“Trapped in the Closet,” arguably the greatest South Park episode ever, aired 11 years ago. In addition to its side-storyline involving Tom Cruise and John Travolta refusing to come out of a literal closet, the episode concisely broke down the “secret doctrine” of Scientology for a mass audience for the very first time.
The details about intergalactic overlord Xenu solving an overpopulation problem 75 million years ago seemed so typical of South Park’s penchant for the absurd that the creators felt obliged to put the words “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE” on-screen, lest viewers think Matt Stone and Trey Parker were making it all up.
After the blisteringly clever episode aired, it is rumored to have caused everyone involved a whole heap of Scientology-related problems.
Television that exposes the inner workings of Scientology is having a moment right now. HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, originally aired in 2015, is still making waves. Through a wealth of interviews with ex-members and painstaking research, the documentary made a number of startling claims about the organization and its conditions for devotees — physical and mental abuse, slave labor and enforced imprisonment in inhumane conditions, and enormous financial burdens, to name a few. Those who have left the church describe harassment, surveillance and defamatory statements made about them by the church, a policy referred to within Scientology as “fair game.”
Then, in November, A&E launched Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, a staggering series that delves even deeper into the church, uncovering a culture of paranoia, a system that actively deceives and extorts its members, the purposeful breaking up of families (under a practice known as “disconnection”), and even claims of forced abortion. (Statements of denial from the church appear at the beginning of each episode.)
In both HBO’s film and Leah Remini’s series, Scientology’s preoccupation with its celebrity members features prominently, with focus keenly trained on both John Travolta and Tom Cruise. But while Travolta is painted in Going Clear as a somewhat trapped and exploited figure, Cruise is represented as a power-hungry control freak; an egotist; a person willing to participate in the surveillance of his romantic partners; a suitor who will callously discard women who displease him; a man who enjoys all of the luxurious perks of being a higher-up in the church while ignoring the exploitation of those further down the food chain in the “Sea Org.”
For even casual observers, the wealth of evidence uncovered over the last few years has made it almost impossible to ignore the goings-on within the Church of Scientology. Reports have appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 (2010), Nightline (2015), and the UK’s respected Panorama investigative series (2007). Vanity Fair published an astonishing exposé about Tom Cruise’s Scientology-influenced romantic life in 2012. The Village Voice did an entire series in 2011 titled “The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” Gossip magazines, including US Weekly, and TV shows alike regularly speculate on the church’s untoward influence over celebrity members’ lives. There is an entire Wikipedia page and at least five prominent blogs dedicated to documenting the church’s legal problems. In addition, there are at least 10 books written by ex-Scientologists or their family members (including Ron Miscavige, the father of apparently all-powerful church leader, David Miscavige), all of which allege a great many wrongdoings within the church.
At every turn, facing down each controversy or legal challenge, the church vehemently denies all of the allegations made against it. Cruise himself has maintained a defensive position for years. As far back as 2004, Cruise appeared slightly manic in a Scientology promotional video, and in 2005, he aggressively patronized Matt Lauer when espousing the anti-psychiatry stance of the church on The Today Show (skip to 8:17 to see the outburst):
In more recent years, the church of Scientology has almost entirely quit communicating with the media, except to issue denials of any and all allegations made against it. Tom Cruise has also pulled back when it comes to talking about his religion publicly. But, even without the church’s input, the evidence keeps piling up. In 2016, it became hard to ignore the fact that this organization is, at best, philosophically problematic, and at worst, potentially guilty of several major federal crimes (including tax evasion).
With all we now know about what (allegedly) takes place in the church, how do we justify continuing to put money in Cruise’s pocket, when we know at least some of those funds are going right back into Scientology? In Cruise’s case, the exchange between the public’s wallet and his bank account is direct; the actor has a habit of eschewing a fixed payment for his movies, preferring instead to take a percentage of the box office.
Cruise made $53 million last year. According to Forbes, that made him the fifth highest-paid actor of 2016. It was an increase on the $40 million he made in 2015. In 2012, Cruise was the highest-paid actor on Forbes’ list, having made $75 million that year. Cruise’s unerring popularity is something Scientology is, and always has been, proud of. One promotional video noted that: “Tom Cruise has introduced LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] technology to over one billion people of Earth.”
As Leah Remini told Entertainment Tonight in 2015: “Being critical of Tom Cruise is being critical of Scientology itself. You are a person who is anti- the aims and goals of Scientology.”
So why hasn’t Cruise’s career been affected yet? Tom Cruise is an undoubtedly great movie star. He doesn’t really age and he has a penchant for making movies with small plots and big effects. He does death-defying stunts and runs fast and keeps his teeth white. He takes a lot of selfies on a lot of red carpets with a lot of fans. His appeal is obvious. But so is his high-ranking involvement in an organization that seems to have done a great deal of damage to a multitude of people, over an extended period of time.
Perhaps the public is willing to turn a blind eye, despite our unerring fascination with stars’ private lives, because it’s easier to not have to think about famous people’s personal choices when picking the movies we want to see. (Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and every still-successful actor who has ever been accused of assault provide evidence of this). Perhaps respecting religious freedom is so ingrained in the American psyche, few feel right about questioning Cruise’s belief system. Perhaps we just think all famous, creative people are entitled to their own special brand of quirks.
Of course it’s difficult not to gaze on in fascination as Tom Cruise hangs off the side of a moving plane. But it should be equally as hard to ignore the devastated tears of the families that feature in every episode of Remini’s A&E series. When this many people have had their lives detrimentally affected, we should be holding accountable all of the people involved in the organization responsible — even the ones we’ve been watching and enjoying on the big screen for decades.