On a recent December Sunday, on a still street nestled against Camelback Mountain, a party is in full swing at the L. Ron Hubbard House. It's meant to be a holiday open house, to show off the stunning renovation of the simple brick dwelling where Hubbard founded Scientology a half-century ago, and to smooth relations with neighbors, some of whom have lately been up in arms about plans to turn the house into a Scientology museum.
These concerned neighbors, none of whom are at the Hubbard House party tonight, have whispered their worries to the Phoenix City Council: that the museum will be a Scientology recruitment center; that it will draw gawkers and weirdoes who will leave trash on their nice lawns; that the house's live-in manager, Marlyse Brock, has been circulating door-to-door propaganda on Scientology, the peculiar, much-beleaguered religion that's been called a cult and an immoral commercial enterprise with a history of harassing its critics and abusing - even harming - its members.
"Has Marlyse brought you any propaganda?" one guest asks another, a woman named Doris who lives two blocks away.
"No!" Doris laughs. "All she's ever brought me is coffee cake!"
Another guest who's dropped in to get a peek at the Hubbard House phones a friend who lives two blocks north. "Are you coming to this thing?" he asks. "It's kind of festive."
"No!" his friend hisses into her phone. "Those people are all crazy. Don't drink too much - they'll get you alone and try to convert you!"
But no one is converting anyone tonight. Guests are mostly sipping wine, wandering the home's expansive desert lot, and admiring Hubbard's 1947 Buick Super 8 parked at the back of the property. Out front, Brock is chatting with a guest at the bottom of the narrow gravel driveway when a car screeches to a halt before her. A middle-aged woman leaps out, throws her arms around Brock, apologizes for missing the party, and jumps back into her car and speeds off.
The guest with whom Brock has been talking laughs and says, "I thought all your neighbors hated you."
Brock shrugs. "Sometimes," she says, "it feels like they do."
It's no wonder Brock feels besieged. She's been dogged for months by neighbors who think that the L. Ron Hubbard House, which the Church of Scientology purchased for a little more than $400,000 in 2000, spells doom for their peaceful neighborhood. They've endured, they say, tour buses full of curious Scientologists who've descended on their streets, backing up traffic on the small residential road onto which the house's driveway spills. They've suffered streams of looky-loos who park their cars all up and down their narrow blocks. They've worried that the City of Phoenix will rezone their neighborhood to allow businesses to operate there, thus setting a dangerous precedent for the rest of the city.
But if one talks at length with the concerned citizens who live in this tony Camelback Village neighborhood, it becomes apparent that these nice people are less civic-minded than they are afraid. That their neighborhood will become known not for its neatly xeriscaped lawns, but for turning out culty radicals. That the proximity of Scientologists will somehow impact them personally. That they - friendly, conscientious, mostly Christian people - will somehow be culpable in the recruitment of more Scientologists, which is what they swear is happening at the L. Ron Hubbard House.
And if you chat with any of them long enough, it becomes clear that most of them just plain don't like Scientologists.
Their concerns are certainly rooted in Scientology's oddball and often-contentious reputation. The religion (or, as one Time magazine writer once described it, "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner") is a peculiar blend of sci-fi and self-help born between 1952 and 1955, while Hubbard (known at the time as a writer of popular science fiction) rented the little ranch house on what was then Tatum Boulevard. (When the city reconfigured surrounding streets in 1955, the house was assigned its current address: 5501 North 44th Street.)
Hubbard established the first Church of Scientology in New Jersey during this time, basing his new religious philosophy on a self-help system he called Dianetics, and on the belief that people are spiritual beings called "thetans," immortals who lived among and were brainwashed by extraterrestrials 75 million years ago.
The church, which boasts 3.5 million members, eschews psychiatry and psychology and promotes a type of counseling called "auditing," a means of spiritual rehabilitation that involves answering a long list of questions while hooked up to a gadget called an Electropsychometer (or E-Meter), a sort of lie detector that examines one's mental state. In recent years, the religion has become known for its high-profile Hollywood membership, notably actors John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and especially Tom Cruise.
Despite all this zaniness, Scientology (which, loosely translated from Latin, means "the study of knowledge or truth") maintained a relatively low profile until the late '60s, when the IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status after deciding that its activities benefited Hubbard more than the religion itself. In 1993, the IRS reversed its decision, granting tax-exempt status to all Scientology churches (there are 153 of them around the globe) in what one local member of Anonymous, a loose national coalition of Internet protesters who have primarily targeted Scientology, calls an "IRS infiltration and intimidation that led to fraud."
It's not stories about government coercion or extraterrestrials that have the Hubbard House neighbors spooked, they insist. It's mostly about the traffic, they'll tell you. It all started right after the Scientology people completed the extensive renovation of the Hubbard House in 2005, a restoration so precise that it refurbished not only the façade and interior of the home, but also its décor, right down to duplicating exactly the curtains, lamps, and accessories seen in interior photos taken by Hubbard in the '50s. (The renovation was so meticulous, it won the 2007 Arizona Governor's Heritage Preservation Honor Award.)
It wasn't long after the renovation was completed that tour buses full of Scientologists started showing up, according to Mea Abraham, who lives across the street from the Hubbard House and is one of a half-dozen North Camelback residents who've devoted themselves to policing the property.
"They were bringing in buses full of Scientologists from Los Angeles," Abraham says, "and there'd be cars lined up full of people wanting to see the house. There was traffic congestion, and people leaving trash in our yards, and using my circular driveway to turn around in. I don't care what their religion is - Catholic, Episcopalian, they're free to practice whatever they want. But this is a residential neighborhood, and it shouldn't be overrun with traffic."
It wasn't, Brock insists. "Only a handful of people would visit the house on any given day," she says. "And they'd be required to park in the parking area behind the house, not on the neighborhood streets."
No matter. The shit really hit the fan when people started showing up at JoEllen Feltham's door looking for Tom Cruise. Shortly after, the City of Phoenix busted Brock for posting a sign stating that the Hubbard House was now a museum. Meanwhile, Feltham helped create a neighborhood coalition called Neighbors Against Business Operations at Residential Sites (NABORS) to protest the Hubbard House as a public, profit-making place.
The group circulated a petition, collecting 256 signatures opposing the house's museum status and zoning violation. They complained to the city that the Scientologists' request to have local zoning ordinances rewritten to allow them to operate a museum (or, as rumor had it, a Scientology church) in a residential neighborhood would impact the entire city in a negative way, allowing any for-profit business to call itself a museum. And they flooded the City Council with letters, forcing Brock to suspend tours of the Hubbard House until the issue got sorted out.
And with that, the war between the nice North Camelback neighbors and the weird UFO religion was on.
It's a battle, according to Jeff Jacobson, that the Scientologists will undoubtedly win. Jacobson has made a career of demeaning Scientology in published articles, public appearances, and most widely on a pair of anti-Hubbard Web sites: Critical Information about Scientology (www.lisamcpherson.org/cos) and Jeff's Exposing Scientology Blog ( cultxpt.wordpress.com). He says the Church's powerful, in-house legal team will make short work of "fixing this mess in their favor," although he wonders why the Scientologists even care about Hubbard's former Phoenix home.
"L. Ron Hubbard grew up in Montana," Jacobson points out, "and that house isn't a museum. His house in Tilden, Nebraska, isn't either. The ranch in California where he died isn't a monument. So why all the fuss about the Phoenix house?"
Most locals who've heard about the house will tell you that it's significant because it's where Hubbard wrote Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the book on which he based Scientology. They're mistaken. The book, which has gone on to sell a reported 21 million copies worldwide, was published in 1950, two years before Hubbard rented the little house in the Phoenix subdivision known as Valhalla.
Even Rick Harris, an active Scientologist who joined the church in 1978, believes that Hubbard wrote Dianetics while he lived in Phoenix. Harris thinks it's truly hilarious that the NABORS group is worried about a Church of Scientology starting up on their street. "Why in the hell," he booms, jabbing a finger into the air for punctuation, "would Scientology put a church into a little bitty place like that house, when we've got a perfectly huge facility over on Indian School?" (In fact, the church has recently relocated to North Third Street in downtown Phoenix.) "Heck, I've got bathrooms in my house that are bigger than that place," Harris says, waving an arm around the living room of his massive north Scottsdale home.
"Go to our church in Phoenix," suggests Scientologist Louis Ricketts. "You'll see a chapel and course rooms and meeting places. There's no room for those things at the L. Ron Hubbard House, which is there primarily so that our parishioners can see where Hubbard first discovered that man is a spiritual being. That's why it's significant."
The size of the Hubbard House is unimportant, according to "Leslie," one of several NABORS members who don't want to see their names in print. "They have big plans for that place," she says, sotto voce. "It is truly Mecca to them."
Not really, according to Ricketts. "Actually, our Mecca is in Clearwater, Florida," he says, sounding amused. Ricketts is the vice president of The Friends of L. Ron Hubbard, a California-based organization that manages the Phoenix property. "Our Mecca is massive, with 350,000 square feet of buildings and grounds."
Were the Scientologists to call the Hubbard House a church, all bets would be off, according to City Councilman Greg Stanton, in whose District 6 the Hubbard House resides. (As of February 4, Stanton is no longer a council member. He resigned to take a job with the Arizona Attorney General's Office, a move having nothing to do with this. His replacement will be named at a later date.)
"City government isn't here to tell people where or if they can establish a church," Stanton said in an interview late last year. "We're here to protect the interest of the community, and that includes its religious freedoms."
The Scientologists might have done better to keep their museum mum, operating it on the sly rather than going after fancy zoning and special permissions. It's something that's frowned upon, according to Katherine Coles of the City of Phoenix Planning Department, "but still something that gets done all the time."
Stanton grudgingly agrees. "We don't condone operating outside the law," he says. "But, yes, it's true that the city can't tell a private residence how many people are allowed to visit. We can certainly police parking if it's a problem, but we can't tell you how many house parties you're allowed to throw in a given week."
The Valhalla neighborhood deed restrictions, drafted in the '40s, zone specifically for single-family residences only and indicate that operating a museum without a use permit is a no-no. Brock claims she didn't know this at the time she opened the museum (a story some of her neighbors don't buy) and points out that she shut down operation as soon as it was brought to her attention.
But, Feltham says, it's only a matter of time before the Scientologists figure out a new way to get around the city's rules. Lately, there's been talk about plans to have the Hubbard House listed with the National Registry of Historic Homes, which would essentially override any attempts by angry neighbors or the city to police the home's activities.
"Church, museum, historic home, whatever you want to call it," Leslie says. "The Scientologists are here to recruit. They want to host seminars and market their religion. They prey on people who are having sociological and behavioral problems, get them in there innocently, and then go for the kill."
It's an unpretty opinion, but one that's repeated by pretty much all of the religion's detractors.
"Nothing Scientology does is benign in nature," according to Nina Lamb, a local Anonymous member. "They can have a pretty slick way of worming their way into your pocketbooks. You come for a tour and on display is an historical E-Meter, and then it's 'Who'd like to help me demonstrate? It's just a few questions!' Or 'Oh, it looks like you're stressed, can I recommend a few books for you?'"
That's the sort of game Russell Shaw was playing at the Hubbard House last year, Feltham insists. She says that the real estate mogul - best known for a TV ad campaign in which he proclaims, "I'll do whatever it takes to sell your home!" - held seminars at the Hubbard House in which he allegedly told attendees that the secret to his success was Scientology.
Shaw is amused by the accusation. "No one would come to my seminars if word got out that I was promoting any religion," Shaw says. "And as soon as the neighbors started making trouble for the L. Ron Hubbard House, I moved my seminars elsewhere."
The Scientologists will prevail in reopening their museum, Jacobson insists, either with the help of their deep-pockets legal team or because the city will cave in to the intimidation tactics he says the church uses to get what it wants.
"The city is probably scared," Jacobson says. "Or at least they should be." He's referring to the numerous controversies and conflicts that are - next to Tom Cruise's allegiance - all that most laypeople know about the religion. There's Operation Snow White, a '70s project reportedly designed to purge unfavorable public records and published criticisms of Hubbard and Scientology. And there are the alleged attempts to legally force search engines like Yahoo and Google to censor Web pages that disparage the church. And, perhaps most infamously, there's the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died while in the care of the church.
Scientology's crummy reputation is by no means news; things began going awry from the beginning, back when the religion was still headquartered in Phoenix. In May 1955, a woman named Estrid Anderson Humphrey sued the Church of Scientology for damages to her Paradise Valley home. The lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court, alleged that a house Humphrey leased to the church was smashed up by what an Arizona Republic story called "one or more persons with assertedly deranged minds" who were placed there "for care and treatment."
Jacobson refers to this as among the first of Hubbard's many "experiments with crazy people," in which Hubbard would allegedly isolate mentally ill people in a room or small house while treating their psychosis with Scientology's "present time awareness" techniques. They're still using these methods today, according to Jacobson says.
Scientology's local losing streak continued later the same year when Edd Clark, a Phoenix-based practitioner of the new religion, was jailed after practicing medicine without a license. Clark, who was nearly blind, was busted for accepting money from patients he treated with psychological techniques he'd recently learned at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Seattle. These early lawsuits would set the stage for the church's long, litigious future, which would include dozens of court cases covering everything from coercion to wrongful death - nearly all of them either settled out of court or won by Hubbard and company.
Feltham agrees with Jacobson that the city is running scared from the Church of Scientology. She thinks Stanton could have done more than moderate the discussions between NABORS and the Scientologists, but that he and others in local government are afraid of Scientology's in-house legal team and history of intimidation.
"Any government agency that isn't concerned about having Scientologists doing business in their community isn't paying attention," Jacobson says. "Governments large and small have become wary of dealing with Scientology."
Is local government frightened of the big, bad Scientologists? "I don't know anything about that" is all Stanton will say on the subject. "At the city level, we have to be careful not to pick one religion over another. My desire was to strike a reasonable balance between a religiously important house and a neighborhood that doesn't want a business on one of its streets."
"We're a new religion, and all new things get attacked," says Ricketts in his church's defense. "Galileo said the Earth was round, and look what happened to him. We don't sell books about Scientology at the house. We don't make any money there. We're not forcing anyone to believe anything. I think maybe the neighbors have been given misinformation about Scientology, and it's frightened them."
In fact, many of Brock's neighbors just seem bored by the Hubbard House tug-of-war. "I don't know my neighbors, and I'm not interested in taking sides," says Irene Hunter, who's quick to point out that she's not a Scientologist. "But I believe in freedom of choice, and that we have certain rights because we're a free country. I've never seen cars parked over there. And all my neighbors have big parties, so I don't know what the problem is. This whole thing is getting out of hand."
It's also gotten pretty nasty. Although her neighbors chum with Marlyse Brock, taking yoga classes with her and chatting her up at neighborhood association meetings, some of them have taken to calling her "Brunhilda" behind her back.
Privately, Brock may believe she's a 75 million-year-old extraterrestrial; she may secretly hope that all people will one day convert to Scientology. Publicly, she appears more interested in passing out baked goods. "Marlyse showed up with a cake" is a frequent (if rather unusual) complaint from neighbors, because Brock tends to bring fresh-baked peace offerings from Hubbard's oven after each new attack on his former home.
Brock isn't just trying to make peace, according to some of her neighbors, who insist she's up to no good. One complains that Brock called her on her unlisted mobile number, and that she keeps sending Christmas cards each year. Another says, in all sincerity, that she was afraid to eat the cake Brock brought to her. Still another swears she's afraid to answer her door, for fear that it will be Brock "back with more propaganda." (Pressed to describe the propaganda, this neighbor stutters, "Well, she didn't have any printed material. She had one of her cakes. But she's a pain in the ass!")
In person, Brock is hardly the scheming, wacked-out witch she's made out to be. Tall and reserved, she seems genuinely confused that her neighbors are so put off by her.
"Yes, I am from the L. Ron Hubbard House," she says in a throaty German accent. "I am a Scientologist. But I am also a neighbor who wants to explain what we are doing here."
What she's doing there, Brock says, is trying to make the L. Ron Hubbard House "available to anyone who cares to see it, from Scientologists to architectural students to religious scholars." In the meantime, she's been working with the city to get the decrepit sidewalk on her street repaired, because it's currently unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists. In her spare time, she runs Toys for Tots drives to gather playthings for poor kids.
All this charity is just a cover, according to Brock's neighbors. "The Scientologists are very sophisticated," Abraham says. "They are very organized, and they know everything about everyone."
Well, maybe not everything. No one involved in Scientology here or abroad, for instance, appears to know anything about the significance of the house directly across the street from the L. Ron Hubbard House. Although he once rented the home on North 44th Street that now bears his name, Hubbard apparently owned the property facing this one - a fact uncovered in researching this story, but one that no one at Scientology headquarters can document. ("We could find no record of this in our files," Brock wrote in an e-mail, "nor can we locate anyone who was familiar with this [property].")
Public records show that in September 1954, Hubbard sold for $10 "Lot Fifteen, Valhalla Amended," the northeastern corner lot facing the Hubbard House, to a local brewery employee named Joseph Lanser. The price tag on the property suggests that Hubbard may have sold it to an acolyte of the recently launched Hubbard Association of Scientologists International, headquartered then in downtown Phoenix, perhaps with plans to build a meeting place for his new religion. One can imagine Hubbard sitting on the front porch of his rented home in 1954, staring out at what was then a largely undeveloped desert landscape, and thinking, "This would be a nice place for a church."
Instead, Hubbard unloaded the property on North 44th Street the following year and blew town, relocating his Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to Washington, D.C., perhaps because of the new religion's recent bad press about the trashed Humphrey house and the Edd Clark fiasco.
Leslie doesn't care why Hubbard left; she's just glad he didn't stick around to build a Church of Scientology at the end of her block. "That would have changed the whole personality of Phoenix," she says. "We wouldn't be the Valley of the Sun; we'd be the Valley of the Founding of Scientology or whatever. I wouldn't have wanted my kids exposed to that." Asked to explain exactly what the Scientologists have done to her street beyond trying to fix a couple of sidewalks and take up collections for needy kids, Leslie just groans.
"Oh, sure," she says. "They put on a good show. But they're not going to be collecting toys for tots once they get opened to the public. They'll have people lined up using their E-Meter, if we let them. They're very sophisticated and savvy, and they know exactly what they're doing. And," she says, dropping her voice to a whisper, "have you noticed? They're all foreigners!"
Back at the L. Ron Hubbard House, the holiday bash is in full swing. Brock, who's wearing a feather boa, has made a polite speech about the Golden Rule and "treating others as you'd like to be treated yourself." Judy Conner, who lives on the other side of 44th Street, is having a blast. She's been to the house before, she tells another party guest, but no one has ever mentioned Scientology to her. Bruce Brown agrees. "I keep waiting for a Scientology pitch from Marlyse whenever I see her," he says. "But it never comes."
"That's fine with me," Conner says. "I'm not into that."
A few doors down, a neighbor stands at her picture window, glowering at a teenage boy in a Santa hat who's been walking up and down her street. She's convinced he's a stray guest from the party, and she's not letting him out of her sight.
When a stranger stops his car in front of her home, she comes out and raps on the windshield. "Are you with the Scientology party?" she hollers through the glass. "You can't park here."
"What if I'm not with the Scientology party, but I just pulled over to take a phone call?" the stranger yells back.
"Oh, that's fine!" she yells cheerfully. "Stay as long as you like! Merry Christmas!"