Of all the surprising and memorable moments I’ve had since John Sweeney and I first started talking about his Scientology book more than eighteen months ago, one stands out. It came at The Church of Fear’s launch party last week, when a friendly, middle-aged man asked me to sign a copy of the book.
‘Me?’ I said.’ Are you sure? I’m just the publisher. You want the author, not me.’
‘No,’ the man said. ‘I want you to sign it. I know who John is and I’m going to ask him next. I want you first.’
I’d never heard of a publisher being asked to sign a book before and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t flattered.
‘I’d be delighted to,’ I said.
I am aware that Scientology watchers are an unusual bunch with unusual levels of enthusiasm so I didn’t get carried away by my new found fame. I wrote ‘Best wishes, Humfrey’ or something equally unimaginative and off the man went. I carried on trying to sell more books.
A few minutes later the man came over again and asked me to sign a second copy. These Scientology watchers are an extremely unusual bunch, I thought. And then I noticed the man wasn’t smiling any more. Before he handed the book to me he said he wanted me to write a message in it to a specific person and gave me a name. Why that person? I asked. And what do you want me to say? I assumed this person was another Scientology watcher, one who perhaps couldn’t make the party. His reply left me temporarily speechless.
‘She’s my daughter,’ he said. ‘I’ve been disconnected from her for five years.’
I have read plenty of heartbreaking stories about families being split into inside-the-Church-of-Scientology and outside-the-Church-of-Scientology factions. Examples are, sadly, all too easy to find. But until that moment I’d never actually met someone who had suffered in that way, let alone someone who was still suffering, like the man at the party. To see it firsthand, illustrated by the pain on this man’s face, was incredibly moving.
I have a daughter too. She is only thirteen months old and is the centre of my world. Already I cannot imagine how awful it must be for this man to have been separated from his child for so long. Looking back as I write this, it occurs to me that at some point she must have told him she does not want him in her life, possibly more than once, and that must hurt have him so much. Since then it can only have got worse. And yet here he was after five long years, a man who loves his daughter so much that he is still doing everything he can think of to try to help her and still hoping she will come back to him. It was obvious he will never, ever give up on her and if John’s book helps him in any way, no matter how small, then we can be very proud.
Over my time in publishing, as an agent, author and now publisher, I’ve been involved in some wonderful, inspiring and heartbreaking projects. Over all that time and through all those books the only event I can think of which compares to the emotional punch in the guts I felt during that conversation at the launch party for The Church of Fear was when I heard about the death of PC David Rathband, whose literary agent I was. David’s story ended in tragedy, with a brave, strong man broken by the consequences of the terrible injuries he suffered and the knowledge that he was going to be blind for the rest of his life. Reading his story now, knowing it was written with so much hope and knowing how his life ended less than a year after the book was published, is indescribably sad.
Fundamentally books are simple things, collections of words on a page put together in an order which might please readers. The wonder of them is that such simple things can be so powerful.
By Humfrey Hunter