The Very Masterful Master

When you’ve been in a cult and then left, you are in the unique position of viewing it with both an insider’s knowledge and the distance of objectivity. Once you’ve stepped 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 in a cult. At least your skinny; sometimes that of others with whom you shared the tent for a while, and that’s good to know, how and why you were enraptured, enticed, ensnared in some cases. Hindsight is always instructive.

Because it’s a mystery to most everyone else, how a seemingly smart, thoughtful, independent person – even a young one – can buy into the hype of what looks to be crazy; what with the horror stories, tabloid press, negative media, couch-jumping characters; quirks, foibles, and idiosyncrasies, right down to the by-the-book crazy/scary but charismatic leader who inexplicably elicits adoration and loyalty from those heretofore logical people. Yep, a mystery.

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 all much darker and less spiritual than I’d originally believed, slipped away with little notice and no sirens or barking dogs in chase. Not so with some of my friends who were accosted and harassed, sometimes for years, 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? A guy I was dating worked for Scientology and, like that girl who takes up surfing because her boyfriend surfs, gets a tattoo because he likes ink, or starts wearing thongs because he says “they’re sexy,” I got into Scientology because my boyfriend was a recruiter and said it would offer me eternal life. I was all about eternal life and he was damn cute…boom, I was in.

In all fairness to myself, I was between religions at the time, having shaken off the stern Catholicism I grew up with and found so counter to my evolving worldview and, despite my youth and somewhat shallow criteria, I held a depth of spiritual longing that was honest and real. I was in the market for a belief system that made sense, one that offered a more compassionate and less fearful philosophy of life, eternal or otherwise. So the enthusiastic and open arms of my boyfriend’s “mission” in Illinois seemed to make sense: lots of shiny happy people welcoming me into the fold, a learning system and “technology” that seemed fresh and intriguing, and, of course, the nobility of “clearing the planet.” At that point, there was little bad media stacked up; 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 on out.

I mention this background because I spent an enlightening morning last week with three long-time friends, all former Scientologists, watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie, The Master, at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. It was opening day and the place was packed; a palpable buzz could be felt, lots of anxious jostling in seats as if everyone was waiting for something huge and explosive. 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. Magnolia was mad and maddening, Punch Drunk Love a warm, touching departure; 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, while also ponderous, complex, intriguing and likely to win Oscars, stands out, however; a profound, artistic saga brought to seething life by performances so startling they stayed with me for days afterwards. Joaquin Phoenix creates a singularly stunning portrait of a mentally ill, violence and sex fixated World War 2 vet who stumbles upon the cult 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 cult leader is not only chilling and many-layered, it’s a dead-on take of Mr. Hubbard, right down to the wide-collared shirts, Kool cigarettes, grinning arrogance, suggestions of seediness, and inviting yet manipulative certainty of his purpose and philosophy. These two actors, as well as the others involved, most notably Amy Adams and Laura Dern, create an insular, claustrophobic world of spiritual earnestness mixed with steely-eyed control, clear elitism, and certainly delusional thinking…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 recognized it. We recognized the jargon, the theories, the science fiction of it all. We remembered the drills and exercises, the “TRs” and “locationals.” We’d heard the speeches, some participated in the highly anticipated and often disappointing book launches. And while most of us never met L.Ron Hubbard in person, we all watched endless tapes of his smiling, jovial visage as he pontificated 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, though masterful, will likely be found by some to be long, puzzling, even boring at times – well dissects the anatomy of cults and how they succeed. Every cult taps into something being sought. Something longed for, wanted, desired; something that’s not being addressed or provided elsewhere. For some it’s desire for a spiritual path they have not yet found. For others, it’s to be saved, either physically, mentally, or spiritually. Many are looking for community and family, a sense of belonging. For most it’s about philosophy, the greater good, saving the world. Some are just seduced by someone else – the leader they saw on film, the speaker at a seminar, the friend who seems better than they were before, a recruiter who says all the right things; a boyfriend who’s racking up “stats.” Many are simply 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 their minds, hearts, and thoughts. By the time the crazy stuff comes around, they’re already in, deep enough to keep them there. Until they slip away barely noticed, leave with a big bang in a publicized letter, or ride off on a motorcycle into the sunset, as Joaquin’s character does.

I’ll see this film again; I want to view it unencumbered from the gasp-factor of every recognized element of Scientology and L.Ron Hubbard 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 going on. 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 list of every award show coming up so you may as well bone up and get yourself educated before the opening number starts and the Oscar ballots are passed around!

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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16 thoughts on “The Very Masterful Master

    1. LDW

      Thank you, Lane. It’s a bit of a slog, and certainly will not be to everyone’s movie taste, but I maintain it’s worth it if for nothing else by the performances. LDW

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  1. Anderson’s films have never done anything for me really. I always feel quite cold, bored, and somewhat alienated while watching them, and then I sit and ponder, “Why does EVERYONE think his films are so special?” Oh well.

    You did a great job reviewing The Master though! It almost makes me wanna see it. Almost. If it didn’t have Joaquin in it, I probably would, ’cause Hoffman is almost always brilliant, as is Amy Adams, Laura Dern and the other cast…I just can’t get past Joaquin. Not his fault, I think there was a kid who looked like him who stole my lunch money back in grade school…so I have issues with his “look” or “vibe” or whatever, but every time I see him I wanna beat the ever living shit out of him.

    And thanks for the reminder that all of us do crazy things for love! I don’t know anyone that hasn’t done something crazy, silly or downright foolish for love. You should win a prize though cause joining Scientology does elevate you pretty high up on the top 10 list of craziest things people have ever done! 🙂

    So glad you were able to extricate yourself from their influences without a lot of fuss.

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    1. LDW

      David, I understand your Joaquin-aversion; I’ve had that sort of thing for other high profile characters. And certainly the role Phoenix plays in this particular film is as loathsome, repulsive and slightly horrifying as any anywhere. But. It really is a truly astonishing performance and, frankly, I think this PTA film is. And I don’t think that’s because of that insider knowledge I spoke of, I think it’s because it’s a strange and mysterious topic tackled in a way that draws us in and allows us to see the heartache of even the most heinous character in the film. Or maybe it’s just me! 🙂

      Either way, thank you for celebrating my fussless extrication. Given the stories of many others, I celebrate that too!

      LDW

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  2. Tina Romanus

    The underbelly…yes. This is true of many cults. There is often no big reveal. Sometimes it takes a long time for the spiritual hopeful to witness that insidious underbelly of deceit and awaken to the real “game being played.” Great article and review, Lorraine. Take a “really big win.”

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Tina…good point, there was no big reveal, just the slow building then retreating from the game being played, as so many of us experienced. Thanks for the applause; I’ll sit back down now! 🙂 LDW

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  3. Nancy Capers

    Great analysis, L. I think that the idea that one masters something by fusing with it psychologically partially explains the entranced state that can occur in Scn. The TR’s put one in a kind of trance-like state that feels grounded…not unlike meditation. I did TR’s for HOURS, over the course of a decade. Took a while to engage with the world again. And even miss doing them…

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    1. LDW

      Really? You miss doing them? Well then, I think you go find someone who’ll sit down and do them with you…I’m sure you can find someone. Me, I’d rather stare at the ocean! 🙂

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  4. Nancy Capers

    Also, the narcissistic mind develops differently from others. Because of this one may achieve unusual thought processes, ecstatic feeling states, believe they have unusual powers, etc. Grandiosity also resides in cult leaders, especially if bi-polar, and they often have a novel slant on life or creative insight of some sort. I’m sure Hoffman plays him as charismatic and charming? Looking fwd to seeing it!

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    1. LDW

      Yes, charismatic, charming, but also slightly terrifying and definitely manipulative. They all apply, don’t they? Write again after you’ve seen the movie, OK? LDW

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  5. Tina Romanus

    David, I’ve never cared for Anderson’s films either and after seeing the disgusting mockumentary ‘I’m Still Here’I developed the Joaquin-aversion too. I must say though,if that is what it took to free him to inhabit the character of Freddie Quell, then it was worth it. I understand the aversions to some artists. Someone can be an amazing actor, but the sound of their voice makes me nuts. They might have a tic that bothers me and sometimes I can’t even define what it is but they are unwatchable.

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    1. LDW

      Tina, I didn’t see “I’m Still Here” – didn’t want to – but Joaquin has an edge, oddity and sometimes churlishness that makes him a less than accessible actor from a personal point of view. But I’ve enjoyed his work, particularly in Gladiator and, certainly now, in The Master. I have not stopped thinking of his performance since we saw it. Somehow his ability to take this psychotic, repulsive, completely off-putting character and give him a vulnerability and laugh that touched something human, was spectacular. Worth seeing regardless of all other issues! LDW

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  6. Patricia Royce

    Good article Lorraine. Anderson finally confirmed a few weeks ago that Hubbard was in fact his inspiration for this film. Not only did he capture the personality of L Ron Hubbard… what was truly masterful, was the way he altered but captured so many of the nuances of both LRH and of the processing and training routines – their hypnotic effect and maddening repetitive nature. It was as if the practices, clearly ridiculous, were made to make some sort of sense just because the subject was expected to repeat them over and over and over. Beliefs are said to be thoughts that we just kept thinking over and over and over. After a while…a belief becomes a person’s “truth”.

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    1. LDW

      I’m glad to hear PTA did finally admit where his inspiration came from…to ignore that or deny it would be a slight insult of intelligence for the many in his audience who know the truth! I agree with your assessment of how the drills and processing worked; that illusion/delusion of something eventful actually being accomplished. Hypnotizing and and ultimately a let down. LDW

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  7. Susan Morgenstern

    Looking forward to seeing this – but so impressed that you “outed” yourself in true LDW style – intelligent, thoughtful, rational, and with humor. No “let’s just keep it between us” for you! Brava!

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    1. LDW

      Oh, you know me…figure the best way to put a true face on my perspective is to show my own. And thank you, my friend, for your perspective on that!

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