What is going on with this cult of celebrity is akin to the moment in the Batman series when it stops being a Tim Burton live-action cartoon and Christopher Nolan takes over to show us how dark and fucked up the scenario really is. The old buffoon Jack Nicholson is no longer the Joker. It’s now Heath Ledger’s version, a more authentic, malformed, psychopathic threat to humanity and to himself, so much so the actor will die afterwards but receive a posthumous Oscar.
That’s my impression of Scientology today. Once a titillating joke of tabloids and late-night comedians that gave most rational people such wicked pleasure, it has been revealed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright in his 2011 article for The New Yorker, The Apostate, and in the subsequent book that arose from that piece, Going Clear, to be very much Ledger’s Joker: a malformed, psychopathic threat to humanity.
I’m exaggerating, maybe; despite boasting a worldwide membership of 4.4 million, The Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates there are only twenty-five thousand Scientologists in the U.S., which hardly makes the religion a threat to humanity, no matter what acts of cruelty, deception and thievery they get up to. Hitler and Stalin were a real threat to humanity; after all, they slaughtered and enslaved millions, not a few thousand. It’s all in the numbers, right?
No. Whether it is one, a few thousand or millions, violating human rights is equal and uniformly wrong.
I haven’t read Going Clear, which was released last week. The extensive precursor article, which is twenty-six pages online, was more than enough, not to mention more wicked fun that anything that came before it in the tabloids—reading it is as satisfying as watching an annoying, pernicious pest being slowly ground underfoot by an avenging angel in steel-toed boots. I did read a laundry list in The Daily Beast of salient discoveries that Wright has made about the cult in the book, and I’d estimate seventy-five percent of them are covered in the article.
Wright cleverly humanizes his piece by giving it a face we recognize via a hero—more like an anti-hero, as I see it—the two-time Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby). A former high-level Scientologist who left the organization when its San Diego chapter supported Prop 8, the referendum that overturned the legality of gay marriage in California, Haggis has for a long time held some fascination for me: He is a highly intelligent, talented man with enviable energy and eclectic, wide-ranging interests. What was he doing as part of a tabloid joke for thirty-five years?
Haggis likes being a part of what everyone else despises and condemns, apparently. Um, okay.
Having just sung his praises, while I liked Million Dollar Baby, my reaction to a friend when I came out of a screening of Crash was, “I feel like I’ve been in a collision with the heaviest soundtrack in history, and it’s left me paralyzed from the mind down.” Still, there is no denying the man is gifted, and scripting two Best-Picture winners back to back is unprecedented. That’s what I call being on a roll.
Aside from the “I loves me a good pariah” excuse, Haggis does admit that he used the organization to get ahead in Hollywood, and that he duped his Scientology auditors—those sci-fi creatures who “clear” you for the next level of this massive, intricate game of Let’s Pretend—into thinking he was making progress. But for the most part he really did believe in what he was following.
As a Hollywood person with some tangential experience of Scientology (as most Hollywood people do)—particularly as someone with direct experience of another character mentioned in Wright’s article, actor Jason Beghe—my feeling is Haggis is being disingenuous. He’s duping us as he’s duped his auditors: He did it mainly for the career advancement, and it worked. Beautifully. Did he buy into it from time to time? I don’t doubt it; that is the appeal of cult fiction, especially for creators of fiction. But by and large I feel his participation was mercenary.
Jason Beghe is a midlevel film actor who also rose to the upper echelons of the cult only to defect and become an outspoken critic. Unlike Haggis, who is too famous and powerful to be seriously threatened by the Stalin-esque head of the cult, David Miscavige, Jason seems to have suffered considerable persecution after he left and perhaps some blacklisting on those productions the Church could affect, or so it is implied by Haggis when he cast Jason in The Next Three Days and Jason warned the director that the Church wouldn’t be pleased. After seeing a portion of Jason’s two-hour interview from 2008 on YouTube, I can see why this most paranoid and litigious of religious groups might have been after him. (Still, well done, man.)
I knew Jason in Paris in the early 80s, when I was a lanky, insecure nineteen-year-old fashion photographer’s assistant and he was a super-charming, super-handsome, super-manly model with acting aspirations. He was a favorite of a photographer I was assisting, and a flavor-of the-month model in general in Paris, so I spent quite a bit of time with him, and ended up developing a considerable crush that was mixed with not a little envy. Jason is my perfect guy: masculine, fair, handsome, a jock and intellectual enough to engage me beyond physical attraction.
Normally, I could pull myself above these meathead male models by looking down on them from the point of view of my socio-cultural status, but Jason is also a native New Yorker from the right side of the tracks, who attended Collegiate, the private all-boys school I was enrolled in before my family suddenly moved to Rome when I was five. (I later graduated Collegiate’s one-time rival Trinity School.)
Jason was polite to me, but kept his distance; perhaps he could sense the attraction (I’m hardly subtle), and while he flirted heavily with the gay editors and stylists, I was perhaps of too little consequence for him to be bothered with. Or maybe I was just too much of a snarky cunt. Or maybe it was the combination of the two; after all, crush plus envy plus unrequitedness equals snarky cunt, in the equation of a teen homo.
The last time I saw Jason was when we went on a two-day trip to Deauville on the coast of Normandy for Vogue Hommes (or some publication like that). There was another model with us, one of those massive Herb Ritts meatheads from his iconic early-80s photos of shirtless guys holding truck tires like they’re Frisbees, the kind of image that catapulted Ritts to the top of the fashion world. The other guy had little between his ears other than steroids and fitness, but Jason was reading some esoteric book and was decidedly contemplative for most of the trip. And of course charming and the unequivocal star of the show.
In the early 80s, the legal gambling age in France was still twenty-one (it was later lowered to eighteen), so I was unable to join the rest of the team and the models when they went off to the Casino d’Hiver after we’d wrapped the shoot. I was left in my hotel room to stare at the wallpaper for hours, which is an experience that might have informed the dancing commedia dell’arte characters that decorate this website; they are similar in color and style to the wallpaper the five-star Hotel Normandy had at the time.
If I could sit beside that dejected, lonely teen right now, I’d poke him and tease him, and tell him to stop being so hard on himself by reminding him that he is only nineteen, in a five-star landmark hotel in Deauville on a shoot for Vogue Hommes, assisting one of the better photographers of the day. I’d ask him what the real problem is, and get him to confess that he’s both in love with Jason and bitterly envious of him. I’d tell him that Jason will never be the mega star he seems he is going to become at that moment, but that he will go on to become a Scientologist and make something of a fool of himself in the process, and seek redemption by helping young Scientologists who have been trapped since birth in the cult. My teen self would giggle wickedly and smile, but would later end up showing at least as much compassion towards Jason as the model showed towards him when the “grown ups” were departing the hotel for the casino and leaving him all alone to stare at the faux eighteenth-century dusty rose wallpaper. (From my recollection, Jason was reluctant to go because we couldn’t all be together, despite my being a snarky cunt.)
The similarity between Jason and Haggis is that they are both so bright, and yet seem to have fallen for this ridiculous charade of a religion, which is redundant, I know. If I observe Jason now as my teenaged self in the changing room at a photo studio in Paris, watching him in his underpants while he let himself be tickled by the flaming-queen fashion editor, despite being decidedly straight himself, my assessment is that his participation in the cult, like Haggis’, was probably also mostly mercenary, some of it conscious, most of it subconscious. And, perhaps, along the way he forced himself to buy that ludicrous cult fiction in order to justify those mercenary actions.
The “cleansing” aspect of Scientology is also appealing, at least on its surface. This notion that you can empower yourself to become some sort of superman fully in charge of your own destiny over lifetimes would suit the Jason Beghe I knew back then, and the one I see now on YouTube. It is somewhat ironic, but entirely appropriate, that Jason recently starred in the second part of the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, as the übermensch Henry Rearden, of course.
Does Scientology influence Hollywood that much? To a certain degree, perhaps, but not to the extent outsiders think. I was once made to take out jokes about the cult from a spec script for a TV show of the kind Haggis wrote early in his career. Then again, my writing partner at the time was married to a man whose business partner was one of the higher-level “celebrity” Scientologists, so she wanted no rocking the boat for just a couple of gags that weren’t very funny, anyway.
Indeed, Scientology has become too much of a soft target, too much of a joke, especially after Haggis’ defection. Other than Tom Cruise, who has ridiculed himself considerably and steadfastly after bouncing on Oprah’s sofa, and John Travolta, who has disgusted everyone both Scientologist and not with his creepy closet antics, I’m not sure there is anyone with the kind of clout to influence the industry to the degree that we should all remain cowered. But I might be wrong; if I’m an outsider in the indie film world, the core of Hollywood is mercifully galaxies away from me.
That L. Ron Hubbard was insane is beyond a shadow of a doubt. Like Moses and Jesus and Mohammed and Joseph Smith before him, Hubbard was, in my estimation, schizophrenic. Because he was born in the post-Freud era, he was labeled as mentally ill, and as a way of refuting any diagnosis took an aggressive stand against psychiatry. His successor, David Miscavige, who was once his assistant, would seem to be a sociopath. I’ll let you make your own assessment after you’ve read Wright’s investigation, but Miscavige’s bold-faced lying, his myriad other deceptions, his sanctioning and direct involvement with human trafficking, his manipulations and misuse of funds (i.e., theft), his physical violence, his utter lack of compassion, his rabid acts of callous vindictiveness all point to the leader—Tom Cruise’s best man at his weddings, the person the actor looks up to the most—being a text-book case of that most dangerous of all personality disorders.
Scientology might be one of the few religions founded in the 20th century to have survived into the 21st, but that’s because it really took off in the past forty years—it’s not even a hundred years old. Its credibility is eroding in Hollywood, and is unlikely to thrive beyond the Cruise-Travolta-Will Smith era as it once did—all of these guys are heading out to pasture soon.
It should also be noted that the vast majority of people in the film business have not relied on Scientology to get ahead. At the risk of sounding like the anti-Semite I am emphatically not, it pays far more to be a part of the cult of Judaism, if you see cronyism and not talent as the way forward, which I don’t, and nobody with any real firsthand knowledge of how we conduct business does, either.
What will keep the Church going is its formidable assets in terms of property and cash (over a billion dollars liquid), and the willingness of some people to believe just about anything, the more incredible the better. But those people are very few in terms of percentage of the human race, and as the cult’s credibility dwindles all that will remain is the functionally insane, or those poor wretches brainwashed since childhood because they were born into Scientology.
However much people may moan about modern times, this isn’t the Middle Ages; we have a very good understanding of the hogwash “science” behind Scientology. It is on a par with the charlatanry behind a Jewish messiah walking on water, multiplying fishes and loaves, and raising the dead, not to mention what Joseph Smith added to that for Mormonism. Fortunately, this greatest of all frauds called religion is collapsing as humanity evolves at an increasingly faster pace, and not a moment too soon.
And then there is Wright’s article and book. It may not be revolutionizing to the general populous that is only affected by the cult when they have no choice but to read about the latest celerity scandal at the supermarket checkout. But to the world that Scientology infects—the moneyed elite of New York, Florida and Southern California that has hitherto been its support structure—it will matter a great deal. Regardless of the lies and the denials from Miscavige and his minions, the truth is out there now, succinctly reported by one of our most respected journalists, published in our most august and flawlessly fact-checked publications.
So, Mr. Miscavige, by all means take our village idiots, our deluded, our hallucinating, provided they come to you of their own free will and are not enslaved, much less subjected to so much violence. Let them take saunas and digest niacin, be audited and hypnotized, and even build sandcastles for your pleasure and greater glory. But you should be taxed, and investigated for your abuses; these are some seriously criminal acts of which you are being accused. I hope the FBI clamps down soon. And if, as you say, you are comparable to the persecuted early Christians, I’ll be sure to have a front-row seat in the Coliseum to watch you be eaten alive by lions.