In 1990, L.A. Times reporters Joel Sappell and Robert Welkos ran a six-part series on Scientology that took them most of five years to report, vet, re-report, write, re-write, lawyer and make sure it would stand up to the church's (or cult's, if you prefer) army of lawyers, flacks and "image officers." It was, if I recall correctly, the first big journalism undertaking to detail that the core teaching handed down from sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard involves tales of dragons and a battle 75 million years ago between the evil Xenu and others for control of the human soul. Or something like that. Recruits only get that inside scoop after spending thousands of dollars for counseling sessions called auditing where they are hooked up to an "e-meter" (shown below) that gauges their responses. Celebrities, of course, are an essential part of the Scientology marketing process.
In today's LAT, reporters Claire Hoffman and Kim Christensen, with photographer Don Kelsen, update the Scientology phenomenon by looking at how—according to disgruntled ex-members—Tom Cruise was recruited and trained to become the best tool for bringing in new members (or customers, if you prefer.) The story focuses on the church's high-living, luxury-loving leader David Miscavige, who recently saluted Cruise as "the most dedicated Scientologist I know," and the 500-acre nerve center at Gilman Hot Springs in Riverside County where Cruise and Nicole Kidman spent much time in private training sessions. The Times photog got inside somehow.
"Across 90 nations, 5,000 people hear his word of Scientology — every hour," International Scientology News proclaimed last year. "Every minute of every hour someone reaches for LRH technology … simply because they know Tom Cruise is a Scientologist."
The vast majority of Scientologists train at the church's better-known facilities, including those in Hollywood and Clearwater, Fla. Cruise also has trained at those locations, but for much of his studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he headed to Gilman Hot Springs. He stayed for weeks at a time, arriving by car or helicopter, according to ex-Scientologists who saw him there on repeated occasions...
Described by ex-members as the church's international nerve center, the property is largely concealed from outsiders by tall hedges and high walls. The complex's barbed-wired perimeter and driveways are monitored by video cameras, and motion sensors are placed around the property to detect intruders, ex-members say. Some also remember a perch high in the hills, dubbed "Eagle," where staffers with telescopes jotted down license plate numbers of any vehicle that lingered too long near the compound.
Behind the compound's guarded gates, Cruise had a personal supervisor to oversee his studies in a private course room, ex-members say. He was unique among celebrities in the amount of time he spent at the base. Others visited, they said, but only Cruise took up temporary residence. "I was there for eight years and nobody stayed long at all, except for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during that period," said Bruce Hines, who clashed with Miscavige and left Scientology in 2001 after three decades in the group.
In his own spiritual life, Cruise has continued to climb the "Bridge to Total Freedom," Scientology's path to enlightenment. International Scientology News, a church magazine, reported last year that the actor had embarked on one of the highest levels of training, "OT VII" — for Operating Thetan VII.
Ex-members describe an "all hands on deck" rush job to plant a meadow of wildflowers overnight so Cruise could impress Kidman (who no longer speaks about Scientology.) The Gilman Hot Springs property features high-end recording and video studios, sound stages, print shops and a large furnished lakeside mansion that the ex-devotees say is there for Hubbard when he returns from the dead. A church spokesman says it is a museum containing his artifacts.
On the subject:
A sidebar on how Scientology bought the former Gilman Hot Springs resort.
The 1990 Times series. Sappell is now the Assistant Managing Editor who oversees the Times' website. Welkos is a film writer in Calendar.
An earlier piece by Robert Vaughn Young, the church's former PR spokesman, explaining how Scientology tries to intimdate journalists: "I studied and had secret directives from Hubbard and others on how to handle reporters, how to deal with police and government agencies, how to create front groups, and how to discredit or destroy a person or a group with Hubbard's 'fair game' doctrine....How to respond to a question without answering, how to divert the issue, how to tell 'an acceptable truth,' how to stall for time, how to assume various emotional states to control another, how to 'attack the attacker,' how to take control of a conversation, how to introvert a person and how to 'get the message across' (especially in an age of sound bites), how to help Scientology attorneys write inflammatory legal papers so the PR could then safely use the abusive phrases, and how to appear to be a religion."
Welkos in 1991 described why it took five years to write about Scientology, including efforts to intimidate with subpoenas (and possibly the delivery of funeral home literature to his home): "I would never know if the deliveries were just a mix-up or a sinister prank. Just as I have never known who made the dozens of hang-up telephone calls to my house; what caused my partner's dog to go into seizures on the day the Times published the secret teachings of Scientology; why a bogus assault complaint was filed with the Los Angeles Police Department against Sappell by a man whose address and name proved to be phony, or why car dealers we had never dealt with were making inquiries into our personal credit reports."