When you've been in a controversial group and then left, you are in the unique position of viewing it with both an insider's knowledge and the distance of objectivity. Once away long enough to reclaim your thinking, reject the jargon, and consider things without the fuzzy filter of "true believer," you realize, amongst many other things, that you now have the inside skinny on how one ends up enraptured, enticed, ensnared in some cases. Hindsight is always instructive.
Because it's a mystery to everyone else. How seemingly smart, sane, independent people can buy into the hype of what looks to be crazy from the outside. What with the horror stories, strange costumes, negative media, couch-jumping characters, or regrettable reality shows, right down to crazy/scary but charismatic leaders who inexplicably elicit adoration and loyalty from those heretofore logical people, it's not hard to wonder, how does it happen?
I got into Scientology when I was nineteen. I was a good believer. Not a zealot one, just a good one (couldn't afford to be a zealot one!). By my mid-twenties I'd evolved into a confused and deeply questioning one, and by my late-twenties, when I realized it was a darker and less spiritual setting than I'd originally believed, slipped away with little notice and no sirens or barking dogs in pursuit. Not so for others slipping away, but I escaped with little more than a recurring stream of phone calls, reams of unwanted mail, at least one uninvited visit, and still more phone calls as recently as last year. I wish I had agents as persistent!
The skinny on how I ended up there? I was in the market for a belief system that made sense, one that offered a more compassionate and less fearful view than the stern Catholicism I'd been brought up with, and, frankly, a guy I was dating was a recruiter! Shiny, happy people welcomed me into the fold, the "technology" seemed fresh and intriguing, and, of course, the nobility of "clearing the planet" appealed. At that point, there was little bad media: no Internet, no Tom Cruise or David Miscavige; no weird stories of glassy-eyed pontificants spouting about intergalactic wars, evil gods, exploding volcanoes, or billion year contracts. That came later. By then I was sidling out.
I mention this background because I spent an enlightening morning recently with three long-time friends, all former Scientologists, watching Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, The Master. It was opening day and the theater was packed. An event was unfolding and the buzz was palpable; lots of anxious whispers and jostling in seats as if everyone was waiting for something huge and explosive to happen. I have no doubt many there, like us, were former Scientologists wildly anticipatory of this big artistic take on L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology, because, despite protestations to the contrary, that is the underlying inspiration for this movie.
I've seen most of Paul Thomas Anderson's films and have not liked them all equally. Boogie Nights was a wild introduction; Magnolia maddening, Punch Drunk Love a touching departure, and There Will Be Blood just a big, ponderous mess to my way of thinking and it won Oscars, so what do I know?
The Master, however, while also ponderous, complex, intriguing, and likely to win Oscars, stands out; a profound, meaty saga of fear, faith, madness, and manipulation brought to seething life by performances so startling they stayed with me for days. Joaquin Phoenix creates a singularly stunning portrait of a mentally ill, violence and sex fixated World War II vet who stumbles upon "The Cause" while escaping his inescapably troubled life, and that performance propels everything else forward with a fierceness and intensity that's almost hard to watch at times. Meeting him on the playing field with an equally powerful performance is Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose depiction of the group leader is chilling and many-layered, all grinning arrogance, suggestions of seediness, and that inviting yet manipulative certainty of purpose. It's also a dead-on take of L. Ron Hubbard, right down to the wide-collared shirts, Kool cigarettes, and fantastical philosophies. These two actors, as well as others involved, notably Amy Adams and Laura Dern, create an insular and claustrophobic world of spiritual earnestness, steely-eyed control, fanatical devotion and unspoken disillusion; just the sort of fucked up craziness known to anyone who's ever been under that kind of tent at one point or another.
Is this the story of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard? Not in name or detail, no. But in broad strokes, intention, in laying out the nascent, seedling efforts that grew into the billion dollar, billion year mega-theocracy it is today, yes. We in the audience recognized it: the jargon, the theories, the science fiction of it all. We recognized the drills and exercises, the "TRs" and "locationals." We'd heard the speeches, participated in the highly anticipated and often disappointing book launches, and while most of us never met L. Ron Hubbard in person, we'd watched endless tapes of his smiling, jovial visage pontificating on his theories, philosophies, and dictates. Seymour Hoffman's got him down, to an eerie similarity that was undeniable to those in the know. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Beyond its artistry -- which is estimable -- and its storytelling -- which, while masterful, will likely be found by some to be long, baffling, even boring at times -- well dissects the anatomy of such groups and how they succeed. Simply put, they tap into something being sought. Something longed for, wanted, desired; something not being addressed or provided elsewhere. For some it's desire for a spiritual path they've not yet found. For others, it's to be saved, physically, mentally, or spiritually. Many are looking for community and family, a sense of belonging. Often it's about the philosophy, the greater good, saving the world. Some are just seduced by someone else, swept up in something they deem new and exciting, unaware of the nuances and underbelly that, later, they'll find troubling. This was all well illustrated in the film; that sly identifying of those who will be vulnerable, receptive, and willing, followed by the slow, almost imperceptible capturing of hearts, minds, and thoughts. By the time the crazy stuff comes around, they're true believers in deep enough to keep them there...or not. Sometimes they slip away barely noticed, leave with a dramatic bang, or ride off on a motorcycle into the sunset.
I'll need to see this film again; I want to view it unencumbered from the gasp-factor of every recognized element that crossed the screen. I do wonder how it hits people without some experience with Scientology. Will they find it so perplexing as to be incomprehensible, too arcane to make any sense? The reviews are a mixed bag and likely there is some of that confusion. But it is truly worthy of viewing with a focused, open mind and a willingness to view something great in terms of its art and craft. And, beyond anything else, it is a master class from two of the finest actors in America today. They'll be on the short list of every award show coming up so you may as well get yourself educated now, before the opening number starts and the Oscar ballots are passed around!