It takes a brave soul to write about the inner workings of an organization that is arguably not only America's most secretive religion, but also the most litigious and vindictive. Let's hope the author has deep pockets and an alligator-like hide, or at the very least, an unlisted phone number.
We do know that Janet Reitman holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. While her work has appeared in a number of magazines and papers, this is her first book. She is currently a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, where her original article, Inside Scientology, was published in 2006.
In the five years it has taken to complete this volume, Reitman has conducted extensive research and interviewed dozens of Scientologists, both current and ex-members, famous and obscure, teens and seniors, from former powerful insiders to young third-generation Scientologists.
In 1949, L. Ron Hubbard was a little-known U.S. science-fiction writer when he first came up with the idea that would eventually form the heart of Scientology. He called it dianetics, for the Greek terms dia (through) and nous (the mind). In the beginning, it was an innovative self-help method for people to work through painful issues and memories, which Hubbard called "engrams." This mind therapy, or "auditing," appeared to obtain results much faster than traditional psychotherapy.
By the late 1960s, the new religion of Scientology had grown into a worldwide network, and LRH, or the "Founder," as he was now called, was building an empire that would help him carry out his mission to "clear" the planet (of thetans) and to rid the world of his declared enemy, psychiatry. As time went on, however, Hubbard became increasingly isolated, paranoid and distrustful.
Scientology's answer to any criticism has always been to take the offensive, which it has done by a variety of means, including infiltrating organizations by planting operatives, stealing information, hiring private detectives, wiretapping and general harassment, not to mention initiating innumerable lawsuits.
The church is composed of hundreds of organizations worldwide, yet Reitman's main focus is the seat of power and Hubbard's inner circle. While this gives the work great clarity, the downside to this approach is that church doctrine is not covered in depth, but only incidentally.
The narrative zips along, at times reading like an action-packed spy-thriller, as more jaw-dropping information is uncovered. After Hubbard's death in 1986, there was no succession plan in place. But in less than a year, a young disciple named David Miscavige, who had been gaining power at the time, emerged triumphant, having eliminated all other rivals to take over the reins of the organization. Twenty-five years later, he remains the church's ecclesiastical head and chairman of the board.
The church's impact on its members is addressed by highlighting a few individual stories. One of them belongs to Lisa McPherson, who died at age 36 while in the care of church members during a long-term intervention called an "Introspection Rundown." Her story serves as a cautionary tale against the church's distrust of psychiatry.
There are other surprises to be had, especially if you are not familiar with the organization.
For example, even though the Internal Revenue Service had revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1967, ruling that Scientology "made a business out of selling religion," the church fought back. It took years, but after a concerted campaign of lawsuits, freedom of information requests, threats of blackmail and various other pressure tactics, the IRS agreed to work with the church to reach a settlement. In a controversial ruling, the church's tax-exempt status was re-instated in 1993.
The debate over whether Scientology is truly a church (or even a cult) could fill a book all on its own. Whatever its true nature, it does exhibit some of the more questionable traits of the American 20th century: self-entitlement, celebrity worship and, most profoundly, greed.
The church makes large sums of money by charging members for everything. The cost to progress up the levels (known as the "Bridge to Total Freedom") can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Reitman has not forgotten Scientology's most famous members. From the very beginning, Hubbard himself made no secret about actively pursuing famous and influential people who would be assets through their active promotion of the church. Nowadays, showbiz members include John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman and Lisa Marie Presley. The Canadian-born Hollywood director Paul Haggis quit the church a few years ago, and his experiences were documented in an long piece in The New Yorker in February.
Tom Cruise is even granted his own chapter by Reitman. It's rather satisfying to read that when he was first introduced to the church's deepest truths at the level of Operating Thetan 3 (which is the part that involves Xenu, volcanos and immortal thetans), he freaked out, his reaction basically being "what the f-is this science-fiction s--t?"
When descriptions are especially vivid, one feels the lack of a section of photographs. According to a former member, her initial impression was that LRH was a "fairly tall, orange-haired, pink-skinned man who had lips that looked like raw liver and who appeared somehow moist" -- a singularly unattractive man, who "often looked as if he had slept in his clothes."
One would imagine that permission to use certain photos would not be easily given.
What the church's future involves remains to be seen. While the church denies it, speculation is mounting that membership numbers have decreased considerably. In today's wired world, anyone who wants can gain access to the church's closely guarded doctrines, and the list of websites and blogs run by former members is long indeed. It's worth noting that many former members remain Scientologists; their difficulties not with the belief itself, but how the organization is being run. With Miscavige at the helm, the church has become even more controlling and paranoid.
When the story of Scientology is made into a movie -- and this book is that interesting -- at least they don't have too far to look for actors. Tom Cruise would be a natural to play David Miscavige.
Donna Harris is a Winnipeg skeptic and the newsletter editor of the Manitoba Humanist.
- Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion
- By Janet Reitman
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pages, $35