35-37 Fitzroy Street in London is a building with some history. It is the former home of Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda. To Scientologists, though, that is small beer: for them it is the place that, 50 years ago, became the world HQ of L. Ron Hubbard's new religion, Scientology.
Tom Cruise: wide-eyed
Hubbard's office is still there, just to the right of the front door. One of the spookier features of Scientology is that every centre reserves an office for the late LRH - a kind of shrine. There's usually one of his pens on the table, ready, as if he's just going to pop back any second. This office is special, though. Outside, mounted on the wall, is a new-looking wooden mailbox which reads: 'Letters or messages posted here go to L. Ron Hubbard immediately.'
Wow, I think to myself. Given that Hubbard died in 1986, that's quite impressive. I turn to my hosts and ask, 'How does that work?' There's a brief pause, and then my hosts burst out laughing, amazed at my credulity. 'It doesn't,' they smile. 'The science that could make that possible hasn't quite been invented yet.' They explain that they've simply restored the box, just as it was in 1957.
You see? Encountering Scientology, you come with a certain baggage: given its reputation, you expect it to be nuts.
It doesn't help, of course, that Andrew Morton recently penned a tome on Scientology figurehead Tom Cruise, suggesting that a) he is Scientology's number two; b) that Scientology boss David Miscavige had followers running round planting wild flower meadows for Cruise and his then wife Nicole Kidman to romp through; and c) suggesting that many Scientologists believe that Cruise's current wife, Katie Holmes, fathered the deceased L. Ron's child by using his frozen sperm.
These allegations might have faded fast from view, were it not for the additional embarrassment of a couple of videos being posted on YouTube and gawker.com. Both are private Scientology videos showing Cruise talking, wide-eyed, about Scientology.
On screen, he rants evangelically about Scientologists 'being the only ones who can really help', and laughs maniacally about the 'SPs' (Scientology jargon: 'suppressive persons') who supposedly hold Scientology back from its greatness. To the outsider, he looks clearly insane.
We lap up these stories about Tom's mad adventure with Scientology. It confirms what we seem to want to believe: that Scientology is an act of collective lunacy. But over the years I've met many Scientologists. Their shiny self-belief may make them a tad dull, but none of them seemed remotely mad. Odd as it may seem, it's entirely possible to lead a successful, functional, even normal life and be a Scientologist.
It can never be said that Tom Cruise lives a normal life, but you don't get to be Forbes magazine's 'world's most powerful celebrity' by being a lunatic. The list of fellow celebrity Scientologists is a long one: Kirstie Alley, Chick Corea, Beck, Jenna Elfman, Juliette Lewis, Lisa Marie Presley, Jason Lee, Giovanni Ribisi, John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, are, or have been in recent times. Will Smith almost was. Jerry Seinfeld toyed with it. Celebrities or not, these are not weak-minded people. They are all successful at what they do. So, we wonder, what on earth are they doing in Scientology?
One answer is simple enough. To put it bluntly, Scientology really, really likes famous people. Cynics point out that there is a reason for this. From the early days of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard set out to attract the famous to his new religion. Tom Wolfe once defined a cult as 'a religion with no political power'; L. Ron Hubbard appears to have believed that Scientology needed something a lot more potent than political power. In 1955 he launched something he called Project Celebrity, listing 63 famous people he wanted to interest in his 'science of the mind'. It was a catholic selection that included Ernest Hemingway, Danny Kaye, Orson Welles, Liberace, Bing Crosby, Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney.
'These celebrities are well-guarded, well-barricaded, over-worked, aloof quarry. If you bring one of them home you will get a small plaque as your reward,' Hubbard wrote to his followers.
In the 1950s Gloria Swanson was one of the first Hollywood players to flirt with the fad. Pianist Dave Brubeck said publicly that Scientology had helped his career. Other new religious leaders who made it big in the 1960s and 70s, such as Prabhupada, the founder of Krishna Consciousness, or the Maharishi and the Meher Baba, presented their teachings as a refuge from fame - a way of cleansing yourself of its pernicious influences. Hubbard made it clear that Scientology was having none of that. Famous people were special. Celebrities, Scientology believes, are on a potentially higher spiritual level of activity - and, yes, they're also quite useful. Eight years later, Hubbard was expanding on the theme: 'Rapid dissemination can be attained... by the rehabilitation of celebrities who are just beyond or just approaching their prime.'
At the Fitzroy Street HQ, I recite this instruction of Hubbard's to Bob Keenan, a bluff, blokey former fireman and Royal Marine with a cockney twang who is introduced to me as 'L. Ron Hubbard's official representative in the UK'. Keenan became a Scientologist in 1991 after a leaflet advertising one of Hubbard's books dropped through his letterbox. We are now lunching in the first floor of the office. Keenan doesn't have any problem with Hubbard's instructions to use celebs to spread the word. 'We are,' he says over soup, 'absolutely interested in disseminating Scientology. That's what we are doing. There is no doubt in my mind that we are interested in people who have the ability to stand up and talk to other people. Obviously, if you look after the artists they will talk about Scientology, and if they do, a lot more people get interested. What do we do? Stop them talking to disprove your point?' To be fair to Scientology, pretty much everyone uses celebrity to promote a cause these days. The United Nations uses Angelina Jolie, and Amnesty International uses Sting and Bono. If we're honest, it's not the use of celebrities that makes us uneasy, it's more who's using them that we don't like.
This is where you have to tread carefully, trying to understand the strange phenomenon Hubbard created. Even if Hubbard was, say, a cynical con artist who created the religion of Scientology to make a fat living for himself, does that matter if, 20 years after his death, the legions of devoted followers are sincere in their faith? We have become a secular society, ill-at-ease with belief and exhausted by the effort of trying to understand and accommodate the unlikely faiths of others. An increasing number take the Richard Dawkins strategy: outright contempt for any spiritual leaning at all.
Given this, the idea of venerating a portly, ginger-haired, cravat-sporting man who claimed to have invented a revolutionary 'science of the mind', who appears to most of us to have been an ambitious huckster, and who, according to ex-members and detractors, was also a ruthless, devious and sometimes cruel man seems utterly ridiculous. Yet as I look around the room I'm lunching in, it's clear Scientologists do exactly that.
The walls of this house are covered in photos taken by L. Ron Hubbard and documents attesting to his greatness. 'This photograph of the Great Wall of China he took when he was 17 was one of the first to show seven turns of the wall... This navigation system he invented is still in use today.' I've heard this litany before. Every part of Hubbard's history, though disputed by outsiders, has been mythologised by Scientologists. Whether his intentions were as self-serving as many believe, he has left behind an organisation staffed by the sincere.
This building, done up in the sort of 1980s interior-decor style beloved of Scientologists - all pale-peach paint and gilt - is yet another shrine to LRH. To them, though they'd be horrified the description: he has become a holy figure in all but name. In just the same way, whether or not Hubbard's intentions were cynical, the notion of celebrity in Scientology has become imbued with a strange holiness too. Maybe one of the reasons musicians and movie stars like Scientology is that it's one of the last places where the notion of celebrity is still, curiously, revered.
The celebrity centre in Hollywood is a fairytale building on the corner of Franklin and Bronson, a vast 1920s confection based on a French chateau. A while ago, when I first expressed an interest in writing about Scientology, the organisation hummed and ha-ed, then invited me to a party there to celebrate the centre's 26th anniversary. It was a starchy affair, like any gala party, except that it was packed with Hollywood's Hubbardites. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, was explosive in white (it was recently revealed that Cartwright is Scientology's biggest celebrity donor, having given $10 million to the church last year). Travolta, wearing a shiny silver tie, came with his wife Kelly Preston. For a church social, it was decidedly upscale.
In many ways it was just another Hollywood get-together, but there was that heady whiff of faith there too; Isaac Hayes introduced his cover of a Beatles song as being about 'the long and winding road to truth'. Buttoned by a camera crew, Travolta gushed: 'There's no doubt about the impact the Scientology and Celebrity Centres have had on the artistic community. It helps the artist clean up their act, be more focused, and get real career help.' The centre's president announced that this party 'marks the day when L. Ron Hubbard entrusted the Celebrity Centre with the role of caring for the artists and opinion leaders in our society.'
I checked back in, some time later, as a paying guest. The centre operates as a hotel. Anyone can book a room there. For $250 a night I moved into a lavish suite. Spread over two floors, it was the most opulently chandeliered and draped accommodation I've ever stayed in. My room came with a valet, a sweet young Hungarian called Beatrix who left a chocolate on my pillow and a card that said: 'On the day when we fully trust each other, there will be peace on earth - L. Ron Hubbard. Have a pleasant night.' Hubbard, wherever he is, wished me pleasant dreams.
It was like any other hotel in some ways. There was a reception desk, a white piano in the lobby where a middle-aged man tinkled a tune, and a restaurant. There were differences, of course. Across the lobby as always, was LRH's office, at the ready. 'It's not like we think he's going to come back and suddenly sit down in his chair,' said Tom Davis, head of the centre, who was showing me round. Davis is the son of actress Anne Archer. (He features in John Sweeney's heavy-footed Panorama documentary, losing his temper at Sweeney for repeatedly calling Scientology 'a sinister cult'.)
It's appropriate that LRH's shrine is a desk. Hubbard adored bureaucracy. An ex-naval man, he named the central bureaucracy the Sea Org. It's their staffers who run this place. Stranger still, next to Ron's office was the recruiting officer's desk. Should I have felt the urge to dedicate my life, or indeed lives, to Scientology, I could have signed up there. On her desk lay a pile of contracts, printed in fine gold and blue. Half way down, the print that makes the non-believer start and goggle reads: 'Therefore I contract myself to the Sea Organisation for the next billion years (As per Flag Order 232).'
When Hubbard first started hawking his strange 'science of the mind' in the early 1950s, the psychiatric community howled in disbelief at his unempirical hotch potch of assertions - and duly denounced it. Hubbard's response to the American Psychological Association's criticism was typically vituperative. He went on the warpath, characterising psychiatry's worst excesses as typical of the whole practice. Hubbard's florid allegations of indiscriminate use of electroconvulsive therapy in the psychiatric community live on in Tom Cruise's occasional outbursts against Ritalin - or his extraordinary outburst a couple of years ago criticising Brooke Shields for taking Paxil for post-partum depression.
The cynics note that Scientology's subsequent subtle shift from being a 'science' to being a 'religion' appeared immediately after the APA's initial criticism. That history appears to confirm an idea of Hubbard as the slipperiest of gurus is irrelevant to those who work their way up the levels known as 'the Bridge', or those who turn up every Sunday afternoon for the service in the marquee on the Celebrity Centre's lawn, delivered by a man in a purple shirt and dog collar, an eight-pointed crucifix dangling from his neck.
On the second and third floors Davis showed me the 'auditing' and training rooms. The sci-fi faith of Scientology has it that we are pure and ancient spirits that have become sullied with 'engrams' and other negativities, both from the day-to-day horrors of everyday life, but also from past existences. Being audited is a little like a therapy session. You talk holding on to Hubbard's famous E-meter, a simple galvanometer, a little like a lie-detector, while the auditor or 'spiritual counsellor' listens, watching the needle for the 'falls' and 'floats' of the needle. The process supposedly frees you of your engrams. Over time, you can become 'clear'. Only then can you begin to engage in the real mysteries of Scientology, progressing through a series of complex, and often expensive, mystical training programmes to an exalted position of spiritual cleanliness.
I have a theory for Scientology's attractiveness to the well-heeled of Hollywood. In the 20th century many of Europe's exiled psychiatrists set up shop on the West Coast. Psychotherapy, in all its various guises, became a quasi-religious practice. Scientologists' bilious rejection of psychiatry marks it out as curiously unique in this milieu - one faith replacing another. (I try this theory out on Bob Keenan, but, frankly, it falls flat. 'I can't answer that. People don't come into Scientology as a replacement,' he announces. The idea is inconceivable.)
One day, I met Kelly Preston at the centre. She chatted, with affable earnestness, about the riches Scientology had given her. She'd been turned on to it by an acting coach. She never thought it weird that the Scientology staffers all wore quasi-naval uniforms. That just convinced her they meant business. 'You know that on a first-class ship,' she said, 'you're going to get first-class service.'
She was a dogged, hard-working student of the faith; she had done almost as many of the 'levels' as you could. Naturally, she couldn't go into detail about what she'd learnt, because the upper levels are strictly confidential. Instead, she talked generally of Hubbard's principles of 'doingness', 'havingness' and 'beingness'. 'The beingness of somebody... who you are... your lifetimes,' she explained patiently. 'It's as pure a being as you could ever become.' When she finished her course in 'beingness', her life was completely different, she told me, so different that she could hardly remember how to walk. She remembers grabbing hold of the wall when she left the room, thinking, 'OK, put one foot in front of the other. That's how you walk in this body.' She said: 'It blew my mind.'
After the course in havingness, she felt she could have anything she wanted. She married John Travolta: they had a baby. She got film parts that she had always wanted. 'My having-ness went Bssssssssss!' She makes a motion like a plane taking off.
The couple wed at a service conducted by a Scientology minister. She gave birth to their son, Jett, in total silence. Hubbard believed that any sounds or words uttered during the trauma of birth could be recorded as 'engrams'. 'That,' she said with matter-of-fact pride, 'is one of the most remarkable things... I feel I gave my son a gift.'
Scientology offers that seductive promise of so many mid-20th century religions: you can create yourself - you can be who you want to be, do what you want to do, and have what you want to have.
A curious fact remains: only a smattering of British celebs have become Scientologists, and those that did - the Rolling Stones' piano player Nicky Hopkins, the Incredible String Band - are hardly A-list. It may be that we're just a more cynical nation, less impressed by snake-oil and smoke, but maybe it's also because we're also a country less at ease with the whole idea of therapy and self-examination.
There were always magazines lying on tables in the lobby of the Celebrity Centre, as there should be in hotels, only these were magazines like Celebrity or High Winds - the magazine of the Sea Org.
I was skimming through High Winds when I came across an article winningly headlined 'Handling Suppression on the Fourth Dynamic' (by then I had learnt that the 'fourth dynamic' meant the whole of mankind). In a tone of unforgiving militancy, it talked of 'eradicating SPs', and crowed about how they had 'shut down' one particular defector who had criticised the movement. 'Unemployed and abandoned by his family, this squirrel had schemed to make money by hawking his lies in a book. But the Office of Special Affairs had a court declare his book libellous. He has now been forced into bankruptcy'
This is one of Hubbard's most controversial legacies. He was a strong believer in the crude evolutionary principle: survival is all that matters. His explicit doctrine was 'attack the attacker'. He left clear directions about how critics were to be dealt with, including: 'Start feeding lurid blood sex crime actual evidence on the attackers to the press.'
This last instruction was, on occasion, used against the press itself. I had personal experience of that. Knowing that I was writing articles about them, the Scientologists began inundating me with faxes countering the vituperative propaganda that was being directed against them. One day, by the sort of classic mistake that befalls all such bureaucracies, they sent me an internal memo titled 'Entheta media handling', instructing British Scientologists to 'handle' the problem of British journalist Richard Ingrams, a long-term critic. 'Ingrams,' said the fax, 'has a much publicised divorce history... admits to be gay, but then has a love affair with a 20 years his junior woman at his Berkshire house.' ?The note went on to order local Scientologists to interview Ingrams's opponents and search public records to 'find, investigate and document scandals Ingrams is for sure part of.'
Within minutes they were on the phone, begging me not to reproduce the document or the patently false allegations it contained. People would get the wrong idea.
Understandably, with tactics like that, relations between the press and Scientology have never been cordial. The press hates Scientology. It groans every time the orchestrated letter-writing campaign starts to correct a 'mistake' they've made. This is a curious war, fed by bitter, not always accurate testimony from furious ex-members on the one side, by Scientology's absurd history of aggression on the other, and by the press's fury at such attempts at manipulation, and consequent over-eagerness, sometimes, to believe the more absurd rumours.
Kirstie Allie: successful
Strangely enough, recent days have offered another clue to why some celebrities remain so loyal to Scientology and why it continues to attract their attention. Tom Cruise may have not succeeded in his recently rumoured attempt to 'recruit' David and Victoria Beckham - if he actually did - but the experience of being a Scientologist, constantly at war with a hostile media, is one that must chime increasingly with modern celebrities such as Posh and Becks. The press are 'SPs', out to get you, out to tarnish your truth. You are special: they are there to bring you down.
In a way, it's this bitter dynamic that Hubbard bequeathed them that has kept Scientology so alive. We may be hostile to what we perceive as its manipulative pseudo-science, but it takes that hostility as proof that it alone is right. We are the enemy it needs to defeat to save the world.
Attacking a chocolate dessert with a spoon, Bob Keenan insists that the fax I received several years ago about Richard Ingrams is a thing of the past. Scientology, he says, is different today. 'That would not happen,' he promises.
So, I ask him, does he regard Andrew Morton as an 'SP', a 'suppressive person'? 'He is suppressing people - absolutely. Saying the disgusting things he has said, he is acting to suppress the work that is being done in Scientology.'
Around the table, Bob and his colleagues look at me, angry, indignant, bewildered. How could someone attack them like this. It's bigotry, they believe, a symptom of religious bigotry against them.
After lunch, I stand to leave. Pressing more bundles of press releases on me, Bob Keenan and his colleagues smile at me as warmly as they can as they show me the door to the Fitzroy Street office. These are the true believers. They have given their lives to this faith. They may be weary of the relentlessly negative way we write about them, but they have come to expect nothing less.