HBO hired 160 lawyers when the network decided to air “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” the two-hour documentary based on Lawrence Wright’s book. This makes sense when you watch the film, directed by Alex Gibney, which aired Sunday night. Ex-Church of Scientology members and officials reveal secrets of the organization, and tell horror stories of psychological and physical abuse during their time in the controversial religion — and after they escaped. (For the record, the church unleashed a series of attack ads against the film and says that it’s “bigoted propaganda” and ” built on falsehoods invented by admitted liars.”)
One particularly fascinating subject that the documentary tackles is the relationship between celebrities and the church, which has been well-documented particularly with two of its most famous members: John Travolta and Tom Cruise. The film goes into detail about how much Scientology leader David Miscavige relies on star power to recruit new members and raise money.
The Church of Scientology — worth billions of dollars — is considered tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service, which waged a nasty battle with the church for years before giving up and declaring it a non-profit religious organization in 1993. As Wright says in “Going Clear,” there are only two ways to stop the church. One: The IRS could change its mind and start looking into finances. The other? “Some of these celebrity megaphones could turn against the church,” says Wright. “And Tom Cruise should be leading that chorus.”
However, it becomes clear that Cruise will not be doing that anytime soon; nor Travolta, another influential member. According to the film, here’s how the organization has controlled the two movie stars for years. (The film states Travolta and Cruise were on the list of people contacted for the film who either declined or did not respond for comment.)
“Probably my favorite concept of Scientology is a world without criminality, a world without war and a world without insanity,” a young Travolta says in old interview footage. “And I know of no other group that their goals are that clear.”
Travolta does not add that the church, founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, also believes that an intergalactic overlord named Xenu once expelled humans to Earth from another planet, and their disembodied spirits live in everyone. Instead, Travolta focuses on the spiritual fulfillment aspect of the religion (otherwise known as “going clear”) which is seen as the ultimate goal.
Travolta got involved when Hubbard increased his efforts in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Wright said, and celebrities (Rock Hudson, Priscilla Presley) checked out the church. It made sense: As entertainment industry journalist Kim Masters points out during the doc, Hollywood is a tough place for anyone’s self-esteem, especially aspiring actors. Scientology pushes the idea of self-improvement and confidence. When wannabe actors are looking to break into the business and “dealing with relentless rejection,” Scientology seems like a welcoming place of self-help. “You can see the appeal of that,” Masters said.
The film asserts that Travolta was a “troubled young man looking for help” when he stumbled across Hubbard’s book “Dianetics.” After he discovered Scientology, he started booking everything: commercials, small acting gigs, his role on “Welcome Back Kotter.” A Scientology member named Spanky Taylor was assigned to be his contact, and the two became quite close. Taylor is interviewed at length for “Going Clear,” and she recalls the incredible confidence boost that Travolta got from the church — and he was afraid if he stopped going, his career success would stop as well. He was church’s first superstar spokesman.
“The beliefs and practices that I have studied in Scientology have been invaluable to me,” Travolta said in a previous interview.
But things took a dark turn when Taylor was sent to the “Rehabilitation Project Force,” she says, a “prison camp” for members who criticize the church. (It’s billed as a place to go when members get “stressed.”) Taylor says she was forced to do menial labor and only sleep a few hours a night, and was also separated from her baby daughter, since kids are seen as a “distraction” to their parents. Taylor details how she managed to escape with her daughter after being in horrifying living conditions. However, she was cut off from her friend Travolta, whom Wright alleges knew what was happening to Taylor, but did nothing.
“He certainly got exposed to the fact that everything wasn’t on the up-and-up,” Taylor said, wondering out loud why that wasn’t enough for Travolta to leave the church. “I often wonder what could possibly keep him there.”
The possible answer: Former Scientology officials, including former spokesman Marty Rathbun, say that every “audit” (where a Scientology member is forced to reveal their deepest, most intimate secrets and fears on the way to attain spiritual and mental clarity) is recorded and filmed. Not to mention the “auditors” take pages of notes. So, when word had it that Travolta was threatening to leave, all the officials had do was go through all the notes from the auditing sessions to find secrets that Travolta had spilled and may not want getting out into the public.
“I know this because I used to do it when I was the head of the office of special affairs,” said former official Mike Rinder. “By exposing [these secrets] or threatening to expose them, they will cower the person into silence.”
Because Travolta stayed put in the church, Rathbun said, he had the full support of the powerful organization, which would help “squash or intimidate” any accusatory stories he didn’t want in the press — like rumors that he was secretly gay, which made the tabloid covers. Rathbun said he and Rinder would help Travolta’s publicist and lawyers battle the stories.
“Once that happened, I think he was really the church’s captive,” Wright said.
Cruise and Scientology leader David Miscavige, who took over when Hubbard died, were close friends, the film says. But their relationship hit a snag when Cruise fell for Nicole Kidman, and the pair got married. Because Kidman’s father was a psychologist (and the church does not like psychologists), she was identified as a “PTS”: Potential Trouble Source. They were married for a little more than 10 years, and after Cruise was seen as drifting too far away from Miscavige, Rathbun says he was tasked to break up the marriage and get Cruise back into the church.
How did he do that? Audits. Rathbun says that not only did he have to deliver reports from his audit sessions with Cruise, but that Miscavige hired private investigators to look into Kidman for any other damaging information. They also tapped her phone when Cruise mentioned he was curious about her phone conversations (Cruise’s lawyer denies this). The film also alleges that Miscavige helped drive a wedge between Kidman and her and Cruise’s two adopted children, turning them against their mother.
Once Cruise divorced Kidman in 2001, Miscavige pushed the idea that he was the Scientology ambassador to the world, and gave him awards and made him feel like a superstar. (If you haven’t seen Cruise accepting his Medal of Valor from the organization, it’s worth a watch.) Masters, the journalist, says the church has given him tons of expensive gifts, yet he ignores the fact that some people in the organization make next to nothing working at various Scientology facilities. The film also juxtaposes Cruise celebrating his 42nd birthday on a yacht, compared with the psychological trauma described by some Scientology members.
Among other strange stories: After Miscavige heard Cruise was complaining that he wanted a new girlfriend, young Scientologist Nazanin Boniadi (now an actress known for “How I Met Your Mother” and “Homeland”) suddenly got a new assignment, Wright said. While Boniadi signed a non-disclosure agreement with the church, “Going Clear” director Alex Gibney said he found details in FBI testimony. Boniadi was moved into the celebrity center, the film says, where she was given audio of her boyfriend confessing an affair. After she dumped her boyfriend, she got a sleek new makeover, which the organization told her was because she was going on a humanitarian mission and had to look her best for world leaders.
Instead, she was given the role of Cruise’s new girlfriend. Gibney tells the story that shortly after Boniadi moved in with Cruise, they got a visit from Miscavige. Boniadi had a headache and wasn’t too responsive, and later, Cruise screamed at her for not being more respectful to the Scientology leader. She was soon told that she was no longer Cruise’s girlfriend, and was shipped back to another Scientology center. Former Scientology member and filmmaker Paul Haggis, also interviewed for the film, said Boniadi faced punishment (cleaning out the public bathrooms with a toothbrush) for telling a friend about her heartbreak over the break-up.
The official word from the Scientology leaders about these damaging stories? “The church claims that Miscavige has no involvement in Cruises’s personal life, and the search for Cruise’s girlfriend never existed,” Gibney said.