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Where There's Smoke, There's Scientology

But finding the fire, at least among Elvis pilgrims, is somewhat harder to do.


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It was 1973 or 1974, not long after the split-up between Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, the parents of Lisa Marie Presley, then the heiress and now the possessor of the King of Rock-and-Roll's name and fortune.

Though in public he tried to pretend otherwise, even on occasion introducing his former wife to concert audiences as his good and caring friend (no problem, no sweat, no big deal: "Come on up here, honey, let 'em look at you" ), Elvis was stricken and in a searching mode -- for women, for meaning, for solace -- that he never quite came to the end of.

(In my 1998 interview with Priscilla Presley for Memphis magazine, the King's ex-wife acknowledged what various friends and relatives and fans had long felt but few had articulated -- that for Elvis the loss of his wife had been a crippling psychological wound, one that sapped his energies and may have accelerated his final undoing. "Yes, I'm afraid it was true," Priscilla said, a statement that The National Enquirer later made the basis of one of its patented front-page hypes: 'I KILLED ELVIS.')

One of the King's new companions -- the actress Peggy Lipton, who had played on TV's Mod Squad and later married the musician Quincy Jones -- had a fervent interest in the Church of Scientology and, sensing Elvis' need, tried to entice him into the orbit of those who followed its doctrine, which professes to rescue a practitioner from the seated "engrams" of his of her troubled psyche by raising them to consciousness and expunging them.

Scientology would seem to avail itself more of psychology than of theology, but whatever it was, the Pentecostally raised Elvis was attracted enough to pay a visit one day to the church's center on Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard.

As Memphis Mafia member Lamar Fike, who was in the group that accompanied Elvis, recalled (in the 1995 HarperCollins book Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations From the Memphis Mafia), "Elvis went in and talked to them. We waited in the car, but apparently they started doing all these charts and crap for him. Elvis came out and said, 'Fuck those people! There's no way I'll ever get involved with that son-of-a-bitchin' group. All they want is my money.'

"Well, Peggy still kept on about it, so Elvis didn't date her anymore. And he stayed away from Scientology like it was a cobra. He'd shit a brick to see how far Lisa Marie's gotten into it."

'Deed he might. 'Deed he might. Make that two bricks in the case of his only child's 1994 marriage to the self-styled "King of Pop" Michael Jackson, fresh from accusations of child molestation and a ready proverb for any number of stand-up comics, several of whom commented on Jackson's apparent metamorphosis from a spirited young black man to someone (or something) bleached-out and genderless.

It was widely speculated that Jackson's motive for entering into what nobody, but nobody, considered a love match was to render himself a card-carrying adult heterosexual after some sordid business involving an underage boy.

Lisa Marie, for her part, was suspected -- either in her own right or as an agent of her mother, the conspiracy theorists never quite made up their minds -- of wanting to join the Presley fortune to Jackson's own quite considerable one for purely mercenary reasons. The bolder and more ideologically focused critics (maybe one should say "more sensationalist" ones) suggested that it was all a Scientology Plot.

The problem with this interpretation is that the evidence seems incontrovertible that mother Priscilla -- at the time still formally in charge of the estate -- was opposed to the marriage from the get-go. Even the tabloids acknowledge that. Said the ever gabby Star on two occasions in 2000 concerning Lisa Marie's on-again, off-again engagement to John Oszajca: "Priscilla is delighted [by the then-impending marriage] and that hasn't always been the case -- she was devastated when her daughter rushed off and married Michael Jackson." And again: "Priscilla is particularly thrilled about the news since she was always adamantly against the debacle that was Lisa's marriage to Jackson. She wasn't the ONLY one. "

Of course, it is possible to maintain that the senior Presley's disaffection with Jackson and delight with Oszajca was predicated more on the disinclination of the former (raised in the Jehovah's Witness tradition) to join the Church of Scientology and the perfect willingness of the latter to do so.

But there goes your conspiracy theory. For all his defects in the normalcy department, the Prince of Pomp was loaded with dough, enough surely to convince a dedicated World Conspirator to look the other way. Whereas the now-off-again-to-stay Oszajca, a would-be rock musician, was abjectly poor, perhaps doomed to a role no more glorious than that of house-husband, had he not been ultimately displaced by Lisa Marie's current beau, actor Nicolas Cage.

It would seem that piety figured more substantially than plenitude on the acceptability scale -- something that could be said for many a family's attitude toward a suitor seeking entrance.

Except that "piety" may not be the right word to bestow on the organization. True, the Church of Scientology finally won a long legal struggle to receive tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service as a bona fide religious organization, and it, after all, describes itself as a "church."

But even some of those in the best possible position to observe its workings either have their doubts or talk about it in unmistakably secular terms.

A case of the former is Jack Soden, the executive officer of Graceland and of Elvis Presley Enterprises and the man generally credited (in tandem with Priscilla Presley, of course) with rehabilitating an estate which had been left by its namesake in a state of serious disrepair.

"Far be it from me to question the working of our courts," mused Soden in a conversation at the beginning of August, as he prepared for the annual deluge of Elvis fans on the anniversary of the King's death. "But I don't especially see [Scientology] as a religious organization."

He meant this as a compliment, not as anything derogatory. Soden is fully aware of the bad press Scientology gets in certain quarters as a monolithic organization disposed to secretive machinations in the world at large, punitive attitudes toward its apostates and critics, and the imposition of a severe internal discipline on its own membership.

What Soden means is that, in some two decades of close collaboration with Priscilla Presley and later with Lisa Marie, the current dominating personality and official inheritor of the $200 million estate, he has never experienced "a second's worth" of Scientological dogma or proselytizing force.

"Believe it or not, I don't recall a single conversation ever with either of them that had anything to do with the Church of Scientology," he insists. "Not once that I can recall has the whole question of Scientology ever bled over into the administration of the estate or anything concerning how we deal with the fans or the estate or the memory of Elvis."

Soden is candid about one thing. "I will concede that, at the beginning of our relationship, I wondered if there might be some influence, but I haven't seen it in all these years, and it was never anything that I was worried about. If anything, it seems to have acted as a positive force for Priscilla and Lisa Marie. That's all I can see. To see a link between Graceland and Scientology would be a real stretch."

That's the attitude, too, of Paul Matsumoto, the executive director of the Church of Scientology's Memphis mission, located on Central Avenue. Matsumoto is a sunny presence who laughs a lot, has an erudite manner, and is a good antidote to some of the scare stories about the organization featured in both the straight and tabloid presses.

"We've made an effort to get to the bottom of some of the criticism of us, and court proceedings have helped in that effort," Matsumoto says. "Time after time, almost without exception, the origin of these stories has proved to be the big pharmaceutical companies or the American Psychological Association or some other self-interested party like that."

That sounds a bit as though Scientologists have conspiracy theories of their own. But Matsumoto explains it this way:

"Scientology believes in the existence of the spirit. We oppose the mainstream of psychology -- the behaviorists, especially, who come out of Pavlov by way of Wundt -- and we think the use of psychotropic drugs, which is the basic mode of psychology today, even of psychiatry, is a serious evil."

Grudgingly, Matsumoto seems to acknowledge some connection between Freudian psychology and the precepts of Scientology, which uses a technique called "auditing" to disgorge the unconscious "engrams" of negative experience that would otherwise keep the church's members from realizing their full potential.

Matsumoto, too, sees as far-fetched the idea that there could be a connection between the practices and goals of Scientology and the alternate universe that has come to center around the persona of the late Elvis Presley.

"It honestly has never occurred to us to try to proselytize among them," he says when asked about the prospect that the multitude of Elvis fans, especially those with a high regard for Priscilla or Lisa Marie, might constitute a ready mass of potential converts.

As for attempts to exploit the positive PR of local events sponsored either by the Church of Scientology -- like its annual Christmas parties for underprivileged youth -- or involving Priscilla, Lisa Marie, or any other Scientology celebrity members who happen to come along (as, for example, Juliette Lewis did when Elvis Presley's Memphis opened on Beale back in 1997), or the conspicuous generous donations made by Lisa Marie, an example of which was her recent endowment of $1.3 million for Elvis Presley Place, an apartment complex to house the homeless, Matsumoto scoffs. "It doesn't happen. I can assure you of that."

Like so many of the Church of Scientology's celebrity members -- actors John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, Lewis, and Isaac Hayes, to name a few -- Matsumoto stresses what strikes an outsider as the secular self-help aspects of Scientology, and he notes the one fact which distinguishes his church from almost any other:

"The practice of Scientology is consistent with the practice of other faiths. Not only are many of our members also Christians, we have a cooperative arrangement for a number of charitable public purposes with many churches in this community." There are exceptions, he notes -- two glaring ones being Central Church and Bellevue Baptist Church, both of which, coincidentally or not, are housed (or have been) in imposing, even fortress-like structures on large-acre lots and present an image, to the naked eye anyhow, more consistent with the concept of a monolithic force than the Church of Scientology's own modest headquarters.

Chuckling over the tongue-in-cheek comparison of the Church of Scientology to Bellevue Baptist Church made in a Fly on the Wall item in a recent issue of the Flyer, Matsumoto declared, "Oh, please don't compare us to Bellevue Baptist. Now that's a cult!"

To be sure, there is still abundant negative publicity about the Church of Scientology -- ranging from accounts by apostates alleging brainwashing and a form of mental slavery during their membership and non-stop persecution afterward to charges of dangerous medical practices (besides the group's frowning on pharmaceuticals, there is the fact that Lisa Marie, like other women in Scientology, was enjoined to observe absolute silence during her childbirths) to the virtual state of war existing between Scientology and the government of Germany, which accuses the church of racketeering and has officially curtailed its activities. (In the latter case, each side has basically attempted to brand the other as Nazis.)

Finally, there is Battlefield Earth, the undeniable, indeed unwatchable, atrocity that was actor/filmmaker Travolta's act of homage to a work by L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer who, somewhat implausibly, founded the church in 1954 and popularized its mixed secularist/spiritualist creed through the widely sold and circulated book Dianetics.

Whatever the realities, the Church of Scientology would seem to have gained the benefit of the doubt both locally -- by dint, no doubt, of its steady ration of good works, like its Literacy, Education, and Ability Program (LEAP) -- and in the world of Elvis enthusiasts.

This week a group of early arrivals for the period of mid-August commemorations that is Elvis Week was polled for their feelings about Scientology and the espousal of it by two such heavyweight Presley principals as Priscilla and Lisa Marie.

"Huh?" said a woman who had made the pilgrimage from Kansas City, her entire extended family in tow. "I didn't know they were members. That tells you something, doesn't it? Really, it's okay with me what they do with their private time."

Another woman, who, with her two blond teenage daughters, had come from Belleville, Illinois: "Yes, I knew about Priscilla's and Lisa Marie's church affiliation. But they keep it to themselves. It never gets in the way of what we do here. And they have a right to be in whatever church they want to be in, just as I do."

So maybe, after all, there is an attitude of non-interference and laissez-faire governing the relations between Elvis pilgrims and the Church of Scientology. It would be nice to think so, and commentary from principals as well as superficial evidence would indicate that such is in fact the case.

Perhaps, then, one is left with little more than a sense of irony. In Elvis and Me, her 1991 bestseller about her life with the King, Priscilla Presley devotes a memorable chapter to her frustrations with the Elvis of the late '60s, who habitually holed up with his collection of spiritualist, Eastern-oriented texts, frustrating his young wife, who had more physical preoccupations at the time.

There came the moment, as she tells it, when she and Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' Svengali-like manager (who had his own concerns about his charge's preoccupations), conspired to gather the offending texts and dispose of them in a vividly described bonfire -- loaded with obvious symbolic overtones -- on the lawn of the Presleys' Los Angeles residence.

This is the woman who, followed by her daughter, would go on to devote herself so fully to the practice of Scientology that she would become one of the church's undeniable eminences.

This is either an extreme irony or none at all, depending on whether one, finally, sees the the Church of Scientology as spiritual or non-spiritual.

In any event, most Elvis devotees don't seem to care. Among them, the issue of Scientology has so far generated little smoke and less fire.

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