Want to gain eternal life? Want to live for billions of years and conquer the universe? Want to understand the key to eternal verities? Forget churches who just let you turn up and worship for free; forget the Bible and the Gita and all those other texts you can just read on the internet; forget meditation. What you need to do is spend hundreds of thousands of pounds being ‘trained’, pummelled, bullied and harassed by a secretive organisation which will completely f*** your mind. And then you’ll be so powerful, you can look in the camera with that intense and creepy expression Tom Cruise has, and everyone will just do whatever you want.
Yes, I have finally caught up with the latest Louis Theroux offering, ‘My Scientology Movie.’ Scientology is a ‘religion’ set up by sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard and taken over, on his death, by David Miscavige. Louis spent ten years trying to get Scientologists to talk to him and met a brick wall; so he turned to the only available source of information – lapsed, or perhaps we should rather say ‘escaped’, Scientologists. And rather than just interviewing them, he came up with an ingenious method of trying to approximate what goes on on the organisation: he reconstructed it. With the aid of Marty Rathbun, formerly one of David Miscavige’s top henchmen, he reconstructs a ‘training’ session where aspirants interview each other one-to-one and try to elicit an emotional response. This response is measured by a lie-detector and the methods are brutal: the person interviewing Louis told him he was a rubbish film-maker whose wife didn’t love him and was probably having sex right now with someone else, maybe someone he thought was a friend. Unsurprisingly this got an emotional response, leading to the increased heart-rate which is measured on the lie-detector.
In a horrible way you can almost see this working, like throwing someone in at the deep end might teach them to swim. Then again, they might drown or suffer terrible trauma, especially as this ‘training’ continues until you no longer show a response, after which you go onto the next level (and pay more money).
The ideas of paying for enlightenment is, or ought to be, a red flag: anyone who makes a profit out of showing others ‘the way’ is not to be trusted. Most yoga organisations charge for asana classes but not for meditation, and no church I’ve ever heard of would dream of charging people to attend (yes, I know a lot of them make a point of passing round the plate, but you can still walk out that door and give them nothing: salvation does not depend on donation.)
This was a dangerous film for Theroux to make: plenty of people warned him not to go there and while filming he was continually followed, harassed, filmed and at one point barred from driving down a public road which the Scientologists had illegally closed. He also got a number of letters from their lawyers warning him to stop spreading ‘false information’ and his main witness, Marty Rathbun, backed out in the end after veiled threats to his foster-child. Clearly these people will stop at very little to protect themselves; they are clever, rich and powerful; and unlike your typical gangster, they are subtle and intelligent.
It reminded me a little of something that happened to me way back in the ’80’s. I was 24, recovering from a breakdown and quite vulnerable when I met a man called Barney. He seemed pleasant enough, and besides was a member of CND so I had no reason to distrust him. But we got chatting and he tried to get me to come to a meeting of something called EST where people were locked into a room and not allowed to go to the toilet, in order that they would overcome their inhibitions by urinating in front of other people. This wikipedia article gives a fairly positive account of it but I didn’t want to know: however this guy would not give up. I told him I couldn’t afford the training (I was on the dole and I think the sessions were about £50, a lot of money in the early ’80’s) thinking that would be a clinching argument. Not a bit of it: he told me to borrow the money. It’d be worth it, he said. He kept on and on at me until in the end I got my parents to talk to him as I just couldn’t cope.
Here’s Louis talking about making the film:
and here is the film itself:
Next on my list is ‘Going Clear,’ a film about Scientology with Tom Cruise. Finally I understand that line of Cohen’s which so puzzled us as teenagers: ‘Did you ever go clear?’
(‘Famous Blue Raincoat’)