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!

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