Scientology Won’t Set Me Free

In the mid-1980s, journalist Joel Sappell and a colleague began a five-year examination of the Church of Scientology that would ultimately produce a 24-article series. It would also change Sappell’s life in ways both mystifying  and unnerving. Decades later the onetime investigative reporter investigates what happened to him

From top: Marty Rathbun (far left) and Miscavige (far right) with a colleague, in earlier days; the church’s International Base in Hemet, California; Tom Cruise, Scientology’s best-known adherent, and Miscavige. Photographs by from top: no credit; banks/splash news; paul white/ap photo

Today David Miscavige is no longer secretly pulling Scientology’s strings, the way he did in the days of Bob’s and my reporting. Back then the only time we glimpsed him was in a Los Angeles courthouse hallway as he rushed past, refusing to utter a word as our photographer snapped a rare shot of the small but powerfully built young man. Now 52, Miscavige, who’s always immaculately tailored, travels the world from Hamburg to Pasadena, officiating at gala dedication ceremonies for dozens of new or lavishly restored churches of Scientology. He’s described on the church’s Web site as Scientology’s “ecclesiastical leader” and perhaps more important, as “L. Ron Hubbard’s trusted friend.”

Under Miscavige’s stewardship, the Web site says, Scientology has doubled in size during the past five years and has positioned itself as a true “21st Century religion” through its stunning state-of-the-art multimedia operations, some of which will be based in a Hollywood studio the church bought in 2011 for $42 million. But in some ways Miscavige and the church he rules remain unchanged. Combativeness is in their DNA.

Rathbun once enjoyed the perks of riding shotgun with Miscavige, who lives in a well-appointed bungalow at the church’s “International Base” outside the Riverside County city of Hemet, 80 miles from downtown L.A. But not anymore. For the past three years, ever since Rathbun was quoted in those St. Pete Times stories about Miscavige’s alleged violent streak, the defector has been hunkering down in Ingleside on the Bay, warding off blows from church members and operatives.

In a boxy, two-story house across the cul-de-sac from his home, Rathbun says, a private investigator has set up shop, installing video cameras behind reflective windows. The P.I. in question is the same one Rathbun says he hired in 1988 to dig up dirt on two high-level Dallas defectors, a husband and wife whom Bob and I interviewed. One evening, while driving the narrow road that leads from Rathbun’s house to the main highway, I see a man in a silver Crown Victoria fly past me in the opposite direction while talking on a cell phone. It’s the private detective from across the street.

The church isn’t hiding the fact that Rathbun is being watched; a surveillance photo of him having lunch with The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright on the patio of a restaurant was published in a 2011 special edition of Scientology’s Freedom Magazine. The publication skewered a 24,000-word piece Wright had written that same year on Scientology, an article he’s expanded into a book due out this month. When I contact Wright, he says of the photo, “Marty had told me he was being watched, but it seemed brazen to publish it.” Wright says he was left with the impression that “the church had hired a private investigator to stalk one or the two of us and was proud of that.”

Similarly, for six months straight a video crew from an outfit called Squirrel Busters Productions shadowed Rathbun around town, provocatively pushing video cameras in his face. It got so nutty that neighbors began putting up “No Squirrel Busters” signs and turning on lawn sprinklers to shoo them away. (A “squirrel,” in Hubbardspeak, is someone who provides Scientology services outside the technical expertise of the mother church. By that definition, I think Rathbun is a squirrel. He calls himself a “heretic.”)

An edited compilation of the Squirrel Busters’ footage comes to life when you click on the Web site “Marty Rathbun may see himself as a peaceful and honest good old boy who wouldn’t harm anyone,” the video’s voice-over says. “But if he took a good look in the mirror, he’d see his true image: an unhinged leader of a small, South Texas cult. A man with a militia mentality and a long history of violence.”

During my visits, whenever a car starts or a door slams, his eyes dart toward the windows, often in sync with those of his wife. I keep wondering how traumatic this must be for the quiet Monique, who met her husband on Match
.com in 2006, before all hell broke loose. Today she sits in that catbird seat like a sentry. Rathbun says the message he’s being sent is this: “You think you can leave the cult? The cult will follow you to your freakin’ grave.”

I tell him that readers of this story will probably think he’s getting what he deserves. After all, this is the same treatment he once dished out. For the first time during my visit I see a flash of the aggressive Marty I remember. He stops pacing in the kitchen, where I’m seated, and stares at me. “That’s what they’ll think if that’s what you write!” he says, his voice rising as he points a finger at me. It’s not a matter of opinion, I say. Those are the facts. “I’ve taken a lot of hits in the last three years,” he says, softening his tone. “I’ve been working off a lot of karma for what I’ve done.” Now, he says, “the scales are even. I’ve built up a reservoir of good karma that I can draw on.”

These days Rathbun’s self-professed good works involve “decompressing” people who’ve left what he calls “corporate Scientology.” He audits them, as he once did Tom Cruise, to help identify traumas that are holding them back from a state of “clear.” Rathbun is still a true believer in Hubbard and the value of his writings, but he makes a distinction between the scripture and the structure of the church. A bookcase in his living room is lined with Scientology’s tomes on spiritual and managerial matters, along with the book that started it all for Hubbard in 1950, the best-selling Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

Rathbun has self-published two scathing books on Scientology’s management and maintains a popular blog called Move on Up a Little Higher, on which he encourages readers to flee “Scientology Inc.” and publicly profess their independence. Preaching the inevitable collapse of Miscavige’s Church of Scientology, Rathbun seems intent on positioning himself atop a rival movement of disaffected Scientologists, wielding the same take-no-prisoners style he once did against reporters and church critics.

“There is a reason DM fears me like no other,” Rathbun says, referring to Miscavige by his initials, as do many in the church. “Because he knows in his heart of hearts…that I’m his worst nightmare for one reason and one reason alone: I have no price.” Unlike other ex-church members who reached out-of-court settlements in the mid-1980s, Rathbun says, he can’t be bought. “Everybody has a price and I don’t.”

He says Miscavige used to be what the church needed: a leader who was “really accomplished at this whole Machiavellian maneuvering in times of power pushes and power plays.” He credits Miscavige with going straight to the top of the IRS to finally obtain tax-exempt status for the church in 1993, agreeing to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement.

But Rathbun says Miscavige is undermining the movement, embodying the secretiveness and combativeness that had become the defining traits of his reclusive mentor, Hubbard, in the final years of his life. What’s more, he accuses Miscavige of taking the church’s “greatest PR asset and turning it into its greatest PR liability.” He’s talking about Cruise, “the epitome of the wound-up Scientologist.”

Rathbun accuses Cruise and Miscavige of creating a distorted public perception of Scientologists as condemning and self-righteous, full of “synthetic enthusiasm.” Take Cruise’s run-in with Matt Lauer on Today a few years back, when he accused Lauer of being “glib” and of promoting the use of antipsychotic drugs among kids. Or the widely viewed video of Cruise at a Scientology gala, where Miscavige awarded him the church’s first Freedom Medal of Valor. In the video Cruise suggests that Scientologists are so powerful that they should feel obligated to stop at traffic accidents because only they can truly help in such situations.

But it was Miscavige’s alleged behavior at the church’s sprawling management and residential compound outside Hemet that Rathbun says prompted his defection. He says he saw violent abuses inside the walled-off “Int. Base,” where top executives who were deemed  underperformers by Miscavige were allegedly placed in confinement and subjected to beatings and forced confessions. This occurred, Rathbun says, in a double-wide trailer called “The Hole.” “Anybody who was anybody got holed,” he says. He admits he delivered some of those beatings but says he took some, too. Although the church insists Miscavige never laid a glove on anyone, Rathbun alleges that the chairman of the board punched him in the midsection and ended up hurting his own hand. “He started freaking out, screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘The motherfucker wants to kill me! He’s evil!’ ” Rathbun says. “Just because I didn’t take it.”

This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.