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Episode 3.3: “The Cultic Culture Club” (Part 3)

Updated: Mar 5, 2022

"How Do You Do Voodoo, Guru?"

(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 3.3, Chapter 2)

British journalist John Sweeney is either very brave or incredibly stupid. Back in 2007, he led a team from the BBC news program Panorama to investigate the darker side of the Church of Scientology—an organization founded by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard and currently led by Tom Cruise superfan David Miscavige. The Church of Scientology—which bears no likeness to mainstream churches except perhaps in its tax-exempt status—has been called a false religion, a financial racket, and a dangerous cult. In the process of filming this program, titled “Scientology and Me”, Sweeney butted heads on several occasions with Tommy Davis, who was, at that time, the chief spokesperson of Scientology, and who is also the son of Anne Archer, one of many famous Hollywood actors involved in this group. Here is an excerpt of one of their more “polite” conversations:

John Sweeney vs Tommy Davis, Take 1:

“Scientology and Me” (2007)

(go to 13:14 – 14:22)

At issue here, apart from Sweeney’s repeated use of the word 'cult', was the fact that, like any self-respecting journalist, he did not take Scientologists at their word but also interviewed ex-members of the organization, whose descriptions of Scientology and its leadership were filled with examples of abuse, manipulation, and deception. In a subsequent episode, the 2010 Panorama documentary titled "The Secrets of Scientology", Sweeney revisited his earlier face-offs with Davis, including the moment in which he completely lost his cool. But he did it this time with the help of Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, two former high-ranking Scientologists who had recently left the organization at great personal cost. Rinder, in fact, had been Tommy Davis’ colleague and superior in the OSA [Office of Special Affairs], which has been described as a Scientology “Thought Police”, attacking hostile outsiders and punishing members who dare disobey Scientology’s many strict rules or question its teachings and leaders. Rinder, in fact, could be seen smiling smugly in Sweeney’s earlier program, watching as Tommy Davis tears John Sweeney a new one. Here’s an excerpt:

Sweeny vs. Davis, Take 2:

"The Secrets of Scientology" (2010)

(go to 18:53—20:35 and 21:07—21:15)

What Sweeney discovered, and what is now widely known to anyone with the time to investigate it, is that Scientology as an organization teaches its members that anyone who poses a threat to its interests—financially, legally, or even so much as by tarnishing its reputation—is “fair game” as a target of reprisals. These can include, in the very words of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, “injuries to their person or property, or being tricked, sued, lied to, and destroyed”.[1] Indeed, Sweeney is only one of many reporters and researchers to have been vilified, lied about, harassed, spied on, stalked, intimidated, and threatened for daring to expose verifiable truths about the organization. (You can therefore imagine the hesitations I’ve had in deciding whether or not to create this episode). “For a time I felt hunted,” Sweeney told another reporter. “People turned up at [my] wedding. They called to my mother-in-law’s home, […] asking questions. People came to our house, making fake deliveries to our neighbours. It was uncomfortable, dark and scary. No question. You don’t fall out with the Church of Scientology and do it lightly.”[2]

Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun got it much worse. As defectors from the church—what L. Ron Hubbard called “squirrels”—Rinder and Rathbun lost all of their family and friends and were left with no property, savings, or social safety net. They were shunned by their loved ones, vilified by their former leaders, and prevented from communicating with anyone on the inside, including their own children. This is a deliberate practice of Scientology—a practice called "disconnection"—to scare disillusioned members from leaving and to injure those who do. No communications are permitted between Scientology’s members and those they call SPs [“suppressive persons”], at the risk of being cut off themselves, or punished internally. Interestingly, most stigmatized members prefer to be punished than cut off. A massive disinformation campaign was also launched by OSA to make Rinder and Rathbun look like criminals and abusers. After years of being disparaged, spied on, and harassed by hostile teams of Scientologists (who call themselves “Squirrel Busters”) the pressure mounted on Rathbun, who until then had tried to stay true to the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, if not David Miscavige’s leadership. By 2018, however, after an exhausting bout of litigation—and, Rinder believes, a secret arrangement with Miscavige—Marty Rathbun returned to the fold and stopped speaking out against the church.

But Mike Rinder reacted differently. The church’s continued reprisals against him convinced him to reject all of Scientology’s teachings and to become a permanent activist against Miscavige and his organization. Today, Rinder can be seen and heard sharing his testimony and insights in numerous documentaries and programs like “Going Clear” and “Scientology: The Aftermath”, he runs a blog dedicated to exposing the lies and abuses of Scientology, and can be heard on the Fair Game podcast which he co-hosts with actress and former Scientologist Leah Remini. (You can find several of these sources listed below.) It is thanks to the courage of people like these to speak out against bullies, no matter the personal cost, that numerous other ex-members, podcasters, journalists, and academics have been able to shed further light on what goes on inside this organization.

So what is it about people like L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige, or other cult leaders like Sun Myung Moon, Keith Raniere, Charles Manson, David Koresh, or Jim Jones that makes them so appealing and able to exercise so much control over dozens, hundreds, even thousands of followers?

As far as Scientologists are concerned, Rinder has this to say:

“There are many reasons why people don’t just walk away—Sea Org members [the inner sanctum of Scientology] make an eternal commitment to forwarding the Aims of Scientology and to leave the Sea Org appears to be a betrayal of [L. Ron Hubbard himself]; many have family members who would disconnect if they left; others have no experience in the outside world and don’t know how they will make a living; and the biggest threat of all looms large to those on the inside—the apparent loss of their eternity. But still, it is puzzling how people can witness the most brutal and demeaning actions carried out by [David Miscavige] and not come to their senses […], he [who] routinely orders others onto rice and beans for weeks or months on end, […] while he eats a special diet and has a full-time chef to cater to his desires.”[3]

It turns out that things are not much different across the majority of cultish groups.

Psychotherapist Daniel Shaw, whose definition of cults I discussed in our last episode [see Episode 3.2; see also references below], is a researcher and counsellor interested in the cult phenomenon. He is also himself a cult survivor. Shaw’s cultic experience occurred during his years as a member of Siddha Yoga, a Hindu Ashram that he describes as a deceptive high-control group. From his research, his clinical practice, and his own experience, Shaw has come to believe that most cult leaders share a rare personality trait which he calls “Traumatizing Narcissism”, which he distinguishes from more common forms of pathological narcissism. Most narcissists—and perhaps you know a few who fit this description—have “an inflated view of self-importance” that leads them to be excessively concerned with their own image and accomplishments and to lack concern or empathy towards others. Narcissists can be flamboyant or smug, they can be exuberant or fly into fits of rage, or they can appear humble and timid externally, while internally they are racked by debilitating feelings of self-entitlement, resentment, and self-pity. (Hey wait… I think I just described myself!). On the other hand, the Traumatizing Narcissist is the one who suffers a lack of identity and self-worth, and who comes to depend on the views of others to help them construct positive feelings of self-importance. They are not apathetic of others, like most narcissists, they are pathologically empathic insofar as they require others to admire and fawn over them to fill their inner emotional void. They are, in other words, “identity thieves” who project their sense of dependency upon others, and who devalue, manipulate, and subjugate others so that they might themselves feel needed and important. It is a coping mechanism, one that helps them deal—albeit destructively—with their own feelings of inadequacy and their incapacity to be emotionally self-reliant. Put simply, without a doting flock of followers on which they can dump their own sense of emotional dependency, they lose the ability of being a self. Shaw identifies four important elements of the Traumatizing Narcissist’s Emotional System.

The first is Intergenerational Trauma. Prospective cult leaders often emerge from dysfunctional family settings in which they were chronically shamed for their natural needs and desires as dependent children, made to view the needs of their parents as their only concern. The child who grows up denying their own dependency and modelling the character of the abusive or neglectful parent adopts an attitude of “selfless selfishness” in which their own needs and wants are pushed away by projecting them onto others.

The second element is Delusional Infallibility and Entitlement. The typical adult traumatizing narcissist is obsessed with maintaining a rigid sense of superiority, sanity, righteousness, intelligence, and autonomy. This allows him or her to outsource their feelings of need and, especially, shame—which Shaw calls the “kryptonite of the narcissist”. Cult leaders who claim to need and want nothing, and who project an image of simplicity and satisfaction while they surround themselves with gowns, crowns, thrones, cars, mansions, lovers, and doting devotees—many of whom are abused physically, verbally, and sexually—are prime examples of this.

Thirdly, the traumatizing narcissist develops a system to Externalize Shame. Through the creation of a rigid hierarchy and a system of rituals, dogmas, symbols, rewards, and punishments, the cult leader “colonizes others” by making them internalize his own feelings of shame and dependency. Control and shaming practices help establish a set of concentric circles (or bubbles) that places the leader inside the inner circle of purity and relegates those he can control the least on the unpopular fringe, to shield himself from the possible trauma of facing his own insecurities. To quote Shaw, the cult leader “feels alive only at the expense of devitalizing others”. But this comes at the cost of making those followers helpless, dependent, worthless, and out of touch with reality.

The Fourth element of the traumatizing narcissist’s emotional system is the Suppression of the Subjectivity of Others. As the traumatized child of narcissists, the prospective cult leader failed to accept his or her own childhood dependencies as normal, and failed to grow out of that resentful childish state. She has instead learned to stifle her needs by projecting them onto others. Unsurprisingly, a primary trait of cult leaders is their determination to stamp out the individuality of their followers, and to turn them into images of the leader’s own traumatized ego. The traumatizing narcissist is caught in a “double bind”: unable to be independent—because this produces feelings of rejection—or to admit his dependence on others—which produces feelings of shame. It is extremely hard, therefore, for the cult leader to become anything else than a totalizing master, or when that fails and total control of the group begins to slip from their grasp, to destroy themselves and others, including their own doting followers—something we’ll explore in some depth in our next episode. [See Episode 3.4 on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.]

If Shaw is correct, then it may be useful for us to look at the cult dynamic as one that is fundamentally fueled by feelings of paranoia as we’ve described it in earlier programs—as an exaggerated and irrational sense of helplessness and victimization—which pushes those who have such feelings to seek comfort and permanence in an elaborate and comforting false reality in which the universe is on the brink of destruction, in which the powers of good and evil are clearly defined, and in which they are engaged—as parts of the army of light—in an all-or-nothing zero-sum battle for the fate of humanity.

And it probably doesn’t help to have daddy issues.

Michel J. Gagné, 2021.

End Notes

[1] Mike Rinder: “Let the Scientology Fair Game Begin,” Something Can Be Done About It: Mike Rinder’s Blog, July 29, 2020. [2] Cian Traynor: “Scientology: ‘You don’t fall out with them lightly’,” The Irish Times, February 2, 2015. [3] Mike Rinder: “On David Miscavige’s Behavior,” Something Can Be Done About It: Mike Rinder’s Blog, April 6, 2013,

Readings and videos related to Episode 3.3:

1. Scientology Network promotional video (Scientologists as they present themselves): “David Miscavige Launches the Scientology Network,YouTube, uploaded March 23, 2018.

2. Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (HBO Documentary Films, 2015) Directed by Alex Gibney. Starring Lawrence Wright, Tony Ortega, and Mike Rinder.

3. “Scientology & Me,” BBC Panorama, Season 55, Episode 19, May 14, 2007.

4. “The Secrets of Scientology,” BBC Panorama, Season 58, Episode 38, September 28, 2010.

5. Scientologists at War (Roast Beef Productions, 2013), Channel Four, UK (Amazon Prime Video).

6. Something Can Be Done About It (Mike Rinder’s blog).

7. Daniel Shaw: “Traumatic Narcissism: The Psychology of Cult Leaders,” Public lecture delivered at the ICSA 2015 Santa Fe Conference. (click here for Shaw’s book)

8. Daniel Shaw: “Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective,” Cultic Studies Review, 2(2), 2003, 101-129. (Posted on the ICSA website).

9. Leaving Siddha Yoga website.

10. Mike Rinder: “Scientology’s former spy chief on L. Ron Hubbard’s paranoia,” an interview by Jon Atack, The Underground Bunker, November 14, 2020.

11. Leah Remini & Mike Rinder: Fair Game Podcast (website).

12. The Underground Bunker (Tony Ortega’s website).

15. Tony Ortega and Paulette Cooper: Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s Dangerous ‘Religion’, CreateSpace, 2018.

16. Ron DeWolf’s (a.k.a., L. Ron Hubbard, Jr.) 1982 deposition before the Clearwater Municipal Hearings on Scientology. (Day 1), (Day 2).

17. Battlefield Earth (Warner Brothers, 2000). Directed by Roger Christian. Starring John Travolta, Barry Pepper, and Forrest Whitaker.

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