Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman

Inside Scientology

Inside Scientology is a pretty straightforward, journalistic account of the “Church” of Scientology, back to its founding by L. Ron Hubbard, and indeed even farther back into the life of Hubbard, through its ups and downs over the years, culminating in its current status under Hubbard’s successor David Miscavige.

For the most part, what I take from this book is that Scientology is every bit as creepy, insane, and evil as its reputation.

Hubbard seems to have been a supreme bullshitter and con man from early in his life, with hints of mental illness. As he got closer to the end of his life, the mental illness part became far more pronounced, as he spent most of those years in hiding with minimal contact with the world, probably came to believe some of his own bullshit, became ever more paranoid about his real and imagined enemies, and degenerated into almost a Howard Hughes sort of condition.

The only other leader the “church” has ever had is Miscivage, the Stalin to Hubbard’s Lenin. Miscivage comes across as having even fewer redeeming qualities than Hubbard. For much of his life when Hubbard was only a little crazy, he could be a charming, life-of-the-party raconteur type, maybe at times a lovable bullshitter before he became just a scary, demented bullshitter.

Miscivage seems never to have been human to even that extent. Raised in the “church,” he never had any experience outside that bubble and so became utterly warped into some kind of ruthless automaton. Not that Hubbard didn’t become ruthless as well, but again, you can see certain things in him that make you think, maybe, possibly, in certain circumstances, at certain stages of his life, you could like him. One thing Miscivage will never be accused of is being likable.

When Hubbard died, Miscivage was still little more than a kid, and it was far from obvious that he was the logical successor to take over the organization (or that there should even be some individual to take over the organization), but whatever Miscivage lacked in other human qualities, he had more than enough of a natural talent for Machiavellian political maneuvering that he quickly marginalized any rival or potential rival and became the undisputed dictator, only the second in Scientology’s history.

You wonder sometimes what people would think if they could go back in time and see the founder of a religion as he really was, rather than whatever myths and guesses have developed about him in the intervening centuries. Like Jesus, Buddha, Moses, whatever—assuming they were actual historical figures at all, how different were they from what people believe now, and how would it change things if people had the chance to see them as they were?

But the fact is we can sort of run modern day experiments along these lines and at least take an educated guess what the response would be. Namely, that a fair number of people would continue to follow them or whoever claims to speak in their name, and would be surprisingly unfazed by the lack of connection between reality and what they’ve been taught it’s their religious duty to believe.

If you look at recent figures like Joseph Smith, Elijah Muhammad, L. Ron Hubbard, etc., it’s pretty clear that these people fall well short of the level of a messiah, or someone with superhuman wisdom and moral character. There’s a substantial amount of evidence available about them, so you don’t have to speculate the way you would with a Jesus or a Buddha, at least not to the same degree. They’re consistently fruitcakes, charlatans, or worse, who would never have been able to get their movements off the ground if they were dealing with a halfway rational species, but once they clicked into some kind of religious or emotional something in enough people, they were wildly successful.

Scientology, as the author points out, has multiple times reinvented itself for marketing or other purposes. It started as a sort of therapy or pseudotherapy based on Hubbard’s Dianetics. (Its implacable hatred of psychiatry seems to be one of those cases of needing to exaggerate the differences with your closest rivals in order to distinguish yourself from them. Except for their opposition to psychiatric drugs—Hubbard, by the way, reportedly died with traces of some such drug in his system, which would indicate he was even a slightly bigger hypocrite than is already apparent—a lot of Scientology is just amateur therapy, with some extra hocus pocus thrown in, like magic lie detector type devices.)

Then Hubbard decided it would be a religion, a blatant ruse intended to enable him to avoid taxes. In the ’60s it was marketed more as a kind of anti-Establishment, non-conformist thing. Later its self-help aspects received more emphasis, when that sort of thing became so popular.

Speaking of the tax avoidance ruse, this relates to one of the scariest aspects of the story. A lot of the Scientologists are the stereotypical, obedient, brainwashed, pathetic but dangerous people you’d associate with a cult, and they could be let loose on whoever Hubbard, or now Miscivage, decided was a threat, or just was someone who needed to be defeated in order for the organization to generate even more money, though there are also plenty of non-Scientologists—lawyers and private investigators and such—that they paid well enough to get them to do their dirty work. So a combination of dupes and mercenaries.

They do some really vicious harassment, including a lot of digging around in people’s lives to find things to use for blackmail. There’s also the misuse of the legal system to tie people up in court forever and make them pay a fortune to defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits. And plenty of garden variety creepy stalking stuff.

Hubbard was explicit about his “ends justify the means” philosophy, that if it was for the good of the organization (i.e., further enriched Hubbard, whose boundless greed is equaled only by that of Miscivage and the worst capitalists), then there were really no moral limits on how you could treat people. Scientology has no qualms about sending out its legions of automatons to destroy anyone and everyone they’re told to destroy.

Anyway, one of their most hated foes was the Internal Revenue Service. They insist on paying little or no taxes, and not surprisingly the IRS has at times taken exception to that.

In an effort to avoid paying all the back taxes and penalties that they owed, and to be declared tax-exempt on grounds of being a religion so in the future they wouldn’t have to pay taxes, they pulled out all the stops, including infiltrating the agency by getting their own people hired there, fighting everything in court regardless of the merits, and lots of individual harassment of specific individuals at the IRS.

It’s quite an accomplishment to turn the IRS into a sympathetic underdog, but that’s what they did, at least as far as I’m concerned. I don’t fancy myself a big IRS fan, but if someone is using threats and blackmail and such against their people to avoid paying taxes they legitimately owe, I’m rooting for the IRS.

Maybe the scariest part, though, is that the agency caved. After Miscivage explicitly told the IRS leadership that he could turn the harassment off as easily as he’d turned it on, much to the chagrin of a lot of people at the IRS the agency leadership worked out a deal that gave the Scientologists pretty much everything they wanted, putting them above the law.

The organization has a history of similarly trying to dominate other powerful entities that might otherwise be a threat to them—local governments, regulatory agencies, law enforcement, media etc.—through any and all means, from intimidation to spreading around a lot of money (bribery in effect) to propaganda. They’ve had mixed success doing that, but I don’t think they’ve ever matched their win against the IRS.

Law enforcement is depicted in the book as often antagonistic toward them, so it’s surprising they haven’t gotten into even more trouble with them than they have. At least to a layman, a lot of their behavior certainly seems to cross the line into the criminal.

Besides the blackmail, theft of documents to use against people, threats, etc., there are all the things they do to their own members.

Some of that is probably classifiable as torture, but even when it falls just short of that, you’d think it would be a criminal matter. Even something as simple as using physical force to prevent someone from leaving a place they want to leave is presumably kidnapping or some other such crime. (Members being punished are sometimes held at compounds with electric fences and security guards and such to keep them from leaving. There are plenty of tales in the book about daring escapes and escape attempts—if you weren’t being held against your will you wouldn’t have to “escape.”)

I suppose one could say that the “church” protects itself against such criminal charges by getting members to sign every possible kind of release saying they can do anything and everything they want to them, but contrary to what a lot of non-lawyers probably assume, agreements like that are far from unlimited. You’re not legally allowed to murder me, for instance, even if I sign a piece of paper saying that you are. My agreeing to it doesn’t change its legal status. Same—I would hope—with being held for weeks or months against your will in a place where you are slapped around, constantly screamed at, deprived of medical attention, and given very limited food and water.

So I’m really not sure how these cults get away with some of what they do.

The Stalinist comparison is apt in multiple ways. One is that there were times in the Stalinist era that probably the most dangerous place to be in the Soviet Union was high up in the Communist party, and the higher up you were the shorter your expected lifespan.

Similarly, in Scientology it sounds like the vast majority of the members are just customers whose primary function is to give the organization as much money as possible for books and tapes and pseudotherapy sessions and such. They’re economically exploited as dupes, but the torture and near-torture stuff is going on at higher levels that most members have no association with. It’s the inner circle sort of folks who work all day every day on almost no sleep for almost no pay, who are kept isolated from the outside world—sometimes from birth—to more fully brainwash them and make them unable to function if they ever try to leave, who are given the most severe punishments, etc.

I’m sure there are plenty of rank-and-file Scientologists who think of it as a self-help group that’s helped them be more successful in life, and who would scoff at the notion that an organization that does that would be describable as a cult.

But they don’t know a lot of what happens at the highest levels, where Hubbard lived—and now Miscivage lives—in great luxury exploiting slave labor and child labor, and people willingly salute Miscivage’s beagles dressed in little uniforms (since the dogs outrank them).

(Miscivage is just a twisted little prick in general. He’s obsessed with the sexual stuff they pressure people to confess.)

For that matter, the really goofiest mythology stuff—about the aliens from billions of years ago possessing your body and all that—isn’t even taught to anyone except those who reach the highest levels of the organization. That’s all a big secret from regular members.

I’m not going to list all the outrages, but certainly there are plenty.

But probably many people would ask—and I don’t know that it’s really addressed as well as it could be in this book—“But does it work?” That is, even assuming Hubbard and Miscivage and at least a few of the people near the top are utterly reprehensible phonies who do terrible things, and it’s all motivated by greed, and it’s not really a religion, and they work some of their people like slaves and hold them captive, and there’s a heavy emphasis on members constantly confessing and ratting on each other, and they brutally harass anyone they perceive as their enemies, and on and on, is the practice of Scientology itself effective as a therapy (or whatever it is)?

It’s a good question, but before speculating on an answer, I want to make the point that its relevance is limited.

Regardless of whether some of the doctrines or products or services are valuable in some way, it wouldn’t change the fact that Scientology is a dangerous cult whose brainwashed members lie, cheat, and turn over their money at every opportunity to enrich their master Miscivage.

It would be like if I presented evidence that Walmart engages in various criminal and unethical business practices, and someone said “But among the products they sell are golf clubs, toothpaste, and bleach. Unless you can establish that those are all bad products, then you’re wrong about their criminal and unethical business practices, or at least you’d have to admit that their having some valuable or neutral products on their shelves mitigates their alleged bad behavior.”

No, if they’re doing something wrong, it would still be wrong regardless of the quality of what they’re selling.

Anyway, one of the complications of ascertaining if Scientology “works” is deciding what it even is and what it’s selling.

Hubbard just made up stuff randomly as he went along, though plenty of it he borrowed without attribution from existing sources. His entourage worshipfully tape recorded his every word, and then disseminated some of his utterances to his followers as eternal truths. People came to him with ideas for products or services, and he adopted various of them.

So Scientology is various doctrines, methodologies, services, etc. that range from the common sense to the utterly goofy, to the morally horrible. Scientology is the pseudotherapy sessions, but it’s also the anti-drug program Narconon, educational methods called “study technology,” and countless other things.

After you figure out what aspect of Scientology you want to know about, you then have to decide what it would mean for it to “work.”

Often someone can “improve” in some sense without it really saying anything very favorable about the method.

Some of it could be a placebo effect, for instance. If a person is convinced that Hubbard is a genius and that these are tried and true methods that have had great success, then that very expectation might make success more likely in that person’s case.

Similarly, maybe instead of measuring relative to the general population we should be measuring relative to just the subset of the population motivated enough to seek help and expend considerable resources for it. Maybe some person who goes through a special Scientology course for tiddlywinks would be better at tiddlywinks than the average person in the population, but would he be better than someone who put the same time, effort, and money into improving at tiddlywinks in some way that had nothing to do with Scientology?

I also have a sense that Scientology “works” for some people in the way that Ayn Rand’s “objectivism” does. That is, if you get people all fired up about success, and you drill home the message that the end justifies the means, and it’s wrong to block yourself for ethical or other reasons from doing what’s most effective in achieving your ends, then I wouldn’t be surprised if what you eventually get is empowered, assertive, confident people who achieve more of their goals.

Let’s say, for instance, that a Scientologist works a lot more hours than the average person is willing to work, ruthlessly takes whatever ethical short cuts are available and screws over people (especially people who aren’t members of the “church”) when it is in his self-interest to do so, makes a great deal of money in business, gives the bulk of it to Miscivage, and raises children in a very carefully controlled environment that results in their living similar lives.

Well, I guess he’s “successful” in some sense, like the sense of making a lot of money, which is probably what most people mean by “success.” Or the sense of achieving his goals. But did Scientology “work” in his case? I don’t know. I have my doubts the influence of Scientology was good for him, and I’m quite confident it wasn’t good for the world.

I suppose my assessment is that of the hodgepodge that is Scientology, some of what they believe and do has some merit and helps people, and some decidedly does not.

For instance, I was surprised (and maybe a little uneasy) that some of Hubbard’s ideas on childhood overlap with mine and with the Sudbury educational philosophy. Most notably, he held that in a lot of respects, we should treat children as we treat adults who happen not to have yet had certain experiences or learned certain skills, rather than patronize them as if they are some sort of lesser beings.

Given how manipulatively the Scientology leadership treats adults, I don’t think they’re doing kids any favors by treating them the same—and probably some of the motivation behind Hubbard’s philosophy in this area is to justify exploiting child labor—but still, there’s a sense in which I agree with his position on this.

I don’t know a great deal about psychiatry, and don’t have real strong opinions about it, but I would probably agree with some of Scientology’s opposition to it. Not the extreme stuff about how it’s all a conspiracy, and the psychiatrists are in cahoots with various governments around the world to oppress people and all that, but I tend to think there’s an overreliance on medication in mainstream psychiatry, and that kids specifically probably take more prescription medications to alter their behavior than they should, maybe by a wide margin.

Some of the Scientology educational philosophy sounds quite plausible to me. For instance, they put a heavy emphasis on going slowly through material and making sure you fully understand it before moving on. As one person quoted in the book noted, if you get a 98% on a test, they don’t praise you and say you’re ready for the next lesson; they drill you on that 2% until they’re sure you’ve got it.

Also, they say when you’re reading you should never pass over a word you don’t know, or settle for inferring from context roughly what it means, but should instead always look it up in a dictionary.

I don’t see anything so bad about that stuff. If people were to study like that, it may well do more good than harm.

But then again, I don’t see anything that’s particularly “Scientology” about looking words up in a dictionary as you read. It’s just one of those things someone suggested to Hubbard that he decided to toss into Scientology.

As for Narconon, I know nothing about it, and there are few if any specifics about it in this book, beyond that it’s Scientology’s drug program. I think those drug programs in general tend to be ineffective if not downright scams, so I’d be skeptical about Narconon, but I’m skeptical about it because of that generic skepticism, not specifically because it’s part of Scientology. Maybe it works as well or better than other such programs (which isn’t saying much). I don’t know.

As far as the pseudotherapy “auditing” itself, it sounds like bullshit, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were certain people wired a certain way who benefit from it more than a control group would. (It also causes some people to have a nervous breakdown, makes some people suicidal, and no doubt has no lasting effect on plenty of people who try it.)

Hubbard picked stuff he felt could be marketed in such a way as to bring in the most money. It’s not impossible that by coincidence some of those things also have some (probably small) merit.

The author’s sources were primarily people who eventually wised up and escaped from the cult, but a small number of her sources are current Scientologists who defend it. She bends over backwards to be fair to the latter.

For example, she has a long section about a Scientologist who allegedly turned out very well. She describes how poised, articulate, personable, and intelligent she is, how she got good grades when she went to a non-Scientology school and is now applying to elite law schools, how by all appearances she’s set to be a major success in life. She concludes that her being raised in the “church” seems not to have damaged her, and in fact seems to have been very good for her.

She’s probably right that this individual is a good person who will do well in the world, though I’d point out that it’s by no means impossible that someone who is unusually mature and poised and all that, and is able to get into an elite law school, is also a monster inside. It’s probably not even uncommon, come to think of it.

But even if that’s all true, that’s hardly a defense of Scientology. Scientology’s being a criminal cult is not incompatible with one or more people raised in it not turning out horrible.

There are chapters on Tom Cruise and the relation of celebrities to Scientology, so that’s covered, but it’s not the primary focus of the book.

As far as that goes, it’s always sad to be reminded of women I’d like to have sex with who fell into the clutches of the cult (e.g., Leah Remini, the deliciously tall Jenna Elfman).

A few of the names mentioned as people who’ve had at least some degree of involvement with Scientology were surprises to me. It’s certainly disappointing to see Van Morrison’s name in that context, for instance.

The “church” puts a heavy emphasis on recruiting public figures. They really roll out the red carpet, treating them much differently than they treat average joes. They’re willing to expend a lot of resources as an investment in such people, convinced that they’ll make all that back and more if they can get them in their clutches. Cruise especially is treated like royalty, with a team of servants doting on him whenever he comes to Miscivage’s palace.

Not surprisingly, Cruise comes off like a fool. Then again, so does Travolta and so do pretty much all the celebrities.

It’s astonishing how much money the “church” gets from the rich and famous (directly—not counting their publicity value in separating other suckers from their money). For example, Nancy Cartwright—the voice of Bart Simpson—gave the organization $10 million. Not total, but in just one year. (Though maybe the scarier part of that is the realization that the compensation for being the voice of a cartoon character can leave you with an extra $10 million lying around to give away.)

Inside Scientology does provide a bit of hope that Scientology could be on its last legs, though it presents it as only a maybe at best.

Reitman says that the biggest factor working against Scientology is that they cannot control the Internet. They can frantically sue everyone they want who posts their secrets there or criticizes them, but they really can’t keep such material from being available as long as there’s an Internet.

As a result of the goofy Xenu stories being publicized, and the horror stories of maltreatment, and support groups for ex-members and such, she says that Scientology’s reputation has taken a significant hit, and that although they make it almost impossible to access any hard numbers, in all likelihood membership is down, and the recruiting of young, new members (who tend to be computer savvy) is down disproportionately. So for new members, they may be relying primarily on existing members having children and raising them in the “church.”

By the way, a big pat on the back to South Park for being an important part of making Scientology into a joke and revealing its idiot mythology in the wonderful episodes of Tom Cruise refusing to come out of the closet, and Tom Cruise being exposed as a fudge packer.

I’m too much of a pessimist to be convinced that this massive money and real estate generating juggernaut is on the verge of dying, or at least becoming even more of a fringe group than it is now, but one can hope.

Overall, Inside Scientology is a solid introduction to Scientology, to the mentally ill Hubbard and the even more mentally ill Miscivage, and to the various shocking things they’ve been responsible for, most of which, alas, they’ve gotten away with.

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