Neil Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of Lane, is garnering good reviews and a lot of attention as his first novel for adults in eight years. Gaiman, 52, is well known for his fantasy and science fiction, including The Sandman comic series, the Hugo-winning novel American Gods, the Hugo-winning novella Coraline, and much more.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a mesmerizing read that should please Gaiman’s many fans. We were charmed by its tale of childhood danger and myth stemming from a mysterious suicide on a country lane.
But there’s also a lot here to consider for Scientology watchers. As Gaiman has said in press interviews, his idea for the book came from an actual suicide of a lodger staying in his family’s home a short distance from Scientology’s UK headquarters, where Neil’s father was a prominent executive. And now that we’ve read it, we can say there’s a lot more about Neil’s Scientology past that makes this an interesting read.
Gaiman has called the suggestion that he’s still involved with the Church of Scientology “bonkers”, and we tend to believe him. If he hasn’t criticized Scientology or even really spoken much at all about leaving it behind, it’s not hard to understand why, with his two sisters still in the church, as well as his ex-wife, whom he still remains friends with. If he were to say a harsh word about the church, Gaiman might find himself completely cut off from his family members still in Scientology, a consequence of the church’s toxic “disconnection” policy.
But if Gaiman has generally avoided the subject, with this book — which he has called his “most personal, ever” — he had to know that he would face questions about his upbringing, his father, and L. Ron Hubbard. And after reading it, we think that’s actually what Gaiman had in mind.
The book begins with a dedication to Gaiman’s current wife, former Dresden Dolls musician Amanda Palmer: “For Amanda, who wanted to know”
That dedication certainly should have resonance for our readers. Before we explain why, here’s how Gaiman himself explained the genesis of this book in a BBC interview this week:
GAIMAN: It’s absolutely not autobiographical in the sense that it happened to me…And it’s not autobiographical in the sense that the family is not my family. But it’s very, very close to my point of view. I wrote the book because my wife, Amanda, was making a record. She was in Melbourne, Australia, for four months working on a record. And I missed her. So I wrote what started out as a short story for her and then just didn’t stop. And what I had in mind when I wanted to write the short story was something that told her what I was like when I was seven, what it was like to look at the world through my eyes. And also what the landscape that I grew up in was like because that isn’t really there any more. People have built houses all over it, you can’t go back and see it. So I began describing this thing, using elements of fantasy I had when I was a small kid, using an anecdote that I heard about when I was in my forties, that I discovered that we had a lodger who killed himself using our car at the end of our lane, which I’d never known about. And just that piece of information. I thought, well, what would have happened if I’d have been there, what would have happened if it had had strange reverberations, and created a story out of that.
NICK HIGHAM: The landscape of this book is East Sussex, you grew up in East Grinstead. And you lived there because your father worked for the Church of Scientology, which is based there, which begs the question, are you now or have you ever been a Scientologist?
GAIMAN: As a child, I suppose I was as much a Scientologist as I was Jewish, which is to say it was the family religion. Am I now? No.
HIGHAM: When did you, as it were, lose the faith?
GAIMAN: I think, I’m, what am I — I’m a writer. And I think for me what fascinates me most is possibilities, is ideas. Um, so even as a kid, I had so many, there were so many religious backgrounds going on. I was at a high church, Church of England school, and I was a reader of science fiction fantasy, that everything sort of became one glorious — what’s the word — morass, blancmange of belief.
Amanda Palmer was in Melbourne from mid-March last year, and Gaiman says she was there for four months, which means she finished up recording her album, Theatre Is Evil, about the time Neil finished writing The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in July 2012.
During that time, however, Palmer managed to make a trip to New York in May 2012, and while she was here she crashed the book party of Kate Bornstein, as we reported at the Village Voice.
At the time, we found it very interesting that Palmer supported Bornstein’s book, which describes serving as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s first mate on the yacht Apollo in the early 1970s. Ultimately, Bornstein soured on Scientology and has lost her daughter and granddaughter to the organization.
We got the distinct impression that Palmer, who had married Gaiman the year before, was intrigued by Bornstein’s tale because it does such a good job explaining the mentality of a Scientologist, and from such an insider. At the time, Palmer must have been trying to understand Gaiman’s own past in the organization.
In that light, the book’s dedication — “For Amanda, who wanted to know” — reads to us as Gaiman’s acknowledgment that his wife wanted to hear about his childhood as a Scientologist, which was at least part of the reason he wrote The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
But does that mean that the book should be read as a history of Neil’s time in the church?
When Will Smith’s movie After Earth debuted recently, critics panned it and pointed out some of its thematic similarities with Scientology. Carnegie Mellon professor David Touretzky denied that there was any Scientology in the film, while former church member Marc Headley disagreed and said that Smith had undoubtedly seeded the movie with Scientology’s ideas.
We suspect that a similar debate may start up about The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Having read it, we can say that there is no Scientology in it — as far as an explicit representation of the church and how it operates. However, as in After Earth, there are quite a few concepts that mirror the ideas of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, ideas that church members would likely recognize.
In the story, the unnamed narrator’s adventures are fueled by an odd family of three women known as the Hempstocks. Gradually, the narrator comes to realize that Lettie and her mother and her grandmother are magical beings who are as old as the universe itself. This seemed very reminiscent of Scientology’s notion of “thetans” — that we are immortal beings who have lived as long as the universe, but without the help of Scientology we are unable to see our true, immortal nature.
The narrator briefly gets a glimpse of the Hempstocks’ power when he is submerged in Lettie’s “ocean” — the pond behind the Hempstock farm. During that moment of clarity, the narrator feels that he perceives all possible knowledge, but it starts to slip away once he is out of the water. He asks Lettie if that’s how she goes through life, with such a complete awareness of the universe.
“It’s really nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
When we read that, we couldn’t help thinking of L. Ron Hubbard’s assertion that some quadrillion years ago, all-powerful thetans had got to playing around and had created a “MEST” universe — an actual, tangible place of matter, energy, space, and time, and that’s when all the trouble had started.
Lettie later goes through a traumatic experience that appears to leave her dead, but her mother and grandmother assure the narrator that Lettie will eventually be back, after they put her in her “ocean” and she’s carried away by a wave.
The Hempstocks also tell the narrator that he has often visited them over the years, but then always forgets that he does.
Hubbard told his followers that between lives, after we’ve left one corporeal body and then pick up another one, our memories are erased by intergalactic invader forces occupying our solar system so that our true nature as powerful, immortal beings can be kept from us. These “between-life implants” are forced on us at stations on Venus and Mars; after processing, a freshly implanted thetan is then thrown into the ocean at the Gulf of California and then has to make its way to a new human body. Only through his discoveries, Hubbard said, could these implants be erased so that thetans could remain aware of who they were, lifetime to lifetime.
We found several other passages in the book that reminded us of Scientology’s basic ideas, but it’s just as easy to point out that Gaiman is playing with some pretty standard tropes of fantasy and science fiction.
It would probably be a mistake to say that Gaiman is making any kind of statement — positive or negative — about the church and his background in it.
But the truth is, Gaiman’s grounding in Scientology was extensive, and the period he’s mining for fiction could not have been more significant.
The unnamed narrator in the book is seven years old — in fact, it’s the disastrously poor turnout to his seventh birthday that opens the story. In real life, Gaiman was seven when the suicide happened at the end of the lane of his family estate.
But it was also that same month — August, 1968, that Neil Gaiman’s ardent involvement as a Scientologist became a national issue.
In 1965, David and Sheila Gaiman moved their family to East Grinstead as they became involved in Scientology, which was headquartered at Saint Hill Manor. L. Ron Hubbard had moved there in 1959 after repeated clashes with American authorities sent him looking for greener pastures.
Gaiman quickly moved up in the organization and was soon doing public relations work. He can be seen briefly in this news report about Scientology’s clash with locals in East Grinstead in 1968. It’s Gaiman who is standing next to Jane Kember, who ran Scientology’s spy wing — the “Guardian’s Office” — for Hubbard and his wife Mary Sue.
As the video indicates, there was a lot of concern about the young people flocking from overseas to Saint Hill Manor to study Scientology. Scientologists knew they weren’t welcome, but they argued back that they were subject to discrimination.
When David’s son Neil was denied entry to a prep school because of his religious affiliation, Gaiman made sure the BBC heard about it.
Last year, we were the first to post online the transcript from a radio interview of seven-year-old Neil Gaiman, who had been offered to the BBC as the model of a young Scientologist…
Neil Gaiman 7-years-old, Radio Interview BBC Radio ‘World at Weekend’, August 1968.
Keith Graves: What is Scientology?
Neil: It is an applied philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge.
Keith Graves: Do you know what philosophy is?
Neil: I used to, but I’ve forgotten.
Keith Graves: Who told you that meaning of Scientology?
Neil: In clearer words, it’s a way to make the able person more able.
Keith Graves: What does it do for you — Scientology — does it make you feel a better boy?
Neil: Not exactly that, but when you make a release you feel absolutely great.
Keith Graves: Do you get what you call a release very often, or do you have this all the time?
Neil: Well, you only keep a release all the time when you get Clear. I’m six courses away from Clear.
Keith Graves: You’re on a particular grade are you?
Neil: Well, I’ve just passed Grade I; I’m not Grade II yet.
Keith Graves: What is Grade I?
Neil: Problems Release.
Keith Graves: And what does this mean to you, Problems Release?
Neil: It helps you to handle quite a lot of problems.
Keith Graves: What problems do you have as a little boy that this helps you with?
Neil: Only one big problem.
Keith Graves: What’s that?
Neil: My friend Stephen.
Keith Graves: Oh, I see. Is he a Scientologist?
Keith Graves: But I mean, how does this grade that you’ve got, Problems Release, help you to deal with Stephen?
Neil: Well, you know, I’ve dealed with every single problem except Stephen, one thing Problems Release can’t help me to handle.
Keith Graves: So you still fight with Stephen?
Neil: It’s more of a question he fights with me.
Keith Graves: He’s older than you, presumably.
Keith Graves: And he’s three grades ahead of you?
Neil: In a way, but you see, there are six main courses; but there are ever so many in-between courses. I’ve just finished three, and that’s Engrams.
Keith Graves: What are Engrams?
Neil: Engrams are a mental image picture containing pain and unconsciousness.
Keith Graves: And what does this mean to you?
Neil: Well, shall I tell you? — I’ll give you a demonstration. You’re walking along the street, and a car hooted and somebody shouted, “shooo’, and a dog barked, and you tripped over a bit of metal and hurt your knee. Three years later, say, you were walking along that same place and someone shouted “shooo”, and a car hooted, and a dog barked, and suddenly you feel pain in your knee. I’ve had one Engram that I can remember. I was jumping off the television set. We’ve got a gigantic television set, but it doesn’t work. Onto my mom’s bed and, you see, I jumped and I hit my head on the chandelier, and you know it really hurt; and I looked up and I saw it swinging, and a few minutes later I tried to test an Engram, so I set it swinging and I looked up there, and I suddenly had a headache.
Keith Graves: And how old were you when this happened?
Neil: Around three months ago.
Keith Graves: Oh, I see. How long have you been studying Scientology?
Neil: I started at five, now I’m seven.
Keith Graves: Seven years old. Extraordinary, isn’t it?
The reason we have this radio transcript was that the church printed up pamphlets intending to sway members of Parliament about Scientology’s supposed persecution. Neil’s interview was just one of several things in that pamphlet.
One wonders how much Neil Gaiman today remembers that he was being used by Scientology as an example of its beneficial effect on children as a national debate about the church swirled in the press.
What Gaiman says he definitely did not know at the time was that the same month he gave the BBC interview — August 1968 — there was a suicide on his family’s property.
To help make ends meet, the Gaimans took in lodgers among the Scientology students who had come to Saint Hill. And one of them, a 29-year-old South African man named Johannes Hermanus Scheepers, was found dead in the Gaiman family Mini on August 31, 1968. According to an article written at the time, Scheepers had connected a hose from the car’s exhaust to its interior, and had died of carbon monoxide poisoning…
Suicide Verdict on South African
From Our Correspondent — East Grinstead, Sept. 4 
A verdict of suicide was recorded at an East Grinstead inquest today on a South African, Johannes Hermanus Scheepers, aged 29, described on his alien registration card as a student of scientology.
Mr. Scheepers was said to have been staying at the home of Mr. David Gaiman, Harwood House South, Harwoods Lane, a mile from the scientologists’ international headquarters at Saint Hill Manor, East Grinstead.
Mr. Gaiman, aged 35, a senior executive of the cult, denied on oath that the dead man had been student of scientology at Saint Hill.
Asked by Dr. Angus Summerville, the East Sussex coroner, why Mr. Scheepers had come to Britain, Mr. Gaiman said: "I assume that he came to gamble. That was the activity that took his interest."
Mr. Gaiman said he was introduced to Mr. Scheepers two-and-a-half months ago. Mr. Scheepers had stayed at his house in Harwoods Lane for a short time and then left, saying he was going to Brighton.
On Thursday evening, August 29, Mr. Scheepers arrived at his house and said he was flying back to South Africa on Saturday. A bed was wade up for him. "Scheepers had mentioned casually to my wife that his gambling system had broken down, and from that I gathered the impression he was broke", Mr. Gaiman said.
Police-constable Albert Walker said Mr. Scheepers was found on August 31 in a car parked in Harwoods Lane. A plastic pipe wedged into the exhaust entered the car by a window. Dr. Albert Sachs, a pathologist said the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning.
Police-constable Colin Daffiest, the coroner’s officer, said Mr. Scheepers left two letters, saying he was going to take his own life and that this had nothing to do with scientology or being a member of the group. His flight back to South Africa had been cancelled.
After the inquest Mr. Gaiman said a check had shown that Mr. Scheepers had not been registered at any scientology establishment in Britain.
Even today, 45 years later, David Gaiman’s denials that Scheepers was in any way connected to Scientology seem problematic, as does the notion that Scheepers would have exonerated Scientology in a suicide note and also bothered to cancel his flight home.
In Gaiman’s book, it’s an unnamed opal miner from South Africa who kills himself in the same way after briefly coming to board at the home of the narrator.
The opal miner has left behind two suicide notes (we hear about them from the Hempstocks, who mysteriously seem to know about them), and the notes blame the opal miner’s despair on his bad luck in gambling.
In a strange way, it’s as if Neil Gaiman, in his novel, is providing support for his father’s real-life assertion that the suicide, Scheepers, had died because of gambling, and not because of his involvement with Scientology.
David Gaiman died in 2009 at the age of 75. While he was alive, he was known as a pugnacious promoter of Scientology. He was an unindicted co-conspirator (along with L. Ron Hubbard himself) when 11 Scientology executives were prosecuted for the largest infiltration of the US government in its history. From 1973 until the church was raided by the FBI in 1977, Scientology’s spy wing, the Guardian’s Office, sent operatives to infiltrate hundreds of government offices around the world to pilfer files about the church.
Gaiman rose to be the Guardian’s Office top public relations official in the world. His own contribution to the GO’s many plots was dreaming up “Operation Cat,” a scheme to plant false information in the files of US government agencies and then expose it using Freedom of Information Act requests. Gaiman’s plans for Operation Cat were among the documents seized in the 1977 raid.
David and his wife Sheila also had a very good thing going after they founded a vitamin supply business, G & G Vitamins, in 1965. It became a lucrative concern as it supplied Saint Hill Manor, where some of Scientology’s processes call for huge intakes of vitamins. (Last year, Sheila Gaiman was featured in a Scientology flier which listed her as a “New Civilization Founder” in its fundraising for new buildings, indicating that she’s personally given at least $1 million.)
But David Gaiman’s career in the church did not go without a hitch. In the early 1980s, there was a purge of old Guardian’s Office executives as Scientology tried to distance itself from the disastrous prosecution of officials involved in Operation Snow White.
In 1983, David was expelled from the church and “declared” a “suppressive person” — Scientology’s form of excommunication. His declare is online, and it not only lists the usual complaints — that Gaiman supplanted Hubbard’s methods with his own, making him a “squirrel” (a heretic) — but also accused him of “a history of sexual misconduct…He has engaged in this while legally married in disregard of Church policy on this matter.” (He later managed to get back in the church’s good graces.)
For what it’s worth, in Neil’s novel the narrator’s father is seduced by the evil governess, Ursula Monkton, carrying on an affair while his wife spends evenings in town.
However, as Gaiman makes clear in the acknowledgments at the end of his book, the family in the novel is not his family in real life. But he also makes an interesting note about how his sister helped him mine the past…
The family in this book is not my own family, who have been gracious in letting me plunder the landscape of my own childhood and watched as I liberally reshaped those places into a story. I’m grateful to them all, especially to my youngest sister, Lizzy, who encouraged me and sent me long-forgotten memory-jogging photographs.
Lizzy Calcioli is an ardent Scientologist who has completed courses up to the present day, according to Scientology’s own publications.
In 2011, the UK’s Channel 4 featured Calcioli in a short film talking about the virtues of Scientology’s silent childbirth. She talks about the noise in other parts of a maternity ward, and how she didn’t want for that to be the “welcome” that her five children experienced.
However, Calcioli never explains why Scientologists seek a silent environment for childbirth: Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard believed that things said while a child is being born would be soaked up by the child’s “reactive mind” and could harm them for the rest of their lives. Hubbard’s book Dianetics is filled with examples of the way a sperm cell, egg, or fetus could absorb things that were said near them while they were “unconscious” and have them manifest as illnesses or neuroses decades later.
Neil Gaiman is also still close with his ex-wife Mary McGrath, whom he met when she was a Scientology student at Saint Hill Manor and lodging in a house owned by Neil’s father. In 1985, they were married and had their first child. (Gaiman and McGrath were divorced in 2008.)
To this day, Gaiman lives in Minnesota because he wanted to remain close to McGrath and their three children as they were growing up.
As we reported recently, Mary McGrath is still so involved in Scientology she’s become the executive director of the church’s “Ideal Org” in St. Paul. McGrath has given large donations to Scientology, and some have suggested that Neil is still, through McGrath, giving money to, and is involved in, the church.
But we haven’t seen anything to convince us that Gaiman is involved in the donations made by his ex-wife.
Mary McGrath recently turned up in a video put together by the St. Paul Ideal Org which encouraged Scientologists from Kansas City to come up to Minnesota for a fundraiser. She shows up with 2:33 on the counter, calling herself “the ED Day”…
As this evidence shows, Neil Gaiman has been surrounded by fanatical Scientologists all of his life, from his father, who spoke for Scientology as its UK mouthpiece, to his sisters, his mother, and his ex-wife.
But then in 2009, he took up with a very different sort of person altogether.
Amanda Palmer rose to fame as one half of the Dresden Dolls and is known for her unconventional cabaret musical style and her unconventional life. Last year, she became the subject of debate when she used Kickstarter to raise money for a new album that brought in more than a $1 million in donations.
Some Internet posters wondered if any of that money would find its way into the coffers of Scientology, even though there’s no evidence that Palmer has ever had any involvement with the church. On May 23, 2012, Palmer answered those critics by posting a photograph of herself topless except for some “Smurf” stickers on her nipples. Written on her torso were the words, “Nope. Not planning to fund Scientology with my Kickstarter money. That would be dumb. P.S., Smurf-tits, AFP [Amanda Fucking Palmer]”
Despite that declarative statement, there are critics on the Internet who insist that Neil Gaiman is still involved in Scientology, and that Palmer secretly has her own connections to it. (The only evidence they offer of it is that one of Palmer’s uncles has a business which was contracted to help in the renovation of a Scientology building. But Scientology often contracts with outside firms for its building projects.)
We’ve still seen no convincing evidence that Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer have any involvement with Scientology. But we’re also just as convinced that Neil’s earlier involvement in the church is something that Palmer was curious about, and which inspired him to explore that past in his new novel. It’s a wonderful read, and we hope that it’s a sign that at some point Neil will open up even more about his background and about his family’s ongoing dedication to the world of L. Ron Hubbard.
Jett Travolta Still Donating to Scientology
Roger Friedman scores again, showing that John Travolta and Kelly Preston are still donating money in the name of their son, Jett, to Scientology causes. As Friedman points out, Scientology beliefs may have actually contributed to the boy’s death, but that hasn’t stopped his parents from funding church causes with money in his name.
Posted by Tony Ortega on June 21, 2013 at 07:00
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