When he first moved to Los Angeles in 1976, he was given a room at the ramshackle Chateau Élysée, the mansion that would later be lavishly refurbished into Scientology’s Celebrity Centre. Haggis describes his early days in the church as having a sense of boundless possibility – one of mystical secrets, out-of-body experiences and the glittering promise of future success in show business. “There was a feeling of camaraderie that was something I’d never experienced,” he told Wright, “all these atheists looking for something to believe in, and all these loners looking for a club to join.”
In later years, however, Haggis describes a life scrutinized and controlled by church leaders, hundreds of hours of expensive “auditing” courses and strict controls on his family life that contributed to strained relationships with his children and the demise of two marriages. Despite this, Haggis was strangely reluctant to criticize the church until the end. “I had such a lack of curiosity when I was inside,” he told Wright. “It’s stunning to me, because I’m such a curious person.”
The Church, for its part, responded with a statement in Entertainment Weekly calling Wright’s piece “little more than a regurgitation of old allegations that have long been disproved,” and went on to express its disappointment “that a magazine with the reputation of The New Yorker chose to reprint these sensationalist claims from disaffected former members hardly worthy of a tabloid.”
Haggis’s story is remarkable. With the notable exception of William S. Burroughs, who called the church “just another control-addict trip” after defecting in 1970, public criticism has been relatively rare – until recently.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie, set to be released this fall, is widely thought to be a critical biopic of Hubbard, the man Scientologists hail as the “Source” and whom critics have attacked as a charlatan and madman. The film follows the story of a charismatic burgeoning cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his hold over a troubled Second World War veteran (Joaquin Phoenix). Anderson has declined to comment on the film and Hoffman has denied the parallels between his character and the Scientology founder. When The New York Times contacted church spokeswoman Karen Pouw by e-mail and asked if they had any concerns about the film, her response was curt: “Thank you very much for your inquiry. The Church only knows about the film what it has read in the press.”
While the church has long been known to suppress negative press through its legal arm, the public relations campaign against Hubbard’s followers appears to be gaining ground. Last week, the embattled media magnate Rupert Murdoch tweeted that Scientology is a “very weird cult, but big, big money involved with Tom Cruise either number two or three in hierarchy.” He went on to add that there was “something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people.” While the notion of a character like Murdoch taking aim at others for being creepy and rich is amusingly hypocritical, his boldness is worth noting. Perhaps the church has become less vigilant about suppressing its critics because “dissemination” (as Hubbard would say) is now simply beyond their control. In an era of Twitter, anti-cult blogs and 24-hour newsfeeds, it has become impossible for even a powerful organization like the Church of Scientology to manage the fallout from a public relations disaster like this one. As the Daily Telegraph observed this week, “the Cruise-Holmes divorce is more than a car crash: it’s as if Xenu’s spaceship … had plunged into one of those volcanoes.”
Katie vs. Xenu
Just five years ago, it looked more hopeful for Project Celebrity. Back then, Scientology’s golden couple were fixed in their roles: Tom as the dazzling public smile of the organization, beautiful sloe-eyed Katie as Scientology’s virgin bride and Suri as their immaculately conceived child. And now, like an apocalyptic twist in a sci-fi allegory, Katie is biting back. While Tom celebrated a lonely 50 th birthday on the set of his movie in Iceland, his wife was meeting with her team of New York lawyers and is said to be determined to secure custody at any cost.
By abandoning the celebrity flock, Holmes is not just fleeing her own marriage but imperiling a much grander union, a relationship on which the future of her husband’s religion may rest: The love affair between Hollywood royalty and the Church. Will her bid for escape ruin Hubbard’s 60-year-old Project Celebrity? One thing is certain – it’ll all play out in this summer’s science fiction star vehicle: Katie vs. Xenu.
Editor's Note: Pianist Dave Brubeck was not a Scientologist. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.