Oh, Humanity, Do You Demand Too Much Of Us?

It has been an emotionally exhausting weekend.

Thankfully all is well with me, my family; my closest circle of friends, and the Seahawks did win the Superbowl, but the larger collective, the community, the great mass of humanity with which we engage, took a few hits this weekend, from the sickening death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, to the aching letter of Dylan Farrow, to the snarling response of bigots to a multicultural Coca Cola ad, right down to the thousands of Tweets, Facebook posts, comments, and debates that have roiled around each one of these events.

There is clearly no one more exhausted, more truly affected, than the people intimately involved: Hoffman’s family, the Farrows and Allens; the millions of ethnic Americans sick to death of xenophobes defining our country as a place where only English-speaking white people exist. Each are, respectively, suffering horrible sorrows, deep anxieties, and tremendous rage.

Me? I’m only involved as a questioning observer, a member of the community, a woman, wife, mother, friend, and thinking/feeling human who has been stunned, saddened, angered, and left drained by the responses of so many to this list of tribulations.

It’s not just a matter of having opinions; I have opinions… plenty of them. As a writer, I often put those opinions into words that fly across the internet and garner either agreement or spittle-flying hate and denouncement. Opinions are like… well, you know how that goes.

The problem is not the opinions (well, some of them maybe); it’s the way people choose to express them, the seething, judgmental, arrogant, aggressive way in which sides are taken and lines are drawn. I have read utterances that have made me shake my head and wonder how we got so goddamned superior and all-knowing, when we became so convinced that our experiences dictate the reality of everyone else’s, and why we think it appropriate to decide that compassion and empathy are “enabling” when dealing with either addicts or damaged daughters… probably even Coke drinking immigrants.

A great actor who seems to have been loved by everyone who knew him died of a heroin overdose and someone suggested I might be too “kind” in my assessment that compassion was in order. “Ass kicking” was considered a better prescription for an addicted person. Others felt it necessary to point out, with great vitriol, that Hoffman was an “absolute douche… a piece of shit who would rather get high than fulfill his responsibilities”…  as if orphaning his children had any part in the decision to stick a needle in his arm. The degree of judgment and disdain exhibited by far too many in response to Hoffman’s death has itself been sickening. As if humanity couldn’t find a way to deal with grief without drowning it in denigration and revulsion. Couldn’t witness the weakness of an addict without seeing it as permission to be imperious and condescending. We all have our stories, our experiences with alcoholism and drug addiction and so, yes, certainly, we are allowed to be superior, right?

Then there’s Dylan Farrow and the matter of child molestation and our view of the women – and men – involved. Holy hell. As I write this, article after article is being posted, tit for tat, for or against, pro and con, everyone deciding who should be believed and who shouldn’t. It’s almost as if the bookmakers have jumped in: Whose side are you on? Who’s winning in the court of public opinion? Should we boycott Woody Allen films or decide Dylan is a patsy whose strings are being pulled by her fire-breathing mother? Is there any way to believe a woman who came forward 20 years later to finally tell her side of the story or is she to be categorized, as some have, as a calculating, relentless pawn? Should Allen’s celebrity be a shield against the accusations or has the addled Mia Farrow sacrificed her daughter for the sake of revenge?

I don’t know, you don’t know, but do you realize we have made a parlor game out of the life and death of people we don’t even know? Yes, these are worthy topics to discuss and there are many who’ve done so with grace, empathy, and an awareness that there are truths we may never know. But far too many have done so with smug, moral certainty that they are right, angrily, judgmentally right, and these strangers they’re discussing are worthy of their disgust and moral superiority.

Are they? I have my opinions; you, no doubt, have yours. But at the end of the day, to put it bluntly, who the fuck are any of us?

As a friend of mine put it, “Being judgmental and selfish is human, being an asshole about it is a choice.” Okay, but how about this? How about choosing to be human enough to NOT be judgmental and selfish? Human enough to express opinions with civility and whatever logic you can summon up. Human enough to realize every single person you are judging is human, too. And hope that if you ever need the humanity of compassion, empathy, and non-judgment, those around you will have the humanity to extend it.

As for Coca Cola… I don’t drink the stuff but damn if I didn’t appreciate their view of the humanity that is the “real America.”

LDW w glasses

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

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.