Ruthless, a review and critique
It has been said that the reading a biography or memoire is so often more interesting for what the subject omits from the discussion than with what the author commits to on paper. Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs is a case in point. In interviews and discussions with Jobs, it was clear that the subject did not recognise his often abusive treatment of his staff, nor, as his body was being eaten away by the ever ravenous cancer, did he recognise his misplaced faith in the curative properties of ‘miracle’ foods and odd-ball psychic practices until, tragically, it was too late.
Ron Miscavige’s ‘Ruthless’ is an astonishing example of ‘the blinkered gaze’. It is an account of a man caught in the relentless grip of his own psychic dissonance. It is an account of a man walking a tightrope over the chasm that describes his wilful ignorance of the violence that his forty odd years of fanatical adherence to Scientology has done to him and his most cherished. What it is not is an insightful book on David Miscavige, Scientology’s omnipotent leader.
Ron is a salesman. Most salesmen spend their working lives persuading people to spend their hard earned cash on things they don’t need. That is why you don’t encounter the irritatingly insistent sales guy giving you his frantic pitch in the cereal aisle at the supermarket. But you do encounter him cold calling you, pushing financial products, used cars and religion.
To have any kind of endurance in the sales field one must be not only adept in the arts of coercion, seduction and entrapment of others, but must maintain in oneself a certain gullibility. A credulousness coupled with an almost brutal facility in the suppression of one’s own conscience. The most durable sales people I have encountered displayed a number of these distinctly sociopathic traits.
Back in 1985 Ron Senior was just wrapping up the Scientology equivalent of Boot Camp just as I was being initiated to that same Sea Org regime at The Complex, that strange Neverwhere world sprawling the twenty odd acres between the rundown, seedier end of Sunset Boulevard and the otherwise wholly unremarkable Fountain Avenue in Los Angeles.
Seared into my cerebral cortex – and to this day I awake from nightmares, in a cold sweat. I am back there again, running its labyrinth corridors in an effort to escape. It is the impotent terror that assailed the naïve and rather innocent twenty two year old me when I first stared into the shabby portal to that looming mass of a building. It exuded a darkness, a perceptible air of grimness and foreboding that was not in any sense mitigated by the sky blue paint job. It was a creepy and disturbing experience. I stood for a moment holding onto the door of the blue and yellow Ford LTD taxi cab. That inner voice screamed at me to jump back in and demand that the driver take me right back to LAX. But that awful blend of self-doubt and impetuosity, typical of wilful youth, forced me out of the safety of the cab and into the hungry maw that was the heart of the Scientology machine.
I intuited correctly that the blue and yellow Ford LTD represented the last contact with normality I was to have for the ensuing two decades. Scientology marches to the beat of its own drum, it lives just outside the real world, and it exists on a different plane. You can see the cars, you can even, if sanctioned, own a cell-phone. But these are tenuous things, relics of a life forfeited, a citizenship renounced, your past, a foreign land.
I met Ron Miscavige on my first, and his last, week of Sea Org Boot Camp. In ’88 We shared a long, snow-bound Christmas weekend up at the Big Bear Lake resort the Sierra Nevada’s when the one hundred plus crew of the rarefied and exclusive ‘International Level’ Sea Org folks took it over for the holidays. I was his chauffeur when the ‘Golden Era Musicians’ played for the infamous IAS events at the Saint Hill complex in Sussex and I breakfasted with him a few times both in Los Angeles and at the Saint Hill Sea Org crew housing facility in Crowborough.
The Ron Miscavige Snr that I knew was a somewhat self-obsessed, nervy and often sanctimonious individual. He could be nice enough and I never had a ‘run in’ with him. It is just that he seemed, not unlike his steely eyed progeny, to lack any kind of empathy or interest in the person he was dealing with. The stories he shared seemed to be for the purpose of self-gratification and to fill in an otherwise empty space. Rather than engaging with you, he talked at you. The salesman all over.
He regaled me with tales. A mix of childhood reminiscence of the coal towns of West Virginia and of his time spent on spaceships several million years ago and of seeing mounted knights in shining armour heading off to do battle against the French, and more movingly, of seeing a soot covered urchin scampering up a chimney. You see, what Ron does not tell you in ‘Ruthless’ is that Scientologists see ghosts. They are inhabited by ghosts and more poignantly, are in fact the hollowed out ghosts of the people they could and should have been. They spend their auditing hours trying exorcise these unquiet spirits, wraiths that burden them with woes of deaths past.
You are either mad when you join Scientology or you are driven mad by Scientology. By any objective measure, the practice of Scientologist is a journey into insanity. You are in a place where psychotic behaviours are normalized, celebrated even. We all witnessed Tom Cruise’s couch leaping on Oprah. We saw his unhinged behaviour in the unsanctioned ‘black-turtleneck’ YouTube interview. Tom is the ideal that all Scientologists are encouraged to emulate.
You cannot imagine the awe, the thrill that we Scientologists experienced as that interview played out in the packed auditorium in October 2004. The fanaticism, the unquestioning loyalty to the spirit of Hubbard and the person of David Miscavige. The pure joy of seeing the movie star Cruise as the exemplar of everything we aspired to be.
For all of the hints as to the efficacy of Scientology techniques with which Miscavige peppers his account a between the lines reading reveals one of its key failings. This is its complete lack of any kind of objective assessment of what Scientology really is. Why is it that it has been able to hold sway over a relatively small, yet exceedingly devout, following in its half century or so of existence? Miscavige is forever extolling the positive effects of the method. His critique of Hubbard seems forced, his critical assessment of the practice, carefully couched.
To study a social culture in its uncontaminated form is the ne plus ultra of the anthropologist. This maxim has bled over into the Sociology field where academics tend to discount the testament of the ex-Scientologist, believing that they cannot give an unbiased account of the culture. This is, in my view, akin to trying to understand psychiatric methodology and practitioners by interviewing the unhinged psychotic.
There was a time in the mid-nineties when the Scientology propaganda office sanctioned the ostensibly ‘free and open access’ study into the Scientology culture by a number of sociology academics. I recall seeing these willing dupes being led by the nose through a finely orchestrated theatrical presentation, not unlike that put on for visiting tourist parties to North Korea. The trouble was, that these academics, so thrilled that they finally had access to the ‘real Scientology’, naïve fools, bought the ploy, hook line and sinker. They left and produced a series of academic articles that might have been written by the Scientology propaganda office. In a sense, that is exactly what did happen.
While Scientology is broadly reviled in the public sphere, it is still given leeway by academics who remain deeply imbued with their relativist orthodoxy. This academic laxity bleeds over into governance sector. The American tax authorities are happy to call it a ‘church’ and wipe their hands of the numerous accounts of gross violations of human rights and accusations of criminal activity. It is treated rather like a distant rogue state, a banana republic that is allowed to stamp on and crush its populace as long as it does not upset the domestic equilibrium.
That is not a bad analogy. When you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. Scientology and cults of that ilk are in fact autonomous States. Principalities carved out of the host nation and its populace. Devotees do not swear allegiance to Flag or Crown. They are loyal only to the cult leader and obey his edicts and laws before those of the State. In fact they mostly distain Federal law and regulation, complying just enough to avoid investigation and litigation. These Principalities might be described parasitic on the nation, but cannot be described as beholden to the nation.
It is this then that provides the lens through which we can view and make sense of the phenomena that is Scientology. The lens provided by the sixteenth century political philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli.
The essence of the Machiavellian thesis is that the Prince is the State and the State is the Prince. He develops the thesis by stating that a Prince should present the appearance of being a compassionate, trustworthy, kind, frank, sincere, credible, faith-filled, courageous, generous and pious ruler. Let me reiterate. The Prince should present the appearance of compassion, of trust, of sincerity and courage. Listen to Tom Cruise in that infamous YouTube video extolling the virtues of the Great Leader, David Miscavige. "I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant, a more compassionate being outside of what I have experienced from L. Ron Hubbard”.
This becomes terribly interesting with the revelation that one of the stipulations of qualification for certain levels of executive within Scientology is to have passed a close reading and thorough examination on Machiavelli’s address to 14th Century Florence’s ruling Medici clan.
Machiavelli’s book made little or no sense to me when I studied it as a Scientology executive. I lacked the life experience and acumen in which to frame what I was reading. I passed the test by parroting excerpts, but it was only when, some years after I made my way out of the bedlam that is Scientology, I took an undergraduate module on Machiavelli in Italian. That, along with a political Science module and some political activism gave me the framework to understand what he was on about. But I am pretty sure that David Miscavige got it first time. I would bet he kept a copy under his pillow. You see his rise to the top is mapped out in the chapter by chapter progression of ‘The Prince’.
Hubbard was the King usurped. David, the cunning and conniving usurper. By 1985 Hubbard was a paranoid, sick and probably suffering the early stages of dementia. But he was still a vicious old dog and would snap and bite with some ferocity during those increasingly rare moments of lucidity. His convenient death in 1986 set the stage for young David’s final power push. Oh, and let us not forget that one of necessary tasks of the Machiavellian usurper is the decimation and destruction of the key supporters of the old order. Those who remain loyal to the defeated monarch. In Scientology terms that would in the main be those who worked closely with or trained under Hubbard. The Class VIII Auditors and Briefing Course graduates of the late Sixties, seventies and eighties.
In chapter 6, Machiavelli discusses the achievement of power by virtue. In the Machiavellian use the term is used in the way of guile, canniness and decisiveness. The young David took that on board alright. His peers were gullible and thus easily outmanoeuvred. David’s violence and oppression is utterly justified in the Machiavellian paradigm. It is a point that Ron misses. He tries to explain it through Hubbard’s ‘SP’ test. A piece ‘borrowed’ from psychiatric studies on sociopathic personalities.
Ron, and his co-author, Dan Koon, do us disservice. There are no revelations of any real merit. At least not that we have not already encountered in much greater detail from the likes of Paul Haggis and Jason Beghe and former Sea Org members like Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor in Gibney’s brilliant documentary ‘Going Clear’. There are the shocking admissions in the court interviews of Debbie Cook and the accounts David’s violence and abusive behaviours by Amy Scobee in her first-hand telling, Scientology - Abuse at the Top.
Ron and Dan forward the line maintained by the Independent Scientology movement hardliners, that it was all grand until nasty little David took over and perverted Hubbard’s inspired scriptures. There are a lot of broken souls who, if given voice, would contend this assertion.
A puzzling few paragraphs dedicated to the musician Isaac Hayes pop up, out of the blue really, in chapter thirteen. These comprise a cringe worthy underscoring of Miscavige’s obtuse avoidance of reality. Like so much of the book, this Hayes encounter is distressingly self-serving. It is Miscavige, the failed musician, basking in the reflected glory of a true musical genius. Ron fails to even comment on the notorious 2006 Trapped in the Closet South Park spoof on Tom Cruise, Xenu, Hubbard and Travolta. It is the one truly interesting aspect of the great man’s involvement with a cult that stands, in principle, against everything ‘Mister Chocolate Salty Balls’ fought for throughout his life.
Hayes initially was tickled by the episode and supported Parker and Stone. Then the cult came down on him like a ton of bricks. I imagine that Tommy Davis rocked up on his door step and did not stop screeching at Hayes until Cruise’s threats against Viacom began to bite. Isaac’s untimely death not long after the dust settled could well be related to the stress of his own intuitive tendency to truth and the humorous piss take against the unbearable group pressure, guilt tripping and enforced ‘confessionals’ that Scientology officials put him through. The sort of pressure that can turn a proud, strong man into a spineless zombie. Believe me, it is the one thing that Scientology truly excels at.
I do not contend the assertion that life in David Miscavige’s Sea Org was miserable. It was a ridiculously regimented, sweat shop existence. We were ruled by bullying, fear and terror. We were trapped by poverty and ignorance. But even within that system it is possible to take a stand, to right some wrongs. Where was Ron when his Granddaughter, Jenna, was going through hell, not being allowed to see her parents, often for stretches of a year or more? Where was he when his son, Ron junior, was battling the terror little David unleashed on the Sea Org crew in 2000?
Ron’s issue is really that of petulance. He, the father of the Ruler, being treated like regular crew. He lacks the self-awareness to see that he was in fact privileged. He was treated with kid gloves. I remember the exhortation, passed on to us by the Commanding Officer of Gold, Ron Norton. David Miscavige told them ‘look after him, he is my Dad’. He sees fit to remain miffed on being chewed out by the Gold Base Motor Pool guys for parking his car in their repair lot.
The trouble with media and publishing is that it runs itself ragged scavenging around for the sexy titbit. The gripping headline. These more often than not turn out to be empty puff pieces, damp squibs. I for often feel somewhat sullied after being seduced to click on the Beckham’s divorce headline. I am stupid for being suckered into contributing to the publisher’s revenue via the Facebook ‘like’. Ron Miscavige and Dan Koon’s Ruthless made me feel a bit like that. It made the New York Times bestseller list because it was sexy. But there are so many more worthy stories out there begging to be told. They will not be told because they are from nobodies, dupes like me or Noel, the formerly wealthy CEO of a Real Estate empire, now an aged, penniless inmate of an Irish lunatic asylum. Yes Ron, Scientology really works and helps people.
So, Ron, forgive me if I call you unreflective, if I call you self-obsessed. You simply cannot see that it was your desperation to follow Hubbard and his yellow brick road to Xenu that shattered two generations of your family. Your son Ronnie now works to rebuild his relationship with his long estranged daughter, Jenna. I am sure they are doing well, no thanks to you. Your daughter Denise, ah yes, your daughter Denise.
There is a Tampa Police mug shot showing David’s dear little twin, a stoned and inebriated Denise Gentile after being picked up outside of a crack house, one of a group of properties that she and her husband owned in a bad part of the otherwise rather upmarket Clearwater. Reporter Joe Childs describes the affair in his June 2013 article in the Tampa Bay Times. Her tenants explained that they often paid her in ‘blunts’ - thick cigars of marijuana. The church legal attack dogs got the charges lifted. A few years previously she had been deeply implicated in the death by shooting and the subsequent cover up of evidence in the murder of a bright, happy go lucky young man called Kyle Brennan.
He had been visiting his father, a fanatical Scientologist and close associate of Denise Miscavige Gentile. She was the first person called by Tom Brennan, the father. From the moment Denise arrived at the crime scene a tale of lost and tainted evidence, bribed officials, stolen belongings, a convoluted cover up worthy of the most fevered crime novelist’s imagination, ensued. Because David Miscavige and the cult he rules was implicated – all of the principles being active and high achieving Scientologists, not to mention, Denise, First Sister, Scientology royalty.
The young man’s mother, Victoria had no idea what she was getting into when she started to investigate some very serious investigative omissions and strange behaviours by the Clearwater police. She did not know that the full might and power of Scientology and it legal teams would come down on her, crush her and leave her with a mountain of debt. The costs of ‘inconveniencing’ Scientology. Court costs and legal fees that she has no hope of ever paying off in her life time. Meanwhile, because she cannot afford a gravestone, she has had to place the body of her dear, youngest child in an unmarked West Virginia grave.
Scientology has had a catastrophic effect on this little family from Philadelphia. And the ripple effects of his blind belief has resulted in untold suffering for the many thousands directly and indirectly touched by David Miscavige’s Scientology.
Ron, the salesman remains utterly convinced of its efficacy. In the final analysis, Ruthless is not an exposé, not a revelation of the inner workings of a mysterious cult. It is rather, a testament to delusion. An insight as to how a credulous and intemperate husband and father can lead his family down the rabbit hole and into madness.
About the author:
A former ‘Sea Org’ member who made good his escape from the cult in July 2006. He subsequently wrote his account of his twenty years ‘in the fold’ published in 2008. In The Complex Duignan describes his life in the paramilitary group at the core of the Church, the Sea Organization, and how he narrowly evaded pursuit by the Office of Special Affairs. He looks back on the 22 years he served in the Church's secret army and describes the hours of sleep deprivation, brain-washing and intense religious counselling he endured, as he was molded into a soldier of Scientology. He talks about the money-making-machine at the heart of the Church, the Scientology goal to’ Clear the Planet’ and ‘Get Ethics In’, and the punishments meted out to anyone who transgresses. We follow his journey through the Church and the painful investigation that leads to his eventual realization that there is something very wrong at Scientology's core. John returned to education in 2008 and achieved a BA (Hons) in English Lit and Italian Language and Culture. He spends as much time in Italy as he possibly can and otherwise walks the dog on the beach and writes when he is cross about things.
© John Anthony Duignan. All Rights Reserved