A Peek Inside the ‘Onion’ of Scientology

In 2005, Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman first stepped into the New York Church of Scientology to begin research on what culminated in her 2006 article, Inside Scientology. The piece was nominated for a National Magazine Award and provided some of the groundwork for her new book, Inside Scientology: The History of America’s Most Secretive Religion.

Reitman has spent the past five years researching the controversial Church of Scientology, seeking, “to understand Scientology: not to judge, but simply to absorb.” The result is an exhaustive narrative history of the Church that shatters many popular myths about Scientology and parses its complex belief system in accessible prose. RD spoke with Reitman about what it meant to maintain objectivity even when covering some of the more troubling critiques of the Church of Scientology. 

You write in the introduction that you intended to create the first “objective history” of the Church of Scientology. You took pains not to discuss the Church in inflammatory language and use a lot of multiple sourcing, but the Church comes across as so much more disturbing than I expected. Could you say more about the standards of objectivity you adhered to when you wrote Inside Scientology

My top editor, Jann Wenner, schooled me on objectivity when I did my piece on Scientology for Rolling Stone. Any prejudicial language that may have been in the story had to go. When you’re dealing with material that is shocking or dramatic, you shouldn’t sensationalize it. My goal was to write in as measured a tone as possible, and that was one of the things that I believe gave me, but also the story, credibility.

It’s difficult to talk to representatives of the Church about anything and get an answer that feels truly honest; but their job is to present their viewpoint, like any official, really. I had three 16- or 17-hour days with top Church officials when I worked on the magazine piece. They try to exhaust you, and they were basically there to spin me. I had access to Mike Rinder, their top PR guy, then ranked second or third in the Church hierarchy. Rinder and another top official, Tommy Davis, had a lot to say. I got answers from them about specifics that were a little bit more honest than what they would have said if it had just been a one or two hour interview. It wasn’t the kind of straight PR you might expect, and it informed my thinking.  

I also looked for ex-members who had not sued the Church of Scientology, who had not written books about the Church of Scientology, and who did not want to be known as critics. They agreed to tell the truth using their names for this book for the first time in 2007 and early 2008. Then, in 2008, the hacker community, Anonymous, came on the scene, and they began holding anti-Scientology protests and releasing internal Church documents. That empowered a lot of my sources to feel that they could go public. Some of them began to write books, and some set up blogs. Some decided to sue the Church. I met them all long before they did any of these things. 

I searched for the most credible sources, and I continue to think that’s what they are. I looked for ex-members who had been top officials and who I felt were trustworthy. Jeff Hawkins, a major character in the book, is an extremely sane human being—well-adjusted, articulate and very mainstream. And if I had doubts, I went to the original source of the information in [Church founder] L. Ron Hubbard’s writings. It’s all there. That’s really the best you can get. And most importantly, I had to go into this without judgment. I’m really big on objectivity, so I get excited when people ask about it. 

How did you get such unprecedented access to Church records and historical documents? 

The Church did not open its records to me, but the information was opened through other sources. A tremendous trove of internal documents was made available to me by former top officials who had left the Church. There was also a lot of material that had been leaked to Wikileaks, which in its early days was a vast repository for internal Scientology documents. That enabled me to look at the material and cross-reference it with materials my other sources had. It provided a roadmap. But to be very clear, I never went with the Wikileaks documents without double and triple checking it with others. 

While there is a lot of information out there, it is harder to access any directive or policy that [Scientology’s current leader], David Miscavige, writes. Those things are restricted to people in his immediate circle, and unless they’re released to the public during an event, those documents are carefully guarded. I looked very hard for a lot of that material, and I did get some. But most everything else was available if you had the right sources. 

Perhaps in keeping with your goal of objectivity, you didn’t echo the critique that the Sea Organization (a.k.a. Sea Org), which manages the Church, traffics in illegal child labor. Why? 

The Church of Scientology is an American religion, meaning that in this country—though not necessarily in others—it has been recognized by the federal government as a religion. Because of this, it is not just given tax-exempt status, but also protected by the Constitution. Two of my sources, a couple called Marc and Claire Headley, recently sued the Church and raised the issue of child labor. The US District Court for the Central District of California decided not to take up the case for now because, if they do, they would have to in a way put the religion itself on trial and ask whether or not it should be considered a religion. If it is not, then we might legitimately ask the question of how kids of 12, 14, or 16 years old have been allowed to work 16- or 18-hour days, seven days a week. But if it is a religion, as it is right now, then the Sea Organization is protected as a religious order, and what goes on within that order is not open to the same level of scrutiny. 

Courts are generally loath to take Scientology on because [the Church] has a messy legal history. They are notorious for spending tremendous amounts of money—not necessarily to win, but to fight. They tend to prevail because people eventually go, “Forget it. It’s too expensive. This ties us up for years.” This is their tactic, and it’s been very successful for them.

Also, kids do not just decide to join the Sea Org and sign the contract and that’s it; their parents must sign a document too, in which they give the Church legal guardianship and the right to act in loco parentis on the child’s behalf. The children are not expected to be independent actors. They are under the guardianship and direction of the Church. At this point, the Church says children under the age of 16 or 18 are no longer allowed into the Sea Org, and that may well be the case. I’m not sure how many 12-year-olds are going into the Sea Org any longer. But if they are 16, they’re still kids; and there are a lot of people still in the Sea Org who joined as very young teens. 

You write that Hubbard thought homosexuality was a “sexual perversion,” but don’t say much about this in the book. How does Miscavige regard homosexuality and how are LGBT people treated by the official Church? 

Within Scientology, you absolutely cannot be gay. They see it as a flaw they’re going to “fix,” not as something that’s just human. I didn’t meet a single person in Scientology who was happily gay. The gay people I met joined Scientology because they didn’t want to be gay. I met one guy who sued them because he was still gay after going all the way up the very top [of the Church’s Operating Thetan, or OT, levels]. Many thought the Church failed them because it didn’t fix their homosexuality. 

And unlike some evangelical Christian churches, the Church of Scientology has not made a social issue out of homosexuality. They don’t make it a platform issue. The thing about Scientology is that it exists within its own bubble. Scientologists don’t look at secular society as theirs. They look at their world as theirs, and, sure, they would like us to be more like them. Even though they’re part of our society, they’re very separate in many ways. 

Would it be fair to compare their process to evangelical Christian ex-gay therapy? 

Philosophically speaking, Scientologists, like some evangelical Christians, believe you can be cured of being gay—or at least the gay people I have met who were members of Scientology say that was what they believed and were told when they joined. However, in terms of the techniques, they don’t have a special ex-gay therapy, they just do auditing [counseling]. They look at it as a kind of problem. They think you have a sexual addiction of some sort, and they want to fix it through their standard auditing procedures. They have not designed a special homosexuality process, at least not to my knowledge. Many people I have interviewed portray David Miscavige as tremendously homophobic. But that hasn’t transferred over to a major policy that would be comparable to US evangelical leaders who have tremendous influence on social policy alliances with the political elite. 

You note that Hubbard loved to surround himself with beautiful young girls and women and say that Miscavige has continued the practice. Could you say more about the degree of sexism in Scientology? 

There’s not so much sexism. Hubbard liked to surround himself with pretty teenage girls. But by every account that I have heard, he behaved chivalrously toward them, sort of like a father. Sometimes a very stern father, sometimes a crazy father, other times a loving, generous father. They always described him as fatherly, nothing inappropriate. Now Miscavige likes to have pretty girls around, but again, I have never heard of him being inappropriate with young girls. 

I know a lot of women who’ve had major, powerful roles in Scientology management. There are a lot of women church executives, and it’s very egalitarian in that way. They just don’t look at you as a gender and are not bound by some of the traditional gender roles. 

That said, they’re hierarchical, and in my experiences as a reporter, I was always baffled by the fact that they felt more comfortable talking to my male superiors than to me. I’m talking about members, officials and even ex-officials who remain in that Scientology mindset. I don’t know whether or not that’s a sexist thing. I never really saw it that way, but they were definitely much more interested in talking to my male superiors. They’d call Rolling Stone directly when I was writing the magazine article and rather than speak to me, they’d communicate with my editors, all men. I’m not really sure what motivated that, whether it was simply a control issue or if it was something more. 

You write that sexual behavior is highly regulated within the Church, but celebrities seem exempt from this. For example, you write that sex before marriage is frowned on, but Katie Holmes became pregnant before she married Tom Cruise. Are there different rulebooks for celebrities and non-celebrities? 

Well, first, sex before marriage is definitely frowned upon, particularly for kids who go to Scientology schools. But I know a lot of kids who grew up in the Church who’ve had sex. I think the more you’re isolated in that bubble, the more it’s frowned on. Natalie Wallet, one of my teen sources whose family worked for the Church at one time, was not raised with that level of control. 

But celebrities have a totally different rulebook. They are recruited into the Church to serve two functions: They’re promotional tools, and they fund the Church. The rules are bent for them. In the New Yorker piece on Paul Haggis, he tells this great story about how he always had doubts about Scientology and [whether] it worked—notably, once he got to the higher levels. He would talk to his auditor about them, and the auditor would allow it. That does not happen if you’re not a celebrity or otherwise big deal funder of the Church.

My source, Kendra Wiseman has parents who are very, very involved and very wealthy. There are many who are extraordinarily rich who have nothing to do with the movie industry. Those kinds of people are considered celebrities, and they’re treated differently too, but real [Hollywood] celebrities like Haggis are treated like gold. They are the public face of the Church, so you want them to have the best possible experience, so you won’t be punitive. 

Current Scientologists and ex-Scientologists have described Scientology to me as an onion, and celebrities are on the outside of the onion. David Miscavige resides in the center, and the Scientology experienced by members of the Sea Organization, which Miscavige heads, is vastly different than the Scienotology experienced by someone like Tom Cruise. There have been allegations of abuse, for example, and an overwhelming number of these reports. Celebrities are kept totally in the dark about that. This is why people like Haggis have expressed such shock. Through the internet it is far easier to read about these allegations. But they wouldn’t have known anything about it in the past, and are still largely unaware because Scientologists are instructed not to read anything critical of Scientology. The one thing everyone is aware of, no matter who you are, is disconnection, [Scientology’s excommunication process]. Disconnection happens, and that’s something people have to accept. But if they’re dedicated to Scientology and believe that it is “truth,” they accept it as part of that truth. 

It sounds as if the Church has a tendency to slander its ex-members. The graphic novelist, ex-Scientologist Neil Gaiman, claims not to be a practicing Scientologist. Yet the Church has never publicly shamed him. Who gets harassed and who gets to leave quietly? 

I don’t really know that much about the Neil Gaiman story. He grew up in Scientology, and his father was a top official. He claims he has nothing to do with it anymore. The thing is, Scientologists won’t pick on you unless you pick on them. Neil Gaiman has not condemned Scientology or called it a “cult.” To be clear, I’m not calling it a “cult” either. But the Church fears people who come out and criticize it. If he were to go to the press and give a negative interview about Scientology, they would absolutely go after him. That’s what they do. It’s written in their scripture. They oppose negative perspectives on Scientology. You can quietly drift away, and many do that. They’re the people who often don’t want to be quoted on the record. An auditor of Tom Cruise that I interviewed just quietly drifted away and was very eager to remain anonymous. A lot of others I talked to, though, similarly drifted away but did [ultimately]… go on the record about it.

Do they get a disconnection letter? 

Not usually. To get a disconnection letter, they have to do something that makes the Church feel they deserve it. If they cause problems for the Church, or if the fact that they leave causes a problem—say, in their family—they might be disconnected. But if they just leave and basically say, “I don’t want to do this anymore. If my daughter is still interested in it, great. If my extended family members and friends are still interested, I won’t tell them not to do it. But I’m not going to do it,” they seem to be okay.

As soon as they start trying to get their kids out and telling family members they should leave, they’re marked as Suppressive Persons (SPs) because they are harming the spiritual progress of those around them. Those family members will be encouraged to disconnect. For example, if my dad was in Scientology and decided to leave, that would be okay unless he started saying negative things about Scientology that would cause me to doubt or feel uncomfortable. And then that would be seen as Suppressive, and I should disconnect from him so I can maintain my spiritual equilibrium.

You draw on some of Hubbard’s writings that almost make the demonization of psychology sound like a stand-in for anti-Semitism. For example, Hubbard wrote that psychologists control finance and alleged that a conspiracy of psychologists was behind every major world conflict. Is this a fair reading? 

I don’t know. I don’t necessarily think he was anti-Semitic, no more so than any other white guy in the 1950s. He was a man of his time. There was a lot of discrimination in our country and a lot of prejudice against Jews. But there were a lot of Jewish people among the early Scientologists, and they have always had a lot of Jewish members. So, he was never overtly hostile toward Jews, at least not that I am aware [of]. 

But psychiatrists and psychologists are a stand-in for anything evil, and they are viewed in much the way that Jewish people have over the years been scapegoated and used as a stand-in for anything evil. 

When the chips were for down for Hubbard, he thought about who had power. For him, it was psychiatrists and psychologists. They not only refused to incorporate any of his work into theirs, but they aggressively tried to ban him. In the early 1960s, the [American Psychological Association] wrote letters banning members from having anything to do with Hubbard or his theories. Hubbard saw them as enemies, and that has not changed in Scientology. Children who grow up in Scientology say their understanding of psychiatry is that it’s the root of all evil. 

In your chapters on Lisa McPherson, the young woman who died under mysterious circumstances under the care of Scientologists, you state that eight other people either died or disappeared under similar mysterious circumstances. Could you say more about these cases?  

There are a couple of stories in the book that talk about people who have been through [a severe and punitive form of auditing called] Introspective Rundowns who had very traumatic experiences. There have been a number of cases in which people have died under mysterious circumstances in Clearwater, Florida, [the center of Scientology in the U.S.], but nothing as traumatic as what Lisa went through. That was truly unique because it happened in Church headquarters. 

What I would say is that some of the Scientology processes have a destabilizing effect on some people. And certain people have been driven to insanity and have killed themselves. Greg Bashaw, who I discuss in the book, had a complete breakdown and received no help. He ultimately killed himself. It was different than the McPherson case because no one attempted to help. They wanted nothing to do with him. 

Do they let these people go because they fear legal trouble? 

Right, they don’t want legal trouble. See, Scientology is always supposed to “work.” It’s supposed to make you better. If you’re not better, if something goes wrong, they see that as your problem. It’s not their fault. They think you’ve caused this, and they don’t want any responsibility for it. 

You discuss many people who experienced psychological problems while practicing Scientology. Hubbard himself was apparently taking anti-psychotic medication when he died. What is the relationship between Scientology and mental illness? 

I don’t think that Scientology causes mental illness. Certainly some people who practice Scientology have had psychological problems, as Scientology promises a cure for many problems—though Scientologists are not allowed to take psychiatric drugs and must swear off all connection with psychiatrists or psychology when they join the Church. But not everyone in Scientology suffers from psychological problems, and Scientology doesn’t make everybody crazy or suicidal. Certain vulnerable people have gotten involved and suffered profoundly because of it; others have thrived. This is why they’re an interesting group and why they are hard to dismiss. You cannot say they are harmful to everyone. 

Could you say more about where you see Scientology headed in the next several generations? You note that they may be using real estate expansion as a means of hiding the fact that membership is on the decline. So, if it becomes clear that Scientology is nothing but a real estate business, do you anticipate that there will be more challenges to the Church’s tax-exempt status? 

There could be. They’ve invested a lot of money in external things—like real estate and advertising—at the expense of substance. What I mean by this is that they’ve lost some of their best counselors, those people who had a real connection to the material and who really knew what they were doing. While the substance has diminished, the externals of the Church have greatly expanded. So, you may look at the Churches of Scientology all over the world and say, “Wow, they’re really big!” 

But when I went to the New York organization five years ago, during the peak of the Tom Cruise period, there was no one there. I went back two or three times and rarely saw anyone. Between the 1960s and 1980s, they had big introductory seminars with 40-200 people in attendance. When I was there, I was the only person in the room. I don’t really know what their membership numbers are right now. 

However, there is an independent movement of Scientologists that is splintering from the Church. They’re similar to the Protestant reformers who broke with the Catholic Church. Specifically, they are not charging people tremendous sums, which is what the organized Church does, and they’re not being nearly as punitive. I think money and dogmatism have been the real Achilles’ heel for the Church’s growth. 

The organized Church of Scientology is incredibly punitive, particularly under Miscavige. Hubbard could be very punitive, but he would also have these amnesties in which he’d forgive everybody. Miscavige doesn’t seem to do that. And auditing has become extremely expensive, which just isn’t doable for many people. If Scientology can adapt by lowering its prices and becoming less punitive, it might continue to grow. 

They will have to allow people to discuss and debate the tenets so that the religion evolves as all faiths do. Mormons are a great example. There are practicing Mormons who have written [critical] books about Joseph Smith and the history of their church. They have intellectuals who have picked apart the theology, and they have giant Mormon universities. The Church of Scientology has none of that. If it could become more like that, more power to it. Then it’s a real religion, and it might be a viable, lasting one—at least to those who believe in what it teaches. But it can’t do that if it doesn’t change. The Church might survive for a long time because it’s got a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to expand its membership or become a major world religion.