Inside Scientology: author Janet Reitman discusses the impressive Scientology schools, the church's efforts to recruit African-Americans, and why celebrities…

Interviews with a point.
July 8 2011 6:59 AM

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.

Janet Reitman. Click image to expand.

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.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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.

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?

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.