Janet Reitman: An Interview with the Author of Inside Scientology

The Village Voice/June 24, 2011

On Tuesday, we sat down with Janet Reitman, author of the terrific new book Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, which is just hitting bookstores and will be released officially in July.

Inside Scientology is a masterful telling of the Scientology's history, from L. Ron Hubbard's pulp fiction career in the 1930s to events happening just last year as an Independence movement splits with current Scientology leader David Miscavige. Along the way, Reitman brilliantly focuses on individuals like Jeff Hawkins and Nancy Many and Lisa McPherson to help us understand the appeal of Hubbard and his "technology," as well as the controversies that have rocked the organization over many decades.

We wanted to know: who is Janet Reitman, and how did she put together such an amazing book?

"I was your typical struggling freelancer for years and years," she says while we're sitting in the conference room at a warren of small offices in DUMBO. She'd even interned at the Voice, she let me know. But it was international reporting that she was determined to do after finishing Columbia University's journalism graduate program in 1992. That eventually took her to Rolling Stone, which sent her to Iraq for most of 2004. After 8 months covering the war, she says her editors wanted to find something else for her to do in 2005.

"Tom Cruise was jumping all over couches, right?" she says with a laugh. "I think my editors had wanted to do something on Scientology for a long time. I was basically the 'Iraq War girl' at that point and they were concerned that I was incredibly burnt, that I would get PTSD, that I needed something else to do. So my editor pitched this to me. 'You'll embed with them. Why don't you write them a letter saying you'd like to embed with the Church of Scientology.' Of course the church said no."

What she did instead is how her book starts, she points out. "I went to the New York org [on 46th St.]...I was basically myself. I think I switched the spelling of my last name by one letter. And I told them I was a creative writer, that I had just finished graduate work at Columbia (which I had, but it was ten years before). I told just a couple of fibs about my circumstances. I did tell them about my boyfriend -- I mean, I didn't tell them his name, but I was pretty honest. I told them I wanted to quit smoking and was stressed in general.

"That was my first experience. And I came back from that first day going, 'What's wrong with this group? I'm not seeing anything that wrong. It worked.' So that made me think, this shit works on me and I'm a really skeptical person, then what's the deal?

"After a couple of days I went through an incredibly exhausting orientation lecture with a guy, it was just me and him in a room. He started telling me all about what Scientology is, all the terminology. All the specific L. Ron Hubbard things about engrams. Some of it sounded pretty existential. I asked him if he'd read any existential philosophers, which of course he hadn't read. It became more and more obvious that to if you go to college and study liberal arts you will quickly realize that this is something that's based on lots of different things, and has been disproved in so many ways. And some aspects of it are sort of blatant lies. Like psychiatrists being behind the Holocaust. You know, there are just certain blatant omissions of fact. But if you're someone who doesn't have that kind of education, it sounds so plausible, it sounds really smart.

"The people I met in Scientology, these are smart people. They have to be able to read these books. They are not easy books. These are not dolts. They just haven't had the advantages that some of us have."

After her experience at the New York org, Reitman traveled to Clearwater, Florida, the church's spiritual headquarters, where members travel for high-level training. "It's a bubble. It's a parallel universe," she says, talking about the way Scientologists separate themselves from the rest of society while living inside it. "They seem completely secular and normal. In Clearwater they're the wealthy Scientologists who show up to do their upper-level courses. They don't look like people in a cult. They look like people you would see every day."

Reitman went on several tours of Scientology facilities at Clearwater and says she worked hard to get the church's point of view on various matters. In all, she worked nine months on her story for Rolling Stone. Then, in January 2006, just before publication, she sent a list of additional questions to Mike Rinder, who at that time was the church's chief spokesman (he left Scientology the following year and has since become an important critic of the church).

Reitman says Rinder "freaked out" when he received Reitman's list of questions, telling her that she hadn't properly received Scientology's side of the story. So the church flew her out for a three-day trip to California.

"I got a three-day trip with Mike Rinder and Tommy Davis, and it was the most extraordinary experience. That was my unique access, and it informed my book. I went out for them basically to spin me. But part of their spinning is to exhaust you, to get you there at 8 in the morning and keep you with them until 8 at night, or 10 at night, when you're jet-lagged from your trip."

Rinder and Davis took her to Scientology's secretive desert base near Hemet, to a prominent Scientology school, and to Scientology's anti-psychiatry front group, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and other places. Throughout her tours, she says she kept peppering Rinder with difficult questions, and she says he gave "uncensored" responses. "You got the feeling that he was burning to tell more than he could. I have great respect for him," she says. "Mike Rinder informed every page that portrayed the Scientology point of view in my story," she says.

The story was a big hit for the magazine, and her agent told Reitman that multiple publishers were interested in its potential as a book. She wrote a proposal, and it sold immediately. I asked her why publishers might be more interested now in a book on Scientology.

Reitman thought her unprecedented access had helped her sell her book, but that publishers could also see how things had changed in the media's treatment of Scientology. "Tom Cruise was out of control. Because he had become such big news...the whole thing was so weird, it fascinated people. And I think that publishers, I guess, felt that the interest was there," she says.

But Reitman's primary interest wasn't Scientology's celebrities. She wanted to write a book that would capture what L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology had meant to the religion's more prosaic members, to get their point of view and not just rehash the church's many controversies.

"The best lesson that I was ever taught at Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner was to cut out any prejudicial language from anything I wrote, because the material itself is so rich, let it speak for itself. I carried that lesson with me," she says. Despite striving for that objectivity, however, she doesn't know that Scientologists themselves will get to see that she made that effort.

"I don't know if they're going to be able to read the book at all," she says. But it was still important to her not to dismiss their way of thinking. "Scientology is different things to different people. There are people I've met for whom this stuff has worked. Like Natalie Walet. Natalie grew up in the church. She has her own mind. She's going to law school, that's just fantastic. For her this stuff works. I'm not going to judge that. I'm not a religious person myself, but I've certainly met people who believe that the rapture will happen. Who am I to judge what they believe in?"

In particular, she found young people in Scientology amazing to talk to. "Scientology kids are really remarkable," she says. If they are raised somewhat in a bubble, they impressed her with how focused they are and how well they present themselves. "Most kids are not able to communicate or be present with you in a conversation in the way Scientology kids are." On the other hand: "I meet these kids who are so bright and so together, and yet they couldn't name the two houses of Congress. Their education had been so deficient. What a tragedy."

Also key to maintaining the book's objective view was choosing the right people to interview and portray. "I made a huge point of looking for people -- it was a very arduous task to do this," she says. "What I wanted to avoid were the people who were very outspoken, the well-known critics. They'd been smeared by the church because they had an axe to grind. I wanted to find people who didn't have an axe to grind."

But just finding people wasn't enough -- she was determined to have them on the record. "I used this argument with them: you have power in numbers. If you all come out and use your names, they can't come after you. But if you do this silently, then they can intimidate you and no one will come to your defense because no one knows who you are."

Reitman's book does strive to get the church's point of view, as well as its critics. But she doesn't hold back on reports of the abuse of church members, and I asked her about that.

"Abuse to me is psychological abuse. The abuse of always feeling that Big Brother is watching you. Of not knowing who to trust. That your thoughts could be used against you," she says.

On the one hand, Reitman is somewhat skeptical that Scientology leader David Miscavige has been physically abusive with his employees. "I can't tell you whether he hit people or not. I don't know. I don't know the man. To me he sounds like the worst CEO ever."

On the other hand, Reitman doesn't doubt that Sea Org members -- the most hardcore church workers who are paid little and sign billion-year contracts -- are being forced to have abortions. "You're sending people to get abortions at a Planned Parenthood clinic and you're making sure they tell people that they're indigent so they basically don't have to pay for it. And meanwhile this is largely against these women's will. And then they're not allowed to inform their husbands and they can't share this experience whether this is something wanted or something they didn't want."

And one case of abuse stands out the most, Reitman says. "What happened to Lisa McPherson and the psychological imprisonment that her caretakers were in. That to me is the most stunning abuse."

McPherson plays a central role in Reitman's book, her story spanning four chapters as Reitman traces her journey from an incredibly enthusiastic member of Scientology to her 1995 death at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.

I asked her why, 16 years later, McPherson's death is still such a central part of the Scientology story.

"Because nothing changes in Scientology," she answered. "The fundamental problem is that this is a fundamentalist religion. Miscavige is a fundamentalist leader.

"This is a global spiritual corporation that has been branded a religion in the U.S. and a couple of other countries. In other countries, in Germany, they're not a relgion. In Israel they're not a religion. In Israel they're actually a self-help group. And they have been given advice over the years that if they were to rebrand as self-help, they would do much better. And they haven't done that. This is all during the David Miscavige period."

Rather than evolve, in other words, Scientology chooses to remain static. "Their mindset is that anything L. Ron Hubbard said or wrote is 'Source,' it's doctrine. This is literal. And as long as they have this literal interpretation of everything, [something like the McPherson incident] could happen again."

But Reitman says Lisa McPherson's journey has another lesson as well. McPherson had been traumatized by a bad marriage, and she turned to Scientology for self-help, for betterment in her life. And initially, she got it.

"This idea of self-help and self-betterment is as relevant today as ever," she says. "L. Ron Hubbard was the first Oprah. He was! This guy who promised that he had this way that he said was scientific and it works, and you'll feel better and live better and you will succeed. That promise is the most American promise there is. And it doesn't change today, in a recession with people losing their jobs. I think Scientology could at once be incredibly appealing and yet also be a little out of people's reach because of its prices."

Reitman notes that we're in another period in which the public is frustrated and yearning for something better. It's a time when Scientology should be thriving. But without Hubbard's ability to seize the latest trends in society, it seems stagnant.

"L. Ron Hubbard positioned Scientology as an alternative to psychiatry when people were desperately in need of psychological help during the Cold War. The '60s come along, kids are rebelling, they're looking to end the war, and right there in Dianetics it says this is a way to prevent nuclear war. He figures out a way to make this a much cooler, less fringy Hare Krishna and much more appealing to more mainstream kids. In the '70s he quickly taps into the fact that people are more visual, he does all these visual aids. They very quickly responded to people rebelling against drugs. They tapped into the recovery movement and the self-help movement, and the professional-development movement. Then L. Ron Hubbard died. That was the problem."

But didn't Hubbard also, along with his charisma and creativity, put into Scientology some of its most damaging elements, like Fair Game and Disconnection?

"That was his Achilles Heel. He was paranoid. He had deep anxieties. He wanted to be king of his world, and he had to create a paramilitary society from that. And he was probably unaware that from that comes Lord of the Flies."

Today, without Hubbard's guidance, the church is failing to adapt under leader David Miscavige, she says.

"His biggest problem is that he grew up withiin the church, he has very little experience in the outside world...Hubbard understood that people have deep interests and that those interests change...David Miscavige, from inside the bubble that he lives in, he looks out and he sees that the American culture is obsesssed with celebrities. That this is what matters to us. In reality, for as celebrity-obsessed as our culture is, no one joins a religion because Tom Cruise is a member."

Cruise, in fact, did a lot of damage when he suddenly became vocal about Scientology in 2005. "I think all these celebrities realize that what Tom Cruise did was bad for his career and they can't be like that. Even Kirstie Alley, and even Jenna Elfman, who was crazy gung-ho for a while, have taken a step back...I think they see this isn't good for their careers."

If the celebrities are being more cautious, it's fascinating to see the new "Independent Scientology" movement flourishing as former high-level members like Marty Rathbun rebel against Miscavige's rule.

"Scientology is a very doctrinaire church, way beyond Catholicism. I mean a really all-encompassing, all-demanding, highly judgmental, cripplingly controlling, organization. And these Independents are saying, 'Fuck the organization, we're just going to go do this on our own, we're going to pay a lot less moneey for it because really, this stuff should be free. And we're going to live better lives.

"To me, that's really religion. If you can just seek to better your life and the lives of those around you, without taking advantage of those around you, more power to you."

Like me, Reitman is fascinated with Rathbun's blog, where he defies Miscavige's rule and attracts more and more Independents.

"I think Marty is so threatening to Miscavige because he's like a Martin Luther. He's saying, look, there's an alternative way."

And as for Scientology itself, under Miscavige?

"I think they're going to have to change or die."

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