London, Ontario, is a middling manufacturing town halfway between Toronto and Detroit, once known for its cigars and breweries. In a tribute to its famous namesake, London has its own Covent Garden, Piccadilly Street, and even a Thames River that forks around the modest, economically stressed downtown. The city, which sits in a humid basin, is remarked upon for its unpleasant weather. Summers are unusually hot, winters brutally cold, the springs and falls fine but fleeting. The most notable native son was the bandleader Guy Lombardo, who was honored in a local museum, until it closed for lack of visitors. London was a difficult place for an artist looking to find himself.
Paul Haggis was twenty-one years old in 1975. He was walking toward a record store in downtown London when he encountered a fast-talking, long-haired young man with piercing eyes standing on the corner of Dundas and Waterloo Streets. There was something keen and strangely adamant in his manner. His name was Jim Logan. He pressed a book into Haggis’s hands. “You have a mind,” Logan said. “This is the owner’s manual.” Then he demanded, “Give me two dollars.”
The book was Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, by L. Ron Hubbard, which was published in 1950. By the time Logan pushed it on Haggis, the book had sold more than two million copies throughout the world. Haggis opened the book and saw a page stamped with the words “Church of Scientology.”
“Take me there,” he said to Logan.
At the time, there were only a handful of Scientologists in the entire province of Ontario. By coincidence, Haggis had heard about the organization a couple of months earlier, from a friend who had called it a cult. That interested Haggis; he considered the possibility of doing a documentary ﬁlm about it. When he arrived at the church’s quarters in London, it certainly didn’t look like a cult—two young men occupying a hole- in- the- wall office above Woolworth’s ﬁve-and-dime.
As an atheist, Haggis was wary of being dragged into a formal belief system. In response to his skepticism, Logan showed him a passage by Hubbard that read: “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you and command you to believe it or else. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true. Think your own way through things, accept what is true for you, discard the rest. There is nothing unhappier than one who tries to live in a chaos of lies.” These words resonated with Haggis.
Although he didn’t realize it, Haggis was being drawn into the church through a classic, four-step “dissemination drill” that recruiters are carefully trained to follow. The first step is to make contact, as Jim Logan did with Haggis in 1975. The second step is to disarm any antagonism the individual may display toward Scientology. Once that’s done, the task is to “find the ruin”—that is, the problem most on the mind of the potential recruit. For Paul, it was a turbulent romance. The fourth step is to convince the subject that Scientology has the answer. “Once the person is aware of the ruin, you bring about an understanding that Scientology can handle the condition,” Hubbard writes. “It’s at the right moment on this step that one . . . directs him to the service that will best handle what he needs handled.” At that point, the potential recruit has officially been transformed into a Scientologist.
Paul responded to every step in an almost ideal manner. He and his girlfriend took a course together and, shortly thereafter, became Hubbard Qualified Scientologists, one of the first levels in what the church calls the Bridge to Total Freedom.
Haggis was born in 1953, the oldest of three children. His father, Ted, ran a construction company specializing in roadwork—mostly laying asphalt and pouring sidewalks, curbs, and gutters. He called his company Global, because he was serving both London and Paris— another Ontario community fifty miles to the east. As Ted was getting his business started, the family lived in a small house in the predominantly white town. The Haggises were one of the few Catholic families in a Protestant neighborhood, which led to occasional confrontations, including a schoolyard fistfight that left Paul with a broken nose.
Although he didn’t really think of himself as religious, he identified with being a minority; however, his mother, Mary, insisted on sending Paul and his two younger sisters, Kathy and Jo, to Mass every Sunday. One day, she spotted their priest driving an expensive car. “God wants me to have a Cadillac,” the priest explained. Mary responded, “Then God doesn’t want us in your church anymore.” Paul admired his mother’s stand; he knew how much her religion meant to her. After that, the family stopped going to Mass, but the children continued in Catholic schools.
Ted’s construction business prospered to the point that he was able to buy a much larger house on eighteen acres of rolling land outside of town. There were a couple of horses in the stable, a Chrysler station wagon in the garage, and giant construction vehicles parked in the yard, like grazing dinosaurs. Paul spent a lot of time alone. He could walk the mile to catch the school bus and not see anyone along the way. His chores were to clean the horse stalls and the dog runs (Ted raised spaniels for ﬁeld trials). At home, Paul made himself the center of attention—”the apple of his mother’s eye,” his father recalled—but he was mischievous and full of pranks. “He got the strap when he was five years old,” Ted said.
When Paul was about thirteen, he was taken to say farewell to his grandfather on his deathbed. The old man had been a janitor in a bowling alley, having fled England because of some mysterious scandal. He seemed to recognize a similar dangerous quality in Paul. His parting words to him were, “I’ve wasted my life. Don’t waste yours.”
In high school, Paul began steering toward trouble. His worried parents sent him to Ridley College, a boarding school in St. Catharines, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, where he was required to be a part of the cadet corps of the Royal Canadian Army. He despised marching or any regulated behavior, and soon began skipping the compulsory drills. He would sit in his room reading Ramparts, the radical magazine that chronicled the social revolutions then unfolding in America, where he longed to be. He was constantly getting punished for his infractions, until he taught himself to pick locks; then he could sneak into the prefect’s office and mark off his demerits. The experience sharpened an incipient talent for subversion.
After a year of this, his parents transferred him to a progressive boys’ school, called Muskoka Lakes College, in northern Ontario, where there was very little system to subvert. Although it was called a college, it was basically a preparatory school. Students were encouraged to study whatever they wanted. Paul discovered a mentor in his art teacher, Max Allen, who was gay and politically radical. Allen produced a show for the Canadian Broadcasting Company called As It Happens. In 1973, while the Watergate hearings were going on in Washington, DC, Allen let Paul sit beside him in his cubicle at CBC while he edited John Dean’s testimony for broadcast. Later, Allen opened a small theater in Toronto to show movies that had been banned under Ontario’s draconian censorship laws, and Paul volunteered at the box office. They showed Ken Russell’s The Devils and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. In Ted’s mind, his son was working in a porno theater. “I just shut my eyes,” Ted said.
Paul left school after he was caught forging a check. He attended art school brieﬂy, and took some ﬁlm classes at a community college, but he dropped out of that as well. He grew his curly blond hair to his shoulders. He began working in construction full-time for Ted, but he was drifting toward a precipice. In the 1970s, London acquired the nickname “Speed City,” because of the methamphetamine labs that sprang up to serve its blossoming underworld. Hard drugs were easy to obtain. Two of Haggis’s friends died from overdoses, and he had a gun pointed in his face a couple of times. “I was a bad kid,” he admitted. “I didn’t kill anybody. Not that I didn’t try.”
He also acted as a stage manager in the ninety- nine-seat theater his father created in an abandoned church for one of his stagestruck daughters. On Saturday nights, Paul would strike the set of whatever show was under way and put up a movie screen. In that way he introduced himself and the small community of ﬁlm buffs in London to the works of Bergman, Hitchcock, and the French New Wave. He was so affected by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow- Up that in 1974 he decided to become a fashion photographer in England, like the hero of that movie. That lasted less than a year, but when he returned he still carried a Leica over his shoulder.
Back in London, Ontario, he fell in love with a nursing student named Diane Gettas. They began sharing a one-bedroom apartment filled with Paul’s books on ﬁlm. He thought of himself then as “a loner and an artist and an iconoclast.” His grades were too poor to get into college. He could see that he was going nowhere. He was ready to change, but he wasn’t sure how.
Such was Paul Haggis’s state of mind when he joined the Church of Scientology.
Like every scientologist, when Haggis entered the church, he took his first steps into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard. He read about Hubbard’s adventurous life: how he wandered the world, led dangerous expeditions, and healed himself of crippling war injuries through the techniques that he developed into Dianetics. He was not a prophet, like Mohammed, or divine, like Jesus. He had not been visited by an angel bearing tablets of revelation, like Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Scientologists believe that Hubbard discovered the existential truths that form their doctrine through extensive research—in that way, it is “science.”
The apparent rationalism appealed to Haggis. He had long since walked away from the religion of his upbringing, but he was still looking for a way to express his idealism. It was important to him that Scientology didn’t demand belief in a god. But the figure of L. Ron Hubbard did hover over the religion in suggestive ways. He wasn’t worshipped, exactly, but his visage and name were everywhere, like the absolute ruler of a small kingdom.
There seemed to be two Hubbards within the church: the godlike authority whose every word was regarded as scripture, and the avuncular figure that Haggis saw on the training videos, who came across as wry and self-deprecating. Those were qualities that Haggis shared to a marked degree, and they inspired trust in the man he had come to accept as his spiritual guide. Still, Haggis felt a little stranded by the lack of irony among his fellow Scientologists. Their inability to laugh at themselves seemed at odds with the character of Hubbard himself. He didn’t seem self-important or pious; he was like the dashing, wisecracking hero of a B movie who had seen everything and somehow had it all figured out. When Haggis experienced doubts about the religion, he reflected on the 16 mm films of Hubbard’s lectures from the 1950s and 1960s, which were part of the church’s indoctrination process. Hubbard was always chuckling to himself, marveling over some random observation that had just occurred to him, with a little wink to the audience suggesting that they not take him too seriously. He would just open his mouth and a mob of new thoughts would burst forth, elbowing each other in the race to make themselves known to the world. They were often trivial and disjointed but also full of obscure, learned references and charged with a sense of originality and purpose. “You walked in one day and you said, ‘I’m a seneschal,’ “ Hubbard observed in a characteristic aside:
“And this knight with eight-inch spurs, standing there—humph— and say, ‘I’m supposed to open the doors to this castle, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m a very trusted retainer’. . . He’s insisting he’s the seneschal but nobody will pay him his wages, and so forth. . . . He was somebody before he became the seneschal. Now, as a seneschal, he became nobody—until he finally went out and got a begging pan on the highway and began to hold it out for fish and chips as people came along, you know. . . . Now he says, ‘I am something, I am a beggar,’ but that’s still something. Then the New York state police come along, or somebody, and they say to him—I’m a little mixed up in my periods here, but they say to him—‘Do you realize you cannot beg upon the public road without license Number 603-F?’ . . . So he starves to death and kicks the bucket and there he lies. . . . Now he’s somebody, he’s a corpse, but he’s not dead, he’s merely a corpse. . . . Got the idea? But he goes through sequences of becoming nobody, somebody, nobody, somebody, nobody, somebody, nobody, not necessarily on a dwindling spiral. Some people get up to the point of being a happy man. You know the old story of a happy man—I won’t tell it—he didn’t have a shirt. . . ."
Just as this fuzzy parable begins to ramble into incoherence, Hubbard comes to the point, which is that a being is not his occupation or even the body he presently inhabits. The central insight of Scientology is that the being is eternal, what Hubbard terms a “thetan.” “This chap, in other words, was somebody until he began to identify his beingness with a thing. . . . None of these beingnesses are the person. The person is the thetan.”
“He had this amazing buoyancy,” Haggis recalled. “He had a deadpan sense of 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.’ “
The zealotry that empowered so many members of the church came from the belief that they were the vanguard of the struggle to save humanity. “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology,” Hubbard writes. Those breathless aims drew young idealists, like Haggis, to the church’s banner.
To advance such lofty goals, Hubbard developed a “technology” to attain spiritual freedom and discover oneself as an immortal being. “Scientology works 100 percent of the time when it is properly applied to a person who sincerely desires to improve his life,” a church publication declares. This guarantee rests on the assumption that through rigorous research, Hubbard had uncovered a perfect understanding of human nature. One must not stray from the path he has laid down or question his methods. Scientology is exact. Scientology is certain. Step by step one can ascend toward clarity and power, becoming more oneself—but, paradoxically, also more like Hubbard. Scientology is the geography of his mind. Perhaps no individual in history has taken such copious internal soundings and described with so much logic and minute detail the inner workings of his own mentality. The method Hubbard put forward created a road map toward his own ideal self. Hubbard’s habits, his imagination, his goals and wishes—his character, in other words—became both the basis and the destination of Scientology.
Secretly, Haggis didn’t really respect Hubbard as a writer. He hadn’t been able to get through Dianetics, for instance. He read about thirty pages, then put it down. Much of the Scientology coursework, however, gave him a feeling of accomplishment. In 1976, he traveled to Los Angeles, the center of the Scientology universe, checking in at the old Château Élysée, on Franklin Avenue. Clark Gable and Katharine Hepburn had once stayed there, along with many other stars, but when Haggis arrived it was a run-down church retreat called the Manor Hotel. (It has since been spectacularly renovated and turned into Scientology’s premier Celebrity Centre.) He had a little apartment with a kitchen where he could write.
There were about 30,000 Scientologists in America at the time. Most of them were white, urban, and middle class; they were predominantly in their twenties, and many of them, especially in Los Angeles, were involved in graphic or performing arts. In other words, they were a lot like Paul Haggis. He immediately became a part of a community in a city that can otherwise be quite isolating. For the first time in his life, he experienced a feeling of kinship and camaraderie with people who had a lot in common—”all these atheists looking for something to believe in, and all these wanderers looking for a club to join.”
In 1977, Haggis returned to Canada to continue working for his father, who could see that his son was struggling. Ted Haggis asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Haggis said he wanted to be a writer. His father said, “Well, there are only two places to do that, New York and Los Angeles. Pick one, and I’ll keep you on the payroll for a year.” Paul chose LA because it was the heart of the ﬁ lm world. Soon after this conversation with his father, Haggis and Diane Gettas got married. Two months later, they loaded up his brown Ranchero and drove to Los Angeles, moving into an apartment with Diane’s brother, Gregg, and three other people. Paul got a job moving furniture. On the weekends he took photographs for yearbooks. At night he wrote scripts on spec at a secondhand drafting table. The following year, Diane gave birth to their first child, Alissa.