Tuesday 17 March 2015

How Tom Cruise saved me from Scientology

The explosion of interest in Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear has brought the role played by Scientology's celebrity flag-bearers back into focus.

It prompted Sea Org veteran John Duignan to send Infinite Complacency this extract from his latest book project.

John Duignan © Lisa Tiffany
I suppose I should thank him. It was Tom Cruise, after all, who finally convinced me to walk away from Scientology.

Back then, Cruise and I had something important in common. We were both fanatical adherents of the Church of Scientology.

Otherwise the differences in the lifestyles that defined us could not be more stark.

Finally, in 2005, my 22 years of life in the Sea Organization, the very core of Scientology – its elite, communal-living, unquestioning, ecclesiastical hierarchy – came to an abrupt end.

And that is mainly down to the Top Gun star.

Before that, it had been Tom who had kept me clinging to the last threads of my shaken faith.

I had willingly absorbed the abuse, insane work schedules, the pittance we were paid and awful living conditions.

Why? Because Tom’s dedication and his courting of politicians, presidents, movie stars and film industry executives – including the likes of Spielberg – promised a bright new future for our much-maligned movement.

But he went and spoiled it.

I could forgive him the South Park episode that made a fool of both him and Scientology.

I even forgave him his manic display on Oprah Winfrey's show, jumping up and down on the couch, in a scene endlessly lampooned on the Internet

But I could not forgive him standing up on that stage in Saint Hill, Southern England – next to David Miscavige, our diminutive dictator – and telling me that he was more dedicated, worked harder and suffered more for the Scientology cause than me and my downtrodden Sea Org comrades.

I lived with my compatriots on an average of £10.00 for a 140-hour work week.

That's right: 140 hours – that's not a typo.

We were used to travelling back and forth from our overcrowded communal housing in overcrowded, beat up, old, Ford mini-buses. When in October 2004 Tom and his entourage arrived at Scientology’s UK base, it was in rather more style.

He swept down the drive of Saint Hill Manor in leafy West Sussex, in a gleaming Mercedes E500. When he stepped out of the car, he was dressed in a hand-crafted suit and Italian leather shoes that screamed cosseted opulence.

In contrast, my rumpled looking Scientology interpretation of a naval officer’s uniform, with its worn, shiny patches, told a story of desperation, depredation and intimidation.

Cheap, cracked shoe leather and off-white shirts bore witness to sleepless work stints. Another 24-hour shift where the brass alternately cajoled and threatened their Sea Org subordinates to rocket their sales and delivery statistics.

And we in turn would pass it down the ranks.

Our pale, pinched faces yelled down phone lines demanding ever-more production from browbeaten staff working from cold, leaky buildings in London, Manchester, Plymouth, Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Our already frantic work mode had been driven up several notches as we rushed to make ready Saint Hill base before the arrival of Miscavige, the “Chairman of the Board” – COB.

The mention of COB struck terror into the hearts of Sea Org members however senior. This man wielded absolute power over us. He was a tightly wound spring exuding a malevolent air of barely suppressed violence.1

His personal staff included drivers, a medical doctor, stylists and armed body guards. Beyond these, he had his very own corporate entity known as RTC, the Religious Technology Center.2

Sea Org members of this unit enforced his power and authority. They were recruited from a pool of second- and third-generation Scientology and Sea Org children. They had to be young and physically perfect. They were fanatical in their allegiance to Miscavige.

Even the most senior executives feared them, because these people were COB by extension.3

Several layers of bureaucracy pressed down on us to ready the Saint Hill Castle, its grounds and its people in time for an annual showcase event. The evening was designed to impress the great and the good of Scientology, and so doing extract breathtaking sums from them that would end up in a murky bank account in a tax-free and audit-free island in the Dutch Antilles.

Attendance numbers had to be big, up on previous years, to give a feeling of success and expansion. This impression helped soften people up to donate massive amounts to the fund known as “The War Chest” to fund campaigns against Scientology's enemies.

To that end, we had additional cleaning, painting duties and even the construction of a huge, temporary, hangar-like auditorium for the event.

And we still had to complete our regular duties, phoning our way through an interminable list of thousands of fanatical believers, book buyers and casual contacts.

And all the while we were being berated and terrorised by a complement of Scientology top brass who had descended on us from corporate headquarters in California – and from Freewinds, the 40-year old Sea Org cruise ship based in the Caribbean island of Curacao.

By the night of the big event we were burned out.

I was in particularly bad shape. I was on call 24/7 and had managed about six hours sleep over the preceding week.

And yes, you read that correctly: six hours sleep in a week.

We still had a full weekend of events to get through – because we were not the guests. We had to do all the work: from cleaning to security and everything in between. And after that, we would have to face a nerve-wracking week of inspection by Miscavige and his retinue of brass.

But attendance at the main event was mandatory.

This was a black-tie affair where Miscavige reeled off statistics and anecdotes demonstrating Scientology's unstoppable growth across the planet, and paraded the stars of Scientology Corporate growth.

And this is when Tom Cruise was introduced to the awestruck gathering. 

"Were you there? What did you do?" Tom Cruise, Saint Hill, 2004
He struck me as cold, arrogant. He berated us about his dedication. He echoed Miscavige in ordering us to greater efforts: more work, less self-indulgence.

Here was this multi-millionaire, glowing with carefully cultivated health. His private Gulfstream jet had deposited him beside his Mercedes and then he had been driven to the exclusive South Lodge Hotel to rest after his long journey.

And here I was, 22 years of sweat and tears behind me, virtually penniless and crushed by exhaution. I considered myself pretty damned dedicated.

Well, as I said, I suppose I should thank him.

Even before Cruise's speech, I had already begun to have doubts about Scientology.4 But after a few months ruminating over this insulated, privileged Hollywood star and his sense of entitlement, I left Scientology forever.5

During those first weeks after I fled Hubbard and his minions, while I was ducking and diving around the seedier areas of Birmingham to avoid the cultists who were hunting me, I sought help in Catholic, Anglican and Unitarian churches.

At best they gave me a pat on the back and sent me on my way. They did not want to know.

So I made my own way and eventually became a mask-wearing Anonymous campaigner, an author and a vocal critic of Hubbard and his cult.

I also gave up on that crowd of berobed old men claiming that they can intercede between my carnal humanity and divinity. I finally rejected the fabrications sold me by priests, preachers and gurus. I rejected those brief transcendent moments of religious ecstasy and revelation.

It was a coldly liberating moment: but it was hard won.

John Duignan spent 22 years in the Sea Organization stationed in Europe, Australia, Canada, the US and United Kingdom. He fled the cult in 2006 and wrote a book about his experience. The Complex, published in Dublin in 2008 by Merlin Press. This article is an extract from his as-yet unpublished second book, ‘Gullible’s Travels’. John lives in Ireland and is a writer by profession.

1   John and his colleagues had good reason to be afraid: Miscavige has a history of assaulting his lieutenants, as reported here back in 2009. See Accusing Miscavige, The Case Against Miscavige and A History of Violence. (All notes added by the site editor.)
2   The Religious Technology Center (RTC) is where, according to most observers, the real power in Scientology lies. If Miscavige is known as COB, it is because he is Chairman of the Board of the RTC.
3   Hubbard, in his day, had a similar entourage, teenager girls known as the Messengers, who wielded the same kind of power – and inspired the same kind of fear.
4   We asked about that and John explained that he had happened on an abridged paperback edition of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Hubbard, in one of his Student Hat lectures, had claimed to have read the full six-volume version one time he was having trouble sleeping.
“I had been most impressed. Happening upon the much shorter and simplified 1963 paperback collapsed his claim: I read enough of the paperback over the weekend to prove to myself that I could have given the same lecture were I called to do so.
“The shock was the realization that Hubbard would lie; edit the truth to suit his needs.
“This being the case then, what else was he lying about?”
You can find the passage in question in Hubbard's “Organization And Ethics” May 18, 1965 lecture: Saint Hill Special Briefing Course given at East Grinstead (SHSBC-424).
5   John isn't the only Sea Org member who was offended by the way Miscavige honoured Cruise at the 2005 ceremony, praising him to the skies and awarding him a “Freedom Medal of Valor”; and by the way Cruise lectured Sea Org veterans on how to be good Scientologists. Peter Bonyai expressed similar feelings in his memoir, Money, Power, Servitude:
Even as a dedicated Sea Org member, I felt his whole story was a gigantic insult to all hard-working Sea Org members. I had been working day and night for the Church for the last seven years, enduring all the extreme production demands, yelling, humiliation in the name of greater good etc. And then Tom Fucking Cruise gets a medal, despite the fact that he was only disseminating over the previous 1 or 2 years. By the way, I never really liked Tom Cruise — he was a kind of a symbol of what was wrong with mainstream US culture. He was not even a Sea Org member, just a public Scientologist, whom we considered loser dilettantes for not taking real responsibility for clearing the planet.
You can find my review of the book over at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker.