“Scientology is something that you don’t understand, he scolded the TV host, like a schoolteacher talking to a slow-witted pupil.” – Andrew Morton 

It was the late spring of 2005, a beautiful time in Virginia because the winter’s cool grays have been replaced by a fresh palette of brilliant hues. A commercial was going to be filmed for Gutter Helmet (a product that stops gutters from amassing leaves), and my husband Rick had been hired on as the still photographer. It was taking place at the spokesperson’s rural Shenandoah Valley home. The spokesperson is rather famous, and the location—and the drive out to it—promised to be absolutely gorgeous, so I decided to go along. 

Willard Scott’s 2-story log house was perched atop a hill overlooking a large barn and a cluster of outbuildings. Best known as the weatherman for NBC’s The Today Show (from 1980 to 2015), Scott’s had quite an eclectic career. Born in Virginia in 1934, he played Bozo the Clown on television in the 1960s, as well as Ronald McDonald for the Washington-area McDonald’s franchise. On Today he became known for wishing centenarians happy birthday during a segment sponsored by Smucker’s jellies.

Despite the fact that the film crew numbered eight—quite an invasion for such a remote spot—I’m happy to report that Willard Scott was a very genial host.  

We were gazing out of a spotless window, admiring the view, when Scott, leaning over my shoulder, asked me if his barn looked familiar. Behind him, in his large kitchen, the crew was noisily setting the farm-style table for a quick lunch.

“Well,” I responded, “with the mid-morning shadows it resembles an Andrew Wyeth painting. It’s lovely.” (Because he’d portrayed Bozo, I was wondering if it was trick question.)

“It is beautiful,” he bellowed, turning towards the farm table, the entire crew now seated around it. “But that barn was used in a scene of Steven Spielberg’s, War of the World’s. I had the best viewing seat imaginable from up here in my cabin.”

“Tom Cruise,” he continued, “had a tent set up down there. It was filled with a bunch of Scientology promotional material. He was pushing it on the cast and crew.” With this last statement a unified moan followed by stifled laughter rose up from the crew.    

The conversation quickly turned into a smack-down of Cruise and Scientology. At the time, Cruise had just had his infamous sparring match with Willard Scott’s co-host Matt Lauer. Scientology and its most famous celebrity poster boy had become punchlines.

I sat quietly, not commenting. There was no way I was going to divulge that my ex-husband was an avid follower of the controversial religion. It was uncomfortable. I was  thankful that my son Kyle hadn’t come with us on this assignment. This conversation would have embarrassed him. Kyle wavered between having empathy for and being angry with his Scientology-devoted father.

Fifteen years have now passed since Tom Cruise embarked on a publicity tour promoting Spielberg’s action film loosely based on the 1898 novel by H. G. Wells. It’s one thing for celebrities to hawk their latest movie or TV project—we expect them to do that—but it’s quite another when they use their celebrity to peddle Scientology, a religion that features outlandish medical beliefs. Celebrities have massive ready-made audiences. When they palm off their easily disproven falsehoods as medical facts, they place their fan base, and the general public, at risk.  

Cruise had the full attention of the public in May 2005 when he manically jumped on Oprah’s couch while proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes. His erratic behavior continued the next month while promoting War of the Worlds on The Today Show. Dressed in a black T-shirt, Cruise argued heatedly with host Matt Lauer over actress Brook Shields use of the anti-depressant Paxil to help with her postpartum depression. With no medical background, the arrogant and combative Cruise stated that “psychiatry is pseudoscience.” He told Lauer that he “should be more responsible” in his reporting. “You don’t know the history of psychiatry,” said Cruise, “I do.” 

His point of view was in perfect lockstep with the tenets of Scientology (and it’s ironic that he was simultaneously promoting an alien-themed movie and an alien-themed religion). Scientology is well known for its rabid opposition to mainstream psychiatry and the psychoactive drugs psychiatrists prescribe. Scientologists routinely describe psychiatry as Nazi science. 

The puffed-up Cruise appeared to have taken the words of his religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, too seriously. Hubbard—who’d never studied medicine or psychiatry–called psychiatrists deeply unethical people who denied human spirituality, and claimed that they committed “extortion, mayhem and murder.” Psychiatry itself, he wrote, was the source of all of humanity’s problems. 

In The Today Show interview, Cruise promoted his brand of quackery—vitamins and exercise—for the treatment of mental illness. He said he’d done the research to back his anti-science and pro-Scientology claims. What he should have divulged, however, was that he’d simply studied the writings of a science-fiction writer.

At the time, his bitter attack against the psychiatric profession didn’t have much of an impact on me. Perhaps if I’d paid closer attention to the message instead of the messenger my story would have had a happier ending.

When Kyle’s cell phone was returned home after his death, it was discovered that he’d saved a voice message. It was from his Scientologist father telling him to take the vitamins he’d bought him. He said that they were the only things that could help Kyle.  

Three days after my son Kyle was found dead in his Scientologist father’s apartment, his name appeared on a website called “Operation Clambake.” According to the site’s admin, it read “Tragic death in downtown Clearwater of Kyle Brennan. Died for support of Tom Cruise’s anti-psych beliefs.” (The “clambake” in the title, we later discovered, had nothing to do with fire-pits and steam-cooked seafood. It refers to a passage written by Hubbard wherein he claimed that humankind has evolved from clams. Ever wonder why we’re afraid of falling? According to Hubbard, it’s because when we were clams, birds often dropped us on rocks to break us open.)    

 Thanks to the inclusion of Cruise’s name in the anonymous Internet post, its meaning and somber implication were indisputably clear. The text didn’t even have to say Scientology. 

Having Tom Cruise associated with my discovery that Scientology had something to do with Kyle’s death was disconcerting. And that nauseating feeling often came back while standing in line at supermarket checkouts. From that vantage point, trapped alongside the tabloid rack, you can’t miss the screaming headlines. There’s no avoiding them. Cruise’s superstar status meant that his name and face were often splashed across the scandal sheets. This became a persistent and painful reminder. A number of years would pass before I could untangle Cruise’s name from our Clambake moment.

Tom Cruise An Unauthorized Biography Andrew Morton 

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Operation Clambake Message

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Clearwater Police Jon Yuen

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