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This is an organization that feminists should be on the frontlines attacking.
Skepticism about the church—or is that cult?—of Scientology has been mounting since the religion first began in 1953. But it wasn't until the last few years that the attacks have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Several high-profile members, including top execs and celebrities like Paul Haggis and Leah Remini, have very publicly defected, and last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lawrence Wright wrote Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison Of Belief, an exposé that thoughtfully, even-handedly, but damningly, laid bare the church's darkest inner-workings.
Now, that book has been turned into an HBO documentary of the same name. Helmed by award-winning director Alex Gibney, it won't debut until Sunday, March 29—but I caught a sneak peek at a movie theater in San Francisco.
The film is, objectively, exceedingly well-crafted. It is also so explosive, it could possibly be the exposé that finally prompts real change within the ranks of Scientology. That change can't come soon enough, because Scientology is—there's no way around it—an actively abusive cult that's destroyed the lives of many of its members.
The church's abuses run deep, from its shady tax-exempt religious status (gleaned after pressuring the IRS with multiple individual lawsuits), to its grifting of money from members who must pay heftily to attain their spiritual enlightenment, to the fact that it turns people against family members who leave. And that's to say nothing of the many charges against current leader David Miscavige, who's been accused of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.
But in reading the book and, now, watching the movie, it was another facet of the church's shadowy workings that caught my interest: its abuses against women.
This is an organization that feminists should be on the frontlines attacking.
Of course, many religions hold patriarchal views that hurt women, but Scientology's abuses are particularly egregious, from forced abortions to rape cover-ups to sexualized labor.
These abuses trace their way to the very top—all the way to L. Ron Hubbard, the church's founder. LRH, as he's affectionately known in Scientology ranks, was by many accounts an abusive misogynist who set the tone for the church's treatment of women. The film Going Clear shares the writings of his ex-wife Sarah Northup, who claims he frequently assaulted her (he once hit her across the face with a pistol) and abducted their 13-month-old child.
After being targeted by the IRS for tax evasion, Hubbard took to the high seas on a ship called the Apollo, where he called himself the "Commodore" and "Messengers" fetched his drinks, recorded what he said, drew his bath, and otherwise served his every whim. According to accounts, many of these messengers were "comely teenager girls" who wore hot pants and halter tops, comprising a sort-of underage sexualized servant force.
Hubbard sought total subservience from the women in his life. Once, he wrote an essay about 19th-century war hero Simón Bolívar and his mistress Manuela Sáenz that stated, because Sáenz has not adequately supported her man, Bolivar had died a failure.
This misogynistic mentality is shared by Hubbard's successor, Miscavige. The controversial leader (and Tom Cruise BFF) has been accused of abusing not just members, but his own wife, Shelly, whom he assigned as his "assistant" and demanded total servitude from.
When Shelley didn't get prior approval from David before sending out a list of organizational changes to members several years ago, she mysteriously disappeared, and hasn't been heard from since. Actress Leah Remini, after defecting from the church, even filed a missing persons report for Shelly. Many suspect Shelly was spirited away to one of the church's secretive detention camps to undergo interrogations and perform brute labor—all because she deigned to defy her man.
The church's abuses run deeper, though, than the men at the top. Systemic sexism is built into the very foundation of the cult.
The Sea Org, the church's paramilitary wing, strongly discourages procreation, on the grounds that children distract from service to the organization. As a result, many female members have claimed that they were forced to undergo abortions. In 2010, a dozen women spoke out to The St. Petersburg Times about being coerced to abort by facing isolation, name-calling, interrogations, and manual labor assignments.
Three years later, a former Scientologist filed a lawsuit against the church that alleged it forced her to have an abortion at age 17 by threatening to take her house, husband, and job if she didn't—and telling her that, if she lost her job, she would also have to pay a $120,000 "Freeloader Debt" to the church.
The forced-abortion stance seems to derive from Hubbard himself, whose eldest son accused him of attempting two abortions on his mother.
In 2010, Jan Eastgate, the president of a Scientology front group called the Citizen's Commission On Human Rights, was charged with "perverting the course of justice" for coaching a 12-year-old Scientologist girl, Carmen Rainer (and her mother) to lie about her stepfather sexually abusing and raping her. The girl was told that if she spoke out about the abuse, she would never see her family again. Meanwhile, several members of the church worked to protect her abusive stepdad.
Three years after the coaching took place, Eastgate was awarded with the Freedom Medal, the church's highest honor.
Watch Rainer speak out about the incident here:
Paul Haggis, the Hollywood screenwriter who famously defected from the church after more than 30 years, left in large part because he has two lesbian daughters and discovered a branch of the church had backed Prop 8. Going Clear suggests church officials actively harassed and humiliated Haggis' daughters because of their sexuality.
Haggis would later discover that in Hubbard's Dianetics, the church's de facto bible, a “sexual pervert” is defined as someone engaging in “homosexuality, lesbianism, sexual sadism, etc.”
Demeaning Auditions For Tom Cruise's Wife
The film also details how the church worked to separate Tom Cruise from Nicole Kidman, who was openly skeptical of the organization and close to her psychologist father, a big no-no for an organization that disdains the psychiatric establishment. After the two divorced (and the church had also turned Kidman's two adopted children against her, on account of her being a "suppressive person"), the church went about auditioning good Scientology women to be Cruise's wife.
One of those women, actress Nazanin Bodiadi, was given a makeover before meeting Cruise, including having her hair dyed the color he liked. After they were together for a month, Miscavige came to visit them at a vacation home; when Bodiadi complained of a headache, she was accused of being rude to Miscavige by Cruise, who allegedly slammed his fist on the table in anger. Bodiadi never heard from Cruise again and, when she confided to a friend about her heartbreak and was ratted out, was forced to scrub toilets with a toothbrush.
In a strange coda to the sordid affair, Bodiadi would later rap about the church, "This ain't no road to freedom / It's a blind alley, like Kirstie Alley / Travolta, and Cruise, but we ain't no fools."
Many will likely tune in to Going Clear to see what it has to say about the celebrities, like Cruise and John Travolta, who drink and peddle Scientology's Kool-Aid—and the movie certainly doesn't shy away from this salacious material. But in the end, what lingers is the impression that this is an organization that exploits and abuses everyday, decent people—destroying their families, subjecting them to psychological torture, stripping them of their money, harassing them, and otherwise leaving their lives in ruin.
As is so often the case, this power-hungry organization has in many cases exploited women in particular for gain. And that makes fighting Scientology a cause every feminist should care about.