Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Talking to ashtrays with Tom Cruise and the Scientologists

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When it comes to putting the boot into Scientology, things really seem to have opened up in the past couple of years. Famously litigious, the Church of Scientology always tended to meet criticism with legal threats (it even sent one to New Humanist in relation to this piece back in the day). But now, its attempts to silence the critics look more and more futile, as revelations from the inside and attacks from the outside occur with increasing frequency.

A lot of credit has to go to the Anonymous protest movement, which hit its peak in 2008 (I wrote about one of their London protests for the magazine), as its role in proliferating anti-Scientology material on the web helped to render pointless the Church's attempts to silence isolated critics, while the protests outside Scientology centres around the world put the issue in the public eye. Since then, we've seen various revelations, including a massive exposé by Florida newspaper the St Petersburg Times this summer, which drew on first-hand accounts from former leading members to paint a shocking picture of the widespread abuses that occur within the Church. Add to this the Church's legal defeat last week in a French fraud case, and I think we can say that things haven't being going that well for Scientology recently. The Church is famous for founder L Ron Hubbard's "fair game" strategy for ruthlessly silencing potential enemies, but these days it's Scientology itself that's fair game.

It's against this backdrop that I read with grim fascination this interview with former Scientology employee Marc Headley in New York magazine Village Voice. Headley worked for 15 years at Scientology's secret headquarters outside Los Angeles, and he's now told his story in his new book Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology (next on my to-do list - ask for a review copy). Amazingly, as a young employee there in 1990, Headley was chosen as the perfect person on whom Tom Cruise, fresh from his success on Days of Thunder, could practice his "auditing" skills (in Scientology, "auditing" is a bizarre one-on-one psychological evaluation performed on members. That's the best description I could come up with - if you read the Wikipedia you'll be none-the-wiser). So what happened in Headley's auditing session with Scientology's diminutive leading man? Over to Village Voice for that one:
Headley says that Cruise took him through something called the "Upper Indoctrination Training Routines," or "Upper Indoc TRs," in the abbreviation-filled jargon of Scientologists.

And what did those entail?

"You do a lot of things with a book and a bottle," Headley says. "It's known as the book-and-bottle routine." Cruise, he says, would instruct Headley to speak to a book, telling it to stand up, or to sit down, or otherwise to move somewhere."

You do the same with the bottle. You talk to it. You do it with an ashtray too," he says. "You tell the ashtray, 'Sit in that chair.' Then you actually go over and put the ashtray on the chair. Then you tell the ashtray, 'Thank you.' Then you do the same thing with the bottle, and the book. And you do this for hours and hours."
There's more in the Village Voice piece, which you should go and look at for yourself. The Cruise-related madness has the celeb-factor, but Headley also has lots to say about the more sinister things he observed during his time in Scientology, including the violence perpetrated by Church boss David Miscavige against employees, which we first heard about in the St Petersburg Times exposé, and the lengths the Church is willing to go to in order to stop members speaking out. Interestingly, Headley also says that Scientology has about 10,000 members worldwide – a figure somewhat lower than the 10 million claimed by the Church itself.

Fascinating stuff – I can't wait to see what else Headley reveals in his book.

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