When most of us think of Scientology, we think of Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Not Janet Reitman, a Rolling Stone journalist who wrote a National Magazine Award-nominated investigation of the Church of Scientology in 2006.
She's spent the last six years digging into this unusual faith, and her new book, "Inside Scientology," reveals much about this unknown world. She interviewed more than 50 people involved with Scientology, almost all of them on the record, and everything triple fact-checked. I was curious how she won the trust of this famously secretive organization, and what she found on the inside.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford: How does the Church of Scientology typically respond to outsiders asking questions?
Janet Reitman: The approach of the church with reporters can be very very aggressive. With anyone they perceive as hostile, which includes reporters, they try to identify what "emotional tone" you're at, and then they go just above it, as a way to raise you up. It's a way of breaking you actually. In my case, they didn't try those tactics. But my general rule is, if you know that you haven't done anything wrong, then you have nothing to be afraid of.
Along with church officials, you also spoke with people who'd left the church. How did you approach them differently?
I spoke to a tremendous number of "quiet defectors" -- and within that group there were a few formerly very high-ranking church officials, who were able to present a church viewpoint without being members. I asked them questions about the philosophy of Scientology, its technology, what it was like when they entered the church in the 1970s and '80s. I got a real historical and spiritual sense from them, which was very unlike the traditional defector. They did defect, but they still considered themselves Scientologists.
One of the things that makes your account unique is that, along with investigating the inner workings of Church leadership, you also focus on individual ordinary Scientologists and their experience. Among these, Natalie Walet really stood out. Can you tell me more about her?
She's one of my favorites. When I met her she was 17 years old, just graduated from high school. Usually when you interview a Scientologist, they will bring along a church official, and then that's it, the interview's ruined. But when Natalie and I first talked, she had her parents' permission, and that was it. Her parents are both involved with Scientology, her father has an independent auditing practice, her grandmother is a Scientologist. Natalie was a true fan of L. Ron Hubbard. She'd been through a lot of personal ups and downs, and she was really feeling her way. We'd have lengthy debates in a way that was fantastic, and rare, and she talked very honestly and very bravely.
Scientology has many characteristics of a corporation as well as a religion. Did you have any trouble reconciling the two?
I talk about it as a religion in America, where they were founded. They're a religion. In terms of their tax status, and the way they're treated, there are privileges they receive that a non-religious group would not. For Natalie, she very much considers it her religion, and I wouldn't want to ever tell her different. I've met a lot of people who believe in it as a religion, so -- sorry critics -- for them, it's a religion.
But it's also a business. It is fundamentally corporate, its leadership is corporate, its interests are corporate. This is not exclusive to Scientology. What is exclusive to Scientology is that there is no other religion that charges you for every single thing you do. You can't do Scientology for free.
So it's both. Look at your history! The Catholic church had the reformation because many people thought it was corrupt and greedy, people were saying "this is about wealth." And there's now an independent movement of people who are starting to say the same thing about Scientology. I think there's already a reformation in process in Scientology.
You say that Scientology is at a major crisis point. What would you be watching to guage the future of the organization?
I'd look at how many church officials are leaving. Two of the defectors in the book, Rinder and Rathbun, were both major, high-level church officials. Rinder was on the ship with L. Ron Hubbard. Rathbun was a friend of [current leader] David Miscavige -- they would watch football together, hang out together. There is no way they would have left unless they felt driven to leave.
David Miscavige's style has been to purge people, to play them off each other, to isolate them, etc. But these are people who just walked the hell out. If even a half-dozen more of these very high level people leave and speak out, that would really spell the end.
David Miscavige is really the Brigham Young to L. Ron Hubbard the founder, and I don't see a new leader that's coming up from within the organization who could be the next leader, who could lead a reformation. It would have to come from outside.
What would Scientology have to do, in your opinion, in order to stand the test of time?
If you want your religion to last, you have to have an appeal. A lot of people show interest in Scientology because of the celebrities. But does that mean you will become a Scientologist because of the celebrities? Even if you think John Travolta's really great so you go and try out Scientology, are you going to stick with it? You're only going to do it if it helps you. But to even know that you have to get to the point of wanting to commit to it, and that was the Church's brilliance prior to this, they had figured out ways to make it appeal to people enough that they'd commit.
But they haven't now. If you're investing in celebrities, in real estate, it's all surface. Scientology has not yet nurtured a culture. Natalie wants that, then she has to create that. But in order to do that, the church has to be free. You have to make it free so you can raise a family in it. Everyone gives money to their religion. But they don't pay with a credit card every time they walk in.