Debunking a movement

Exposing some of the unsavory claims that Tom Cruise, John Travolta and other celebrities would rather you didn't know about Scientology

Pasadena Weekly/August 1, 2005
By Carl Kozlowski

For nearly 20 years, Tom Cruise has been Hollywood's Golden Boy. The star of Top Gun," "Risky Business" and, most recently, "The War of the Worlds," Cruise has attributed his vast success to being a follower of Scientology, a self-help movement-turned-religion which claims the ability to "clear" its followers from all their problems. It seemed like the perfect match: the man with the perfect smile advocating for a group that offers perfection.

But in May, Cruise seemingly went, well, a little crazy. He suddenly announced his engagement to Katie Holmes, an actress whom no one had ever seen him with before late April. He leapt on Oprah's couch like a 5-year-old on a sugar kick. And just when you thought Tom could use a good dose of Ritalin, he was embarrassing himself on the "Today Show" by arguing that he knew more about psychiatry and its alleged evils than his interviewer, Matt Lauer.

Suddenly, people were wondering what was wrong with Mr. Perfect. And his attempts to pump up his church amidst all the publicity appear to have backfired, provoking widespread media coverage of Scientology that is reopening a 50-year history of claims alleging overarching greed, fraud, judicial chicanery, near-terroristic threatening of the church's critics, and the fact that the heart of the church's beliefs center around the claim that every human's stresses are in reality the souls of aliens attaching themselves to their bodies.

Throw in claims of mysterious deaths, an affidavit claiming that the church attempts to coerce abortions from its staff members, and a host of Web sites exposing some of Scientology's dirtier little secrets and suddenly the perfect church doesn't seem, as Cruise and others like him might lead you to believe, all that perfect.

The endless loop

A band of ex-members are making sure the full extent of Scientology's dark side is exposed for all to see.

The method they're using to attack the multibillion-dollar, multi-operational, worldwide institution is surprisingly simple: exposing Scientology's darkest secrets, which for nearly 50 years were only revealed to their top members, on the Internet. And the church has responded by softening some of its more blatant recruitment tactics while its leaders claim its more extreme aspects are aberrations of the past.

Even better, it all started with a connection in Pasadena. For it was here, in the late 1940s, that eventual Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard - then a middling science-fiction author - fell into the warped social circle of famed JPL rocket engineer Jack Parsons, who proudly considered himself to be the Antichrist and frequently conducted orgies and other debauched events amid the wealthiest streets of Pasadena. According to the book, "Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons," by John Carter and Robert Anton Wilson, both Hubbard and Parsons shared a fascination with occultism and infamous black magic practitioner Aleister Crowley.

"While there's quite a bit of indications that he was involved in Parsons' magic movement, Scientology claims that Hubbard was really an opposing undercover agent trying to expose them," said Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas who specializes in "new religious movements."

"Hubbard met lots of people everywhere he went," countered Chel Stith, a 34-year member and president of the Los Angeles Church of Scientology, during a recent interview. "But if you look at everything Hubbard devoted his life and writings to, helping elevate mankind to their best nature, it doesn't match in any way with the idea of living a life filled with random sex and drugs."

Miller points out that Scientology has been riddled with inconsistencies, mixing positive and negative qualities, since its very founding in 1950 by Hubbard, who created the church as a self-help movement after publishing a "modern guide to mental health" called "Dianetics."

For instance, they've proven to be one of the most litigious groups in America, barraging their critics and opponents with countless lawsuits and often outspending their way to victory. Yet speculation that some members have died as a result of the church's "care" is more questionable.

Miller, along with many other authorities on the church and ex-members, also takes issue with church leaders' membership figures, in which they estimate eight million members in more than 150 nations. Stith claims an LA County membership of 40,000. Some peg the real total as low as 50,000 members whose excessive financial commitment propels the church's unknown worth into estimated tens of billions of dollars.

Miller also takes issue with whether the church subjects its live-in members to slave labor, a frequent accusation in which critics claim that many Scientology staffers are subjected to working at least 60 hours a week for as little as $4 a week.

"People get very devoted to their religious, social and political causes, but to my mind, slave labor has to be something you don't wanna do and you have to be locked up to do it," said Miller. "Most religions want money, but they seem unusually good at it. The prices they charge are extraordinary, but people voluntarily pay."

What constitutes "extraordinary," exactly?

Scientology consists of an extensive series of highly invasive personal tests called "audits" and classes that a member must take to climb the church's "bridge," a series of levels that gain them greater and greater insights into their true nature and a clearing of all the issues that vex their mental and emotional lives.

The problem is that the big final lesson is basically a riddle: Now that you know what you are not, begin to find out what you are. Basically, the church offers a never-ending trip into the subconscious, only one that's far less enjoyable than dropping out of college and following the Grateful Dead.

And most members never even get to that official final level of OT VIII (Operating Thetan at the eighth level) - the biggest reward, at which they're also told they have the power to control time and space, create universes and never get sick again. So the level everyone really strives for is OT III, where the first lessons about aliens and immortality come in.

"They have beliefs in reincarnation and past lives," explained Miller. "And they believe that they are basically immortal, because the more dedicated members in an elite level called Sea Org sign billion-year contracts to work for the church. Imagine making it to the highest level and learning that it's basically an endless loop of lessons and auditing that you'll never really get out of."

Sea Org

Along the way, members learn that their lifelong beef with their dad or their bad luck at finding well-paying employment doesn't just stem from internal hurdles. Nope, those forces that are holding them back are really "thetans," alien spirits that have been clinging to human bodies by the thousands ever since an evil intergalactic alien overlord named Xenu tried to imprison them on earth 75 million years ago.

By the time a member gets to hear these "truths" and feel stupid about them (many are rumored to endure psychological breakdowns upon realizing their years in the group have been all for naught), they've already typically been sucked in financially to the tune of $30,000 to $500,000, are considered by many critics to be brainwashed and likely have been "disconnected" from the lesser beings known as their families.

Not surprisingly, Stith takes issue with many of these claims as well.

"We have brochures when you tour our facilities that make the costs clear, and we charge from nominal amounts like $65 to higher level amounts like $2,000 depending on whether you want to keep learning more, but the more expensive ones are four-month courses. We don't ask people to tithe 10 percent of their incomes, as in Christianity. And you can take or leave any aspect of our church at any time if it doesn't work for you," Stith said.

"What inspired me to join was I was looking for answers and solutions. I read 'Dianetics' and thought it was a solution for helping other people," said Tory Christman, a former member now living in Burbank who spent 31 years in Scientology between 1969 and 2000 before quitting. "But I got near the top and realized it was a scam. I was OT VII for seven years and they wound up saying we weren't trained right and needed to retrain from scratch. A bunch of us finally went 'forget it.'"

Christman offered a sarcastic, no-nonsense assessment of Scientology and what she flat out terms its "evil" qualities. She was especially happy to talk because she had just realized that that day was the 5-year anniversary from the day she walked out on the organization.

Christman's duties within Scientology had consisted of working for the Office of Special Affairs, a notorious "security"-oriented faction within Scientology that critics claim is responsible for the church's frequent stream of lawsuits targeting their enemies, and even more unsavory tricks such as character defamation designed to scare opponents into submission under what is known as "Fair Game" tactics.

"I don't think any of us say you should or should not have beliefs, but I speak out because of Fair Game, where you can lie, cheat and attack those who differ with you," explained Christman. "I was in charge of setting up phony accounts on the Internet that were designed to shut down free speech by blocking out opponents' sites or trick-routing people to pro-Scientology sites when they were looking for opposing information."

Along the way, Christman tried to join Sea Org, a branch of Scientology whose members are deemed more "elite" than others despite the fact they're the only members required to sign the big billion-year commitment and they have to live in group settings while considerations of marriage and children are seriously frowned upon as distractions from working for the cause.

In fact, in what might be the most disturbing revelation of all, anti-Scientology Web sites feature the signed affidavit of Mary Tabayoyon, a former high-level Sea Org staffer who revealed that the church attempts to verbally coerce and harass Sea Org members into having abortions. A hard copy of the affidavit was also provided to the Weekly by her attorney, Graham Berry, and reveals her own experience and that of others, in which pregnant people were urged to abort because children were a distraction from working for the church.

"The majority of members live out in the public, but the Sea Org gets young, idealistic people to come in and save the planet and they give them a lot of power to control things and that's how they keep them," said Christman. "Who else would give people that young such power? Kids get into that thing, and it's a trap, a very bad trap. I gave them my whole adult life. I don't want others to do the same unless they know both sides."

For her part, Stith claimed that allegations of coerced abortions are patently ridiculous, stating that her sister is a member of Sea Org, has five children and moved to St. Louis and then Albuquerque simply because the church offered positions in those cities as a slower-paced alternative in which to better raise her family. And Stith herself proudly noted that she herself is a mother of four, and is an artist who merely works 40 hours a week for the church.

"We would never advocate or pressure someone to have an abortion. We don't deny someone's legal right to have one if they choose, but we do try to teach people to be responsible both in using birth control but also in raising their kid if at all possible if they have one anyway," Stith said. "It's right there in 'Dianetics.'"

Searching the Web

For Christman, the will to leave came from her disgust with the most two-sided aspect of Scientology. There is perhaps nothing Hubbard claimed to hate more than psychiatry, which many critics and historians believe stemmed from the fact he had a lifelong love of the sea that led him to join the Navy, only to be diagnosed as mentally unstable and discharged from the service.

Hubbard retaliated by inventing Dianetics, crafting a self-help philosophy that was supposedly gleaned from the best of the lessons he learned from diverse cultures while traveling the earth since childhood. (Numerous judges and historians have proclaimed Hubbard as everything from an outright liar to wildly exaggerating his life's adventures, however.)

And as Scientology flowed out from there, he made sure his followers believed that the answer to nearly every sort of affliction lay in "clearing" the body through auditing or taking a bizarre mix of vitamins and other allegedly natural materials rather than turning to traditional medical professionals.

The ironic and even shocking fact is that upon Hubbard's death in 1986 at age 74 (so much for immortality), the coroner's report revealed that he had "a band aide affixed to the right gluteal area where 10 recent needle marks are recognized of 5-8 cm." Meaning, the King of No Medicine had himself been shot in the ass with something soon before his death.

And the fact that the "post mortem examination was refused because of religious reasons" also proved strange - as a member of the District Attorney's office advised "immediate toxicology be performed on body fluids." The fluids, which were not handed over easily by church officials, were also found to have traces of the anti-anxiety medication Vistaril.

"I speak out because I know tons of people who died in Scientology, because of their fraud with guys like Tom Cruise telling people not to take meds. Those are abuses that should not be allowed," said Christman, who finally walked out after suffering grand mal seizures when the church refused to let her take epilepsy medications. "Hubbard was on meds all his life and he had them the whole time."

Stith, however, denies the allegations that Hubbard was on mental medications.

"He might have been taking some medicine for asthma, but he certainly was not under any medicine for psychiatric reasons," she said, despite being told that the Weekly had a copy of Hubbard's death certificate and coroner's report showing otherwise.

Judging from what a reporter who covered Hubbard's early Florida days has to say, it sounds like the founder was out to sea in more ways than one.

"Hubbard was seeking a land base for what had been a seagoing operation for a long time, and he, in the early '70s, decided to build in Clearwater, Fla. Until then, for years they were more or less chased around the world by police and refused berthing rights," said Rich Lieby, a Washington Post reporter who started writing about Scientologists up close while working for the local Clearwater newspaper. "Hubbard was in the Navy in World War II so he called himself the commander and transformed Scientology into the Sea Org, giving a nautical flavor to all the uniforms. "

Lieby's recollections of the way Scientology operated in Florida - creating an East Coast outpost nearly more impressive than their expansive California holdings - sheds light on several of the business practices of Scientology.

First they used a front organization to buy the property, calling themselves the United Churches of Florida without actually uniting with other churches.

At the same time the Scientologists were building their national headquarters, the FLAG Land Base, in a town that was leery of a church fixated on aliens, Hubbard's wife and eight of his minions were convicted in Washington for waging a massive infiltration of the federal government through the use of phony IRS and Justice Department badges. The illegal activities were in the midst of Scientology's battle with the IRS over receiving tax-exempt status as a legally sanctioned church.

European countries had gotten wise early, with Britain banning the entry of Scientologists from 1968 to 1980 and Germany having already established their permanent ban on the church because it felt it was a cult of personality in the Nazi vein, but the US government found itself reeling from the fact it looked the other way just a little too long. The Scientologists' dream of morphing from self-help group to official religion had begun back in 1969, when Hubbard suddenly ordered crosses with discreetly odd designs - which were in fact modeled on his warlock hero Aleister Crowley's Satanic Cross - planted in the lobbies of all the Scientology offices nationwide.

The Scientologists finally won their battle for tax-exempt religious status in a secret agreement with the IRS in 1993, in which they paid a penalty of $12 million, but church leaders weren't only hoping to avoid taxation of its vast holdings. In fact, they were canny enough to know that due to church-state separation, police and other authorities would be highly unlikely to investigate the church's operations.

A final bonus was the knowledge that church divisions like Christman's Office of Special Affairs could get away with utterly outrageous intimidation tactics - ranging from incessant phone calls and wiretaps to spreading flyers accusing critics of being pedophiles and filing enough lawsuits to drive opponents bankrupt via legal costs alone - because no one would ever believe a church could be that crazy.

Their biggest battleground in recent years, however, seemed to be on the Internet. Not only did the church encourage members to post generic happy Web sites about their membership, but they also engaged in devious tactics such as Christman alleged earlier.

Yet Scientology couldn't clamp down on free speech and cyberspace forever, and their membership is believed to have decreased sharply in the past decade as anyone is free to now read about the church and many of its "truths" on the Web.

A powerful team

The latest wave of publicity, caused by Cruise's aggressive proselytizing and anti-psychiatric arguments, is perhaps a desperate and clueless attempt to win back young minds and reverse the slide.

Renowned ex-Scientologist Arnie Lerma notes that the church realized it had to soften its approach and reinvent some of its techniques. Gone were most of the hard-sell membership-drive techniques of the past, when church members needled passersby to take "personality tests" that allegedly would reveal the stressful areas Scientology could help a person eliminate and then sign them up for books and classes.

As the head of, Lerma has drawn on his decade-long membership in Scientology to craft perhaps the most extensive and highly updated anti-Scientology Web site in the world. Lerma was actually working for Scientology in 1969, having joined at 17 after buying Hubbard's tales of being a war hero and nuclear physicist. He was around for the early days of Clearwater and got to know Hubbard on a very close level.

Ultimately, that closeness to Hubbard would be key to Lerma's break up with Scientology, as he recalls falling in love with the founder's daughter, Suzette. As marriage and family are frowned upon within Sea Org members as unnecessary distractions from church devotion, they were about to elope when she spilled the beans in one of her auditing sessions.

"I was given the option of leaving Florida with all my body parts intact if I told her the wedding was off, and that's a quotable fact," said Lerma. "So I told her and she cried. I was shocked like shock therapy and that woke me up. I was free."

Indeed, Lerma has become one of Scientology's most fervent critics, with his site tagging itself "Exposing the Con." He says he was there the day Hubbard ordered the Satanic Crosses rolled into church offices, as the church replaced its secular signs and symbols across the board with occult imagery designed to mislead the public and more importantly, the government into believing they were a fairly mainstream religion.

He has experienced retaliation for his Web work, in the form of a raid on his house by Scientologists and US marshals who searched all his computer drives for the church's copyrighted materials, such as information on thetans and climbing the Bridge. Yet he has soldiered on, as nothing was found worthy of shutting his efforts down.

In contrast, a decade ago Scientologist lawyers were able to launch 100 suits at a time against the former top anti-cult web group, the Cult Awareness Network, drive it into bankruptcy and then purchase the name. Today, calls to CAN are fruitless, as Scientology members trick concerned family members with claims that CAN is objective and membership in the church is harmless. The very fact that Lerma is up and thriving online is just one sign that the church might be losing its grip.

"They love luring celebrities because they think it helps them win over countless more young people, and the celebrities stay with it both because every imaginable whim is catered to but because they've revealed every blackmailable secret in their auditing sessions over the years," said Lerma. "Meanwhile, those stars' needs are met by staffers who are either in it for life and vastly underpaid or by members who have run out of money for the church's services and are basically slaving to pay it off."

Just as the roots of Scientology began here in Pasadena with the bizarre friendship of Hubbard and Jack Parsons, its weaknesses with the Web also began here, in a US District Court in Pasadena. The case Church of Scientology International vs. Fishman and Geertz resulted in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco denying Scientology's appeal to seal its "upper level materials" about the OT levels, Xenu and other high-level church secrets.

The case began with a 1991 lawsuit against former Scientologist Steven Fishman and his psychiatrist, Dr. Uwe Geertz, after they were quoted at length in a classic Time magazine exposé on the church. Fishman had been convicted several years before of taking part in a Scientology securities class action fraud scheme in Florida, and in order to defend himself fully in this lawsuit without a lawyer he had won the right to use the previously secret materials in his defense.

Geertz's attorney, Graham Berry, heard about Fishman's materials and offered to help him as much as he could for free. When the men teamed up to accomplish a staggering success against Scientology that finally enabled the "upper materials" to stay open and be read anywhere, the truth was finally free and available to anyone exploring Scientology on the Web.

"Robert Vaughn Young was a high-level Scientology executive who escaped the church, and he said the Internet would prove to be the church's Waterloo and lead to their demise," said Berry, who has spent the past decade as a living victim of the church's retaliatory techniques. "I believe that's self-evident with the fact Fishman filed a worldwide affidavit where the information on Scientology is on the 'Net for free while its members traditionally paid up to a half-million dollars to reach the same level of knowledge."

After helping win the Fishman case, Berry found his homosexuality outed on the Web, along with further accusations that he was a pedophile. He believes that Scientologists set out to slander him on nearly every level and managed to break him financially by tying up all his time through a string of lawsuits against him. The final blow came when Scientologists convinced the state's judicial system to label Fishman a "vexatious litigant," a label that cost him his ability to practice law in California and, amazingly, can't appeal his way out of.

Yet even now, living off government assistance and the kindness of friends and acquaintances, Berry remains unbowed and to this day travels to conferences around the world to speak out against the church's ruthless tactics.

"Scientology will never understand how strongly friends can support you, and it drives them nuts that I'm not in a gutter somewhere," Berry noted. "But I will not remain silent, for they already have done all they can against me. I have nothing left to lose, and sometimes that's the most powerful state to be in."

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