Scientology Story of the Year -- The Vote Is In!
As we continue our year-end celebrations, we've come to a big moment. We asked voters to decide which story had the most impact on Scientology watching this year. We chose five finalists that we think had lasting importance as well as immediate punch.
There were many other stories worth covering of course, but these five did seem to generate a passionate response -- voting in this category was much closer than in the other two (for video and shoop of the year). There was no one story dominating the others -- only a small percentage separated all five of these big stories.
So let's go through them to see which ones moved you the most!
Fifth Place: Scientology and South Park
In October, Marty Rathbun revealed at his blog internal documents from Scientology's Office of Special Affairs -- the church's intelligence and covert operations wing -- which showed that in the spring of 2006, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were targeted in a retaliatory investigation by church private eyes. The investigation was payback for a November, 2005 South Park episode, "Trapped in the Closet" which poked fun at Scientology celebrities Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but more importantly revealed in significant detail the most closely held (and embarrassing) of Scientology's secrets: L. Ron Hubbard's assertions about a galactic overlord named Xenu who populated the earth 75 million years ago with disembodied invisible alien souls who, to this day, plague mankind.
The OSA documents revealed that as punishment for that ridiculing of Scientology's beliefs, private investigators had been sent to gather information about Parker, Stone, their South Park employees, and friends. Gathering that information included going through their trash (called "special collections" in OSA parlance). The documents even suggested that legendary independent filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman, a close friend to the filmmakers, would be pumped for information and in order to place a young mole in the South Park offices. Kaufman confirmed to us that he was hit up for information about the duo. Journalist Mark Ebner, who consulted on the South Park episode, was subject to his own OSA investigation at the same time.
Stone (left) and Parker
Fourth Place: Marty Rathbun and the Squirrel Busters
In April, former high-ranking Church of Scientology executive Marty Rathbun was faced with a strange sight: on his porch, three men were demanding to talk to him about his post-church activities while wearing matching sky blue T-shirts (each with an image of Rathbun's head on a squirrel, crossed out), and with video cameras strapped to their heads. Calling themselves "Squirrel Busters," the men claimed to the local press that they were a documentary crew making a film about Rathbun.
But it didn't take long to link them directly with the church itself. The goon squad spent a total of five months parked outside Rathbun's home, filming and following him and his wife, Monique, in one of the most remarkable "fair game" revenge operations we've seen in a long time. Rathbun had been targeted because he operates a blog which criticizes church leader David Miscavige, and which has become the rallying point for a Scientology independence movement that is splitting the church apart. Repeatedly, the Squirrel Busters told Rathbun that they would leave him alone if he'd just stop talking to the press about the church. Instead, their bizarre operation gave them more press attention than they may have bargained for.
Third Place: Reitman, Urban, and Wright
For a subject as complex and detailed as Scientology and its 60-year history, there may be no better medium than a lengthy, fat book. Problem is, the few good books on the subject came out long ago and were never best sellers. That changed this year. Janet Reitman's excellent history of the church, Inside Scientology, fills a desperate need. Comprehensive, meticulously researched, and masterfully written, the book is an introduction to this vast subject that not only is reaching a large audience, but its critical acclaim helps assure that it will be talked about for years to come.
Reitman's book had been anticipated for a long time, but another book also arrived this summer that was something of a surprise. Ohio State University religion studies professor Hugh Urban published a fine history, The Church of Scientology, that turned out to be a great companion to Reitman's book. Urban's academic approach helps put the church in its historical context, helping to explain Scientology's paranoia and obsession with spying by putting it in context of the Cold War era that birthed it. Meanwhile, another mesmerizing and lengthy narrative telling Scientology's story appeared in February in the New Yorker. We hear that Lawrence Wright's skillful telling of director Paul Haggis's defection from the church will itself become a book sometime in the future. Suddenly, we have a wealth of book-length treatments to help beginners learn about this arcane material.
Second Place: Valeska Paris goes on a Cruise
For decades, ex-Scientologists have told harrowing tales of how they left the Church of Scientology -- and in particular, its most hardcore contingent, the Sea Organization. But this year, the story of Valeska Paris and her ordeal aboard the church's private cruise ship, the Freewinds, captured the public's imagination like few other escape stories in Scientology's history. Australian television journalist Steve Cannane broke this story last month, and we quickly followed with a lengthy interview of Valeska, who says church leader David Miscavige, wanting to enforce a policy of "disconnection" and keep her away from her mother (who had sued the church) moved Valeska to the cruise ship when she was only 18 years old.
Told she would be there only a couple of weeks, she was on board from 1996 to 2007. Like other Sea Org members, she was forced to work at times in the engine room, which was loud, dangerous work. She also was aboard in 2004, when a lavish birthday party was held for actor Tom Cruise. Valeska was not allowed to attend the party. We also interviewed former Sea Org executive Ramana Dienes-Browning, who backed up Valeska's assertion that she was on the ship against her will. Ramana had her own story of coercion and hardship. Valeska's sister Melissa Paris, meanwhile, told of working for years in the Sea Org as a teenager for almost no money in the UK. Valeska has been threatened by church attorneys for speaking out, but we suspect her story is only beginning.
Valeska and her son Declan