The “church” of Scientology reached a strange kind of mainstream success this decade. Sure, Tom Cruise’s summer of 2005 and indoctrination video might have raised some eyebrows. But Scientology’s reputation seems to have become “the wacky-but-harmless religion that Tom Cruise and John Travolta belong to.”
I’d chalk that up to a few factors: Star power and obsequious entertainment media. American culture’s general shift toward multiculturalism and, for the enlightened majority post-9/11, religious tolerance. A shrug-your-shoulders, post-modern “Scientology is no more bizarre than other religions” attitude among potential cynics. And, of course, the fruits of the group’s notoriously litigious/personally invasive stance toward pretty much anyone who had anything bad to say about Scientology in the ’80s and ’90s.
The St. Petersburg Times’ recent expose, on Scientology’s staff culture of intimidation and abuse allegedly driven by leader David Miscavige, won’t change all that. But if Scientology’s fortunes and reputation decline in the coming years, the paper’s stories recounting defectors’ accusations should mark a turning point.
The group had one possible strategy for persuasively rebutting the Times stories: deny everything. Instead, the hapless response turned into a classic emperor-has-no-clothes moment — the ostensibly matured Scientology revealed (or re-revealed) as a pitiful personality cult that no one should even consider taking seriously again.
(Note: The excerpts below are drawn from parts 1, 2 and 3 of the series and this sidebar. Disclosure: I worked at the Times from 2003 to 2008.)
The first plank of Scientology’s genius strategy was to confirm the thrust of the accusations, but claim Miscavige wasn’t involved or wasn’t at fault.
Responding to former executive Marty Rathburn’s accusations that Miscavige physically attacked staffers dozens of times, Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis doesn’t deny physical abuse among the group’s high-level staff. He just says Miscavige didn’t do it, and blames Rathburn for a “reign of terror” — even though Rathburn already admitted to the Times that he had attacked colleagues, allegedly at Miscavige’s direction (emphasis added):
If Rathbun’s responsibility was as limited as the church says, the Times asked, how did he get people to submit to a reign of terror? Davis, the church spokesman, erupted.
“He’s the one who’s saying that Dave Miscavige beat these people,” Davis screamed. “And he’s saying that Dave Miscavige beat the exact same people that he beat. And that’s what pisses me off. Because this guy’s a f—— lunatic and I don’t have to explain how or why he became one or how it was allowable.
Davis is right; he doesn’t have to explain. We can figure out how Rathburn was allowed to behave that way.
In a similar example, one of the defectors accuses Miscavige of jumping on a table and attacking a staffer. Rather than a full denial, we get a my-wife-tripped-and-fell-into-my-fist explanation:
“[Church executive David] Bloomberg said that he was seated next to [staffer Jeff] Hawkins that day and that Hawkins became belligerent with the leader. Hawkins fell out of his chair and ended up putting a scissor lock on Miscavige’s legs.”
The second plank of the response strategy was to confirm the accusations but insist the inappropriate/abusive behavior is perfectly normal.
Being ordered to jump in a pool fully clothed? Nothing wrong with that.
The Sea Org is a “crew of tough sons of bitches,” said church spokesman Tommy Davis. …
“The Sea Org is not a democracy. The members of it agree with a man named L. Ron Hubbard. They abide by his policies . . . And if you disagree with that and you don’t like it, you don’t belong. Then you leave.”
Anyway, the church says, “the pool was heated, towels were provided, a lifeguard was present.” (The defectors don’t remember things so benignly.)
Being tossed off a boat? Toughen up, pansies.
If a Sea Org member messes up, “you throw him over the g– d— side of the ship,” [former captain of a Scientology ship Norman] Starkey said.
The church also doesn’t deny a story of Miscavige forcing staffers to play a twisted musical chairs game, which defectors say he conducted under threat of transferring the losers to other locations and greatly upsetting their lives.
Again, church officials said, the defectors are making the normal seem abnormal. Miscavige was merely trying to make a point, they said, citing a Hubbard policy that says frequent personnel transfers are like “musical chairs” and can harm a group’s progress. Miscavige wanted the group to see for themselves how destructive that can be.
Oh, sure — totally normal. We play cutthroat musical chairs, under threat of forced transfer, once a week at my office!
The final part of the response strategy is most telling: A series of Dear Leader non sequiturs that are clearly the tics of a deeply ingrained personality cult.
Hubbard biographer Danny Sherman told a story of Miscavige spotting an injured sparrow, talking to it and checking back later to see if it lived. “It was immensely tender.”
Also, David Miscavige’s tears can bring dinosaurs back to life.
[Administrator Faith] Schermerhorn wrote that she has never heard Miscavige use the n-word: “As a matter of fact, I know that Mr. Miscavige has been the person in Scientology who has done the most for black people.”
Also, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is actually based on the life of David Miscavige.
The spokesmen described him as a “hands-on” leader working in video editing bays, proofreading manuscripts, helping write scripts, staying up each night to listen to every one of Hubbard’s 3,000 lectures and setting up a construction office to outfit the 66 new buildings the church has acquired since 2004.
Also, David Miscavige has memorized the Oxford English Dictionary, and he personally copy edits every babysitting flier posted to bulletin boards in Scientology facilities.
The most absurd example of this Miscavige worship comes in Part 2 of the Times series, which recounts the last major Scientology scandal: the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.
The defectors say Miscavige was involved in McPherson’s counseling and “determined that she had reached an enhanced mental state that Scientologists call ‘clear’.” These are serious accusations because a) McPherson subsequently had a mental breakdown (Scientologists who achieve “clear” state are supposed to be at the top of the mental-health heap); and b) only specially trained Scientologists are allowed to pronounce people “clear.”
As with the other responses, the organization could have simply denied that Miscavige was involved. And they start with just such a response (emphasis added to highlight creepy Scientology nomenclature):
“I can tell you that’s utterly, totally false,’’ said Angie Blankenship, a top administrator in Clearwater from 1996 to 2003.
“I was here. Chairman of the board (Miscavige) wasn’t even here at the Flag land base during that time. He’s a liar. Never happened.”
But again, they couldn’t leave well enough alone (emphasis added):
The church’s representatives said there are no notations by Miscavige in McPherson’s file. In any case, they say, Miscavige would have been qualified to supervise McPherson’s case had he been so inclined. “He is an expert in every field,” said Jessica Feshbach, a church spokeswoman.
It’s worth noting that the Times series includes multiple direct denials of specific accusations. (e.g. “Yager, Starkey, Mithoff, and Lesevre all emphatically told the Times that Miscavige never attacked them.”) But the cumulative effect of the pseudo-denials and ridiculous hagiography is to render all of the denials non-credible.
“He is an expert in every field”: that’s all we need to know.
Some day — hopefully soon, for the sake of those caught in Xenu’s clutches — that’ll be Scientology’s epitaph.
Excellent article. I’m a former Scientologist myself who has woken up. I hope the reports of Travolta waking up are true…
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