Scientology City, Fla.

Scientology City, Fla.


At a 1949 science-fiction lecture, the prolific pulp writer Lafayette Ronald Hubbard—L. Ron, for short—opined that, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”1

He was already following his own advice. The following year, he published Dianetics: The Modern History of Mental Health, the petri dish in which his religion would grow. “Man is basically good, and seeking to survive, but is encumbered in so doing by painful past experiences, and his harmful acts against others,” he wrote.2 But despite the pain, he continued, there is redemption, and misery, that hostile lodger, through great discipline, can be ousted. In 1953, he established the first Church of Scientology, in New Jersey, with Dianetics as its de facto bible. By 1975, Scientology had migrated all the way down the Eastern Seaboard, to Clearwater, Florida. Or, in the words of reporter Charles Stafford, whose in-depth investigation of Scientology for the now-defunct St. Petersburg Times won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, the new religion “came sneaking into town.”3 


When I arrived in Clearwater, the water off the Gulf was murky with debris. The devastating Category 4 Hurricane Eta had terrorized the peninsula for nearly a week before my plane from New York hit the tarmac in Ft. Lauderdale. The tempest churned the seas, blowing harsh winds and torrential rains inland, inundating streets and homes, even killing a man south of Tampa, who was electrocuted in standing water; the emergency responders found his dead body floating in his garage. 4

The flood had all but dried up by the time my uncle’s car pulled into the Hilton Resort parking lot. I had never stayed at a beachside resort, or for that matter, even gone on a real vacation, but after nine months of pandemic-induced isolation, I leaped at my cousin’s invitation to visit. The four-hour drive from the East to the West coast of Florida was tiring, but I was intoxicated by the novelty of the mere concept of traveling for no reason other than to get out, relax, have fun. 

That first afternoon, my cousin and I faded in and out of consciousness on the tightly made hotel beds, half-watching Julia Roberts dazzle on T.V. as Vivian, the beautiful Hollywood prostitute scamming as high society in Pretty Woman. While getting ready to leave our shared room, I tried to juj my frizzy hair to sit more like Vivian’s. My cousin, who doesn’t wear makeup, applied it that evening with vigor.

Upon reflection, I believe we had anticipated something different—something more obvious, more attractive, neater—than the reality of what we found as we stepped out that night into the dense subtropical air of— in the words of Euegene Patterson, former editor of the St. Petersburg Times—that “sparkling little city.”5


In the Church of Scientology, the means to the end of redemption are tenuous but absolute. New members are “PRECLEARS”—those who have elected to go through the process of a form of pastoral coaching called “auditing,” which allows them to transcend their human condition. When the relationship between one’s mind and body has been mastered, beaten into submission, overstepped, the “State of CLEAR” has been achieved. For this transcendence, the church demands alms. In his series about the church, Stafford wrote that in the 1970s it cost an individual upwards of $12,000 to reach CLEAR, following a “donation” schedule of thousands of dollars per session.6 (By 2017, reaching that elusive nirvana required “two and a half hours of your day, a quarter of a million dollars minimum, and at least 40 years of your life,” actress and former Scientologist Leah Remini said on her A&E reality show Scientology and the Aftermath.)7

“The Church of Scientology came to Florida’s Suncoast in late 1975 wearing a cloak of secrecy that concealed a dagger of deceit,” Stafford reported.8 With all of that money to spend, and gospel to spread, Scientology purchased the downtown Fort Harrison Hotel under the pseudonym “United Churches of Florida,” for $2.3 million cash. A few days later, they purchased the old Bank of Clearwater building for $550,000.9 The hotel would be their “Flag Building,” step one in an undercover plan to turn Clearwater into the first true “Scientology city.” For Hubbard, the choice of Clearwater was obvious: it’s in a warm climate, near an international airport. The Flag Building is, in itself, both a microcosm and a symbol of the fundamental dynamics of the church: it represents and contains the melding of the spiritual and the capital. It emphasizes the necessity of the contribution of capital in order to gain the resources to connect to the spiritual, making the two concepts inextricably linked. 


When we stepped out into the streets that night, it had only been one week since the presidential election had been called for Biden. That very same day, Donald Trump had, in a bout of self-delusion, tweeted the following: “I WON THE ELECTION!,” “I concede NOTHING!… This was a rigged election.,” “RIGGED ELECTION. WE WILL WIN!,” “The Silent Media is the Enemy of the People!!!” He retweeted a photo of a protestor holding a sign that read, in all caps and underlined: THE MEDIA IS THE VIRUS.10 

A sense of undertow, of tumult, eddied around us in the thick, hot air.  My cousin and I shuffled down the street wide-eyed, rubbernecking past a souvenir shop that displayed T-shirts in its window, declaring, in Comic Sans: “The Lord is my Savior/ America is my Country/ Trump is my President.”

Thick-necked bikers with goatees and pot bellies and their tan girlfriends in camo string-bikini tops brushed past us. Double-wide pickup trucks with MAGA flags hanging out of their beds rolled by. The shop girls in the gift emporiums were unmasked, servers in restaurants were unmasked, teeming flocks of loud tourists were unmasked. They all swirled past us. 

That 2.5-mile stretch of beach had attracted a flagrant population of my own political opposites, one that, either out of ignorance or self-preservation (or, more likely, both), I had kept tucked in the shadows of my delicate worldview. Arriving in Clearwater felt like baptism by fire.


 To better comprehend the spread of Scientology in Clearwater, it is essential to understand the church’s modus operandi. In a 1955 publication, twenty years before the church even set foot in Florida, L. Ron Hubbard fired a warning shot to the press, and in turn, to any dissenters:

WE do not want Scientology to be reported in the press, anywhere else than on the religious page of newspapers. It is destructive of word of mouth to permit the public presses to express their biased and bad reported sensationalism. Therefore, we should be very alert to sue for slander at the slightest chance so as to discourage the public presses from mentioning Scientology.11 

In a 1965 dictum, Hubbard relegated any “suppressive person” as “fair game,” effectively granting Scientologists the authority to punish individuals that threatened the power or validity of the institution. In the words of Hubbard, a suppressive person was to be “deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist.” They were to be “tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”12

In 1974, Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue, delineated that one of the primary goals of Scientology was “to sweep aside opposition sufficiently to create a vacuum” into which Scientology could expand.13

In 1976, Hubbard wrote, in his dictionary entitled Modern Management Technology Defined, that “truth is what is true for you.”14

In September of that same year, after the loss of Scientology’s tax-exempt status, Hubbard called the IRS a “false reports factory,” and wanted the “insane individual with insane plans” at that government agency to be found and dealt with.15

Forty-five years later, reading these fragments of paranoia and delusion almost feels like looking at our current political climate in a mirror. These parallels and ties to the past confirm and emphasize a universal pattern of behavior inherent to swindling, to scamming, and to exploiting that has become embedded within our culture. The ways in which Donald Trump’s enterprise and Hubbard’s Scientology function in similar ways are undeniable: they abstract truth as a means of self-preservation, they do not think twice about discrediting, silencing, or hurting individuals who threaten their flimsy ego trips, and most dangerously, their respective successes hinge on the successful predation of lots of genuinely good, genuinely undeserving folks. I say this because on my trip to Clearwater, the most surprising shock to my system was that the city had brought me face-to-face with the people I had conceived to be my foils, only to prove that we were, in fact, not so different at all. 


That first Friday night, my cousin and I arrived at the Clear Sky Beachside Cafe at around 8:00 p.m. A goateed troubadour sang outside, enthusiastically strumming an acoustic guitar and reading lyrics off of an iPad on a stand. The vibrato of his voice made it seem as if he was on the precipice of confession. In between songs he thanked the local jet-ski rental for sponsoring his set. He sang Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as the hostess seated us on the outdoor patio. Most likely in a bid to amuse himself, he had changed the titular lyric to “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.” The whole restaurant, including my cousin and I, sang with him in drunken delight that night.

The people we interacted with in Clearwater were polite, and many times, even kind. Servers called us “sweetheart” with genuine warmth, a single dad with two little girls clinging at his waist offered to take our picture on the beach when he saw us failing to get the perfect iPhone self-timer shot. While tanning the next morning, we saw a wading mother hold her small daughter close against her chest, cooing at her tenderly, and a gaggle of women drinking Patrón out of the bottle and raucously gossiping and shouting and laughing; we heard a little boy coax his frightened sister to swim further out, assuring her calmly, gently, protectively, that there were “no sharks this close to shore.” A blissfully stoned party perched against the railing of a floating tiki bar waved effusively, shouting greetings to all of us on land and smiling wide as they traveled brilliantly down the beach. 

As I write this, I understand with clarity now what I had felt so overwhelmed by then, while I was knee deep and wading in its implications: Clearwater is a basically good place filled with a lot of basically good people, and that fact, along with other notable Clearwater characteristics, like strong faith and hot weather, provided fertile ground for those parallel predators to establish themselves and multiply.


In January 1976, Pinellas County Mayor Gabriel Cazares stated publicly that he was “discomfited by the increasing visibility of security personnel, armed with billy clubs and mace, employed by the United Churches of Florida.”16Having grown wary of the secrecy shrouding the United Churches, and the heavily armed guards posted outside their newly acquired buildings, Cazares, perplexed, continued: “I am unable to understand why this degree of security is required by a religious organization.”17

In February 1976, the church filed a $1 million lawsuit against Cazares accusing him of libel, slander, and the violation of their civil rights.18 When Cazares did not resign from his position, and instead countersued the church19, Scientology adjusted their strategy. 

That August, Scientology planned and executed a staged hit-and-run involving Cazares in Washington, D.C.20 Not long after, a typewritten letter was mailed from Washington to Tampa Bay Democratic Officials. The letter, signed by a “Sharon T.,” accused Cazares of having had an extramarital affair.21 It was later confirmed that the letter was a fabrication, the Scientologists’ attempt at derailing Cazares’ congressional campaign.22 These career-destroying moves had been retribution for publicly questioning the church. 

Since their plot against Cazares forty-five years ago, Scientology has accused notable Clearwater critics of being undercover government agents23, systematically purged several government agencies across the country of any document mentioning the church through a network of Scientologist spies (landing nine of their most prominent members stints in jail in 1980)24, caused the death of Clearwater Scientology member Lisa McPherson (following a psychotic break in 1995, Scientology refused doctor’s recommendations to admit McPherson for observation at the local hospital. Instead, Scientology held McPherson in their Flag Building. On the seventeenth day in their care, McPherson died of a pulmonary embolism)25, gotten away with that death with almost nothing but a slap on the wrist26, routinely swayed local elections27, and notoriously neglected to pay local taxes28, while, almost without trace, becoming one of the most powerful landowners in Pinellas County29. When I searched “Scientology” on the Tampa Bay Times website, it brought up a link to a slideshow of all of the property the Church owns in Clearwater. It took me about twenty minutes to click through all the images of buildings and grassy lots and old, peeling motels that the Church has amassed. The article highlights that in 2013, after $145 million fundraised and fifteen years of construction, Scientology even built a new Flag Building, clocking in at 377,000 square feet and fifteen stories tall, now the largest building in all of Clearwater.30

Scientology’s bursts of bad behavior in Clearwater were no isolated incidents. In fact, lying, scamming, and cheating were, along with redemption and its assumed financial costs, the very foundation on which the structures of the church were built. Take away the delusion that enables a spiritual Ponzi scheme like Scientology to stand upright, and the foundation of the church rots, the structure caves in on itself, its power and notoriety all but disappear. 


In her essay “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” Jia Tolentino aptly characterizes the election of Donald Trump as an “incontrovertible, humiliating vindication of scamming as the quintessential American ethos.”31 In a sense, perhaps, the swift, insidious spread of Scientology in Clearwater can be looked at as a kind of blueprint for Tolentino’s conclusion that “one of the best bids a person can make for financial safety in America is to get really good at exploiting other people.” The Church of Scientology, in recent estimates, has been valued at close to $3 billion in cash and assets.32According to an Orlando Sentinel article dated December 7, 2020, the Small Business Administration released data that Scientology has, over the last few months, received at least $4 million in Covid-19 relief PPP loans.33 

In 2016, Trump won in Pinellas County (the county to which Clearwater belongs) by a margin of five thousand votes (out of a total of roughly 500,000 votes).34 In November 2020, to my honest surprise—and contrary to the loyalties of the very visible supporters I had seen throughout my weekend in Clearwater—Pinellas County voted him out by the razor-thin margin of about one thousand votes.35 

It brings me immense pleasure to know that the new Clearwater majority, one that has been manipulated and damaged and maligned by structures of mistruth and faux-savior for nearly a half century, has started the process of reclaiming its truth from the Powers That Scam.

Part of me hopes that eventually Scientology, like Trump, will be ousted from the sleepy beach town. The other part of me knows that the institution has become too encompassing, too powerful, and too complicated to ever leave Clearwater on its own volition. 


On our last Clearwater morning, I woke up sweaty and tangled in my sheets. As my aunt, uncle, cousin, and I piled into the car to leave, my eyes began to burn. Face pressed against the window, my eyebrows perked in amusement as we drove by the original Hooters restaurant. We all scratched our heads in wonder as we passed the sprawling, imposing structure that I would later, in my frenzied research, identify as Scientology’s new Flag Building. A couple miles down the road, my vision latched onto the flashing neon sign of a smoke shop called Utopia. 

During the bulk of that drive home, I became angry with Florida. Feverish and mad at its flatness, at its continuity. I recall the rest of that day as a blur of feeling and seeing. We stopped at the Salvador Dali museum in Saint Petersburg and the illusions mocked me. I fell asleep in the car, chin on chest, fluttering awake every few minutes from neck ache. I hallucinated through the Everglades, watching white birds circle low over grazing cattle. We passed sandy orange groves, and abundant, glimmering marshland. The sun beat down on the neon green lawns of a row of skeletal, abandoned ranch houses, and in that moment, I was sure that I had seen heaven. 

At a gas station one hundred miles from their home, I hazily asked my uncle and cousin where we were, sent a text to an ex, and squatted over a filthy toilet. We missed the sunset that evening; driving east we saw only the cool, pale light of its reflection illuminating the undersides of clouds. The sky was completely dark by the time we pulled into the Boca Raton duplex where my relatives live. 

My body was warm and achy for three whole days upon our return. It felt as though Clearwater had bored itself into my psyche, manifesting itself as a fever that took every ounce of my strength to sweat out, to break, to clear. 

When I called my dad to tell him about my Scientology discovery (the product of a “Clearwater” google search a few days prior), he told me stories of how he used to walk past the Scientology headquarters in Hollywood, California, on his afternoon route from school to his job at a library. He recalled having been handed pamphlets “at least four times.” As we teetered towards the end of our conversation, he asked me, chuckling, “Haven’t you ever heard ‘Tiny Dancer’ by Elton John? “Jesus freaks out in the street/ Handing tickets out for God”?”

  1. Charles Stafford and Bette Orsini, Scientology: An In-Depth Profile of a New Source in Clearwater  (The St. Petersburg Times), 1979, 4.
  2. La Fayette Ron Hubbard, Dianetics: The Modern History of Mental Health (New Era Publications International, 1999).
  3. Charles Stafford, “Old Time Religion? Forget It,” The St. Petersburg Times, December 16, 1979.
  4. Janice Dean; Travis Fredschun, “Tropical Storm Eta makes landfall in Florida, man dies after being electrocuted in standing water,” Fox News, November 12, 2020.
  5. Stafford, Scientology, 2.
  6. Stafford, Scientology, 4.
  7. The Bridge to Total Freedom,” Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, season 2, episode 14, aired on September 5, 2017, A&E.
  8. Stafford, Scientology, 7.
  9. Stafford, Scientology, 7.
  10. Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “I WON THE ELECTION!” Twitter, November 15, 2020; “He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!,” Twitter, November 15,  2020; “RIGGED ELECTION. WE WILL WIN!,” Twitter, November 15, 2020; “The Silent Media is the Enemy of the People!!!,” Twitter, November 14, 2020”; Thank you Mollie. The Free and Fair Press is gone in our country. They only write about what they want to write about. SUPPRESSION!”, Twitter, November 14, 2020.”
  11. Stafford, Scientology, 6.
  12. Stafford, Scientology, 6.
  13. Stafford, Scientology, 7.
  14. Stafford, Scientology, 6.
  15. Stafford, Scientology, 7.
  16. Stafford, Scientology, 7.
  17. Stafford, Scientology, 7.
  18. Stafford, Scientology, 8.
  19. Stafford, Scientology, 9.
  20. Stafford, Scientology, 9.
  21. Tracey McManus, “Scientology’s 40 years of conflict with the City of Clearwater, recapped,” Tampa Bay Times, October 20, 2019.
  22. Stafford, Scientology, 9.
  23. Stafford, Scientology, 8.
  24. Tracey McManus, “Scientology’s 40 years of conflict with the City of Clearwater, recapped,” Tampa Bay Times, October 20, 2019.
  25. Thomas Tobin; Joe Childs, ‘The Truth Rundown, Part 2 — Death in slow motion,” Tampa Bay Times, October 17, 2019.
  26. Thomas Tobin; Joe Childs, ‘The Truth Rundown, Part 2 — Death in slow motion,” Tampa Bay Times, October 17, 2019.
  27. Tracee McManus, “How Scientology is playing in a critical Clearwater election,” Tampa Bay Times”, December 23, 2019.
  28. Curtis Krueger; Wayne Garcia, “Tax man on scene, but only briefly,” Tampa Bay Times, October 12, 2005.
  29. Tracey McManus, “How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years,’ Tampa Bay Times, October 20, 2019.
  30. Flag Building.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, December 7, 2020.
  31. Jia Tolentino, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” Trick Mirror (Penguin Random House, 2019).
  32. Rachel Sharp, “Church of Scientology received PPP loans worth around $4 million for at least 30 congregations and affiliated groups including the controversial substance abuse facilities Narconon,”The Daily Mail, December 4, 2020.
  33. Richard Tribou, “Church of Scientology received at least $4 million in PPP loans,” Orlando Sentinel, December 7, 2020.
  34. NOVEMBER 8, 2016 GENERAL ELECTION,” VotePinellas, Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, November 22, 2020.
  35. NOVEMBER 3 GENERAL ELECTION,” VotePinellas, Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, November 22, 2020.
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