Jon Atack is a willowy Briton with a closely shaved mustache and the split comportment of a school headmaster—endlessly affectionate, but prone to exasperation.
At 60, Atack has spent more than three decades on the front lines of a vicious information war against the Church of Scientology, whose controversial history he first exposed in his landmark 1990 book, A Piece of Blue Sky, which no doubt made him few friends in the church.
Last week, he stood at a podium in front of roughly 60 members of the close-knit counter-Scientology firmament and, with seething bitterness, proclaimed that "Scientology is a form of spiritual vampirism."
For his troubles, and his relentless activism, Atack, who spent nine years in Scientology before escaping in 1983, is widely seen in counter-Scientology circles as the movement's godfather, its intellectual and emotional heart. And he was in Toronto from June 22-26 to steer what amounted to a sort of retirement party, the culmination of his life's work: "Getting Clear," an international conference on Scientology in a dull and unassuming barely marked ballroom at the Sheraton Airport Hotel. Billed as the largest gathering of Scientology critics and defectors ever assembled, it was chockablock with some of the Church's most clamorous antagonists, including: Spanky Taylor (John Travolta's former aide), Gerry Armstrong (Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's archivist) of Chilliwack, BC, Jesse Prince (a one-time confidante of Scientology's secretive chairman David Miscavige), and Jamie DeWolf (a spoken word artist and Hubbard's great-grandson).
My entrée into this world came with one stipulation, delivered to me in a email from Atack's co-organizer James Beverley, a professor at Toronto's Tyndale University and longtime Scientology watcher. "Your media pass is conditional on you not being a member of Scientology or related groups or working for the Church of Scientology or [the Church-run] Freedom magazine," he wrote. Unsurprised by the precautionary measure, I assured him I had no connection to Scientology and was granted one-day access.
While ad hominem attacks about Beverley's ties to Scientologists swirled online—planted by Scientologists, Atack speculated—over the course of my day at the conference pro-Scientology activity was nowhere to be found. Hana Whitfield, a soft-spoken 74-year-old who claims she has been stalked by Scientologists since leaving the Church in 1984, told me that she had noticed a few inconspicuous men wandering past the ballroom, scribbling notes, earlier in the week. When asked about Whitfield's allegations, in an email to VICE, Scientology's public affairs director, Karin Pouw, said the Church was "far too busy… to be concerned about this small gathering." (As for Atack, Pouw did not deny his claims outright but said, "he makes it up as he goes.")
From the moment I arrived, there was zero pretence conference participants harboured anything but unbridled animosity toward Scientology. The movement has been under fierce scrutiny since Hubbard, a prolific sci-fi writer, occult enthusiast, and reported womanizer and drug addict, founded it in 1954, weathering a slew of tax scandals, high-profile court litigation with aggrieved ex-members, and allegations of wanton physical and emotional abuse.
So to spend even 30 minutes at Getting Clear was to experience six decades of collective rage and anguish. This came as no surprise to Pouw. "It is a curious academic exercise to gather a group of people whose common bond is their animus against a worldwide religious movement for the sole purpose of having them vent at each other," she said. "With that much vitriol in the room, the outcome is inevitable."
Still, I had thought about canvassing participants' for their take on the longstanding debate over whether Scientology should be categorized as a religion, a new religious movement, a business conglomerate with spiritual components, or a cult, but I discovered soon enough that among this crowd—even activists who have never been Scientologists, the so-called "never-in's"—the matter was annoyingly academic.
"Scientology is one of the few cults that has most successfully hidden its true nature from the public," Hana Whitfield told me. Whitfield was a founding member of the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, an elite unit of Scientology clergy who sign away lives to the Church for a billion years. "Scientology is really all about [Hubbard's] sociopathic, megalomaniacal personality, his drive to be recognized as the returned saviour of Earth," she says.
Indeed, Scientology cosmology and philosophy is so wrapped up in Hubbard's ideas, even 29 years after his death, his presence loomed over every session of my 12 hours at the conference. During the morning session, Atack and Steve Hassan, a renowned cult deprogrammer and former Unification Church member, demonstrated several of Hubbard's Scientology training routines, which, they explained, in their opinion effectively ease the participant into a compromising state of hypnosis, leaving them dangerously vulnerable to mind control.
The purple-lit room was full of levity as the pair took to the stage, walking the audience through one routine called "Tone 40 on an Object," in which the trainee repeatedly shouts commands at an ashtray placed on a nearby chair. Tone 40 is the highest point on something called a "tone scale," which Hubbard devised in the early 1950s to identify the span of human emotion. An individual's position on the "tone scale" is determined through rigorous auditing. For instance, someone experiencing boredom registers tone 2.5 on the scale. "Exhilaration" is a tone 8.0; at tone 40, the ultimate goal, the individual has achieved "serenity of beingness."
In "Tone 40 on an Object," the trainee is expected to command the ashtray with tone 40 intent, in theory controlling the object through sheer emotional force. In actuality, he moves the ashtray with his hand. London-based cult deprogrammer Christian Szurko was called on to demonstrate. What ensued was reminiscent of a Monty Python skit.
"Stand up!" Szurko yelled at the ashtray, while holding it aloft.
"Thank you!" he said to the ashtray, which was a handsome shade of black.
"Sit down on that chair!" Szurko ordered, placing the object down gently.
"Thank you!" he barked again.
Many in the audience had performed this routine inside Scientology before exiting the Church. So I found the uproarious laughter throughout the demonstration, as well as others, confusing. Afterward, I asked Szurko about the lack of somberness in the room. Laughter, he said, is a coping mechanism. "It's inoculation. As long as I can laugh at myself, what's going to hurt me?"
That afternoon, I spoke with Chris Shelton, a Denver man who was born into Scientology. One of the day's themes was second-generation Scientologists, which Shelton would lecture about later on. Now 45, he left a couple years ago after 17 years in the Sea Org. A graphic designer, he seemed incredibly well adjusted. At one point between sessions, a conference administrator named Spike announced that Shelton held the record for quickest recovery.
"Six months!" she said.
"As if we're keeping track," Shelton muttered in response.
As a missionary, he traveled often around the United States, opening his eyes to a world outside Scientology. Still, it was a 10-year process extricating himself from Scientology after coming to grips that the information he was feeding recruits and fellow Scientologists about the Church's sweeping influence were, Shelton said, nothing but lies. "I'd gone around to dozens of orgs and they were empty," he told me. "It was frustrating to see we weren't succeeding and that people hated us. After a while it became undeniable. It was bullshit and we were fucked."
Today, Scientology claims a global membership in "the millions," and Pouw insists the number is increasing. In 2001, 55,000 Americans declared themselves Scientologists, according to a City University of New York study. Atack, who told me he's viewed internal membership reports, believes there are only roughly 30,000 card-carrying Scientologists worldwide, a shockingly low figure for an organization critics claim is worth billions of dollars. That striking discrepancy is one reason why Atack decided to hold the conference now. Organizers spent a huge sum hiring a film crew for the five-day conference, hoping the result can both raise awareness and provide therapy to some of the 250,000 people Atack allegeshave been "damaged" by Scientology.
"We're losing a fortune doing this," he said. "But whatever, it means that it's on the record now."
While the Church seemingly remains a powerful player in North America, several people I talked to at the conference believe Scientology is in a death spiral. Maybe the Church will flame out upon the death of Miscavige, the chairman, but maybe not. Regardless, Alex Gibney's 2015 HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and the book by New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright on which it's based, have thrust Scientology's dirty laundry back into the limelight, and that can only help.
"The Church of Scientology will collapse," Atack said. "When and how, I don't know. A dinosaur that big can keep on moving for a while."
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