Hail, Thetan!

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion BY Janet Reitman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover, 464 pages. $28.

The cover of Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion

Quite often, religion proves every bit as stupid as it is crucial. Which is to say that the sheer preposterousness of a religion—any religion—can serve as a measure of spiritual need. The longing for cosmological certainty is so great that humanity is susceptible to all kinds of bunkum. The sad truth: Our most fundamental trait is foolishness.

Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology grew out of a National Magazine Award–nominated piece for Rolling Stone, and there are two reasons you might consider reading it. One, per the above rule of cracked religiosity, you might hope for an explanation of why something as zany as Scientology can even happen. Two, you might be curious about Scientology because Tom Cruise is a Scientologist and because, well, people just seem to talk about it a lot. If you’re in the latter camp, this book will serve you fine—maybe even too fine, as Reitman has a fetish for detail. But if you’re looking for more than shallow news value, you’re going to be disappointed.

Here’s the book in a nutshell: Once upon a time, Reitman wandered into a Scientology center and watched the introductory movie. It was full of “outlandish claims,” but still she came out feeling “kind of hopeful.” When Cruise did his famous sofa dance, it became the “news hook” that nudged Reitman into reporter mode. The success of the Rolling Stone piece suggested this book-length history, broken into halves: In the first, the “larger-than-life” L. Ron Hubbard presides over Scientology’s birth and growth; in the second, a much smaller-than-life—indeed, Napoleonic—David Miscavige presides over the group’s more recent history. Reitman draws on two kinds of sources: previous biographies and histories that she notes are biased even as she relies on them, and interviews with current and former Scientologists that help her re-create, in excruciating detail, events already reported in any number of venues. The book bounces between history that, to my ear, too often rings of celebrity biography and narrative that edges too close to crime-show reenactment.

Reitman’s key claim—I think—is that Scientology is more remarkable for its business model than whatever core tenets it may or may not have. I’ll take this as an invitation to consider the book’s own business model. The jacket cover features a closed door to a Scientology “auditing” therapy room, and the title suggests that readers will be going through that door; that we’ll see what it’s like inside. But this never happens. Indeed, it’s only after you excavate the book’s notes section that you realize there’s been some sleight of hand: Reitman visited the Scientology operation after Cruise’s sofa dance, and she actually took some classes and experienced auditing—the church’s psychoanalysis-inspired “therapy” and the cornerstone of its business. But apart from a brief mention in the book’s introduction, we don’t hear about any of that.

I should offer a disclaimer. A few years ago, I wrote about Scientology, too. I flew to LA to join the church under false pretenses. I saw the movie, I took the personality tests, I experienced the therapy firsthand, I attended Sunday services at a Celebrity Centre, I visited L. Ron Hubbard’s private literary agency and his personal museum, and I attended a commemoration of his birthday (one of two main Scientology holidays—the other being May 9, the anniversary of the publication of Dianetics). In other words, I went through the door. For a while, I even had a membership card! I still keep a SOLO-AUDITOR pin on a shelf, but I can’t say I earned that one—I shoplifted it from a Scientology facility.

I offer this background in order, again, to furnish a contrast to Reitman’s methodology. At the outset, she announces that her goal is “not to judge, but simply to absorb,” and she claims to have produced the church’s first objective history. All those previous histories—the histories on which her chronicle is based—are “palpably hostile.” What’s wrong with hostile? It’s not entirely clear. And actually, Reitman does a whole lot of her own judging. She has to: In hybridizing the church’s version of its story with that of angry apostates, she finds herself parsing truth from contradictory sources.

She does deserve some praise. She has reopened the wound of Scientology’s shady history—the pyramid scheme, the near-on human rights violations, the harassment of government officials and journalists, and so on—but somehow this doesn’t lead her to any kind of conclusion. She’s too objective to get bent out of shape about a “religion” that, in the end, is a national and global embarrassment. Indeed, she ignores some of what her own reporting suggests. She questions whether Scientology is a real religion, then lists it alongside traditional faiths. Her version of Hubbard’s biography paints him as pathetic and paranoid, but she claims that “it would be wrong to cast Hubbard solely as a crank” and contends that his ideas “should not be discounted.” Really? Wrong? If you get too close to Reitman’s words, you catch a whiff of Kool-Aid on her breath. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like for even my preposterous religions to have begun with something more earnest than a business plan.

Reitman has little to say about religion in the abstract, or about people, or about humanity’s need to believe. She does have a lot to say about Tom Cruise. That being the case, one wonders how this book might have played out had Rolling Stone opted for a less objective journalist: a practitioner of the gonzo journalism that was once the magazine’s heart and soul. That approach would have been far better suited to the challenge of capturing the core absurdity of Scientology.

J. C. Hallman explored Scientology in The Devil Is a Gentleman (Random House, 2006). He lives where no Scientologist has ever managed to find him.