Scientology's 'Writers of the Future' Contest Loses a Participant After Our Expose
In 2000, a quantum physicist in Ithaca, New York named Carl Frederick decided to try his hand at writing science fiction. Two years later, he was named a finalist in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. The next year, 2003, he did even better, winning a quarterly first prize for his short story, "A Boy and His Bicycle," which appeared in the anthology pictured at the right.
In 2002 and 2003, Frederick was flown out to Los Angeles to enjoy the fruits of being a contest winner.
"You're never treated anywhere in your life as a writer better than you are there. Tuxedos, parties on rooftops -- there were even paparazzi. They give you the whole works," he says.
This year, Frederick was invited back as a past winner to help put on the week-long workshops that a new set of winners will enjoy during their week of pampering this April.
But then, Frederick read our March 12 story about the troubling connections between Scientology's alleged abuses and an administrator of the contest, which the church owns. He announced in our comments section some stunning news: "After reading Tony's article and the comments, I decided to sever my Writers of the Future ties and forgo the free trip/vacation in L.A."
Last night, I called Frederick to ask him about his decision.
"I had blinders on. Self-fitted blinders. I didn't want anything to get in the way of my appreciation of the contest," he says. "I still think the contest is a good thing. But once you've gone through it, you should probably leave. It's the long-term association that I have a problem with," he says. "It implies an acceptance of everything."
I asked him what those first experiences with the contest were like, when he was starting out as a writer relatively late, after having already worked for NASA's Institute for Space Sciences, running his own tech company, and building a robot for OMNI magazine just before it closed in 1995. (Check out Frederick's bio -- it's something else.)
"The winners get a writers workshop for a week in California. We read a lot of Hubbard's fiction. Honestly, it's not the world's greatest fiction, but in the pulp era, who knows," he says. "The point is to promote Hubbard, certainly."
Winners get to spend a week in workshops led by writers Tim Powers and Kevin Anderson, who he says are not only great teachers but terrific people. Since getting published in the 2003 anthology, Frederick has become a prolific published short story writer, appearing nearly 40 times in the science fiction magazine Analog.
"I feel good in my mind that I did turn this down, but I am conflicted about it," he says. "They really do a lot for us. I've had nothing but niceness from these guys."
I told Frederick that I hoped our story might motivate some of the big names among the judges to demand some answers from Scientology. What happened to Barbara Ruiz, for example, the Author Services executive director who was seen helping church leader David Miscavige run "the Hole," the now notorious office-prison for fallen church executives at Scientology's international headquarters east of Los Angeles? I told Frederick that a Jerry Pournelle or Orson Scott Card had a much better chance of getting an answer to that from the Scientologist adminstrators of the contest than I ever could.
"I don't think they would explain, and I don't think Card or Pournelle would ask," Frederick tells me. "The judges -- how much they know, or how much they want to know is probably small," he says.
As for his own role in the contest, he wanted me to know that he wasn't just giving up an all-expense paid junket to California. He also benefits from the publicity efforts of Author Services. Frederick is a frequent contributor to Analog magazine, but his longer fiction he puts out himself as e-books. And publicity help from Author Services is just about the only publicity he gets. It was difficult to walk away from that, he says.
"I have to admit that I pumped for this, to be invited this year as a successful short story writer...and they did. And everything was fine, until, quite frankly, I read your article," he says. "There's just the time when you can't close your eyes to that kind of thing. I feel queasy about it. I don't want to be associated with it even tangentially.
"Ethical decisions are easy and cheap if they don't hurt. But this one hurt. I have to think I've done the right thing, and I think I have," Frederick says.
Frederick wasn't the only writer we heard from after our story ran.
We also received this e-mail from writer Paul Batteiger, who was a quarterly award winner in 2000 for his story, "Like Iron Unicorns"...
I was a winner in 2000, the same year as Frank Wu (who I did not become acquainted with until after). I always kept a wary eye on the Scientology aspect, though I was never proselytized to or harrassed about the religion in any way. My wife won the illustrators contest a few years afterward, and said they would not even speak about it if asked. We were both well paid for our work and the experience was very professional, overall.
There is a cluster of winners out here in Tulsa, OK. Algis Budrys passed the coordinating judge position to my friend KD Wentworth when he became too ill to continue, and she has always encouraged people to enter through our local writer's group. Neither she nor Algis were ever associated with Scientology, then or now. I have met numerous winners over the years and never met a Scientologist among them.
I just became leery of the whole thing after a while. Even though I took part in convention panels to promote the contest for years after, I don't know if I would do that again. The church has just begun to creep me out, and I feel embarrassed to have my work appearing in books emblazoned with L RON HUBBARD. Given the creepy, homophobic, fascist vibe of the whole church, I just don't want to be a part of it anymore.
But the news of an actual "concentration camp" and "vanished people" really shocked me. That is so far beyond anything I expected. This cult has operated at the fringes of the law for so long, what will be next?
And last night, we got another e-mail from Batteiger, after we responded and told him of Frederick's decision to cut ties...
I think there's a huge urge on the part of the writers to deny that there is anything wrong with the contest. Because it is a good contest and the prizes are substantial. Winning can be a great experience -- having people you have heard of, read, and respect read your work and say "you are good" is a tremendous boost to a young writer. And the Author Services people were always very personable. They call you to tell you you won, and the person who calls knows who you are and has read your story -- it's the opposite of impersonal.
So the contest can be a great experience, and the writers involved with it really want it to be kept separate from the church, but the more coverage the church gets as being batshit insane, the harder that gets. You have authors like Tim Powers (a great guy, by the way) who has done the workshop many, many times and has a lot invested in it -- not just time, but reputation. I think a lot of people -- me included -- just wish the contest was an entirely separate thing. Because there comes a point where the level of creepiness from the church overcomes the 'firewall' around the contest, and it becomes impossible to ignore. There are some kinds of awfulness that no amount of 'separation' can make up for.
I've sent a message to church spokeswoman Karin Pouw, informing her of Carl Frederick's decision to turn down the church's invitation. I'll let you know if I hear anything from her.
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week's best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology's wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.