An interview with Janet Reitman, author of Inside Scientology: The History of America’s Most Secretive Religion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2011)

By Amy Levin

It was fifteen minutes of fantastic and totally outlandish claims, and yet each testimonial was presented in such a reasonable way that in spite of myself, I felt kind of hopeful. ~ Janet Reitman, “Introduction,” Inside Scientology

Janet Reitman’s new book, Inside Scientology: The History of America’s Most Secretive Religion, represents her attempt to take seriously what may be the most controversial New Religious Movement of our time. Scientology, as Reitman tells us, means “the study of truth,” and the word itself has a seductive, even philosophical, ring to it. What Reitman’s book tells us, though, is that beginning with the publication of L. Ron Hubbard’s best-selling book, Dianetics, and his visionary moment in 1952, when Scientology itself began to take shape, the religion, as it came to be known, eventually grew into a “global spiritual enterprise that trades in a product called ‘spiritual freedom.’”

I recently met with Reitman in her modest office in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. Her shelves were stocked with Hubbard’s books. We chatted for more than an hour, first casually about our love of dogs and Brooklyn, and then more pointedly, though still quite freely, about the book, her first.

Encounters, Motivations, and Research  

At a recent reading from Inside Scientology, a member of the audience asked Reitman how she remained objective while covering such a controversial subject matter. Though admitting it was difficult, Reitman eventually found that if she viewed Scientology as a foreign culture, she could remain objective. 

How did you get involved in this project, and how did your coverage of Scientology begin?

I first got involved in Scientology reporting back in July of 2005, with an article I did for Rolling Stone, and spent nine months researching and writing that story. Towards the end of that period I went to California and had a three-day interview with Church officials who, after many months, granted me this kind of special access. They had been very resistant for a long time in talking to us, and I wanted not just to sit down for interviews, but to tour the facilities – I wanted the whole thing. When they finally agreed, I had this really incredible three days with them, asking them every question under the sun. And they answered! It was kind of unfiltered and it gave me a much deeper and nuanced understanding of what Scientology was about. That very quickly fed into the idea of it turning into a book, partially based on this amazing access, which according to them, no journalist has had before.

Janet Reitman

I had this really interesting moment when I was touring the international base [outside of Hemet, California] with Mike Rinder, who was then the spokesman of the Church, and Tommy Davis, the current spokesman [also the actress Ann Archer’s son]. They took me into this little office with a bunch of kids in their late teens, early twenties. All the people I met that day were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, the best of the best, and they had all been drilled on how to behave around someone like me. But something happened. I would begin to talk to one of the kids, and then three, four, five other people sort of crowded around me and were trying to interject their opinions. I think one of the things they were told to tell me was that they were not brainwashed or prisoners, which was the perception that the Church believed I had. At the time I didn’t think anybody was a prisoner of that base, but I thought that they were very controlled. The kids were all trying to say to me how free they were, but there was something about this group when they were talking to me in a way that was completely unspoken, and I got this vibe of absolute desperation. They were like, you are from the outside world, and you are from Rolling Stone, which was a part of youth popular culture. It was nothing anybody said, but I just got this very distinct feeling that there was something with these kids – something bad is going on here.

Did you feel a responsibility to do something? To help them? 

Yes, I did. I thought, What is up with the kids? I thought these are very eager people, and they’re much more eager than the normal, but at this point had met a lot of Scientologists and had experienced the eagerness that they’re supposed to show. There was something else with these kids, and I encouraged them to speak with me. The VIP tour that they normally give you at the base, according to other people I’ve spoken to about it, is that they don’t speak unless spoken to, and they’re very direct they call everybody Sir and Ma’am. But because of the kind of reporter I am, I was really interested in relaxing these people and getting them to talk to me. I had just got the sense that no one had talked to them and asked them to be human beings in a long time. Then I learned that the kids that work at this international base tend to be the children of elite Scientologists, who want to work for the Sea Organization [Scientology’s central management]. This is the place where the most elite kids are, as well as the Celebrity Centre.

You include narratives of some kids in various chapters, but it is not the main focus of the book at all. But now I see all of this emotion! Did this concern drive you to write the book?

I think something has to motivate you emotionally to stick with it for all these years, and what motivated me emotionally was the kids I interviewed and got to know. Some of them were true believers and some of them were not. But they were really interesting and they did not meet the stereotype – they were very smart, articulate, self-composed, and they’d been raised with a sense of self-awareness that most children are not raised with. The boys were amazing. I mean you know how teenage boys are – but they were articulate, they were just together. I knew that some of those kids had had such intense experiences when they left that they were unaware of how to live in the world. They didn’t know if they were speaking English or not! It was so sad and yet fascinating because here they were living in a normal house in a normal suburban neighborhood in L.A. and yet they didn’t really live in the same world the rest of us did.

Why did you think you were granted this access that other journalists were not? 

I think it was because I had asked initially to do an “embed” [embedded journalism] with the Church when I came back from covering the war in Iraq. I had shown good faith and I must have impressed them in Florida as being serious. That didn’t stop them from trying to discredit me initially, but I stuck with it for months. If you’re writing for a magazine like Rolling Stone and it’s an article that people have been aware of for a long time, they then conclude that this must be a major article and it’s in their best interest to talk to me. We also sent them a list of questions for fact checking before they gave us that access. Also, those three days informed so much of the book, even just descriptively. Additionally, it was during the period when Tom Cruise was on his publicity stunt and so they didn’t want to come across negatively. I think that’s changed.

L. Ron Hubbard

So where did most of the history of Scientology come from?

Most of the history in the book came from documents, from L. Ron Hubbard’s own writing and from interviews. I interviewed well over a hundred people, if not several hundred. I actually found people that knew L. Ron Hubbard in the ’50s, were at sea with him in the ’60s, and who got into scientology in the ’70s and the ’80s. The Lisa McPherson thing** came from a gigantic file of documents from the Clearwater Police Department. It was basically all of the paperwork from their criminal investigation and afterwards. They had so much of a demand for it that they put it on a CD. So I had this investigated file on this CD, and I’ve got clips. But the book is not focused heavily on the litigious history of Scientology because I felt like that’s really been done a lot.

** Reitman dedicates four chapters to the story of Lisa McPherson, a woman who experienced what Reitman claims many people go though – they join Scientology to solve a problem, get more connected to the Church, cut off their ties with anyone but the Scientology community which becomes their entire world. McPherson’s case was particularly tragic, and epitomized what can go wrong in Scientology’s belief that psychiatry is evil. Reitman covers the case extensively in her book from McPherson’s initial involvement with the Church up until her death in 1995.  

So you say you wrote an objective, unbiased history, but how did you decide what to include and what not to include? Was there a particular vision that you had for the mood and organization of the book? Any litigious material that you didn’t decide to put in?

I basically made a decision, because I’m a magazine writer and I have to think constantly about what’s been said already, of trying to report something that really had not been said a lot. One of the things that has been said a lot is that they’re litigious and they are evil. … In terms of how to approach the subject matter – one of the things that made Scientology interesting was that it was a movement that was very shrewdly adaptive. It’s a business. And it’s really good at figuring out the right pitch for the right time. And so I wanted to tell the story through that historical prism.

Scientology’s Appeal and the Roadmap

While Reitman’s desire to remain objective is always a strong determining quality of  good journalism, the binary logic that one is either “inside” or “outside” culture/ religion contains a long and contentious history – particularly  within cultural anthropology – and one still debated and negotiated today. The idea that researchers can and should remain outside and objective while at the same time investigating the meat and bones of a religion led me to consider how Reitman sought to position herself.

Like many of us, before writing Inside Scientology, Reitman had minimal exposure (besides often tendentious media coverage) to Scientology, mainly because the movement is very secretive and protective. As a result, Scientology seems to be an easy target, especially for its association with, say, science fiction and “other planets.” Reitman tries to see beyond this – indeed, her history situates much of Scientology’s emphasis on science fiction in its rise during the space age. “They consider themselves a religion,” she told me, “and they will go to the mat to protect themselves. And they’re not just about science fiction stuff. I mean you have to take them seriously; there is a lot going on behind that stuff that people don’t know at all.”  

On a day-to-day basis, you’d say, Scientology is really about auditing, what the religion sees as “personal spiritual counseling.” Can you describe that process in your own words? Did you do a lot of auditing yourself?

I think there are different ways of reporting, and I don’t think that immersion reporting like that is the way you get an objective narrative. I think you have to separate yourself. I tried the auditing that they did the first time I stepped in the Church in Manhattan and it didn’t work. But I’ve observed it. You have this thing called an e-meter, which looks like a meter with a little dial, and a lot of people compare to a lie detector. … It is a device that measures galvanic responses, meaning that it measures these little electrical responses under your skin. You hold onto these probes that look like cans and they are attached to wires that connect to the meter. The idea is that when you answer a question, your emotions cause a fluctuation, and the electricity under your skin, like biorhythm, registers on the meter. By the way, I am not a scientist so I’m sure I’m not explaining this correctly – that’s my disclaimer. But to Scientologists, the e-meter functions like a lie detector because they believe that it can root out secrets.

And so what’s the benefit of finding out that truth?

The idea is that you go into auditing and you go through various “processes.” They are almost like formulas that are written up to address a certain problem or a goal. In this rote process, the auditor asks you various questions, trying find a problem, or trauma, and ultimately resolve it – and it’s usually connected to something else. It’s really a form of therapy, but with this technological instrument as a tool, and there is no free form of exchange. You have to buy into the idea that you’re taking part in a scientific process, that the auditor is trained, and that this will fix your problem. They think this is all scientific…. There is no faith in scientology. There is certainty.

So why do you think Scientology is appealing to so many people, particularly celebrities?

It’s not appealing to so many people, and I think it’s lost its appeal. I think it was appealing because it had an incredible marketing strategy. There actually aren’t that many celebrities in Scientology, but the Church is very good at wooing them, so it seems like there are a lot. They have a big Celebrity Centre in Hollywood and they have an entire strategy for recruiting the famous. They try to get the almost-famous or the once-famous, and turn them back into the super-famous.

So Scientology’s success is really just all marketing?

Oh, yeah, it’s all about marketing. It’s funny – I’m not a business writer, but when I wrote the original draft of the book, my editor was the first one who pointed out that a lot of this book is about business. I was like, kind of, I guess you’re right! But it is marketing, and they are great marketers – L. Ron Hubbard was a fantastic marketer. He was a great salesman and he knew how to package. He had a brilliance for that.

So when L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology in the 1950s, what do you think was the appeal then versus what it is now?

I think the appeal then was that it was an alternative to psychiatry. And there were a lot of people in this country who were traumatized by WWII and the Korean War as well. It was the Cold War and there was a lot of paranoia in the country – there was a lot of stuff you couldn’t say. It was a fearful period and people who had problems turned to science, and they turned to religion. They turned to church, and they turned to self-help. Interestingly, one of the best-selling books of the early ’50s was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which had a religious bent to it. He was a reverend, but it was self-help, and L. Ron Hubbard was also self-help. Dianetics was self-help. And it was like, here we are in the mid-century, there’s this thing called psychiatry out there, it’s not really available in many cities in the U.S., and it is very expensive. So what do you do if church isn’t working for you? Or if you’re not a religious person? Or if you don’t find answers in prayer? It sounded promising that there was a scientific way to solve your problems since this was a scientific era – people believed very much in science. So why not a science of the mind? It seemed perfectly rational to a lot of the people. That’s what it was then. Today it is not that.

The “Religion Question”

Blessed with a troubled fascination of New Religious Movements such as The Kabbalah Centre and how, or even whether, to study them in the academy, I wondered how a journalist would approach what many consider to be a contrived “religion.” In an age of globalization, neoliberalism, post-secularism, and a particular moment in which uttering the words “religious freedom” is increasingly common in political discourse, how do we approach Scientology, and what do we have to gain by doing so?

Do you think Scientology is a religion?

It’s a religion in the eyes of the U.S. government. I definitely think it is a religion for the children who consider themselves Scientologists and grew up in the Church of Scientology, because by and large they grew up with no other religious traditions. One girl in particular I interviewed who is no longer in Scientology had no concept or heaven or hell – she had no concept of God. They didn’t really celebrate Christmas or Hanukah or anything like that, except in a secular kind of way. Scientologists sponsor Christmas pageants and things like that to show that world that they are just like us. But they actually don’t celebrate Christmas, they don’t believe in Jesus, and they don’t believe in God. That doesn’t make them non-religious. They believe that there is a Supreme Being, and that Supreme Being is kind of up to you. But that in and of itself isn’t weird, really. I was raised Jewish, for instance, and my mother always taught me that God is within you.

Tom Cruise

So a sort of humanist approach?

Yeah it’s very humanist.

Ultimately, and for whatever else they may be, I think Scientology is a business. They are a corporation, and that’s generally how I answer the question, when people ask me what they are. They are recognized as a religion, and they are a religion to the people that believe it is a religion. But objectively, they are a for-profit, commercial, spiritual enterprise. They’re global, extremely organized and they have a vast legal and defense network. Just like any other corporation, they want to protect their trade secrets. They want to protect their proprietary information and they happen to have a leader who is basically a CEO, or “chairman of the board” as he calls himself, although from every account I have heard, there really isn’t a board of directors. David Miscavige has a strong personality and has a kind of magnetic personality. There is a lot of dysfunction but it’s a dysfunction that you see in corporate environments.

Still, you do say in your book that this is a fundamentalist religion.

That’s been my experience, and I’ve interviewed a lot of different people – not just major critics. To get back to your other question about why I wrote the book the way I did, I was very intent on looking for people who had not been out in the public before. The irony was I wanted the most neutral, unimpeachable kinds of sources and I found them. But then in 2008 the Anonymous Group was created and they started having protests and doing all kinds of things that emboldened these sources of mine to go more public. Some of those sources decided to file lawsuits, and some decided to write their own books and became very well-known critics of Scientology. So I can’t help that, but what I know is that when I met them 90 to 95 percent of them had never spoken to a reporter before and never intended to.

I have a final question as a student of religious studies. Do you think Scientology should be studied in the academy? Do you think Scientology should be considered a religion that is worth studying?

Well it’s a New Religious Movement. I am not an expert on religion – I majored in English Literature, not Religion, in college! I think that it definitely should be looked at in terms of its marketing skill and business acumen. It could be studied in business school, and also in law school. There are seminal intellectual property cases that have involved Scientology, and in fact, a friend of mine has told me about studying those cases in law school.

Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University and a regular contributor to The Revealer.