It just feels as if it wouldn’t really be a critical tell-all about the Church of Scientology without at least the threat of a lawsuit from the litigious organization. And the controversy surrounding Ron Miscavige’s new memoir, “Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me,’’ fits this pattern — though reported letters from church lawyers failed to thwart publishers. The book recounts the Miscavige family’s experience in the group, which in Ron’s view, “has become a cult, pure and simple.” Since 1986 the church’s leader has been his son, David.
Despite concerns over legal actions, a rising stack of books, articles, and other investigations attempting to demystify Scientology have been published in recent years — notably 2013’s much lauded “Going Clear’’ by journalist Lawrence Wright. Together they present a portrait of a culture of abuse inside the secretive church. Ron Miscavige’s account of the “manipulative, coercive, and, in [his] mind, evil” organization breaks little new ground in that area, but he does offer a unique perspective on the evolution of Scientology’s leader.
Born poor in 1936, Ron Miscavige was a go-getter from a sheltered background, which made him “ripe for the picking by the first person with a good pitch.” In 1969 in the midst of his engagement in one of those pitches — a doomed get-rich-quick pyramid scheme — he was introduced to Scientology by a recruit for the cosmetics-marketing business. He writes that he found the central concept that individuals are responsible for their own pain or happiness made him “less troubled by things. Emotionally, I was freer.”
Ron, who was raised in the coal region of central Pennsylvania, met his wife, Loretta, in Philadelphia, and the unhappily married couple had four children, Ronald, Lori, and twins David and Denise. Ron wonders whether the couple’s constant fights — which were sometimes violent (“I regret ever doing it, but there were times when I punched Loretta.”) — influenced his son David’s adult behavior (“the volatile temper, the refusal to let go of things and the tendency to try to dominate through nullification”). But he notes that none of his other three children exhibit these traits. Ron credits specifically the church’s version of talk therapy, known as “auditing,’’ for making him less combative, but as David delved deeper into Scientology, the reactive aspects of his personality seemed to grow.
In the early 1970s the Miscavige family relocated from their home in Willingboro, N.J., to Scientology headquarters in East Grinstead, England, for a year to further their training. Twelve-year-old David, who had something of a sickly childhood owing to a severe case of asthma, thrived in the new place. “He was fastidious about doing everything according to standards, which is the mantra hammered into every student: ‘One hundred percent Standard Tech [technology]. Be standard.’ ” Yet he retained “a habit of denigrating other people . . . this would become his signature style when he took charge of Scientology many years later.”
In 1975 David, now 16, announced that he was quitting school to join Florida-based Sea Org (so-named by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard who at one point took to sea with his closest followers), the highest order in the church. Eleven years later Ron joined his son at Gold Base, the California desert headquarters where David now lived as Scientology’s leader. But shortly after arriving he realized their relationship had chilled, that it was not “father-son anymore.” Instead David was the head of the church and Ron, largely just another follower.
For the next 26 years Ron endured a life of unceasing labor (often over 100 hours/week), slave wages ($30/week), and 24-hour surveillance. Ron describes Gold Base as a sort of work environment from hell in which every task was rushed, ruthlessly criticized, and then redone — all under the despotic supervision of his son.
Through careful scheming, at age 76 Ron was able to escape Gold Base and the church, but he remains subject to the group’s policy of “disconnection:” the three of his four children who remain Scientologists (and their children), including David, no longer speak to him. Then there is the much-publicized case of David Miscavige’s wife, Shelley, who has not been seen in public since 2005. Ron believes that if she is alive, David may have “banished her to one of the church facilities,” as many of Scientology’s critics contend.
Despite everything, Ron remains a believer. “Scientology makes available common-sense ideas that people can use on their own,” he writes, “without having to . . . pledge allegiance to some cult.” In an attempt to “move forward” with his life, Ron offers this parting message to his son: “I have no interest in adding to the amount of hate and anger in the world . . . David, I forgive you.”
Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me
By Ron Miscavige
St. Martin’s, 244 pp., illustrated, $26.99Buzzy Jackson is a historian and the author of “The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life.’’ She can be reached at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.