I’m a former Scientologist of 27 years, having worked at the highest levels of Scientology in its local churches and the Sea Organization. I’m also a second-generation member, since my parents raised me with Scientology principles, so this is a subject I am intimately familiar with and have been all my life. I am now an active Scientology critic, writer and critical thinker. This is my review of Louis Theroux’s new documentary, called My Scientology Movie.
This film has a lot going on in it and I have quite a few thoughts about it. Scientology is a complex subject that takes quite a bit of work to understand. Approaching this subject as a documentarian can be a very big challenge. Not only that, but while this documentary was being made, Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright were also making their film, Going Clear, which was a masterpiece on the culture and attitudes of Scientology. There has never been a better documentary on the subject than Going Clear, so Theroux definitley had some major hurdles to not just create a carbon copy of Gibney’s piece.
Louis Theroux has made a lot of documentaries and most of them are amazingly good. Many have to do with exploring the nature of belief, such as his famous exposure of the Westboro Baptist Church in America’s Most Hated Family or white supremicists in Louis and the Nazis. He has also explored the human experience under unusual circumstances such as when he spent months with victims of brain damage and documented the effect that damage had on the lives of the victims and their families. In My Scientology Movie, Theroux combines these efforts in an attempt to understand Scientology, perhaps one of the most destructive cults in the world and certainly a source of indisputable controversy, fear and misunderstanding. As he put it, “The church is a gold-plated example of something I’ve tried to make a central theme in my documentaries: well-meaning people making decisions that might look bizarre to the outsider, but making them for very relatable human reasons.”
First off, I want to say that I do recommend seeing this film. It’s interesting, thought-provoking and gives a good idea of how Scientology is now choosing to deal with people who try to expose or talk about them in the media. They are very loudly ignoring them. Hubbard said in his policies to do as much because he claimed that reporters already have their story written before they even talk to you. He labeled all reporters and media as “merchants of chaos”, just there to create unrest and lie to the public at large about whatever it is they are reporting on. Scientology attempted to cooperate with the media more back in the 1970s and 80s, culminating in its current leader, David Miscavige, appearing on Nightline with Ted Koppel in 1992. That was Miscavige’s last appearance on TV and while the show earned high ratings, it did not do Scientology any real favors and they gave up trying to create a positive public image through anything other than their own press releases and media segments produced by their own in-house production facilities.
Louis knew going in to this project that he was not going to get access to any of Scientology’s buildings or headquarters, as he had already been trying for years to do just that and had been rebuffed at every turn. So as he put it, he counted on the church giving him “negative access” – meaning they have a habit of tailing, filming, questioning and investigating those who do stories on them. He thought he’d have Scientologists stalking and harassing him and maybe even get them to confront him head-on with dark secrets from his past in an effort to blackmail him into stopping. Yet none of that really happened. The worst that Theroux experienced was to be followed by some white pickup and to have letters from lawyers appear telling him that he wasn’t doing a fair and objective documentary because he wasn’t talking to Scientologists. Of course, these letters ignored the fact that Scientology wouldn’t talk to him or give him access, so it was pretty standard boilerplate from the Church. It’s probably somewhat ironic that the one documentarian who actually would have given Scientology practically an open mic to say whatever they wanted was the one journalist they completely ignored beyond some light surveillance.
Whether he went in thinking this was a good idea, or this was simply an effort to make lemonade out of the lemons Scientology was feeding him, Theroux and his production team, director John Dower and producer Simon Chinn, came up with the idea of doing re-enactments of what life was like at the international Scientology headquarters in Hemet, California. For Louis, the key thing in doing these re-enactments was not showing how abusive Scientology’s dictatorial leader, David Miscavige, could be towards his most loyal followers, but to get the ex-Scientologists who were helping Theroux back into the Scientology mindset and be able to question them about their beliefs and reliability. These re-enactments may also have been a bit of a metaphor, a way of making a statement about the showmanship and Hollywood ties that Scientology is so proud of and yet which have caused it so much damage.
Regardless of any of that, these re-enactments are where I parted ways with what Theoroux was doing. Whether he came up with the idea himself or not, he bought into a bad idea and based an entire film around it. I think this actually served to kind of derail what he was trying to do, and re-focused the movie too much on something which, in the end, was not really very satisfying or enlightening. He casts Andrew Perez as David Miscavige and Rob Alter as Tom Cruise, but only really uses Perez. The Tom Cruise character is almost totally wasted except for a few lines of insight from ex-Sea Org member Marc Headley about the Scientology mindset which were prompted during the Tom Cruise casting process.
Now here’s the reason why I think this was not a great effort. It’s not because it doesn’t work to show you some aspects of just how bad Scientology can get. It’s that the brilliance of what Theroux has done in documentaries like The Most Hated Family in America is that he puts himself and a camera in front of regular people with some pretty irregular beliefs and he lets them do the talking. He gently probes, he quietly listens with a bit of a frown on his face and lets them fill in the empty space. Most people find prolonged silences to be uncomfortable so they just start talking. This allows them to highlight and justify what they are thinking and doing and the subjects end up literally speaking for themselves. It can be quite shocking what some people reveal simply because they are talking to fill a silence. With some mild probing on Theroux’s part, he has done some amazingly insightful interviews that really showed you where these people were coming from, why they believed the way they did and what drove them to act in such irrational ways.
For some reason, Louis did not do that here and in hindsight, I couldn’t really see why except that he chose Marty Rathbun as the main subject of his film. It will probably be somewhat controversial for me to say this, but Marty Rathbun is not your customary example of a typical Scientologist or even a typical Sea Organization member. As Marty put it, he was Scientology’s #2 man for years. He was David Miscavige’s enforcer, black bag man and the epitome of all that was wrong and corrupt in Scientology. So here’s the thing. If you are looking for an objective or unbiased view of Scientology and what the experience is like for the common man, Marty Rathbun is the last person you would use as an example.
It is impossible to talk critically about My Scientology Movie without talking about Marty Rathbun. I think focusing on Marty Rathbun was Theoroux’s first big mistake and it made My Scientology Movie become something that was not focused on Scientology but instead was focused on him. It became more like My Marty Rathbun Movie. No other former Scientologist gets anywhere near the same amount of screen time.
I’m not a fan of Marty Rathbun. He has attacked me publicly on his blog, saying that I’m self-aborbed, arrogant, not playing with a full deck, braindead and proud of it. He pretended in that same blog to not know who I am even though we’ve met twice both in and out of the Sea Organization, we’ve emailed and spoken on the phone. So for me to say anything positive about Marty may be surprising and some people might even think I’m colluding with him, which I can assure you I am not. While Marty may feel justified in publicly attacking me, I don’t actually bear him any ill will. For many years, I actually defended him online and supported his efforts. I have no idea why he’d feel the need to say the things he said about me now, nor do I care. I knew when I became a Church critic that I was opening myself up to the possiblility of being attacked and that is part of being a public figure. Everyone does not have to agree with me nor should they.
Marty said recently on his blog that Simon Chinn approached him in 2012 to be part of the documentary. Marty wrote that Chinn said:
“…his film would break the cookie-cutter mold of Scientology projects to that date. That was, the lazy method of highlighting and rehashing what has been alleged before and doing some gratuitous baiting and button pushing of Scientologists to provoke aggressive responses. Chinn assured me the project would be closely supervised by him from beginning to end so that it would primarily serve as a vehicle to portray my insights into the philosophical basis of Scientology learned from practicing it for nearly thirty years within the organization and another several years outside of Church of Scientology control. He sold me on the idea of chronicling my evolution from fighting for the church, then against it and finally advocating that people transcend from fights about Scientology altogether.” (Marty Rathbun, Sept 5, 2016)
It’s pretty clear to me and I think should be to anyone watching the film, that this is the spirit and attitude which Marty has when first appearing and working with Theroux on his casting project to find actors to play David Miscavige and Tom Cruise. I’ve seen commentary about this film where people deride Marty for smiling and appearing gleeful when he watches actor Andrew Perez throwing people around and swearing at them like Miscavige used to. I didn’t see it that way.
I think Marty went in to this project the same way I would have, honestly trying to help Theroux understand what is a pretty complex subject and educate him on what it was all about. During the same time the film was being made, Marty appeared on the Dave Pakman show and said that Scientology “is all bullshit.” This was a far cry from how Marty first appeared on his blog and in the St Petersburg Times back in 2009 when he was still an Independent Scientologist who offered counseling services out of his home in Texas. He shows Louis how the E-meter and auditing works but uses non-Scientology terms to describe what its all about. It was pretty obvious to me that he had distanced himself from the practice and his lack of use of the lingo was telling in just how far he’d come from leaving the subject behind.
That he was smiling in watching Perez as Miscavige throw people around may well be an indication that Marty likes to see people get hurt, but another interpretation is that he is simply satisfied that Perez is doing a really good job as an actor portraying exactly what David Miscavige was like. I don’t think it would have been any more proper for Marty to stand watching this with a frown on his face, or a pensive look or to be recoiling in terror. I could very well be wrong about this, but I think it’s biased and improper to be assigning evil intentions to Marty simply because he did what he was asked to do. Just as a note, Marty had the same smile on his face when he was watching these actors reciting lines that Miscavige had said to Ted Koppel on Nightline, where there was no violence or anger taking place at all.
Recovering from decades of Scientology abuse is difficult for almost everyone who was involved with it for so long. I’ve been accused by Marty of engaging in pop psychology for daring to say that perhaps Scientology might have lingering ill effects on veteran former members, but I stand by everything I’ve said. Ex-Scientologists aren’t crazy and they aren’t permanently brain damaged, but Scientology does things to you that take time to heal from. There is emotional and mental abuse that goes on in Scientology and Rathbun of all people should understand that just based on what he himself has claimed to have seen, heard and done when he was in it.
None of us who were in the Sea Org did things that we are proud of. We were called upon to carry out egregious acts of fraud, harassment, psychological and physical torment, theft and worse in our day-to-day activities. Because we thought that the ends justified the means and that we were on the ultimate mission to save the world, we did a lot of those things without thinking about them, without remorse or regret. I look back now on my time in the Sea Org and I have plenty of regrets, plenty of things I wish I hadn’t done. I imagine it’s the same for almost any of us former members. When we were in the Sea Org, our heads were in a dangerous place, not entirely dissimilar to where religious extremists of all kinds can go.
However, I don’t think Marty did his homework and did not understand how Theroux goes about making films. Early on in the film, Louis said that he wants to get Marty back into the headspace he was in when he was in the Church. The entire casting process and having Marty involved in that, and perhaps all of it, was an effort on Louis’ part to get the epitome of a Scientologist in front of him since the Church would not provide him with a Scientologist. Yet what he ended up doing instead was pissing Marty off, provoking him into places where it’s obvous that Marty has not yet come to terms with some of the things he did as a Sea Org member.
Beyond Marty, Theroux had other former members on camera and had full access to ask them whatever he wanted. Having seen his other work, it surprised me that he was so hands-off with the others. The only one he talked to who wasn’t a former Sea Org member was Steve Mango. For just a few seconds, Theroux got Steve right back into the fanatical glimmer that is in every Scientologist’s eyes when they talk about how great it is. From that Scientologist vantage point, he refuted that he was brainwashed but his eyes told a different story entirely and it was a little creepy. Yet rather than continue in that vein, the director then cut to show Steve’s collection of Scientology materials and then got back to Marty.
At one point during the film, Louis is doing Scientology communication and control training drills with Marty supervising him. I actually think that was great, because Louis was trying to understand Scientology better and put himself into their headspace to a degree. He showed how odd some of the practices are and at the same time, showed how they could have appeal to a select few. I myself was one of those, so I do get it. Marty walks them all through it and you could see that some of the people involved even got something out of it.
Yet then Louis purposefully pushes Marty on the idea of applauding to L. Ron Hubbard, even when Marty clearly and I thought very accurately explains that now Louis is crossing a line into how Scientology mind control starts to operate. Louis said he didn’t want to do it if it was going to make Marty feel uncomfortable, which it very clearly did, and yet Louis then went ahead and led his actors in an applause to a non-existent L. Ron Hubbard portrait. Frankly, this would have pissed me off too and I don’t fault Marty at all for walking away from them. Yet in many comments I’ve seen about this, Marty is the one made out to be the strange bird for walking away. Nope, that wasn’t strange at all and anyone who truly understands how mind control and triggers really work would understand that. On a more sinister note, perhaps Louis did understand it and knew exactly what he was doing and went ahead and did it anyway. If that’s the case, I’d say that was kind of shitty of him but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was not purposefully trying to trigger Marty for the sake of his documentary.
While some people are referring to this sequence with the training drills and provoking Marty as hilarious, I didn’t think so. Scientology’s beliefs in and of themselves are not any goofier or ignorant than any religion’s beliefs. I find many mainstream religious beliefs to be just as absurd and their practices just as outlandish, but there’s a certain degree of cruelty in laughing at other people when they are just sincerely trying to make their lives better and I can’t really go there. Yes, some of what Marty and the others do when their bullbaiting is kind of funny, but let’s not get carried away.
As to the practices themselves and Louis’ effort to get into them, I have to say that I think Louis really didn’t do his homework on the subject well enough. He has some impressively insightful things to say about Scientology at the very beginning of the film, but for the most part never really goes beyond a surface-level understanding. Compared to Alex Gibney or even Paul Thomas Anderson, who made a fictional account of Scientology called The Master which was not fiction at all, Theroux never really does push the envelope.
If he had gone deeper, Theroux would have been better prepared and understood why his usual style as an interviewer and documentarian wasn’t going to work on someone like Rathbun. Interviewing a former top-level Scientologist who did work for the Office of Special Affairs is similar to interviewing someone who works at the highest levels of the NSA or intelligence divisions of the government. Theroux was up against active training and indoctrination to prevent people like him from finding out things the subject doesn’t want to talk about. Marty actually told him as much when they were doing the Scientology drills. And in all the years since Marty has been out, he has never shown any indication of opening up in the slightest when it comes to really sensitive information. Marty went in prepared to talk about as much as he was willing to talk about, which to be fair was a lot, but that was it. Louis did not budge him even once and about halfway through the movie, that starts to become clear to Louis himself.
The thing I found somewhat disappointing is that while Marty is without a doubt an interesting character study, if Louis had been looking for a more general view of Scientology, every other person who he had on camera (Marc Headley, Jeff Hawkins, Steve Mango) could have given him what he wanted. They talked candidly about not only where there heads were at when they were in Scientology but also would have opened up about what it did to them emotionally and psychologically. The closest Theroux came was when Jeff Hawkins explained why Sea Org members would stay in The Hole at the Int Base despite the rampant abuses reigned down upon them by David Miscavige. But this description is really just the tip of the iceberg and does not give you a complete picture of where Scientologists’ heads are at.
These former members could have gone on for hours about what they felt drove them as Scientologists, why they signed billion year contracts and why any of them would have and did disconnect from family and friends for the sake of Scientology. Yet during the entire course of the film, Theroux never even brought up disconnection or Scientology’s hypocritical stance on children and families. He hardly talked about L. Ron Hubbard at all except to say that he was a science fiction writer. There is a lot more backstory than that. In fact, there were a lot of things about Scientology that Theroux never brought up. Half the time that he spent on camera with Jeff Hawkins was spent talking about Marty. I’m not sure what final result Louis expected to get from Marty, but he clearly did not get it and seemed honestly surprised at how upset Marty had become by the end of the thing. He really shouldn’t have been that surprised.
When the Church came after Marty near the end of the film and a Scientologist baits Rathbun about his then-newly-adopted son, I listened with interest but not really surprise as Marty claimed he never involved people’s children in such fair game tactics when he was in charge of that sort of thing. He was visibly angered and shaken and rebuked Louis for prodding him about this. Yet the fact is that Marty had already stated to Vanity Fair that he very much involved the children of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in their breakup by leveraging their kids against Nicole to make their separation that much easier to orchestrate. When Louis asked him about previous operations he’d been involved in with private investigators, Marty told Louis to fuck off and that he was offended. It’s things like this that speak volumes about where Marty is at on his Scientology experience. Yet at the same time, he opened up to Louis about the raw truth of his life: that he cannot make close friends, cannot get a regular job or live a normal life because of who he was and what he did and what the Church of Scientology might do to him at any moment. None of that was a plea for sympathy, it was simply the stark truth of Marty’s life as he saw it.
Marty distanced himself from the final film, claiming that Chinn and Theoroux acted in bad faith to try to get Marty to bait the Church and basically acted like hack tabloid journalists after promising they wouldn’t. Given Chinn and Theroux’s reputations and previous work, I don’t think that’s actually what happened at all, but it probably makes Marty feel better to debase their efforts so that he doesn’t come off looking as bad as he thinks he does in this film. As far as I’m concerned, there are moments where it’s obvious that Marty has issues to deal with from his time in Scientology, but as I’ve already said, we all do. He’s nothing special or different. While I have expressed some sympathy and understanding for Marty’s views and actions in this film, I will reiterate that I’m no fan of his and that his actions since this film was made have not been anything I understand or support.
I really like Theroux and his body of work. I think he’s an honest documentarian who truly does his best. In fact, I’d say that some of his documentaries have been extremely moving pieces that educated me about things I had no idea about and which gave me new insights into the human condition.
That being said, from my perspective as a former Scientologist turned critic, there is so much wasted potential in My Scientology Movie. There is a wealth of information and a great many people outside the Church who are incredible resources about Scientology. There aren’t just former members. There are some academics who have a great deal of intelligent things to say about Scientology and who have studied it for years, as well as cult apologists who have their own take on the subject. I don’t happen to personally agree with the apologists, but if Louis were looking for a sympathetic take on the subject he could have talked to any of them and maybe he should have.
The Church of Scientology may have well been Theroux’s greatest challenge. He had to do something totally not his style. He pulled off something original and kind of fun to watch. He proved he’s not a one-trick pony and he can change things up as necessity dictates, but I’m not quite sure this is the film he set out to make or that he should have made. Given his body of work and the materials and resources he had to work with, this could have been so much better.
Please do see this film. Let me know in the comments section of my blog or video what you thought about it. My take is only one of many. I think that in the ex-Scientology world especially, there’s going to be a lot to say about this film and I’m sure that all of it will be valid in one way or another.
Thank you for watching.