Author Janet Reitman delves deeper into Scientology

A new history wins praise from reviewers, condemnation from the Church.

As CL wrote earlier this year, the words Scientology and “controversial” go hand in hand. While officials at the recently opened outpost in Ybor Square (where the church is Creative Loafing’s landlord) have made an effort to emphasize accessibility, the upper echelons of the organization remain elusive; its leader, David Miscavige, has gone over a decade without being interviewed by a reporter.

Now a new book claims to tell the story of the religion in a way it’s never been told before. Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, by Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman, is being promoted by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as “the first objective modern history of Scientology.”

Early reviews have been good. The Village Voice called it “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.” The Wall Street Journal called the book “fearless” and praised Reitman for “nuanced” reporting, as did the San Francisco Chronicle, which congratulated her for letting “the facts speak for themselves.” Entertainment Weekly seemed to slam her for being too objective: “Reitman brings an almost clinical detachment to the religion’s story….”

The Church’s opinion of the book is anything but detached.

In what is believed to be their first formal response to the book, on Fri., July 8, Bob Adams of the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology International, wrote to CL:

“Ms. Reitman’s book is filled with inaccuracies. It is neither scholarly nor well-researched and bears no resemblance to an ‘inside’ story. While preparing her book, Ms. Reitman never contacted the Church and never requested nor interviewed a single Church representative, let alone the ecclesiastical leader of the religion. Ms. Reitman chose to speak exclusively to people outside the Church. She and her publisher refused to accept the Church’s offer to provide information. Her ‘report’ is really no different than a view of, say, the Catholic Church told exclusively by lapsed Catholics or defrocked priests and should more accurately be called OUTSIDE SCIENTOLOGY. The book is a rehash of false and baseless allegations largely drawn from stories written by others that have long been disproved, many held inaccurate, by courts of law.” (You can read the full text of COS’ response here.)

Adams adds, “I strongly urge Creative Loafing not to repeat Ms. Reitman’s errors.”

Janet Reitman chose not to respond directly to COS’ statement, but in the course of an interview with CL three days earlier said she had spent three days with COS officials Mike Rinder and Tommy Davis back in 2006 (Rinder later left the church). She also said she had a “good relationship” with COS officials in Clearwater. Later on, she says, “I felt there was not a whole lot I was going to get from them,” because Davis was their spokesman, whom she had already spent considerable time with. She also says she had a very good relationship with former church officials who still considered themselves to be Scientologists.

Reitman’s interest in the Church was triggered in the summer of 2005 by the high-profile antics of Tom Cruise, whom she refers to as the church’s “most ardent proselytizer.” After publishing her more-than-13,000-word story in Rolling Stone in 2006, she decided to go deeper, to find out how Scientology “worked as an organism.”

Reitman combined extensive research (she lists 70 books and 84 assorted newspaper, magazine and broadcast reports in her bibliography) with her own investigative reporting (speaking directly to over 100 direct sources) to deliver a compelling narrative of the evolution of one man’s philosophy into a new religion.

The story of Scientology is of course the story of L. Ron Hubbard, born in Tilden, Nebraska in 1911. After dropping out of college, he struggled for years to establish himself as a writer until discovering a talent for science fiction at the age of 28. He later served two years in World War II, from which he returned depressed and somewhat directionless. Reitman reports that Hubbard complained of psychological problems, and appealed to the Veterans Administration to help him pay for psychiatric counseling.

He never got that counseling, but instead wrote a series of “affirmations” in his journal to work through his concerns. During that process, Reitman writes, he instilled in himself the idea that he was an “enlightened, ethereal being,” to whom the standard rules of behavior shouldn’t apply. Sufficiently pumped up, he came upon the idea of using his mind to repair his soul, and decided he would and could teach others to do the same.

In the winter of 1949 he wrote to his literary agent to tell him he was preparing a manuscript of brilliance, and in May of 1950, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was published, which began with this modest declaration: “The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and the arch.”

Though his vow was undeniably hyperbolic, Dianetics spoke to its time, says Reitman. In the wake of World War II, many people were seeking to process trauma and anxiety, and the “American system of mental health care was stretched as at no prior time in its history.” Soon “Dianetics clubs” sprung up across the nation (sort of the ’50s version of The Secret, Reitman writes).

Hubbard was from Southern California, and the Church grew in large numbers in that area, but Reitman reports that he believed that for the church to flourish, it needed a home away from government oversight. In the fall of 1966 he purchased a small fleet of ships and set off for the seas, where he would remain for nearly a decade. (Those who were recruited to join him were asked to join the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, which soon became Scientology’s senior management organization.) In 1975, he declared his intent to move back on land, and one member who helped scout Gulf Coast locations mentioned Clearwater, saying it was “a city that could be owned.” In January of 1976, just as the St. Petersburg Times’ Bette Orsini was about to break the story, COS officials announced that it had spent millions of dollars to purchase the Fort Harrison Hotel and the rundown Bank of Clearwater next door, making the purchase under the name of Southern Land Development and Leasing Corporation.

The COS has had only two leaders in its nearly 60-year life — L. Ron Hubbard, and then as Hubbard spent his final years in exile, David Miscavige, who dropped out of high school in 1976 as a 16-year-old to sign a billion-year Sea Org contract. He quickly moved his way on up, and, according to Reitman, maneuvered his way into power after Hubbard’s death in 1986 when he was 26.

In an interview Reitman praises the now 51-year-old Miscavige as a “tremendous strategist, a great tactician.” But the image presented in this book (as in other accounts) isn’t flattering.

Say what you want of LRH; the man came up with a philosophy that will likely endure. Miscavige, on the other hand, is presented here as a man of little joy who exhibits considerable contempt for Sea Org members both past and present.

His reputation was not helped by the explosive series published by the St. Petersburg Times in June of 2009, in which some former high-ranking members spoke out for the first time, alleging that he had physically attacked members of his inner circle. Scientology spokespeople immediately denounced the stories as lies.

For Janet Reitman, the timing of those articles (which Anderson Cooper followed up on CNN) was rough. She says that she had been given the same accounts from former members Rinder and Jeff Hawkins back in 2007 and 2008, and it was “really hard” for her — after working for a year on getting those sources to open up — to have them talk to the Times before her book appeared. That said, she acknowledges that it’s inevitable that magazines are going to get scooped by daily newspapers on occasion, and says the Times stories validated to an extent the abuse accounts she’d heard.

Joe Childs, the St. Pete Times’ managing editor/Tampa Bay, has been involved in much of the paper’s coverage of Scientology over the past couple of decades, and was the co-writer (along with Thomas Tobin) of the paper’s stories about David Miscavige in June of 2009. He told CL late last week that he eagerly looked forward to reading Reitman’s book, particularly about the origins of the religion, because he said the paper has never devoted much space to that.

Reitman points out one persistent challenge in covering the abuse accounts. "I don't in any way disbelieve any of the people who say they've been abused," but "unfortunately none of these people can prove this happened to them.

“None of them went to the doctor, none of them went to a hospital, none of them called 911, there are no x-rays or broken bones or ribs or any of that stuff,” she says. "So what you have are the accounts of a lot of people against the accounts of the Church, and the Church has always denied this. And it has to stand as, the Church says one thing, the defectors say that thing."

So some questions may remain unanswered. But Reitman’s book ties together the past and present of Scientology in a way that places all questions about the religion in a fresh, fascinating context.

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