Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman

A sober examination of the cult, delving deeply into the lives of L. Ron Hubbard, Tom Cruise, and Xenu.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 444 pages

Scientology, created in 1954 by a prolific sci-fi writer named L. Ron Hubbard, claims to be the world's fastest-growing religion, with millions of members around the world and huge financial holdings. Its celebrity believers keep its profile high, and its teams of "volunteer ministers" offer aid at disaster sites such as Haiti and the World Trade Center. But Scientology is also a notably closed faith, harassing journalists and others through litigation and intimidation, even infiltrating the highest levels of government to further its goals. Its attacks on psychiatry and its requirement that believers pay as much as tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for salvation have drawn scrutiny and skepticism. And ex-members use the Internet to share stories of harassment and abuse.

Now Janet Reitman offers the first full journalistic history of the Church of Scientology, in an even-handed account that at last establishes the astonishing truth about the controversial religion. She traces Scientology's development from the birth of Dianetics to today, following its metamorphosis from a pseudoscientific self-help group to a worldwide spiritual corporation with profound control over its followers and even ex-followers.

Based on five years of research, unprecedented access to church officials, confidential documents, and extensive interviews with current and former Scientologists, this is the defining book about a little-known world.

There are quite a few books about Scientology out there, but most are by ex-Scientologists and others with an obvious axe to grind. There is no shortage of anti-Scientology websites, such as Operation Clambake. Objective, fair-minded journalism about the "religion" is hard to find, because Scientologists are both notoriously secretive and notoriously prone to harassing and intimidating anyone giving them bad press.

Thus, I was quite surprised at what Janet Reitman describes as an unprecedented level of access and cooperation from the church in writing this book, particularly after I finished it. She does approach it with journalistic objectivity, so the result is not a sensationalistic hit-piece dwelling excessively on the crazy. But there is a lot of crazy, and she does not try to obscure it. The fact is that any objective examination of Scientology cannot help but reveal just how unsavory and farcical this "religion" is, and so Inside Scientology, even in its attempt to be fair, winds up presenting an unambiguously negative view of the church.

Most people are probably familiar with Scientology because of its celebrity members, including John Travolta and Tom Cruise. There is an entire chapter about Tom Cruise in this book, tracing his recruitment into the church, his years of disaffection after he reached "OT3" and learned about Xenu (his reaction: "What is this sci-fi bullshit?"), and then his reenlistment as Scientology's top spokesman.

It did not really help his image or Scientology's that when he became its most enthusiastic advocate was also when he was going thoroughly cray-cray.

Tom Cruise on Oprah

Scientology begins, however, with...

L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard DVD

This is the DVD they give away at the "Org."

L. Ron Hubbard was an author of pulp fantasy and science fiction. As Wikipedia says, "many aspects of Hubbard's life story are disputed." This is largely because he was such a shameless and skilled self-aggrandizer and con-man. Reitman tracks down a great deal of biographical information about him, and reveals that over and over again, Hubbard proved himself adept at turning every small incident in his life, even abject failures, into epic triumphs that he later used to self himself and recruit followers. He was a Boy Scout, he was a naval officer, and he charted a "scientific expedition" to the Caribbean - and he was mediocre or failed at all of them. Yet in his own (and Scientology's) version, he was the youngest Eagle Scout ever and represented the BSA to the President. He was a war hero who single-handedly fought his way off of a Japanese-occupied island in the Pacific. His "scientific expedition" was a bold journey in which he made ground-breaking discoveries.

If you read Scientology literature about Hubbard, he is spoken of as a paragon of humanity, a saint, a figure akin to Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad, though they carefully avoid tainting him with actual divinity. Everything he did, he was the first and greatest at. He invented or discovered all the "technology" that Scientology uses to transform the world. They revere him and the modern Scientology organization censors and attacks any views that suggest fallibility or fabrication on the part of their founder.

His actual biography, however, is that of a clever, imaginative, and ambitious man who figured out how to turn a book into a business empire, and then a religion. Dianetics was originally Hubbard's answer to psychology. He had a deep loathing for psychologists and psychiatrists. Dianetics made Hubbard rich in the early 50s, but his "Dianetics centers" soon went bankrupt. He lost the exclusive rights and control over Dianetics, a mistake he learned from when he started over with Scientology.

The floggings will continue until morale improves

Hubbard became extremely reclusive in his later years. When Hubbard "left his physical body to continue his research in the next level of existence," Scientology was taken over by David Miscavage, who started out as just a teenager raised in the church and by happenstance, chutzpah, and force of will, became Hubbard protege and then the leader of the organization.

David Miscavage, as Reitman describes him, is, if anything, worse than L. Ron Hubbard. With virtually no life experience outside the church, he's a control freak and a petty tyrant. Reitman recounts a long history of abusive treatment of followers and even top Scientology officials. Oddly, it's his star-struck elevation of Tom Cruise to the role of "greatest Scientologist ever!" that seems to have engendered more resentment among his top followers than playing musical chairs with lifelong Scientology executives and threatening to excommunicate them before making them sleep under tables.

A lot of this abuse takes place because of the closed nature of Scientology. The org has "treatment centers" for disciplining wayward members, and from interviews with former Scientologists, it's apparent that these centers are, in every real way, prisons and virtual slave labor camps, legal only because the Scientologists who go there do so ostensibly of their own free will — the alternative being to be declared "Suppressive Personalities" and booted from the church, shunned by all Scientologists. For many who have grown up in Scientology, this is pretty much everyone they know, leaving them with no friends or livelihood or support network at all. Then, adding insult to injury, the church bills them for all services provided by the church over their lifetime.

Ka-ching! The Church of $cientology

Time magazine on Scientology

Time Magazine in 1991. Yup, the church sued 'em.

Dianetics was blatantly a money-making scheme, and then Hubbard figured out the real money was in religion.

Scientology charges its members for everything. Auditing, the dozens of "self-improvement" courses they offer, literature, and training for advancement up to higher "OT" levels, they all cost money, generally a lot of money, and if you don't pay up, you can wind up deeply in debt to the church. Members who fall "off-track" become no longer in good standing (but are encouraged to start making money again and turning it over to the church to get back on "the Bridge"). The sheer amount of money paid by members over a lifetime can be mind-boggling.

Reitman's description of the church's schemes and finances make it clear just how mercenary and profit-oriented the organization is. It's a business enterprise that encourages its less affluent members to "empower themselves" to ask friends and family for the money they need to take more Scientology courses.

Elvis Presley (one of their unsuccessful celebrity recruitment efforts) stated it succinctly when he stormed out of his one visit to a Scientology center and declared "All those asshole want is my money!"

For a long time, Scientology was treated as a cult and regarded with deep suspicion by the government. Then they p0wned the IRS.

Fair Game and Snow White: Scientology is the only organization that could make victims out of the Internal Revenue Service

Scientology always had an unsavory and sinister side. Hubbard himself, paranoid, prickly, greedy, and controlling, tried to exercise complete control over the organization, and it was he who promulgated the "Fair Game" doctrine, which basically said that Scientology was empowered and entitled to do everything (legal) in its power to destroy its adversaries. (That parenthetical being added pretty much for reasons of deniability.) The church officially discontinued the doctrine in the 60s, but in practice it's still in effect today. Scientology files harassing lawsuits against anyone who criticizes or opposes them as a purely tactical maneuver, seeking to bankrupt and intimidate its opponents.

Perhaps the most startling victory they achieved with these tactics was their battle to be declared a non-profit religious organization by the Internal Revenue Service. For years, they were taxed like any other private enterprise (though they were quite successful in avoiding actually paying any tax). The IRS pursued them, and in turn, Scientology harassed and intimidated the IRS during Operation Snow White, the largest domestic spying operation in U.S. history.

This resulted in scandal and the jailing of a few Scientology members, but in 1993, a weary IRS, whose officials had been harassed by private investigators and attacked by Scientology-funded front groups, handed a victory to Scientology by declaring them tax-exempt.

Operation Clambake: the Internet and Scientology

So how exactly does a religion that believes in 75-million-year-old body thetans and Galactic Overlord Xenu, that was the subject of a 1991 savaging by Time Magazine that's readily available online, that now has dozens of anti-Scientology websites gleefully posting all their "copyrighted" secret doctrines, recruit new suckersfollowers?

As Reitman tells it, the Internet was probably the worst thing that ever happened to Scientology. The church did try its usual tactic of suing anyone posting Scientology materials or anti-Scientology views, as well as giving filtering software to its members to keep them from viewing "negative influences" online, but as anyone who's heard of the Streisand Effect or Anonymous knows, no one - not even the Church of Scientology - can take on the Internet and expect to win.

The Church's membership, contrary to its claims, appears to have declined precipitously since the 1990s, and according to Reitman, the majority of its growth comes from young members whose parents are Scientologists. Many of these members have been raised in a Scientology bubble, trained to avoid negative views and influences, and to think of all criticism as coming from "Suppressive Personalities."

Yet even today, the Church's network is vast, operating Scientology centers throughout the world as well as numerous front groups that are often less than open about their Scientology affiliations, such as Narcanon and Applied Scholastics.

Inside Scientology strives to be even-handed, but you really can't go into Scientology with eyes open and describe it with any credibility without making it sound... well, scary and sinister. A case could be made that Scientology isn't that different from other religions that demand obedience, conformity, and tithes from their members, and indeed, to this day there are Scientologists devoutly convinced of the benefits "Ron's" teachings have had on their lives. Reitman even interviews some ex-Scientologists who believe that the church has gone off-course, but that the "tech" is good. There are now splinter sects of "independent" Scientologists.

It's a truly fascinating book and, according to the author, the first of its kind. I can only imagine that her publisher must have set aside a war chest in case of lawsuit. Anyone who reads this book will come away with the inescapable conclusion that Scientology is an organization you should run, not walk, away from.

So of course, I decided to pay them a visit.

Inside an "Ideal Org"

Scientology church

The Scientology church announces that "all are welcome" and offers free personality and IQ tests. So, expecting to hear all kinds of cult craziness and sales pressure, I stepped into the bowels of their "Ideal Org."

In fact, the public area resembles a cross between a museum and a bookstore. There were dozens of little nooks with couches to view videos about Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and the incredible scientific and spiritual breakthroughs Scientology has made to transform the world.

The Scientologists were, of course, exquisitely polite and friendly and most stayed out of my way, letting me walk around and only approaching when I was finished. (They had no problem with me taking pictures, though I noticed they carefully stepped out of the way - I didn't try to take any pictures of them.)

Books for sale

Beginning books, only $125!

L. Ron Hubbard

The L Ron Hubbard Series

The works of L Ron Hubbard

L Ron Hubbard's books

Shrine to L. Ron Hubbard

Then I engaged them, with an attitude of polite curiosity (as tempted as I was to start asking about Xenu right away). First, the nice Scientology lady gave me a demonstration of an E-meter.


She had me hold the two metal canisters, after assuring me it would not shock me (umm, yeah, I would hope they don't try to recruit people by electrocuting them...). She had me "think of a time in my life when I was trying to change my circumstances." This causes that needle in the window to spike.

"So what exactly does that tell you?" I asked. She explained that a trained auditor, by asking the right questions, can help you find the "underlying issues" causing problems in your life.

"So it measures physiological responses, like a lie detector?" I said, having some knowledge of polygraph machines (and the fact that they are also totally pseudo-science bunkum).

"Well, an E-meter isn't a lie detector. But it's much more accurate," she said.

"I see," I said, straight-faced.

Then I got to go to their nice library-like back offices, where their testing center was located.

Testing Center

I asked why they administer IQ tests and how IQ relates to Scientology or religion. What followed was more vague psycho-spiritual jargon in which I learned that Scientology can raise your IQ by 30 points, and that L. Ron Hubbard was able to cure people of polio.

"Oh really?" I said politely. The straight face was becoming a little strained.

Still curious, I declined the IQ test but agreed to take their personality test, something called an "Oxford Capacity Analysis."

There were 200 questions, which you are supposed to answer with a "strong yes," "strong no," or "sometimes/can't say." Most of them seemed to be probing for your level of self-esteem, paranoia, and general attitude towards life. It took me almost an hour to complete, after which the lady took my questionnaire off to be scored. Then another Scientologist came back with my results, and the sales pitch.

Oxford Capacity Analysis

Apparently I am very sure of myself, active, and aggressive/dominant, but also depressed, nervous, and introverted. Also borderline irresponsible. Say what?

I don't think much of this test, which I'm sure scores everyone with a mix of spikes and valleys. Some of the positives and negatives the tester went over had a broad degree of truth to them, but like most such personality tests that are essentially cold-reading exercises, they were so vague that you could get a sufficient number of "hits" on anyone.

In fairness, the pitch was not nearly as hard-sell as I was expecting. She asked me a few gently probing questions to try to elicit more information about my personal life, which I deflected, and then told me how their org offers various courses that could help me with my "problem areas," and how "Mr. Hubbard" had developed all this knowledge and technology that helps people. I thanked her and then asked her about Xenu.

Okay, I didn't quite do that. But when talking to the Scientologist in the front section, I did ask her about the critiques of Scientology available online, to which she asked if I had any specific questions that she could answer. So I mentioned Xenu and body thetans and Fair Game.

I suspect Scientologists whose job is to deal with the public are well-trained for these sorts of inquiries. Unfazed, she gave me non-answers about how the best source for accurate information about Scientology is Scientology itself, and she guided me to a few more books and displays (including one that talks about Thetans in a much more neutral and less fantastical context). And when I mentioned I was reading about psychopaths as research for a book I'm writing, she tried to sell me one of their books about "Suppressive Personalities."


Not wanting to be a total asshole, or to get thrown out as a Suppressive Personality, I didn't press the Xenu issue, so I thanked her politely for her time and left... with a handful of Scientology literature and a DVD about L. Ron Hubbard.

Verdict: An even-handed history of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Janet Reitman did not set out to write an expose or a hit piece, but an objective piece of journalism. The result is still pretty damning; while sympathetic to the church's followers, Reitman can only describe what the church is — an abusive, money-grubbing cult. (My words, not hers.) Inside Scientology is about as informative and unbiased a view as you can get of the Church of Scientology, and I found it to be comprehensive, well-written, and fascinating, making this a highly recommended work of non-fiction.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, highly recommended, non-fiction, reviews

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