Sympathy for the Devil
Article in The New Times LA, September 27 2001
Sympathy For The Devil |
Tory Bezazian was a veteran Scientologist who loved going after church critics. Until she met the darkest detractor of all.
By Tony Ortega
Last year, Church of Scientology operatives received an alarming tip: During the upcoming 2000 MTV Movie Awards scheduled for June 8, a short South Park film parodying Battlefield Earth would feature the character Cartman wiping his ass with a copy of L. Ron Hubbard's sacred text, Dianetics.
The tip was erroneous. Cartman would actually be wiping his ass with a Scientology personality test.
But agents of the church's shadowy Office of Special Affairs didn't know that. They only knew they had a public relations nightmare on their hands.
Battlefield Earth had already turned out to be a colossal embarrassment for the church. Its star, celebrity Scientologist John Travolta, had denied there was any connection between the movie, which was based on a 1980 science fiction novel by Hubbard, and the controversial religion, which was based on Dianetics, Hubbard's 1950 self-help book. Despite Travolta's denials, however, ordinary Scientologists had anxiously awaited the film, hoping it would improve the image of their founder and his faith. Instead, it was panned as the worst film of 2000 and one of the worst science-fiction films of all time. The New York Times suggested that although it was a bit early to be making such judgments, Battlefield Earth could turn out to be the worst movie of the new century.
The last thing the church needed was more piling on by the acerbic kids of South Park.
So it turned to Burbank resident Tory Bezazian.
Bezazian headed something called the Scientology Parishioners League, a new organization that Office of Special Affairs vice president Janet Weiland had asked volunteers like Bezazian to form for just such emergencies. In the few months the parishioners' league had been operating, Bezazian and her cohorts had followed up on OSA tips by pressuring television networks, radio stations and newspapers to drop negative content about the church.
Bezazian never knew how OSA agents got their information. She only knew that once she was given a tip, the church relied on her to harangue editors and TV producers until the offending material was removed. During Bezazian's short association with the parishioners' league, the organization managed to convince a few editors to pull material. But in general, the group had little effect. Scientology had suffered so much negative press for so many years that Bezazian and her small cadre could do little to stem the tide.
But she tried mightily. Bezazian called MTV's New York office incessantly. She told anyone who would listen that the South Park piece was a form of religious bigotry and if it was shown it would deeply offend her and her co-religionists and cause them great harm.
The show ran anyway. In it, Cartman drops a load in his shorts when Russell Crowe as his Gladiator character Maximus impales Kenny on his sword ("Russell Crowe killed Kenny!"). But before Crowe can do in the rest of the South Park regulars, John Travolta as planet Psychlo meanie Terl arrives in a Battlefield Earth spaceship to save the day (Cartman: "It's John Travolta and the Church of Scientology!"). Travolta's cartoon persona then asks the South Park boys to take personality tests, handing them the familiar sheets of paper which are many future members' first encounter with the church. Travolta then asks Maximus to join Scientology. The gladiator says he'd rather die first, so Travolta vaporizes him. Meanwhile, still burdened by the mess in his drawers, Cartman finds another use for his personality test.
It was another dim moment for Hubbard's beleaguered outfit. But Bezazian felt her lobbying campaign had been successful. She was under the impression that the original piece had called for Cartman to soil Hubbard's book, Scientology's most revered text. Bezazian believed her calls had convinced South Park's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, to alter the show. (New Times' calls to Stone and Parker were not returned.)
In the parlance of Scientology, Bezazian believed she had a big win. And it motivated her to take on even bigger game. A 30-year veteran of the church, she would also be entrusted by the OSA after her supposed MTV victory to take on the church's most nagging foe: Internet critics.
Bezazian threw herself into the effort, doing battle first on a Warner Bros. bulletin board dedicated to Battlefield Earth and then on the mother of all Hubbard-related Internet newsgroups: alt.religion.scientology, a community of detractors that works constantly to publicize the church's oddities and excesses.
Within weeks, Bezazian's dive-bombing of alt.religion.scientology under the screen name "Magoo" had become relentless. Every few minutes, day and night, Magoo swooped in to drop incendiary messages attacking church critics. Newsgroup regulars say they had seen few defenders of Scientology take on critics with such unremitting force. By July Magoo had become the single most frequent poster at a.r.s. -- not a small feat in such a heavily used newsgroup.
Several theories sprang up about Magoo's identity. Some believed Magoo was actually a team of church agents working around the clock to attack foes. Others wondered whether Magoo was the handle of Scientology's reclusive leader, David Miscavige.
No one guessed the truth. Magoo's identity was finally revealed in a stunning message:
To all of you at ARS, and to you all reading this from my Church, as of this date, July 20, 2000, I have officially left the Church. Please do not call me, or come over to my house. Any friends who care (and only those who do, please) e-mail me. To the rest, good bye. In the future, listen to Andreas. What he said last night...is what is true.
The message was signed "Magoo/Tory Bezazian."
Today, more than a year after her very public defection -- the first in memory to occur on the Internet -- Bezazian is still adapting to her transformation. She has quickly become a highly visible foe of the church she served for three decades. In February, she was fined $100 by a judge for violating a court injunction against picketing Scientology's "spiritual headquarters" in Clearwater, Florida. But she does not seem entirely comfortable with her new role.
Although she has written about her experiences in Internet forums, Bezazian was initially hesitant to share her story with New Times. She later changed her mind, wanting to tell about her experiences helping the OSA fight its battles, and about how Scientology shields its members from negative media coverage and the Internet.
And she also wanted to talk about a man named Andreas, the most corrupt and evil human being on the planet, who one day shocked her by writing a kind letter.
Bezazian says her defection caught everyone who knew her by surprise -- church members and critics alike. But the seeds for her discontent had been planted years earlier.
Meeting her today, it's hard to believe that such a gregarious and effusive person could ever have been a part of what she herself describes as a cult. But Bezazian, 54, is clearly a former Scientologist -- her chatty conversation is filled with the corporate-sounding jargon that marks a longtime adherent of the Hubbard way of thinking.
Bezazian joined the church in 1969 after almost killing herself with heroin in San Francisco. She had ditched her parents' home in an exclusive and stifling suburb of Chicago to become a hippie, then had to be brought home on a gurney when a hypodermic needle turned out to be dirty. Recovering in Illinois, Bezazian was approached by a couple of Scientologists she knew. Their stories about an "applied philosophy" lured the 22-year-old to L.A. Once here, however, she worried that she'd made a big mistake: Scientology's quasi-military structure and obsession with large, Chairman Mao-like images of Hubbard felt Big Brotherish to a hippie deep into freedom of expression. But Bezazian learned to love Scientology, and stayed with it for more than three decades.
She'd become unhappy in recent years, however, partly because she could never rid herself of the space aliens in her body.
Like other advanced members of the church, Bezazian had learned about the aliens inside her only after spending years in the religion and parting with tens of thousands of dollars. In a financial arrangement which is probably unique in theology, adherents of Hubbard's faith must pay increasingly large sums of money to learn the basic tenets of their religion. Former church members and court records indicate that parishioners pay about $100,000 to learn the story of Scientology's origins, which is contained in something called OT III -- its Book of Genesis, as it were. According to a church spokeswoman, only about 10 percent of Scientology's adherents have reached this level. The rest are kept in the dark about Hubbard's strange tale of how his religion began. For them, Scientology is an increasingly expensive progression of classes that give them, they believe, a complicated "technology" for ridding their minds of scars left by previous traumas, some of them from past lives.
Upon reaching OT III, Bezazian learned Hubbard's revelation that Xenu, an evil galactic overlord, had banished millions of space aliens to the planet Teegeack -- now Earth -- in an attempt to solve a cosmic overpopulation problem. Xenu had packed the surplus aliens into volcanoes and pulverized them with hydrogen bombs, but some 75 million years later their disembodied souls, called thetans by Scientologists, had managed to survive. Invisible and incredibly resilient, some of the aliens, which Hubbard called body thetans, had taken up residence inside unwitting human beings. Clustered inside each of us, these interstellar parasites are the source of all human misery.
That ulcer eating away at your stomach lining? It's an ancient body thetan gnawing away at you. That arthritis in your elbow? E.T. feels right at home in your creaky joint. That anxiety you feel speaking in front of a group? Space aliens lurking in your head, tripping you up.
After absorbing this tale, Bezazian, like other Scientologists, continued on through higher levels in a process of counseling and classes -- collectively called "the Bridge" -- which was supposed to help eradicate body thetans. Only when Bezazian had chased off the last of the critters would she attain her true potential -- the unleashing of her own true inner thetan, the alien soul that piggybacking space creatures had held back and tormented. This would in turn produce in her a superhuman state that Hubbard referred to as "clear." Clears could wield amazing powers, Hubbard claimed, including total memory recall and clairvoyance.
The trouble was, no matter how hard Bezazian tried to move across the Bridge (and no matter how much money she spent), her church counselors, called auditors, always claimed to find more body thetans clinging to her.
For years she found herself stuck at OT VII, the second-highest level in the religion. Year after year, she diligently went through drills and tests trying to locate all of the body thetans infesting her system. The process mostly involved talking with auditors while hooked up to an "E-meter," an electronic gauge that measures tiny fluctuations in skin conductivity. Scientologists believe the erratic movement of the meter's needle while a subject talks indicates the presence of body thetans.
One of the things holding Bezazian back was the real mother of a body thetan that had taken up residence in her nervous system. She had epilepsy, which to the rest of the world is a serious, chronic illness. But to Scientologists, Bezazian's epileptic convulsions were a sure sign of a body thetan's presence.
When Bezazian stuck to a drug regimen recommended by doctors, she suffered few effects of the disease. But Scientologists viewed resorting to medication as a sign of weakness, an indication that an adherent didn't trust Hubbard's "tech" to drive away the body thetan causing her malady.
Several times, she tried to adhere to her faith by going off her medication. She suffered greatly each time. Although she was warned she would never "go clear" until she "handled" her epilepsy through the tech, Bezazian eventually went back on medication permanently.
Others chose to battle severe medical problems without help from doctors. A good friend, she says, died painfully after relying on auditing to cope with breast cancer.
Stuck at OT VII and increasingly unhappy with how her auditing was going, Bezazian became even more disillusioned with changes made under new church leader David Miscavige, who had taken over after Hubbard's 1986 death. At a mass gathering in 1997, Miscavige announced the "discovery" that higher-level Scientologists had been trained incorrectly and would need to redo some levels. Bezazian says she was told her retraining would cost $25,000.
Already $60,000 in debt and in no mood to undergo still more auditing to reach a level where she'd been stalled for years, Bezazian complained to Miscavige. She wrote him letters asking why she should have to pay so much when it was the church's product that had proved to be defective. She got no response. And that's when she decided to get off the Bridge.
"It's a big decision for a Scientologist," she says. "But I didn't care if they came up with OT fucking billion, I was done." Feeling cheated and abandoned, she found little support from other members. "It's not like I didn't give it my best shot. But they always tell you it's your fault if the tech doesn't work. No one has ever apologized to me for anything."
Bezazian gave up trying to rid herself of body thetans. But her faith in Hubbard and Scientology was unshaken. She didn't like some of the changes occurring in her church, but it was still her church, after all. After so many years in the religion and after paying more than $100,000, Bezazian says, Scientology was nearly her entire world. The thought of leaving it never entered her mind.
And that's why she didn't give it a second thought when, in late 1999, her church asked her to come to its rescue.
Bezazian says she was asked by Janet Weiland to join the Scientology Parishioners League, which had just been founded. It was modeled after the Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism, and would claim to battle all forms of religious bigotry. But really it was the latest attempt to handle all of the negative press that has rained down on Scientology in recent years, Bezazian says. She agreed to Weiland's request without hesitation.
There was plenty of work to do. While some news organizations shy away from stories about Scientology as a result of its reputation for litigiousness, others have reported on the church's troubles around the globe. Several European countries consider the organization more a money-making scam than a religion and have taken official steps to curb it. The church's worldwide president, Heber Jentzsch, is currently on trial in Spain on charges of fraud. Raids on the church have occurred in Belgium and France. And in the United States, the church continues to be embarrassed by revelations in the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson, a believer who died while in church care at a Clearwater hotel.
Protesters regularly picket key church sites in Florida and Los Angeles. Bezazian had often been asked to "handle" picketers who demonstrated at L.A. Scientology facilities by conversing with and distracting them.
She had helped out the OSA as a volunteer for many years. In 1979 she aided an effort to unseat a Clearwater politician who wanted to keep Scientology from establishing its headquarters there. She and other Scientologists were instructed to attend public meetings where they were to divert attention from Scientology's imminent invasion of the town by questioning the candidate's performance in other areas. After he was defeated at the polls, the church moved in.
Bezazian also aided OSA agents at a 1985 trial in which a former church member was suing Scientology for allegedly harming him. Bezazian says she took notes on how jurors seemed to react to testimony, trying to build up profiles of them for the church's attorneys.
As a fervent member of the church, Bezazian never questioned OSA actions. She says in hindsight it's easier for her to see that the OSA was operating in questionable ways, such as when it surveilled detractors or spammed Websites critical of the church.
The Office of Special Affairs was formed to replace an earlier organization cloaked in secrecy, known as the Guardian's Office. In 1977, FBI agents raided the Church of Scientology in both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and discovered damning evidence that, for several years, Guardian's Office operatives had been breaking into the IRS and other federal offices in Washington and stealing government documents. Eleven Scientologists, including Guardian's Office director Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of the church founder, were sentenced to prison. After the debacle, church officials insisted that the Guardian's Office had contained "rogue elements" who broke into government offices without the knowledge or permission of the rest of the organization. The G.O. was disbanded. Today, former Scientologists say, the OSA has taken its place as the church's internal security force and intelligence unit.
Bezazian says she and others had always been told that Mary Sue Hubbard and the other Guardian's Office defendants had done nothing more serious than steal photocopier paper from government offices. It was a story she accepted without question.
"I bought the PR hook, line and sinker," she says. Instructed to ignore outside sources of information, Bezazian says, she and her fellow parishioners were clueless about what was happening not only to Scientology but in the rest of the world as well.
"I was in a cult," she says. "Scientology promotes not watching the news. It keeps you inside a Truman Show where you're totally unaware of things. It's like your own thinking gets shut down and you get used to not considering anything that might be critical of Scientology."
Bezazian says she and her fellow religionists were trained, if they did happen to stumble across negative references to their church, to simply ignore them.
But the church was taking no chances. In 1998, Scientology announced a program to give every parishioner who desired one his or her very own Website. CD-ROMs were mailed out to church members, who were told they could use software on the discs to create personal sites linked to the church's main Internet location, www.scientology.org. What parishioners weren't told, however, was that the CDs also contained a censorship program that would block sites critical of the religion. Church critics, likening the program to "net nannies" that parents rely on to keep their kids out of porn sites, have dubbed the program the "Scieno Sitter."
Janet Weiland, vice president of the OSA, wrote in a letter to New Times that church members make a personal choice whether to use the computer filtering program. "Many Scientologists use filters on their computers just as Jews and Catholics do, to protect their families and people they care about against hate, degradation or harassment."
Scieno Sitter functions by keeping Scientologists from visiting Websites that contain certain keywords. For example, since the OT III genesis story is a secret that adherents must pay thousands of dollars to learn, the church jealously guards those materials and forbids Scientologists to mention the name Xenu publicly or even to acknowledge that the galactic overlord figures in their cosmology. Church detractors, in turn, use the name freely, in part to irritate Scientology officials. The church's Internet censorship program automatically keeps members from visiting Websites where the name Xenu appears.
But the OSA wanted Bezazian to keep an eye on such sites and to report back about what she found. Three years ago, she says, OSA operatives removed the Scieno Sitter from her home computer. She was asked to surf the Internet to find out what sorts of damaging things were being said about the church.
And the first place she looked alarmed her the most.
The Website she stumbled upon, www.xenu.net, is notorious internationally for its comprehensive attack on Scientology in all its forms. Also known as Operation Clambake, it is maintained by a man named Andreas Heldal-Lund, an information technology manager in Stavanger, Norway. (Operation Clambake refers to statements made by Hubbard in an obscure book in which he explains that human beings today suffer ills because their inner thetans were once traumatized while they inhabited the bodies of clams during the evolution of life on Earth. Hubbard asserted that this ancient trauma re-exerts itself when people find their jaws locked in imitation of the ancient clams' shell-hinge. Hubbard claimed to be knowledgeable in many fields of science, and even said he was a nuclear scientist, but records show that he maintained a D average at George Washington University, took only a single course in nuclear physics, and left without a degree.)
To Bezazian, Operation Clambake seemed like the most hateful creation imaginable, a popular Website bearing a litany of charges against her religion that she couldn't imagine to be true. She admits that she hated Heldal-Lund, a man she had never met, spoken to, or even knew much about.
Although Scientologists don't believe in Satan, Bezazian says, that's exactly what Heldal-Lund became in her mind. He was the archnemesis of everything she believed in, Lucifer to her godlike Hubbard.
She formed these opinions without even reading any of the material at his Website. She says she could barely bring herself to visit it, scan what was listed in its table of contents, and then report back to the OSA. "Why haven't you gotten rid of this guy?" she remembers asking her OSA contacts, who responded that they had been trying to do just that, without luck.
The next thing the OSA asked her to do was to join the Scientology Parishioners League and focus her efforts on combating bad publicity in print, radio and TV -- what Scientologists call "entheta press."
Bezazian says she felt a twinge of guilt over her work. The '60s hippie who loved freedom of speech was still inside her, she says, and it made her uncomfortable to practice what she knew, even then, was a form of censorship.
"The work was actually hard for me because of my free-speech background. I was becoming the queen of OSA volunteers, but I wasn't enjoying it," she says.
Despite the parishioners league's modest success -- Bezazian claims the group convinced a few newspaper editors to make slight changes to articles -- the OSA liked the work she was doing. It then asked Bezazian to do battle with the church's Internet opponents.
Earlier, she had dabbled in the Web, visiting such sites as Operation Clambake. But now she was commanded to take it on in earnest.
She dived into the job, exploring Websites that criticized her church and reading bulletin boards where church defenders and opponents debated. (Some church members have always refused to put the Scieno Sitter on their computers and are regular combatants at a.r.s. and other sites). Bezazian began to engage in those debates herself.
And before long, she realized that she really, really enjoyed it.
As Magoo, she obsessively posted to alt.religion.scientology. Her messages were rarely very substantive. She was just there to jab and parry, to drop off stingers and comebacks -- most of which were non sequiturs -- and more than anything else, to keep hitting the "reply" button. Day and night, Bezazian told off anti-Scientologists and managed to annoy plenty of them.
Mark Bunker, a church critic and a.r.s. participant, says he bore the brunt of some of Magoo's harshest attacks. "When I found out who it was, and that Tory was the one being so incredibly nasty to me, I laughed." Bunker realized that he had met Bezazian when he picketed church sites and always found her to be pleasant, even though they disagreed so markedly about the church. "I was amazed that this nice person could be so damned nasty anonymously."
Jeff Jacobsen, another a.r.s. regular, says Magoo's posts were not only harsh but difficult to read. It seemed obvious that Magoo was someone or a group of people who had little experience in newsgroup debates, he says.
Bezazian admits that was true. She was a novice. And her lack of experience was causing her to post great amounts of extraneous and distracting material. She may have been a relentless poster, but she was a sloppy one.
And that's what prompted someone to send her an e-mail about her messy ways.
Bezazian says she was shocked to see that Lucifer himself, Andreas Heldal-Lund, the operator of Operation Clambake, the Website that Scientologists considered the world's most poisonous, had sent her an e-mail.
He had written a polite note, suggesting ways Bezazian could improve the readability of her postings on a.r.s. so that more people would read her arguments and respond to them intelligently.
Bezazian struggles for words to describe how stunned she felt after she had read the e-mail.
"The devil had not only sent me a nice message, he had offered me useful advice," Bezazian says.
Besides taking her entirely by surprise, Heldal-Lund's note had placed her in an awkward position.
"I had been raised to believe you send a thank-you note when someone helps you out. I realized that I owed the devil an e-mail message," she says.
After she had sent a thank-you and Heldal-Lund replied with another kind missive, Bezazian says she came to another startling revelation: "I realized that I could talk to this guy. This was a big shock to me," she says.
Heldal-Lund tells New Times that when he first noticed Magoo's posts, she sounded like "just another OSA goon trying to create a disturbance." But he extended a helping hand all the same. He says he didn't see the point in being rude and confirming everything that church members thought about Scientology's critics.
"I try to treat everyone nicely, and I start a relationship based on trust. I hope that if people see that I can be trusted, then they will have one less reason not to honestly check out our side of things," he says.
Heldal-Lund says he has been under the constant threat of lawsuits by church attorneys since he established Operation Clambake in 1995. Initially those threats were aimed at him personally, but lately, he says, the church has been threatening his Internet service providers. So far, the church hasn't been able to force the Website off-line.
Bezazian and Heldal-Lund agreed to turn over their private e-mail messages to New Times, which document the frenetic activity in their correspondence in the days before her July 20 public defection.
Writing in the first person plural as if she were a group of Scientologists, Bezazian asked Heldal-Lund on July 14 to explain how he could maintain such a horrific Website. "What is your actual goal?" she asked.
"This is like asking for my meaning of life," the Norwegian responded. "I care when I see injustices. I don't like lies and fraud. I'm especially sensitive to lies and deceit that few oppose because there is a threat connected to doing so. I saw this when I investigated [the Church of Scientology.] I'm not saying...that all scientologists are bad...I believe they are good people with the best intentions....But they are (in my opinion) misguided and wasting their good efforts and time..."
Bezazian realized that everything Heldal-Lund was saying in this and several other early messages in their correspondence -- about his belief in openness, free speech and the search for truth -- were the tenets that she believed had always been at the core of her own being. Instead, Bezazian says, she admitted to herself that she'd been living very differently, encouraged by Scientology to lie continually. To lie to others about how well Hubbard's tech was helping her life, to lie about how much she was enjoying herself on OT VII, to ignore the truth about the excesses and inconsistencies of an organization she'd belonged to for so long.
She knows now that spending weeks debating critics on a.r.s. had prepared her for this moment. The arguments she encountered there -- about the Lisa McPherson case, the raids in Europe, about the high price of reaching OT levels and dozens of other topics -- had increasingly rung true for her. "It was like the critics were beginning to poke holes in the walls of my Truman Show," she says. "Sunshine was starting to pour inside."
She uses another analogy: For 30 years she had constructed her life like a skyscraper made of playing cards. Participating on a.r.s. had yanked away so many cards that only one remained holding up her entire belief system.
And then Andreas Heldal-Lund gave that card a pull.
"In the long run I believe that my ethical acts towards [Scientologists] might have some small positive effect," Heldal-Lund wrote on July 17, responding to Magoo's query about why he seemed so much more polite than some other church critics. "I don't believe in single acts saving anybody, it's the sum of many that do the trick," he added, writing that he had occasionally received e-mails from former church members who thanked him for his efforts to provide well-researched information critical of the church.
Heldal-Lund also wrote about the philosophical underpinnings of his own actions, giving Bezazian a brief primer on Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German thinker. In a calm, self-effacing tone, Heldal-Lund explained that he tries his best to treat people with respect, whatever their beliefs. He denies, in e-mails to New Times, that his words were very profound. But he knows from Bezazian's reaction that they were what she needed to hear.
"I was just there at the right time, maybe saying the right things," Heldal-Lund says.
The next day, July 18, he received a note from a very different-sounding Magoo.
"Thank you so much for communicating to me," Magoo wrote. "Notice I said "me'? This is the very first time I have said that since I started on ARS five weeks ago...I am just one person.
"Andy, I cannot tell you how devastated I am. I am sitting here crying. I cannot stop crying. No one will meet with me, Andy...I have been a Scientologist since I was 19 years old....I am not sure what to do. All of my friends, everyone I know -- everyone -- is a Scientologist...So the minute I say I am out of the church, my life is over...I love my friends, and the very thought that tomorrow they cannot speak to me, ever again, is just too much for my soul."
It was obvious to them both: As soon as Bezazian admitted her doubts, the Church of Scientology would instruct parishioners to "disconnect" from her. Heldal-Lund knew it would be a devastating experience. He tried to give her encouragement.
"I'm humble that you choose to tell me all this...I can hardly start grasping what you are going through," he wrote back on July 18. "I find it difficult to express my immediate emotions and I don't want to make a lot of silly advice or say something meaningless." He continued to counsel her to be cautious and take things slowly.
But on July 20, Magoo made her public announcement on a.r.s: She was Tory Bezazian, a 30-year member, and she was no longer a Scientologist.
Some a.r.s. participants smelled a rat. Magoo's defection was so sudden and dramatic, some critics suspected that her announcement was some sort of OSA operation. A new debate suddenly raged on the newsgroup: Was Magoo's transformation legitimate?
Meanwhile, in private, Bezazian gave Heldal-Lund her thanks. "I honestly thought you were the devil," she e-mailed him. "I was amazed at how kind you were. I thought for sure you would be the meanest and worst of all the critics. So when you were you, it really cracked the shell."
But Heldal-Lund couldn't give her what she says she needed most desperately: company. As she began telling Scientologist friends privately about her decision and they disconnected from her, Bezazian found herself terribly alone. She asked Heldal-Lund for help: Who could she turn to who understood her situation?
He suggested a group in Clearwater whose members work full time to protest Scientology. Some are former parishioners, and realized they had known Bezazian in the church. When Bezazian told them about her predicament, they encouraged her to come to Clearwater.
So on July 21, with a.r.s. still buzzing over her turnabout, Bezazian went to Burbank Airport to begin a cross-country trip to what just days earlier she had considered the enemy camp.
And waiting for her at the Burbank terminal was the Church of Scientology.
Bezazian arrived at the airport to find that her flight had been cancelled and Janet Weiland was waiting near the counter. Weiland began trying to talk her out of going to Florida, Bezazian says.
Bezazian doesn't know how Weiland knew she would be at the airport to catch her flight. Bezazian says she can only assume the OSA vice president had tapped her phone.
When New Times requested an interview with Weiland, she responded with a letter saying that Bezazian had become an "apostate," and that such persons "have to justify having left their church and do this by lying and making up bizarre renditions about their experiences."
Weiland wrote that it was a coincidence that she was at the airport that day, that she had received a phone call from a friend of Bezazian's saying she might be at the terminal to take a flight. "I didn't know what flight she was going on, but [I] looked around the airport and saw her in line at the ticket counter," wrote Weiland.
At the airport, Bezazian says, Weiland cited their long friendship and tried to persuade her to cancel her travel plans. But Bezazian used her cell phone to call the people at the Lisa McPherson Trust in Clearwater whom she had planned to visit. The LMT was founded last year by several former Scientologists to publicize the McPherson case and otherwise agitate against the church. It is largely funded by Robert Minton, a wealthy businessman.
Minton answered Bezazian's call, and she rapidly told him the situation. She had tried to get another flight, she told him, but Weiland had stuck by her like glue, and was even holding her luggage. Bezazian says she felt trapped.
Minton said he'd pay for a first-class ticket to Clearwater. He told Bezazian to book a seat, which would allow her to enter a special lounge that would be off-limits to Weiland. Bezazian followed his advice and rid herself of the OSA official.
But Bezazian had made the new flight arrangements in front of Weiland, so Scientologists were waiting for her both in Chicago, where she changed planes, and at the gate in Tampa, where Bezazian arrived at 1:15 a.m.
LMT executive director Stacey Brooks, herself a former high-ranking Scientologist and OSA employee, says it was a surreal scene. Waiting for Bezazian to walk off the plane were two groups: Scientologists and LMT members. Brooks notified security guards that things could get ugly, and they in turn called in two Tampa police officers.
The situation got tense, Bezazian says, when she stepped off the plane and a woman Scientologist ran up to her. "What could you be thinking?" the woman asked her. The others swarmed around her.
Brooks asked the police to intervene, but the cops replied that they needed to hear from Bezazian herself: Whom did she want to go with?
Bezazian gestured toward Brooks and Minton. "I pick them," she said.
The police officers then went into high gear. Brooks says the anti-Scientologists were given an escort through the airport. When the Scientologists tried to follow, the officers stopped them. Police stayed with Bezazian all the way to her hotel, where she checked in under an assumed name.
The next morning, however, the Scientologists were knocking at her door.
Before too long, Bezazian says, they left her alone. It was plain she had no intention of going back.
"The experience of being in Scientology is so incredible, it's just very hard for people to believe," Brooks says. "Tory has a long road ahead of her to recover from her 30 years in."
The church didn't take long to react, Brooks say. "They turned on her on a dime. They're doing everything they can to label her a criminal. This is a lot for a person to take in who hasn't been out [very long.]"
Encouraged by what she learned at the LMT, Bezazian began taking part in protests of the church within months of leaving it. She was stunned when church officials asked police in Clearwater to cite her for violating the anti-picketing injunction.
Accusations between church officials and critics had grown so intense after repeated demonstrations that a Clearwater judge was persuaded to lay down complex rules last November about how and when critics could picket Scientology headquarters. Bezazian was one of several critics who were hauled into court for violating those rules. Church officials accused her of holding a sign in an area where picketing was not allowed, and sitting in a Santa's chair set up as part of a church holiday display.
On February 21, after hearing arguments by Scientology attorneys that Bezazian and others had willfully disregarded the injunction, Judge Thomas E. Penick dismissed nearly all of the case, criticizing both sides for clogging the courts with nonsense. He fined Minton and Bezazian -- she was charged $100 -- but also criticized the church for how much it surveils critics. "I'm missing the point here," the judge was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times. "I hope someone will let us know when the great invasion is coming."
The experience, Bezazian says, only made her more determined to tell what she knows about the church.
Today, Bezazian still goes through swings of emotion about her defection and her new life. She called New Times from Clearwater late one night during her trial, devastated that her former church could label her a criminal.
Other times she called asking that this article be cancelled, saying she couldn't go through with it. Then days later she would call with a steely resolve, looking forward to how the piece might be received.
She also wavered over how to characterize her former church. She wanted it said that Scientology was not all bad; it had done good things for people, she said. But she also wanted it stressed that the organization deserves all of the scandals it's ensnared in around the world.
About the only thing that remains constant about Bezazian is her chatty, bright disposition. And her regard for people like Brooks and Minton.
And a man she once considered the devil.
"Andreas telling me to believe in myself -- that's what changed my life," she says.
Addition by Tory: Actually, it was Andreas telling me "I don't think Scientologists are bad, they're just misinformed. Don't trust me, look for yourself". Also, he asking me, "What kind of friends could those be if they're going to leave you because you changed your mind?"
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