Inside Scientology Promises a Lot, and Delivers

David Miscavige Has Much to Worry About

Next month, Janet Reitman's book Inside Scientology will hit bookshelves, and the world of Scientology-watching, and for Scientology itself, will never be the same.

Subtitled The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, Reitman's book delivers all it promises, and it promises a lot.

"It has been my goal to write the first objective modern history of the Church of Scientology," Reitman proclaims in her introduction. "It is the goal of Inside Scientology to translate [L. Ron Hubbard's arcane] language and separate myth from fact."


Inside Scientology
By Janet Reitman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
464 pp., $28

That's a big project. And by the end of its 369 pages, you should be convinced that Reitman has not only made good on her goals, but has put together the most masterfully written, narratively rewarding, and thorough yarn about L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige, and Scientology and its strange past, present, and possible future.

Having said that, this longtime Scientology-watcher must admit to some early misgivings with Ms. Reitman's hefty book. Just a few pages after promising to deliver so much, on page 3 of the advance copy Reitman got the year of L. Ron Hubbard's death wrong. (I was promised a final copy of the book, and chances are this error will be fixed.) And in the ensuing pages of Hubbard's early history, there were several glaring omissions that had me worried about her approach. How, I wondered, do you mention Hubbard's college career without pointing out that the self-proclaimed "nuclear physicist" had failed the only class in nuclear physics that he attempted? How also do you spend several pages recounting the infamous occult collaboration between Hubbard and Cal Tech rocket scientist Jack Parsons and leave out the best part, their kinky attempt to create a "moonchild"?

Gradually, however, it became clear that what Reitman had chosen to put in her book was building to the best overall narrative about Hubbard and his creation since such early pioneers as Russell Miller (Barefaced Messiah) and, in particular, Jon Atack's masterful account of the church's early years, A Piece of Blue Sky. Both books, especially Atack's, are not easy to find. Reitman's will be in bookstores all over the country.

That should present a serious problem for Scientology's current dictator, David Miscavige. He does not come off well in this book at all.

If Hubbard's final years turned him into a pathetic, secretive, paranoid germophobe who resembled an end-stage Howard Hughes, the science fiction writer was at least worldly enough to know how to bend his own rules rather than alienate loyal followers. Miscavige, on the other hand, comes off as a case of arrested development who is so dictatorial and unwavering, he's scared off legions of followers in what Reitman calls a "mass exodus."

Along the way, Reitman revisits many of the familiar milestones of Scientology's history, but has done such a good job with original research and interviewing eyewitnesses from every era of the organization's development that she can weave a page-turning narrative no matter how arcane the material.

Using the personal stories of recent defectors such as Jeff Hawkins, Marc Headley and his wife Claire -- all familiar to Voice readers -- and many others, older periods of the church's evolution are made new and exciting. Hawkins, for example. provides the personal touch that helps explain how Hubbard moved the central hub of his creation from a large manor in England to a ship that plied the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, and finally ended up taking over a town in Florida.

For me, the book really kicked into high gear with Reitman's thorough and gripping tale about how David Miscavige emerged as a gung-ho young member of the Sea Org and then engineered his way to the highest levels of the church, ultimately toppling Pat Broeker as Hubbard's assumed successor after Hubbard's death in 1986. I've never seen this history told so well and with such authority.

Equally brilliant, Reitman chooses to tell the next phase of Scientology's history through the eyes of Lisa McPherson.

Whether you know a little or a lot about McPherson's ultimate fate, this part of the book should hit a reader squarely in the gut. Over a span of three or four chapters, we see how high on Scientology a follower like McPherson can become, and how tragically it can all go wrong. I've never seen a journalist tell the McPherson story in such detail and totality, nor so convincingly nail down Miscavige's personal role in the entire episode.

Reitman is correct that Scientology, under Miscavige, has never really recovered from the McPherson episode. But in Part Four of her book, she shifts gears and focuses on the celebrities who provide so much of Scientology's visibility. Tom Cruise gets his own chapter, and we quickly see why. Jason Beghe, another actor who was a pampered Scientologist and who defected, told me that Cruise had been essentially out of Scientology for a decade before coming roaring back to become its biggest proselytizer. And now Reitman provides the full story about Cruise's hiatus and then his near-mania, which has proved to be so disastrous for the church.

And then, Reitman shifts gears again, going this time to the opposite end of the spectrum from Scientology's pampered stars: she looks at some of the young, ordinary people who have grown up in the church. She contrasts a young woman who is in love with everything that Scientology has given her with other young women who eventually escaped from the church. Throughout such sections, Reitman works hard to help outsiders understand the environment of Scientology, the pressures on its members to pay large amounts of money, and also translates the difficult language of Hubbard's "technology." By the end, you'll be thinking in terms of "withholds" and "tone scales" like it was second nature.

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