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: Technically. I know someone who because of where they worked, they were given auditing all the way to the top—like people who work with the celebrities. They work incredibly long hours. Eighteen-hour days, little time off, they live in terrible conditions. The organization has become increasingly punitive. It always had a punitive component, but it seems to be almost relentlessly that way.
Slate: It seems like things got more punitive after Hubbard died and current Scientology leader David Miscavige took the reins. Do you think it would have morphed into something different if someone else took over?
Reitman: Well D.M. is basically like the Brigham Young of the Church, and Hubbard is Joseph Smith. Miscavige was the strongest among a group of strong candidates, including a guy named Pat Broeker, who seemed like the real successor. The young people that became the new guard were described to me by one rather horrified church executive as "Lord of The Flies" kids. And for many, their experience with Hubbard was when he was descending into a sort of madness. He became increasingly paranoid because the church was under tremendous scrutiny—like a Howard Hughes, a sort of recluse. So a lot of these kids interpreted how to lead Scientology through that erratic perspective. Other people knew his forgiving side, but Miscavige, according to the people who started out with him in the Sea Organization, didn't know that side. And then Hubbard vanished completely into hiding.
One of my sources put it like this: Miscavige got the worst of Hubbard. What is indisputiable is, because you're supposed to view Hubbard as infallible, and Miscavige had no real experience in the outside world—he joined the Sea Organization at 16 and lived at a Scientology base with his parents at 11 or 12—he really wasn't a "normal kid." He was isolated, and his interpretation appears to have been that to lead the church, you must be authoritarian, your rule is law, and—this is based on reports I have been given by many people—you have to yell and scream. The organized church of Scientology is an organization where you cannot debate the tenets or question Hubbard; and, if it was led by somebody different, it might have evolved into something more flexible and encouraged a more dynamic community. Now it's kind of static.
Slate: You talk about how Miscavige used celebrity as a marketing tool, which went a bit sour with Tom Cruise and the couch-jumping on Oprah. But did the church's celebrity strategy help them overall?
Reitman: No, I think it really hurt them. Hubbard wanted to recruit prominent people so they could spread the word. That in and of itself was a fine policy, ideologically. What happened was that Miscavige's marketing strategy was increasingly celebrity-oriented. He looked at the American public from his bubble and saw what fascinated people—what the "button" was—and he seemed to believe that because our culture was increasingly obsessed with celebrities, that could be a real selling point. So he put them on a pedestal. He wanted to use them as promotional tools with the idea that people would join the church because Tom Cruise or John Travolta were members. Some actors may have joined for this reason, but I don't think that the average person from Potomac, Maryland, or Duluth, Minnesota would have joined because they like Tom Cruise. Celebrities don't move you spiritually.
Slate: What surprised you the most about Scientology, besides how poised the kids were?
Reitman: The normalcy of a lot of people. I have older cousins who were hippies in the '60s and early '70s, and I went through that stage where I thought that was really cool. So here I was meeting people who were just like that, educated, from upper-middle class backgrounds. And hearing how easy it was for them to get into this, I realized that with the right sales pitch and without the negative information, this could all sound very appealing. They're amazing sales people. They work really hard to make you feel good so you'll join.
Slate: If there weren't the financial barrier, do you think more people would join? Do you have a sense of whether the church it's growing or shrinking?
Reitman: I think it's shrinking. Just go to the church—nobody's there.
Slate: But then how do they pay for the estimated $90 million dollar renovation of their Clearwater facility, which you talk about in the epilogue? Where does that money come from?
Reitman: They fundraise from their members, who give and give and give, apparently. Whatever else they may be, they are a corporation and have a very aggressive business side. Hubbard came up with management techniques and they even have a business association called the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises. Their goal is to spread Hubbard's teachings to the secular, business world. And so they go to dentists, doctors, chiropractors, vets—people who run their own businesses but don't have business skills. Scientologist consultants, who are generally licensed by WISE give them advice, and that's how they get them to join the church. These people make big money, and that gets donated to building the big church and funding campaigns.
As an organization, if Scientology made itself affordable, it could last for generations with 500 people, because it doesn't have to be an evangelical group. They're on their third or fourth generation, and plenty of people are very into it. Even if the numbers are declining, I wouldn't say that Scientology is on its way out. It could exist for a long time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.