One of the eeriest parts of Going Clear:Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the new HBO documentary about the abuses of Scientology, happens when Tom Cruise recounts being asked about whether he's ever met a Suppressive Person. (S.P.s, as they're known in the Scientology community, are people who impede your progress as a Scientologist.) Cruise starts to laugh at the idea that he might never have met an S.P., because to him they're everywhere, and his laugh grows crazier and more maniacal until it becomes super uncomfortable to watch, not unlike his couch-jumping antics. The actor doth protest too much! See for yourself:
Going Clear is full of moments like this; moments culled from past interviews (because no one from within Scientology would agree to sit down with these filmmakers) that make you realize just how insular Scientology is. Several ex-Scientologists were interviewed and they all, without exception, had friends and family members still in the Church who had to "disconnect" from them once they left. One particularly harrowing story followed a mother whose decision to leave Scientology has left her without a relationship with her daughter and grandchild.
One of the defining characteristics of a cult is its inability to ask critical questions of itself. For all its flaws, evangelical Christianity--my tradition--can at least admit to wrongdoings and have honest conversations about where we have failed. That ability does not exist with Scientology, a religion founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who thought founding a tax-exempt religion would be the best way to make a bunch of money fast. He was right--the Church's assets are now approaching $3 billion, even at a time when its number of adherents is at an all-time low. The Church of Scientology claims to have about 10 million members, but according to Mike Rinder--a former Church senior executive featured in the documentary--the figure is around 30,000. They're investing their money in real estate around the world and hedging their poorly-spun defenses with walls of secrecy built by unlimited financial resources. All of this is reinforced by their strategy of appealing through "self-help" to celebrities and wealthy folks who will keep the Church's doors open with repeated and generous donations.
The narrative that arises from former Church members is that Scientology has a playbook, and an important part of their strategy is to attack the credibility of their detractors. This has led, in part, to their reputation for litigiousness, and seems to have come straight from L. Ron Hubbard (or "LRH," as they call him) himself, from this 1966 policy letter:
(1) Spot who is attacking us.
(2) Start investigating them promptly for FELONIES or worse using own professionals, not outside agencies.
(3) Double curve our reply by saying we welcome an investigation of them.
(4) Start feeding lurid, blood sex crime actual evidence on the attackers to the press.
Don't ever tamely submit to an investigation of us. Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way.
Making it rough, rough on attackers hasn't stopped with lawsuits, though. In light of the HBO premiere of Going Clear, set for March 29th, someone within the Church's ranks has set up a Twitter account (@FreedomEthics) made to look like a media watchdog but actually running a smear campaign against Going Clear filmmakers and participants. They are paying to promote tweets that accuse ex-Scientologists in the film of being liars or, in the case of Mike Rinder, a "deadbeat wife abuser." Rinder tells a very different story on that front, of being confronted by seven Scientologists while in a parking lot, and says the ensuing scuffle left his wife with cuts on her arms.
Some of the most disturbing parts of Going Clear aren't interviews at all; they're the lavish galas thrown by the International Association of Scientologists. Church leader David Miscavige presides over a room of thousands, people dressed to the nines to celebrate their own greatness, and/or their tax-exempt status, an event which prompted fireworks and thunderous applause when it was finally granted in 1993. It's hard to think of a word other than creepy to describe the self-congratulatory vibe of these gatherings, with the mutual admiration society of Miscavige and Tom Cruise gripping each other's hands in tight, masculine handshakes, mouthing "thank you" to each other three or four times before letting go so the other could speak and lead the crowd in a rousing round of "Happy Birthday" sung to a portrait of LRH, ever-present.
But the worst abuses of Scientology are reserved for those who would question its essential truth. Those folks end up at a facility called "The Hole," outside of Hemet in Riverside County, CA. Here, troublesome members are made to beat each other, clean bathrooms, lick dirty floors, and live in deplorable conditions. These Church members--often top executives whose lines of reasoning took them in directions David Miscavige didn't like--stayed for months, sometimes years, in ant-infested, sweltering trailers with little to eat and less to hope for. It's nothing short of brainwashing, replete with derogatory treatment and physical abuse. In one of the Church's most infamous cases, David Miscavige's wife, Shelly, has not been seen or heard from since August 2007. Church leaders claim she is working for the Church in private.
Scientologists do not want you to see Going Clear, which is all the more reason to go. There are bits about Tom Cruise and John Travolta that will surprise you, but the most shocking stuff has to do with the regular people who bear the brunt of this cult's secrecy and abuse. The Church will continue to try to discredit the filmmakers and participants, but that will only have the effect of piquing curiosity--and, hopefully, eventually, bringing about its own downfall.