I was once involved with Scientology for a brief period in my early 20s. I knew absolutely nothing about it at the time, and ended up joining by chance: I got handed a flyer on the street about a free personality test, and decided to take it on a whim. My teens and early 20s weren’t always the happiest of times; I suffered from major social anxiety and inability to relate to my peers, which wasn’t helped by my family moving to Australia when I was 15. So I guess I was drawn by the promise that these people could help me out. I haven’t stuck there for long though. It’s not that I felt like something was off, the people were nice and genuine and the auditing exercises I did were often cathartic, but I’m just not a joiner at heart. There’s always a sceptical, detached part of me that stands apart with crossed arms and won’t melt and flow, and thinks that the promotional video I’ve just seen is really quite cheesy. My attitude was, ok I’ve had powerful experiences at your organisation which taught me valuable things about myself, but now, goodbye. No, really, bye. Which of course hasn’t stopped the Melbourne Scientology centre from bombarding my mailbox with spam for the next 15 years.
I didn’t learn until much later that Scientology was actually considered a religion, with a long trail of controversy attached to it, the extent of which I didn’t realise until I watched this documentary the other day. Its maker, Alex Gibney, speaks to an array of former members, including those who used to hold senior positions in the organisation, and also spends the first half of the film looking back at the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard. Admittedly, it’s hardly a balanced view, but there’s no denying that Hubbard’s life was crazy stuff (living on a boat with dozens of adoring disciples at one point). The film speculates that Scientology was a form of self-therapy for its creator, who clearly had some major personal issues.
The real villain of the documentary, though, is Hubbard’s successor David Miscavige, who is portrayed as a ruthless, sinister figure. The testimonies of unpaid labour, physical and psychological abuse, harassment of the former members, manipulation and brainwashing all made for a chilling viewing. The inside footage of the church’s grand ceremonies (how did they get those?) is a rather bizarre mishmash of gaudy Hollywood glitz, Soviet-era pomp and Hubbard deity-worship. The documentary also focuses on two of Scientology’s most valuable Hollywood assets, John Travolta and Tom Cruise, and speculates on the hold the church has over them (since all the auditing sessions are documented, there’s a biiiig pile of the stars’ innermost confessions and secrets locked away somewhere, in case they wanted to walk out). Tom Cruise’s general weirdness has been a butt of jokes for a very long time now so it’s not exactly shocking to see his over-the-top antics in the documentary, but even so the interview where he goes into a creepy laughing fit after being asked if he’s ever met a “suppressive person” still makes you go, wow this guy is mad.
The absolute saddest moment in the whole thing is the bit where the ex-members talk about being “disconnected” by their family and loved ones who are still in the church. The one that almost made me cry was a woman who described how her daughter told her that, while she still loved her, she couldn’t be in contact with her any longer, and how, in that moment, she tried to remember every single detail about the person she was about to lose.
There was also a rather hilarious moment when Paul Haggis, a famed screenwriter and another former member, talks about his what-the-fuck reaction to Scientology’s origin story, which you don’t get to know until you reach a certain level and which involves a galactic overlord Xenu bringing billions of alien souls to Earth to solve an overpopulation crisis. To be totally fair, I don’t think it’s any weirder than most of the world’s mainstream religions, who simply have the benefit of greater familiarity and the respectability that comes with being around for thousands of years. What separates Scientology though is that other religions are totally upfront about their core beliefs, whereas Scientology gets people in under the guise of personal development, and only dumps the Xenu stuff later when they’re sucked in so far into it all it doesn’t make them quit even if they find it laughable.
Paul Haggis by the way comes off as a very likeable guy (Crash and Million Dollar Baby are still garbage though).