On August 5, we started a countdown that will give credit — or blame — to the people who have contributed most to the sad current state of Scientology. From its greatest expansion in the 1980s, the church is a shell of what it once was and is mired in countless controversies around the world. Some of that was self-inflicted, and some of it has come from outside. Join us now as we continue on our investigation of those people most responsible…
Lisa McPherson has been dead almost 16 years now, and yet, in Janet Reitman’s terrific new history of the church, Inside Scientology, four central chapters are focused on McPherson’s life and death.
I asked Reitman in an interview why one woman’s death in 1995 is still such a big part of the Scientology story.
“Because nothing changes in Scientology,” she answered. “The fundamental problem is that this is a fundamentalist religion. [David] Miscavige is a fundamentalist leader… Their mindset is that anything L. Ron Hubbard said or wrote is ‘Source,’ it’s doctrine. This is literal. And as long as they have this literal interpretation of everything, [something like the McPherson incident] could happen again.”
What did happen is that a young woman who wanted help with a bad marriage in 1982 turned to a group that she soon dedicated her life to. From Reitman’s book:
Lisa McPherson fit right in. “She was a ball of fun,” said Greg Barnes, who was Lisa’s registrar in Dallas. “She was funny, she was exuberant, she was excited, she was humble — she was a great person.” But Lisa was also unaware of what Scientology would require of her, he said. “Was she naive? No. But did she know what she was getting herself into? No way. None of us did.”
McPherson quickly made friends at the church, and her involvement rapidly began to remake her.
Lisa began spending long hours at the mission, forgoing personal pastimes like country-western dancing, once her favorite activity. She stopped drinking and smoking pot; she also left off attending parties and family functions. Her vocabulary changed. People were “terminals.” Cars, houses, clothes, jewelry, and other physical or material goods were “MEST” — matter, energy, space, and time…She was a “thetan,” and her life was not singular — she had lived many lifetimes, she informed her old friends.
In 1983, McPherson began working at the Dallas mission, where she met and became friends with another Scientologist named Bennetta Slaughter. Two years later, McPherson went to work for Slaughter’s brokerage firm, and was soon making about $70,000 a year.
Lisa had remarried; her husband, Gene Skonetski, was a Scientologist she’d met at the mission. Now they began to acquire the trappings of wealth: a new condo, new furniture, new clothes, a diamond necklace, a new Porsche, a $700 vacuum cleaner.
But those high-flying times came to an end with a real-estate crash in Dallas in 1987. Slaughter moved to the Bay Area, and McPherson was mired in debt to Scientology. One way to deal with it was to go to work for the church full time.
Lisa’s job entailed handling communications, interacting with members, and helping keep tabs on the number of paying Scientologists currently taking courses or being audited — “bodies in the shop,” as they were known. She also reached out to “recover” those who, for one reason or another, may have stopped attending the church.
By 1989, her husband Gene had gone to California to join the Sea Org, and after her own brief attempt to join him there, she was back in Dallas and owed Scientology $45,000. She divorced Gene and declared bankruptcy. Bennetta and David Slaughter returned to Dallas in 1990 and hired McPherson for a new publishing company, AMC.
Within a year, Lisa had righted her finances and repaid her debts to the church. Now that she was eligible to receive auditing, encouraging letters from the Dallas Org once again began to flow her way. “VWD [Very well done] on getting that debt paid off!” one staffer enthused. “Now, get into session, gal!” And Lisa did, donating $12,000 to the Dallas Organization in 1991 and then, redoubling her efforts, giving close to $22,000 to Scientology in 1992 and $27,000 in 1993.
That year, 1993, McPherson moved with the Slaughters as they relocated their business to Clearwater, Florida. But over time, she became frustrated working for Bennetta Slaughter and increasingly frustrated with her Scientology auditing, as well.
Over and over, she spoke of leaving Scientology — “blowing,” in the group’s parlance; she also told her auditor that she’d been contemplating suicide…She saw herself as a “potential trouble source” to Bennetta, unhappy at work, wanting to leave. But she felt incapable of walking away. Her anger turned to despondency and finally to helplessness. “Nothing matters anymore,” she told her auditor. “I just want to be left alone.”
In June, 1995, McPherson checked herself into the Fort Harrison Hotel — Scientology’s iconic center in Clearwater — for a program called an “Introspection Rundown,” which was meant to help with emotional problems. Despite going through a “roller-coaster” of emotions, she managed, in September, to finally go “clear,” achieving a state of advanced spiritual stability, according to Scientologists.
The struggle, as she later described it, had been like “a gopher being pulled through a garden hose,” but she attributed her success to the support of her friends “and of course LRH.” “It has been…worth every single thing I’ve had to go through…I am so full of life I am overwhelmed at the joy of it all!” she wrote.
Soon, however, McPherson was struggling again, and she was subjected to exhausting confessional sessions. As Thanksgiving approached, she told a friend that she was thinking of leaving Scientology. Her mother noticed that she sounded “ragged” on the phone.
On November 15, 1995, Lisa was sent to a trade show in Orlando with several AMC colleagues. She packed numerous books by Hubbard that she hoped would help her with her job. But even before they left, Brenda Hubert, who was managing AMC’s role in the trade show, found Lisa to be unusually disorganized…When they got to the convention, she began “disseminating” to total strangers, accosting a waiter at a local cafe and then another one later that night at the hotel restaurant, demanding that they read Dianetics — right that minute.
Two days later, back in Clearwater, McPherson helped with the painting of sets for the upcoming Winter Wonderland, but then she seemed to get very tired.
Lisa got back into her red Jeep Cherokee and headed toward the center of Clearwater. It was rush hour, and the line of cars was moving slower than usual, the result of a motorcycle accident…As she approached the intersection, Lisa, perhaps distracted by the accident, rear-ended a boat that was fastened to the back of a pickup truck…”It was just a bump. It was nothing serious,” recalled a paramedic named Bonnie Portolano.
Portolano checked on McPherson, who said she was fine — but she seemed dazed.
Portolano gave Lisa a release form to sign, then she and her partner, Mark Fabyanic, walked back to their ambulance. They were just about to leave the scene when Fabyanic, the driver, looked in his side-view mirror. “Bonnie, she’s taking off her clothes,” he said.
McPherson walked, naked, down the middle of the street. The paramedics took her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital, where a physician wanted to admit her for a psychiatric evaluation.
It was just around then, [nurse Kimberley] Brennan recalled, that an official from the Church of Scientology showed up. It was perplexing because to Brennan’s knowledge, Lisa hadn’t called anyone, nor had anyone else phoned the church.
More church officials arrived, and they told the hospital staff that their religion opposed any form of psychiatry. Reluctantly, they allowed McPherson to check herself out, and the church officials took her to the Fort Harrison Hotel for treatment under the Introspection Rundown — which Hubbard had declared would cure psychotic episodes through silence and rest.
The instructions for the watch were simple. The caretakers were to provide Lisa with water and whatever food was available from the cafeteria, plus daily doses of Cal Mag and various other vitamin and mineral supplements. The caretakers were to keep a log of Lisa’s food and fluid intake and also note her behavior. If she needed to talk, they should let her, but per Hubbard’s guidelines, they could communicate with her only by writing notes.
Reitman notes that multiple people were pulled in to try and take care of McPherson but few stayed long as McPherson’s behavior got more erratic.
[Alice] Vangrondelle [the Flag librarian] complained that it wasn’t her job but grudgingly got out of bed. She found Lisa talking gibberish, freezing cold, with blotches on her face that looked like those caused by measles. She’d run around the room in a frenzied manner; later, exhausted, she’d collapse on the bed. At one point she rested her head on the librarian’s shoulder. “E.T., go home,” Lisa cried. “E.T., go home.”
Vangrondelle later asked another worker about what the symptoms of dehydration might look like.
By the end of November, one caretaker, seventeen-year-old Heather Petzold, was “frantic,” as she’d later say. Lisa had by now regressed to an infantile state. She was urinating and defecating on her bed. “I wouldn’t say there was any day that she ate sufficiently,” she noted; by the first of December, Lisa’s caretakers were spoon-feeding her bites of mashed banana, sometimes forcibly opening her mouth.
As December began, McPherson declined precipitously. On December 5, it should have been clear that she was in danger, but her caretakers didn’t seem to understand the signs they were witnessing. At 6 that night, Dr. Janice Johnson, a senior medical officer, was told that McPherson needed medical attention. About an hour later, she tried to get a penicillin prescription for her from Dr. David Minkoff, but he told her if she was seriously ill, she should be taken to the nearest hospital.
Soon after, Paul Greenwood, a Flag security officer, was dispatched to room 174. With Janis Johnson and Laura Arrunada assisting, Greenwood put Lisa in a van. Johnson got behind the wheel and drove north, past Morton Plant Hospital, where she and the others dared not stop, fearing the doctors might call the psychiatrists. They drove past several other hospitals as well, bound for Minkoff’s facility, the Columbia HCA Hospital in New Port Richey, about forty-five minutes away. No one spoke. “When someone is sick or injured you don’t talk around them because it puts impressions in the mind which create things…later on,” said Greenwood.
Johnson later said she heard Lisa’s breath become labored, then grow faint. Sitting with her in the back of the van, Greenwood monitored Lisa’s pulse. It slowly dwindled. Then Greenwood couldn’t feel it anymore.
As Reitman points out, however, McPherson’s death was not just the result of poor treatment or neglect. Scientology’s structure, its policies, its way of utter control over people as laid down by founder L. Ron Hubbard was very much a factor.
[McPherson’s] tragic outcome was determined by another precept, which reduced individual Scientologists to mere cogs by making autonomous thought, or speech, a crime…A multitude of reasons — the dogmatism of Hubbard’s technology, the exacting nature of Scientology ethics, the church doctrine governing public relations and self-preservation–explain why the [seventeen days McPherson was at the Fort Harrison Hotel] unfolded the way they did. Above all was the fundamental tragedy that from the moment she left Morton Plant Hospital on November 18, 1995, Lisa McPherson put herself in the hands of the Sea Org rather than family or friends. By doing this, she ceded control to a group who, in their inexorable commitment to Hubbard’s doctrine, believe they were doing the right thing. Instead, this commitment would lead to her death.
The ensuing investigations into McPherson’s death led to the state of Florida charging Scientology’s Flag Service Organizations with two felony counts. McPherson’s family later filed a wrongful death lawsuit with the help of attorney Ken Dandar.
The state’s criminal case fell apart in 2000 when Pinellas-Pasco County medical examiner Dr. Joan Wood changed the cause of death to “accidental.” She did so under intense pressure after Scientology spent lavishly on experts who questioned her initial finding that McPherson had died of dehydration. (Dandar continued to pursue the civil lawsuit for years despite hellacious harassment. The suit was settled in 2004.)
Scientology not only spent big money on attorneys and experts. Church leader David Miscavige entrusted his fixer, Marty Rathbun, to take care of the matter, and Rathbun has now admitted that he destroyed documents in the case.
Today, Rathbun has left the church and is a Miscavige critic, and he says the firestorm over McPherson’s death was the third worst in Scientology’s history — the first was over the 1977 FBI raids following the Guardian Office’s massive infiltration of government offices, the second-worst, he says, was Ron DeWolf’s 1982 attempt to take over his father L. Ron Hubbard’s assets by declaring that Hubbard was dead or incapacitated.
Neither of those incidents, however, continued for so long to make bad news for Scientology the way Lisa McPherson’s death has. Particularly now that Janet Reitman has told her story for a new audience, so many years after it first happened. Reitman weaves in many key elements of Scientology as she tells Lisa’s story, from the enthusiastic young joiner to a mentally disturbed woman who died because one powerless Scientologist after another watched her and didn’t do enough to raise a proper alarm.
My great thanks to Janet, who gave me permission to quote liberally from her moving account of Lisa’s ordeal for this story. Please, go buy Janet’s book and read the entire saga for yourself.
And here’s to Lisa. You won’t be forgotten.
The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology
#1: L. Ron Hubbard
#2: David Miscavige
#3: Marty Rathbun
#4: Tom Cruise
#5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin
#7: Mark Bunker
#8: Mike Rinder
#9: Jason Beghe
#10: Lisa McPherson
#11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants)
#12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives)
#13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists)
#14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists)
#15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics)
#16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church’s HQ
#17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano
#18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive
#19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church’s other thugs and goons)
#20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures)
#21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church
#22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members)
#23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church)
#24: David Touretzky (and other academics)
#25: Xenu, galactic overlord
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications.
@VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE
[All recent stories] | [Top 25 People Crippling Scientology] | [Commenters of the Week]
[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing “disconnection”]
[Benjamin Ring, LA deputy sheriff, wants you to spend your 401K on Scientology]
[Scientologists: How many of them are there, anyway?]
MARTY RATHBUN AND THE SIEGE OF SOUTH TEXAS
[Scientology has Rathbun arrested] | [Rathbun and Mark Bunker reveal surprising ties]
In Germany with Ursula Caberta: [Announcing plans] | [Press conference] | [Making news about Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair] | [Post-trip interview]
The Squirrel Busters: [Goons with cameras on their heads] | [Rathbun’s open letter to neighbors] | [Ingleside on the Bay, Texas rallies to Rathbun’s cause] | [Squirrel Buster’s claim to be making a “documentary”] | [VIDEO: “On a Boat”] | [“Anna” sent to creep out Monique Rathbun] | [Squirrel Busters go hillbilly] | [A videographer blows the whistle on the goon squad] | [Ed Bryan, OT VIII, shows the power of Scientology’s highest levels]
SCIENTOLOGY SPYING AND “FAIR GAME”
[Secret Scientology documents spell out spying operation against Marc Headley]
[Scientology’s West U.S. spies list revealed] | [Scientology’s enemies list: Are you on it?]
Spy operation against Washington Post writer Richard Leiby: [Part 1] | [Part 2]
[A Scientology spy comes clean: Paulien Lombard’s remarkable public confession]
[Scientology advertises for writers in Freedom magazine]
[Accidental leak shows Scientology spy wing plans to “handle” the Voice]
SCIENTOLOGY AND CELEBRITIES
[“Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [Tom Cruise likes coconut cake] | [Tom Cruise has a sense of humor] | [“Tom Cruise not a kook!”] | [Paulette Cooper on Tom Cruise]
[Paul Haggis, director of Crash, issues an ultimatum, leaves the church]
[Character actor Jason Beghe defects noisily] | [Actor Michael Fairman reveals his “suppressive person” declaration] | [Michael Fairman talks to the Voice]
[Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh: Scientology-Branch Davidian link makes sense]
[Russell Brand weds ex-Scientologists in wild ceremony] | [Skip Press on Haggis]
[Placido Domingo Jr.: Scientology’s retaliation is “scary and pathetic”]
Grant Cardone, NatGeo’s “Turnaround King”: [Doing Scientology’s dirty work?] | [Milton Katselas complained about Cardone’s smear job] | [Cardone runs to Huffpo]
JANET REITMAN’S INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY
[Our review of Inside Scientology] | [An interview with Janet Reitman] | [A report from Reitman’s first book tour appearance] | [At the Half-King: Reitman not afraid]
[Scientology doesn’t like Inside Scientology] | [Q&A at Washington Post]
[A roundup of Reitman’s print reviews, and why isn’t she on television more?]
HUGH URBAN’S THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY
[A review of Urban’s scholarly history of the church] | [An interview with Hugh Urban]
EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT
[Marc Headley: “Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [The Nancy Many interview]
[Sympathy for the Devil: Tory Christman’s Story] | [Jeff Hawkins’ Counterfeit Dreams]
[86 Million Thin Dimes: The Lawrence Wollersheim Saga] | [Mike Rinder on spying]
[Scientology dodges a bullet in Australia] | [Scientology exec Jan Eastgate arrested]
[All hell breaks loose in Israel] | [Scientology sees fundraising gold in the UK riots]
ODD VIDEOS AND ODDER NEWS
[Scientology singalong, “We Stand Tall”] | [Captain Bill Robertson and “Galactic Patrol”]
[Scientology wins a major award!] | [Scientology wants your money: Meet Dede!]
[Birmingham in the House! The “Ideal” dance mix] | [Scientology and the Nation of Islam]
[When Scientology was hip] | [Sad: David Miscavige makes fun of his own fundraisers]
[Freedom magazine parodies The New Yorker. Hilarity ensues.]
[Scientology surf report: Anonymous parties outside the New York “org”]
THE VIEW INSIDE THE BUBBLE
[A scientologist’s letter to the Voice and its readers] | [Scientology silent birth]
[Tad Reeves: Scientology might listen to this guy] | [More Tad Reeves and family]
[Scientology never forgets: A heartwarming telemarketing holiday miracle]