'Tom Cruise Told Me to Talk to a Bottle': Life at Scientology's Secret Headquarters

The Village Voice/November 4, 2009

Marc Headley's remarkable account of his 15 years as an employee at Scientology's formerly secret international headquarters east of Los Angeles, Blown for Good, officially goes on sale Thursday. He sent the Voice a review copy, and then in a telephone interview provided additional details that aren't in the 383-page book, which will be available for sale at his website, blownforgood.com.

In 1990, not long after he was assigned to the sprawling Scientology compound at Gilman Hot Springs, near Hemet, California, Headley was told that he would be excused from his normal duties so that Tom Cruise -- fresh off his most recent success, the movie Days of Thunder -- could practice auditing on him.

Headley writes that he was selected for two reasons: although he'd already spent several years at Scientology schools and working for the church, he had participated in little auditing, and had completed few of the courses that Scientologists pursue as they travel "up the bridge" to a higher status. Also, because he was still only a teenager, Headley was thought to be a minimal security risk.

"[Cruise] was going to do his auditor training and he needed someone to audit and this person had to be low on the bridge. That was me," he writes. Cruise had arrived at the base with his then-girlfriend, Nicole Kidman (they were married later that year), and Headley writes about what a thrill it was when Cruise took him on an impromptu ride on his motorcycle.

In the book, however, Headley doesn't go into any real detail about what transpired during the three weeks that he spent with Cruise as the actor went through his training, using Headley as a guinea pig. What actually happened?

Headley says that Cruise took him through something called the "Upper Indoctrination Training Routines," or "Upper Indoc TRs," in the abbreviation-filled jargon of Scientologists.

And what did those entail?

"You do a lot of things with a book and a bottle," Headley says. "It's known as the book-and-bottle routine." Cruise, he says, would instruct Headley to speak to a book, telling it to stand up, or to sit down, or otherwise to move somewhere.

"You do the same with the bottle. You talk to it. You do it with an ashtray too," he says. "You tell the ashtray, 'Sit in that chair.' Then you actually go over and put the ashtray on the chair. Then you tell the ashtray, 'Thank you.' Then you do the same thing with the bottle, and the book. And you do this for hours and hours."

Let us get this straight. Tom Cruise, who had already starred in Risky Business and Top Gun and Born on the Fourth of July and Days of Thunder, the man who, at the time, was 28 years old and perhaps the biggest movie star in the world, spent hours and hours of each day, for three straight weeks, instructing Headley to speak to inanimate objects, requesting that they get up and move on their own, and when they didn't, told Headley to move them anyway, and then thank them?

"For hours and hours," Headley says.

In God's name, why?

"It was to get your intention over to the bottle."

Your what?

"It was supposed to rehabilitate your ability to control things. And to be controlled," he says.

And there was more. It involved doorknobs.

"Tom would ask me to find a place in the room that I could easily communicate to. I was supposed to look around the room, and then tell him the place I had picked out. I might say, 'the doorknob.' And he'd tell me to over there and touch it. And then he'd say, 'OK. Now do it again with another place.'"

Headley says that after a couple of weeks, he did begin to wonder about trying to make objects move by talking to them. But this was Tom Cruise, and not someone you would question.

That was part of why Headley had been chosen. He was young and green, and had few contacts outside the base.

"It couldn't be someone who might run off the next day and tell the National Enquirer that Tom Cruise was telling me to talk to a bottle for the last three weeks," he says.

As Headley points out, this kind of instruction is quite common in Scientology, and you can even find the routines spelled out in places on the Internet.

But Headley's book also provides stunning material that has rarely been collected in one place, even with the Internet's deep resources on L. Ron Hubbard's strange creation. Headley's account as a whole provides a damning account of life working for Scientology leader David Miscavige at the secretive desert base, where young people who sign billion-year contracts work 100-hour weeks for little or no pay with the ever-present threat that they may be pulled into hellish disciplinary drills, or separated permanently from friends and family members for the slightest perceived infraction.

In 2005, after 15 years working at the base, Headley found himself accused of embezzling money (he'd actually been selling old Scientology equipment on eBay in an approved scheme to raise money for a new base project), and was told he was about to be declared a "suppressive person." He knew he'd probably be sent to the dreaded "Rehabilitation Project Force" in Los Angeles, a kind of prison program that was known to physically debilitate church members through harsh labor and extreme deprivation. He knew also that he'd be separated permanently from his wife of 13 years (she was also a Scientologist at the base) as well as the rest of his family in a notorious policy Hubbard had termed "disconnection."

Before he was scheduled to be interrogated, Headley made a break for it, ditching the base in a dramatic chase with security guards that ended with Headley taking a spill on a motorcycle. An ensuing shouting match with Scientology guards drew the attention of Riverside County sheriff's deputies, who helped Headley get away.

Headley managed to get himself to Kansas City, where his father lived. But then came the real challenge: His wife, Claire, got word to him that she also wanted to defect so that they could be reunited. Would they be able to pull it off now that she was being watched day and night? Her attempt to escape provides a thrilling final chapter to the book, which, while showing some of the rough edges of a self-published tale, is well-paced and an entertaining read.

While he was at Gold Base, as the compound is known, Headley worked many different jobs that generally had to do with manufacturing audio and video products for Scientologists. He also was involved in setting up large stage productions that Miscavige used for celebrating church members but also to shake them down. ("The big events were really about getting people to donate money," Headley says.) And he also was involved in installing audio and video equipment at various Scientology facilities.

Headley provides a vivid picture of what it was like to manufacture thousands of copies of old L. Ron Hubbard speeches on cassette tapes, for example, with equipment that had a tendency to break down and with the fear of reprisals from Miscavige if quotas weren't met.

The diminutive church leader, who wrested control of Scientology after Hubbard died in 1986, spends most of the book screaming at hapless Gold Base workers who rarely seem able to please him. In one incident, Headley writes, when he pointed out, with a touch of sarcasm, that production quotas would be simple to meet with the tens of millions of dollars Miscavige planned to lavish on a new manufacturing facility, the Scientology leader became enraged and assaulted Headley with a rain of blows. Tempted to lay into the much shorter man, Headley was held back by other employees.

Headley's claim that he was beaten echoes the numerous allegations by other former Scientologists in a St. Petersburg Times special investigative report, published earlier this year, which provided compelling evidence that Miscavige is known in Scientology for physically assaulting his employees. (The church has denied that the beatings took place and routinely accuses any former members of lying.)

But we noticed something else interesting about Headley's tales regarding the manufacture of items for Scientologists. On numerous occasions, Headley writes about the fabrication of "e-meters," the small devices that are supposed to work something like lie detectors. Scientologist auditors use them in counseling sessions, but they're also used during interrogations -- called "sec checks" -- during which church workers suspected of wrongdoing are pressured to confess their "crimes."

Headley mentions that the devices cost the church about $40 to make, but were then sold for about $3,000 each. What really caught our attention was Headley's assertion that Miscavige demanded that enough of a new line of e-meters be manufactured so that every member in the world could purchase two of them. (Headley says each working Scientologist is supposed to have a backup unit in case the other fails.)

In order to have that many, Miscavige demanded that 30,000 be built, Headley writes.

We asked Headley, doesn't that imply that there are only 15,000 Scientologists in the world?

"The actual number is more like 10,000. You had to make more than that because various orgs [facilities] needed to have extra on hand," he says. "That figure can be cross-checked so many ways."

When the New York Times recently reported that a French court had found that Scientology was a fraud, it dutifully cited Scientology's own claim that the church has 10 million members worldwide. But the Associate Press this week reported that a survey of Americans and their religious affiliations suggested that this country only has about 25,000 active Scientologists.

Years ago, we watched church president Heber Jentzsch (whose title is largely ceremonial) admit under oath in a court deposition that when Scientology claimed millions of members, it was referring to all of the people who had ever bought a manual or taken a class in the organization's entire history (the church was founded in Los Angeles in 1954).

Headley says there was another method that confirmed his estimate. At especially important events -- like the time Tom Cruise was awarded a "Medal of Valor" in 2004, or at New Year's Eve celebrations -- about 4,000 Scientologists could be counted on to show up at a venue like the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Every other "org" around the world, watching the event on a video feed, would report their own attendance figures. "You added it all up, at every big event, it would always add up to about 10,000. It would never fall to 2,000 or go up to 20,000. It was always about 10,000," Headley says.

As for that Medal of Valor event, Headley provides some fascinating background on the notorious 9-minute video which was created for it featuring Tom Cruise talking about his powers as a Scientologist. The video was leaked to the Internet in January, 2008 and Scientology's attempt to suppress it gave rise to the Anonymous movement, which has been such a thorn in the church's side ever since.

Headley was present as plans were made for the Cruise celebration video. The first version featured various Scientology celebrities talking about how much they loved Cruise. It was a "puff piece" and Miscavige hated it, Headley writes.

"The next batch of interviews done was of non-Scientologists who knew Tom. Everyone from Steven Spielberg to Will Smith was interviewed...Now we had all of these people talking about how Tom Cruise was a really nice guy. Being a nice guy does not get you an IAS Freedom Medal award." Miscavige hated this version too, and there were only a few weeks left before the event.

"David Miscavige ended up dictating the entire Tom Cruise video project. Dave's idea was that no one could talk about Tom Cruise better than Tom Cruise himself."

Headley says that everything - from the segments used, to how they were arranged, to the choice of the music, and the smallest details of the edit -- were all the result of Miscavige's obsessive tinkering.

"Dave Miscavige later said that his Tom Cruise video was one of the most important videos that had ever been produced. He had no idea how true that was," Headley writes, referring to the flood of negative publicity the church has endured since the video was leaked last year.

Headley's book also provides a much richer telling of the now-infamous "Bohemian Rhapsody" incident that the St. Petersburg Times series revealed, and which illustrates Miscavige's harsh notions of church management. Unhappy with a variety of matters involving staffing and, more specifically, with problems at a music studio, Miscavige, Headley writes, happily hit on a way to show his employees that he meant business: he had chairs arranged in a large circle for about 70 executives in a large room. Then he explained that they would begin playing a game of "musical chairs," and he chose Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" for it. Each round, one chair would be taken away, and one person would find themselves without a seat. The last person remaining would stay at the base and would help Miscavige fill the positions vacated by the others -- because everyone else would be shipped out, that night, to the worst, most remote Scientology postings on the globe.

Headley vividly describes the desperate flailing, the wailing, the tears, as grown men and women fought over chairs to keep themselves from being shipped that night to places far away with the likelihood that they would never see their spouses or children ever again. When it was over, and people were openly weeping, they waited to be transported -- and then learned that Miscavige was sending no one anywhere.

"Turns out it was going to cost a fortune to fly all these people all over the place and the logistics were not finalized as to how to ship everybody off to the different continents. Dave had called down late during the night and said that he was not willing to waste one single cent of Scientology's money," Headley writes.

Perhaps the best service that Headley provides with Blown for Good is giving non-Scientologists the sense of what it's really like to work, day in and day out, in such a strange organization, from the lowliest laborer mucking out excrement in a Gold Base pond (Headley says shit was coming out of his ears and pores for days) to what kind of luxuries the celebrities and high-ranking members enjoy. (Even when he was in charge of entire departments, Headley himself was never really a privileged member. After his marriage, he and his wife were lucky that they had to share their two bedroom Scientology apartment with only six other base workers.)

From the fear of meetings with "COB" (David Miscavige's nickname among Scientologists, standing for "Chairman of the Board") to how everyone was trained to eat a meal in only a few minutes (or often went without meals, and usually went without sleep), you get a palpable sense of working for Scientology, or what it was like just trying to be understood: Even in a book written for the general public, Headley can't seem to keep from falling occasionally into an alphabet soup of maddening Hubbard acronyms and jargon.

To illustrate what a foreign language Scientologists speak, he provides this example, spoken by his supervisor soon after he first becomes a church employee: "The ED ordered that I go over to the PAC and see the Dissem Secs from ASHO and AO and get the WUS and EUS T&P BMO lists that we use each week for our SBC promo. I should be back here at the HGB by dinner. If the FBO or Treas Sec ask where I went, can you tell them that I am on a GI cycle for the stats."

What's it mean? Not much. Not anything worth translating, anyway. Headley says it took him years to begin figuring that out, that the nonsense language, the overdetermined hierarchy, the talking to bottles and ashtrays, the constant threat that he'd be separated forever from his wife or his parents -- that none of it added up.

Headley gives credit to a couple of different sources for finally beginning to help him begin doubting his near slavery at Gold Base. Secretly listening on a Walkman while he worked to John & Ken, a comedy duo at Los Angeles radio station KFI, helped him begin to raise questions about life at the base. And even more importantly, he says, he was affected by watching Conan O'Brien, who always seemed to poke fun at Scientology celebrities in a way that was shocking to a Scientologist who always heard them spoken of in hushed tones of awe.

Once Headley was finally able to escape, he found that he didn't become homeless or a drug addict, as he was programmed to believe by his Scientology handlers. Instead, he used the skills he'd learned at the base to open his own multimedia business in Los Angeles. It's thriving, he says, and he and Claire now have two small boys, something they could not have done as long as the two of them had continued working at the compound.

In January, Headley filed a lawsuit against Scientology, claiming that the church had violated labor law by paying him very little or nothing at all during many years at the base. His attorney is Barry Van Sickle, and they've fended off numerous attempts by Scientology to have the lawsuit dismissed. A federal trial is scheduled in the lawsuit for November, 2010.

In the five years since he left the Gilman Hot Springs base, Headley has heard that conditions for the workers there have only worsened. "People are now being escorted by security on their bathroom breaks. Think about that. On their bathroom breaks," he says.

Headley says he gets regular reports on conditions throughout the Scientology organization from many sources.

"There are so many disaffected people in Scientology. So many disaffected Sea Org members, and they want to see everything come out," he says.

He points to the book as an example. The cover design? It's by a former Scientologist who designed many of the church's most iconic publications. And the editing? It was done by a former Scientologist who edited many of the church's most important books. "It's funny," he says with a laugh, when he points that out about his book.

Miscavige, he predicts, won't appreciate the humor. But he will get the message.

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of the Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several different publications. Among his other stories about L. Ron Hubbard's organization.

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