No, the above isn’t hyperbole. The New Yorker has a fascinating and authoritative exposé on Scientology. The experiences of Hollywood director and ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis are the starting point, but the piece hits upon everything from the cult’s origins to its use of violence and child labor to John Travolta magically healing Marlon Brando’s leg via touch:
In December, 2009, Tricia Whitehill, a special agent from the Los Angeles office, flew to Florida to interview former members of the church in the F.B.I.’s office in downtown Clearwater, which happens to be directly across the street from Scientology’s spiritual headquarters.
Whitehill and Valerie Venegas, the lead agent on the case, also interviewed former Sea Org members in California. One of them was Gary Morehead, who had been the head of security at the Gold Base; he left the church in 1996. In February, 2010, he spoke to Whitehill and told her that he had developed a “blow drill” to track down Sea Org members who left Gold Base. “We got wickedly good at it,” he says. In thirteen years, he estimates, he and his security team brought more than a hundred Sea Org members back to the base. When emotional, spiritual, or psychological pressure failed to work, Morehead says, physical force was sometimes used to bring escapees back. (The church says that blow drills do not exist.)
Sea Org members who have “failed to fulfill their ecclesiastical responsibilities” may be sent to one of the church’s several Rehabilitation Project Force locations. Defectors describe them as punitive reëducation camps. In California, there is one in Los Angeles; until 2005, there was one near the Gold Base, at a place called Happy Valley. Bruce Hines, the defector turned research physicist, says that he was confined to R.P.F. for six years, first in L.A., then in Happy Valley. He recalls that the properties were heavily guarded and that anyone who tried to flee would be tracked down and subjected to further punishment. “In 1995, when I was put in R.P.F., there were twelve of us,” Hines said. “At the high point, in 2000, there were about a hundred and twenty of us.” Some members have been in R.P.F. for more than a decade, doing manual labor and extensive spiritual work. (Davis says that Sea Org members enter R.P.F. by their own choosing and can leave at any time; the manual labor maintains church facilities and instills “pride of accomplishment.”)