On February 1, Lisa Marie Presley turned 45, a significant milestone for several reasons. One, Elvis’s only legitimate offspring has managed to live three years longer than her poor, doomed daddy. Two, she has finally found her musical niche. Her much-lauded 2012 Americana release, Storm & Grace, is the album of her career. And three, in middle age, Presley appears to have broken with the Church of Scientology, of which she was once a most devoted member.
The Church of Scientology has taken a beating in recent weeks, particularly with the publication of two new books - Pulitzer-prize winner Lawrence Wright’s investigative Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and the memoir Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, by Jenna Miscavige Hill, whose uncle David Miscavige is a leader of the church.
In years past, Presley had been a vocal mainstay of Scientology’s celebrity roster, along with Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. The four-times-married mother of four credited Scientology for getting her off a youthful dependence on drugs. “Were it not for Scientology, I would either be completely insane or dead by now,” the church’s website quotes her as saying. “I am forever grateful for the technology of Scientology and to Mr. [L. Ron] Hubbard, who dedicated his life to helping man and this planet, as well as to the people who have dedicated their lives to helping others through Scientology.”
However, last spring, when Storm & Grace was released, sharp-eyed fans and news organizations, including the Village Voice and BBC News, pointed out that the lyrics to several songs on the album suggested that Presley, who moved to rural England in 2010 with husband Michael Lockwood, her guitarist and musical director, had cut her ties to the church.
And I too got more than a hint of Lisa Marie’s disillusion with Scientology last May, when I interviewed her over the phone for a short piece for USA Weekend. For the 35 years I’ve written about the Presleys, I’ve known Lisa Marie to be a fiercely independent spirit. Yet just before our interview, her media team laid down the rules: No questions about religion or politics. But once Lisa Marie really started talking, it sounded a lot like religion and politics to me. These quotes have never been published.
About moving to England, you said in an article that you went there because you were "living in a wasp's nest. Sold everything and left, just got on a plane, and started at ground zero."
What led to that?
Uncovering the fact that I was surrounded by people who were not well-intended, for one. Confidants [who were] very, very intimately and closely involved with me and my life. And had been for years. Basically, it was a big sinister situation, where there was like, kind of intel and covert ops going on, and a whole effort to control me that I didn’t know about. Lots of people (were) involved in that in various ways. And I uncovered it and it was mind-blowing, and I just was done with people at that point…It was just too much for me. I have a pretty high tolerance, and I’ve seen a lot, but I was just not ready for all that. It’s like uncovering [people] one by one, and then somebody that was holding it all together, and then they get exposed, and then I find out who’s behind that person, and that person was no good, and…it was pretty much like dominos. So I just thought, “Oh, my God, is everybody this dishonest and awful?” And I really had an obscured view of the world, so I needed to get far away to rediscover people and life and not have a bunch of people around me. You know how that happens in high-profile situations, where you get so many people around you that they obscure your reality on life and insulate you for their own benefit? That was what was happening. But really, it was a sinister situation. I’m not going to say specifically, but I’ve given you a pretty good scope.
If Lisa Marie has, indeed, left the church, she likely now shares her father’s view of it. In the early 1970s, the spiritual and ever-searching Elvis looked into Scientology, visiting its west coast center and briefly dating actress Peggy Lipton, a Scientology practitioner. But he ultimately dismissed the philosophy as cultish and money grubbing. “He stayed away from Scientology like it was a cobra,” the late Lamar Fike, a member of Elvis’s famed group of pals, the Memphis Mafia, said to me in the 1990s. “He’d shit a brick to see how far Lisa’s gotten into it.”
And for that matter, to see that Priscilla Presley is the one who brought their daughter into Scientology during Lisa Marie’s rebellious youth. According to Priscilla’s biographer, Suzanne Finstad, Priscilla felt Scientology provided stability and a sense of belonging both for herself (Priscilla was a nomadic military brat as a child), and for Lisa Marie, who told me it was confusing for her to divide her childhood between her “very regimented” mother in Beverly Hills and her wildly permissive father in Memphis.
Lisa Marie backs away from saying specifically who or what her songs are about - unfortunate for biographers and music journalists who scrutinize lyrics, and especially for me, as someone who has written four Elvis-themed books.
“I’m old-fashioned,” she told me. “When people tell me what they wrote a song about, it ruins it for me. And I do take pride in the fact that I try to write universally. I will say that [the title song of Storm & Grace] was written for someone very special and close to me. And it’s not about a lover."
Yet it’s hard to imagine she’s not doing her best to offer puzzle pieces. Her single “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” for example, alludes to gullibility and corruption, and includes the explosive line, “I’m a bit transgressive and suppressive as well.” In Scientology speak, “transgressives” and “suppressives” are enemies of the church, or people the religion considers negative.
So is Lisa Marie in or out? It’s a question she has yet to directly answer, and there appears to be no clear view of her Scientology status.
The church has no comment, “as it is our policy not to speak about individual parishioners,” spokesperson Linda Wieland said in an email. “You should address such questions to Ms. Presley’s representatives.” Presley’s 2012 tour publicist, Bobbie Gale, answered only that Lisa Marie “isn’t going to give a direct quote... many have tried and she refuses to answer.”
But the refusal itself suggests the answer. After all, if Lisa Marie remains a central figure in Scientology, wouldn’t both she and the church just say so?
Perhaps Paul Haggis knows why. In a recent broadcast of NBC’s “Rock Center,” the Oscar-winning film director (Crash) talked candidly about his own defection from the church, which the leaders consider an act of treason. “These are not people you want to mess with,” Haggis told reporter Harry Smith, citing allegations of emotional and physical abuse, violence and involuntary confinement. “Everyone who’s left has left quietly. Everyone is so scared, all the well-known people.” It was “insanity” to speak to the press about it, he said.
Author Lawrence Wright, interviewed on the same program, explained that the church “has a history of being very vindictive and litigious. And it has a history of infiltrating the government and spying on people, and so it has created an atmosphere of fear that surrounds it.”
Last May, the Village Voice definitively stated that Presley had left the church, and that her website had been cleansed of references to the church. Today, Presley’s official website no longer features a myriad of links to the church and Scientology factions, as the Voice reported. However, the website does still promote the anti-psychiatry Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), reportedly a Scientology front group, though Presley’s website lists three other philanthropic organizations before it.
When I asked her about her favorite cause, Presley said, “Anything to do with helping children, or housing projects, and anything to do with abused children, things like that.” She did not cite CCHR.
In August, the Voice’s website offered an explanation for Presley’s silence on the matter: “The church’s toxic policy of ‘disconnection’ keeps some people quiet who leave Scientology for fear of being cut off from loved ones. Lisa Marie’s mother, Priscilla, is still a dedicated church member, we hear, and we figure that keeps Lisa Marie from speaking out.”
The theory holds weight. According to Wikipedia, Priscilla speaks publicly for CCHR.
In my interview with Lisa Marie, and in a subsequent after-show meeting in June in Indianapolis (her sloe-eyed beauty, so spookily reminiscent of her father’s, is even more jarring in person), she seemed markedly kinder, gentler and happier than the Lisa Marie of old. Storm & Grace surprises, too, for its lack of overt anger, a hallmark of Lisa Marie’s earlier efforts, which she laced with profanity and explicit lyrics. She is also warmer and more reflective than she was at the time of her 2003 debut, To Whom it May Concern, when in televised interviews, she seemed jittery in her own skin and riddled with tics.
“Yes, it’s true,” she admits. “I become angry or put a wall up when I feel vulnerable. That’s just one of my flaws. But I had so much going on around me at that time, and the wrong people personally and professionally, that I didn’t know what exactly I was angry at until all of it was no longer in my life.”
It would take “a lot” to get her to that place now, she adds: “Some serious injustice or betrayal, insanity, something pretty subversive. I don’t live there anymore. It was really unhealthy and uncomfortable.”
Whether that’s code for separating from Scientology, clearly Presley’s move to England has been good for her. She lives a largely quiet life of gardening and cooking.
“I was pretty devastated. It was a four-or five-year process and, to be honest, I’m still looking back going, ‘Wow!’ But then all these amazing songs started happening, and I started realizing what life was like without all that going on. Life is actually great, and there are incredible people in England, just out in the country, down in the local pub, you know? People with a conscience and a common sense of right and wrong.
“The paparazzi were sitting outside my house one day, and a farmer backed his truck into them. He was like, ‘Hey, leave her alone.’ I hadn't even met him yet. I thought, ‘Okay, now that’s just a really good person who’s protecting me, and I don’t even know him.’ It’s simple, but it was very telling of human nature. I needed to rediscover that again.”
Alanna Nash is an esteemed journalist and biographer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Of her four books about Elvis Presley, her third - The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley - is widely considered a classic.