Paul Haggis Pens Open Letter Praising Leah Remini's 'Brave' Break With Scientology
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In 2009, Paul Haggis, the screenwriter-director who won an Oscar for 2005’s Crash and wrote Million Dollar Baby, publicly broke with the Church of Scientology. He had been a member for 35 years. While high-ranking officers in Scientology have defected from the controversial organization, Haggis at the time was by far the most famous to disavow it. He publicly criticized Scientology for requiring members to “disconnect” from those who have left the church -- a practice it denies exists -- and for publishing personal information about defectors on websites with domains beginning “who is,” as in “Who Is Paul Haggis?” In early July, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed the news that actress Leah Remini, a second-generation Scientologist, had left the church after she allegedly was punished for questioning the conduct of its leader, David Miscavige, and for being critical of other Scientologists. On July 27, the former King of Queens star, who has not publicly discussed her departure, told People, “We stand united, my family and I, and I think that says a lot about who we are and what we’re about. I believe that people should be able to question things. I believe that people should value family and friendships and hold those things sacrosanct. … No one is going to tell me how I need to think, no one is going to tell me who I can and cannot talk to.” Already “WhoIsLeahRemini.com” appears to have been claimed. Asked for comment, a Scientologist spokesperson said, “Regarding ‘Who Is …,’ the church has never hidden the fact it supplied information for the websites. … [But] let’s be clear: We have had nothing to do with any website about her and have no idea who registered the site. … The church respects the privacy of its parishioners and has no further comment.” As for Haggis, who felt compelled to publicly support Remini, the spokesperson says he is a “status-obsessed screenwriter” whose “ ‘open letter’ is nothing more than a transparent promotional gimmick.”
I didn’t say anything at the time for a number of reasons. I am in Europe and have been working here for the last year and a half, and, disregarding a few friendly e-mails and a couple of tweets, Leah and I haven’t spoken in quite a while. What I knew about Leah is that she was one of two Scientologists who had refused to “disconnect” from me and certainly the only high-profile one when I decided to quit the organization in August 2009. I also thought any comment would be premature and self-serving.
Leah and I were always friendly but never close friends. Despite this, she called me as soon as she heard about my letter of resignation. Unlike the rest of my former friends, she expressed real sadness that I was leaving and concern for me and my family. A few months later, we ran into each other at a school fair. I kept my distance for fear of putting her in an awkward position, but Leah had no such fear. She walked up, asked me why I was being weird and told me she would always be my friend and would never “disconnect” from me. Then she dragged me over and introduced me to her family. Soon after that, I moved to New York, and our paths just didn’t cross, but I was deeply touched by her gesture and genuine concern.
So all I could have said at the time was that, whether it was true Leah had resigned, she had always been a class act and a lovely human being -- but that wasn’t news. Millions of people know that; her character shines through everything she does.
In the last few days, I read some things that really disturbed me. First was the way Leah was being attacked by her celebrity “friends,” who were disparaging her character. [Editor’s note: After actress Kirstie Alley tweeted “the sweetest poison is often served with a smile,” it was widely interpreted as referring to Remini. Alley vigorously has denied that and says she does not criticize anyone’s religious beliefs.] Having witnessed Scientology’s smear tactics, I can imagine how this was being orchestrated, but I was still shocked to see how quickly those friends -- some of whom had known Leah for 20 or 30 years -- jumped on the “malign Leah” campaign, and with such apparent glee. I assumed Scientology’s next step would be to try and plant disparaging stories about her with less-informed journalists and bloggers. And if others who have made noisy exits from the church are to be believed, Scientology would also use their Office of Special Affairs employees to attack Leah indirectly, posting negative comments about her shows and career and abilities under myriad false names, pretending to be disappointed fans or whatever. None of that is new.
What was new to me was the report that Leah had run afoul of the church by challenging Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, who is held to be infallible. When I was leaving and was visited by waves of angry friends and a phalange of top Scientology executives, trying to convince me to tear up my letter and resign quietly, I made a similar mistake by insisting they look into the charges of abuse detailed by the Tampa Bay Times. I was working on a film about Martin Luther King Jr. at that moment and made the polite suggestion that even great leaders like Dr. King were human and fallible. Two of the senior church leaders leapt to their feet and shouted at me, “How dare you compare a great man like David Miscavige to Martin Luther King!” I ended the meeting at that point, thanking them for coming.
According to what I read on Tony Ortega’s blog, at the 2006 wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Leah asked questions about her longtime friend Shelly, David Miscavige’s wife, who had suddenly disappeared. [Editor’s note: An attorney for Shelly Miscavige told Us Weekly in 2012: “She is not missing. Any reports that she is missing are false. Mrs. Miscavige has been working nonstop in the church, as she always has.”] Unlike her pious friends, Leah refused to accept the easy excuses that were offered. She kept asking questions.
The next thing I learned made me feel terrible. Leah got in trouble because of me, because when I was “declared” a “Suppressive Person” and shunned, she came to my defense -- without me ever knowing it. She had shouting matches with Tommy Davis, then the church spokesman, who had come to try and keep her quiet. The fact that she fought within the system so resolutely for so long, never making her feelings public, is a testament to how much she believed in the basic goodness of her friends and the institution. Finally, according to what I read, she was turned in by a celebrity friend who had noticed one of our few innocuous tweets.
I can’t express how much I admire Leah. Her parents, family and close friends were almost all Scientologists; the stakes for her were so much higher than for me. Her decision to leave was so much braver.
Having been consumed with my movie, I only learned much of what I have written here in the last few days. I also have to confess to not paying that much attention to news about Scientology. In this case, I should have. I finally called Leah during the last week of July. Her answering service didn’t recognize my number, so it took a while to get through. It was good to hear her voice and great to hear her laugh -- though it was easy to tell she had been terribly hurt and shaken by the events of the last weeks. That said, Leah is an incredibly strong woman and will get through this with the help of her family and her true friends. She is kind and generous and loyal; she has always cared more about others than herself. She barely knew me, and yet she fought for me and my family, a battle she had to know in her gut she was never going to win. That takes an enormous amount of integrity and compassion. I will leave it to you to decide if the same can be said of Scientology’s executives and Leah’s many former friends -- especially those Scientologists who are watching her be smeared now and are choosing to stay silent.
I will forever be grateful to her.