Over the years, I've poked fun at the relatively short stature of Scientology leader David Miscavige. The dude is not tall. Tom Cruise, his bosom buddy and not a man known for his own vertical displacement, has a good couple of inches over the diminutive church leader. But let's give credit where it is due. Next year, it will be 30 years since Miscavige began to consolidate his position as absolute dictator of Scientology, even before its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, went to his reward in 1986. Thirty years, and the guy is still only 51 years old! What Miscavige may lack in stature, he more than makes up for in longevity.
During that time, Miscavige managed to secure tax-exempt status for Scientology, ending a decades-long war with the IRS and settling for a relative pittance ($12.5 million). Without that exemption, Scientology might have already gone the way of other disappearing acts from the 80's, like the Sony Walkman and acid-washed jeans. As the only person who matters within Scientology's byzantine corporate pyramid, Miscavige sits alone on top of a multinational corporate-religious empire. And with that pile of money under him, who needs lifts?
However, as we've been pointing out in this countdown, these are not Scientology's best days. And according to nearly everyone who has recently fled his presence, Miscavige is responsible for every disaster that has befallen the church in the years since he took over control, grabbing the reins of Scientology as the Religious Technology Center's chairman of the board. (Hence, "COB," uttered by his sycophantic junior executives, who reportedly also must salute his beagles.)
As long as we're talking about a space opera church, let us remind you what Princess Leia said to Grand Moff Tarkin, then-leader of the sinister empire in Star Wars: "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." With each passing year, Miscavige continues to do exactly that. He's tightened his grip to the point that he has rid himself entirely of potential challengers. But that purging has also left him without competent executive help, judging by the hapless dolts he has in positions of some authority. Micromanaging an organization that can't help creating its own unceasing public relations disasters requires capable assistance, and the tyrannical Miscavige has made plugging holes in the sinking ship all the more difficult by driving away staff in droves.
Of course, Miscavige himself has been the direct cause of many of those public relations disasters, making an already difficult task all but impossible when his staff has to scramble to mock up fictions and fantasies that don't include the reality that Miscavige was the source (small "s" intended) of the disaster. Lucky for DM, church members are trained to be exceedingly credulous about any fiction that is fed to them by his PR flunkies.
One of Miscavige's more infamous Scientology-crippling blunders was his unwelcome intervention into the life of Lisa McPherson, which ultimately led to her death. As detailed in Janet Reitman's excellent book, Inside Scientology, corroborated accounts told of Miscavige arriving in Clearwater, Florida and voicing his frustration at the members moving "up the bridge" too slowly. He then took a personal interest in Lisa, supervising her auditing sessions and declaring her "Clear" despite the misgivings of, well, actual auditors. And Miscavige continued to be advised, from afar, of Lisa's supposed "care," all the way to her death. Although Miscavige's direct involvement would not fully emerge for years, his direct role in Scientology's single worst public relations disaster ranks high as a cause for Scientology's deterioration.
A few years later, in 1998, Miscavige again showed up in Clearwater, this time to conduct damage control for Lisa's death, as the state of Florida was contemplating criminal charges against Scientology. Miscavige granted a few interviews around this time, the last public interviews he would give. While it's difficult to link Scientology's downfall to the tiny handful of interviews Miscavige has granted (before this was a 1992 interview with ABC's Ted Koppel), his few public appearances provide more than a hint as to how and why Miscavige is harming his organization. As Tom Tobin wrote in 1998 after meeting Miscavige:
He will challenge with a blue-eyed stare or lean forward with a direct, no-nonsense question. His attention sticks to the discussion at hand, and his words shoot out machine gun-style, in the accent of the Philadelphia suburb where he grew up. He will pound a table for emphasis or snap his fingers so hard you imagine they sting.
The flip side to this charitable characterization is that the general public instead saw a smug, humorless church leader with the emotional maturity of a spoiled child.
Apparently, we didn't know the half of it. Only later did news begin to leak about what it was like to actually work for the high school dropout who went practically overnight from Hubbard lackey to all-powerful czar. Is it really any wonder that he turns out to be a monster to work for? Although the lid on Miscavige's penchant for brutality was really blown off in 2009 by Tobin and Childs in their epic series, "The Truth Rundown," his sadistic streak was already on the record. In a 1995 interview, former Sea Org member Stacy Brooks remarked that "[Miscavige's] viciousness and his cruelty to staff was unlike anything that I had ever experienced in my life ... He just loved to degrade the staff."
Perhaps the most vivid depiction of Miscavige cruelty was the infamous musical chairs episode described by Tobin and Childs, during which he kept more than 30 executive staff members cooped up in an L.A. office building, supposedly for the purpose of brainstorming new ideas for Scientology. After weeks of forcing them to sleep on the floor, allowing them to leave only to take a shower, and finally berating them all as disloyal enemies of the church, he announced a game of musical chairs, and whoever lost would be banished to Scientology outposts away from their families. To the tune of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," the executives fought like animals into the wee hours of the morning, only to have Miscavige change his mind about sending anyone anywhere.
When you take into consideration that Scientologists are indoctrinated, practically from the first day, to accept verbal abuse as a normal consequence of their spiritual enlightenment, you begin to understand just how intolerable Miscavige must be: he's chasing off people who had resigned themselves to being poorly fed, paid almost nothing, housed with no privacy, punished like prison inmates, and screamed at constantly over the lives of their billion-year contracts. When these people tell you their boss is an asshole, it really means something!
But let's set aside, for a moment, the media drumbeat in recent years that portrays David Miscavige as a tiny terror. There's another Miscavige that has always fascinated me: the church leader as master of ceremonies.
Our infrequent glimpses of this reclusive religious leader tend to be in the form of videotaped galas which have him standing on a massive stage, surrounded by set dressing that is baroque in the extreme, delivering scripted orations in a style that seems more game show host than ecclesiastical patriarch.
I've recently been watching a recording of Miscavige give such a speech at a gathering four years ago. It was in 2007 that Miscavige had to give one of his career's most crucial performances: he had dared to rework the sacrosanct writings of L. Ron Hubbard, and now he not only had to convince his flock that it wasn't sacrilege to rewrite Hubbard, but that it was worth paying for the privilege to replace every book in their personal libraries.
Working from a thick script, but never seeming to look at it, Miscavige wields his vocal delivery like a blunt instrument. With odd choices of grammar and diction, a tale begins to unfold about Hubbard relying on nameless "transcriptionists" in the late 1940s and early 1950s who had done their jobs poorly. (Somehow, Hubbard never bothered to check their work before allowing his early books to be published. An odd trait in an author as obsessive as L. Ron.)
With Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes cheering him in the front row of a large audience, Miscavige moved on to Hubbard's 1951 book, Science of Survival, and explained that this book's biggest problem was an overuse of semicolons, introduced not by Hubbard but by incompetent transcribers and editors.
Semicolons? You mean, this book's real problem isn't that Hubbard wants his readers to believe that human emotion can be measured on something he called a "tone scale," with "tone 40" representing the highest level on the scale ("serenity of being"), and 1.0 equalling "fear"? (Hubbard would go on to say that homosexuals are 1.1 on the tone scale, which equals "covert hostility.") If it's odd enough that Hubbard suggests that people below 2.0 on the scale have bad breath, smelly feet, and that their genitals reek, he really goes into creepy territory by suggesting that the "sudden and abrupt deletion of all individuals" below 2.0 would make for a better (and apparently sweeter-smelling) world.
No, the suggestion of "quarantining" the world's smelly people is apparently not this book's problem. Instead, it's the punctuation, which required a years-long overhaul, new printing, and appealing new packaging.
With a grin, Miscavige now gets to his punchline:
Yes, this book too is now perfect. And the number of incorrect instances of punctuation that had to be corrected? Hang on to your seat. Three thousand, eight hundred and twenty five.
This thunderous announcement is met -- I kid you not -- with a standing ovation from Scientologists, who must be the only audience in history that would stand and cheer for the replacement of semicolons with periods and commas.
If Miscavige's performance garnered him loving praise from Cruise, Holmes, and the thousand other people that night, the tinkering he's done with Hubbard's sacred writings may actually turn out to be his biggest problem.
Longtime Scientologists, even in their abject credulity, at some point have to wonder if Miscavige's multiple reworkings of Hubbard's works isn't at some level a cynical cash-grab, requiring people accustomed to paying exorbitant prices for spiritual services and goods to pay all over again for books they've already purchased in the past, or to redo expensive levels of training now that they've been retooled. Jason Beghe, who had been at one time one of the most gung-ho of Scientologists, rocketing up "the Bridge" and providing an inspiring example to many in the church, began his disillusionment at such a moment, when he was suddenly told to pay tens of thousands of dollars to redo previous material because Miscavige's drones had found "errors" in Hubbard's work. For Beghe, it was a shock, and one he never really recovered from. Increasingly, we're seeing more evidence that legions of longtime Scientologists are having the same doubts.
As he faces a dwindling membership that shares such doubts, can the Miscavige act -- the stagecraft, the set dressings, the game show delivery -- really be enough to turn things around?
At this point, it appears the church leader is short on ideas, short on patience, and increasingly short on followers.
Given all those problems, can David Miscavige stand tall?