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

My second call is to the Church of Scientology. The church’s international spokesperson frostily directs me to e-mail a description of what I’m writing, along with specific questions. Six days later I receive an eight-page letter that begins with a question of its own: “Why is it that 22 years after you spent an epic five years writing your insufferable six-part opus for the Los Angeles Times you still are unable to give it a rest?” It goes on to call Rathbun “obsessed like a stalker.” Neither Miscavige nor the Church of Scientology has done anything wrong, the letter says. That punch in the stomach from Miscavige? “False and defamatory.” Miscavige’s “real hatred” toward Bob and me? “We can assure you Mr. Miscavige never said such a thing nor did he spend time obsessing over the two of you.” The purloined phone and financial records? “Once again, we can only say that Rathbun is telling you what he thinks you want to hear.” The CHP stop? “The Church had no knowledge of or involvement in Mr. Welkos’ traffic stop and we have no idea whether Mr. Welkos drives dangerously or in a safe manner or not at all.” The fake assault complaint against me? The church “had nothing to do with any false complaints…we also had nothing to do with any traffic, parking or tickets for littering you may (or may not) have received during your life.” And finally, what about the deaths of pets? “We like pets, don’t kill dogs and are sorry for the loss of your dog more than twenty years ago…. In other words, Joel, the stories may make for juicy midnight Internet gossip, but they are, each and every one, lies.”

In lectures and missives to his followers, L. Ron Hubbard used to claim that serious illness inevitably befalls those “suppressive persons” who seek to impede Scientology. “Literally, it kills them,” he wrote. Rathbun remembers Miscavige espousing the same view one day as he listened with relish to an intelligence report from a spy about a reporter who’d begun taking antidepressants. “That’s what you get for fucking with us,” Rathbun recalls Miscavige saying. “You drive yourself insane attacking Scientology.” (The church’s response? “Oh, please.”)

Perhaps they know of such cases, but I’m not among them. As corny as it may sound, I know that the Scientology project taught me powerful lessons, the biggest among them being how to push through fear and self-doubt. If given the chance, I’d do it all over again. After we published our series, I remember thinking no professional challenge would ever be harder, and that has turned out to be true. While I can’t say for sure what drove me—common sense be damned—to seek out Rathbun and write this story, I think it has something to do with proving to myself that I’d not only survived but thrived. The patina of terror didn’t back me down.

As I write these words, my one-year-old dog, Phoebe—another rescue pup—is sleeping blissfully in the next room. I think we both could use a walk.

Joel Sappell spent 26 years as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times. This is his first article for Los Angeles.


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