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Paul Haggis and the New Yorker Scientology piece: What will be the fallout?

February 8, 2011 | 12:49 pm

Haggis

Paul Haggis might not be writing a book about Scientology, but he might not need to after Lawrence Wright's 26-page story in the New Yorker about the director and his decades-long relationship with the religion.

It took us nearly a day to find the time to read the thing, so we won't bother to recap all the details at this point. (Vulture has a good Cliffs Notes version here.)

There's a lot of grist on Haggis, the church, founder L. Ron Hubbard, the religion's celebrity roots and everything else Scientology. The piece details Haggis' attraction to the religion and why he didn't question it for more than three decades (it was a combination of laziness and fear; he also assumed that others higher up than he had tested theories he didn't test).

There are details about celebrities including Tom Cruise and John Travolta; in one particularly bizarre story (denied by the actor), Travolta healed a wound on Marlon Brando's leg at a dinner party using Scientology principles.

But the three juiciest -- and by far the most charged -- allegations have nothing to do with the Haggis aspects of the story. They can be boiled down to three items:

a) That current church head David Miscavige has physically abused adherents
b) That the church engages in human trafficking and under- or unpaid labor, primarily through its Sea Org program at its Gold Base facility in Southern California
c) That the FBI is investigating the organization for alleged trafficking and child-labor violations

In a statement Tuesday, Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis responded to the piece, calling it a "stale article containing nothing but rehashed unfounded allegations" and citing another journalist's account that the FBI has closed the investigation into child labor law violations and human trafficking.

For all the disclosures and criticisms,  Wright and his primary subject aren't actually always critical of  the religion.

Wright, who is also developing a book on Scientology, does offer the testimony of several adherents who talk, not always unconvincingly, about the religion's commitment to elevating the world. The writer also spares Hubbard (somewhat) by describing him as a more layered man than his popular image has it. "To label him merely a fraud is to ignore the complexity of his character," he writes.

Haggis, meanwhile, is still clearly enraged at the church for its refusal to come out against Proposition 8 -- the motivating act for his resignation in the summer of 2009 -- as well as its policy of "disconnection" that allegedly requires church members to cut off certain family members deemed problematic. Haggis also notes what he found to be the "madness" of the revelations when he reached the upper echelons of the Operating Thetan level.

But he also describes the appeal of certain conflict-resolution techniques that he still uses, and he says he still believes psychotropic drugs are over-prescribed for children, which is of course one of the cause celebre's of Scientology.

Then again, that all may be wiped out by the portrait of Miscavige's behavior. The general picture Wright paints is of someone with secretive and megalomaniacal tendencies who is not above playing head games with those beneath him.

More specifically, the article suggests the possibility that the church under Miscavige has threatened members who would leave (by handing them "bills" for as much as $100,000, among other things) and cites "billion-year" contracts signed by children who go on to engage in labor-intensive activities for the church for very little money. "I would gladly take down the church for that one thing," Haggis said of the child-labor issue.

What effect all this actually has on the public perception of both Haggis and Scientology remains to be seen. In a way the article is a victim of its own denseness -- it layers on so much history and folds in so much background that it can be hard to separate out what's new and shocking about it.

On the other hand, Scientology has become such a punch line that it's also possible many have yet to fully delve into its beliefs. The intergalactic aspects don't get short shrift here, and won't help the religion's cause.

Neither will Wright's descriptions of Gold Base as a place where there's "confinement" and exploitative activities, including a disturbing game of all-night musical chairs in which Miscavige was alleged to have threatened with exile all but the one person who won. A violent game ensued. Cruise may be Scientology's highest-profile adherent and Haggis its highest-profile defector. But these days, Lawrence Wright could exact the highest-profile damage.

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Paul Haggis. Credit: Nathan Denette / Associated Press

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