The way Tony Ortega tells it, the whole thing started as a joke. His Underground Bunker website, brimming with investigative reports on the Church of Scientology, had attracted such an ardent following among ex-Scientologists, other journalists, regular commenters and people who'd become estranged from family members in the church that Ortega, a former Village Voice editor, suggested they ought to hold a convention.
The first HowdyCon — named after Steve "Captain Howdy" Cox, a frequent commenter on Ortega's site who'd recently passed away — was held in Cleveland in 2016. This past weekend, several dozen HowdyConners descended on Denver, which was chosen for the second annual gathering because of a high number of prominent, disaffected ex-church members living in Colorado, including Chris Shelton and Marc and Claire Headley.
Part pub crawl, part group therapy, the Denver HowdyCon was not so much a convention as an informal meet-up of dissidents, united by a history of similar experiences and traumas. Although it still carries the glitzy endorsement of its celebrity adherents, notably Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the religious organization launched by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard seems to have lost quite a bit of its luster in recent years. Mocked by South Park, targeted by protests from the hacker collective Anonymous, drubbed by investigative reports, the searing HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and the contentious reality series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, the COS has also had to contend with a series of tell-all books and interviews by high-ranking defectors, including unflattering portraits of Scientology leader David Miscavige by a niece and his own father.
Some of the church's most formidable opponents gathered at the Irish Rover on South Broadway Saturday night for HowdyCon's main event, which included drinks, dinner, and a mix of light and heavy presentations. Among them was Shelton, who spent 27 years in Scientology — much of that time in the elite Sea Organization, a kind of paramilitary group staffed by Hubbard's most devoted followers. Since turning his back on the church four years ago, being declared a "suppressive person" by Scientology officials and moving to Colorado, Shelton has produced a number of videos and articles on COS practices, billing himself as "The Critical Thinker at Large." He's also self-published a book, Scientology: A to Xenu, that examines what he regards as the cultic, self-destructive and mercenary aspects of the organization under Miscavige's leadership.
Finding an online community of the disillusioned was a key to Shelton's departure from the church, as it was for many other HowdyCon attendees. Over beers, I chatted with one visitor from the Northwest who left the church more than a decade ago but suspects the COS still has him under surveillance — including recent break-ins at his residence, in which nothing was taken but personal belongings were rearranged. (Those who doubt that the COS is capable of gaslighting and similar dirty tricks should check out The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, Ortega's book on the decades-long harassment of journalist Paulette Cooper.) But some others I met had no direct connection with Scientology; the local organizer of HowdyCon, for example, is Kim O'Brien, who explained that she became a frequent commenter on Ortega's blog after becoming both fascinated and appalled by the ex-members' stories.
The evening's formal presentations began with a behind-the-scenes account of the making of Louis Theroux's gonzo My Scientology Movie. London-based journalist Steve Cannane, whose book Fair Game explores Scientology's operations in Australia, gave a humorous rundown on how Hubbard's refusal to refund one disgruntled customer's money led to official inquiries about church doings on two continents and ultimately led to the creation of the Sea Org. Claire Headley, who was involved in Tom Cruise's auditing sessions, gave a poignant talk about what it was like to grow up inside the Church of Scientology and why it was so difficult to leave. "Despite my experiences, it is my firm belief that our past doesn’t define us," Headley said. "What we do now defines us."
And that seemed to be the theme of the entire get-together. Cast out of a "community" that they had found less than congenial, the HowdyCon folks have found something better: each other.