Books about Scientology seem to have become something of a cottage industry lately. There have been numerous books by defectors, both famous (Leah Remini’s Troublemaker) and non- (Marc Headley’s Blown for Good, among others), but when word got out that former church member Ron Miscavige was writing a memoir, Scientology-watchers everywhere got excited. After all, Ron Miscavige is the father of David Miscavige, the head of Scientology who has been depicted as a power-mad tyrant. No one who’s read Blown for Good will ever forget the “musical chairs” scene, in which David viciously punished executives who had fallen out of favor by making them play a children’s party game with alarmingly high stakes.
I have long been hoping for a full-fledged biography of David Miscavige, who seized control of the church from founder L. Ron Hubbard upon Hubbard’s death in 1986, but after reading Ruthless, I feel that this is probably as close as we’re ever going to get. Ron Miscavige describes young David as “an affectionate, happy, bright kid,” albeit one who suffered from serious asthma attacks. It was David’s health problems that first convinced Ron to try to cure his son with Scientology. Ron had witnessed the power of Scientology firsthand when a friend who was a fan of Hubbard’s teachings told him how he could cure his headaches: “the way you get rid of it is look at yourself in the mirror and give the headache to the person in the mirror.” “Lo and behold,” writes Ron, “my headache went away!” Convinced, Ron got deeper and deeper into Hubbard’s philosophies, and when young David’s asthma disappeared following a 45-minute session, the Miscavige family became gung-ho Scientologists.
David ultimately wound up dropping out of high school to work for Scientology full-time. In 1980, according to Ron, David’s asthma returned, and during a hospital visit, his son “had a major realization about power. ‘Power,’ he said, ‘is not granted. It is assumed.’… That insight became his operating motto.” After Hubbard died, David managed to outmaneuver Pat and Annie Broeker, the couple many believe Hubbard had hand-picked to lead the church after his demise. He also pushed Hubbard’s widow Mary Sue out of the picture. At the ripe old age of 26, David was firmly in charge.
Divorced from his first wife, Ron remarried, and he and his second wife moved onto the so-called “Gold Base” in Hemet, CA, where David reigned supreme. No one stayed in David’s good graces for long, even his own father or his wife, Shelly. Ron paints a vivid portrait of the difficult life of a Sea Org member, working absurdly long hours and being forced to subsist on beans and rice while David dined on gourmet meals, “New Zealand lamb or Maine lobster… Two entrees were prepared for each meal, in case one was not to his liking.”
When Ron and his wife Becky decided to leave Gold Base, it required a tremendous amount of advance planning and secrecy, a necessity in the “snitching culture” of Scientology (Ron compares it to the Stasi in East Germany). His escape story is a doozy. Once he got out, Ron hoped to live a quiet, normal life, but he eventually discovered that his son had paid two private eyes a small fortune ($10,000 a week) to follow him. A policeman caught one of the PIs snooping around an abandoned house; the rather inept detective had several illegal weapons stored in his car, including a homemade silencer, and once he was confronted by the cops, the PI sang like a canary. Apparently, the detectives had only had one conversation with David Miscavige (everything else was handled through intermediaries). One day, they observed Ron clutching at his chest in a supermarket parking lot and assumed he was having a heart attack (he was actually trying to keep his cell phone from falling out of his shirt pocket). The panicked PIs weren’t sure what to do, so they called their contact. Within minutes, they heard from David himself, who passed along the following message: “If he dies, he dies. Don’t intervene.” His son’s indifference and callous attitude helped persuade Ron to write Ruthless (which was originally going to be titled If He Dies, He Dies).
Today, thanks to Scientology’s “disconnection” policy, Ron is estranged from three of his four children: David and his twin Denise, and little sister Lori. Only Ronnie, who is no longer in the church, is still in touch with his dad; despite Ron’s best efforts, Denise and Lori have chosen to side with their brother. However, Ron still believes that some of Hubbard’s ideas are valid, though he acknowledges that many were cribbed from other writers and thinkers (there’s a recommended-reading list at the end of the book). He makes some suggestions for reform, including getting rid of disconnection and calling a halt to the incessant fund-raising for fancy new buildings (“ideal orgs”) that has caused many once-dedicated parishioners to leave the church.
What would Scientology look like now had David Miscavige not seized power after Hubbard’s death? Today, it’s obviously a sinking ship, despite David’s crowing about unprecedented expansion and growth. In this post-“Going Clear” era, not even the faded glamour of Tom Cruise and John Travolta can persuade Young Hollywood types to go anywhere near the church. Scientology’s downfall is being obsessively documented on blogs like Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker and in books like this one, but as long as the church retains its tax-exempt status, it seems likely that it’ll continue to limp along for a long time to come.