Scientology's Writers of the Future Contest: Troubling Ties to Abuse in the Church
On the eve of L. Ron Hubbard's 101st birthday, we have a story which brings together several themes we've been dealing with here lately -- Scientology's alleged abuses, its "secular" front groups, and its attempts to promote the reputation of its founder.
The 1999 anthology with Hines' story
In February, I noticed an interesting blog post by the writer Jim Hines. Jim lives in Michigan, and is the author of the 2006 novel Goblin Quest and half a dozen other books in the fantasy vein. Like other toilers in the science fiction and fantasy field, Hines got his start by winning a contest in the genre.
In 1998, his short story "Blade of the Bunny" was selected as a quarterly winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Along with other winners that year, Hines was celebrated at a gala event on September 24, 1999, which was held at the offices of Author Services, Inc., the literary agency for Hubbard's works.
For a young, unpublished author like Hines, it was a big step early in his career.
But last month, Hines wrote at his LiveJournal account that he and other writers are beginning to have concerns about the Hubbard contest.
When the subject of Scientology came up, we were told that the contest and its finances were completely separate from the church. That's something I've repeated to other writers more than once. I'm no longer certain this is true.
Turns out, he didn't know the half of it.
The "L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future" and Illustrators of the Future contests are prestigious and lucrative. They feature judges who are among the biggest names in the field, and they've helped launch the careers of important new artists.
Over the years, however, questions have been raised about the contests and their connection to Scientology. And those questions are getting more pointed with news of the church's abuses increasingly reaching the public -- such as Debbie Cook's recent court testimony about the torture of church executives at "The Hole," an office-prison at Scientology's California international headquarters.
But is there really any connection between a science fiction contest's glitzy parties in Los Angeles and the shocking abuse going on at the church's headquarters about 90 miles away?
The Voice has learned that the connection between the two is disturbingly close.
Part 1: The Firewall
L. Ron Hubbard's reputation as a writer rests primarily on his output in the 1930s and 1940s, when he wrote for the pulps and generated a huge amount of genre writing. In 1950, he shifted gears with his new "science" of the mind, Dianetics, which his friend John W. Campbell published in an issue of Astounding Science Fiction. [For more about Dianetics and the basics of the church Hubbard went on to found, please see our primer, "What is Scientology?"]
For the next few decades, Hubbard had his hands full developing Dianetics into Scientology, sailing the Mediterranean and Atlantic, and then dealing with the FBI's unwanted interest in his affairs.
Then, in 1980, Hubbard suddenly came back to science fiction. He wrote Battlefield Earth that year, and the lengthy tale of man as an endangered species at the hands of the Psychlos was eventually published by St. Martin's Press in 1982.
By that year, Hubbard had become such a recluse, his own son sued for his inheritance, saying that his father must have died. But Hubbard was still very much alive -- he made enough of an appearance to have the lawsuit dismissed, and in 1983, Hubbard created the Writers of the Future Contest as he pushed on with his next science fiction project, the Mission Earth novels, which would begin to be published in 1985.
These latter-day works may have been eviscerated by critics, but in the contest, Hubbard seemed to have come up with a wonderful idea.
Four times a year, a quarterly winner and a couple of runners-up are named, with prizes of $1,000, $750, and $500, respectively. Then, before the annual gala, one of the quarterly winners is chosen for the L. Ron Hubbard Gold Award, and today receives $5,000. (Entering the contest costs nothing, and is open to newer writers who have only had a few things published or nothing at all.) In 1988, an Illustrators of the Future contest was added.
Besides winning prize money and being feted at a gala, winners have their stories appear in an anthology, which also includes a few pieces by leading figures in the field. These anthologies have stayed in print longer than similar genre story collections do, another perk of such a wealthy contest.
Rogue Moon writer Algis Budrys was named the first coordinating judge of the contest, and he brought in many other big names to help pick out winners.
When Hubbard died in 1986, ownership of the contest, along with Hubbard's library, was assigned to the Church of Spiritual Technology, one of several Scientology entities that had been created in a church reorganization a few years earlier. (Hubbard's literary agency, Author Services, is a wholly owned subsidiary of CST.)
CST owns the trademarks and copyrights to Hubbard's many works -- both those considered "scripture" in Scientology, and also his works of fiction. (It also engages in the very odd activity of creating nuclear-war-proof bunkers in which copies of everything Hubbard wrote or said on tape are being archived, as we wrote recently.)
But if CST owns the contest, and ASI runs it, none of the judges are Scientologists, and neither are the winners. At the ceremony, meanwhile, workers are careful not to discuss their religion, and while winners are asked to thank Hubbard in their speeches, his odd church is not brought up.
"I guess Hubbard in his old age, in a fit of nostalgia, came up with this thing for unpublished writers," says novelist Tim Powers, one of the contest's current judges.
Like other writers and judges I heard from, Powers told me how well run the contest is, how much it helps new writers, and how strong the firewall seems to be that exists between the contest and Scientology, even though it's Scientologists who administer the contest and put on its annual gala.
"When the winners get there, they get to attend how-to-write lectures from people like Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Orson Scott Card. It's a hell of a lineup," Powers says. "They maintain very deliberately a solid firewall between Scientology and the contest. There was even a time when a winner asked about Scientology and he was told, 'Not this week.'"
Powers admits that in his years of involvement, he's "never looked behind the scenes -- I don't know what the logistics of it are," he says. But the effort that Author Services puts into keeping things separate is something he appreciates.
"I like the firewall. As a Catholic, I'd have to quit if it turned into proselytizing," Powers says.
Rachel Denk tells me that the firewall was something the workers at the contest took very seriously.
"We always held the contest as separate from Scientology. The 'Sea Org' never came up. We distanced the contest from Scientology so it would stand on its own as an LRH activity to help new and aspiring writers, then later, artists when the illustrators' contest was started," says Denk, who worked as an administrator of the contest from 1986 to 1994, and then again from 1999 to 2004. A "public," she was a member of the church but not one of its hardcore Sea Org members who sign billion-year contracts. (She is also the widow of Gene Denk, L. Ron Hubbard's personal physician, who died in 2004. She left the church the following year and is now an independent Scientologist.)
The author Algis Budrys (1931-2008) with Rachel Denk, who administered the contest for many years.
"No matter that I was a Scientologist; it rarely came up as I was the contest administrator who helped the applicants," she says. "It made perfect sense that the contest was run out of Author Services, LRH's literary agency. LRH was one of the top names in the Golden Age of Science Fiction....Scientology rarely came up. It would be like being a member of a writing group asking, 'Are you Mormon?' Religious preference was not really a factor unless someone wanted to cause trouble."
In 2005, Frank Wu, who had won the top illustrators prize in 2000, wrote at his blog that over the years he had become more concerned about the link between the contest and Scientology. But when I asked him about it, he wrote me this lengthy and fascinating response about what he experienced. I think it's worth quoting at length, and Frank has indicated that he'll reproduce it in its entirety at his blog...
I heard about the L. Ron Hubbard Writers and Illustrators of the Future contest way back in the 1980's, and the allure of huge money prizes was, well, pretty enticing. Both contests could be important building blocks in launching a career in this industry. I entered the Writers contest several times, never doing very well. What I got back were polite sorry-you-didn't-win-because-we-didn't-think-your-story-was-awesome letters. Form letters really, nothing particularly Scientology-y about them.
Then I entered the Illustrators contest and after three tries, was one of the quarterly winners...
After I won, all the quarterly winners were invited to a week-long artist retreat (paralleling the writers' retreat) at one of the Scientologists' centers in L.A., where they also had the awards ceremony. This was 2000 or 2001.
Again, there was nothing particularly Scientology-y about it. I asked [Author Services employee] Joni [Labaqui] and she said that the folks running the contest were all Scientologists, but none of them brought it up. In my dorm room, there was a Scientology book instead of a bible in the dresser by the bed. No one mentioned it, and no one asked me to read it. But I read some of it because I was curious. I found it complete pablum. All watered down advice like your grandma would give you. Take your vitamins. Exercise. Caffeine is bad for you. Follow your dream. Stuff that nobody could argue about.
During the week of our art "seminars," which were run by Ron and Val Lakey Lindahn, again not Scientologists, we didn't do anything very Scientology-y. Except for a visit to a museum set up to honor L. Ron Hubbard. They showed us the original auditing machine, which looked like an old-fashioned lie detector. And there was a short film about Scientology that we saw....
Frank Wu with the other 2000 winners, and, in the center, Author Services executive director Barbara Ruiz
There was a bit of over-the-top celebration of L. Ron Hubbard. The museum included every award he'd ever won, and some of the folks behind the contest kept telling me that his novel Fear was the best horror novel ever written. I can't agree or disagree, because I haven't read it -- or much horror (I'm more a science fiction guy). I asked them about all the bad press about Battlefield Earth (I wasn't trying to be rude, but we were together for a week and eventually tactless questions come out) -- they said, basically, no publicity is bad publicity. Well, I'm not sure I agree with that, but my point is that the proceedings, held in Hollywood, had a lot of the fake Hollywood glitz and self-aggrandizement (though the aggrandizement was directed to Hubbard and not to the individuals running the contest). It felt more "fake Hollywood" than "evil Scientology"...
To be honest, the Scientologists were really good to me. They were the first people to give me substantial money for my art, and they were very encouraging. They showed me off at conventions. They did give me a little pressure to buy some of L. Ron Hubbard's paperback books (his science fiction books in particular, but never any Scientology books), but, well, whatever. They also set up my first radio interviews and newspaper interviews. All to advance my career...for me at least, the firewall between the contest and Scientology was quite good...
I don't have any personal stories about the evils of Scientology or Scientologists. To me, personally, all the Scientologists I met have been awesome.
Part 2: Author Services and "The Hole"
While the contest has flourished and remained very consistent in the last 28 years, Scientology itself was going through many significant changes.
The contest was born during a time that a young Sea Org executive who was the chairman of the board at Author Services, David Miscavige, was wrestling for control of Scientology itself.
It was Miscavige who ordered the byzantine restructuring of Scientology in 1982 after Hubbard went into hiding. He is now Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center, which controls the trademarks and copyrights that the Church of Spiritual Technology owns. Confusing? That's probably the point. But the people who worked with Miscavige and oversaw that reorganization say that the alphabet soup of entities really didn't change the fact that Miscavige lords over every single aspect of Scientology -- including its nominally "secular" front groups and for-profit bodies, such as the businesses that produce and sell Hubbard's fiction.
To this day, they say, Miscavige's home in Los Angeles is Author Services, the literary agency that runs the contest. A tunnel gives him easy access from the agency to an elaborate apartment that was built for him in a building behind Grauman's Chinese Theater.
"Writers have a legitimate concern about whether the contest is somehow connected to Scientology. Because ultimately it is. Miscavige spends half of his time at his office at Author Services," says Mike Rinder, who until 2007 was Scientology's chief spokesman and also ran its intelligence wing, the Office of Special Affairs.
"They gutted an apartment building for Miscavige. That's where he lives when he's in LA -- which is a large percentage of the time, because he's close to Tom Cruise," Rinder says.
Rinder pointed out that Author Services collects royalties on all of Hubbard's works, and not just his fiction. I asked him if that includes Dianetics.
"Yeah, on everything," he responded.
Rinder was part of a wave of high-ranking executives who left Scientology between 2004 and 2007 and then went public, saying that Miscavige had increasingly decimated the ranks of high-level executives by deposing them from their positions and sending them to the church's international base near Hemet.
Since 2009, numerous descriptions of how conditions deteriorated at "Int Base" have been made public -- the first major account was in a St. Petersburg Times series, "The Truth Rundown." The most recent was Debbie Cook's stunning testimony in a Texas courtroom, in which she described formerly powerful executives being held against their will in an ant-infested, non-air-conditioned office, day and night, in the California desert. Surviving on a diet of "slop," the executives were forced each day to take part in mass confessions. At one point, when Cook objected to what was being said about two men who were being forced to confess that they were homosexual lovers, she was forced to stand in a trash can for twelve hours while cold water was dumped on her and homophobic slurs were yelled at her. She saw another executive beaten and made to lick a bathroom floor for half an hour as punishment for some unknown offense.
Cook and other former Scientology executives say the hellish office-prison was known as "the Hole."
Rinder says it wasn't always called that.
Originally, the two double-wide trailers at the Int Base compound were known as "CMO Int," standing for Commodore's Messenger Organization, International. Amy Scobee was an executive at CMO Int, and she tells me that over time, the place became more and more ratty as it became less about a messengers org and more a dumping place for executives who had lost favor.
By January 2004, the CMO Int offices were taking shape as the prison it would become, and it had taken on a new name: "The A to E Room." (When Scientologists are on the outs, they are told they can get back in good graces by doing their "A to E" steps of rehabilitation.)
It was at that time, early in 2004, that the fallen executives were being locked in all day and night. Base employee John Brousseau, who left in 2010, has described to me being ordered to put bars on the doors of the offices.
Mike Rinder can attest personally to the state of the A to E Room in January 2004. That's because it was then that he became a prisoner in it.
I've written earlier about Rinder's experiences in the prison, and how he looked when he came out. But now, I learned something new about it, and not only from Rinder, but also from Brousseau and the man who was at one time the second-highest ranking official in Scientology, Marty Rathbun.
Rathbun had left Florida for Int Base at the end of 2003, and he personally witnessed the CMO Int offices becoming a prison at the same time that Rinder was being held inside.
What he also saw were two women running the place, leading the mass confessions, and reporting what they learned back to David Miscavige. One of them was Angie Blankenship, a woman who has reportedly left Scientology but has not spoken publicly to the press (it's thought that she's under a non-disclosure agreement similar to the one Debbie Cook signed).
The other woman was Barbara Ruiz, executive director of Author Services.
Rathbun says that in January 2004 he personally saw Ruiz running the Hole and delivering what was gathered from mass confessions to Miscavige. (Rathbun left Scientology for good the next month.) Rinder says he witnessed Ruiz running the confessions because he was a prisoner inside. And Brousseau tells me he also saw Ruiz leaving the offices and talking with Miscavige outside, reporting what she had learned.
"Angie and Barbara were in there, egging people on," Rinder says.
"Barbara was one of the matrons. She and Angie Blankenship were getting called out of The Hole and were debriefing Miscavige in front of the trailers," Rathbun says. "They were giving him detailed descriptions of the confessions."
So, to review, let's take a look again at that 2000 Writers of the Future gala that Frank Wu has photographs of, which feature the person running the event, Author Services executive director Barbara Ruiz:
Some four years after this photograph was taken, Ruiz, while still executive director of Author Services, was seen by three witnesses to be helping David Miscavige dish out punishment at the disturbing office-prison at the International Base.
I checked with Rachel Denk, who administered the contest for so many years, and she distinctly remembers that Ruiz attended the contest's gala celebration in the summer of 2004.
The party was held on August 20 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Denk remembers it not only because of its upscale location, but also because of an unusual guest at the party: David Miscavige, who arrived with his wife, Shelly Barnett Miscavige.
Denk says that it was very unusual for Miscavige to attend, and she really doesn't know why he did.
But here's what we've confirmed: In January of 2004, three witnesses tell us Miscavige was having Barbara Ruiz run mass confessions in the Hole. In August of that same year, Rachel Denk saw both Miscavige and Ruiz enjoying themselves at the Writers of the Year contest, which was run by Author Services, where Ruiz was executive director and where Miscavige makes his home and office when he's in Los Angeles.
It's still true that the writers and illustrators and judges involved in the contest are not proselytized in any way, and that Scientology is not involved in the choosing of winners. But they also could not have known, that August night in 2004, how close was the connection of their fancy party to the alleged abuse at Int Base.
Part 3: The Disappeared
John Brousseau says that when he left Int Base in mid-2010, The Hole was still operating with about 80 to 100 executives being held inside. So that's at least six years that Scientology officials were allegedly being kept in the place. Debbie Cook testified that she was traumatized after being kept in The Hole for just seven weeks. Rinder says he was kept in it off and on for nearly two years.
(Since Cook's testimony, one of Scientology's attorneys released a statement saying "The Hole does not exist." Note the use of present tense. I have little doubt that Miscavige has erased the place from the map now that word about it has leaked out.)
I only wish I had a more recent photograph of Ruiz, or could ask her about her actions at The Hole. But shortly after that sighting in 2004, she seems to have vanished.
Several former church members say that Ruiz was one of several high-ranking executives who, for whatever reason, were suddenly deemed "non persons" and were made to disappear.
Around the same time, 2006, Miscavige's wife Shelly suddenly stopped showing up at public events and was not seen again at Int Base. There has been no explanation from the church regarding her sudden and years-long disappearance.
Former Scientologists have suggested to me that Shelly Miscavige and other "disappeared" executives may be staying out of view at CST's secretive headquarters near Lake Arrowhead that we wrote about last month.
Other executives have also suddenly vanished. Heber Jentzsch, for example, is still, as far as we know, the president of the Church of Scientology International, even though he was made to disappear around the year 2004. (When questions about him were being raised by his ex-wife, Karen de la Carriere, Jentzsch was recently produced in order to spend some time with his son. But just as soon, he was back out of sight.)
One of the disappeared executives, Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, during happier times with John Travolta and Kelly Preston. Where is Heber today? Shelly Miscavige? Barbara Ruiz?
"I worked there many years and people would disappear. Not necessarily to the Hole, but maybe overseas to another office. And it was none of your business, basically," says Rachel Denk.
A few weeks ago, I sent an e-mail to church spokeswoman Karin Pouw, informing her that I was working on this story. I asked her to respond to the allegation that Barbara Ruiz had helped run the Hole at the same time that she was overseeing the Writers of the Future contest. I also asked to know where Ruiz is today, and to interview her. I have heard nothing back from Pouw.
I also sent a Facebook message to Joni Labaqui, a woman at Author Services who currently has much responsibility over the contest. Again, nothing. And I called Author Services and told the person who answered the phone that I had questions about Barbara Ruiz or whoever is the current executive director. I was told that no one there could answer my questions. Under the "staff" listing at the Authors Services website, meanwhile, no names are given to identify who the current executive director is.
With the annual contest gala scheduled for April 15, I also sent a detailed message to nearly all of the writing judges in this year's contest. I have heard back from only a few, and those writers tended to defend the contest and its "firewall" and did not really address the news about Ruiz and The Hole.
Of the writers who got back to me, only Tim Powers called. We had a very pleasant conversation, and I believe him when he said he knew nothing about Barbara Ruiz or The Hole. He did note the irony, however, that there might be a connection to something so otherworldly and disturbing as The Hole when in his books, he tends to take on a dystopian "squint."
That thought had also occurred to me.
It may be difficult for the community of science fiction writers and illustrators who benefit so grandly from the contest to take a step back and wonder what the contest really does for Scientology and the image of L. Ron Hubbard.
As writer John D. Brown recently noted on his blog, he doesn't understand why there's a fuss...
I won a first prize in the Writers of the Future. I received $2,000 cash for the prize and subsequent publication. I also received a paid trip to Cocoa Beach, Florida to workshop with the other winners and pro writers. I tell new writers to submit to the contest all the time. I do not feel I'm supporting any wickedness. Let me walk you through this. You tell me if I'm killing any puppies.
In the remainder of his post, he argued that as long as writers aren't being proselytized, and as long as there's a firewall, he's not bothered.
To his credit, however, when he heard from novelist Deirdre Saoirse Moen, who supplied him with more information about The Hole and other stories coming out of Scientology, Brown found the information interesting and promised to think about it some more. (Brown said the same to me in an e-mail exchange.)
Moen is a former Scientologist who has a long association with the contest and briefly represented it at a conference when it was first starting up. She left Scientology in 1990, but in 2008, her involvement in the genre convinced her to attend the gala that year at the Author Services building. But she has changed her mind about the contest and decided recently to begin speaking out.
"When Debbie Cook finally spoke about some of the abuses going on in Scientology, I felt it was time to speak about the contest," she says.
Rachel Denk, who worked at the contest for 12 years, was very helpful to me, but she also repeatedly expressed apprehension about this story being published. "I am totally pro-Writers of the Future, in that people can find a creative outlet," she told me last night by telephone. "I was with the contest for so long. You will not find anything of comparable magnitude out there for new and amateur writers of science fiction and fantasy. I worry about this story. I feel that you may potentially make the contest disappear," she said.
I told her I doubt that that will happen. But if there is an upheaval, it will be David Miscavige who has to answer for disappearances, not the Village Voice.
As the April 15 gala nears, I hope I will hear from additional judges, and I hope some word of Barbara Ruiz emerges.
And as for the writers and illustrators of the future -- they will have to decide if recognition, publication, and a party are worth being associated with the kind of dystopian nightmare that they probably thought only existed in their stories.
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.