William Yenner is an engineer by training and a seeker by nature. He has studied meditation in India, lived in a Buddhist retreat center, and spent time in a commune. In this contribution specifically written for Integral World he reflects on the publication of his book American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing-former students of Andrew Cohen speak out and its reception so far. See also his website www.americanguru.net for excerpts, comments, news and reviews.
In his recent New Yorker profile of the Church of Scientology (February 7, 2011), Lawrence Wright highlights a type of social pathology that, far from being confined to Scientologists, is a ubiquitous feature of many contemporary so-called “religious” or “spiritual” organizations. Yet in public discourse about the relative merits of any particular such group, there seems to be a characteristic obliviousness to the presence of this pathology, and it seems to be difficult for people to perceive and accept how pervasive and formulaic this type of pathology actually is. Whether in the interest of general “fairness,” or of protecting an emotional investment in a chosen spiritual ideology, people seem to be inclined to extend some measure of legitimacy to an established organization no matter how perverse its internal dynamics are known or rumored to be—in spite of the fact that these dynamics often do represent a total perversion of the overt ideology of the organization in question.
As a result, the phenomenon of cultic abuse and manipulation continues to be examined on a case-by-case basis, while the isolation and insularity of such groups serves to protect them against a recognition of their underlying commonalities. Such a recognition does not constitute undue generalization or indiscriminate persecution, nor does it undermine the foundational principle of religious freedom that such organizations often hide behind.
Used judiciously as a tool for investigation, evaluation and discernment, a clearer understanding of this form of social pathology would enable cult members and the general public to recognize organizations that receive undeserved preferential treatment based on the false assumption that they exist to do good, and tax-exempt status while they beat and rob people—protesting all the while that they are being persecuted by “unenlightened” critics, “disgruntled” former members and “witch-hunting” government agencies. Without such information, we will continue to be surprised each time another series of ugly incidents is exposed and denied. Though this is a phenomenon endemic to groups that use mystical traditions and founding myths to justify their authority over individual members, each time they produce results consistent with their authoritarian blueprints there is public outrage—AFTER a lot of people have gotten hurt and their bizarre ordeals have become the object of gawking and controversy.
American Guru, my book about the organization EnlightenNext and its founder Andrew Cohen, tracks the history and development of this phenomenon in yet another such “idealistic” group. To demonstrate how much EnlightenNext has in common with the Church of Scientology, I've listed below several striking parallels between Scientology as documented by Wright and EnlightenNext as documented in American Guru. Other than the fact that Scientology has a higher profile and more substantial assets and membership, close comparison reveals little substantial difference between them in terms of the effects of the authoritarian dynamic described above.
The Mind and Strategy of the Leader
Paul Haggis says. “[Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard] had a deadpan humor and this sense of himself that seemed to say, 'Yes, I am fully aware that I might be mad, but I also might be on to something.' ”
—Lawrence Wright, New Yorker profile of the Church of Scientology
“Either I'm crazy…or there's something so pure, so absolutely good about me that brings out the devil in people who get close to me. And I can't help it, but my function is to purify everyone around me from ego.”
—Andrew Cohen as quoted on WhatEnlightenment.net, January 11, 2006
In August, 2006, a notice was posted at the Celebrity Centre declaring [a church member's] parents Suppressive Persons, saying that they had associated with “squirrels,” which in Scientology refers to people who have dropped out of the church but continue to practice unauthorized auditing.
Cohen has also invented a term for the farflung community of his former followers: the “shadow sangha.”
—American Guru, pg 64
The church characterizes Scobee, Rinder, Rathbun, Hawkins, De Vocht, Hines, and other defectors I spoke with as “discredited individuals,” who were demoted for incompetence or expelled for corruption; the defectors' accounts are consistent only because they have “banded together to advance and support each other's false 'stories.' ”
“As harsh as it may sound to some,” Cohen writes, “the simple truth is that my most virulent critics are almost all former students who failed miserably.”
—Andrew Cohen, A Declaration of Integrity, October 2006.
Most important, Paul Haggis wasn't an obscure dissident; he was a celebrity, and the church, from its inception, has depended on celebrities to lend it prestige.
And what of Cohen's celebrity endorsers—Genpo Roshi, Ken Wilber, Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra, Bernie Glassman, to name only a few—who offer their implicit support by agreeing to participate in his forums? To what extent have they considered the possibility that the extensive allegations against Cohen exist for valid reasons—that where there is smoke there is every likelihood of fire? Are they poor judges of character? Are they as vulnerable to Cohen's manipulations as anyone else? Are they swayed by Cohen's humble-seeming profession of the Bodhisattva vow “to enlighten the world”?
—AG, pg 143
“To see you lie so easily, I am afraid I had to ask myself: what else are you lying about?”
—LW, quoting Paul Haggis' letter of resignation from the Church of Scientology
Over my years of service to [EnlightenNext] I witnessed the slow devolution of Andrew Cohen's “mission” first to spin, then to lies, and then to bigger and more elaborate lies. As strange as it sounds, my former teacher takes pride in (among other things) his ability to lie to and manipulate others. His community consists of concentric circles, each knowing only so much and not privy to what goes on in the ones above.
—AG, pg 8
Tom De Vocht, a defector who had been a manager at the Clearwater spiritual center, told the paper that he, too, had been beaten by [Scientology leader David] Miscavige; he said that from 2003 to 2005 he had witnessed Miscavige striking other staff members as many as a hundred times. Rathbun, Rinder, and De Vocht all admitted that they had engaged in physical violence themselves. “It had become the accepted way of doing things,” Rinder said. Amy Scobee said that nobody challenged the abuse because people were terrified of Miscavige. Their greatest fear was expulsion: “You don't have any money. You don't have job experience. You don't have anything. And he could put you on the streets and ruin you.”
Cohen's “acts of outrageous integrity” included disciplinary face slapping—usually in response to a student's performance of some task failing to measure up to his expectations—in which it was difficult to discern any particular “lesson” other than “Shape up!” This practice began soon after our arrival at Foxhollow. In some cases, Andrew would direct one student to slap another; in others, he administered the slaps himself. I myself was slapped on two occasions, once by a woman and once by another man.
—AG, pg 31
Another female student who had displeased Andrew and, after leaving the community, had returned to help out on a weekend painting project, was summoned to another basement room. There she was met by four female students who, having guided her onto a plastic sheet on the floor, each poured a bucket of paint over her head as a “message of gratitude” from Andrew. She left the property traumatized and fell ill in subsequent days (during which she was harassed by phone calls from another student who, at Cohen's instigation, repeatedly called her a “coward”) and never again returned to Foxhollow.
—AG, pg 33
Next, we were instructed to call Stan back to Andrew's residence, where his wife Alka had been told not to “hold back” and to “really go for it with Stan.” I was just outside the house, and I could hear her screaming at Stan and punching him. It was a chilling experience to listen to him crying and moaning his apologies as Alka beat him while screaming loudly, “How dare you betray Andrew? How dare you?” Afterward, Andrew told me proudly, “Alka really went for it with Stan!”
—AG, pg 34
Moreover, Scientologists are taught to handle internal conflicts within the church's own justice system. Hawkins told me that if a Sea Org member sought outside help he would be punished, either by being declared a Suppressive Person or by being sent off to do manual labor, as Hawkins was made to do after Miscavige beat him.
At one point, Stan wrote to Andrew, saying that he would do anything to be allowed to come back…. In response to Stan's desperate letter, Andrew had him come to a remote part of Foxhollow with instructions to start digging a deep 6 x 8-foot trench in the woods using only a shovel. At that time Andrew was into making videos of students who weren't “doing well” in an effort to capture what he called “the smile of the ego.” (This is a whole story in itself; Andrew was convinced that when someone is under pressure to speak about what they're doing wrong, a “smile” emerges like that of “the devil himself.”) Andrew had me drive a golf cart carrying him, his dog and one of the EnlightenNext videographers…to the site of the huge trench where we found Stan, standing about five feet below us, hunched over his shovel and drenched in sweat. He seemed startled to actually see his teacher after such a long period of excommunication. As he paused from his digging, Stan looked up at Andrew with an expression of reverence and said hello—but he looked like a broken man, not at all the person I knew.
It was a sad picture, the more horrifying because Andrew just stood there looking down at him, holding his little dog in his arms and telling us coldly, “There's the devil smiling at me,” and instructing [the videographer] to get the camera rolling. I remember him saying, “Look how cut off he is, happy to be down there digging. There's no love in his eyes.” Yet it was Andrew who seemed bereft of any love, compassion or humanity. In my mind—though now I see it differently—I still actually believed he was trying to help Stan.
—AG, passage by a former student, pg 35
The church claims that such stories are false: “There is not, and never has been, any place of 'confinement' . . . nor is there anything in Church policy that would allow such confinement.” According to Rathbun, Miscavige came to the Hole one evening and announced that everyone was going to play musical chairs. Only the last person standing would be allowed to stay on the base. He declared that people whose spouses “were not participants would have their marriages terminated.” The St. Petersburg Times noted that Miscavige played Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a boom box as the church leaders fought over the chairs, punching each other and, in one case, ripping a chair apart.
Tom De Vocht, one of the participants, says that the event lasted until four in the morning: “It got more and more physical as the number of chairs went down.” Many of the participants had long been cut off from their families. They had no money, no credit cards, no telephones. According to De Vocht, many lacked a driver's license or a passport. Few had any savings or employment prospects. As people fell out of the game, Miscavige had airplane reservations made for them. He said that buses were going to be leaving at six in the morning. The powerlessness of everyone else in the room was nakedly clear.
Some years ago at Foxhollow, a student named Jeff, a very good writer, was having a great deal of trouble with a writing project he had been assigned to do. He was supposed to write an introduction to a book Andrew was publishing, but he was having no success. Feeling terrible guilt about this, he wrote in a desperate letter to Andrew, “If I don't come through, I will cut my finger off.” Andrew seemed to like this idea. When Jeff still did not succeed at his writing, Andrew called for Mikaela, [who was a] physician, to come see him…. Andrew told Mikaela to go to see Jeff, and to bring her medical kit. She was instructed to tell Jeff that Andrew was taking him up on his offer to sacrifice a finger. She should take out her scalpel, her mask, her gloves, a sponge—everything she would need for such an operation—and lay them all out. She was told to carry through the charade up to the very last minute, and then stop. When Mikaela visited Jeff, he had barely slept in about a week. He was in a desperate state…. Mikaela [later] confirmed…that she had followed Andrew's instructions precisely. Jeff was severely and obviously shaken by the incident. He left Andrew and Foxhollow a few weeks later.
—AG, pg 35
[I]n June, 2006, while Miscavige was away from the Gold Base, his wife, Shelly, filled several job vacancies without her husband's permission. Soon afterward, she disappeared. Her current status is unknown. [Scientology Spokesman] Tommy Davis told me, “I definitely know where she is,” but he won't disclose where that is.
Subjected to such harsh discipline, people who were strong leaders in Andrew's community often became beaten down, weakened and humiliated. (This was the condition I ultimately left in as well.) As for Stan, shortly after the beating by Alka, [Andrew] demoted him and then kicked him out of the community. Stan stayed around for more than a year, living a strange existence on the fringes of [EnlightenNext ashram] Foxhollow and working as an orderly at a local hospital, occasionally sending flowers and apologies to Andrew—who during this period had me and others call Stan on the phone to “mess with his mind.” Listening to Stan on his speakerphone, Andrew would coach us on what to say or laugh silently, giving thumbsup signs as all this was going on.
—AG, pg 34
In 1985, with [Scientology founder L. Ron] Hubbard in seclusion, the church faced two of its most difficult court challenges. In Los Angeles, a former Sea Org member, Lawrence Wollersheim, sought twenty-five million dollars for “infliction of emotional injury.” He claimed that he had been kept for eighteen hours a day in the hold of a ship docked in Long Beach, and deprived of adequate sleep and food.
One such incident involved a student (Mikaela) who was responsible for the marketing of Andrew's publications and who had fallen out of favor by reminding him that something he had criticized her for doing had been his idea in the first place. He decried her as evil and ordered that the walls, floor and ceiling of her office (which had been relocated to an unfinished basement room) be painted red to signify the spilled blood of her guru. She was ordered to spend hours there contemplating the implications of her transgression, with the additional aid of a large cartoon on the wall depicting her as a vampire and the word “traitor” written in large letters next to it.
—AG, pg 32
[FBI Agents] Whitehill and Venegas [who were investigating abuse within Scientology,] worked on a special task force devoted to human trafficking. The laws regarding trafficking were built largely around forced prostitution, but they also pertain to slave labor. Under federal law, slavery is defined, in part, by the use of coercion, torture, starvation, imprisonment, threats, and psychological abuse. The California penal code lists several indicators that someone may be a victim of human trafficking: signs of trauma or fatigue; being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures that prevent communication with others; working in one place without the freedom to move about; owing a debt to one's employer; and not having control over identification documents. Those conditions echo the testimony of many former Sea Org members who lived at the Gold Base.
Why did I stay? Why did I choose this? After four years in the community, I had cut myself off from friends, family and work possibilities. I was broke. I doubted myself, and I was in a mild stupor most of the time from lack of sleep. I didn't know how to fathom life outside of Andrew's community. Eventually, I began to receive cruel and nasty messages from Andrew, and it was not long before I was demoted. Andrew started the practice at this time of buying one's way back into the formal student community. I did not have the $2000 required to do this.
—AG, an account by a former student, pg 75
He estimates that the [Scientology] coursework alone now costs nearly three hundred thousand dollars, and, with the additional auditing and contributions expected of upper-level members, the cumulative cost of the coursework may exceed half a million dollars. (The church says that there are no fixed fees, adding, “Donations requested for 'courses' at Church of Scientology begin at $50 and could never possibly reach the amount suggested.”)
But however Andrew Cohen may justify it to himself and his Board of Directors, what I witnessed, and what others have also reported, are clear indications of his recognition that he was going to have to venture beyond a purely voluntary basis for the collection of donations if his organization was to thrive. And if there had ever been any doubt prior to the community's relocation to Foxhollow, there was none thereafter: Money, not spirit, was the new coin of the realm. Beyond any concerns as mundane as operating overhead, money now became a key component of the spiritual path for Andrew's students. Just as the Catholic Church had once sold “indulgences” to sinners seeking absolution, so Andrew now began attaching price tag to his forgiveness for perceived wrongs.
—AG, pg 42
Paul Haggis recalls that the demands for donations never seemed to stop. “They used friends and any kind of pressure they could apply,” he says. “I gave them money just to keep them from calling and hounding me.”
I was struggling to prove to you that I cared enough, and so took the course that had by then become the prescribed means of getting out of hot water with you, showing remorse and proving how much one cared—offering you money. In desperation I wrote you a check for $3,000…. I remember distinctly when you received my offer, you stormed into my room, angrily throwing the check to the floor and shouting at me dramatically, “Do you think you can buy me off for a lousy three grand?” I was flabbergasted. Could it be that there was an amount that I was expected to give that would show the necessary amount of intention and resolve to change? The right amount of care for you? I remembered a time when buying you flowers was a symbol for this; but times had changed, and now the currency of forgiveness and intention apparently was cash.
—AG, a student's letter to Cohen, pg 44
Ordinarily, when a Scientologist does something wrong, especially something that might damage the image of the organization, he has to make amends, often in the form of a substantial contribution.
EnlightenNext also denies—contrary to the facts—that it was ever customary for Andrew Cohen's students to buy him valuable gifts, which in fact was common practice from the early days of the community, and may well continue as such to this day. During my tenure there, it was quite common for students to buy Andrew expensive gifts on almost any occasion, and especially common as a gesture of apology after having in some manner earned his disapproval.
—AG, pg 41
I had been a leader in Andrew's community when, suddenly, I was exiled from Foxhollow. My isolation, which alternated for some time with “contact” in the form of vicious verbal attacks from other students, took such a severe toll on my mental state that I felt that I might break down completely. In desperation, I offered everything I had to Andrew: an inheritance of $80,000 that I had recently received following my father's death. As soon as I'd conveyed this offer to Andrew's office, I regretted having done so, and when no response was forthcoming I was silently relieved. A while later, however, I received a call instructing me to send the money.
—AG, pg 48
Former Sea Org members report that Miscavige receives elaborate birthday and Christmas gifts from Scientology groups around the world. One year, he was given a Vyrus 985 C3 4V, a motorcycle with a retail price of seventy thousand dollars. “These gifts are tokens of love and respect for Mr. Miscavige,” Davis informed me.
The student body as a whole purchased a new Volvo for Andrew in 1996, although he already had the use of a perfectly serviceable Honda Accord, and in 1998, on the occasion of my tenth anniversary as his student, I gave him a gift of $10,000 cash—which seemed to me at the time a perfectly appropriate gesture of gratitude to my spiritual teacher.
—AG, pg 41
The settlement prohibited Armstrong from talking about Scientology…”
When the paperwork for the return of the donation arrived, however, I saw that there was a string attached: a five-year gag order restricting me from making public statements about Andrew, his teachings or his community. The order seemed to contradict everything that Andrew had ever taught, but I signed the papers and took my donation back.
—AG, pg 121
The … question is absolutely untrue. There has never been a “gag order” or for that matter any other court order issued that was part of any arrangement with any student of EnlightenNext. The question implies that there was some kind of pressure on an individual that resulted in the necessity of some kind of order being issued by judge or jury but that has never been the case.
—AG, EnlightenNext spokeswoman denying the existence of the gag order, pg 128
“The thing that was most troubling to Paul was that I literally had to escape,” Rathbun told me. (A few nights after the musical-chairs incident, he got on his motorcycle and waited until a gate was opened for someone else; he sped out and didn't stop for thirty miles.) Paul Haggis called several other former Scientologists he knew well. One of them said that he had escaped from the Gold Base by driving his car—an Alfa Romeo convertible that Paul Haggis had sold him—through a wooden fence. The defector said that he had scars on his forehead from the incident. Still others had been expelled or declared Suppressive Persons. Paul Haggis asked himself, “What kind of organization are we involved in where people just disappear?”
I learned that a colleague of mine had fled the London [EnlightenNext] community and was in Rotterdam. Because of the atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Andrew's communities, students who wanted to leave often chose to do so surreptitiously during the night. My colleague had done so despite having been threatened with physical harm by another student, a martial arts specialist, should he attempt such an escape.
—AG, pg 52
In February, 2010, he spoke to [FBI agent] 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.)
July of 2000 I left the community—snuck out and ran away. I rented a car and just started driving, in a pretty distraught state. I ended up in New Orleans. Andrew tracked me down (that's a long story in itself) and I was persuaded to return to Massachusetts.
—AG, an account by a former student, pg 46
And asked by the journalist John Horgan to explain his assertion that his students should never leave him, Andrew Cohen offers this equally striking rationale for total, uncritical surrender: “Let's say the Buddha was alive today. Let's say someone that great, that enlightened, that pure, that perfect, with such a great teaching, was still alive. I mean, could someone be too attached to someone like that? The more attached you get to a person like that, the more free, literally, you become”—adding, however, that “anybody who wants to be free is going to have to bend his knee…. However that happens, it doesn't really matter, as long as it happens.”
—AG, pg 146
One by one, they had disappeared from Scientology, and it had never occurred to Paul Haggis to ask where they had gone.
The subject of leaving is not discussed openly, unless the direction of the conversation is the condemnation of one who has left. As a result, many followers are so afraid to leave that they do so only under cover of darkness, like refugees fearing reprisal; and in that act of leaving, the individual is entirely alone, foregoing all previous companionship and support. Within the community, a departure is treated like a death in the family that is not to be discussed. It is as though the person never existed. Such was the case with a wonderful and much-loved man, Jerry Paup, who left Andrew's community in the 1990s. A few years after having left, Jerry died; some of his old friends in the community did not learn of his passing until years later.
—AG, pg 64
 The Apostate, Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology.by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, Feb 14th, 2011.
 See Len Oakes, Prophetic Charisma, The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, Siracuse University Press, 1997.