“Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia” by Steve Cannane

Fair Game by Steve CannaneWhen you are viewing a book on Amazon, a gallery of covers appears under the heading “Customers who bought this item also bought…” Looking at the titles underneath Fair Game, I realized I had read five of the eight shown. So, yes, I am literally the target audience for this book.

Steve Cannane is a London-based reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who is known in his native country for his “interest in exposing unscrupulous behaviour,” according to Wikipedia. No wonder he wanted to write about Scientology, which has provided him with a veritable banquet of human rights violations, spying on former allies, and members forced to disconnect from “suppressive” loved ones.

Fair Game should provide a great introduction to Scientology-watching for Australians who are curious about the cult’s activities in their own backyard, but it has plenty to offer the non-Oz-based reader who has already read Going Clear, Blown for Good, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, and a Hubbard biography or two. There was plenty of fascinating stuff in this book that was all new to me.

One of the most interesting chapters was “Deep Sleep,” which delves into Sydney’s Chelmsford Hospital scandal. In the 1970s, psychiatrist Harry Bailey used a controversial form of therapy to treat mental patients and addicts, which involved putting them into medically induced comas for long periods of time. Bailey was convinced this would shut down their brains and allow them “to be reprogrammed and cleared of mental disorders.” In reality, the therapy was blamed for the deaths of numerous patients, while others committed suicide within a year of their release. The virulently anti-psychiatry Church of Scientology “played a major role in exposing the atrocities… a rare instance where the Scientologists used their undercover operations as a force for public good.” (Unfortunately, the Scientologist nurse who helped expose the sinister therapy at great personal risk was abandoned by the church; unable to find employment in her field in the aftermath of the scandal, she was left penniless and homeless, finally dying in a nursing home following complications of a stroke that had left her unable to speak for several years.)

Other chapters deal with Scientology’s recruitment of star rugby players, Australian-born Julian Assange’s role in spreading the cult’s secret documents on the Internet in the early days of the World Wide Web, and the surprisingly large number of Australians who wound up holding positions of great power in Scientology, including former Office of Special Affairs director Mike Rinder and Celebrity Centre founder Yvonne Gillham.

The final chapter of the book looks at Rinder’s life after leaving Scientology, and will no doubt shock anyone who isn’t already familiar with the cult’s tactics. Rinder and his wife Christie, a former Sea Org member, have been spied upon, had their garbage intercepted (“Look, I feel really bad, but they are paying me money to give them your garbage,” a sanitation worker told Rinder), and, most bizarrely, were befriended by a young single mom who turned out to be a Scientology spy. Heather “offered to go shopping with Christie, invited her to board game nights and her place and asked if her son wanted to register to play T-Ball with her boy.” After the Rinders moved to a different town, Heather followed, “securing a place a few blocks away.” Christie decided to end the friendship, “but felt tinges of guilt… Had Scientology and its culture of surveillance polluted their minds and made them excessively paranoid?”

As it turns out, the answer was no—Heather was, of course, a spy (though she denied it when contacted by Cannane)—but imagine having to be suspicious of every person you meet, wondering if they’re being paid to report on you. How could you ever trust anyone again?

Fair Game has a happy ending, of sorts: “The 2011 census found that just 2,163 Australians called themselves Scientologists.” (The census also showed that “Australians who describe themselves as Jedis now number over 65,000, over 30 times higher than Scientology’s figures.”) Despite the fact that a 145,000-square-foot Scientology facility just opened last month in Sydney, Tony Ortega revealed that “the church admitted in an environmental impact report that the Advanced Org will serve only about 87 customers on a given day.” Thanks to intrepid reporters like Cannane, it’s unlikely that meager number will grow anytime soon.

“Troublemaker” by Leah Remini

Troublemaker by Leah ReminiLeah Remini gets right to the point on Page One of her autobiography: “I have done some things in my life that I am not proud of,” including falling in love with a married man and “physically threatening” meter maids. She also reveals that her husband used to deal drugs and her mother was “a self-admitted slut in her younger days.”

Usually, celebrity memoirists don’t deliver info-dumps like this, preferring to gradually roll out the shocking details little by little. But Remini knows that when you leave the Church of Scientology, that makes you a target. The church has no problem attacking “apostates” using confidential information disclosed during auditing (counseling) sessions, meaning that there’s never a shortage of juicy gossip to spill about former parishioners. So Remini decided to beat ’em to the punch by writing a book that airs much of her own dirty laundry.

Remini’s mother joined Scientology when her daughter was a child, so Leah was essentially brought up in the religion. She and her sister Nicole joined the Sea Org (Scientology’s clergy) at a very young age, signing billion-year contracts which were quickly broken once Leah got into trouble for messing around with boys. She went on to bigger and better things, appearing in several dozen failed pilots and canceled TV series before finally hitting the jackpot with “The King of Queens,” which lasted nine seasons and made her a star.

All the while, Remini was forced to spend several hours a day taking Scientology courses and giving huge sums of money (she estimates she spent around $5 million total on services and donations) to the church. Unfortunately, while Leah may have been a big star, she was nowhere near the level of Scientology’s biggest star, Tom Cruise—and when she grew disenchanted with the way Cruise was treated as a sort of demigod within the church, with Sea Org members serving at his beck and call, it marked the beginning of the end for Leah’s own status as a Scientology celeb. Everything came to a head at Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes, when Remini noticed all kinds of irregularities: not just Cruise’s wedding seemingly “being regarded as ‘official church business,'” but Tom’s Sea Org “handlers”—a man and a woman both married to other people—were canoodling at a pre-wedding dinner, and church leader David Miscavige was there with a date who was not his wife. Even people who aren’t obsessive Scientology watchers like me have probably heard the phrase “Where’s Shelly?” at some point; Shelly is Miscavige’s wife, and she hasn’t been seen in public for many years. Leah and Shelly were friends, and Leah’s questions about Shelly’s whereabouts led to a tremendous amount of drama. Leah eventually filed a police report declaring Shelly a missing person (pages from the report are reproduced in the book).

There’s so much dish in the Cruise/Holmes wedding chapter that I can’t possibly detail it all (Jennifer Lopez, whose father is a Scientologist, plays a big part); suffice it to say this was finally the tipping point that caused Remini to break publicly with the church she’d been a part of for 30 years. Due to Scientology’s “disconnection” policy, overnight, she became persona non grata to all of her friends in the church. Amazingly, Remini’s entire family agreed to leave Scientology with her. This is a very rare occurrence. Most of the time, at least some family members stay, separating grandparents from grandchildren, sisters from brothers.

It’s kind of amazing that Remini, a mouthy girl from Brooklyn, managed to last as long in the church as she did. She obviously has a great sense of humor, a trait discouraged in Scientology (L. Ron Hubbard called it “joking and degrading” and even issued a formal statement declaring it off-policy). Her book is a fast, fun read, and provides a rare glimpse of what life is like for a genuine Scientology celebrity; most run-of-the-mill parishioners “will never experience seeing behind the curtain like I and a handful of others have,” she writes. Thank goodness for troublemakers.

“Ruthless” by Ron Miscavige

Ruthless by Ron MiscavigeBooks 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.

“Scientology: A to Xenu” by Chris Shelton

Scientology: A to Xenu by Chris SheltonJune 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.”