Meet the Heroes of Early Scientology Reporting -- Plus, a Visit to the Celebrity Centre

Across the street from Scientology’s fabled Celebrity Centre, on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, there is a coffee house called The Bourgeois Pig. It is super dark in there but the coffee isn’t bad, and you can sit outside. There’s something like a miniature High Street atmosphere in this pleasant neighborhood; the Upright Citizens Brigade is a few doors down, and there’s a good bookstore, too.

There is a pretty apartment building just to the west of the Bourgeois Pig. We met one of its residents over coffee there one day many years ago, a young hipsterish guy recently arrived in L.A. and trying to break into screenwriting, he said. He was full of dark tales about the Scientologists, only in his case there were a bazillion of them literally across the street, so his stories quivered with extra panic; the billion-year contracts, the prison-like conditions for church members, people being followed, being filmed, being “broken out” of the compound on Sunset by terrified friends. We were all blandly oh, yeah; these stories, some of them impossibly weird and horrible-sounding, have been kicking around L.A. for decades. And for the longest time you’d think, no, that just can’t be true.

But then came the six-part expose published June 24th through 29th, 1990, in the Los Angeles Times, a story that conclusively divided the wheat from the chaff where Scientology rumors were concerned. Joel Sappell and Robert W. Welkos spent five years on the story and it was, and still is, a corker.

The other day Sappell told me that the Times’ Scientology investigation began when he learned that a former Los Angeles Police Department sergeant had become a private investigator for the Scientology organization, after having been fired by the department in 1981 for allegedly running a house of prostitution and alerting a drug dealer to a planned raid. (He was acquitted of all criminal charges in a later trial.) Soon enough it became clear that this former officer was using his LAPD contacts on behalf of his new bosses at Scientology. Sappell’s editor scented a bigger story, and the game was afoot.

Sappell and Welkos hunted down the facts regarding Hubbard’s trumped-up military record: his false claims of having received a Purple Heart, of having been “crippled and blinded” from war injuries and of “curing” himself using the principles of what later became Dianetics. They revealed details of Hubbard’s academic career, the story of his years in Asia, his request to the Veterans Administration for psychiatric treatment in late 1947. There was the story of the 1976 suicide of L. Ron Hubbard’s son Quentin, who was “an embarrassment” to Hubbard because he had been “confused about his sexual orientation”; Quentin Hubbard was only twenty-two when he killed himself. They exposed deceit after deceit. There was the long history of Scientology’s legal and tax troubles, and the entire story of Xenu the space tyrant.

Then there were marvelously wacky details: Hubbard’s occultish Pasadena hi-jinks in the company of John Whiteside Parsons, a protege of Aleister Crowley (“’The neighbors began protesting when the rituals called for a naked pregnant woman to jump nine times through fire in the yard,’ recalled science fiction author L. Sprague de Camp.”) Hubbard’s claim to have been Cecil Rhodes in an earlier life, and to have invented music three million years ago, in his previous incarnation as “Arpen Polo.”

Sappell and Welkos weren’t the first to question Hubbard’s war record. In 1979, Charles Stafford and Bette Orsini had already given the outlines of that story in a Pulitzer-prizewinning, fourteen-part series [PDF] in the St. Petersburg Times. Stafford and Orsini focused on the scandals involving Scientology’s secretive acquisition of property in Clearwater, Florida, and also revealed how Scientologists had infiltrated a whole lot of government offices in order to steal Scientology-related documents, crimes for which eleven of them, including Mary Sue Hubbard, L. Ron’s third wife, wound up in jail.

These early reporters were facing enormous risks in investigating Scientology.

“Back then, covering Scientology was not for the faint of heart,” Sappell said. “The stakes were huge in the late 1980s — bigger, I think, than today. At the time, the IRS was investigating Hubbard (who was in hiding) for allegedly skimming church money through a maze of corporate fronts. Meanwhile, a number of high-ranking defectors had filed lawsuits against the organization. All this came while Scientology was continuing its fevered battle with the U.S. government for tax-exempt status, which would allow members to write off the huge sums they were paying for church courses and services.” The church lost its tax-exempt status in 1967, and regained it in a deal made with the IRS in 1993.

“During the course of our series,” Sappell wrote in an email, “multiple private investigators rooted around in our past. I was falsely accused of aggravated assault (the alleged victim, it turned out, gave the LAPD a bogus name and address.) My dog — like the pets of others who’d drawn the ire of church leaders — was poisoned on the day that my partner and I wrote a front-page obituary of Hubbard that sharply contradicted the church’s biography of their founder and the many claims he’d made about himself. That same morning, a blustery Boston attorney for the church had called us and shouted: ‘If you want a f***ing war, you just got one!’ That was a bit unnerving since we thought we already were in one.”

The richness of detail in the reporting of these stories makes the reader long for the leisurely pace of the newspapers of yore. (Sappell spent 26 years at the paper, and departed in 2008.)

Along with its more serious allegations, Stafford and Orsini offered the tale of Ver-Dawn Hartwell, who at age fifteen became one of Hubbard’s “special messengers.” Ver-Dawn’s parents, Dell and Ernie Hartwell, explained to reporters that “Ver-Dawn was giving us trouble at the time.”

… and we figured that if she took a [Scientology] course at night and then was in school during the day she wouldn’t get in any trouble. Well, they [church officials] talked her into quitting school. She called me on a Friday and told me that she was flying to California on Monday to become one of Ron’s ‘special messengers.’”

Sappell and Welkos described these “Messengers” as well.

“Messenger!” he would boom in the morning. “And we’d pull him out of bed,” one recalled.

The youngsters, whose parents belonged to Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, would lay out his clothes, run his shower and help him dress. He taught them how to sprinkle powder in his socks and gently slip them on so as not to pull the hairs on his legs.

They made sure the temperature in his room never varied from 72 degrees. They boiled water at night to keep the humidity just right. They would hand him a cigarette and follow in his footsteps with an ashtray.

I guess it is no wonder the New Yorker largely confined itself to drier matters, rather than having to get into anything so undignified as Messengers. Even so, “The Apostate”, Lawrence Wright’s Scientology piece in the New Yorker, created a sensation last week. It centers on Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning director and screenwriter (“Crash”) who was a Scientologist for thirty-five years, and who rose to the sky-high Operating Thetan VII level of that organization at the cumulative cost of several hundred thousand clams; he is one of Scientology’s highest-profile defectors. The story of why and how anybody with a reasonably questioning, agile mind like that of Haggis could have been snowed by Scientology is illuminating.

Quite a lot of the New Yorker revelations were old hat to those who’ve read the reporting of The Los Angeles Times or the St. Petersburg Times. This raises the question of how, even after over thirty years of nonstop debunking and informing, Scientology can still be a thriving concern, still answering the very same allegations and using the same tactics they’ve employed for decades on end.

Haggis is a good figure to study in attempting an answer to this question, for anybody who began a Hollywood career writing for “Scooby-Doo” and wound up with a Best Picture Oscar has got to be possessed of a strong and resilient character. Haggis’s discussions with Wright reveal a man who took the path of least resistance, who lied to himself and everyone else about how much enlightenment he had really found through Scientology, who felt he was getting enough companionship, professional advancement and useful techniques for solving problems in his own life that he could rationalize his own behavior and that of his co-religionists.

Sappell and Welkos had told a similar story about a much earlier high-level defector named Larry Wollersheim. It was Wollersheim’s lawsuit against Scientology that first caused the secrets of OT III, including the story of Xenu, to be revealed to a broader public. The LAT quoted Wollersheim’s 1980 affidavit.

“Fear and hope are totally indoctrinated into the cult (Scientology) member. He hopes that he will receive the miraculous and ridiculous claims made directly, indirectly and by rumor by the sect and its members.

“He is afraid of the peer pressure for not proceeding up the prescribed program. He is intimidated and afraid of being accused of being a dilettante. He is afraid that if he doesn’t do it now before the world ends or collapses he may never get the chance. He is afraid if he doesn’t claim he received gains and write a success testimonial he will be shunned. . . .

“How many people could stand up to that kind of pressure and stand before a group of applauding people and say: ‘Hey, it really wasn’t good.’?” […]

“Then you’re sold the next mystery and the next solution…. I’ve seen people sell their homes, stocks, inheritances and everything they own chasing their hopes for a fleeting, subjective euphoria. I have never witnessed a greater preying on the hopes and fears of others that has been carefully engineered by the cult’s leader.”

This is the part that doesn’t ever go away, not after thirty years and maybe not after a hundred: the desire to be part of a group, to have a sense of belonging to some larger world than one’s own, to be on the inside of the wall between Us and Them. No matter how widely disseminated the facts about Scientology become, the group’s adherents will always claim that it is Them, the enemies or the wogs (that is what non-Scientologists are called), who are saying such bad things, and they are people who don’t understand and whose views don’t count.

This is hardly a novel insight in and of itself; everyone already knows that there are many groups, like fringe religious sects and those rabid vegans who “pocket-mulch” on The Simpsons, that operate in an intensely exclusive, hostile way against outsiders and apostates. But it says something about the staying-power of such groups. The thicker the wall between Us and Them (and the angrier and more hostile we can be made to feel toward Them), the better the chances of the group’s survival. And then: the less sense the group’s actual beliefs have to make; they really don’t have to make any sense at all, in fact, because it’s not about the belief system so much as it is about the belonging, and the outsiders, the enemies. If you are an adherent of L. Ron Hubbard, who was nothing but blunt about such matters, he wrote that the enemies of Scientology are “Fair Game,” and “may be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.” (Strange words, coming from the man Scientologists often describe as history’s greatest humanitarian.)

The really scary thing about all this is that something of the Us vs. Them mentality is common not only to cults and fringe groups but also to many, many far less fanatical political, religious and academic factions, to professional organizations, to groups of friends. “Othering” is a human feature, not a cult one. Whole countries foment this feeling, and we call that “nationalism.” I’m not talking about a Lacanian thing here, exactly, but rather the simple fact that there are many groups where assent is the price of entry, and if your assent should fail, so will your membership. The salient point being that once a member, it is liable to hurt if you should leave the other members; if it costs you too much to leave them, you might not, not even if you no longer agree with them, and you have to keep your disagreement a secret. This may be true whether the original dogma comes from L. Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith, Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, Peggy Noonan or Judith Butler. The content of the beliefs can become immaterial in the face of the power of belonging.

* * *

The Celebrity Centre itself is innocuous-looking in the extreme, with a picturesquely lovely, leafy aspect — and yet this place still scares the bejesus out of many. I was so surprised to learn last week that anybody at all can go to the Renaissance restaurant there that I called and made reservations straightaway.

When we parked, I couldn’t help thinking about all the stuff I’d been reading about cameras pointing in all directions around these places, and when we got to the front of the building, I saw the Bourgeois Pig and really did feel a little frisson of irrational fear, remembering that screenwriting kid whom we’d met there years ago who’d been so terribly spooked. Still, I’d always wondered what this beautiful building, once a sort of fancy retirement home for movie people, was like inside. It is a neo-Norman confection, pretty in that tatty old California way; a bit like the Chateau Marmont, only much larger. The grounds are the most spectacular part by far. There are fountains and lush beds of flowers and some huge, huge trees, all very lovingly maintained. There was a nice-looking boy outside weeding by hand on his knees, wearing cotton gloves, with a plastic bucket at his side, and I hoped he wasn’t being disciplined (they have this thing called RPF, which is where they make Scientologists who have transgressed in some way do menial jobs until they’re allowed back in the fold.)

The restaurant turns out to be really surreal, a slightly kitsch interior with a sort of pergola deal facing out onto this absolutely gorgeous garden, and the service and food are very good. It is a totally 1970s experience, with the menu covered in moire vinyl and repro-repro French furniture and whatnot. Quite a lot of the menu is à la carte, that is, à la carte including even sauces, at, I think, three bucks a pop — dijonnaise, mushroom, green peppercorn (so 70s). Grilled stuff, steaks in two sizes, chicken, hamburger. I ordered grilled chicken, mushroom sauce and haricots verts. For my companion, a little filet mignon and french fries. I asked to see a wine list, and the head waiter (whose French accent was so rich I thought he might be kidding, or practicing for an acting class) goes, “Red or white?”

“White, please,” I said with some trepidation. I can’t even tell you the last time I was in a Los Angeles restaurant that offered house wine only, without telling you a thing about where they got it from. Put it this way, I think I was too young to drink at that point.

“We have a chardonnay and a pinot grigio,” he offered mildly.

“Oh, pinot grigio please.” I figured, sooner a bland pinot grigio than a really scary tree-flavored chardonnay. But it was delicious wine, not that I am such an expert. A lovely unusually peachy color, fruity, flinty, crisp and cold. I wish I had some right now.

I took some photos, and nobody seemed to mind. (We went late in the day, so we were almost the only guests in a flotilla of white tablecloths.) Not one word was spoken about taking a tour or trying to get us to buy books or watch a film or any of that, as I read sometimes happens. We were treated very kindly and if there was a slight edge of yikes to the whole thing, I may well have brought that along with me.

The chicken was delicious too; it came with a dollop of French-style mashed potatoes, with a lot of pepper; really good. Ditto the steak. The bill was under fifty bucks, all in. So I can highly, highly recommend this place if you would like to have an unusual sightseeing experience in Los Angeles.

* * *

Even Paul Haggis, OT VII, couldn’t read Dianetics; he told Lawrence Wright that he found it “impenetrable.” This really was a relief to me, because it would have been impossible to understand how anyone who has actually managed to read any L. Ron Hubbard would pursue any course of action that would result in having to read more, because reading L. Ron Hubbard is just like having your brains bathed in battery acid. It doesn’t matter a bit what L. Ron Hubbard actually wrote, though, it turns out! Even someone who made it clear to the top in his “religion” needn’t have read his book, hadn’t, in fact, read it, so it really does not matter that Hubbard was an epically, eye-poppingly terrible writer.

Here is a passage chosen practically at random from Dianetics.

One of the prime sources of “bad memory” is Mother. Often enough mother has been sufficiently panic-stricken at the thought of Junior’s recalling just what she did to Junior that a Mankindwide aberration seems to have sprung up. The standard attempted abortion case nearly always has an infanthood and childhood full of Mama assuring him that he cannot remember anything when he was a baby. She doesn’t want him to recall how handy she was, if unsuccessful, in her efforts with various instruments. Possibly prenatal memory itself would be just ordinary memory and in full recall to the whole race if this guilty conscience in Mother had not been rolling along lo! these millennia. […] Not all of this, by the way, is based on attempted abortion. Mama often has had a couple of more men than Papa that Papa never knew about; and Mama would very often rather condemn her child to illness or insanity or merely unhappiness than let a child pursue the course of the preclear even though Mother avowedly has no recollection whatever of anything bad ever happening to the child.

The author is pretty much obsessed with abortions in this awful book. And violence, family violence… also “perversion” (which includes “homosexuality, lesbianism, and sexual sadism”) and so on. Dianetics has got a lot to do with attempting to access memories of bad events in the womb, and from past lives, is the thing, so he is on about the womb a great deal. I, also, could not finish this sordid, prurient book. But by far the toughest thing about reading it is the badness of its writing, of its reasoning, the weird mixture of pomposity and ignorance; Dianetics reads like the ravings of a grandiose middle-schooler, very name-droppy (Hegel, Einstein, Aristotle, Schopenhauer — the names of such guys, but never their ideas, are sprinkled liberally around); it is peppered with footnotes, mostly for words the author supposes the reader might not know, such as “sulfa,” “craven,” “sadism” and “Parcheesi.” (It’s true! Parcheesi!) They’re all gathered into a “glossary” at the back: olfactory, foibles, vignette and zygote, and also terms of Scientological art, e.g. “valence: personality. The term is used to denote the borrowing of the personality of another. A preclear ‘in his father’s valence’ is acting as if he were his father.”

The Internet has enabled its detractors to deal what should be a fatal blow to the secrecy of Scientology. There is an enormous, comprehensive anti-Scientology website called Operation Clambake that has been up since 1996; there was a massive trove of documents leaked to WikiLeaks, unreadably huge, featuring everything from L. Ron Hubbard’s FBI files to his “censored Helatrobus lectures,” thousands upon thousands of internal documents and handbooks, legal files, recordings, videos.

A BBC program, Panorama, aired its second special Scientology report in September of 2010; this one is called “The Secrets of Scientology.” Here, a number of Celebrities go absolutely haywire when faced with questions regarding the legendary Xenu, and the suggestion that Scientology is a brainwashing cult. It is well worth the price of admission simply to hear Anne Archer operatically intoning, “How DARE you,” at the hapless BBC guy in Part Three.

So there is just an avalanche of information out there, of personal accounts, of facts, far too much to combat — though the institution famously has tried. There just can’t be many secrets left in Scientology.

And estimates of Scientology’s current membership vary wildly. It seems clear, though, that the church hasn’t stopped recruiting. But how, in the face of decades’ worth of bad press, all so very readily available to the public?

L. Ron Hubbard and all subsequent honchos of Scientology have long been known as champions of “artists,” promising success in acting and whatnot to those who are willing to embrace its precepts. Impossible as it is to believe that an artist this bad could attract any would-be artists to his banner, that is how it works. This aspect of the recruitment effort was touched on by Dana Goodyear in another New Yorker story on Scientology in 2008:

The promise of connectedness attracts many Hollywood hopefuls. Celebrity Centre offers a range of Success in the Industry Seminars — Breaking Into Commercials, How to Get Cast in the Pilot Season, Hollywood Acting Class — which it promotes with flyers posted at auditions around town. A former actor I spoke with told me that when he first got to Hollywood, a decade ago, he went to Celebrity Centre for what “seemed like a legitimate industry workshop,” only to find that “it was more or less an opportunity for them to solicit people.”

“Hubbard recognized that if you really want to inspire a culture to have peace and greatness and harmony among men, you need to respect and help the artist to prosper and flourish,” Anne Archer explained to Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker. “And if he’s particularly well known he needs a place where he can be comfortable. Celebrity Centres provide that.”

How perfect is this setup, really, this love affair between Scientology and Hollywood? So many rootless, disaffected people come to Los Angeles looking to “break into” the movie business; Los Angeles is a spectacularly lonely town to live in without a network of friends; voilà, a neverending pool of potential recruits. Anybody can join Scientology and have a job of sorts, be taken into a network, be given the promise of help with a film “career.”

Sadly, though, Scientology’s Hollywood track record after all these decades is somewhat thin — except, I daresay, in the matter of fundraising and building-buying. Hence all the hysteria around the few once-A-list stars they’ve been able to attract, even though Tom Cruise’s sofa-hopping antics made it clear that his example was something of a double-edged sword for spreading the good word, seeing how the eventual goal is to convert all of Wogdom to Scientology — to “clear the planet”, in their words.

One positive result of all the press attention Scientology has received over the past thirty-plus years might indeed be a certain mellowing out. “The church,” Sappell said, “changed its approach to the media, for the most part, years ago, when it realized that one bad story inevitably leads to another.”

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.