Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman didn't know much about Scientology when she started researching the religion back in 2005 for the magazine. Since her original article, "Inside Scientology," ran in March of 2006, Reitman has spent more than five years researching the history of the church and its mercurial founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The result is Reitman's meaty, engaging new book Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion. Reitman came to the Slate offices for an hour-long chat about Scientology's current, controversial leader, David Miscavige; the church's celebrity marketing strategy; and the impressive poise of children who attend Scientology-based schools.
Slate: Many journalists who have covered Scientology in the past—like Paulette Cooper, who wrote about the church in the '60s and '70s—said that they were harassed, and some have been sued by the church. Did you ever encounter any intimidation? Were you wary of taking on this topic?
Janet Reitman: When I started doing the Rolling Stone story, I was the most clueless person when it came to Scientology. I had no idea how litigious they had been, so I wasn't scared of that initially. What I encountered was a phone call made from a very well-known scientologist to my top editor saying some things about me, trying to discredit me. I don't know what was said, but whatever was said didn't work.
Simultaneously or subsequently, the magazine was visited by Tom Cruise's sister [Lee Anne DeVette], who was his publicist at the time—and a high-ranking Scientologist—and a guy named Mike Rinder, who used to be the head of the Office of Special Affairs, which was the legal communications investigative wing of the church. He's now out of the church. But at the time he was the head of that area. So Lee Anne and Mike visited the Rolling Stone offices, at least once, I think maybe twice, and then they followed up with a lot of phone calls: "How's it going? I want to make sure you have everything."
Meanwhile, I was petitioning them to visit them in California to see the international base and see one of their schools, since I was writing about kids who had been educated by the Scientology system. I wanted to meet young people in the church and who were in the Sea Organization, which is their "clergy." And they ultimately allowed that at the eleventh hour, right when we were intending on going to press and in the process of fact-checking. I had this amazing access to them. And not just Rinder but Tommy Davis, who is the current spokesman of the church, and he and I spent three days together talking about everything in the world. In terms of any kind intimidation or hovering presence, it was kind of over by the time the piece ran, which was in the early spring of 2006.
Slate: I'd love to hear you speak more about your experience at the learning centers. What did you observe when you went to their schools?
Reitman: When people ask me "What impressed me the most?" I say the children. The children raised with Scientology are unusually self-composed, self-possessed, especially given how awkward teenagers, and teenage boys, usually are.
The Scientology schools—and I don't want to call them "Scientology schools" because they are technically secular schools—use what is known as "study technology," which was the curriculum designed by L. Ron Hubbard for secular education, very similar to what adults learn in the church. They focus very heavily on working out problems physically, which for someone like me, who had a hard time conceptualizing math and physics, is actually pretty interesting. Scientology came up with a learning style in the 1960s that's not tremendously different in some ways, especially with working out problems visually, than what kids do in secular schools today under a different guise.
I think what is bad about the study tech is that the materials are very much oriented around Scientology. They have a moral agenda. They have a policy called "ethics"—which is the core of the Church of Scientology. It's a way of behavior that reinforces constant self-analysis and confession and self-monitoring and adherence to a strict system that was set up by L. Ron Hubbard to guide the world that he created, which was the world of Scientology.
One of the girls I wrote about in my book, named Kendra Wiseman, was in many ways a perfect Scientology kid—meaning she was obedient, she was eager to take part in Scientology studies, she was never rebellious—until she was 14. Then she had this amazing experience which was a form of rebellion. She went to a funky bookstore in L.A. which is right across from the Church of Scientology Celebrity center. This store, The Daily Planet, sells crystals, incense, and all these New Age-y things. And she gathers all her courage and goes there and buys a little vial of essential oil and maybe a crystal and then hid it in her gym bag and her drawer at home because she was so afraid that she would be found out. Over the course of the next year or so, she got interested in Wicca—this is stuff every 14-year-old girl goes through. Then she announced that she was no longer a Scientologist. She was a Wiccan.
For this, she was severely punished: ostracized, made to do all kinds of "amends" like performing maintenance work around campus, removed from class. Her teachers, headmaster, friends, and parents of friends were all instructed not to talk to her. She got phone calls from other kids' parents saying "We won't have anything to do with you until you make amends." This, I'm sorry to say, is part of Scientology, and it can also be part of the Scientology educational experience. And it's one of many stories I've heard about. So it's a mixed bag.
Slate: Let's go back to Scientology's origins. From the way you describe founder L. Ron Hubbard's book, Dianetics—which is called "book one" by Scientologists—it seemed focused on erasing pain. Dianetics was published in 1950, and it makes sense to me that something that emphasizes positivity gained popularity in Eisenhower America. Can you explain to me, as you do in the book, why that moment was a perfect breeding ground for L. Ron Hubbard's philosophies?
Reitman: One thing you have to understand about L. Ron Hubbard: He was a product in many ways of World War II. He was a Navy officer, though it is debatable as to what degree he fought, because he suffered from ulcers and claimed numerous other physical disabilities, and he seemingly came back from the war suffering from some kind of PTSD. His Navy records never revealed that he was exposed to the injuries he claimed. And the Church of Scientology claims that he was sort of undercover, and actually an Intelligence officer, so he had other sets of records. I've never seen evidence of this. Nonetheless, he clearly was suffering from something, and had appealed to the navy for psychiatric help. And within a few years, he came up with something to cure himself of his trauma. He called it "Dianetics."
It was appealing to people because we're talking about an era where there wasn't really psychiatry. It was very expensive and only available in a major city like New York, Washington, L.A. Other forms of psychiatry like the lobotomy were frightening. And there were lots of traumatized people.
Slate: And it probably gave them a language that they needed. Some way to express what they were going through—there are so many interesting things Hubbard did with language and naming things in Dianetics that would have seemed comforting.