Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Scientology and Its Aftermath, episode 6 (A&E TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the American Masters documentary on Sidney Lumet Charles and I watched the sixth (and second-from-last) episode of Leah Remini’s series Scientology and Its Aftermath, which was interesting even though the show is getting pretty repetitive. Remini, producer Alex Weresow, and their principal consultant, former Scientology enforcer Mike Rinder, obviously decided at one point that the nastiest thing they could focus on about the Church is their policy of “disconnection,” which requires that if anyone is either kicked out of the Church or leaves on their own accord, all their relatives still in the Church must immediately and forthwith cut off all contact with them unless and until they return to the fold. This time they interviewed yet another of the ex-Scientologists who chose for whatever reason to stay in one of Scientology’s two home towns, Clearwater, Florida (headquarters of the Flag Land Base of the Sea Organization, commonly referred to in Scientology-speak simply as “Flag”) even after they quit the church and despite the church’s heavy influence in local affairs. The disconnection victim on this show was Aaron Smith-Levin, who along with his twin brother Collin was brought into the Church of Scientology by his mom when he and Collin were 4. (His parents were never married and by this time his mom and dad had already broken up, and his dad never was in Scientology.)

At age 11 both Aaron and Collin joined the Sea Organization, Scientology’s principal executive body (and so called because Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had originally been a minor officer in the U.S. Navy and in the 1960’s, when Scientology had faced intense government scrutiny both in the U.S. and in Britain, Hubbard had the idea of exempting Scientology from any government jurisdiction by buying a ship and running it from international waters, putting into port only for fuel and provisions) and at 12 they were trained as auditors. Auditors are essentially the clergy of Scientology; they run the constant training of Scientologists, who are hooked up to an E-meter (basically a crude lie detector in which the auditee holds two metal cans hooked up to a galvanic skin response detector, and the auditor asks probing questions similar to those asked in psychotherapy and notes how the meter responds when the person answers each question) and in the process give massive amounts of sensitive information about their deepest secrets. Only — and I’m surprised this fact has gone unmentioned on this program even though it’s one of the principal “holds” Scientology has over its members, present and past — because Scientology auditing is religious ritual instead of actual therapy, auditees are not protected by the same confidentiality guarantees as are patients of licensed therapists. So the Church has a massive amount of information on every member which they can use as they see fit. Anyway, at 12 Collin Smith-Levin passed the auditor’s test with flying colors, getting the best score on it to that date — only David Miscavige, the head of Scientology since L. Ron Hubbard dropped his body (Scientology-speak for “died”) in 1986, rewrote the rules for the auditor training (Miscavige does that a lot — the idea is that it automatically disqualifies everyone who’s been working for the Church and forces them to spend large amounts of money to take the new courses, thus maintaining the church’s income stream by hitting the suckers up for even more than they’ve given already). Collin flopped badly on the new training and eventually left Scientology, was brought back, and then left again, and this time he made it to New Mexico where he enrolled in the state university, developed a whole set of new friends and wrote school papers critical of Scientology. The Church got wind of this and declared Collin a “suppressive person,” triggering the automatic disconnection order from his entire family — and a few years later Collin died in a car crash. Aaron stayed in the Sea Org until 2006, when he left it to marry his girlfriend Heather — also a Sea Org member — Sea Org members can marry but can’t live together because the entire group is sex-segregated.

Aaron was enough of a normal straight guy to want a normal life with his wife, including not only sex but children — they have three daughters — but he remained a Scientologist until 2009 (he apparently became what the Church calls “a public Scientologist,” meaning that instead of maintaining the monastic dedication expected of Sea Org members they can live normal lives and just practice Scientology the way believers in any other religion practice their faiths, except that Scientology studies are far more complex, time-consuming and — need I say it? — expensive than those of just about any other faith), when the St. Petersburg Times started publishing its series of exposés on the inner workings of Scientology. Fortunately Aaron’s mother had also left the church, so he didn’t have to suffer his own family disconnecting from him — but he did lose contact with his wife’s family, who were still in the Church and faithfully disconnected from her and refused to see their granddaughters. Where it gets really absurd is when Remini’s film crew comes to Aaron’s home to shoot his interview (Heather refused to appear on camera, so we see Aaron and the kids but not their mom) and Aaron points out a black-haired, shorts-clad woman named Sue who’s still in the Church of Scientology and who faithfully disconnected herself and her kids from Aaron and his family, but drew the line at disconnecting from Aaron’s dog. In fact she built a doggie door in her own home so the dog could travel from her home to Aaron’s and back, saying that the dog “wouldn’t understand” if he were cut off from Aaron and his kids. It’s O.K. for the people to disconnect but not the dog — in the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!” Remini seems to think that disconnection is going to be the policy that does in the Church of Scientology because she’s hopeful that for all too many people, blood will win out over their attachment to this bizarre religion — though the severity with which most of the people in the Church faithfully follow orders to disconnect, to the point of divorcing husbands or wives if one of them leaves the Church or starts speaking critically about it, makes me considerably less sanguine about this than she is.