Karen Black, a true movie star
When I read on Facebook about Karen Black’s death and saw the comments, I thought back to the times I’d spent with Karen and people I’d known when we were both in Scientology. I got back in touch with one commenter, writer/director Michael Rymer, after reading his condolences. Michael sold his first screenplay — Dead Sleep, a story of a psychiatrist in Australia (where Michael is from) who would drug women and rape them — after I turned him on to the true story it came from, which I had learned about from a Scientology executive. (Scientology believes that psychiatrists are the source of all the world’s problems and they try to destroy the profession.)
I thought back to a holiday party at Karen’s house in Hancock Park in Los Angeles, the first time I’d ever been in a gated community, and how gracious she had been and how I’d met her then-husband Kit Carson (a Texan like me) and actor Martin Landau. I still don’t know why she invited me — I’d never met her before that — but I remember a quick snack she cooked up for me in a wok and being struck at how intelligent she seemed. Karen, you see, became well-known in the movies for playing a hooker on LSD in the movie Easy Rider, and then as the loving but dim-witted Rayette Dipesto inFive Easy Pieces, a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination (Best Actress in a Supporting Role).
Karen was exceedingly intelligent and equally loving. I never met a single person, in Scientology or out, who didn’t like her. She was quite beloved in the film industry. As her husband Stephen Eckleberry stated in his blog about her ongoing battle against cancer: “The kind people at the Motion Picture Television Fund helped place her in a nursing facility…”
As I read various reports about her death, I thought about a time I picked up Karen at a house she shared with Stephen in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, near the old ABC TV facility there. She had agreed to be a speaker at a monthly writers club meeting I held at the Scientology Celebrity Centre on Franklin Avenue. Before we left, she graciously showed me the house and the fruit trees in her backyard. She seemed joyously happy. I’d wondered about her marriage; I’d known the Eckleberry boys a bit via their mother Renee Duke, a long-time Scientology counselor who had been recruited by Ron Hubbard very early on, when he was visiting a college campus where Renee was a student. I wondered how Karen would fare, her being a true movie star, in a family so consumed with Scientology. Apparently, she did fine, and her marriage to Stephen was a blessing. The last three years of her life, he chronicled her cancer battle on film. I hope the world gets to see it soon.
When I drove Karen home, she looked at me with a sly grin and said, “You don’t give a damn, do you?” I took it for the bemused compliment that it was. She got me. She knew that I didn’t take anything too seriously, including Scientology. I was a bit startled. No one had ever truly gauged my personality so succinctly. Yes, I was a bit untroubled by the vagaries of the world. Karen, I suspected, was the same. “You get that right,” I told her, and she laughed. Sometimes that quality was my undoing. Once while having lunch with film editor Donn Cambern at the Universal Studios commissary about a script of mine, I said I wanted it to have as much impact as Easy Rider, did he see it? “I edited it!” he barked, glaring at me. I never got a film going with Donn, and after that learned to do my research about people.
One thing that I did care about, however, and that I’ve always cared about, was when people I loved or admired, like Karen with her great and giving soul, died too soon. I saw that a lot in Scientology, particularly among women. Karen was 74. She lived a long and fruitful life. She put up a good fight against cancer. When I read about her trying an experimental cancer treatment in Europe, though, I thought back to the great many Scientologists who died of cancer, many that I’d known, often because they neglected traditional treatment in lieu of alternative “rebel” remedies that didn’t work. Why did they do this? Because of what they studied in Scientology. I thought of Ann Tidman, known as Annie Broeker when she and her husband Pat were Ron Hubbard’s constant companions in his last days, and how she died ignominously in an apartment a block from the Celebrity Centre. I thought about Betty Filisky, the first Solo Nots completion (a very “high level” in Scientology) after its release in 1986-87, who went on a world tour despite suffering from cancer when she completed an earlier level. Betty, from Dallas like me, claimed she was cured. She relapsed six months later and died, aged 57.
I remembered how a Scientology registrar (sales person) had insisted that my wife early in our marriage could cure her tubal pregnancy if we bought auditing (Scientology “counseling”). It was insane “advice” and only by ignoring it and getting immediate medical attention did we save the life of the mother of my children.
I don’t know the full story of Karen Black’s last years. I’m terribly sorry she’s gone. I just couldn’t help wondering what her career would have been like if she had not been in Scientology, and if she would still be alive. As for me, I was a successful writer while still in Scientology, but after I left it, I had almost 50 books published. It’s very clear that Scientology held me back for years. Thankfully, I didn’t stick around long enough for it to kill me.