High-ranking Scientologist's defection, in detail

A long (frankly, overlong) piece in the New Yorker by Lawrence Wright gives the backstory of celebrated writer/director Paul Haggis's defection from the Church of Scientology. Haggis had been a high profile member, defender and fundraiser for the Church for most of his life, but a series of disenchanting events -- the Church's support for the California gay-marriage ban, public lies about the practice of ordering members to sever ties with family, revelations about child labor abuses on the maritime Sea Org -- caused Haggis to publicly split with the Church.

I've casually followed scandals regarding the C of S for decades, mostly out of curiousity about the "free personality tests" I'd see as a kid, and later, because of high-profile anti-anonymity/dirty tricks involving the Internet, starting with the outing of the users of the anon.penet.fi remailer. There wasn't an enormous amount of new material in here, though Wright does a good job of spinning out Haggis's remarkable life in Scientology and in the entertainment industry, and, towards the end, some damning material about physical abuse and financial malfeasance from the Church's highest leaders.

I have three or four friends who are second-generation Scientologists, including one guy who met his wife in the Sea Org and is particularly devout. I've always found it hard to reconcile their otherwise-reasonable outlooks with some of the more immediately falsifiable claims made by the Church (for example, the claim that electric charges leave the body when bad memories are recalled, and that enough of this will eventually uncover memories from past lives). This stuff isn't potentially allegorical or a story out of the distant galactic past -- rather, it's an article of faith pertaining to a regular, public ritual that makes scientific claims that are just plain wrong, like, Bill O'Reilly, Mars-doesn't-have-moons wrong. Wright's article illuminates the mindset you have to get into to believe this and still participate in rational discussion on other matters, and this is where the piece shines brightest.

But if the 26,000-word piece drags a bit (and it does), it also provides a vivid look at the way the Church rose to power and the remarkable clash between the Church's culture of secrecy and the Internet's capacity to blow open the doors.

At his house, Haggis finished telling his friends what he had learned. He suggested that they should at least examine the evidence. "I directed them to certain Web sites," he said, mentioning Exscientologykids.com, which was created by three young women who grew up in Scientology and subsequently left. Many stories on the site are from men and women who joined the Sea Org before turning eighteen. One of them was Jenna Miscavige Hill, David Miscavige's niece, who joined when she was twelve. For Hill and many others, formal education had stopped when they entered the Sea Org, leaving them especially ill-prepared, they say, for coping with life outside the church.

The stories Haggis found on the Internet of children drafted into the Sea Org appalled him. "They were ten years old, twelve years old, signing billion-year contracts--and their parents go along with this?" Haggis told me. "Scrubbing pots, manual labor--that so deeply touched me. My God, it horrified me!" The stories of the Sea Org children reminded Haggis of child slaves he had seen in Haiti.

Many Sea Org volunteers find themselves with no viable options for adulthood. If they try to leave, the church presents them with a "freeloader tab" for all the coursework and counselling they have received; the bill can amount to more than a hundred thousand dollars. Payment is required in order to leave in good standing. "Many of them actually pay it," Haggis said. "They leave, they're ashamed of what they've done, they've got no money, no job history, they're lost, they just disappear." In what seemed like a very unguarded comment, he said, "I would gladly take down the church for that one thing."

The church says that it adheres to "all child labor laws," and that minors can't sign up without parental consent; the freeloader tabs are an "ecclesiastical matter" and are not enforced through litigation.

The Apostate (Thanks, Jack, via Submitterator!)

(Image: SCIENTOLOGY Neon Sign, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mylifeafterdeath's photostream)


  1. I found the article badly-written, in that I failed to see where the news was.

    I mean, specifically, that I read of Paul Haggis’ public disenfranchisement with the church over a year ago — didn’t I? What’s different now? Or is this just old news rehashed.

    Perhaps the article did explain this and I didn’t see it. It’s too long, I agree, and not engaging enough.

    (I’m not interested in Scientology especially. But I am interested in Mr Haggis; he’s written a lot of stuff that I really enjoyed.)

    1. @shadowfirebird:

      It may be old news to you and a few others here; on forums like http://www.whyweprotest.net, you’ll probably learn of high-profile defections a few hours of them happening–but it’s certainly news to a lot of bOINGbOING readers, judging from comments to an earlier, similar post on Scientology. It’s almost certainly news to New Yorker readers, many of whom are vaguely aware of Scientology’s existence beyond “that thing Tom Cruise is in.”

      Scientology is much bigger in LA than in New York, so the New Yorker article necessarily includes a lot of background, but researched beyond the usual regurgitation of Scientology PR and the detail that Tom Cruise won’t let you interview him about it. And Scientology as an organization have been up to a lot of no good. 26 pages barely cover it.

        1. Just present your receipt to any of the moderators and you can get your money back.


          Church of scientology: as deluded as most churches, but more twitchy when it comes to criticism. Brian Dunning recently had an ep. on the Scienschmologists http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4242

          Interestingly, he was not very critical of the church, which seems at odds with the fact that many ex-members feel robbed or abused after their ordeal. Brian does give an excellent summary of Hubbard’s life history which demonstrates what an unqualified charlatan he was.

  2. I didn’t even know they had boats. If they have boats, they need officers. Officers are expensive to train, so no wonder they make ’em sign billion year contracts. That will weed out the uncommitted.

  3. I agree the article could have used a bit of editing (the parts about Haggis felt shoehorned in) but much of the detail was necessary to fully understand episodes like the sadistic game of musical chairs.

  4. Wait… Scientology has “ecclesiastical matters” that aren’t enforced by litigation?

    Consider my mind blown…

  5. It’s just mindboggling how much cheating, fraud, insanity, stupidity, and all sorts of crimes and ethically questionable activity you can get away with if only you slap the label “church” on your anti-democratic organization. Particularly in the USofA people are quick to look away and accept that such a group is free to hide under the “freedom of religion” blanket. Other countries disagree and simply don’t grant them religion status.

  6. I found it riveting. I spent a long part of yesterday reading it.

    It may not be fresh breaking news but it’s great background, good long form journalism. I think we need both.

    It show the human cost to Paul Haggis public letter; the friendships lost, the pressure and manipulation. It shows aspects of an out of control cult our legal system seems unable to bring to justice. It shows the exploitation SeaOrg or other members may be subjected to if they are perceived as being not 1000% inline.

    Lastly it shows the manipulative BS the cult uses to defend itself. Look at the end of the quoted section;

    “the freeloader tabs are an “ecclesiastical matter” and are not enforced through litigation.”

    But they enforce it through coercive personal confrontation? Of course they don’t enforce it through litigation. Debt bondage is slavery and quite illegal. Does labeling it an ecclesiastical matter change that?

    Great article.

  7. I always find conversion stories interesting — what made an adult human adopt new (irrational) beliefs — and reverse-conversion stories are often more so.

    He was okay with the salvation for cash, the exploding soul volcano and the space ghosts, but it was the Scientologists’ labor practices and political activities that were a bridge too far.

    Don’t get me wrong — those are certainly legitimate reasons to leave. But he seems to have overlooked so many other compelling reasons to bid these people adieu.

    I guess that when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

  8. Robert J. Lifton is required viewing for any cult member:

    And remember ANYTHING can be made into a cult!

  9. It isn’t an easy thing to leave an organization that has mind control over you – as any religion does. The feelings of doubt and damnation even though irrational take some getting over and this guy wasn’t just a follower.
    If it’s any consolation to him it has to be better to pursue truth wherever it goes and if that means the realisation that gods are of our making and people are just greedy for wealth and power then so be it.

  10. The “church” has a huge, huge presence in Clearwater, FL, and not a week goes by that they aren’t linked to some disturbing activity in the state. Embezzlement, theft, kidnapping, intimidation, murder – the list goes on and on. Massive amounts of money are channeled through businesses to the church, who takes it and then addresses any malfeasance by the donor with a shrug of innocence.

    Even with an air of skepticism due to any religion, it manages to stand out for it’s ridiculous, easily disprovable science nonsense and it’s thirst for money and power. I instantly lose any and all respect for someone who’s affiliated with the church or practices their psycho-babble. It’s a harmful cult that deserves to be exposed and driven out of existence. Hopefully the internet makes it happen more swiftly.

    1. Layne – “….not a week goes by that they aren’t linked to some disturbing activity in the state. Embezzlement, theft, kidnapping, intimidation, murder – the list goes on and on. Massive amounts of money are channeled through businesses to the church, who takes it and then addresses any malfeasance by the donor with a shrug of innocence. ”

      Incontrovertible proof that history repeats itself?

      1. I had the SAME thought while typing it out – something along the lines of “I bet these guys could show the Catholic church a thing or two if they’d been in charge of the Inquisition”.

        Sad but true.

  11. @shadowfirebird While Paul Haggis announced he was leaving the Church of Scientology in 2009, this article marks the first time he has spoken publicly about his reasons for leaving. So there you have it, NEW MATERIAL.

  12. That length is nothing, really, given that I have read an entire book about the history of Scientology (A Piece of Blue Sky, by Jon Atack) and found the entire thing fascinating and horrifying. This article may be long and old news to those of us who already follow the information, but anything that gets the story out to a broad audience is worth it, especially if it keeps people from continuing to fall prey to their trap.

  13. Nothing the Scientologists have done is any worse than the things the Christian Catholic Church has done for 1500 years, and is still doing today.

    Do not think I am defending Scientology; far from it. I’m condemning Catholicism! The damn Catholics have been actively causing trouble for my family for hundreds of years; we left Europe to get away from them, but the bastards followed us.

    They burned my wife’s ancestor Joseph Priestley out of his house for questioning the divine right of kings, and put a price on my great-great grandfather’s head for being a Puritan, and most recently they developed the land above my house (to pay the vig for child sexual abuse, no I am NOT KIDDING) and used their complete control over the local development and land use committees to send all the traffic from their (retroactively legalized) new housing development down my privately owned road.

    Fuckers are evil. They BURN PEOPLE to death – and I’m not talking about the Middle Ages, check out what Catholics are up to in Africa, there’s more than one reason Islam is growing down there.

    Scientologists are Catholic wannabes. Maybe they should be exterminated before they reach Catholic levels of power.

    1. Also the British! Those bastards are worse than scientologists, too! I mean, hell, they oppressed my ancestors, and then, when my far distant ancestors came all the way across the atlantic ocean to get away from them, those assholes went and invaded! Twice!

      And then they went and invented a lot of really obnoxious reality tv shows that keep getting imported! I’ve suffered so much.

      Truly, they are evil personified, as this definitively proves, and is not just a meritless justification of my own prejudices.

    2. There are a lot of Catholics in the world, especially if you count all of history. They cover a lot of good people and a lot of horrible people. Without excusing some of the excuses they’ve made for the latter, if the handful of Scientologists have managed a tiny fraction of the evil that has occurred here and there among the countless Catholic churches, something is very wrong.

  14. Wow, the proof of Scientology being bung all comes down to a forged WWII document?

    Military records show 100% proof of fraud & church defends saying their expert assures them that theirs is not a fake.

    Long read to come to that little gem….

    I think a good expose just on this 1 fact would be appropriate.

  15. “I once asked Haggis about the future of his relationship with Scientology. “These people have long memories,” he told me. “My bet is that, within two years, you’re going to read something about me in a scandal that looks like it has nothing to do with the church.” He thought for a moment, then said, “I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.” ♦”

    Somebody really ought to keep a watch on this….

    And frankly, scientolagy is more scary then it looks.

    1. I’m thinking it’s enough of a problem for Haggis that Scientologists will probably be told not to work in his movies. The high-profile, Tom Cruise types are less a problem than the support crews, I’m thinking.

      But they’ll probably Fair Game him anyway. Come to think, quitting a high-profile cult is a good way for someone to defuse an actual scandal, innit?

  16. I read the entire article even though I already knew most of the gory details. I admit to a fascination with the idea of otherwise intelligent people accepting and endorsing outlandishly ridiculous ideas as a basis for their religion. I’m inclined to apply that same non-understanding to all religions, not just the newer, wackier ones.

    But it does seem that the more nonsensical the basic precepts may be, the more inclined people are to want to suspend their critical thinking skills and swallow it whole. For heaven’s sake, Xenu and volcano’s and Thetans-how does anyone get past that craziness? It would seem that having your religion “discovered” by a science fiction writer would be enough to make a person skeptical right off the bat.

    The one truly smart thing that Scientology does is to reinforce its successful members in the belief that their success is directly related to how high they rise in the church hierarchy. It’s a perfectly self replicating system.

    1. I admit to a fascination with the idea of otherwise intelligent people accepting and endorsing outlandishly ridiculous ideas as a basis for their religion. I’m inclined to apply that same non-understanding to all religions, not just the newer, wackier ones.

      The thing I don’t like about this particular religion is that they aren’t up front about those wacky beliefs. By the time most members find out they’re in a UFO cult they’re so thoroughly invested in the church that they’ll believe anything they are told by its authorities.

      Say what you will about the Catholics, but at least they don’t try to keep potential converts from finding out what’s in the New Testament.

      1. The thing I don’t like about this particular religion is that they aren’t up front about those wacky beliefs. By the time most members find out they’re in a UFO cult they’re so thoroughly invested in the church that they’ll believe anything they are told by its authorities.

        Say what you will about the Catholics, but at least they don’t try to keep potential converts from finding out what’s in the New Testament.

        Umm, have you ever heard about the protestants and where they come from? The catholic church was all about protecting the power of the priests by using languages those under their power didn’t master.

        Also, they didn’t sue and harass as much as they burned people at the stakes.

  17. The Scienos have a very long and storied connection with the internet going back to the early days of UseNet and alt.religion.scientology when they tried to serve a subpoena on the entire interNet in an attempt to silence a critic. Then there was the Scieno Net-Nanny that would spare the Believers from any sceptical sites or even any email or posting from user IDs on the Restricted list.

    They were also major pioneers in using copyright to gag critics long before the interNet arose. All of their theology and most of their internal memos are claimed to be copyrighted so you aren’t supposed to have access to them – let alone use them in critical articles or lawsuits. Before the Streisand effect of the interNet (which seems to have finally penetrated their collective skull) they would spend millions of dollars in litigation and harassment campaigns against any reporter who wrote a story hinting at any imperfection in Scientology. Look up the story of Paulette Cooper to see the tip of the iceberg on these activities. (The Wikipedia article doesn’t cover a tenth of what they did to her.)

    All old news but it never hurts to remind new generations what pond scum these people are.

  18. They leave, they’re ashamed of what they’ve done, they’ve got no money, no job history, they’re lost, they just disappear.

    The plight of anyone trying to leave any obnoxious cult is often truly heartrending. What do you put on your resume after spending 20 years recruiting people for an organisation that ends up abusing almost all of them: often sexually? “Sales”? I helped run a periodic drop-in meeting for these people to talk to someone (usually each other) who wouldn’t pass judgement on them and who would offer help with all their unique issues. Some of these people had been totally silent for decades about their traumas.

    It’s a group that’s sorely in need of such services but they won’t get them as long as Scientology is there. Anyone attempting such a thing is immediately targeted by them lest your group run across some apostate Scientologists. They ran the old umbrella group for this sort of thing (the Cult Awareness Network) out of business with torrents of meritless lawsuits. A great benefit for them in this was that they got to pick up the warehouse of book critical of cults that CAN had and, at least figuratively, torch it. This includes the “Piece of Blue Sky” book about them whose author they also drove into bankruptcy to stop it from being distributed.

    It’s sort of like if breweries attacked Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

  19. Folks, the article is long-winded but it is one of the rare/in-depth POV interviews with someone who is high-profile who has left the “church.”

    A decent blog summary that also links to an NPR episode of “Fresh Air” where Terry Gross interviews Haggis on the subject is here: http://bit.ly/fnMEdh

    It’s also an extensively fact-checked piece with the Church of Scientology being consulted.

    Folks, this is a major rare piece of investigative journalism against these loonballs. May this not be the last one.

  20. I liked the article very much. What struck me about the article is that a lot of ex-Scientologists, Haggis included, seem to see value in the day-to-day activities they took part in.

    Fooling yourself can be a useful kind of therapy.

  21. I couldn’t read past this line;
    “Jim Gordon, a veteran police officer in Los Angeles, and also an aspiring actor,”
    Without thinking, “So that’s what he did before the bright lights of Gotham and the rank of Commissioner?!”

    I think my brain must be wired wrong and I need a *personality test*

  22. So if you stay, your good, financially, and if you leave, you owe tons of money and all youve got to show for it is some useless “knowledge.”

    So, its like my student loans?

  23. non sequitur a bit – the austin outlet was right next to the UT campus. we would buy scientology manuals at the UT Library book sales (members would donate them all the time) and use them to mess with the ‘personality’ testers.

    best reaction was the time a HUGE quarter-back kinda guy asked me if i would like a free personality test. i cheerily replied “no thanks – i’m over the bridge!”

    he literally had to be physically restrained from killing me, and i heard one of his trainers saying maybe he wasn’t ready for the street just yet. his repeated screams of FUCK YOU! drew quite a crowd.

    never saw him again.

    for more fun, read bald-faced messiah.

  24. I’m a practicing SubGenius, but I’ve found that certain Scientology tech is actually really helpful. I guess, whatever works. That LRH was a crafty old devil, to be sure.

  25. No one questions anything when a sf writer comes up w/ his own religion? I find it quite frightening.

    I mena most religions try to present some tangible proof in the writings.

    Moses apparently had a burning bush, parting of the Sea & such.

    Jesus – turning water into wine & u know – like being raised from the dead & all.

    Hubbard – I think all he had was a bad trip.

    Idea for a cute shirt:

    I AM 1.1 (front)

    Look busy – Xenu is coming!! (back)

  26. Old meme is old, but suits those who don’t get how come smart ppl believe in that UFO volcano shit:

    The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree… yeah, makes perfect sense.

    1. By calling this a “meme”, do you mean the meme of cults holding people hostage, extorting them, and taking over their lives? If so, granted. But I don’t think reporting on the abuses of Scientology qualify as a “meme”, fyi. Its kind of like the wikileak’d cables in my opinion: just because you know the behavior exists doesn’t mean reporting on the specifics is useless.

  27. Haggis’ story is newsworthy because he’s a celebrity with sanity cred, but I think a far more interesting profile subject would be spokesperson Tommy Davis — he’s a man who was a de facto member before he even became a member (thanks to growing up with Scientologist parents), who dropped out of school to join Sea Org, and who by all accounts has a direct line of communication with leader Miscavige. In this and other reports, he comes across as a less murderous version of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Operative from Serenity: a true believer who keeps reality deliberately at arm’s length because the alternative would mean disaster.

    I actually felt a surge of emotion for him near the end of the piece, although granted part of that was because the author was sneaky and inserted that “filling with emotion” trigger. Still, this is a fairly revealing look at the work a true believer must go through all the time when facing outside criticism:

    – –
    “At the meeting, Davis and I also discussed Hubbard’s war record. His voice filling with emotion, he said that, if it was true that Hubbard had not been injured, then ‘the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie.’ He concluded, ‘The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.'”
    – –

    Also, I frequently get the impression that most of the day-to-day practice of Scientology would map awfully close to modern pscyhotherapy and counseling — it’s a lot of the “talking cure” combined with a lot of instruction on how to communicate better, so at levels below O.T. III (when the volcano/Zenu/ghosts stuff kicks in), it probably *is* quite useful for a lot of folks.

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