Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Scientology and Its Aftermath, episodes 4 and 5 (A&E, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Ice Follies of 1939 I watched the two latest episodes of Leah Remini’s “unscripted” Arts & Entertainment series Scientology and Its Aftermath, including one I’d missed the week before so I could watch the second half of the Tony Bennett 90th Birthday special on NBC. One was about the current head of Scientology, David Miscavige, who in these pages before I’ve described as the Stalin to L. Ron Hubbard’s Lenin. What’s more, Miscavige took over Scientology after Hubbard, its founder, “dropped the body” (Scientology-speak for “died”) in 1986 — given that one of Scientology’s principal claims is that it can make people immortal, Hubbard’s death became a P.R. problem for the Church which Miscavige handled by saying that Hubbard’s body was no longer an aid to his researches but had become an impediment to them —much the same way that Stalin had taken over from Lenin, first by controlling access to the Founder during his final illnesses and then, once the Founder had actually croaked, ruthlessly outmaneuvering his rivals (including Marty Rathbun, who’s only briefly mentioned in these programs — and then only by his first name — but who was essentially Scientology’s Trotsky). What’s more, Miscavige turned out — at least in the accounts of many who’ve quit the church since he took over, including the three Remini interviewed for her show (Miscavige’s father Ron, Jeff Hawkins and Tom De Vocht) — to be a psychopath, literally assaulting people who get in his way, despite (or maybe because of) his diminutive stature: it’s odd indeed to see a two-shot of him with Tom Cruise in which Cruise, for once, is taller than the other person in the photo.

The other Scientology and Its Aftermath episode shown last night was the newest one, a joint interview with Marc and Claire Headley, one of the rare examples of a Scientology couple who actually got out together — though they still suffered “disconnection” from their other relatives, including Marc’s mom. “Disconnection” is the policy by which members of the Church of Scientology are required to cut off all ties with family members who’ve “escaped” the church — that’s the term the Scientologists literally use to describe anyone who leaves, and the pictures of their central compound outside Hemet, California (who would have thought Hemet, of all places, would end up as Scientology’s Vatican?), with its locked gates and barbed-wire fences topped with intimidating metal spikes pointing in both directions (indicating that their function is as much to keep people in as out) make it look like a prison for members of Scientology’s highest body, the Sea Organization (“Sea Org,” as it’s generally abbreviated). It’s called the Sea Organization not only because during World War II Hubbard had been a minor (very minor) officer in the U.S. Navy and adopted nautical terms for the ranks of his officials, but because during the 1960’s and occasionally thereafter he literally took the governing elite of Scientology to sea, buying old ships, having them refitted and sailing them in international waters (except when he had to put into a port somewhere for provisions) so no government in the world would have jurisdiction over him. Like a lot of the early Scientologists, Marc Headley drifted into it as part of a hippie-like spiritual search in the 1960’s; he was interested in audio-visual productions and got involved in Scientology’s media company, Golden Era Productions. As part of Golden Era he produced Scientology’s big annual events — clips of which are shown in this documentary — which made frankly absurd claims about all the good Scientology was doing in the world, all the hungry people in the Third World the Church had fed, the dramatic turnarounds they had made in people’s lives through their anti-drug Narconon program and their work as consultants to schools in Detroit and other dying American cities — where they claimed to be able to turn around failing students and get their grades up from F to A+ in a month or so.

One of the things these episodes dramatized is the extent to which Scientologists live in a media bubble in which they literally never get information from the outside world; especially if you’re in the Sea Org, you not only have to live in a dorm but all information is monitored, your letters are censored before they’re sent out (yet another similarity between the Sea Org and a prison!), your food is cooked for you (Marc Headley recalls the shock when he and his wife Claire escaped and she made him a dinner their first night together on the outside — he’d been married to her for 13 years but since they were both in the Sea Org he’d had no idea she could cook!), you’re not allowed outside the Scientology compound without a “minder” to keep you in line, and you’re not allowed access to the Internet except on heavily filtered computers that don’t allow you to access sites critical of Scientology. Ron Miscavige recalls that his disillusionment with the Church (which he had joined before David and his brother, Ron Jr., were born) began when the Church allowed him to receive an Amazon Kindle, not realizing that this device included an Internet connection. Full of pride at all the great things he’d been told Scientology was doing, he Googled “Scientology” on the Kindle — and came face-to-face with all the anti-Scientology sites, many of them written and posted by disillusioned former Scientologists. The thing the Headleys are bitterest about was that Claire Headley was forced by the church to have an abortion — if you’re a woman in the Sea Org, you’re not allowed to get pregnant and if you do get pregnant, you’re required to have an abortion — also you’re not allowed to have sex unless you’re married (and though the series so far hasn’t mentioned Scientology’s attitude towards Queers, it is well known from the “black” literature on L. Ron Hubbard that he drove his Gay son Quentin to suicide). I’m pro-choice enough to be as opposed to a church that tells its parishioners they must have abortions as I am to the churches that say abortion should be illegal for all women. The show also mentioned the so-called “Freeloader’s Debt” bills that individuals who successfully escape the Sea Org receive, often amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, for Scientology audits and trainings that are free to Sea Org members but are billed back to them at retail rack rates if they leave.

I’m still surprised that so far this series, which is half over, hasn’t mentioned one of the most intimidating aspects of Scientology — the fact that by “auditing” its members continually with a crude lie detector called an “E-Meter,” the Church routinely collects intimate personal information on its adherents which, since auditing is not protected by confidentiality requirements the way normal psychotherapy is, the church can use against them in any way they see fit. The Headleys did mention that their suit against the Church for what it did to them finally was defeated in court on First Amendment grounds that once you sign on to a religion, it has the right to do just about anything to you under the “free exercise” clause and if you don’t like it, your only recourse is to leave. I never had much use for Scientology but have always been fascinated by the sheer wackiness of it — not only is it a religion founded by a science-fiction writer but the books L. Ron Hubbard wrote and offered as the scriptures of Scientology bear a striking resemblance to the ones he wrote and sold as science-fiction in the ordinary commercial literary marketplace — though Remini’s program, like much of the critical literature that’s come out about Scientology in recent years, is making it seem like a much more diabolical and sinister cult than it seemed in Hubbard’s time. Indeed, there’s a division within the community of ex-Scientologists as to whether Scientology was any good — Remini’s own position is that Scientology is, was and always will be useless and the three decades she spent in it were wasted, while her principal source, Mike Rinder, still believes (according to his blog) that Hubbard’s original Scientology was valid and it was only when Hubbard died and Miscavige replaced him that Scientology really went off the rails. Also, Scientology and Its Aftermath is one more cultural artifact of the Obama years that comes off very differently now that Donald Trump is about to become President, if only because Miscavige and Trump seem very much brothers under the skin in their sensitivity to criticism and their take-no-prisoners attitude towards their enemies, which is not only to declare them wrong but to demonize them and at the same time proclaim their irrelevance to the greater glory of the Leader.