Superphonics 2009-03-05 21:34:43
Tom Cruise : My Struggle to Read
Graduating high school in 1980, “I was a functional illiterate,” says
Tom Cruise, who hid his problem for years. Cruise, who showed signs of
a learning disability beginning in grade school, says he finally
learned to read as an adult through Study Technology, a learning
method developed by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the controversial
Church of Scientology. Last month Cruise was honored by MENTOR/The
National Mentoring Partnership for his work with the Hollywood
Education and Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.), a nonprofit organization
whose volunteers offer free tutoring, using Hubbard’s system, in 26
communities around the world. Though H.E.L.P. has its detractors (see
box), Cruise, a Scientologist, has provided financial and
public-relations support for the program. “I don’t want people to go
through what I went through,” says Cruise, who sat down with senior
editor Jess Cagle to talk about his painful, private struggle as a
child and his fight for literacy.
One of my dreams, as a child, was to be able to fly an airplane. My
whole life we moved around a lot. As a young child, everywhere we
went, these are the things that traveled with me: a stuffed animal for
the first few years and pictures of planes–a Spitfire and a P-51.
When I was 22, when I was making Top Gun, I got the chance to make my
dream come true–to become a pilot. I thought, “This is the time to do
it,” so I had a couple of lessons. But then I just blew it off.
When people asked what happened, I told them I was too busy preparing
for the film, just didn’t have time. The truth is, I couldn’t learn
how to do it. When I was about 7 years old, I had been labeled
dyslexic. I’d try to concentrate on what I was reading, then I’d get
to the end of the page and have very little memory of anything I’d
read. I would go blank, feel anxious, nervous, bored, frustrated,
dumb. I would get angry. My legs would actually hurt when I was
studying. My head ached. All through school and well into my career, I
felt like I had a secret. When I’d go to a new school, I wouldn’t want
the other kids to know about my learning disability, but then I’d be
sent off to remedial reading.
I made new friends in each new school, but I was always closest to my
three sisters and my mom. As a kid I used to do ad-lib skits and
imitations for my family. I always enjoyed making them laugh. My mom
kept saying, “You’ve got so much potential. Don’t give up.” She worked
three jobs and took care of my sisters and me, but with everything she
had on her plate, she would also work with me. If I had to write an
assignment for school, I would dictate it to her first, then she would
write it down, and I would copy it very carefully. I went to three
different high schools, so I was always given the benefit of the doubt
for being the new kid. And I had different techniques for getting by
in class. I raised my hand a lot. I knew that if I participated, I’d
get extra points and could pass. If I had a test in the afternoon, I’d
find kids at lunchtime who’d taken the test that morning and find out
what it was like.
I went out for athletics–baseball, wrestling, soccer, football,
hockey, you name it–and really blew off a lot of steam there. My
senior year in New Jersey, I got the part of Nathan Detroit in the
school’s production of Guys and Dolls.
I graduated high school in 1980 but didn’t even go to my graduation. I
was a functional illiterate. I loved learning, I wanted to learn, but
I knew I had failed in the system. Like a lot of people, though, I had
figured out how to get through it. I did the same thing when I moved
to New York City, and then Los Angeles, to become an actor. When I
auditioned for parts and was given a script to read cold, I’d get the
director and producer to talk about the characters and the film. I’d
glean information from them and I’d use that. I got pretty good at
ad-libbing. In 1981 the door cracked open for me with Taps. Risky
Business came out in 1983 and my career took off. I wanted to produce
movies. I wanted to know more about my craft. I wanted to work with
writers. I had stories I wanted to tell. But when I backed out of the
flying lessons while making Top Gun, I thought to myself, “What the
h*** am I going to do now?”
I’d gotten to where I was operating on the force of sheer will. But I
knew I was flying by the seat of my pants. I knew that if I didn’t
solve this problem, the trapdoor was going to open up and that would
In 1986, the year Top Gun came out, I became a Scientologist. A friend
gave me a picture book on Scientology, and through this I was
introduced to the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, who had founded the
religion. Mr. Hubbard was also an educator who had been researching
the field for decades. He had found that literacy and comprehension
levels were declining worldwide, so in the 1960s he had developed
“Study Technology.” It pinpoints three barriers to learning: Lack of
mass (you can’t learn to fly a plane by just reading about it–you
have to sit in the cockpit or at least have a picture of a plane);
skipped gradients (trying to master skills or information without
mastering or understanding that which comes before them); and
misunderstood words (the most important one and a cause for
Once I started focusing on those problems, everything fell into place.
I had a lot of catching up to do, but that was it. I had run the
gamut, hiring specialists for myself privately, bringing in tutors and
hearing why I would just have to “learn to deal” with being dyslexic.
Many people had tried to teach me, but no one had taught me how to
learn or how to study; I had been told I had all the symptoms of
dyslexia, but no one had given me a solution.
I realized I could absolutely learn anything that I wanted to learn.
In 1989 I learned to race cars while preparing for Days of Thunder.
And about 10 years ago I learned to fly. When I was studying for my
pilot’s license, I kept a model airplane nearby as reference and
pictures of a cockpit in front of me so I could study the instruments.
I would often go over to a shop where mechanics were working on
planes. Finally I took off on my own from the Santa Monica Airport.
After the flight I called my mom, and she started crying. My family is
very close and they were so happy for me.
I’m now a founding board member of the Hollywood Education and
Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.), which opened its doors in 1997. H.E.L.P.
is a non-profit program that uses the Study Technology in a totally
secular setting to provide free tutoring in communities all over the
world. Before this, I was supporting Applied Scholastics, H.E.L.P.’s
parent organization, which was started by teachers to make Study
Technology available broadly. When you consider that schoolteachers
are sometimes dealing with four or five different levels of literacy
in one classroom, you can see what they have to contend with. I had so
many different teachers and I really feel for them. I see how they
struggled with me. They were rooting for me and cared about me and
wanted to see me do well, but they didn’t have the tools to really
I don’t want people to go through what I went through. I want kids to
have the ability to read, to write, to understand what people are
saying to them, to be able to solve life’s problems. If you’re flying
a plane, and you are using all you know, and yet barely keeping it in
the air, you’re not truly flying that plane. When the fuel gauge gets
down to “E” and you haven’t paid attention, your engine is going to
stop. When you know how to fly, you’re watching the instruments. You
can properly prepare for landing. You can keep your view outside.
That’s the view of life people should be able to have.
A Look at H.E.L.P.
Although Tom Cruise says that the Hollywood Education and Literacy
Project is “totally secular,” some educators have complained about its
ties to the Church of Scientology. For example, H.E.L.P.’s textbooks,
which use Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Study Technology,
contain words and concepts—-such as “mass” and “gradient”—-that
are also found in Church doctrine.
H.E.L.P.’s president and cofounder Kinder Hunt is a Scientologist, but
she says that most of the volunteer tutors in the program are not. Nor
are students required to be Church members. The program does have
proponents outside the Church. In addition to private donations, the
nonprofit organization has received public funding. In 2001 Hunt was
awarded the private Points of Light Foundation’s President’s Community
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department, which has worked
closely with the program, says “LAPD has endorsed what H.E.L.P. is
trying to do with kids and their ultimate goal of trying to provide a
more stable environment for kids to enrich them culturally.”
Cruise has strongly denied that H.E.L.P. is a recruiting tool for
Scientology. “People who want to know about Scientology, they can read
books,” he said. “People may go in there and say, ‘Who is this guy?’
and start reading [Hubbard’s] other books. Good for them. There are
tools that he has that can improve their lives. But the purpose of
H.E.L.P. is to help.”
Reported by Fannie Weinstein in New York City and John Hannah and
Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles