Friday night, Hollywood. I’m at dinner with my wife and two friends. The restaurant seems ordinary but the wine list features bottles costing more than $1,000, and our waiter – there’s something not quite right with his French accent – keeps vanishing, leaving us with only a closed-circuit TV camera for company. We look out of the window at a floodlit lawn with tall palms and rocky water features. There’s a glass building to our right. Within it, we can make out a blue glow and several rows of straight-backed chairs facing a screen – upon which is projected the giant, sombre image of L. Ron Hubbard.
It’s surprisingly easy to get a reservation here at the Renaissance restaurant, which is in the conservatory of one of LA’s grandest buildings, the Château Élysée – a towering Norman-revival castle on Franklin Avenue, built in the 1920s and bought in the 1970s by the Church of Scientology, which renamed it the Celebrity Centre. The building, which includes a detox facility and a 39-room hotel – endorsed by John Travolta – has been beautifully restored for well under market cost, partly by members of the Church’s Rehabilitation Project Force, a kind of penance detail for those who have fallen out with the organisation and want to regain its trust.
Few non-Scientologists go near the place, for fear of being solicited – or, worse, declared a “Suppressive Person” or “Potential Trouble Source”.
“Vaht kind of bierugh vood you laghk?” asks the waiter, as I glance around at the empty room.
“Beer?” I reply. “Vaht kind vood you laghk?”
“What kind do you have?”
The waiter holds up his palm and disappears to check the selection. Once again I become acutely aware that we are the only people in a restaurant that could probably accommodate 100 people or more. There are supposed to be 10 million members of the Church of Scientology worldwide – and if you believe the organisation’s critics, it practically runs Hollywood. So where the devil is everyone? Are they all in Clearwater, Florida, headquarters of the Church’s elite and naval-uniformed Sea Organisation, the members of which allegedly sign an employment contract for one billion years? Or are they all out in the Church’s “secret” 500-acre compound in the desert?
It’s anyone’s guess but it plants a seed in my mind: what if it is all just so much Hollywood hype?
The dinner was a last-minute idea– an attempt to get a hold on some reality when it came to Tom Cruise’s faith. The video of the actor from the Church’s archives had just been leaked on the internet – you’ve probably seen it by now, and heard Cruise tell his audience: “We are the authorities on the mind!” – and I had been asked to write this piece for times2 on Scientology’s influence in Hollywood.
Cruise was roundly ridiculed and the criticism was about to become more extreme, with a German historian comparing his hyper-intense oratory style to that of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist who conspired in the extermination of several million Jews. I wondered if Cruise deserved it, and if the Scientology spokesman Bob Adams had a point when he said to me: “What did Mr Cruise do? Could you imagine if you replaced the word Scientology with the word Catholicism? Would anyone stand for it?”
From a PR perspective, of course, Scientology has always had a number of unique problems. For a start, it was founded by Hubbard – a science-fiction writer. It began with his book Dianetics, which became a sensation in the future-obsessed 1950s, promising a technology to cure allergies and colds, among other things.
Over the years, Hubbard turned his ideas into a Church, although it took several court rulings for anyone to recognise it as such. Along the way, Hubbard fell out spectacularly with the psychiatric profession (to this day, Scientologists call for psychiatry’s global obliteration) and the tax authorities.
“They don’t trust anyone, except each other,” says one former member of Hubbard’s Sea Organisation, who didn’t want to give me his name. “Banks, the Government, the medical system, even schools. The organisation attracts a lot of people who are disgruntled with the world.”
Scientologists dispute this – they argue that they work with governments and other businesses all the time, and indeed even Cruise’s closest business partners, such as his producer Paula Wagner, are not Scientologists.
And yet the Church has undoubtedly had some dark days, particularly in the late 1970s when a series of FBI raids revealed that Scientologists had infiltrated and wiretapped the Internal Revenue Service and other US government agencies. Several Church members, including Hubbard’s wife, Mary, were sent to jail.
At the same time, Scientology’s critics found themselves the targets of vicious silencing campaigns – they were “fair game” according to Hubbard – with the journalist Paulette Cooper facing arrest for a fake bomb-plot carried out using her identity. Hubbard, meanwhile, had taken to spending a lot of his time at sea, outside of US jurisdiction, hence the founding of the Sea Organsiation.
When he died in 1986, the Church’s leadership was handed over to his 26-year-old former assistant, David Miscavige, a supremely self-confident speaker who brought the likes of Cruise and Travolta into the organisation. The Church argues that it has come a long way since then.
“That policy [of fair game] was yanked very quickly,” claimed Bob Adams, when I asked him about Cooper and the dread that many journalists still feel when writing about Scientology. “As in any organisation made up of lots of people, some will be internal renegades, if you will. Those people paid the price. And those days are over now.”
Describing the beliefs of a Scientologist is difficult, because many of the Church’s most important teachings are confidential and copyrighted. Broadly, however, Scientologists believe that they carry with them spirits, or thetans, and that through the process of paid-for auditing, it is possible to overcome trauma and misery and become “clear”, a status known as being an Operating Thetan. Hubbard invented the “E-Meter”, and other devices, to help with all this.
Meanwhile, Hubbard’s texts – especially those available only to Operating Thetans – remain the subject of rumour, and were infamously satirised in a 2006 episode of South Park. That was when Cruise allegedly put pressure on Sumner Redstone, the head of Viacom – which owns both South Park’s home of Comedy Central and Paramount – to pull repeats of the episode. Isaac Hayes, a fellow Scientologist who played Chef in the series, resigned over the same issue. In the end, the episode was pulled and then nominated for an Emmy, with a full-page advertisement appearing in Variety with the South Park characters pictured against a backdrop of the Celebrity Centre. “C’mon Jews, show them who really runs Hollywood!” was the caption. Weeks later, Redstone, who happens to be Jewish, dumped Cruise. Any fears of a Jewish/Scientology fallout were soon put to rest when Cruise went into business with MGM’s Harry Sloan, who also happens to be Jewish.
As one movie executive told me (on condition of not being identified): “It’s all a bit of light comic relief, to be honest. Some of us think the Scientologists are nuts, but it doesn’t really affect how business is done. That said, they won’t act in anything that promotes psychiatry, and there’s a special process they go through before making a decision.
“Most people will say, ‘Maybe we should do that, maybe we shouldn’t. What do you think?’ A Scientologist will ask for 100,000 pages of factual information so that they can go away and study it and form their thoughts in clay [clay is often used in Scientology courses] and come back with a black-and-white decision.”
Incidentally, the text satirised by South Park concerns Xenu, a dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, who is said to have paralysed billions of his subjects 75 million years ago, brought them to Earth, scattered them around volcanoes and then killed them with hydrogen bombs, their disembodied souls becoming thetans. When the Dutch writer Karin Spaink put this on her website, she was sued over copyright in a case that went on for eight years. These days, the Church simply declines to comment, aside from saying that Xenu is used as a tool of ridicule, and that “they can’t win, either way”.
None of this appears to have damaged Scientology’s power in LA, where rumours persist that David and Victoria Beckham will soon be attending Scientologist-only functions with the likes of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Indeed, you can literally feel its presence on the streets: the Scientologists now operate five buildings on Hollywood Boulevard alone, all purchased when the street was an inner-city slum. “I think the FBI raids would have put them out of business, but the celebrities, like Priscilla Presley, and then Travolta, and now Cruise, has made people say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something there’,” says Paulette Cooper, the journalist who was once targeted as “fair game”.
When our dinner at the Renaissance is over, we take a walk down a beautifully restored 1920s corridor, passing an office kept for Hubbard in case he returns to Earth, and stroll into an bookstore where for $71.99 ( £37) you can buy seminars for Hollywood wannabes – Breaking into Soaps, How to Get an Agent, Making it in the Industry – along with an overwhelming number of Hubbard books, pamphlets and CD box sets.
As I stand there, I think about the claims that the Church is a rip-off and a cult that excommunicates awkward members only to take them back as cheap labour, and I wonder about all the clearly intelligent people who consider themselves Scientologists: the Crash screenwriter Paul Haggis, for example – or Greg Garcia, who created My Name is Earl.
And then I think about those that claim that the organisation’s membership has been estimated by some at 1 per cent of the official 10 million and then I begin to wonder if the Cruise association, like the “fair game” of the 1970s, might finally have run its course.
We’re about to leave when the man in the bookstore – think William H. Macy in Fargo – offers to show us a video of Hubbard giving a lecture. We watch it, and it seems as alien to me as anything on the ultra-evangelical Christian Broadcasting Network.
We ask for the tour of the building, but after several phone calls, our man can’t find a guide. “They’ve gone to the movies,” he says, with a shrug. “Perhaps you can come back on Tuesday? We’re having an event.” And so we leave: unaudited, unbullied, and unchastised.