The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religionby Janet Reitman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
Review by Paul Fenton
So, Scientologists … What a bunch of crazy f**kers, eh?
If I had to distil my conclusions about this religion/philosophy/cult after reading Janet Reitman’s excellent book “Inside Scientology: The Story ofAmerica’s Most Secretive Religion”, that would be it. Reitman, a journalist and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, spent five years researching and assembling a comprehensive history of the Church of Scientology, from its origins in Dianetics and the imagination of L. Ron Hubbard, through to the militant fundamentalist corporation with the glossy Hollywood image of today.
A couple of things made me want to read this book. First, I’ve always been curious about Scientology. Not curious in the way some people might be bi-curious, more curious the way you are when you drive past a traffic accident and you wonder what caused it. Like most wogs (that’s what Scientologists call the rest of the world, by the way, I’m not being racially insensitive), I’d seen and heard all about Scientology through Tom Cruise-tinted glasses; and like a lot of people, my view of Tom Cruise can be summed up as: crazy little f**ker, eh? From what little I knew of Scientology, I understood it to be based on the sci-fi fantasies of a pulp fiction writer from the thirties, and Tom Cruise was heavily into it. When I put those two views together, I had little trouble imagining a religion whose members dressed in silver robes and saluted one another with a Vulcan greeting variant – not so much “live long and prosper” as “live long and leave your credit card details”.
The second push I received to read about Scientology came from another book, “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson. At one point in Ronson’s examination of psychopathy and psychiatry he visits Broadmoor, a mental asylum in the UK which houses some of the country’s most dangerous and mentally ill criminals, many of whom have been classified as psychopaths. Visiting Broadmoor isn’t something which is normally permitted, he tells us, but he had someone pulling strings to get him in – a Scientologist. Scientology, it seems, is aggressively opposed to psychiatry, and one of its missions is to discredit, disrupt, and ultimately destroy psychiatry. Psychiatry, apparently, is one of Scientology’s great devils; the other is the IRS. This brief glimpse into the belief system of Scientology piqued my interest.
Reitman starts the book with an abridged biography of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder. I won't go into the detail of LRH's life here except to say: there are two versions of the Founder's life story, the Scientology-sanctioned version, and the truth. One is a great deal more interesting than the other. I'll give you a hint: it's the one in which LRH would singlehandedly take on Hitler, Superman, Barack Obama and Iron Man and make them ALL his bitches. And that seems appropriate, and almost necessary, for a religion based so completely on fiction.
You might say, so what? All the world's biggest religions are based on some form of fiction: Catholicism, Hinduism, Pastafarianism ... Why should it matter that Scientology is following the same path? It matters because all those other religions had genesis stories which have evolved over hundreds of years. Taking L. Ron Hubbard's word on the ultimate meaning of existence is a bit like shouting at the TV during a professional wrestling match. Same idea, much bigger scale.
Reitman presents Scientology to the reader in as close to a purely neutral journalistic fashion as one could possibly hope to manage when dealing with such a loopy subject. I suppose she couldn't editorialise too much, because the Scientologists would have come down on her like vengeful Mafiosi -- just Google "Operation Snow White" and you'll see what I mean.
The book isn't so much an exploration of Scientology as an examination of Scientologists: the founder, the early followers, the zealots, the enforcers, the celebrities, the advocates and the outcasts. After reading it I find I'm still amazed that not only could these intelligent people buy into this concept so completely, but that the inner sanctum of Scientology could become so cut off from the rest of society, so insular and controlled that some of the "survivor" stories are not so much about a spiritual estrangement from the church as they are about actual physical escape, complete with passed notes and clandestine meetings and climbing up a ladder over a high wall at midnight. These Scientologists, the management of the organisation who form the division called Sea Org, are a scary group of people, keeping the flock in line with fear and attacking anyone who would speak badly of them. I wouldn't want to get on their bad side. (Incidentally, if anyone's interested, my real name is not Paul Fenton, and I live on a small uncharted archipelago in the Indian Ocean.)
I think back to the book which prompted me to read about Scientology, The Psychopath Test. There are a lot of parallels between clinically diagnosed psychopaths and many of the Scientologists described in this book; and while I myself might score high on a few of the questions on the psychopath checklist, making me in some (hopefully small) way psychopathic, at least I can rest safe in the knowledge that I'm not a Scientologist.