Reviewed by Anne Saker
You've got to hand it to L. Ron Hubbard. He might have been relegated to the minor ranks of science fiction writers except that he figured out that spiritual seekers in post-nuclear America craved a personal understanding of the self and the universe -- and they would gladly pay for that knowledge again and again and again and again ...
Which is the delightful foundation of Janet Reitman's compelling, rich and courageous explanation of Hubbard's contribution to the 20th century, the religion called Scientology, now in its sixth decade. Yes, there are third-generation Scientologists.
Reitman got onto the subject with an insightful 2007 Rolling Stone story when the religion enjoyed renewed attention from Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch. For her book, she interviewed more than 100 people across the Scientology spectrum -- members, ex-members, celebrities, ex-celebrities, the devout and the militantly opposed.
She takes pains to detail how she crafted the narrative to be fair, and what comes through this prodigious reporting effort is a really good read about the birth of a strange and yet all-American institution.
The Hubbard who Reitman discovers is just the kind of narcissist who is inclined to see himself great enough to create a religion: a marketing genius and a fanciful storyteller, particularly about his own story, which comes with its own embellishments.
In later years, as the religion established itself and expanded like McDonald's (an overt model for the religion's managers), the role of Hubbard "took on more and more characteristics of a messiah. As the 'Source' of all of Scientology's teachings, Hubbard was decreed the creator of every bit of Scientology scripture, which was considered infallible."
Hubbard's death in 1986 led to the rise of an acolyte, David Miscavige, who joined Scientology as a boy and now at 19 ran the show. By then, franchise churches all over the world pulled in millions of dollars from adherents paying for repeated "auditings" to walk the Bridge To Total Freedom, the goal of which was to "go clear."
Woven into Reitman's accounting are significant subplots. The heartbreaking story of Lisa McPherson delivers the personal toll. She gave all her money and many years to Scientology, working at the church's mega-headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., but was losing her mind. Church workers performed what was essentially faith-healing, but McPherson died. Criminal charges against church officials were filed then dropped.
Reitman then goes into great and entertaining details about the church's longstanding giddiness over celebrities, especially the hots it's always had for Top Gun: "Cruise's strategic value to the church was so crucial that nothing was too good for the actor. Miscavige even created a special award for him ... which he presented to Cruise."
Reitman also considers the future, interviewing a host of teenage and young-adult Scientologists who believe that the excesses of the past are but one solid auditing away, and the church can only grow because it's got the best of intentions: to help the whole world go clear.
Inside Scientology is an impressive high-wire act producing a scrupulous history of how one man reframed the universe and how a lot of people paid for the privilege of agreeing with him.
Books mentioned in this post