Denise Brennan, a former Scientology executive in the 1970s and 1980s who became a vocal whistle blower about the organization’s structure and finances, died of a heart attack in New Hampshire yesterday morning at about 8 am.
Brennan, 62, had told numerous friends that she had been writing so much about Scientology in recent years in part because she didn’t expect to be around much longer.
“In the past four and a half years I have had three emergency lifesaving surgeries,” she wrote in 2012, as she announced publicly that she was a transgendered woman and wanted to be known as Denise, after having spent most of her life as Larry Brennan.
“Whether you knew my father as Larry or Denise, you know she was a warm and loving person,” Brennan’s daughter Kimberly Perkins told us last night. An outpouring of affection and remembrances began to show up on the Internet yesterday afternoon as the news of Brennan’s death began to spread. We’ve been collecting memories and statements from numerous people whose lives were touched by Denise, including authors Lawrence Wright and Janet Reitman, whose books on Scientology each benefited from her deep knowledge.
Lawrence Harold Brennan was born on February 9, 1952 in Sayre, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran, Leo “Heck” Brennan, and his wife Edith. (Leo passed away in 1991. Edith is now 96 years old.)
Larry was hitchhiking to a folk music concert during his college years when he was given a ride by a man who began telling him about something called Dianetics. Brennan was curious about it, and after taking a course, on September 1, 1973 he began his first job in Scientology, at the Advanced Organization of Los Angeles (AOLA). A little more than ten years later, Larry left staff, having reached some of the most sensitive positions in the church over his career.
He continued to be a non-staff member of the church for many more years. Altogether, Brennan estimated his time in Scientology at 28 years, reaching Operating Thetan Level Seven on Scientology’s “Bridge to Total Freedom,” and spending about $400,000 on coursework for himself and his wife, Sandy.
Sandy and Larry met at Scientology’s UK headquarters, Saint Hill Manor, and were married there in 1978. They had Kimberly, who says both of her parents decided to leave their jobs working for Scientology at the same time.
Kimberly herself was raised in the church after having been born at PAC base in Los Angeles. She eventually did her own stint working for Scientology’s “Sea Org,” which requires signing a billion-year contract. By 2001, however, she had become disillusioned and wanted to get out.
“When my daughter told me that she wanted to flee Scientology staff due to the great abuses and lies there, I helped her do so and took her in despite demands from organized Scientology that I disown her and send her back to them for punishment,” Brennan wrote several years ago. “I chose my daughter over Scientology. I did not send her back, but instead I defended her and then began researching the organization on the Internet.”
Brennan writes about becoming stunned by what was online about the organization that he’d given so many years. Eventually, he became one of the most effective whistle blowers about Scientology’s abuses.
“I met Denise – who was Larry then – in 2007, when I was just starting to research my book, and he was just deciding, hesitantly, to go public,” Janet Reitman tells us. Her book Inside Scientology came out in the summer of 2011. “Before we spoke, he had me vetted by his lawyer – this was very impressive, since I probably would have done the exact same thing. And by the way he was the only one to take those kinds of precautions. I assume I satisfied their criteria as the next thing I knew, I had an invitation to speak to him in person (he preferred that to the phone) in New Hampshire, where he lived. So I flew up there one day in March, and arrived to find this incredibly warm and funny person who had laid out literally every sort of junk food you could imagine, and spent the next day or two listening to hours upon hours of stories about the Sea Organization, and about Scientology’s finances, which was vital to my understanding of the organization, and packed several notebooks. He also told me, poignantly, about his daughter, who he loved very much, and how difficult it had been for him in Scientology, living what amounted to a double life. He was one of the kindest and most generous sources I’ve ever had over my career as a reporter, and I doubt I would have been able to write my book were it not for that help. My contact with Larry stretched on for the entirety of the book-writing process, which was in my case four full years, and during some phases, not a week went by when I didn’t e-mail with him for clarification or for other insights. He was extraordinarily insightful and was so excited about my book, that he made me excited about it –- he was certain it was going to be ‘huge’ and would win awards and all kinds of wonderful things. It was so sweet, and helped me get through many dark moments of the soul.”
It was when Reitman had her second public reading of Inside Scientology, at the Half King bar and restaurant on the west side of Manhattan, that we first met Brennan. It felt like meeting an old acquaintance. Brennan regaled an audience with tales from the Sea Org.
Two years later, another book came out that shook the field, and again, Brennan had been an important part of it.
“Denise Brennan was a knowledgeable, patient, and courageous source for me as I was researching Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” Lawrence Wright told us last night. “She was willing to speak out publicly when many others stayed in the shadows. A reporter never forgets a good source, and I will always be grateful to Denise for the trust she placed in me when she confided her story.”
Besides helping authors with their work, Brennan had also become a front-line protester who drew inspiration from the Anonymous movement that burst onto the scene in 2008. That’s when Brennan got to know one of the most well known of the Anonymous protesters, Gregg Housh.
“We met Denise in Boston in 2008, back when she still went by Larry. It was cold and windy and completely insane outside the Scientology building that Saturday, but it didn’t take long to figure out that the person in the ‘SP’ ballcap was someone special. Not just a protester, not just a jerk from the Internet, not even your run-of-the-mill ex-Scientologist,” Housh tells us. “What started out as a working partnership quickly grew into one of our most cherished friendships from Chanology. Denise made us part of her family. She took us and the kids up to Lake Winnipesaukee and introduced us to her daughter and son-in-law. She didn’t just share the stories of legal battles or abuse within the Church of Scientology, or the policies she’d helped to write. She told us about bringing her daughter into the world in Big Blue, about the simple decision to abandon the church to stand with her daughter. She shared the heartbreak of being trans in a time and a cult that did not accept who she was. We always loved her for who she was. She married us in 2012, putting up with our wacky choices for wedding vows and reception venue. She watched us fall in love and loved us both. Anyone who knew her could tell you just how much love she had for the whole world around. She was a fantastic person, a wonderful parent, an invaluable resource for the Anonymous and ex-Scientology community, and above all else, our dear friend.”
Denise was a dedicated protester, but it was her deep understanding of Scientology’s byzantine corporate structure that made her a speaker in demand. She had actually helped create that structure on orders of L. Ron Hubbard. The Scientology founder had gone into permanent seclusion in 1980, but it was made clear to Brennan that Hubbard wanted the “corporate sort-out” that happened over the next couple of years.
Here at the Underground Bunker, one of our favorite pieces of all time was a story we did with Denise and with historian Jon Atack. The subject was Scientology’s bizarre underground vaults, designed to preserve Hubbard’s written work indefinitely. The vaults are dug and maintained by the Church of Spiritual Technology, one of Scientology’s esoteric entities which has its own bylaws and officers. These odd corporate layers, we pointed out, inspire some former Scientologists to believe that there’s a way to wrestle control of the organization from its current leader. But Denise told us we were wasting our time even searching for such a thing.
“That goose chase you’re on — that’s what we tried to make people do, lead them to follow that paper trail and think they were on to something. The people who think they’re following the power of control by looking at the lists of directors for CST are falling for the sham we set up,” she told us.
“All of the corporate papers and layers of directors — it’s all just a scam that has nothing to do with who really runs Scientology. Who runs Scientology is David Miscavige, and he controls it through the Sea Organization.”
If there’s one person who knew what she was talking about concerning Scientology’s actual structure, it was Denise Brennan.
We asked another former top executive in the church, Mike Rinder, for his thoughts on Denise.
“I worked extensively with Larry when he was in Special Unit/WDC doing the corporate reorganization of Scientology. I don’t think I ever met anyone who knew Larry (or Denise) who was not struck by her intelligence and extreme kindness. She was a gentle soul who cared about doing the right thing and thus never fit well in the cold, mean-spirited atmosphere of the Sea Org. After leaving Scientology she created a new life for herself, but she never changed her inherent nature. We re-established our friendship after I too left the Sea Org. She took a stand and worked to expose the sham of Scientology and was a wealth of information for anyone who wanted to know about the incredibly complicated structure of the church. She will be missed by anyone who ever knew her.”
Another place we were used to seeing Brennan was at the home of Patty Moher, who hosted an annual party at her home in New London, Connecticut for “SPs” — former members and other critics of Scientology. Patty’s own favorite memory of Denise, she tells us, occurred on a trip down to New York in 2011 (for the Janet Reitman appearance we mentioned earlier).
“On the way down to New York to protest the cult, Denise confided in me, while driving in I-95 traffic, that she was a transgender person and then spilled all the beans,” Patty told us. “She left out nothing. It was very surreal for me and wiped out any last vestige of Scientology homophobia, or transgender phobia, that might still be lurking around in my Scientology-addled brain. I was one of only a handful of women that she had discussed this with, and she wanted feedback on handling this with her family. It was at that moment that a big chunk of the Scientology mindfuck broke off. Both Denise and I were in Scientology for over 30 years. We were both true, die hard, kick-in-the-teeth Scientologists, and we were discussing something that Scientology considers the height of perversion and insanity. I was so overwhelmed with wonderful emotions it was amazing I didn’t drive us to Maryland. Denise not only honored me with her trust, she caused me to re-examine so much Scientology shit, and changed my life for the better. Denise came out as Denise at the 2012 SP Party. She was very warmly welcomed by our SP community.”
By then, we had written about another prominent transgendered member of the ex-Scientology community, Kate Bornstein, who got to know Denise at Patty’s party last year.
“Bless Denise Brennan, a beacon of hope for so many LGBTQ folks who once were or still are stuck in the cult of Scientology. She made peace with a frightening past, and lived her dream. She was an adorable, class act,” Kate says.
Denise Brennan is survived by her mother Edith Brennan, her former wife Sandy Brennan, her daughter Kimberly Perkins, and Kimberly’s husband Aaron Perkins and daughter Chloe.
Kimberly spoke to us last night from Seattle. She said she is flying to New Hampshire this morning, and is tentatively planning a small memorial service at a modest venue for Sunday in Concord. But if she hears from more people — at email@example.com — she would be interested in a larger event.
She also sent two statements from the family and asked that we include them here.
From Kimberly’s mother, Sandy Brennan: “Denise was a very, very kind person. She was generous to a fault, always giving and wanting to know how to help. People would often gravitate to her for help. She would gladly look for a positive side of life and events. I feel so fortunate to have spent the many years we had together. We shared so many great experiences — lots of laughing and living. Denise, I loved raising Kimberly with you and so enjoyed watching you two together. It was a joy to see how happy you were to be a dad. I am so glad you had a loving and happy relationship together. You will be sorely missed by so many of us. Denise, you are now free. Free of all those material boundaries we use to talk about. Enjoy your freedom. Hope our paths may someday cross again.”
And from Kimberly Perkins, Denise’s daughter: “Whether you knew my father as Larry or Denise, you know she was a warm and loving person. She had a remarkable ability to love without boundaries. From an early age she taught me compassion and always promoted kindness. She had the strength to let go of anger and the bravery to love all. She was a beacon of positive light and remains my inspiration. Some years we lived in the same city while other years we were separated by thousands of miles. But, no matter the distance, she would always tell me, ‘Honey, I’m there with you in spirit.’ I believe she still is. It took amazing courage and integrity to make her life transition; I wish I had more time to tell her how proud I am to be her daughter. My memories of her are filled with laughter and love, which I will cherish and pass on to my daughter. So, here’s to you, Dad. Thank you for teaching me kindness and love. Those lessons will be passed on, and your legacy of compassion lives on through all of those that you touched just by being you. We will always love you.”
Links to Denise Brennan’s online legacy:
A sworn declaration about L. Ron Hubbard’s control of Scientology after 1980
Brennan’s e-book, which collected many Internet postings
VIDEO: Boston 2008 interview
VIDEO: The Edge interview 2008, part 1
VIDEO: The Edge interview 2008, part 2
VIDEO: The Edge interview 2008, part 3
VIDEO: The Edge interview 2008, part 4
VIDEO: The Edge interview 2008, part 5
VIDEO: The Edge interview 2008, part 6
VIDEO: Boston protest speech, part 1
VIDEO: Boston protest speech, part 2
VIDEO: Presentation to Australian Senate committee, 2010
VIDEO: Presentation in Hamburg, 2008
A collection of Brennan’s poetry
Brennan’s 2008-2009 blog
Denise Brennan’s ‘just another chat thread’ at ESMB
Posted by Tony Ortega on August 13, 2014 at 07:00
E-mail your tips and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
UP THE BRIDGE (Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING (Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43