on writing science fiction. He also longed for fame as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but had no success despite a few attempts. “It is one thing to make that universe believable, and another to believe it. That is the difference between art and religion,” Wright writes.
Hubbard in the Navy
Before World War II, Hubbard received his Naval Reserve commission despite failing his physicals. He was pronounced “not satisfactory for independent duty assignment” and given a ship in Oregon, where he claimed to have picked up a Japanese submarine and fired on it. It was probably a log. A month after the invasion of Okinawa, he complained of stomach pains and was admitted to a naval hospital in Oakland. Hubbard claimed he was a war hero, blinded and made a cripple in battle, and he used the foundations of Dianetics to heal himself of his injuries. (There are no medical records of scars or wounds. The church has a Notice of Separation claiming Hubbard was awarded a Purple Heart with a Palm, but the Navy says it uses gold and silver stars, “NOT a palm.” Two of the medals he and the church claim he won weren’t created until after Hubbard left active service. There is an official Notice of Separation for Hubbard in the National Archives, but it is signed by one Howard D. Thompson, and an analyst at the archives said there was no such officer listed.)
The Origin of Dianetics
After the war, Hubbard abandoned Polly, and wedded 21-year-old Sara Northrup while still married to his first wife. He beat her often. Once while she was sleeping he hit her across the face with his pistol because she was smiling in her sleep—and therefore must have been thinking about someone else. He frequently threatened suicide. Then, in 1949, Hubbard finished his book Dianetics. One of the original self-help books, it shot up the bestsellers’ list, and made him rich and famous. Hubbard’s view of women in the book “betrays a kind of horror,” as he seemed to reserve the worst circle of hell for “attempted abortions done by some sex-blocked mother to whom children are a curse, not a blessing of God.” (His eldest son often charged his father of attempting two abortions on his mother, one being his premature birth. Sara says Hubbard, while he was writing Dianetics, kicked her stomach several times to attempt to cause a miscarriage. Hubbard also once told a lover that he himself was born from an attempted abortion.)
Hubbard’s Parenting Style
When Sara wanted to leave him, Hubbard and a man who might have carried a gun abducted their baby daughter, Alexis. Then they kidnapped Sara. He told her that if she tried to leave him, he’d kill Alexis, then later claimed he had killed the baby already—“cut her into little pieces and dropped the pieces in a river,” Sara said. In 1951, she filed for divorce, claiming Hubbard to be “hopelessly insane.” Polly wrote a letter of support, saying, “Ron is not normal.” Hubbard took the baby to Cuba and kept her in a crib with wire over the top of it. Later, Sara was able to trick Hubbard to get her child back, and she walked out of his life on “the happiest day of my life.”
How It All Started
“I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is,” Hubbard is reported to have said on a number of occasions. He called it the Church of Scientology, and established it in 1954. Hubbard claimed that 4 quadrillion years ago, at the origin of the universe, there were godlike spirits called thetans. But a tyrannical overlord named Xenu imprisoned the thetans and shipped the frozen bodies to Teegeeack, a planet now called Earth. He believed humans were thetans who could regain their immortality through climbing the stages of enlightenment set up by Scientology. He also began refitting ships and recruiting children for his Sea Org. He was 56 when he set sail in 1967 and wandered the high seas, getting kicked out of foreign ports. Hubbard claimed to be recovering treasures he buried in some of his past lives, and even went looking for a space station. It was during this time that he showed a select number of followers his “research” about thetans. After reading the Xenu story, some, like Hubbard’s son Quentin, threw up violently. (Quentin later told a church officer that, “Personally, I think my father’s crazy.” The next day he disappeared from the headquarters in Clearwater. A few days later he was found in Las Vegas, in a car with a vacuum tube that led from the exhaust through the passenger’s vent window. Two weeks later, on Nov. 12, 1976, he died in the hospital. Hubbard’s reaction was reportedly: “That little shit has done it to me again!”)
Celebrities Come Calling
By the 1970s, the church had moved its core operations to Los Angeles. As early as 1955, an editorial in a church-affiliated publication urged Scientologists to recruit celebrities. There wasn't much success, until the 1970s, when people like the actress Kirstie Alley and the screenwriter Paul Haggis became devotees. John Travolta began taking Scientology courses before his audition for the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter, and fellow students pointed in the direction of ABC Studios to telepathically communicate: “We want John Travolta for the part.” (He got the part.)
Travolta’s personal liaison and best friend at the church was a woman named Spanky Taylor, who would soon run afoul of the leadership of the church even as Travolta became a superstar with Saturday Night Fever. The church took away Taylor’s 10-month-old daughter and crammed her, along with 30 infants, in the Child Care Org, a small apartment with wall-to-wall cribs. “It was dark and dank and the children were rarely, if ever, taken outside,” Wright notes. Taylor was put into the pitch-black basement of Scientology’s new Advanced Org building in L.A., where about 120 to 200 people were huddled. They were serving time in the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF). In July 1977, the FBI raided the building. But despite federal laws against human trafficking and unlawful imprisonment, the agents just moved on. Much of the human-rights-abuse charges against Scientology would be related to the RPF. Just a few months earlier, one of the few black members of Sea Org, Jesse Prince, had said he’d had enough of the church, but before he could leave six people grabbed him and put him in the RPF—for 18 months. Few tried to escape, but Taylor managed to slip away to see her daughter across the street. “To her horror … the baby’s eyes were welded shut with mucus, and her diaper was wet—in fact, her whole crib was soaking. She was covered with fruit flies,” Wright writes. Taylor herself was again pregnant, and, stuck in a black basement, she feared she’d lose both of her babies. She managed to escape with her daughter with the help of Travolta’s assistant.
The Rise of Miscavige
David Miscavige was taught Dianetics as a child, and he claims it cured him of asthma. (Actually, he continued to be plagued by it.) When he was young he apparently suffered from asthma seizures that made him violent against anyone who touched him, and though short he is physically very strong. The ambitious young Miscavige rocketed up the church’s ladder and was Hubbard’s trusted enforcer by the 1980s. By this time Hubbard had disappeared from public view, living in a luxurious mobile home in California, dealing only with Miscavige, then 23, and Hubbard’s second in command, Pat Broeker. (Miscavige ordered that $1 million be transferred to Hubbard ever week.)
Miscavige Takes Control
Hubbard died on Jan. 24, 1986. (Miscavige and the church say Hubbard did not die but “moved on to the next level … L. Ron Hubbard discarded the body he had used.”) Hubbard’s former chef remembered seeing Broeker and Miscavige ecstatic after the death. Soon, Miscavige pushed out Broeker and declared him an unwanted “Suppressive.” Miscavige became the leader of the church and chose as his lieutenant Marty Rathbun, who rose to fame because of his fearlessness. One night while escorting Diane Colletto, a 25-year-old editor of a Scientology magazine, home, Colletto’s distraught husband, John, who had been detained in the RPF, escaped and shot Diane to death, while Rathbun chased him off. John’s decomposing body was found three days later, his wrists slashed. (Rathbun later defected.)
Miscavige has been accused of beating many of his subordinates (including former chief spokesperson for the church Mike Rinder) without provocation, punching them in the face or kicking them repeatedly. Miscavige’s confinement quarters for church executives at his secret Gold Base site in California is called the Hole—two trailers without any chairs or beds in it, so the people (sometimes up to 70) had to sleep on the floor that swarmed with ants. Wright reports that Miscavige once told two church executives at the Hole to confess to being gay lovers, and that Tom Cruise would “punch you guys out” if there was no confession. (The executives were roughed up by other members.) One church executive was made to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue. Debbie Cook, one of the top executives, was declared a traitor and made to stand in a garbage can for 12 hours; she was slapped and water was poured over her head while a sign hung around her neck, saying “LESBO.” A church member estimates that 60 to 80 percent of the women on Gold Base have had abortions. Once, Miscavige ordered the 70 people confined in the Hole to play musical chairs, and everyone besides the winner would be kicked out of the Sea Org. The executives punched and tore at each other for eight hours, but in the end no one was kicked out. (The church denies that Miscavige ever abused church members, but does not deny the musical chairs incident, even though it denies the existence of the Hole, where the event took place.)
Miscavige’s Good Life
Miscavige lives lavishly. He earns a salary of $100,000 a year, while other Sea Org members get paid $50 a week, although they are frequently fined for infractions. Food costs for Miscavige and his guests reportedly range between $3,000 to $20,000 per week, while the average cost per meal for Sea Org members was about 75 cents a person in 2005, less than the amount spent for prisoners in California. Scientology staff members (who sometimes don’t even get their $50 a week until months later) are pressed to chip in for Miscavige’s birthday present every April 30, and one year he was given a motorcycle worth $70,000 and a BMW.
Tom Cruise was introduced to the church by his wife at the time, the actress Mimi Rogers, who grew up practicing Scientology. Miscavige asked to meet him, and they became close friends. When Miscavige wanted Rogers out of the picture because her parents practiced Scientology outside of the church’s guidance, Rathbun went to her home with divorce papers. Miscavige served as best man in Cruise’s subsequent weddings, and Cruise modeled his character in A Few Good Men on Miscavige. When Cruise divorced Nicole Kidman and then ended a three-year-long relationship with Penelope Cruz, Cruise complained that no one had been able to find him a new girlfriend, so Miscavige ordered his wife to find him the prettiest women in the church. Then, actresses were invited to the church’s Celebrity Centre to audition for what they thought was a role in a Mission: Impossible movie. Kate Bosworth, Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan, and Scarlett Johansson all auditioned. So did Katie Holmes. (Cruise's attorney said the star was not set up with girlfriends.) On the other hand, Miscavige cooled to Travolta. Wright reports that privately Miscavige has said that Travolta “is a faggot. We’re going to out him.” Over the years, Travolta would alternate from being closely involved to distancing himself from the church.
The Taxman Calleth
In 1993, after a prolonged fight, the IRS settled with the church over its tax-exempt status. Miscavige was able to regain the status (after the government’s disastrous handling of the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas) by paying only $12.5 million of the $1 billion (which would have bankrupted the church) in back taxes it owed. But over the years there were also mounting lawsuits and investigations, usually by former Sea Org members accusing the church of abuse, or by prosecutors charging the church with negligence when Scientologists die, possibly from lack of medical care. For example, in 1995, a Scientologist named Lisa McPherson died after a mental breakdown. (The death was later ruled “accidental.”)
Paul Haggis, who has won Academy Awards for his screenplay for Million Dollar Baby and Crash, which won for Best Picture, had been in the church for more than 30 years. Once when he talked to Steven Spielberg, the director mentioned that “I’ve met all these Scientologists, and they seem like the nicest people.” “Yeah, we keep all the evil ones in the closet,” Haggis said, for which he was reprimanded. (He had to write a letter of apology to Cruise.) Haggis, who has two gay daughters, was appalled by the church’s support of Proposition 8, and broke from the church when it refused to condemn homophobia. (Hubbard called homosexuals “sexual perverts” and reserved one of the lowest Tone Scale levels for them: “Such people should be taken from the society as rapidly as possible and uniformly institutionalized.”) Haggis says that “I was in a cult for 34 years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.” Why do so many people follow a religion that seems so absurd? “His insight, his daring, his narcissism, his defiance, his relentlessness, his imagination—these are the traits of an artist,” Wright writes. “It is one reason that Hubbard identified with the creative community and many of them with him.”