In this history of Scientology, the devil is in the details

The Boston Globe/July 5, 2011

'Try to define Scientology, and even those who understand its basic concepts will inevitably come up with a multiplicity of descriptions: alternative to psychotherapy, social movement, transnational corporation, cult, religion."

So writes Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman in "Inside Scientology," her meticulously researched history and revealing exposé, a frightening portrait of a religion that many find not just controversial, but dangerous.

The author claims no agenda, but her impressively sourced text provides ample damning details. After more than 400 pages of startling revelations, most readers will be hard-pressed to seriously consider Scientology as anything other than a powerful, profit-driven corporation with only the most tenuous connection to "religion."

Today's Byzantine organization bears little resemblance to its precursor, Dianetics, the self-help system designed in the 1950s by sci-fi hack and wildly confident dreamer L. Ron Hubbard. Dianetics quickly found widespread success, due largely to Hubbard's knack for persuading people to share in the significance of his convictions. When Dianetics' influence waned, Hubbard reframed his self-betterment program as an actual religion in deference to the prominence of faith in American society.

The '60s provided the perfect atmosphere, as the rebellious, anti-establishment currents coincided with the free-your-mind-and-soul promises of Scientology. Spiritual seekers flocked to the new religion, paying thousands of dollars for "auditing sessions," in which individuals received one-on-one attention in an effort to achieve higher levels of spiritual clarity. As the converts grew, so, too, did the organization's hierarchy, real estate holdings, and revenue.

The increasing public visibility came at a price, however, as Scientologists across the world came forward with disturbing accusations of abuse, exploitation, and human-rights violations. Withdrawing first to one of his massive oceangoing vessels, and then to secret locations known only to Scientology's elite, Hubbard disappeared completely and was not seen publicly after 1980 until his death in 1986.

Following Hubbard's disappearance, a young acolyte named David Miscavige was put in charge of the All-Clear Unit, whose mission was to "find ways to get around the myriad legal issues that had driven Hubbard into exile." By then, Scientology had gained a reputation for legal intimidation, particularly against mental-health professionals and the Internal Revenue Service. Under Miscavige, the group lodged dozens of lawsuits, totaling millions of dollars, against the IRS in an attempt to gain tax-exempt status, which it eventually was granted along with the dismissal of back taxes in excess of $1 billion.

Miscavige is portrayed as a violent-tempered tyrant who was indoctrinated from a young age and has spent his life aggressively advancing Scientology. Reitman ably chronicles the many charges brought against Miscavige and his cohorts, all of which have been denied and ultimately dismissed - due in no small part to the church's strategic efforts and deep coffers.

For many readers, Scientology is inextricably linked to Tom Cruise. The celebrity appeal has been an important public relations play for the organization since John Travolta joined in the mid-'70s, but Cruise's association with the church over the past two decades has ensured that Scientology remains in the spotlight.

Reitman's investigation of the celebrity angle makes for juicy reading, but her most penetrating revelations come in the form of the story of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who suffered a series of nervous breakdowns probably caused by the rigor of her work for the church. Secreted to a group compound in Clearwater, Fla., McPherson was subjected to prison-like conditions and died after about three weeks. Despite extensive police investigations, Scientology officials were cleared of wrongdoing and a private settlement was arranged with McPherson's family. It's clear from Reitman's evidence, however, that McPherson was treated with little regard for her mental or physical safety.

Throughout the book, the author displays consummate journalistic skills. Her accumulation of evidence is particularly impressive and gives rise to one of the more memorable works of investigative nonfiction in recent years.

Despite official claims to the contrary, Scientology's influence seems to be dwindling, a fact that provides little consolation to the thousands who have left the church and suffered the consequences. Says one former member, "I don't know what's in store for me down the road, but I know I won't get there with Scientology. . . . And after thirty-four years, and six hundred thousand dollars, that is the saddest thing I can say about my life."

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