Inside Scientology Promises a Lot, and Delivers
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."
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.
Also impressive, in the last quarter of her book, Reitman takes us inside "Int," the secretive headquarters of Scientology which is in the Southern California desert. If you've read Marc Headley's excellent escape narrative, Blown for Good, you'll be familiar with the austerity, secrecy, and oppressive nature of what it's like to work at "Gold," another name for the desert base. But Reitman brought this reviewer nearly to tears with a story of escape from the base that I wasn't familiar with.
Reitman's telling of the story of Stefan and Tanja Castle is worth the price of the entire book. The young couple worked at Int, where marriages can be very difficult to maintain under Scientology's stringent and bizarre rules that limit free time or freedom of movement. Tanja had found herself working personally with Miscavige, who likes to surround himself with attractive female underlings. Over time, Stefan resented how little he got to see his wife, but he knew that to air his feelings would be dangerous. Eventually, he did say something to Miscavige's (now vanished) wife Shelly about how little he got to see Tanja. He soon found himself in Los Angeles sentenced to the RPF, Scientology's infamous quasi-prison corps, where he would spend two years doing menial labor. Tanja, meanwhile, was pressured to divorce her husband.
Things got worse for Stefan, who eventually "blew" -- Scientology jargon for defecting -- and then tried to reunite with his wife, who was put under even more pressure to divorce her husband. How Stefan, with the help of the Headleys, eventually did get word to her and then plotted a late night escape -- well, if someone doesn't turn Reitman's book into multiple movies, it will be crime.
At the end of the book, Reitman comes back to the young woman, Natalie Walet, who is happy with Scientology. She writes her ending almost as a direct appeal to Miscavige: if Scientology's diminutive leader cannot find a way to keep young people like Natalie happy not only with her religion, but also equipped to deal with all of the negative information about it, and somehow, to handle the doubts of the many Scientologists who are leaving or considering it, then the church may be doomed.
Given that conclusion, Reitman's choice of material makes a lot of sense. I think she genuinely hopes that current members of Scientology will read her book and reflect on where their organization has been. (In reality, the small number of remaining Scientologists will probably be instructed not to read the book by Miscavige's ever-vigilant operatives.)
More importantly, the large number of people who still don't know what Scientology is, despite decades of exposes and critical websites and South Park episodes and mountains of newspaper articles and blog posts, will have, in one book, a stunning overview of everything from L. Ron Hubbard's childhood in the 1920s to Marty Rathbun's anti-Miscavige blog that currently is giving the church leader serious heartburn.
In Inside Scientology, we have a thorough, brave journalist backed by a major publisher, and soon what no doubt will be a major publicity push: Reitman's book should soon become Scientology's biggest headache in years.
Read Tony Ortega's interviewwith Janet Reitman.
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