In the course of just a few months, Tom Cruise has made an astounding public leap: He has transformed himself from one of the world's biggest movie stars into one of the oddest. It's not just his sudden romance with and engagement to actress Katie Holmes, which has not yet managed to shake the air of improbability. There is also the matter of Cruise's sudden outspokenness about, and even proselytizing for, the controversial Church of Scientology, to which he's belonged for roughly 20 years.
Regarding the romance -- who can explain love? It's a mystery, particularly in Hollywood, and we're unlikely to ever get the particulars about Cruise and Holmes. But the buzz in some Scientology circles is that Cruise may have reached one of the highest echelons of the Church of Scientology. While not a lot is known about this level, known cryptically as OT-VII, Scientology observers say that attaining it could explain Cruise's behavior in recent months.
And that behavior has been mesmerizing: from putting up Scientology tents on movie sets to blasting Brooke Shields for using antidepressants, to promoting the church's drug-treatment programs and, generally, to hectoring anyone who challenges him. On Friday's "Today" show, after gentle prodding from Matt Lauer, he scolded, "You don't know the history of psychiatry. I do." Even his romance with Holmes has had a public Scientology veneer; Holmes has announced that she is taking Scientology courses and has added a new member to her entourage: a Scientology advisor who reportedly tells everyone she's Holmes' best friend.
According to experts and the church's own literature, OT-VII ("OT" stands for Operating Thetan, "thetan" being the Scientology term for soul) is the penultimate tier in the church's spiritual hierarchy -- the exact details of which are fiercely guarded and forbidden to be discussed even among top members. It is where a Scientologist learns how to become free of the mortal confines of the body and is let into the last of the mysteries of the cosmology developed by the church's longtime leader, science fiction novelist and "Dianetics" author L. Ron Hubbard. This cosmology also famously holds that humans bear the noxious traces of an annihilated alien civilization that was brought to Earth by an intergalactic warlord millions of years ago.
Lee Anne De Vette, Cruise's publicist and sister, refused requests to comment for this article. And when asked about Cruise, Ed Parkin, vice president of cultural affairs for the Church of Scientology, said only, "We do not discuss the personal religious experiences of our members with the press." Parkin also would not confirm or deny details of the OT teachings. Responding to questions about them, he wrote: "Scientology, which means 'knowing how to know,' is a religion based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Scientology addresses people as immortal spiritual beings. It gives them tools they can apply to their lives to improve conditions."
But one Scientologist who left the church in 2003 after 30 years -- and who had reached the OT-VII level and become a member of the church's governing Sea Org -- said it was his understanding that Cruise was very near completing, if he had not already completed, the OT-VII level. The former Scientologist would speak to Salon only on the condition of anonymity.
A current Scientologist who has reached the level OT-V, and who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that considering the amount of time Cruise has been in the church, an OT-VII status seems probable. And Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta who has published articles on Scientology and Hollywood, also said that Cruise's behavior strongly suggests OT-VII.
Cruise is acting as though he "feels he's more in control over his environment and can convince more people to look into the organization," Kent said. "In the high OT levels one supposedly gains the skills to master one's universe. One is removing countless entities that have been holding people back. Cruise feels that he has freed himself from thousands of errant thetans, and he seems to be in a kind of euphoria he hasn't experienced before."
J. Gordon Melton, the author of "The Church of Scientology" and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., confirmed the details of the OT teachings. "It's basically a variation of the Gnostic myth about souls falling into matter and the encumbrances that come with that," Melton said. "In the OTs, you're finding out that you're a thetan, that you've come into bodies before. Part of what you're trying to learn is exteriorization -- how to get out of your body. You also learn that you carry a lot of encumbrances from past lives."
Melton, however, said that he did not believe public outspokenness about the church necessarily indicates a particular rank. The eight OT levels form the last and highest order in the intricate hierarchy Hubbard developed beginning in 1950, when his "Dianetics" was published. He named the hierarchy "the Bridge to Total Freedom." Scientologists can only enter OT once they've gone "Clear," meaning they have passed through the lower orders of the church and been shown that their personal inhibitions and flaws are the result of innumerable traumatic experiences built up over trillions of years of reincarnation.
A Scientologist becomes "Clear" by taking multiple courses and through copious "auditing," a process in which they are counseled and encouraged by a more advanced church member to relive past traumas, with the help of an E-Meter, a device that Scientologists claim monitors brain activity. Before they're allowed to continue on to OT, a rigorous screening process and background check are conducted, according to Melton and others. Reaching the highest OT levels usually takes from a decade to three decades, the current and former Scientologists say. Lower estimates for the total cost of this are around $30,000, but some people claim to have spent several hundred thousand dollars. The current Scientology member tells Salon he pays several thousand dollars a year for the services.
That's a small investment if you're Tom Cruise, who now demands $20 million per movie, or some of the other marquee names affiliated with the church, including actors John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, Kirstie Alley and Jason Lee, musicians Beck, Lisa Marie Presley and Chick Corea, and Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren. Celebrity Scientologists, like other Scientologists, do not publicly reveal their rank. But despite their vagueness on the subject, celebrities play a crucial role in the church's image and its marketing of itself. According to Kent, beginning in the 1960s L. Ron Hubbard issued explicit directives for the church to recruit celebrities.
"There was a whole series of policies that talked about celebrities as opinion-makers," Kent said. "He suggested to get celebrities on their way up or their way down. To get them on the way up meant, if they became famous, they might attribute their success to Scientology. On the way down meant if their careers get saved they could do the same."
Also, said S. Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, "They're looking for high-profile people to say positive things about them, because they are so eager to be considered a legitimate religion, and because of all the problems they're having abroad." Germany, for example. And academics apparently have their own appeal: Bartchy said that high-ranking Scientologists had approached him and sent him materials in an attempt to "woo" him. (When asked about this, Parkin wrote Salon: "Professor Bartchy has told us that he gets many questions from students about Scientology and that he was happy to receive the information we have provided to help him answer them. I think you are mischaracterizing what, if anything, he may have told you to put your own spin on it. Professor Bartchy has always been very cordial with the people from the Church with whom he has spoken.")
Cruise, who is 42, has been a member of the church since around the time of Hubbard's death in 1986. (His first marriage, from 1987 to 1990, was to actress Mimi Rogers, also a Scientologist. His second marriage, from 1990 to 2001, was to Nicole Kidman, who is not a Scientologist.) Until recently, however, he almost never discussed his membership publicly.
That started to change a few years ago, when Cruise co-sponsored a Scientology detoxification center near ground zero in Manhattan. Last year, he had a Scientology tent set up on the set of "War of the Worlds." He began openly boosting Narconon, the church's drug rehabilitation program. And then last December, he was presented with the Freedom Medal of Honor by David Miscavige, chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, one of the church's elite committees and, according to Melton and others, Hubbard's hand-chosen successor.
This spring, Cruise kicked things into high gear. He Zorba-ed Oprah's couch, and then he worried about his "Endless Love" costar Brooke Shields' mental health, criticizing her publicized use of antidepressants to battle postpartum depression and implying they might have caused her career to decline (Scientologists strongly oppose the use of antidepressants and other behavior-modifying drugs). He plopped a Details reporter on the back of his futuristic new motorcycle and sped her to three different Scientology facilities, where he extolled the faith -- for six hours. In an interview he and Steven Spielberg gave to the German paper Der Spiegel in April, Cruise defended Scientology, saying: "I'm a helper. For instance, I myself have helped hundreds of people get off drugs. In Scientology, we have the only successful drug rehabilitation program in the world."
Then he burst into full Tom Joad mode: "If someone wants to get off drugs, I can help them," he declared to the interviewer. "If someone wants to learn how to read, I can help them. If someone doesn't want to be a criminal anymore, I can give them tools that can better their life. You have no idea how many people want to know what Scientology is."
When he was asked by Entertainment Weekly this month why he'd suddenly become so vocal, he insisted: "What choice do I have?" Then he declared: "People are being electric-shocked. Kids are being drugged. People are dying." In the same interview he supported the Scientology claim that psychiatry is a "Nazi science" and advanced several erroneous myths, which the E.W. editors helpfully pointed out in brackets:
"Jung was an editor for the Nazi papers during World War II. [According to Aryeh Maidenbaum, the director of the New York Center for Jungian Studies, this is not true.] Look at the experimentation the Nazis did with electric shock and drugging. Look at the drug methadone. That was originally called Adolophine. It was named after Adolf Hitler. [According to the Dictionary of Drugs and Medications, among other sources, this is an urban legend.]"
Cruise may now feel free to counsel others with a rare degree of authority. But sadly, Holmes may not be able to benefit much: The church forbids its OTs, even celebrities like Cruise, to discuss what they're learning with lower members. Indeed, OTs are not allowed to discuss their secret knowledge even with each other.
Asked why he couldn't discuss the details of OT teachings with anyone, including his peers, the current Scientologist said: "It's confidential. And that's the way that Mr. Hubbard wanted it. They're not ready for it."
The church claims that it has as many as 10 million members worldwide, but critics have suggested the actual number is far less. Melton said that the number of OT-VIIs and OT-VIIIs is in the hundreds. After years of study and introspection, achieving OT is supposed to create the kind of euphoria Kent referred to.
"The OT levels improve a person's life," said the current OT-V Scientologist, who did not want to be named. "All I know is I went through it and it changed my life dramatically. There is so much 'case'" -- a Scientology term meaning, essentially, mental blockage -- "a person has. Reactivity, aberration, things that are not you. The Bridge gets rid of all that stuff. I have the ability to show love to anyone -- from presidents down to bums. I can show love for anyone because I admire that being."
OTs are also warned that any vacillation from the courses and auditing can be dangerous. "Beginning with OT-III, you're taught that if you don't follow the prescribed steps precisely, you could become very sick," said the former OT-VII member. He stressed that he was not a critic of the church but had left because of personal differences.
Adding to all that stress is a series of very heavy theological revelations that begin with OT-III. The central creation story, according to Melton, Bartchy, Kent and the former member, is this: About 75 million years ago, a nefarious intergalactic warlord called Xenu rounded up the inhabitants of numerous planets, killed them, and brought them to Earth, then set off a chain reaction of cataclysmic volcanoes (the volcano pictured on the "Dianetics" cover was Hubbard's favorite symbol for the notion of breakthrough and self-actualization), which dispersed their thetans into the atmosphere. These thetans now fester inside the bodies of all humans. They are to be located in specific body parts and summoned out.
"Part of the problem is how literally that is to be understood," Melton said. "There are those who take it quite literally and those who don't take it literally at all." Then there is the problem of the church's alleged treatment of OTs who have attempted to abandon the faith. Celebrity or not, an apostate Cruise might run into trouble.
"I doubt that Travolta or the other celebrities know what I know from people of how they're treated when they try to leave," Bartchy said. "What is probably told to the celebrities is that these are just very disgruntled people who aren't to be taken seriously."
Melton said only, "If you were a high-ranking member and simply said, 'I'm quitting, bye,' they look on you with a certain amount of animosity."
How does the church respond to such criticism? "I am aware that a small cadre of anti-religious extremists are trying to generate hostility against Scientology by disseminating lies about it," Parkin wrote in response to questions about the OT teachings and church policy. "This little group of insignificant people are the only ones in the world who are obsessed with extracting and altering out of context bits of esoteric data about Scientology and using it to create prejudice against Scientology through reporters such as yourself who buy into their agenda."
If all of this is not too much to bear for Holmes or others contemplating Scientology as a religious choice -- as it seems not to have been for Cruise -- the process, at his level anyway, may prove quite enjoyable. According to "What Is Scientology?" a book put out by Bridge Publications, the church's lucrative publishing arm, part or all of OT-VII and OT-VIII must be performed in the church's headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., or aboard the Freewinds, a ship that houses parts of the church's upper management. Happily, the weather makes up for the deprivations of sea life: The Freewinds is usually docked off the Caribbean island of Curaçao.
But should either of them decide to leave Scientology one day, Cruise and Holmes may also find themselves in a contractual bind. Scientologists are strongly encouraged to sign covenants of faith. And these aren't contracts for the uncommitted; according to Melton, Kent and the current Scientologist, the most fervent covenant -- which is common -- has a duration of 1 billion years.