Scientology has been in and out of the news since its inception more than 60 years ago, thanks to tax rorts, allegations of espionage, excruciating celebrity supporters and the wacky ideas of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who saw it as his mission to help his followers scrub their brains of the sticky residue of ancient exploded aliens (a process called “going clear”) while relieving them of their wealth. Recent documentaries such as Going Clear and Louis Theroux’s new My Scientology Movie have made Scientology a hot topic again. With Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia, Steve Cannane brings the story home in a manner that will drop your jaw on the first page and leave it on the floor until the last.
Cannane, who once edited a satirical zine called Strewth, makes it clear from the start that this is not about Scientology’s belief system, however lunatic. There is a far more serious story to be told: of the infiltration of Australian political parties, intimidation rackets, visa rorts, human trafficking, false imprisonment, slave labour, forced abortions and child abuse. And that’s just the half of it.
Scientology grew out of the movement sparked by Hubbard’s self-help book Dianetics. Published in 1950, Dianetics was full of pseudoscientific guff about “engrams” (brain-records of past trauma) and “auditing”. Dianetics, with its modern, American aura, attracted freethinkers, teachers, sportsmen and housewives alike in Sydney and Melbourne, at a time when many people in suburbs such as Essendon (an early Dianetics stronghold) still relied on ice delivery for refrigeration, and the Chiko Roll was the latest “takeaway snack sensation”. Dianetics turned into Scientology and Scientology, for tax purposes, turned into a church. Some early Australian followers would become key players in the organisation worldwide. It was happy times for Australian Scientologists when Hubbard himself visited Melbourne in 1959 and declared that Australia would be the world’s first “clear continent”.
As it turned out, much of the continent did eventually go “clear”, but not in the sense Hubbard intended the phrase. Australia became the first country to hold an official investigation into Scientology, and Victoria the first government in the world to ban it. South Australia and Western Australia later followed suit. The damning results of the Australian inquiry informed the attitudes of governments around the world. Similarly, journalistic investigations of Scientology here, including by broadcast media, have had an enormous impact on Scientology’s worldwide reputation, and emboldened media elsewhere to stand up to the bullying and litigation that is its automatic response to criticism – Scientology is the Donald Trump of religions. Some of its fiercest and most lethal critics today are Australian, including the unlikely bedfellows of Rupert Murdoch, Julian Assange and Nick Xenophon.
Cannane demonstrates that it was the early blowback against Scientology here that inspired some of Hubbard’s most punitive policies, including that which gives this book its title. “Fair Game” is the practice by which any critic of Scientology may be, in Hubbard’s chilling words, “deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist”. This is not a metaphorical threat. Cannane reveals the existence of a virtual gulag of punishment centres, including one in Dundas, in Sydney, where those who have violated the cult’s rules or crossed its leaders may be held against their will, semi-starved, forced into hard labour and made to spend hours a day studying Scientology’s sacred texts. Cannane’s interview with a survivor, a South American who managed to escape from the punishment centre in Dundas in 2010 after several years of internment, makes for harrowing reading – and it points to the paradox that the Australian government had to issue a protection visa to the man “on the grounds that a religious organisation it deems a tax-exempt charity had trafficked him”.
There was one, “rare instance”, writes Cannane, when Scientology acted as “a force for good” in Australia, exposing the harmful and too-often deadly practice of “deep sleep therapy” at Sydney’s Chelmsford hospital in the 1960s and ’70s. Cannane discloses that Rosa, the nurse who stole the files documenting the deadly truth behind the practice at Chelmsford, had been a Scientologist plant from the start.
Scientology’s longstanding hatred of psychiatry and psychology had made its officials suspicious of Nicole Kidman, the daughter of a psychologist, from the moment she came into the life of their star recruit, Tom Cruise. Indeed, although Kidman gave Scientology a go in the early days of the relationship, she soon drifted and took Cruise with her. The organisation, which insinuated its spies into her staff and placed taps on her phones, played a big part in the couple’s eventual split.
Another famous Australian convert was James Packer. He may or may not have known that he was supposed to be the bait that reeled in his friend Lachlan Murdoch, son of one of Scientology’s most powerful enemies. But he certainly would have been unaware that whenever he was due to arrive at the organisation’s centre in Glebe, Australians on the punishment regime were first made to scrub clean the walls and floor of the car park with rags and cleaning fluid. Fair Game is full of surprising revelations, from the role of the liberal judge Lionel Murphy as Scientology’s “saviour” in Australia to the influence the cult has had on the history of rugby league.
No one from the Church of Scientology agreed to be interviewed by Cannane, and their lawyers, like those of Tom Cruise, flatly denied all allegations. But Cannane has been scrupulous in his pursuit and documentation of the evidence for his claims, conducting countless interviews and examining thousands of pages of legal and other documents. Fair Game has more than 30 pages of densely typed endnotes. A number of people – big names as well as smaller players – have spoken about their experiences here for the first time, at considerable risk to themselves. Cannane would be all too aware that publication makes him and his collaborators “fair game” – this is a book that is as brave as it is good. CG
ABC Books, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "Steve Cannane, Fair Game". Subscribe here.