by Michael Buozis
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master, Freddie Quell, a drunken World War II Navy veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix, secretly boards a ship commanded by Lancaster Dodd, the Master of the film’s title played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In the immediate postwar period, Quell worked as a department store photographer before nearly strangling a customer with his own tie and then as a harvester living in a camp with migrants before being accused of poisoning a fellow worker with a strange, homebrewed hooch of lemons and gin and household chemicals. Quell crashes a party on Dodd’s ship and wakes up the following morning in a sagging bunk. Dodd asks Quell to join the crew and shows a peculiar interest in Quell’s psychological damage.
Quell asks, “What do you do?”
Dodd replies, “I am many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. Above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”
But beyond this, Dodd is a man in need of Quell’s hooch. Quell obliges and brews more in the ship’s engine room. This batch contains turpentine and both men drink it with relish.
These scenes, and indeed the rest of the film, work in a haze of credulousness, a sour-headed moonshine funk of washed-out color and numbness. Quell, emotionally lost but never gullible, resists the Master’s powers of persuasion. Dodd processes Quell, performing a perverted version of a familiar form of psychotherapy. By forcing Quell to repeat, again and again, phrases that reveal his most hidden secrets, Dodd offers to help his subject move beyond his psychological hang-ups, to go clear and gain the Master’s own undeniable social powers.
Quell’s disciple-hood leads him to follow Dodd into the desert, to a grand estate in England, to posh parlors in big cities, and a suburban home in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, Dodd dictates a course of therapy for Quell in which Quell runs back and forth, for hours day after day, between a wood-paneled wall and a window. Quell must do this with his eyes closed and he must describe the surfaces he touches each he time he touches them.
Dodd’s followers include, almost solely, beautiful well-educated middle class white people. They thirst for Book 2, a promised revelation of Dodd’s dictates to his followers.
Whatever the film’s merits – and they are many and great – and however liberally Anderson used compression and fictionalization to create his vivid characters and setting, the source material is obvious. It’s discomfiting, though, that Anderson’s thoroughly disturbing film does not exaggerate the strangeness of the events that inspired it.
Of course there are many cults that, as the cult of The Master does, manipulate some anxiety in the American zeitgeist of their particular period to attract adherents. The spread of Mormonism, in great part, rose from the promise of the American West, of new territories where the inhuman conditions of the industrial cities of the Northeast and Europe could be escaped. The Manson Family and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple took different tacks, both with horrific ends, in dealing with heightened anxieties about multiculturalism, civil rights and social revolutions in America. There are countless lesser known American cults – the Millerites, the Church of Bible Understanding, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians among them – not to mention cults founded in other countries, with similar origins in the societal conflicts of their ages. These cults, and the mainstream panic they engender, have a particularly important place in American culture. The American myth, even if history doesn’t fully bear this myth out, is of a country founded by religious dissenters. What greater affirmation of one’s righteous dissent than being chastened as illegitimate and dangerous?
The older cults – we call them religions – may derive their legitimacy less from their ancientness, the distance in time and place of their foundations, and more from their generality. The old religions offer solace from everything, for all time, and cults often offer the same, but for the very specific here and now. In 1919, the Reverend W.F. Cobb, writing in The Living Age, compared the difference between new cults and old religions to that between American and European secular philosophical thought of the era. “Whereas your orthodox philosopher is concerned only with asking of any proposition he encounters whether it is true, this new and callow professor (the American pragmatist) proclaims that all that matters is whether it works. Truth, he affirms, is secondary….” Though Cobb had an obvious vested interest in the argument, he might have been on to something. The American cult is pragmatic in a way that European religious traditions of Judeo-Christianity are not. Cults function like a mystical form of psychotherapy, the practice much maligned by L. Ron Hubbard, Paul Thomas Anderson’s inspiration for Lancaster Dodd.
Tony Ortega of The Village Voice drew early attention to the parallels between Dodd and Hubbard, and Paul Thomas Anderson has admitted that Hubbard has fascinated him for many years and served as the inspiration for his screenplay for The Master. However, many participants in the film, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, who plays Dodd’s wife, as well as the film’s producers, have denied the connection. Scientology, the pseudo-religious self-help institution Hubbard founded in the 1950s, is well-known for attacking its detractors in the media. Recent events, more than 50 years after the fictionalized events in The Master, bear this out. In July 2012, Alexander Jentzsch, the son of Scientology president Heber Jentzsch, died of an overdose of methadone while battling pneumonia. Jentzsch’s mother, years before, went public with the Church’s treatment of her husband, who was confined for years to “The Hole,” a torturous boot camp for failing Scientologists. The Church required Alexander to cut off all ties with his parents and may have prevented him from receiving proper medical care for his condition. Then in September, Marc and Claire Headley, former members of Scientology’s clergy, the Sea Org, revealed that Scientology officials attempted to bribe the couple by promising to forgive court costs in a recent lawsuit if the Headleys would provide information about vocal ex-Scientologists and their media contacts. Later that month, Mike Rinder, a former Church official, commented on the dedication of the Scientology National Affairs Office in Washington, DC:
I have no idea who or what they are going to put in that building. Maybe some animatronic Miscaviges that will spout puffery when you push a button “Fastest growing religion on earth with more than 10,000 churches and 10 million members. Being led into the future under the brilliant, benevolent guidance of the ecclesiastical leader of the religion, Mr. David Miscavige, a man who cares deeply for the well-being of mankind and demonstrates it every day by personally keeping a large number of people employed hand-making his clothes, washing his cars, recording and typing his every word and keeping him tanned and manicured….
The Church’s membership numbers are contested. Some estimates are as low as 25,000 members.
In February of this year, Jenna Miscavige Hill, the niece of David Miscavige, published an account of the abuse and slave labor she witnessed in the Sea Org. In March, Elspeth Reeve wrote on The Atlantic’s website that she had been contacted by a writer from the Church’s mouthpiece publication, trying to get dirt on Ortega, who left The Village Voice to write a book about Scientology.
But these are only some of the recent controversies surrounding Scientology. Lawrence Wright, in his new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief reveals the origins of the Church, its early troubles and the way its current leadership has attempted to control its image and defeat the individual will of its most ardent adherents. Nicole Kidman’s response when asked about the book’s claim that the Church of Scientology forced Tom Cruise to divorce her is emblematic of the paranoia and fear created by a belief system structured to remove its members from any skeptical influence. “I’ve chosen not to speak publicly about Scientology. I have two children who are Scientologists–Connor and Isabella–and I utterly respect their beliefs.”
Going Clear is, in large part, a biography of L. Ron Hubbard. In the first section of the book, dealing with Hubbard’s formative years and his founding of Scientology, Wright’s aim is similar to Anderson’s in The Master – to place his subjects and their marginal beliefs in a broader cultural context. Hubbard’s charisma and ability to conjure a flock began early. In his twenties, he took fifty young people on a seafaring expedition to the Caribbean, all funded by the participants, in the hopes of starting a stock footage business. As with his later exploits in Scientology, Hubbard knew little about what he was doing or where he was going, but he was able to convince intelligent, responsible people to fund and follow him, if only for a short while, into oblivion. However, Hubbard’s early adulthood also exhibits evidence of psychopathology and abusive tendencies. He neglected his first wife and their children, exploited the Veterans Administration’s largesse and beat his second wife. In the 1940s he dabbled in the occult, wrote a ton of pulp science fiction and pursued a career in the Navy, failing to act on any of his heroic dreams. He left the Navy, much as Freddie Quell does in The Master, as a broken man and developed his own method of self-hypnosis which he claimed had remarkable results. He wrote Dianetics not long after and the early self-help text was a best seller, spawning clubs across the country that practiced Hubbard’s unique form of therapy. In the meantime, Hubbard’s ambitions grew and he turned the fad of Dianetics into the cult of Scientology, producing further revelations which could only be accessed by invested members of the Church.
Like the Catholic Church – and many smaller religious institutions – Scientology operates as a spiritual pyramid scheme in which the average practitioner pays for guidance and access to higher powers, supporting a hierarchal structure that does little more than guard that access to salvation or self-realization. The laughable, and sometimes evil, attitudes of Scientology toward humanity, call into question many of the assumptions of not only other organized religions, but also psychotherapy. What value can there be in any system of belief that is so weak that outside influences must be questioned at every turn? Don’t the defined terms of psychology, in particular psychotherapy – the id, the ego, the superego, the psyche, mindfulness – which we often learn as science, sound remarkably like Hubbard’s terms in his own system of therapeutic exercise? This is not to discount the usefulness of either of the systems, but only to question the privileged status of religion and psychotherapy compared with other methods of dealing with emotional or mental trauma. Hubbard’s denial of the benefits of psychiatric medication is another thing entirely. These beliefs, which prohibit Scientologist from using medication to treat mental illness, endanger not only Scientology’s adherents but also reduce the quality of public discourse about mental health. To deny the chemical component of our thoughts and behaviors is to deny science in a way that denying the existence of an id is not.
It’s unapparent however, even in Wright’s thorough examination, whether Scientology’s appeal arose from Hubbard’s significant charisma or from some internal self-reinforcing tenet. Hubbard was certainly driven to create something immense. In many ways, he succeeded at that. Though the Church’s membership figures are disputed, the press coverage and popular fascination with the cult, encouraged by vocal celebrity Scientologists, has established Scientology as a serious presence in the dialogue about freedom of religion in the United States and abroad. The Church of Scientology deftly plays the public relations game, turning any criticism of its practices into a matter of religious discrimination. The German government’s anti-Scientology measures did little to affect the organization as a whole, and, ironically, added credence to the image of the Church as persecuted and misunderstood. And the pyramid scheme, which funds all of this expensive PR, works brilliantly. Hubbard died a rich man, and the wealth of the Church only grows, even as more critics and former members speak out against some of its more questionable practices and beliefs.
One of the most controversial practices is the isolation and abuse, at the hands of the Church’s top leaders like David Miscavige, of the Sea Org, the most devoted members of the Church, Scientology’s version of a sacred order. The isolation of the Sea Org, in places like Gold Base – Miscavige’s remote palatial estate, which is being maintained for Hubbard’s return from the dead – facilitates a brainwashing similar to that in the insular and tightly controlled societies of small communist countries like North Korea. Sea Org members sign away their lives for – and I’m not making this up – a billion years. No information gets in and little gets out. The collective reality is controlled by the few in power. The severity of this cloistering increased after Hubbard’s death, when Miscavige took over the Church. Miscavige’s abuse of his followers makes L. Ron Hubbard’s lunacy seem quaint and innocent in comparison. Wright’s most important achievement in Going Clear is to reveal, to a wide audience, the sinister aspects of a group that could easily be laughed off as a bunch of nut-ball narcissists playing games with electronics and self-hypnosis. But the very lunacy of Hubbard’s teachings is fascinating and makes the story of Scientology one of the strangest ever told.
One of the faith’s most bizarre beliefs was a much guarded secret until a judge ruled, during a lawsuit in the 1980s, that some of the Church’s confidential documents be admitted as evidence and thus published in the public record. Though the Church does not comment on the most basic structure of its belief system, it’s now well-known that a Scientologist, having invested tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars on auditing sessions and the written works of L. Ron Hubbard, reaches a level of spiritual awareness called OT (for Operating Thetan) III. When the Scientologist reaches this level, he or she is given access, for a brief period of time and only in a locked room on Scientology property, to a document, written by Hubbard, stating, in so many words, that an evil alien warlord named Xenu enslaved his people, brought them to earth, placed them in volcanoes and dropped hydrogen bombs on them. This traumatic, apocalyptic event is the source of all of humanity’s social ills and of each and every human being’s each and every personal problem. Remarkably, Hubbard’s real life and the Church of Scientology as it exists in the world – plotting takeovers of small countries, evading authorities, torturing and enslaving its most devoted adherents – rivals, in sheer bizarreness and unlikelihood, Hubbard’s science fiction revelations in OT III. Operation Snow White, the largest infiltration of government agencies in history, exhibits how powerful and paranoid the early Church of Scientology was.
The following celebrities are members of the Church of Scientology and believe, it must follow, in the existence of Xenu: Kirstie Alley, Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), Chick Corea, Jenna Elfman, Doug E. Fresh, Beck, Jason Lee, Priscilla Presley, Kelly Preston, John Travolta, Greta Van Susteren and, of course, Tom Cruise. They have every right to believe in Xenu, and when you get down to it, I don’t question the validity of that particular belief more than I question belief in God or Zeus or Apollo or Krishna or Vishnu or Superman. But these celebrities do not have a right to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses committed by their leaders, just as Catholics have no right to ignore the pedophilia rampant among their priesthood or the corruption evidenced by the Vatican bank scandal. No member of a system that self-perpetuates abuse, slavery, or hidden usury is above reproach.
This is to say nothing of the Church’s insistence that members must sever contact with Suppressive Personalities, or anyone, no matter how close a relation, who pisses off the Church in some way. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear sheds light on all these beliefs and practices with very little judgment about the believers and even the founder of the religion. Wright is fair enough to let the reader make up his or her own mind, though he never shies away from the visceral and alarming nature of David Miscavige’s treatment of the Sea Org and the prison of belief that Scientologists willing admit themselves into, investing their money in an organization which exists only to support itself. He is brave in doing this, as the Church of Scientology holds grudges and knows how to persecute its enemines.
Discussed in this essay:
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Knopf. 2013. 448 pages. $29.
The Master, directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2012. 144 minutes.
Michael Buozis’s work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Adirondack Review, Down & Out and other journals and websites. He is the editor of The Philadelphia Review of Books.
Photo: L. Ron Hubbard conducting Dianetics seminar in Los Angeles, Calif., 1950. Los Angeles Daily News.