There’s a long literary tradition of celebrities’ children writing vicious take-downs of their parents. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both had daughters who wrote books painting them as drunken tyrants who used their children as props to enhance their public image; one of Bing Crosby’s sons wrote a similar screed. More recently, Mackenzie Phillips wrote a book detailing how her drug-addled father, John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, turned her on to drugs and had a 10-year affair with her.
It happens so often it’s become an accepted literary sub-genre: angry children picking up a pen to seek revenge on their celebrity parents (and collect a little blood money) in exchange for their lost childhoods. It’s a form of therapy, they often say, that helps them exorcise their demons.
And now Ron Miscavige has exorcised a few demons of his own by subverting that formula.
In Ruthless: Scientology, My son David Miscavige, and Me (St. Martin's Press, $26.99), he paints his son — the leader of the Church of Scientology and the successor to founder L. Ron Hubbard — as an abusive tyrant who has transformed a once-useful religion into a cult devoted to worshipping him, squeezing every possible cent out of church members and treating those who devote their lives to the church like sharecroppers whose measly wages will never get them out of debt at the company store — or off the church’s palatial plantation.
And if they do try to leave, the elder Miscavige says, they are typically tracked down and brought back by a combination of force, coercion and psychological intimidation. For the very few who do manage to escape and forge a new life outside the church, there awaits a special form of punishment: disconnection. That’s the church’s policy of requiring its members to shun family members who dare to leave the church or even criticize it.
“I wrote this book specifically to expose the disconnection policy,” the 80-year-old Miscavige said in a recent interview. “Four years after I escaped, my two daughters, their children and my great grandchildren are still not talking to me and won’t allow me to see them. And it’s not just my family that’s been shattered — it’s happened to a lot of people.”
Miscavige’s utilitarian prose isn't likely to win any style awards, but this first-person memoir works as well as it does because it feels like it was written more in sorrow than in anger. Miscavige comes across as a regretful father who, aside from the constant fighting with his wife, did a pretty good job of raising his family. He doesn’t understand how the son whose diapers he changed, whose asthma he helped get under control could've turned out to be such a monster.
Miscavige says he still holds out a slim hope that his son will see the error of his ways and reform himself and change the dehumanizing church policies that eventually drove Miscavige out: “There’s always a chance Dave may read it and think, 'Wait a minute — maybe I should change some things about myself and about the church.'"
For now, though, the church is fighting back in its usual way, he says. “They’ve bought up over 500 iterations of my name online and they all direct to a website that depicts me as a horrible person.”
By now it’s no secret that the Church of Scientology, based in L.A. but with a worldwide presence, is a pretty strange organization with a bizarre origin story and many weird rules and policies. There have been many well-researched exposes, like Lawrence wright’s 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. There are also plenty of first-person, my-life-inside-Scientology horror stories like the actress Leah Remini’s Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, published just last year. The stories differ in their individual details, but they all agree on one point: a once well-intentioned church has become a cult whose members have created a separate reality from the rest of society. So Miscavige doesn’t break much new ground here in terms of pure shock value in terms of what goes on inside the “church,” which was granted tax-exempt status in 1993.
An ex-Marine who had modest success as a musician and a salesman, Ron Miscavige introduced his family to Scientology and spent more than 26 years in the church before escaping in 2012. But this book is not primarily about the psychological or physical horrors he saw while living and working in the Sea Org, an upper-level division of the church akin to a monastery in a regular church.
It’s true that he did see plenty of horrors, both brutal and banal, and he's not shy about recounting them. His mail was read, his phone calls were monitored and he says he went years at a time without a single day off from his church duties, which primarily involved making music for church productions and promotions. And for a long time he was relatively protected by his unique status as the father of the church’s leader. Others, he says, had it far worse than he did.
But his real focus is elsewhere.
This is a more subtle approach to Scientology and its flaws. It’s a painful-to-read attempt to answer a fundamental question: How the hell did a young boy who was an affectionate, happy, bright kid with a great sense of humor and a genuine desire to help others grow into a selfish, abusive monster who surrounds himself only with people who suck up to him? Someone who lives a lavish lifestyle while those who work for him live no better than medieval serfs?
The only answer Ron Miscavige can come up with, after more than 200 pages of telling his family’s story, is as old as the sun, the moon and the stars: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Once David secured his status as Hubbard’s successor following the founder’s death in 1986 — in an opaque and byzantine battle for leadership that resembles the ones that followed the deaths of Stalin in Russia and Mao in China — he consolidated his power over the years until his word was law and no one dared challenge him on anything. His temper tantrums, obsession with celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and abusive management style are recounted in excruciating detail.
But the most compulsively readable part of this effort to understand the inexplicable trajectory of his son’s life is the last third, in which the now 80-year-old Miscavige recounts his long slow slide into alienation from the church — and the son — he once loved. The climax, his escape from the church’s Gold Base in Hemet, California, is riveting, both for its planning and execution. Reading how he avoided the church’s “chase car, parked at the guard gate where everyone going in and out must pass, is worth the price of admission alone.
Today, he says his thoughts often drift back to the Scientologists he left behind.
“There are a lot of people that would like to get out, just like I did,” he says. “But they have no money and nowhere to go.” And he accepts some responsibility for what has happened to his family. “I got my family into Scientology with good intentions,” he says. “I never could have imagined the way it’s turned out.”
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