June 29, 2012, is when I became addicted to reading about Scientology. That is the date when Tom Cruise & Katie Holmes’ split became public. Usually celebrity divorces are ho-hum—it’s more unusual when famous people stay married—but this one was more exciting than one of Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies.
Katie used disposable cell phones, procured a secret apartment, and hired law firms in three separate states. Obviously, this was not a friendly “conscious uncoupling” a la Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. Katie was running from something scary.
A link from the comments section of a celebrity gossip blog led me to Tony Ortega’s Village Voice column about the split, and from then on, I fell down the proverbial rabbit hole. For some reason, I couldn’t get enough information about Scientology, and I’ve read every single column Ortega has written since that day, first at the Voice and then at his own Underground Bunker. (That’s probably around 1,500 columns, since he blogs every day, occasionally twice a day if there’s breaking news. The man is the Cal Ripken Jr. of blogging.) To me, one of the best things about Scientology reporting is that the church desperately wants to keep everything it does and believes under wraps, while Ortega is trying just as hard to shed light on all of its secrets.
Of course, by now, almost everyone knows a little something about Scientology, thanks to HBO’s hugely popular “Going Clear” documentary or “South Park”‘s treatment of the cult’s beliefs (which caused one of the show’s stars, Isaac Hayes, to quit in protest). But Ortega’s blog has attracted a large cohort of so-called “never-ins,” people who are not ex-Scientologists and may never even have met an honest-to-God Scientologist, but simply find the topic oddly compelling. The never-ins are the primary audience for all the volumes written by ex-members, from Marc Headley’s amazing Blown for Good to TV star Leah Remini’s best-selling Troublemaker.
The latest addition to the bookshelf is former Sea Org (the church’s “religious order”) member Chris Shelton’s Scientology: A to Xenu: An Insider’s Guide to What Scientology is Really All About. I’ve been a subscriber to Chris’s YouTube channel for a long time now, and what really amazes me about Chris is how he morphed from true believer to eloquent skeptic in a relatively short period of time. (Because of the intense indoctrination and brainwashing, it often takes people many years to recover once they’ve left the cult.) Shelton’s “Critical Thinker At Large” videos have taken on other fringe religions, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Quiverfull movement, and he co-hosts a weekly podcast called Sensibly Speaking which frequently covers a wide range of newsy hot-button topics.
Instead of simply telling his own story, A to Xenu serves as an excellent source for people who may have seen “Going Clear” or read Leah Remini’s book and want to know more. Yes, a lot of the information in the book is online, but there’s so much stuff about Scientology on the Internet that it feels like you’re drinking from a firehose; plus, lots of those web sites are written in “Scientologese,” the jargon peculiar to insiders. Shelton’s book covers topics like the OT levels (the knowledge Scientologists pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for), the lies of L. Ron Hubbard, and the complicated structure of the church (designed to keep “Chairman of the Board” David Miscavige on top) in easy-to-digest segments; he also reveals more of his own painful history with the church than he’s ever disclosed before, including an account of the traumatic years he spent on the Rehabilitation Project Force, a prison duty which he has compared to a “Maoist Reconditioning Camp.” In the end, I felt I had learned quite a lot, and I’ll appreciate having the book around as a handy reference guide.
Shelton self-published the book, but it’s well-edited with very few typographical errors, although I did find one goof: on pg. 233, in a discussion of tax exemption for religious institutions, he mentions how Jim Bakker “and his now ex-wife Tami [sic] still owe the IRS millions in unpaid back taxes.” Tammy Faye Bakker passed away in 2007, putting her well out of reach of the IRS. Of course, Shelton was probably busy with his Sea Org duties when Tammy Faye met her maker.
In case you manage to make it through the entire book and feel that maybe L. Ron Hubbard wasn’t such a bad guy after all, Shelton reprints Hubbard’s “Affirmations” in an appendix at the end, offering a spectacular view of an unhinged mind. The Affirmations were written by LRH in the 1940s, apparently so he could read them into a tape recorder and play them back as a form of self-hypnosis. The Church of Scientology has published reams of Hubbard’s writings, but these are not among them, for reasons which will become obvious once you start reading them. They are truly weird, and a little sad. Many of them deal with sex and masturbation, but there are also gems like, “Snakes are not dangerous to you. There are no snakes in the bottom of your bed,” “You are a magnificent writer who has thrilled millions,” and “You have perfect and lovely feet.”
I hate to quote Hubbard in a non-disparaging fashion, but just this once, here’s an LRH affirmation I can get behind, at least when it’s applied to Shelton: “You start your life anew. Your approach to work is wonderfully clear and fresh. You have suffered much and you are deep in understanding.”