Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
By Janet Reitman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 444 pages, $28
The Church of Scientology, founded in 1950 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is not a church that turns the other cheek. In the early 1990s, the Internal Revenue Service went after it for taxes; Scientology unleashed an enfilade of lawsuits and complaints that eventually brought the IRS to heel and won the church tax exemption. In “Inside Scientology,” Janet Reitman says that when the church was charged criminally in 1998 over the death of a parishioner, the organization overwhelmed the medical examiner in Clearwater, Fla.; within two years she had resigned and later suffered a nervous breakdown. According to Ms. Reitman, David Miscavige, the church’s leader, called these acts a ” ‘holy war’ of litigation.” If the English language has a more frightening phrase, I haven’t come across it.
Ms. Reitman’s book, which was presumably conveyed to the printer by a praetorian guard of libel lawyers, grew out of a 2006 Rolling Stone article. It is overt in its distaste for Scientology (a “fundamentally narcissistic philosophy”) and its fiery-haired founder (“one of the most effective hucksters of his generation”). In her telling, the church is a sinister enterprise, destroying and bankrupting its friends and enemies alike and even pressuring its members to abort their fetuses and disown their children. The church policy that governs the destruction of enemies is allegedly called “fair game.”
The author interviews church leaders—though not the 51-year-old Mr. Miscavige, Scientology’s de facto head since roughly 1980—and depicts a chameleon-like institution, deftly swapping its identity as the times dictate, shifting from its original mental-health philosophy to a 1960s-style, hippie-bait “mystical quest” and now to its current incarnation as a variety of self-help.
Certain practices and beliefs remain intact even as the church’s outward trappings change. Scientology’s core practice is “auditing,” in which members use a crude lie-detector device to probe each other about traumas in current and past lives. Auditing allows a Scientologist to rise in the church’s spiritual hierarchy—as long as the auditing, Ms. Reitman says, is accompanied by hefty financial contributions.
Ultimately the church reveals to its highest-level members—spoiler alert—75 million years ago Earth was known as Teegeeack and that an intergalactic warlord named Xenu brought billions of his enemies here from other stars and vaporized them with hydrogen bombs. The souls of those beings still haunt our planet, and auditing exorcizes them.
These doctrines and practices are the handiwork of Hubbard, who once said that the best way for a man to get rich would be “to start his own religion.” This assertion is often taken as evidence of Scientology’s dubious provenance. But Ms. Reitman shows that Hubbard was a believer in at least some of his own tales and a more interesting huckster than is often supposed.
In 1945, Hubbard was medically discharged from the Navy, though his later claims of having been crippled and blinded (cured, he said, by Scientology) are not borne out by the record, Ms. Reitman says. But he was depressed after the war, she notes, and dealt with the problem using techniques similar to self-auditing. He wrote “affirmations” in which he admitted failings (pathological lying, professional mediocrity, impotence) and willed himself to overcome them. The affirmations also instilled a creepy self-confidence. “Men are your slaves,” he wrote to himself. “You are power among powers.”
By 1950, he made his methods public, opening his first Scientology church in New Jersey. For the next three decades, as his followers grew, Hubbard took Scientology abroad, even proposing it as a Rhodesian state religion in 1966; Prime Minister Ian Smith rebuffed him.
In the late 1960s, Hubbard launched his church into international waters by converting an aging Irish cattle ferry into a luxury vessel. He spent years at sea, where he insisted on being addressed as “Commodore” and chain-smoked Kool cigarettes as he walked the decks trailed by teenage Scientologirls wearing skimpy white tops and bearing ashtrays. In 1980, he went into seclusion; only a few top Scientologists knew where (a trailer near San Luis Obispo, Calif., it turns out). Hubbard communicated rarely, sometimes to demand weird acts of loyalty, we learn, such as for Scientologists to spit on those he suspected of dissent. When he was dying in 1986—or moving “forward to his next level of research,” as the church said—he summoned Scientology’s chief auditor to administer the group’s version of last rites.
With Hubbard in seclusion, David Miscavige took over the organization, becoming Stalin to Hubbard’s Lenin and St. Paul to his Jesus. He executed a “brutal purge,” Ms. Reitman writes, eliminating potential opponents, including Mary Sue Hubbard, the founder’s third wife. According to the author, Mr. Miscavige beat subordinates and forced senior executives to play a violent game of musical chairs, with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” playing on a loop.
Overall Mr. Miscavige comes across in the book as a bully with a will to power but few ideas of his own. “Inside Scientology” chronicles his dominance of the church and his leadership in harvesting celebrity members (e.g., Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley) and navigating legal squabbles, chiefly with the IRS and in the case of Lisa McPherson, the troubled woman who died in church care in 1995. Criminal charges in that case were dropped; a civil wrongful-death suit was settled out of court.
Given the vindictiveness of its subjects, this book is fearless—most of all in its rough handling of Mr. Miscavige. But it is also nuanced, especially in its treatment of Hubbard. A key question does go unaddressed: If Scientology is getting away with a multitude of sins, what should be done about it? Legal challenges don’t seem worth the trouble. From the perspective of “Inside Scientology,” it looks as if the system has been gamed, fairly or not.