What we learned about Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Scientology from Leah Remini’s ‘20/20’ interview

The Washington Post/November 1, 2015

By Soraya Nadia McDonald

Before she felt forced to leave the church of Scientology, Leah Remini wanted to save it.

Of all the revelations that surfaced from Remini’s “20/20” interview with Dan Harris about her experiences with Scientology, it’s this simple one that may be the most striking.

There’s a certain lurid fascination that fuels our curiosity about Scientology due in no small part to the celebrities within its ranks. It’s easy to write off the organization as another one of the things that makes Hollywood “Hollyweird,” like sending one’s eggs back to the kitchen four times when they’re not cooked to your liking, or believing that the Tracy Anderson method is based in credible exercise science.

Of course we want to know whatever juicy gossip Remini has to offer about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but the most powerful effects of Remini’s interviews about her former religion may be that they help us understand why she was wedded to it for so long in the first place.

Remini, 45, had been a member of Scientology since childhood. She began to have significant trouble with it not when she learned of the church’s notorious teachings about an intergalactic overlord named Xenu or the existence of invisible aliens that were embedded in your body — the things that make it easy for outsiders to point and laugh — but rather, when she felt Cruise was damaging the church’s reputation. Later, after learning about Xenu and leaving the church, Remini said, “When I read it I thought, this is some crazy s—.”

Remini left the church in 2013, and she has said previously that she did so because she didn’t want her daughter Sofia to have to make a choice between her family and Scientology. When a person leaves Scientology and their family members stay, the family is often encouraged to “disconnect” from the offending nonbeliever. When Remini left, her mother, sister and husband left with her.

But before she left, Remini told ABC’s Dan Harris, she was worried that Cruise’s televised antics — jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch to proclaim his love for Katie Holmes, and publicly insulting Brooke Shields and Matt Lauer — were bad for Scientology. Remini had invested in Scientology as an institution (she estimated that she gave between $2 million and $3 million to Scientology charities), and the church — especially Chairman David Miscavige — had invested heavily in Cruise as an ambassador for it.

“Being critical of Tom Cruise is being critical of Scientology itself,” Remini said.

She thought she could fix the church if she could do something about its fixation on Cruise. Given that Remini had been a member of the church from a young age, this made sense. She’s perhaps the only person to speak publicly about her experiences both as a civilian and as a celebrity, and the two were very different. Remini’s mother Vicki became involved with the church after she and Leah’s father divorced. Vicki told ABC she believed Scientology’s purpose was “to free mankind, to make a sane world.” The family moved from New York to Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., and joined the Sea Organization, Scientology’s religious order.

Remini, whose memoir “Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology” comes out Tuesday, told Harris the dormitories where they lived were “roach-infested.” By eighth grade, Remini was no longer attending regular school, but was studying Scientology full time in addition to doing hard labor prescribed by the Sea Org.

But after her family moved to California and Remini’s acting career began to take off, her experiences were different. She was one of the people privy to the inner workings of Scientology’s glitzy Celebrity Centre, which is how she became friends with Cruise. One night, two church officials summoned Remini to Cruise’s house to give him salsa-dancing lessons, and Remini was written up for making a joke when Cruise was “forcibly kissing” Holmes, who was his girlfriend at the time. She made an offhand remark that the two should “get a friggin’ room,” she said.

Eventually, she told ABC, she was invited to Cruise’s wedding to Holmes in 2006. The church wanted Remini to bring her friends, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, with her. Remini presumed it was because the church wanted to recruit them. Remini was written up and accused of ruining the wedding, mainly because she wanted to sit with her friends, Lopez and Anthony, and because she kept asking about the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige, David’s wife, who wasn’t present at the wedding, and who hasn’t been seen in public since 2007.

In response to ABC’s request for comment regarding Remini’s assertion that Holmes had complained about Remini’s behavior at the wedding, Holmes released a one-sentence statement through her publicist: “I regret having upset Leah in the past, and wish her only the best in the future.”

Holmes and Cruise divorced in 2012 after close to six years of marriage. Cruise filed libel suits against Life and Style and In Touch magazines for claiming that he had abandoned his daughter with Holmes, Suri Cruise. In a September 2013 videotaped deposition in connection with those suits, Cruise admitted that Holmes left to protect Suri from Scientology.

Why does Scientology seem to be the religion of choice for so many in Hollywood? Because it recruits celebrities and it needs them in order to spread the word and proselytize. They’re a marketing tool. Remini herself appeared in videos for the church.

“It has tools that are very, very helpful to you in your life, to you as an actor,” Remini said of the religion.

“You’re referring to clear communication, doggedness, persistence — that’s what you draw upon?” Harris asked.

“Correct,” Remini replied.

The thing that may have ultimately given Remini the ability to leave Scientology was the fact that she’d been questioning things about it from childhood, despite signing a billion-year contract (Scientologists believe in reincarnation) dedicating herself to the Sea Org. She maintained some level of autonomy even from a young age — whether it was protesting the food provided by the Sea Org and finding a way to get a hamburger when it disallowed outside food, or getting an epidural when Scientology doctrine states that women should endure childbirth drug-free and silent. When she was brought up on ethics charges as a teenager for allowing her first boyfriend to graze her breast over her shirt, her mother resisted the church’s threat that Remini be punished with placement in Scientology’s Rehabilitation Project Force.

We know from the documentary “Going Clear” and the book that it’s based on, “Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” that the church keeps detailed, extensive files on its members comprised of “knowledge reports” (write-ups members file against each other when they think an individual is engaging in behavior that’s harmful to the church) and audits (counseling sessions in which members are encouraged to reveal their deepest problems and secrets and discuss knowledge reports about them).

“Going Clear” alleges that Scientology uses those files as a cudgel to keep famous members who might want to leave, and thereby damage the church’s reputation, in check.

Remini’s willingness to be honest about her own flaws, and her understanding of how the church would attempt to discredit her, took some of the bite out of their responses to ABC. Scientology has a pattern of trashing defectors, such as former church spokesman Mike Rinder and Remini, with ad hominem attacks.

“I know my former church and how they deal with people who tell their story, and so I wanted to be the one to say it,” Remini told Harris.

Indeed, the church responded to ABC by calling Remini a “liar,” “self-absorbed, rude and embarrassing,” and that Rinder was a “liar, bitter apostate and a professional anti-Scientologist.”

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