Questions for Janet Reitman
The author of Inside Scientology discusses the impressive Scientology schools, the church's efforts to recruit African-Americans, and why celebrities don't help bring new followers.
Reitman: Yeah, and he always merged it with science. Science was a great passion of the mid-20th century, sci-fi was huge, we had just dropped the atom bomb, we were entering the space race—so that was extremely appealing. Religion became extremely popular in the '50s, too. That was another way people dealt with their trauma, going to church, which skyrocketed in this period. By casting Dianetics, which is essentially self-help, as something with a spiritual component, which is Scientology, Hubbard tapped into the zeitgeist.
Slate: It seems like he was really good at tapping in to the zeitgeist. In the late '60s and early '70s, he reframed Scientology to make it more spiritual.
Reitman: A lot of people that I know who were involved in Scientology during that time would say it was happenstance; Hubbard didn't have an "ah ha" moment. The '60s happened, and all of a sudden, Scientology became appealing to kids that were rebelling. And he was like a Pied Piper or a Peter Pan figure: this middle-aged man who was very flamboyant and didn't fit in with your square parents. So whatever came first—people catching on, or Hubbard strategizing—though I tend to think it was the former, and what Hubbard then did was strategize once he realized what was happening. And he did it really well. The marketing during the '60s and '70s was unbelievable.
Slate: You had this description of Scientology's marketing techniques in the '60s: "In Kenmore Square or Washington Square, on Shattuck Avenue or Sunset Boulevard, in the Haight or Golden Gate Park, pretty young girls dressed in hot pants or mini-skirts, smiling radiantly as if they'd discovered a secret they were bursting to share, would approach young, mostly male college students or hippies and invite them to come home with them." Iremember from reading Helter Skelter that Charles Manson would get people to join the Manson family by using similar tactics—sending pretty young girls to approach men.
Reitman: The Hare Krishnas did it that way, too. It's an easy strategy to sell. Young women approaching men at airports and college campuses. But in Scientology, apparently they would take them inside the church for a lecture, and they'd vanish. And the guys would be like, "where'd she go?" She'd be out getting more.
Slate: How does the recruitment work now? How does their marketing work? I've seen young men and women offering stress tests in the subway in New York, but not for a while.
Reitman: I was actually doing an interview the other day, and [my subject] said that they had set up stress tests at a subway station near Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, which is interesting because they've been reaching out to the African-American community in the past few years.
They have a tough time. They do television commercials, they have a glossy website. When I was first looking into the church—it was six years ago right now, on a hot July day like today—I decided to go check out the church in New York. Somebody had told me to be honest with them, but not too honest. I was going to go change the spelling of my name and not tell them I was a journalist. As I walked over there, a kid on the street corner says "Hey, wanna see a movie?" And he hands me this Dianetics flyer. They were on street corners trying to recruit, these people are called "Body routers." So they were doing that in the mid-2000s. When I was writing the book, I dispatched a researcher to make sure they were still doing that, and he was approached by somebody. That was about two years ago.
Slate: For readers who don't know anything about Scientology, do you have a sense of what the average person who encounters Scientology spends?
Reitman: Scientology can be very expensive. If your goal is total spiritual freedom—a type of Nirvana—you have to do auditing (which is what Scientology counseling is called). You purchase auditing in the same way you might pay for any other type of therapy.Except that Scientologists use this device called the E-meter, which allegedly measures your emotional responses, including whether you're lying. That gets more and more costly. Each session, you buy them in a block—what they call "an intensive." And they're sold in 12-and-a-half-hour blocks. It could be $750 or $2,000, depending on what level you're working on, and some intensives are far more expensive than that. At certain levels, people have to do multiple intensives to get anywhere.
Slate: Does it get more expensive as you go up the ladder?
Reitman: Yes. The path to spiritual enlightenment in Scientology is called the Bridge to Total Freedom, and you can climb it like a ladder, ostensibly acquiring more and more ability or enhancement or whatever it may be you're going for, as you go. The first big goal is to reach the level known as "clear," where you're supposed to be free of your psychological issues and psychosomatic physical issues. Free of the problems of current time, present time, this life (because they believe you've had many lives)—they believe all those issues are supposed to be gone. This can take a long time—you can spend tons of money. If you're a celebrity, you seem to go right to the top, maybe because you can pay or because you are useful in other ways and they want to make sure you are happy.
But if you're an ordinary person, it depends how many issues you have. And probably, it also depends on what they see as your ultimate potential. People who are very gung-ho about Scientology tend to advance at a pretty steady rate to "clear," maybe because they are so enthusiastic but also maybe because they are viewed as positive to the overall church membership. After "clear," you can then advance to what are often called the "secret levels," where you learn the theology and creation myth of the church and understand what it's all about. That can be extremely expensive. So if you're seen as serious, you will move quickly. For some, it's a year or two, for others, it can be five. Some people have been in the church for 30 years and still haven't gotten there. That doesn't mean you can't be an active member of the church and be part of the community. But you can't make that progress until you can pay. And there's a lot of pressure to progress. If you can't afford it, you can go work for the church, which a lot of people end up doing.
Slate:In the book you talk about people signing billion-year contracts with the church.
Reitman: Scientologists believe that they have lived forever and will live forever. A billion years is no big deal. It's symbolic. You sign away your life to the church. And when you do, it's a pledge.
Slate: Can you do all the auditing for free if you sign the billion-year contract?