While the shock and grief of his son’s suicide were still fresh, Bob Bashaw read back through their decades-long correspondence, looking in particular for references to Scientology. “I wanted to see what there was here I missed,” he says. His son Greg had been a member of the Church of Scientology for more than 20 years. During that time other relatives, fearing he belonged to a cult, had voiced concerns. But Bob supported his son’s choice, because he believed people should be free to practice their religion without getting hassled about it–and because he couldn’t find a good enough reason not to. That changed in November 2000, when suddenly, he says, Greg broke into “a hundred pieces.” He’d recently lost his job in advertising. And now, Greg told his father, his church had excommunicated him. Seven months later, more than $50,000 in debt, he ended his life on the shoulder of a Michigan road, leaving behind a wife of 20 years and a teenage son, to whom he’d written a brief, unemotional note.
In the year since, Bob has struggled to reconcile Greg’s final act with the life he lived. “I had to understand it,” he says, “because I knew him and this wasn’t him. He was a loving person–kind, and paid his bills, and showed affection. Hugged and kissed. What the hell happened here?”
Bob is a young 74, tall and agile, with a ruddy complexion and a full head of hair that’s wavy on top. Greg wasn’t quite as tall or as thick around the middle, but people told them they looked alike. Greg was Bob’s firstborn, the only one of his three children he’d been close to.
When Bob was 46, the age at which Greg committed suicide, his life had been turned upside down too. He’d lost his job, filed for divorce after 22 years of marriage, been diagnosed with skin cancer, and been told he needed a gingivectomy or he’d lose some teeth. But as bad as it got, he says, he never considered suicide. So at first he couldn’t understand why Greg hadn’t been able to imagine a different end to his suffering or why he’d been unresponsive to the efforts of many to help him. But after Greg’s death Bob discovered things about his son he hadn’t known. And he learned quite a bit about the Church of Scientology. “I think his final choice was the only one he felt he had left,” Bob wrote to his younger son a few months after Greg’s death. “And maybe he was right.”
Bob learned of Greg’s interest in Scientology by accident. In December 1979 Greg had written a letter to a friend, then absentmindedly stuck it in an envelope addressed to his father.
Greg was 25 at the time. He’d graduated from the University of Kansas a few years earlier with a degree in journalism. A woman he dated in high school and college says he was the kind of person who thought “relatively deeply about things” and wanted to “explore what the world was about.” He studied Buddhism, practiced yoga, traveled around the U.S. by bus, and hitchhiked across Europe.
By all accounts Greg was artistically inclined, throwing himself into creative pursuits with intensity and passion. He played trumpet and piano by ear and, according to his ex-girlfriend, would sometimes sit in at jazz clubs. When he was mugged at gunpoint in Spain one Christmas season, he scraped by playing piano in bars until Bob could wire him money.
Greg also wrote short stories and poems–on top of the writing he did for a living. After college he worked briefly as a reporter, for a newspaper in Kansas and for United Press International, then followed his father into advertising. Bob says Greg was writing ad copy for a firm on Michigan Avenue when he met Laura, the woman who would become his wife. Greg and Laura took a trip to Vail at the end of 1979, and it was from there that he mistakenly sent the letter to his father. Bob says Greg gave him permission to read it.
In the letter Greg seemed nearly giddy, delighting in such natural wonders as a “finch on a porch rail, woodchucks in the snow, beavers building high in a snow gorge.” But the trip was stirring up more than an appreciation for wildlife. Greg was undergoing a spiritual awakening. “Destiny also pulls upon me here,” he wrote. “I am committing to memory the fundamental axioms of Scientology.” He reported that he’d found his “life’s spiritual work” and that it was “an odd, unused feeling.” It had taken him by surprise. “After so many seasons of winter,” he wrote, “one is wont to ask where came the spring?”
Bob had been careful not to force religion on his children. His own upbringing had included what he once described in a letter to Greg as “crammed-down-my-throat Lutheranism.” He’d emerged from his parents’ home with his belief in God intact but with an aversion to doctrine.
In 1958, when Greg was around four, the Bashaws settled in Elmhurst. The suburb had just gone through a postwar development boom that included an “explosion of church-making,” according to Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City. A few winters before the Bashaws arrived, the local Jaycees had launched a campaign to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” trying to dissuade people from using the term “Xmas” and urging merchants to display biblical scenes in their shopwindows. The Elmhurst Press pontificated about the importance of attending church regularly.
Bob eventually joined the most independent church he could find, the First Congregational Church, which was governed by its members rather than an ecclesiastical body. He enjoyed taking his children there for services but didn’t much care when Greg ditched Sunday school in favor of shooting pool.
Greg showed more interest in religion when he lived with Bob for several months after college. Bob remembers discussing Buddhism and Christianity with him during that time, and at Greg’s request they even visited the Urantia Foundation, a group that says its scripture was authored by “celestial beings.” Bob knew Greg was in search of spiritual meaning. He was glad to learn from the Vail letter that his son thought he had found it.
The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954, the year Greg was born. In 1967 the IRS determined that it operated more like a business than a religion and revoked its tax-exempt status, which the church would regain after a 26-year battle. Today it claims to have eight million members worldwide.
Scientology grew out of the theories science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard espoused in the argot-laden 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Hubbard purported to have identified the single source of unhappiness–and its cure. Unhappiness, he claimed, stems from the “reactive mind,” which contains “engrams,” or mental images of everything a person perceives when unconscious or in intense physical or emotional pain. Later in life, similar perceptions can trigger the engrams and cause unnecessary suffering. The key to happiness is to obliterate the engrams–to herd them like “little sheep…into the pen for slaughter.”
Hubbard promised great things once someone’s engrams were gone: higher intelligence, better eyesight, and freedom from a host of troubles, including psychoses, psychosomatic illnesses, neuroses, compulsions, and repression. He called this state “clear” and said that attaining it was possible only by using a breakthrough therapy he’d created called “auditing.”
Auditing requires a person to sit in a room and answer questions–not ones you’d hear in typical talk-therapy, but specific sets of them devised by Hubbard. Auditing was a precise “technology,” he claimed, and if applied correctly it would always produce the same results. In 1959 he introduced a small machine called an E-Meter to help with the process. The person being audited holds the machine’s electrodes–hollow electroplated copper cans–which allegedly pick up energy generated by the person’s thoughts. According to the Church of Scientology, the auditor “reads” the movements of a needle, which have specific meanings, and uses them as a guide for which topics to address further. Hubbard believed people were immortal spirits carrying around baggage from previous incarnations, and Scientologists often think they’re turning up engrams from past lives during auditing sessions.
Hubbard’s theories confirmed Greg’s worldview. “My own personal beliefs are that man is a spirit; that he lives through many existences,” he wrote to his father many years after joining the church, “and so the trouble he encounters in a particular lifetime is a result of all his previous experience. This belief made my transition to Scientology a natural one, as Scientology basically takes this belief and works out a therapy based on it.”
Before Hubbard died in 1986 he mapped out the exact steps necessary to achieve spiritual freedom. They include pricey auditing sessions, training seminars, and advanced courses–though the church says whatever money people pay is a donation. From the get-go, this was no ordinary church: in the process of attaining enlightenment–by crossing what Hubbard called the Bridge to Total Freedom–you just might go broke.
Greg seemed willing to do whatever it took. Early on he borrowed thousands of dollars from his father for Scientology-related endeavors. Bob says Greg used one of the loans to go with Laura to the church’s Los Angeles complex for course work; he paid it back with interest, explaining that he’d felt pressured by the church to cough up the money. “What happened,” he wrote Bob on January 21, 1981, “is that our financial officer for the Church informed us we would need another $1700 to pay for the package we were securing. It was imperative to get it this past week; otherwise the annual price increase, which he had held off for us through administrative fancywork, would go into effect. Simply put, if we didn’t send the money Wednesday, the prices would have gone up on us by $500.”
Today the church encourages beginning Scientologists to spend 12 and a half hours a week auditing. According to spokespeople at the church’s Illinois branch, sessions can run up to $200 an hour, but the cost varies depending on whether people team up and audit each other or work with a professional auditor. The spokespeople also say it’s not unusual for a person to spend between 150 and 200 hours trying to become clear.
In March 1981 Bob received a letter from Greg’s mother, who’d read a disturbing article about Scientology in Reader’s Digest. “Scientology: Anatomy of a Frightening Cult” depicted Hubbard as a megalomaniac “surrounded by aides who cater to his every whim,” including young women “who light his ever-present cigarettes and catch the ashes.” The writer stated that the church operated its own “punishment unit,” the Rehabilitation Project Force, and kept detailed records of intimate things people revealed in auditing sessions in order to blackmail them should they decide to defect or denounce the church.
The article also referred to “fanatic operatives” within the church who’d “engaged in burglary, espionage, kidnapping and smear campaigns to further their goals.” It said that after losing its tax-exempt status the church had inundated the IRS with lawsuits and that top-level Scientologists had gone so far as to investigate and harass agents, infiltrate government offices, and steal documents pertaining to Hubbard and the church. In 1979, the year Greg became involved in Scientology, Hubbard’s third wife, Mary Sue, and several other top-level Scientologists were convicted in federal court of theft and conspiracy in connection with the church’s battle with the IRS. (In 1993 the agency reversed itself without explanation after top Scientologists paid an unscheduled visit to the IRS commissioner; it granted the church tax-exempt status again, even though the Supreme Court had upheld its earlier decision to revoke it.)
The Reader’s Digest article also cautioned that auditing could have detrimental effects: “As defectors have attested, subjects become hysterical and psychotic in their auditing. Then they are locked in isolation. Not surprisingly, suicides occur.”
Greg’s mother said in her letter that when she’d questioned their son about the article, he claimed it had been planted by “psychiatrists engaged in a conspiracy against Scientology.” As Bob would later realize, Greg had already swallowed the party line.
Hubbard had a vendetta against psychologists and psychiatrists, who’d taken him to task for failing to support the lofty claims in Dianetics with empirical evidence. Not long after the book was published, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution forbidding its members to use Hubbard’s techniques except for the purpose of scientific research. Prominent mental health professionals mocked Hubbard for his grandiose claims and worried about the potentially harmful effects of his techniques. “Dianetics has no respect for and no understanding of the complexities of personality,” psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review in September 1950. “Problems of values and conscience do not exist. If the engrams are erased you have no conflicts. All great philosophical and religious teachers wasted their efforts. There is no problem which does not result from engram command and there is no point to their thinking since they did not know Hubbard’s discovery.”
Such criticism was the “shot that began a war,” according to Scientology literature. Hubbard dismissed criticism from people in the mental health professions, saying they were motivated by self-interest. He claimed his brand of therapy posed a serious threat to their credibility and pocketbooks and would eventually expose them all as frauds. And he went on the offensive. One former church member says, “Scientologists are constantly indoctrinated with psychiatry as an enemy of mankind. Every course, every lecture of Hubbard’s, every book is laced with antipsychiatry stuff.”
The church is notorious for tenaciously attempting to silence its critics and for equating any criticism with religious bigotry. It even compares the plight of Scientologists to that of Jews in Nazi Germany.
According to numerous news articles and court cases, Hubbard instituted a “Fair Game” policy in 1967, apparently giving Scientologists the green light to cross the line into criminal behavior where “suppressive persons” were concerned. SPs are people who hold Scientologists back, people who work to foil the church’s goal of “clearing” the planet. They include worried friends or family members who try to thwart individual Scientologists’ progress, impassioned defectors who denounce the religion, and journalists who generate bad publicity. According to many reports, the Fair Game policy stated that SPs “may be deprived of property or injured by any means,” including being “tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”
Church spokespeople say critics misinterpreted Hubbard’s original policy, and besides, he revoked it in 1968–reportedly citing “bad public relations.” But according to various high-level defectors, the policy remained in effect. In 1969 the church established the Citizens Commission on Human Rights to investigate and expose abuses in the mental health professions. Over the years CCHR has published volumes of antipsychiatry and antipsychology literature under the guise of scientific study, arguing that psychiatrists were the “real scourge behind Hitler’s Nazi regime”; that 10 to 25 percent of psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists openly admit to having sexually abused patients; and that two-thirds are themselves “seriously mentally ill.”
As far as Bob knew, Greg’s experience with the mental health profession had been limited. He’d seen a therapist his freshman year of college without seeming “to have much luck,” but Bob didn’t think his son had anything against the profession.
Greg’s mother, who’s now deceased, also wrote in her March 1981 letter that she wasn’t the only one concerned about Greg’s interest in Scientology. Bob says that after Greg got engaged to Laura he started “getting heat” from her family for getting her involved in the church. The letter from Greg’s mother said that Laura’s mother was particularly upset: “Greg said they had to go out early the day of Laura’s shower to calm [her mother] down and explain things.”
The Bashaws had gone through a bitter divorce. Bob says he rarely had civil contact with his ex-wife, so this letter from her stood out for its lack of hostility. He thought she was imploring him to do something, but he didn’t know what he could do. Greg had chosen his religion, and he was 26–too old to have his parents managing his affairs. Life was full of choices, and Bob trusted that his intelligent, thoughtful son would make wise ones. Greg was trained as a journalist. He asked questions.
Greg and Laura were married in Barrington Hills by a Scientology minister in the summer of 1981. Bob, who’d remarried several months earlier, had never seen a ceremony like it. “There was something about ‘Can you see the light? Do you see it now?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes.’ That didn’t mean anything to me,” he says, “but it meant something to them.” (Laura declined requests for an interview, as did Greg’s siblings.)
A few months after the wedding the Reader’s Digest came out with another negative article on the church. It said that Hubbard controlled not only people’s wallets but their minds–often to devastating ends. There was more about suicide: “In Germany, a young man who struggled for two years to free himself from the cult’s hold left his parents’ home on Christmas Day and lay down in front of a train. A young man in Paris who underwent the cult’s processing quit his job, closeted himself and slashed his veins. As he bled to death, he scrawled on a memo pad: ‘Go to Scientology and you will understand all!'”
Bob can’t remember specifically what he’d read about Scientology at the time, but he knew it had got some bad press. Bob questioned Greg about the stories over lunch one day, and Greg insisted they weren’t true. Bob left it at that. He prided himself on being the kind of father who respected his children’s individuality.
Greg appreciated his father’s parenting style: “I can say that I am very glad to have had you for a father,” he wrote Bob in December 1981. “You have always encouraged me to develop my own life and ideas, apart from the expectations of caste or circumstance. I thank you for that.”
Greg attributed some of the things he valued most about himself to his father’s influence. In the same letter he wrote that his “philosophic and religious searchings” had been inspired by Bob. “You have always been known as a thinker, an amateur philosopher and extrapolater and I am glad that some of these characteristics have rubbed off or been passed on to me.”
Greg wanted to reciprocate and said the best way would be to introduce his father to Scientology. “The trouble with doing so,” he wrote, “is that there is no other field of knowledge to directly compare it to in scope, precision or workability. Comparing it to psychology is a degradation; to Christianity is very inexact….I am not now speaking from belief or hope or faith, but experience. I have now experienced past lives enough to know with certainty that I am a spirit….I have experienced enough of the other in-vogue disciplines (Buddhism, psychology, meditation, etc) to know that they are like a thimbleful of knowingness compared to the ocean of wisdom that is Scientology.” Critics of Scientology, he continued, “have nothing to compare it to, and because they cannot confront its vastness, they deem it somehow wicked or weird. It is neither.” He said he was “excited about its potential–for myself and others.”
Bob had no interest in joining a new church, especially not the Church of Scientology. “I saw no charity in what I saw in Scientology,” he says. “And I saw no love and caring for people. And that’s so important to me.”
He wrote back to Greg: “Your comments to me about our relationship are very tender and precious to me. Thank you for this. In one respect, your comments have vindicated actions of mine that I felt strongly about but was never quite sure. The actions of which I speak were steps taken to create and maintain an environment and atmosphere fairly clear of have-tos, shoulds, nevers; hateful parameters to me that stunted my own growth for so many years. My reaction in reading how you feel is to shout YIPEE! I knew it would work!…As for being your father, well thanks for being my son. I am very proud of you as a person, for things you have done, for things you are doing and for things you will do….A long, interesting and fruitful life is ahead of you Greg and I am very happy about that.”
Then he declined his son’s offer. “I have truly found peace and understanding; grace. I have said to you before and I do say again, I am happy you have found an answer, a way of life, a fulfillment of your needs. I have found this too.”
Bob then explained that he felt a responsibility to help those less fortunate than himself through charitable contributions and sharing “spiritually and emotionally with those…who could use some love and caring.” He pointedly continued, “Our church has no profit motive.” It was the closest he’d come to criticizing his son’s religion.
He continued to have nagging doubts, but says, “I looked for change, irrational behavior. I looked for screwups somewhere.” He saw no marked difference. Telltale signs of cult involvement–severed relationships, loss of critical thinking–didn’t apply. “There wasn’t any big red flag that went up. And that’s really what I was looking for.”
Greg continued to be a warm, loving son, generous with compliments and words of affection. He and Bob talked every week, often about politics or sports or movies, and they got together when they could for dinner or to watch Bears games or movies.
Bob also didn’t see any problems in how Greg’s life was progressing, professionally or personally. In 1984 Greg’s son was born. Greg had a good job at Darcy MacManus & Masius, writing ad copy for such national accounts as Budget Rent a Car and Allied Van Lines and producing radio and TV commercials for such corporate clients as Amoco. In glowing biographical flyers that Greg proudly shared with his father, Greg’s employer praised his skills at “translating complex technical and financial matters into readable ads” and “blending humor with factual information.” Greg was competent and talented. Bob could find nothing concrete to confirm his anxiety.
After Greg was promoted to vice president, one of the world’s most prestigious advertising firms, Leo Burnett, came calling. Bob says Greg postponed his start date at the company and flew to the Church of Scientology’s LA complex for three months of intensive training.
At times Bob had to defend his support for Greg to other family members. He says he used to “do battle” with Greg’s aunts. In a letter to one of them he wrote: “The horror stories of Scientology victims and my imagination, plus what I have read, certainly conjure up rage and anxiety. But the fact is that I cannot split my feelings. That is to say, love and support Greg and still take an active role in trying to destroy something he believes in. My personal honesty and integrity does not permit me to have a loving relationship with him while covertly working against what he sincerely believes in.”
Bob searched his motives for this hands-off approach. “He is into it and there is
really nothing I can do about it. If I tried I would alienate myself to him. Secondly, I have seen nothing in his character or personality that would indicate the slightest altering of him as a person. Thirdly, I feel intensely that each of us should be free to make our own choices in life. For the reasons above I will continue as I have to love him and support his choices, within reason.”
Greg’s relationship with his mother had deteriorated after she’d spoken out against Scientology, and Bob was afraid the same thing would happen to him. His relationships with his younger children had suffered tremendously during the divorce, but Greg had been away at college and was spared some of the ugliness. “I have thought about this too,” Bob’s letter to his sister continued. “Do I take this position to not alienate him because he is the one of three children of mine that I am in touch with? The only one that I can share my feelings and he truly share his feelings with me? The answer is no.”
Ultimately he concluded that respecting his son’s choices was more important than airing a vague discomfort. That’s not to say he didn’t second-guess himself from time to time, especially after Greg attained the level of clear.
According to Scientology literature, when people clear themselves of engrams they can expect to be “self-confident, happy and generally successful in both careers and interpersonal relationships.” They’re told they’ll regain “native capabilities” and know freedom from the “cycle of birth and death.” Even so, there are still higher–and costlier–states of spiritual awareness to be had.
After becoming clear, Greg was considered an “Operating Thetan.” No longer plagued by engrams, OTs audit for other purposes–namely, the church says, to further their spiritual development. They buy their own E-Meters, which cost between $2,200 and $3,500, and take a course in solo auditing so they can audit themselves at home. They also make regular visits to the church’s “Advanced Organizations,” where they undergo intensive training, professional auditing sessions, and security checks, which defectors say are actually intended to test loyalty to the church.
Mystery surrounds the upper-level teachings. According to church spokespeople, one needs to be spiritually prepared for them, so they’re kept secret. Greg apparently found them well worth the wait. On November 25, 1985, he wrote to his father from Los Angeles, “The level of Scientology auditing I am on here is truly breathtaking. It explains and handles so much that it is a challenge to one’s reality to encompass it all.” He wasn’t much more specific. “The data is confidential for good reason. But I can tell you that the Level deals with and resolves a great catastrophe that occurred on this planet 75 million years ago.”
Despite the church’s efforts to hide its upper-level teachings from outsiders and lower-level Scientologists, defectors have revealed them in court cases, spoken about them at conferences and to the media, and disseminated them over the Internet. Greg’s reference to a great catastrophe is consistent with what has been revealed about OT3. On this level Scientologists apparently are taught that 75 million years ago an evil galactic overlord named Xenu, faced with an overpopulation problem, rounded up and froze people, then banished them to earth, where they were blown to smithereens by hydrogen bombs and implanted with false memories. Hubbard said the people’s spirits merged into clusters and are now attached to every living person.
Hubbard called the clusters “body thetans,” or BTs, and said that one must get rid of them just as one gets rid of engrams–through auditing. Defectors say body thetans are like roaches–just when you think they’re gone you discover more. They were only sleeping, you learn on subsequent levels, or drugged.
Mary Anne Ahmad and Sue Strozewski, of the church’s public relations department in Chicago, say they can’t divulge upper-level information and that any details that are available to the public are out of context and probably have been altered by enemies of Scientology to make the religion seem weird. They say people who defect probably do so because they’ve failed to understand Hubbard’s teachings, so they’re hardly equipped to explain them. They also point out that isolated aspects of any religion can seem bizarre if they’re unfamiliar. As an example, Strozewski offers the Catholic belief that communion wafers are the body of Christ.
According to Strozewski, no one has advanced beyond OT8, though more levels exist. She says the materials for them are entrusted to the staff at the church’s Religious Technology Center in Los Angeles, then adds, “I would venture to say they would protect them with their lives.”
In December 1985, shortly after learning the Scientology creation story, Greg flew to Clearwater, Florida, where the church has a large complex, the Flag Service Organization, that serves as the mecca of Scientology. Upper-level church members from all over the world make pilgrimages there twice a year for advanced training and, says Ahmad, “to make sure everything’s going OK.” She says the visits typically last a week or two, but Bob says Greg’s usually stretched out to at least four weeks.
Bob found his son’s prolonged absences from home worrisome, especially after Greg became a father. Laura spent time at Flag as well, Bob says, but she always seemed to get through her training “faster than he did.”
Speaking to Bob from Flag a few days before Christmas, Greg alluded to his freshman year at the University of Kansas, indicating that old problems had resurfaced. Bob knew Greg’s freshman year had been rough, but he didn’t know exactly what Greg was referring to. He remembered that Greg had come home in the middle of his first semester seeming depressed and spent an awful lot of time sleeping. Bob arranged for him to see a psychotherapist. After a couple of weeks Greg appeared to feel better and returned to school. Bob never found out what the source of the trouble was. Nor did he dig for it. He thought Greg was simply having difficulty adjusting to life away from home. Toward the end of Greg’s freshman year, in the spring of ’74, Bob filed for divorce. Though Bob had thought Greg didn’t seem as deeply affected as his siblings, the woman Greg was dating at the time says he was devastated.
When Greg brought up his freshman year on the phone in 1985 Bob didn’t ask him to elaborate. “It wasn’t that I didn’t wonder,” he says. But it seemed clear that whatever was going on was too big for Bob to handle: “I wasn’t a shrink, and it wasn’t an area I thought I should get into.” He adds, “I don’t get into something unless there’s a way I could help. Otherwise it’s a curiosity thing, and that’s a selfish one-way thing.”
Greg stayed at Flag through the holidays, straining his budget. His wife and son had planned to join him, he wrote Bob the day after Christmas, “but we decided we’d better not spend the money, which is now very tight. I’m economizing as much as possible while here–staying in a shared room, etc.”
In a letter he sent after New Year’s, Greg implied that the gains were worth the financial burden and time away from his family. “Scientology has saved my ass, that’s for sure,” he wrote. “I was totally stuck in that thing from the past, not even knowing what it was. Now I’m unstuck, in the know, and working towards completion. It will be a new life when I get back.”
Greg also told his father he’d finished two short stories since he’d been in Clearwater–the first fiction he’d written in a while–and said he planned to put together a collection of stories about the suburbs, not “from the point of view of an outsider cynically looking in, but an insider looking around.”
Then he said something that gave Bob pause. Greg, who believed he’d retrieved long-lost native skills since becoming clear, said he had the ability to communicate with the dead. “It’s easy,” he wrote, “like talking on a telephone, when you have the hang of it.” He claimed to have recently spoken to Bob’s deceased mother. Greg reported that she was disappointed to learn heaven didn’t exist and said he’d encouraged her to get a new body. “I told her where the nearest hospital was in case she wanted to ‘be born’ in California. And she left, quite content and happy.”
Greg said he’d had other conversations with dead people, “but they happened in the context of formal auditing sessions and so are confidential….So, there are new realities for me and new abilities….But I should be home soon. It will be the start of a new life….God, I can’t wait to sleep with my wife and hug my son!”
Bob remembers thinking, “What is this crap?” For the first time he considered confronting Greg. He says he wanted to tell him the letter was “bullshit” and that it was “way off the norm.” He wanted to ask, “Where’s your critical thinking?”
But he didn’t. For all he knew, maybe it was possible to speak to the dead. And he didn’t want to do anything rash. He eventually submitted a few pages of Greg’s writing to a handwriting analyst. “I asked if there was anything she saw that was troublesome,” he says, “and she didn’t indicate that there was.” But he was still unsettled and began to wonder if Hubbard was a charlatan. It seemed as though he’d thrown together aspects of other religions and borrowed from other thinkers–Buddhism and Christianity, Freud and Edgar Cayce–to target an educated population, which would be likely to have expendable income.
Bob wrote to his brother a few days after getting Greg’s letter: “My own feeling is that I may be involved in some rescue mission with Greg….My own prophecy is that we are in for some tough times ahead.”
From then on, Bob says, he kept a closer eye on his son, preparing to step in should some red flag appear. But he didn’t realize he wasn’t in a good position to assess Scientology’s influence on Greg. Enmeshed in the secret upper levels, Greg revealed precious little about his religious studies or church-related activities. It was only after his death that Bob realized how much his son had kept from him. “I knew him as a loving son, my best friend,” he says. “I never knew the other side of him–and it was vicious.”
For many years Greg appeared to have an idyllic life. He lived with his wife and son in a two-story house on 16 acres of land in Barrington Hills. They kept an assortment of animals on the premises–dogs, peacocks, sheep, rabbits, horses. He had an active spiritual life and a creative, high-paying job–he’d even been promoted to vice president at Leo Burnett.
Bob doesn’t know exactly how much his son earned, though he’s confident it was in the six figures. He’s also confident that Greg was dumping large sums of money into Scientology coffers. He heard that in addition to the training courses and biannual trips to Clearwater, which he says cost thousands of dollars each, Greg was considered a “patron” of the International Association of Scientologists because he’d donated around $40,000 to the group. The IAS says it uses donations to protect religious freedom. Scientology critics say that means the donations go into IAS’s “war chest” and are used to squash perceived threats.
In the 90s there was no bigger threat to Scientology than the Cult Awareness Network. CAN was a clearinghouse for information on groups it considered destructive cults, and the network had amassed a thick file on the church. CAN’s headquarters were in Barrington, a stone’s throw from Greg’s house, and Greg did what he could to ensure the organization’s demise.
A staff of five and one volunteer ran the CAN office. A jazz musician and former Scientologist named Jim Beebe handled most of the inquiries about Scientology. “When you first get into Scientology they have a wonderful facade,” he says. “‘Come on in. We’re going to help you become more able. We’re going to raise your IQ, and we’re going to help you get rid of your problems.’ It’s all very attractive. You go to a Scientology place. There’s an exciting group dynamic there. You take the first course, which is a communication course–and it’s quite a good little course. There are some good ideas on communication, and it’s fun to do. But this is all a trap.” In Scientology, he says, “there is only L. Ron Hubbard. And little by little, as you move from one course to another, you move right into his mind-set. Your own thinking very subtly gets replaced by L. Ron Hubbard’s.”
The church’s Illinois branch is well aware of Beebe, and its public relations department advises ignoring everything he says. According to Mary Anne Ahmad, he’s “antireligionist,” a “crackpot,” and “delusional.” She says Scientology has no dogma, and her colleague Sue Strozewski says the religion only imparts knowledge–what you do with it is up to you. “You find your own reality,” she says. “No one is going to sit there and tell you what to believe, what’s wrong and what the solution is.” A solution is, however, guaranteed.
The church considered CAN an anti-
religious hate group, and Beebe says anyone associated with it was Fair Game. The church’s Freedom magazine published a thick report on CAN that likened the group to the Ku Klux Klan, saying it “generates violence and hatred against religious and other organizations, creating a climate in which even murder is possible.”
Beebe says that in the early 90s church officials dispatched Greg and a handful of other foot soldiers to wreak havoc. They sent in their $30 membership dues and began to monitor CAN’s activities through its monthly newsletters. Greg showed up at a few anticult conferences advertised in the newsletters and caused a ruckus.
“None of my encounters with Greg were pleasant,” says Reg Alev, a former executive director of CAN. He says Greg once confronted him on the way out of a rest room, bellowing something about CAN being a terrorist organization. “Greg was the kind of guy we always wanted to help,” says Alev. “But a normal dialogue would have been impossible with him at that time. He was extremely confrontational and loud, and he had an agenda that was anathema to the organization I represented at the time.”
Beebe says Greg picketed outside the office and even outside staff members’ homes. In 1992 Greg and other Scientologists who’d joined CAN asked if they could volunteer and were turned away. They then sued the group, charging religious discrimination, and Greg filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
According to Cynthia Kisser, who succeeded Alev as executive director of CAN, Greg’s actions were part of a concerted effort by Scientologists nationwide to “harass and disrupt” the network. She says that between 1991 and 1996 Scientologists across the country filed 50 nearly identical lawsuits and human rights complaints against it. Eventually many of them, including Greg’s, were dismissed for lack of merit, but CAN sank into a financial crisis defending itself. In 1994 it counterattacked, suing the church, its law firm, and 11 Scientologists, including Greg, for inundating it with frivolous lawsuits. A Cook County circuit court judge dismissed the case, though in 1997 the Illinois Supreme Court would overturn the decision and reinstate CAN’s right to sue.
In the summer of 1996 Beebe found himself the target of a smear campaign. CAN callers he’d previously counseled began contacting him with the news that they’d received documents maligning his character from an organization called the Anti-Deprogramming League. The documents said Beebe had “always had marital troubles,” appeared to be a “dysfunctional father,” and was a “failure as a professional musician”; they compared Beebe’s opposition to Scientology to Nazi propaganda campaigns. A questionnaire included in the packet asked, among other things, whether Beebe had “ever disrupted a marriage by seducing the wife of a Scientologist.”
Sending out “dead-agent packs,” Beebe says, is a common tactic Scientologists use to discredit critics. “You gather by whatever means whatever negative information you can on an individual. You put it all together. If you don’t have enough stuff, just make some up–as Hubbard said, make it good and lurid. And then you send it around to the individual’s friends, to his associates, to his employers, to the media, to anywhere it might do some harm.”
The return address on the DA pack about Beebe belonged to Greg Bashaw. When Beebe confronted him, he denied having sent it but said he’d received a couple of filled-out questionnaires.
Beebe wrote a letter to Greg in November 1996 saying the “defamatory material” in the DA pack had caused “a great deal of stress and upset to my family, my companion and myself.” Beebe then asked Greg to send him the returned questionnaires. Greg wrote a taunting response: “I’m sorry, but I threw away those two mail pieces you are referring to awhile ago….I didn’t even realize that the material was actually ‘defamatory’–when we talked about it the other weekend, you only said it had ‘upset you.’ What exactly did it say that wasn’t true?”
By then CAN had already buckled under the financial weight of all the lawsuits. A young Pentecostal Christian named Jason Scott dealt the final blow. In 1990 Scott’s mother had hired someone recommended by a CAN volunteer to deprogram him and two of her other sons, who wouldn’t defect from their fundamentalist church with her. The deprogrammer abducted Scott against his will and held him in a beach house on the Washington State coast for five days of deprogramming. Scott’s younger siblings were minors, but Scott was 18, and in 1994 he sued CAN for violating his civil rights. Represented by a Scientology lawyer, he won a judgment of over $1 million against CAN in 1995. Eight months later CAN declared bankruptcy.
At a bankruptcy auction a Scientologist acquired CAN’s name, logo, and hot-line number. Lawyers tied to the church wound up with the network’s archive–all of its confidential files containing information about callers and donors were now in the hands of Scientologists. A recent call to CAN’s hot line yielded the information that Scientologists are “pretty nice people,” “really quite scholarly,” and “ethical and honest,” as well as the advice to go to one of their churches and “see for yourself.”
Greg’s efforts had paid off, and he was elated by CAN’s demise. In June 1996 he wrote a letter to a former CAN staff member attempting to soothe hostilities between them: “If down the road you receive a call from a parent whose child is in Scientology, I believe I could help you.” He added, “My purpose is to expand the acceptance and use of Scientology in the world.”
Scientologists are told that the more intensively they audit, the more rapid their trek across the Bridge to Total Freedom will be. Bob says Greg audited every weekday–in the morning until he left for work and after dinner until he went to sleep. Some former members and mental health experts claim such practices can be psychologically damaging. In 1986 a man named Lawrence Wollersheim persuaded a Los Angeles jury that the church had driven him to the brink of insanity and suicide. Psychologist Margaret Singer testified on his behalf that auditing and other Scientology practices had induced bipolar disorder and were the major cause of his emotional and mental distress. Wollersheim claimed church staff forbade him to seek professional help, even though they knew he was planning to commit suicide, and forced him, through a policy called “disconnect,” to abandon his wife and family. After he left the church, he alleged, he was declared a suppressive person and subject to Fair Game, which destroyed his photography business. Wollersheim won a $30 million judgment against the church.
Adopting the slogan “Not one thin dime for Wollersheim,” the church appealed several times, succeeding in reducing the award to $2.5 million, and sued nearly everyone involved: Wollersheim, his counsel, his expert witnesses, the judge, and the entire Los Angeles superior court. Finally this May, 16 years later, it paid up–over $8.6 million, which included the award and interest.
Wollersheim now operates FACTnet.org, a Web site intended to educate people about cults and mind control. He has posted on the site a list of suicides and deaths he believes can be linked to Scientology, among them that of Hubbard’s own son, 22-year-old Quentin, who died in 1976 after being found comatose in a car with a hose running from the exhaust to the driver’s window. The list also includes Noah Lottick, a 24-year-old church member who in 1990 jumped out of a tenth-floor window in Manhattan, not far from a Scientology center. According to a 1991 Time magazine cover story, “Scientology: The Cult of Greed,” Lottick, who’d spent $5,000 on church services, died clutching $171–“virtually the only money he hadn’t yet turned over to the Church of Scientology.” In 1998 Philip Gale, whose mother worked for the church’s Citizens Commission on Human Rights, also jumped to his death from a tall building–on Hubbard’s birthday. The highest-profile death on the list is that of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old member of the church who died mysteriously in 1995 while in the care of Scientologists. Her aunt filed a wrongful-death suit, claiming that Scientologists had labeled McPherson a PTS, or Potential Trouble Source, after she exhibited signs of mental instability and expressed a desire to leave the church. The suit also alleged that Scientologists had held her against her will at Flag for 17 days in a program called “Introspection Rundown,” keeping her in isolation and denying her “appropriate fluids, nutrition and medical care.” During this time McPherson “tried to flee and was physically restrained, including being tied to the bed, and her condition worsened until she was babbling incoherently and unable to sleep.” Ultimately she “slipped into a coma or coma-like state” and church members took her to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
In 1997 the St. Petersburg Times did an investigation into deaths at Flag and “turned up seven other Scientologists in apparently sound health who died suddenly after coming to Clearwater for training or counseling.”
Steven Hassan, a mental health counselor and former cult member, though never a Scientologist, says auditing sessions require Scientologists to constantly relive traumas, real and imagined: first they concentrate on traumas from their own lives and when they run out of those they move on to those from past lives. Scientologists tend to “become very suggestible,” he says, adding that in one of the early courses they undergo “trance-inducing” exercises to learn how to mask their true feelings. Hassan, who’s written two books on combating mind control, says he’s not objecting to Scientology’s beliefs–he’s objecting to its practices, including what he calls deceptive recruitment. “My gripe with groups like Scientology is that you don’t really know what they believe until you’re thousands of dollars in debt and thousands of hours into indoctrination.”
Greg left Leo Burnett in 1997 for Foote, Cone & Belding, a company his father had once worked for. In Bob’s eyes, Greg had given himself a demotion–Burnett was the top of the game. When they talked about it, Greg drew his father’s attention to the perks. “He had a special parking place and all these other goodies,” Bob recalls. “I think what he must have done was preempt my questions.” Bob later found out that Greg had quit after Burnett acquired the account for Prozac, a drug that Scientology’s Citizens Commission on Human Rights claimed could lead to “homicidal rages” and suicide and had tried to get the FDA to ban.
Bob noticed the first major changes in his son in December 1999, when Greg seemed wholly uninterested in the books Bob had given him for Christmas. A couple of months passed, and Greg still hadn’t even opened them. Bob grew concerned because Greg usually read books quickly, and one of them was a book on filmmaking, which was particularly relevant given that Greg was working on a script for a documentary about missionaries in Ecuador–a freelance assignment for his friend Jim Hanon, who had an ad agency in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bob says that around this time he noticed that Greg wasn’t holding up his end of conversations anymore. He usually just rephrased whatever Bob had just said.
Hanon too noticed that Greg wasn’t his usual self. Longtime creative collaborators, they’d worked together at Leo Burnett in the early 90s. Hanon, an art director, had always thought of Greg as “a deep thinker, a great writer, a poet.” But now he thought Greg’s “creativity was not at the same level of consistency.” Greg agreed with Hanon and said the change was “connected to the auditing.”
In September 2000 Greg told his father he was returning to Clearwater. “He’d always let me know when he was going, but he’d say, ‘I’ll be back in two weeks,’ and it was always four, five weeks.” This time, Bob recalls, “I said, ‘Greg, you’re spending a hell of a lot of time down there. I don’t understand it. You’re spending time away from your job, and you’re spending time away from your family.’ And his answer to me was, ‘You’re right, dad. You don’t understand it.'”
Greg, who was now on OT7, the second-highest level, didn’t return until November. When he did he told his father he’d been fired, though a spokesperson for Foote, Cone & Belding says that his departure was a “mutually agreed upon” decision.
On November 30 the phone woke Bob at 4:30 AM. Laura was on the other end, asking him to stop by to see Greg. Neither the tone of her voice nor the hour of the call suggested urgency–Bob was known as an early riser, though on most days he slept until at least 5. The drive from his home in Glen Ellyn would take about 40 minutes. He promised Laura he’d visit later in the morning, then got out of bed and made some coffee. The phone rang again around 6:30. This time it was Greg, telling his father not to bother coming over. An hour or so later Bob was summoned again. He didn’t ask why he’d been invited, disinvited, and reinvited. He thought Greg probably “had some anxiety at being out of a job.” He figured his son wanted to talk.
When Bob arrived Greg greeted him warmly. “His demeanor was just normal as could be,” Bob recalls, “and all of a sudden he breaks down and says he was preparing to kill himself.” He’d even come up with a plan–to drive to the nearby forest preserve and drink a bottle of Drano. “I was in such shock,” Bob says. The contrast between the image Greg had been projecting and his emotional reality was stark. “I’m holding him, and he’s saying he failed everybody, he isn’t worth anything, he’s a total failure.”
The trip to Clearwater had been a disaster. “They threw him out,” Bob says. Greg told him the church staff had said he had some kind of medical or physical condition they couldn’t help him with, then sent him away, telling him never to return. “That’s when I said, ‘Hey, holy shit. Look what he’s been involved in.’ This is when the whole thing hit the fan with me. I realized what the hell it had done to him.”
Greg asked if he could sleep at Bob’s that night, but Bob wanted his son safe in the care of psychiatrists. He urged Greg to check himself into a hospital, and he says Laura did too, after returning home from her job as a naturalist at a private school. “That surprised me, but I was glad to hear it,” says Bob, who believes that by this point Laura had left the church.
Greg reluctantly checked himself into the psychiatric ward of Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, not out of the belief the staff could help him, but because he had nowhere else to spend the night.
It was late when Bob got home. After so many hours in crisis mode he couldn’t sleep. He wrote a note informing Greg’s doctor about his involvement in Scientology, then outlined what he would say to his son the next day. The following morning in the psych unit, the first thing he told Greg was that Scientology was evil and that it was his enemy. Bob says he’d never denounced something dear to his son or expressed disapproval of his choices, and Greg appeared shocked and wounded. “It was as if I’d slapped him in the face.”
Every two or three days Bob wrote to family members, updating them on the situation and asking them to help Greg find the strength and courage to continue living. He says that Greg and Laura considered the letters an invasion of their privacy. But reaching out to the rest of the family came naturally to Bob, and he figured Greg would need all the support he could get. And Bob too needed support–as well as assurances that others would do what they could to help his son. He wanted Greg to know that his life mattered. “I wanted to keep you alive,” he wrote after Greg had reproached him for spreading the news and Laura had declared him “persona non grata.”
Bob says Greg forgave him, but Laura didn’t. From that point on, Bob says, he was “out of the loop” and didn’t see much of Greg. They kept in touch primarily by letters. Bob preferred them to phone calls or E-mail, because he thought Greg would be more likely to think through what he was saying instead of firing off placating remarks. “In one sense I guess I thought, I don’t want any more bullshit about ‘Hey, everything is OK,'” says Bob. “Laura called it ‘Greg’s PR.'”
Greg tried to commit suicide twice by overdosing in the next couple of months. In January his 17-year-old son found him on the floor, barely alive. In February he E-mailed a suicide note to Jim Hanon. Hanon got it within 20 minutes and alerted the Barrington police, who arrived in time to save Greg’s life.
Bob’s attempts to get information about Greg’s condition were futile. Desperate, he visited the now defunct Lisa McPherson Trust. Not far from Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater and staffed by high-level defectors, the trust had been founded to expose the church’s “abusive and deceptive” practices and to provide support to ex-
Scientologists attempting to readjust to life outside the church. It put Bob in touch with former Scientologists who’d reached the same level as Greg, OT7. One of them, Greg Barnes, remembers receiving a desperate call from Bob: “He was a father who was lost. A distressed man going, ‘What do I do?’–reaching out to everyone and anyone who could help his son.'”
Barnes spoke on the phone with Greg about seven times. They had much in common. They were the same age, and each was married with one son. Each had spent more than 20 years in Scientology and had become an IAS patron. Barnes says he and his wife had left the church of their own volition a year earlier, after deciding that it had altered Hubbard’s teachings.
Greg told Barnes he’d been under extreme pressure during his last visit to Clearwater and that church officials had said he couldn’t leave until he completed certain regimens. “He had to get back to work. He was stressed, and he communicated that he was stressed,” Barnes says. “They took that to mean he was unstable.” He says Greg was then sent to an auditor, who made things worse. “If you misapply this technology you can drive someone insane. You can cause someone to become psychotic.”
Greg also told Hanon about the auditing he’d done on his last trip to Clearwater. “He confided in me that in one of these sessions he opened himself up spiritually,” Hanon says, “and he felt something in his mind break.” Defectors say that when something goes wrong in Scientology there’s only one person to blame, and it’s not L. Ron Hubbard. “His technology–they call it his tech now–his tech always works,” says Jim Beebe. “If you don’t get the results that he claims you will get, there is something wrong with you.”
As a good Scientologist, Greg blamed himself. He told Hanon he’d known that there was a psychological risk in doing “mental training” and that the church had given him a waiver to sign stating as much. “I feel I have been irreparably damaged by my participation in the advanced courses,” he wrote his father after his February suicide attempt, “but such damage happened by my own hand, by my own decisions and approaches to things. Thousands of people do these courses and do very well; this tremendous suffering is something that I engendered through my own substandard auditing, and an approach to things that was not ethically sound.” In short, he wrote, “I screwed myself up, using their technology.”
Greg said he shouldn’t have been on the advanced levels. “This was actually told to me in early 1981,” he wrote, “but I continued pursuing these levels through the ’80s and ’90s, against church policy. (Anyone who has had psychiatric counseling and/or psychiatric drugs, as I had had at college, is not supposed to be able to receive any auditing, let alone the advanced levels at Flag.)”
Barnes put Greg in touch with other high-level defectors. One had spent seven years trying to get through OT7. She says Greg wasn’t coping well. “He was having dark thoughts about himself and felt he was covered with BTs,” she says. “He felt he couldn’t get rid of them.”
Greg did feel a glimmer of hope after speaking to a former member of the church’s Sea Organization, which is made up of full-time employees who hold its “most essential and trusted positions.” Greg got the impression that the man could use Scientology practices on him to correct the damage that had been done. After speaking to him, Greg promised his father he wouldn’t kill himself.
The former Sea Organization member, who has asked to remain anonymous, wasn’t as optimistic. Greg, he says, was “really stuck.” He sensed that Greg wanted “more than anything” to get back into the church. He knew that would never happen–Greg had told him he’d failed a “security check” in Clearwater and been declared a Potential Trouble Source. “Because of what happened with Lisa McPherson,” he says, “they’re very paranoid about the chance of anyone flipping out.”
Barnes worried that Greg was beyond help. “The only place he could ever reach his spiritual freedom was gone,” he says. “His dreams were gone. Life was taken away from him.” He’d been led to believe Scientology was the only solution for his problems. “He was taught to believe psychiatry was evil–now he was in the hands of the most vicious, perverted people.”
The church’s Mary Anne Ahmad, who knew Greg “fairly well,” says, “What really troubles me and is really ironic is the fact that the two things that he detested the most were the two things that dogged him until the day he died–psychiatry and deprogrammers.” She denies that the church excommunicated Greg. “He seemed to be having some rather large troubles,” she says, “and he left the church to go sort out his life. And basically the only thing I know, his troubles seemed to be family based. His father and maybe his mother-in-law had objections to some of his choices in life, and so he had a lot of pressure on him. To add to that, even though he was offered help, he declined and decided to go with whatever his family was pressuring him into, which was psychiatry. Frankly, no Scientologist would ever seek psychiatry as a solution to their problems.”
Ahmad wouldn’t say specifically what kind of help Scientology offered Greg. In a letter he wrote to his father on February 28, 2001, he mentioned that the church had proposed a “‘review’ session” while he was in Clearwater but that he’d declined, on account of the time it would take.
When asked why she thinks so many former members have launched impassioned campaigns against the church, Ahmad says, “There’s one reason and one reason only–they have lots of words they don’t understand,” which hampers their grasp of “what the religion is about.”
In some of his letters from the spring of 2001, Greg seemed revitalized and hopeful. Hanon had arranged for him to work three days a week at his Grand Rapids agency, which put him up at a bed-and-breakfast. He and Hanon dined together once a week, and he spent extended weekends at home, doing yard work or taking his son to the Music Box to see matinees. At one point Greg even told his father he’d picked up an editorial writing assignment and was contemplating a return to journalism.
Bob wondered how much of what he was hearing was “Greg’s PR.” In a letter dated March 24, 2001, he reminded Greg of things he’d previously said–that his mental state “was not improving,” that he was “irreparably damaged,” that he’d screwed himself up. Bob had taken him seriously. He’d found a retreat for cult survivors in Ohio called Wellspring. “The setting is residential, home cooked meals, private rooms,” he wrote, trying to make it sound attractive. He passed on a phone number, an E-mail address, and a fax number.
Greg wasn’t interested. “One of the things that happens when you have the bad experiences that I’ve had is that people assume your own beliefs are faulty and can be superceded,” he wrote back. “Since one’s life is in ruin, it’s reasoned, one must have chosen beliefs that led here, and the beliefs are suspect.” He said he wanted to work on getting better, but “deprogramming” at Wellspring wouldn’t work. “I know I won’t get better doing something I don’t believe in at all….When you have a meltdown like I did, people then suggest their own beliefs as alternatives. (Christ, prayer, therapy, etc.)” By the time you reached his age, he continued, “you have a pretty good idea about what you believe and what you don’t. And in my case, a pretty informed idea. (Having been raised in and studied Christianity, undergone therapy, and tried prayer in college.)”
Some of Bob’s subsequent phone messages to Greg went unanswered, and Laura returned one of his letters unopened. Bob was more forceful in his next letter, dated April 10. He wrote that he could respect, or at least tolerate, others’ beliefs–as long as they were benign: “Suicide is not a positive result, and hence my strong intervention.” In the past Greg had mentioned an affinity for Buddhist philosophy, and Bob, grasping at straws, implored him to see a Buddhist monk for guidance: “There are alternatives and solutions.” When Greg finally responded on April 29 he made no mention of Bob’s suggestion.
“Comments and thoughts from you from my past two letters have generally not been acknowledged which is OK,” Bob wrote on May 6. “But after the series of messages and incidents last month”–the unanswered phone calls and returned letter–“I wonder if you are reading them.”
Greg wrote back and assured his father he’d been reading the letters. With cautious optimism, he reported that he sensed “a little oasis of peace” growing in his mind, though he expected the recovery to be slow. “It’s almost as if I had a stroke on a mental and spiritual level, and I have to start with learning how to use a fork again, metaphorically.” He went on to share the conclusions he’d drawn about the role Scientology had played in his breakdown: “For the last 10 years I was fooling myself regarding the services I was taking there, and whether they were advancing me. I wanted them to be….In retrospect, I would have been better the last ten years to have focused on simply building a family life, and on work, as most people do….Being on the services the whole time was almost unbelievably demanding in terms of time, money and commitment. The fact that it did not ‘pay off’ has been an exceptionally bitter pill to swallow. The fact that at the end of the road I ended up in worse shape than I’d ever been in my entire life…well, that has been completely unreconcilable with any concept of reality.”
Yet it seemed clear that Greg was thinking about a future. “I would like to get to a point where the focus of my life is not on my disability,” he went on. “It’s been very difficult talking to people lately, because typically the whole conversation pivots around how well I’m doing or not doing. If I haven’t called very often, that’s why.”
But any optimism had pretty much vanished by June. Hanon says he noticed a change in Greg’s personality and in his ability to process thoughts. He says Greg told him he “had broken something that the Church of Scientology could fix, and the impression I got was that they weren’t going to fix it.”
During the last two weeks of Greg’s life, Hanon’s agency didn’t have any work for him. He stayed home in Barrington Hills, his mental condition deteriorating. He owed his bank $27,000 and had racked up $29,000 on his credit cards. Bob says that in February Laura started talking about suing the church to recover money they’d paid in advance for auditing and course work. “I had been told,” he says, “they had a balance of nearly $200,000 in credit.”
Greg adamantly objected to suing. After Laura started talking about trying to get their money back, Greg wrote to his father that he didn’t want to be a “poster boy” for the harmful effects of Scientology. “It would subject me and my family to a great deal of shame and embarrassment, and additionally such a stance does not reflect what I believe to be true.”
One day in early June, Hanon received a desperate call from Greg. “He asked me, ‘What can I do?’ He was in torment. He felt like he was losing control. I didn’t have an answer. I asked him to come here right away.” Greg drove the four hours to Grand Rapids. When Hanon saw him he was surprised he’d made it there alive. “He arrived at my house, coherent but just barely hanging on,” he recalls. Greg was shaking, he says, and had all but lost the ability to function. Hanon and his wife prayed with Greg, and after a couple of days Greg agreed to check himself into Pine Rest, a nearby hospital. At first, according to Hanon, he refused to take drugs or undergo counseling: “It appeared to me that he was conditioned, that part of his training was not to assign any value at all to what a psychiatrist would say.”
For more than 20 years Greg had invested himself in Scientology, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and financially. He’d set out to lose his “reactive mind,” but he’d lost more than he’d bargained for. “There were periods of time he was rational and he realized he was losing it,” says Bob, “and it was a terror, a horrible thing to him.”
Scientology “tells you it has the solution to all your problems,” says Greg Barnes. “Then you realize most of the problems you had, Scientology created.” Barnes says Greg knew this but couldn’t accept it. “Greg Bashaw could not let go of the mental indoctrination he’d swallowed hook, line, and sinker. He was vibrant, upbeat, gave the appearance he was going to make it. But he had a hard time struggling with the fact that he’d been living a lie. Everything he thought was real wasn’t real anymore.”
Greg wrote to Bob for the last time on June 20. “I wanted to call on Father’s Day, but was hospitalized at Pine Rest here in GR, and had no calling card. My condition worsened dramatically three weeks ago. I have been in the hospital the last two weeks and am now moving to an intensive outpatient status.” He begged Bob to persuade Laura not to sue the church. “They would put 50 lawyers on the case to the one Laura would hire. They would employ private investigators, and the like, to help win their case. And the stress on Laura would be enormous….If you could get her to consider these points, as I have repeatedly over the last few months, it would be greatly appreciated.” Greg went on to say that he would be checking out of the hospital that afternoon, though he felt his release would be premature. “I told them this morning I still felt depressed and suicidal,” he wrote. “They are hurrying me into the outpatient program because I only have two days of insurance left!” He ended the letter, “P.S. Thanks for being a great dad.”
Later that day Greg drove seven miles southwest of Grand Rapids to Grandville and checked himself into the Residence Inn. He stopped by Hanon’s that night after dinner. It was a quick visit. Hanon says Greg appeared to have made a turnaround and seemed committed to starting the outpatient treatment.
Three days later Greg pulled onto the shoulder of a road in Montcalm County, northeast of Grand Rapids. Using duct tape, he attached a hose to the exhaust pipe of his Honda, then ran it through the passenger window, sealing off the opening with a towel. He reclined in the passenger’s seat, folded his arms across his chest, and breathed in a lethal dose of carbon monoxide–just as L. Ron Hubbard’s son had done 25 years earlier.
Police found the suicide note to his son on the nightstand in his hotel room. It consisted of a single sentence: “Goodbye [son], you were a good buddy. Love dad.”
Greg’s last letter to Bob arrived after the news of his suicide. Bob sat down and wrote a death notice for his son, which he published in the Chicago Tribune. “In memory of a trained journalist, disciplined and hardworking, an honored writer of substance and creativity and imagination, loved by family and friends, respected by contemporaries, who in the prime of life, because of his needs and naivete trusted wrongly an entity that crushed his sweet and sharing spirit. He found his journey through life too painful to continue and was blind and deaf to all of those who loved him. May God bless you Greg, and may God bless us all.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.