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TERRY GROSS, Host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Screenwriter and director Paul Haggis left the Church of Scientology in 2009 after writing an angry letter about the church to its spokesperson. Haggis had been a member of the church for nearly 35 years.

He's spoken publicly about his departure for the first time, to journalist Lawrence Wright. In the current edition of the New Yorker, Wright profiles Haggis and investigates the Church of Scientology through interviews with other former members of the church and through church documents and military documents about its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

W: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology." Haggis wrote the screenplay for the film "Million Dollar Baby." He wrote and directed "Crash." Each of those movies won an Oscar for best picture.

Lawrence Wright is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower," about the history of al-Qaida. The book includes a history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which we'll talk about a little later.

Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

M: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So your story revolves around Paul Haggis. Who approached who? Did you approach him, or did he approach you?

M: No, I approached him. I began - when he dropped out of Scientology, I was very intrigued because I was an admirer of his work. I thought "Crash" especially was a wonderful movie. And I got his business manager's telephone number and called him and said I would like to write an article, a profile of Paul, apropos of his decision to leave the Church of Scientology. And the response was: Are you kidding? We would never do that. And...

GROSS: Why not?

M: Well, you know, it's a subject that's very thorny and controversial. The business manager's opinion was that Paul didn't need that kind of attention.

A: Your business manager says this is not the right time, but if there's ever a time when you'd like to tell the story of your, as I said, intellectual and spiritual development, I'd love to be the one to do that.

A: Very flattered. Let's have lunch on Tuesday. And so we did. And during the course of the lunch, I said: Of course, the story is occasioned by your decision to leave the church.

And his eyes got a little wide, but only later, in another interview, did he admit that it had never occurred to him that we were going to talk about Scientology. He was just so flattered that the New Yorker had taken an interest in him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: So it was just a lucky misunderstanding on my part.

GROSS: So how did he agree to talk with you about Scientology?

M: Well, I was really surprised how candid and open he was. You know, although from the beginning, he was a little guarded when we started. And he had never talked about it in public, and actually with very few of his friends, as well.

And many of the questions that I was asking over the course of the nearly 10 months that it took to do this story, he had never really asked himself. So there was a process of discovery for him, as well, I believe, in the course of the writing of this article.

GROSS: Why were you interested in talking to a former Scientologist? Why were you interested in Scientology?

M: Well, Terry, I've always been intrigued by why people believe one thing over another. The U.S. is such an unusual place in the world, because you can believe anything you want. There's a lot of countries in the world where that's not true.

B: Why would you believe this over something else?

And in the course of my career, I've written about the Amish. I've written about Mormons, Southern Baptists, you know, much about Islam. So I've spent a lot of time interviewing people about their beliefs, and Scientology has always been intriguing to me because it's such a stigmatized religion.

And why people would be drawn to something that has so many negative connotations around it, I thought there must be something that this religion offers them, and that's what I wanted to find out.

GROSS: Do you feel like you got an answer to that?

M: Yeah. I found that especially, in talking to Paul, in the early days of his association with Scientology, he felt that it helped him with his relationship. It helped him with his career, gave him a sense of how interpersonal relations work.

He was not so infatuated with the theology that he later got into. But in the first part of his association, he felt that he was very rewarded by his involvement in Scientology.

GROSS: Well, let's get to why Paul Haggis not only left Scientology, but he left very angry with Scientology. He wrote a very angry letter to Tommy Davis, who's Scientology's spokesperson. What are some of the things Paul Haggis criticized about Scientology in that letter of departure?

M: To begin with, his upset with the church had to do with Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative that would forbid gay marriage. Two of Paul's three daughters are gay, and he - one of the churches in Scientology in San Diego had affiliated with the forces that were proposing this proposition. They had signed their names to this proposition, the supporters.

And when that came to Paul's attention, he wrote a letter to Tommy asking the church to formally renounce that affiliation with the supporters of Proposition 8 and actually take a stand against it. He thought that the church, having made that mistake, should be more forthright and stand against it.

And Davis responded that the church didn't engage in those kinds of political activities. It would stir up more trouble if he renounced it, and he thought that if we could just simply issue a statement saying that it had been a mistake, that that would leave it - that he would leave it there.

But that was not satisfactory to Haggis, and he began an investigation of Scientology, something that he had not done in his nearly 35 years as being a Scientologist. He had never really looked at what people said about Scientology. And, in fact, the church discourages that kind of independent inquiry.

GROSS: There was a meeting that you refer to in your article about Scientology, where people from the New Yorker staff met with representatives from Scientology. What was this meeting about?

M: That was one of the most amazing days of my life. I had been out to Los Angeles to interview Tommy Davis over the Memorial Day weekend. And when he finally did come to meet with me, he said that he had decided not to talk to me.

So - but I asked him if he would agree at least to, you know, to respond to our fact-checking queries about the church. And he agreed to that. And over a period of time, we sent them 971 fact-checking queries, which alarmed them.

And so in September, Tommy Davis and four Scientology lawyers arrive in New York with 47 volumes of supporting material, these binders that stretch seven linear feet. And we met in a conference room at 10 in the morning with me and two of the checkers and the head of our checking department and our lawyer and my editor and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, who had just come in to welcome everyone, but took a seat and didn't get up till 6 that evening.

The whole day was quite fascinating because it was finally my opportunity to interview Tommy Davis and learn about the Church of Scientology, and it was a revelatory meeting in many respects. And the material that he was able to produce in these binders has been very useful to us.

GROSS: What did you ask him? What's one of your most interesting questions and his responses?

M: Well, I think probably the most critical response had to do with the founder of the church, L. Ron Hubbard. In some of the material that I had been reading and in some of my interviews, there was a big question about Hubbard's - his war record and his medical history.

He had said that at the end of World War II, he was blind and a hopeless cripple, and that he had healed himself through these measures that later became the basis of "Dianetics," which is the book that he wrote in 1950, out of which Scientology arises.

A: Of course, if it's true that Hubbard, Mr. Hubbard was never injured during the war, then he never did heal himself using "Dianetics" principles, then "Dianetics" is based on a lie, and then Scientology is based on a lie. The truth is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.

And the way he phrased that, that everything depended on whether Hubbard had sustained these injuries and had healed himself, was like a wager on the table.

And so we pressed him for evidence that there had been such injuries and that he had been the war hero that he described. And eventually, Davis sent us what is called a notice of separation. It's essentially discharge papers from World War II, which along with some photographs of all of these medals that he had won, a Purple Heart with a palm, some other commendations from different countries, and so on.

At the same time, we finally gained access to Hubbard's entire World War II records, and there was no evidence that he had ever been wounded in battle or distinguished himself in any way during the war. So we also found another notice of separation which was strikingly different from the one that the church had provided.

GROSS: So did you show those documents to Tommy Davis, the Scientology spokesperson?

M: One of the most interesting moments in the meeting is when I asked Tommy Davis to square the records that we had with the church's own records of Mr. Hubbard's war records. And he said: Well, we the church were also puzzled about it until we found an expert who clarified all this.

And he said the man who did that was Mr. X in Oliver Stone's movie "JFK," who in real life was a man named Fletcher Prouty, who had been involved in inner circles of the American Defense Department.

And Prouty, who also had worked for the church, had told them that Hubbard had actually been an intelligence agent, and the records were, as he said, sheep-dipped. It's apparently a term of art in intelligence that maintains that there were two sets of records.

And we obtained all of Mr. Hubbard's military records, and there was no second set of records. There was no evidence that he had ever acted as an intelligence agent during the war in any serious capacity, and that he had never been wounded.

GROSS: So is this where we stand now, that Scientology has a set of L. Ron Hubbard's military records that say one thing, you have a set that says another, and you believe the records you have, and they believe the records they have? Is that where we are?

M: Well, it's more than that, Terry. The notice of separation they gave us was signed by an individual named Howard Thompson, a lieutenant commander who apparently never existed. They gave us a photograph of the medals that Mr. Hubbard supposedly had won. Two of them weren't even commissioned until after he left active service. On there, it says that he graduated after four years of college and got a civil engineering degree, which is not accurate.

There were a number of different discrepancies on there that make it pretty clear that it's not an actual record.

GROSS: How do you know that the person who signed this record doesn't exist?

M: In the 900-some-odd pages of Hubbard's war records, there were numerous letters from other researchers from over the years. And one of them had inquired about Howard D. Thompson, this lieutenant commander that supposedly signed this notice of separation. And the archivist at the time said they had thoroughly researched the rolls of Navy officers at the time, and there was no such person.

GROSS: So at this meeting, Tommy Davis said that if it was true that L. Ron Hubbard didn't have - wasn't blind, wasn't sick and didn't heal himself, then that would mean that "Dianetics" was a lie and that Scientology was a lie. Am I getting that right?

M: That's correct.

GROSS: So you're presenting him with what you say is evidence that Hubbard lied. So what has Tommy Davis said in response?

M: They say they have an expert, whose name he didn't give us, who says that these records are authentic.

GROSS: So here's where we stand now, that Tommy Davis, the spokesperson of Scientology, is maintaining that the record that he has, that Scientology has, of L. Ron Hubbard's notice of separation from the military - basically, the document when he left the military - is true, is authentic. And you're saying no, that's a forgery, the document that you got is the authentic one?

M: I do say that. I mean, there's 900-some-odd pages in Hubbard's military records that authenticate the accuracy of the notice of separation that is in the military archives in St. Louis, and none of that authenticates the many wounds or valor that the Church of Scientology maintains they have in their records.

GROSS: Scientology is usually described as a fairly secretive organization, at least secretive at the top.

M: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to fact-check a piece about Scientology? And I should mention here that Scientology does have a reputation of suing when it feels it's been misrepresented.

M: Yeah. They're an aggressive and litigious organization, at least they have been so in the past. And so we've tried to be extremely careful with this.

We've had five fact-checkers involved in this story. Even the head of the fact-checking department weighed in. And one of the checkers was on the story almost full-time since August.

So, you know, I don't think, in the magazine's history, I can't imagine that we've ever devoted that kind of scrupulousness to one single story. And this is a magazine that prides itself on its checking. But this story in particular had to be very, very carefully vetted, and it has been.

GROSS: And I should say that I think nearly everything that the defectors maintain happened within Scientology, Scientology, the Scientology organization, claims was not true, just to represent their point of view here.

M: That's correct. They - that's right. The church, they maintain that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero and did have the injuries that he claimed to have. And essentially, on all of these factual matters, they issued a - largely, a blanket denial.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Lawrence Wright. His article "The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology," is published in the current edition of the New Yorker. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Lawrence Wright. We're talking about his article "The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology," which is published in the current edition of the New Yorker.

When we left off, we were talking about a document Haggis got access to from the military records of the church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. One document appears to contradict one of Hubbard's claims about his service in World War II and call into question the basis of Hubbard's book, "Dianetics."

So, the document that you have, L. Ron Hubbard's notice of separation, what impact do you think that is going to have on Scientology?

M: It's hard to measure, because we're dealing with a religion, and people are drawn to it because of faith. And if it were simply a matter of reason, then one could put this document down in front of you and say: Here is conclusive proof that the founder of Scientology lied about his military record and lied about his injuries and lied about the very fundamental principles out of which he created the Church of Scientology.

But that may not matter to people who are involved in it, who may feel that they are gaining something from their experience, either because they feel like the truths of Scientology enhance their lives or because the community of Scientologists that they live among is something like their family. So they intentionally shield themselves against knowing these kinds of things.

GROSS: So your article about Paul Haggis leaving Scientology challenges one of the basic premises of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard's teachings. So how has your article, the investigation you've done, and the reading that Paul Haggis has done, changed Paul Haggis?

M: Oh, it's interesting, because I was privy to a lot of those changes just by asking him questions that he had never really asked himself about things that the church had engaged in in the past. Some of the controversies that have haunted the church for decades, he never really looked at.

A: You know, I think of myself as being a very skeptical and independent person, but I don't know why I didn't ask myself these very questions at the time. It was between a lack of interest and a fear of finding out the truth.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright's article, "The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology," is published in the current edition of the New Yorker.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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