Sunday 3 July 2011

Janet Reitman's 'Inside Scientology'

Janet Reitman spent five years researching and writing Inside Scientology: it was worth the wait.

For years, journalists had been warned that the subject of Scientology was off-limits in interviews with Tom Cruise: then, suddenly, you couldn’t shut him up about it.

He scolded actress Brooke Shields for taking medication to tackle her post-natal depression. He enjoined NBC newsman Matt Lauer not to be glib about psychiatric drugs. And generally, he acted like he had the answer to the world’s problems.[1]

It began with an “S”.

That Cruise’s proselytising did serious damage to his career is a matter of record.

Now it turns out that Reitman’s book, Inside Scientology, is another unintended consequence of his crusade.

For as Janet Reitman explains in the introduction to Inside Scientology, it was Cruise’s increasingly dogmatic promotion of the movement that first piqued her curiousity.

Mark up another one then, for Operation Foot Bullet.[2]

Reitman started her research in 2005, as Cruise’s evangelical phase was reaching its peak.

She published an extended feature on the movement in the March 2006 issue of Rolling Stone, then built on the contacts she made there to launch the book project.

She was the first journalist to speak to those subjected to the serial assaults by Scientology’s current leader David Miscavige.

She was chasing down the details of now-notorious incidents when they were just uncorroborated reports on the Internet.

So it must have been frustrating for her when details of the violence and abuse at the top of the movement burst out from obscure Internet message boards into the mainstream news media.

In June 2009 much of this material hit the headlines with the Florida-based St Petersburg Times’ investigative series, The Truth Rundown.[3]

Reitman gives due credit to the Times’ work, an invaluable resource to anyone interested in this aspect of the story – as she is scrupulous in citing her sources throughout the book.

But Inside Scientology has plenty more to offer.

Her book is the first to report in detail on some of the most egregious incidents in the movement’s recent history.

Reitman has followed up the first, sketchy reports of the movement’s latest excesses posted online and, rigorously cross-checking her sources, transformed them into fully corroborated reports.

Her book is divided into four parts:

n      Hubbard’s early years and the development of Scientology up until the mid-1960s;
n      the creation of the Sea Org, the excesses of the Guardian’s Office, Hubbard’s final years and Miscavige’s rise to power;
n      The death of Lisa McPherson and the subsequent cover-up;
n      Scientology’s celebrity recruitment strategy, focussing on the “seduction of Tom Cruise”, finishing off with the recent abuse of senior executives and the ensuing departure of key figures in the movement.

In relating the early history of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, Reitman naturally draws on the key sources covering this period, notably former member Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky and journalist Russell Miller’s unauthorised biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah.[4]

But she fleshes out the picture we have of those early days with fresh accounts from witnesses to that period.

Two sides to Hubbard

Alan Walter’s recollections of Hubbard’s days in England are particularly illuminating. They evoke the still-playful, experimental atmosphere that prevailed there before hostile press coverage and growing pressure from the authorities aggravated Hubbard’s paranoid and authoritarian tendencies.

With hindsight, Walter is astute enough to realise that the game was loaded in favour of Hubbard. Discussing the issue of standard practice in Scientology and how it was defined, he told Reitman: “Who knows what it meant? It meant whatever he wanted it to mean.”[5]

Or to put it another way:

“When I use a word,”' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”[6]

But as Walter came to realise, if you let someone redefine your vocabulary, you are also letting them reframe your reality. “I couldn’t believe that I could get taken over like that … But that’s what happened,” he told Reitman.[7]

Reitman adds another important piece to the puzzle with further confirmation, if any more were needed, that Hubbard knew full well about the illegal activities activities of the Guardian’s Office (GO).

In the 1970s, under the nominal leadership of Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, the GO burgled and bugged its way through a swathe of U.S. federal agencies. The operation was subsequently described as the largest domestic espionage case in the country’s history.

The official line from Scientology is still that these were the actions of rogue agents, that Hubbard had neither ordered nor approved their operation.

But a former member of the movement’s elite Sea Org, DeDe Voegeding (née Reisdorf), makes it clear that the Commodore was very much in the loop.[8]

Reisdorf was a member of the Commodore’s Messenger Organization (CMO), an elite corps of teenage Sea Org members, who answered only to Hubbard: from her we learn that he regularly discussed Guardian Office’s operations with his wife.

Drawing on the accounts from Reisdorf and other sources, Reitman gives a balanced picture of Hubbard that evokes not just his dark side, but also his peculiar genius.

For the Commodore may have been capable of reducing the toughest of his young Messengers to tears, as Reisdorf recalls – but he could also be “charming and funny”, even acting as a kind of surrogate father to some of them.[9]

Walter and other sources make it clear that Hubbard’s charisma extended far beyond the impressionable adolescents in the CMO.

Jeff Hawkins recalls almost literally running into Hubbard on one of the Sea Org’s first ships, Apollo, in the early 1970s. (This was when Hubbard had taken to sea with his new, elite cadre of followers as governments and the media scrutinised his operations with increasing hostility.)

When Hawkins stammered his greetings to the Great Man under the disapproving stares of his inner circle, Hubbard boomed back a cheerful reply, making the young follower’s day – if not his year.

There is no denying the man had an aura about him, an often overpowering presence – that much comes through clearly in Reitman’s book.[10]

Miscavige’s will to power

The chapter charting the rise of David Miscavige, or DM, is worth the cover price alone.

Hubbard once wrote: “He who holds the power of an organization is that person who holds its communication lines and who is a crossroad of the communications.”[11]

It turns out that this was one of the keys to Miscavige’s rapid ascension.

Having reached a senior position through hard work and a certain ruthless zeal, he ingratiated himself with Pat Broeker, who accompanied Hubbard during his final years. Then, gradually, he pushed every other person on Hubbard’s lines out of the way.

One incident in particular encapsulates Miscavige’s ruthlessness.

Gale Irwin, one of Hubbard’s Messengers, tried to get word to Hubbard to warn him of Miscavige’s power grab. She went to the pay phone at a gas station which was the agreed venue for Broeker to call her back (Hubbard, still in hiding after the Guardian’s Office fiasco, maintained strict security measures).

As she tells Reitman, Miscavige drove up and simply destroyed the pay phone with a car jack: a rather literal interpretation of Hubbard’s point about controlling communication lines, but brutally effective.[12]

Irwin, of course, was purged from the leadership. By the time DM was done, most of Hubbard’s closest advisers during the early years of the Sea Org in the late ‘60s and 1970s had been cast out or quit the movement in disgust.

The leader, raised on Hubbard’s authoritarian values, was the new face of Scientology — and he transformed an already authoritarian organisation into something even more oppressive.

For as one of Reitman’s interview subjects point out, Miscavige only saw Hubbard at his worst: in his declining years, paranoid and screaming abuse at his minions.[13]

This, for some former members, helps explain why Miscavige’s Scientology represents only the worst aspects of Hubbard’s legacy.

Some of the independent Scientologists – those who have abandoned the official movement but still believe in Hubbard’s system – have even tried to pin all Scientology’s current failings on Miscavige.

Unfortunately for them however, much of that dark side is reflected in the founder’s writings, which remain scripture.[14]

Lisa McPherson

The chapters devoted to the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson are among the most impressive – and distressing – in the book.

Reitman has not contented herself with the voluminous documentation provided by Clearwater Police Department – which in themselves come to more than 6,000 pages.

She has spoken to those who knew McPherson before she joined Scientology; to some of the Scientologists who supervised her in the days before she died; and a former special agent involved in the investigation into her death (this last source an invaluable find).

Few people come out well from this sorry episode.

Reitman explains in detail the lengths to which Scientology went to obstruct the investigation.

Former senior executive Marty Rathbun’s admission to the St Petersburg Times that he ordered crucial logs relating to McPherson’s final days withheld from investigators is just one piece of that puzzle.[15]

The final coup de grace to the criminal investigation was delivered by the posse of experts hired by Scientology to undermine medical examiner Dr. Joan Wood’s initial findings.

Wood’s decision to revise her position led prosecutors to drop the case, a spectacular climb-down, which still leaves some questions unanswered.

Many of those who have seen the shocking post-mortem photos of McPherson’s emaciated body find it difficult to accept that justice was served in this case.[16]

Reitman’s account is now the definitive account of this affair.

Celebrities and the exodus

The chapters covering Scientology’s pursuit of celebrities and in particular the “seduction” of Tom Cruise cover familiar ground for regulars to the Scientology beat.

But for the general reader this is an invaluable summary of how Hubbard’s Project Celebrity evolved from rather impractical plans to recruit the likes of Groucho Marx and Pablo Picasso to an altogether more effective machine.

Reitman shows how Scientology developed a strategy to draw in creative people from all walks of life, how it offered stars the kind of kid-gloves treatment they were used to, before slowly taking over their lives.

For stars such as Tom Cruise are surrounded by a personal staff made up of fellow Scientologists – and as Reitman makes clear, they are there as much to look after Scientology’s interests as those of their star employer.

Karen Pressley, a former Scientologist who was once head of the movement’s Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, spelled it out in her comments to Reitman.

“Any conversations you’d had with the star, anything you did with him, what the star read, watched, who he talked to, what he was hearing … all of that would be reported…”, she said.[17]

Some of the details of the abuse at the top of the movement will also be familiar to readers who have followed the story.

But here again, Reitman brings new material to the table, using fresh sources.

There is a gripping account, for example, of how Stefan Castle escaped the movement and then – despite the best efforts of senior executives to destroy their marriage – sprung his wife from Int Base, the movement’s high-security compound in California.

Inside Scientology is now the definitive account of key episodes in the movement’s history.

For veterans of the campaign against Scientology’s excesses, Reitman’s book will become an essential resource. For the general public it will be a revelation.

Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

[1] See for example Tom Cruise Slams Brooke Shields’ Drug Use, May 25, 2005, (World Entertainment News Network); and see here for the confrontation with Matt Lauer. A word search on “glib” will get you to where you need to be.
[2] Scientology’s talent for shooting itself in the foot is a standing joke among veterans of the campaign against its abuses.
[3] The St Petersburg Times has compiled its investigation, which as well as articles includes video interviews with many of the key players, here.
[4] A Piece of Blue Sky, by Jon Atack, (Lyle Stuart, 1990); Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah (Michael Joseph, 1987) is also available online.
[5] Inside Scientology, p54. You also get a sense of the looser, experimental, even irreverent atmosphere that prevailed during this period in Scientology’s development from a kind of fanzine that was published at that time, The Aberee, put online by Kirsti Wachter: kudos to her.
[6] From Chapter Six of Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll: can it be just coincidence that Hubbard inserted phrases from Lewis Carroll into his training routines? Interestingly, the occultist Aleister Crowley, whom Hubbard admired, was also fascinated by Carroll. See Caroline Letkeman’s research in this area here.
[7] Inside Scientolgy, p 54.
[8] Inside Scientology, p119.
[9] Inside Scientology, pp 108-9
[10] Inside Scientology, p94. Hawkins covers the incident in his own memoir, Counterfeit Dreams (page 62 of the print version):
I was surprised at how big he looked. He seemed to be over six feet tall, and everything about him was larger than life, his big barrel chest, his large round head. His face creased with a big wide smile. “Well, hello there!” he boomed, and laughed. His Aides stared at me – none of them were smiling. But I didn’t care. I rushed on, with a grin plastered on my own face. I had been addressed by the “Old Man” himself!
[11] How to Live Though an Executive 1953. My thanks to Caroline Letkeman for tracking this down for me.
[12] Inside Scientology, p136. Irwin was stripped of her position soon afterwards and sent off to do hard labour with the rest of the counter-revolutionaries. At least one account of this incident had already leaked out. But Reitman has taken the time to chase it up and corroborate it, with Irwin herself one of her sources.
[13] See former Messenger Julie Holloway’s comments on page 128 of Inside Scientology. A couple of pages later, Larry Brennan sums it up slightly differently: “As I saw him, DM was like a highly impressionable spoiled child.”
[14] It is one thing to argue that Miscavige has exacerbated the worst aspects of Scientology; quite another to contend that he is responsible for everything that is wrong about the movement. There are only so many ways, for example, that you can interpret: “The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.” From Hubbard’s A Manual on the Dissemination of Material, published as early as 1955.
[15] Rathbun’s admission on this point is part of St Petersburg Times’ Truth Rundown series.
[16] After an extended legal battle, which Scientology resisted ferociously, McPherson’s family was finally able to reach a settlement with the movement in the civil case in 2004, the details of which have not been released.
[17] Inside Scientology, p280. Again, while we have read some of this elsewhere – in Andrew Morton’s Tom Cruise: an unauthorized biography for example – it bears repeating. And Reitman has spoken directly to sources rather than recycling material from elsewhere.


  1. Great review Jonny. Love the last line.

    Although in the book Intro, Janet mentioned being curious because of the Tom Cruise flap, she has since said in interviews that she was assigned the initial article, and then contracted to write the book.

    At first I felt conflicted reading that, but then I thought it might be an "out" for her when attacked and criticized by the cult. It will make them look even sillier when they try to find her "crimes" or even manufacture them, which they will probably do for the in-cult audience.

    I don't think they are going to be stupid enough to march outside her house with signs claiming she's a pedophile and religious-hater though.

    The public can be fickle. I have no idea where the collective public mind is about Scientology.

    One of my worries, which I've expressed elsewhere, is that INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY is a bad title. It could be misconstrued as something for people who are interested in learning more about Scientology. I'm just trying to think from a standpoint of where my mind was, before I started reading all about it.

    Even now, I wouldn't be caught dead reading that book in public for fear some vulnerable person would see only the word "Scientology" and think it was a sign they might find their answers in Scientology.

    They should have picked something in the same vein as "Helter Skelter" which is a better title than THE MANSON MURDERS. UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN was a better title than THE MORMONS.

    You made some points that make me want to read the book more than ever.

  2. Thanks for the feedback: I'd hadn't read the alternative version you mention, but in the end, it probably adds up to the same thing. If the Rolling Stone decided to commission the piece, I imagine it was at least in part due to Cruise's antics. (And besides, I don't want to mess with my intro.:-))

  3. "That Cruise’s proselytising did serious damage to his career is a matter of record.

    Now it turns out that Reitman’s book, Inside Scientology, is another unintended consequence of his crusade."

    The first "unintended consequence" being, of course, the rise of Anonymous in response to Scn's attempt to suppress the video. Heh. A footbullet of major proportions!

  4. Great review! This is a must read book if you want to get the whole picture and as you say the chapters on Miscavige alone are worth the price.

  5. I wonder if Reitman hasn't under estimated the totalitarian nature of Scientology even while Hubbard was running the show. There is some evidence to suggest that Miscavige has, in fact, tempered some of the more outlandish "scripture".

  6. It's looking good... but definitive it isn't. I'd rate it as some tasty slices, not the whole pie. No mention of alt.religion.scientology, Cult Awareness Network, Bob Minton or Anonymous for example, all major obsessions for DM.
    And she quotes the false definition of 'wog'! (sigh)

  7. I think they call that "faisant la fine bouche" over here, Hartley! I think it's a good book, even if it's not the one you were looking for.

    Funnily enough though, the one you're describing is the one I tried to pitch to publishers a few years ago. I launched the site when I couldn't find any takers. I know it's a great project, you know it's a great project, but the guys in the suits...!

  8. I've submitted a review on with the title "Borderline apology or cutting edge exploration of the distinction between cult and religion?"

    Basically I found it thought provoking, but I would have loved a book which preached to the converted.

    So, one more vote for you to turn this blog - and much more - into a book, Jonny

    Best Regards


  9. Thanks Jen: I'm still waiting on funding from my psychiatric-pharmaceutical industry paymasters: any day now, I'm sure.

    I thought your Amazon review was interesting, though as I argued with Hartley, I think she deserves more credit for what she wrote, rather than being reproached for what she left out. But I do think you do pick up on a more basic problem.(1)

    Where I do differ with Reitman is her setting objectivity as the journalistic paradigm. What matters, I think, is to do your homework, to get your facts right -- and as I argue above, she has done that. But then I think you need to draw the appropriate conclusions from your research. Trying to maintain an objective position when the facts point clearly in one direction is disingenuous at best.

    Reitman is working inside the mainstream tradition of keeping yourself and your preconceptions out of the story. But of course the idea that journalism can be truly objective is problematic: the simple act of deciding what's newsworthy is in itself a value judgement. And refusing to draw conclusions from the facts you uncover is an act -- or omission -- which carries its own ethical consequences.

    Having said that, despite Reitman's declared position I agree with Harper Barnes' review at, which argues that hers is not so much an objective account as "well-documented advocacy journalism" (2)

    There is another kind of journalism of course: campaigning, committed -- engagé, if you will. It at least has the merit of nailing its colours to the mast, and it has, I think, a respectable pedigree on both sides of the Atlantic.

    It is a shame then, to see Reitman damning Jon Atack and Russell Miller with faint praise when she endorses their books despite the fact that they are "biased" (p.372). Bias is when you try to make facts fit your preconceptions: all these writers did was draw warranted conclusions from the facts.

    1. You can find Jen's review here: