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…
Mark Bunker is currently working on Knowledge Report, a documentary about Scientology that we’ve been previewing here at Runnin’ Scared for months. You probably also know that Bunker was famously dubbed “Wise Beard Man” by Anonymous when he counseled in January 2008 that the upstart movement adopt a more Gandhi-like approach to its fight against Scientology.
But do you know how Bunker first fell into his interest in Scientology on his way to becoming the dean of old time critics? No you don’t — and that’s because Bunker said he was telling the full story to the Voice for the first time anywhere.
Bunker had worked in radio in the Midwest before he moved to Los Angeles in the mid 1980s to work as an actor. He found work in television commercials and theater.
At that point, he says, he had some understanding of Scientology — he’d seen a 60 Minutes report in the 1980s, and when he moved to LA, he suddenly had a reason to become more curious about it.
“I moved into a house, and the previous resident had been a Scientologist. So I was getting all this Scientology mail. ‘What is this?’ I thought. I mean, this is crazy,” he says.
Besides his acting work, Bunker later also took a job working for a company that did market research for Hollywood studios. One day, he remembers, he was driving past a Scientology building on Sunset Boulevard with a coworker, who asked about it. Bunker told her what he knew: that Scientology was the invention of a science fiction writer, and that he’d heard various negative things about it. Later, he learned that his co-worker was in fact a Scientologist, and he felt some embarrassment.
As a kind gesture, he told her that he’d actually like to learn more about Scientology. “‘Would you come tomorrow?’ she asked me,” Bunker says, trying to capture how eager she sounded. “She arranged for me to get my own screening of the orientation film, to take a personality test, to play with an e-meter. I even sat down with the president of the Hollywood Celebrity Centre — I can’t remember his name. But I told them I thought this wasn’t for me.” Bunker says he also wanted to ask them some challenging questions, but he didn’t know the material well enough to do so. It made him curious to learn more.
“I started looking more into it, and it made me see that things my coworker did were starting to make sense now. Like, she tried to talk me out of going to a therapist at one point,” he says. “She audited me one night. I found it really annoying. She kept asking me to tell the same story over and over.” She was taking large amounts of vitamins, and was getting them in injections. “She was even investing in ostrich eggs,” he says, referring to a bizarre get-rich-quick-scheme that some Scientologists hoped would help them raise money quickly to pay for expensive church services.
“I don’t know if she’s still in. One of the things she did was show me the grade chart at the Celebrity Centre, the chart that goes all the way to the top, which is OT VIII. She pointed at the bottom to show me where she was — the very bottom. And she’d been in for 15 years. She’d made no progress because she had no money and didn’t want to join the Sea Org,” he says. (Scientologists who join the Sea Org sign billion-year contracts and work for almost no pay, but they can get free services to help them move up the grade chart.)
The more he looked into Scientology, the more he found it fascinating, Bunker says — even if he was coming to an opposite point of view from his coworker. In the meantime, he had begun training in video editing, and eventually started posting things about Scientology online at the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. “This would have been 1998. I started posting under a fake name then: Benjamin Wog. And then I gave my alter ego a doctorate and started calling myself Dr. Benjamin Wog.”
About that time, after having taken a few years off from acting, Bunker decided to take another shot. “I got a new agent. I went to my first audition, it was a music video. I was there with a couple of actors in the room,” he says, and they were boasting about the commercials they’d recently appeared in. Bunker, feeling that he need to speak up, says he bluffed and said he was working on a show about the Church of Scientology.
Later, he got a call from his agent, saying that someone wanted very much to get in touch with him. He eventually called the number, and it rang at the Hollywood Celebrity Centre. “We understand you’re writing a movie about us,” he was told. “That really frightened me. I’d just been reading about Paulette Cooper and Gabe Cazares. And they tracked me down after just one offhand comment!”
After training with a video editor at KNBC, Bunker says he was ready to begin applying for jobs at all the Los Angeles stations when his life changed suddenly: Bob Minton, a wealthy retired businessman, and Stacy Brooks, a former Sea Org member, had announced that they were taking over FACTnet, an anti-cult website that had been mired for years in litigation with Scientology.
By that time, Bunker had learned how to record shows about Scientology and post them online at a time when there wasn’t much video on the net. He was making American shows available to overseas websites, for example. So when Minton and Brooks made their announcement, Bunker offered his services to help with video on their site. In January, 1999, they flew him out to a conference in Stamford, Connecticut. “Bob put a camera in my hand and I followed him around for the entire conference.”
“That was a big turning point in my life. I met a lot of critics that I’d been reading on ARS: Rod Keller. Grady Ward. A whole bunch of these people. I attended the panels and videotaped them and put them online,” he says. Later, Minton and Brooks dropped FACTnet and instead started the Lisa McPherson Trust, and hired Bunker to be a part of it during 2000 and 2001.
But that was in the future. In 1999, a few months after he returned home from the Connecticut conference, on Hubbard’s birthday in March — a Scientology holiday — he went to videotape a protest. “I wasn’t protesting, I was just videotaping. The next day Scientology put up fliers in my neighborhood with my photograph that said ‘Beware this man.'” Two men showed up to picket his house.
Now that they knew his name, Bunker dropped his alias and announced who he was on ARS. “That’s when I created my website, XenuTV. And so for many years I was the guy who people would turn to if there was a television or radio show on Scientology going on, and they would ask me to tape it and put it online. I would stay up all night working to tape these things. Now that Anonymous has come along, that burden has been taken off my shoulders, and now there’s an entire army watching and taping things.”
With Anonymous taking over those duties, Bunker has for a couple of years been thinking of a new project of his own. With his editing skills (he did go to work for a couple of San Diego television stations, and even won a local Emmy) and voice skills, he knew he was in a good position to make a documentary.
“I wasn’t sure how I could get it funded, because the studios are not going to make something like this. Everyone was too afraid of Scientology. And then I saw there were sites like IndieGoGo that were using crowdsourcing. I knew I could do this fairly inexpensively. So I put up my first campaign and sought $10,000 to get the ball rolling, and got that essentially overnight. So let’s do it,” he says. “I thought there were two methods to get the film done. I could try to do it secretly — look around for investors and just kind of surprise Scientology with the project. The other route is to be open about it, with crowdfunding, and keep everyone informed of every step. And it’s paid off in that there has been a whole hell of a lot of support by people who say they want to be a part of it. And now that I’ve declared my support of Marty Rathbun on his blog, I’m getting a lot of interest from the independents. I’m getting a lot of interest and help from people who wouldn’t have talked to me before, who would have considered me an SP.”
I had to admit that Bunker’s announcement that he had secretly given technical help as Rathbun began his blog in 2009 was a big surprise. But Bunker says it shouldn’t have been. “I’ve always been supportive of the Free Zone. They still believe in the tech, which I don’t believe in. But what does it matter to me what they believe in if they’re not abusing anybody? My position in most of the 10 plus years I’ve been doing this — and it wasn’t my thinking at the very beginning, but one I came to eventually — was that I never have a problem with individual Scientologists. The people who came to me at protests and tried to bait me and yell at me, I never considered them an enemy. People ask me how am I so calm when I run into these people who call me an evil criminal — it was never my feeling that I need to attack them back.”
For an example of how Bunker keeps his cool as he interviews sometimes uncooperative Scientologists, take a look at this amusing segment he filmed with Ethan Suplee for Knowledge Report:
Finally, I asked him to reflect on being dubbed “Wise Beard Man” by Anonymous and how he feels about that episode three years later.
“People ask me from time to time to make another video, to say to Anonymous, don’t hack into PayPal, don’t hack into Visa, these kinds of things,” he says. “But I’m not sure lightning is going to strike twice. I’ve made my point to them for the people who see the importance of not doing the illegal stuff. I’m not sure me telling them again is going to make any difference. I continue to think that Anonymous as a whole does a lot of great stuff, and I hate to see them do something that lands them in trouble. Because not everyone involved in it does that kind of thing. The vast majority of them are doing something noble and kind of fun.”
And Bunker looks like he’s still having fun, so many years after beginning to document the challenges facing Scientology. I hope he gets that movie done soon.
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]