The Love Song of L. Ron Hubbard

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

Call me Wog (outsider), and an SP (Suppressive Person), not to mention entheta (flawed to the point of wickedness) and enamored of MEST (worldly goods). In fact, I am enturbulated, though you could just say I’m petty, defective and too benighted to believe in Teegeeack, the evil Xenu or the savior called “Commodore” or “Fabian” any more than I believe in Tralfamadore, Mordor or a galactic Romulan threat. But to really walk a mile in the Scientologist’s shoes, you have to have the jargon. Janet Reitman is also a wog who does not share the “in-ethics” beliefs of Scientology, but by some measures (and for some statistical purposes), she might be classified as a Scientologist, as she admits to having bought one of L. Ron Hubbard’s books, which is enough, when someone is trying to inflate the “membership” numbers. She has, however, written a clear-minded (if not “cleared”) history and analysis of Scientology that makes Hubbard’s books look like hackwork, which they mostly are, however seductive to some needy readers.

Perhaps my reference to Eliot’s landmark poem of poor self-esteem and existential ennui seems confectionary, but the unstable and desperate personality type depicted in Eliot’s monologue is prey for at least one tentacle of scientology. Drifting psyches who yearn for an authority figure to impose and enforce a discipline, while directing, rewarding, punishing and indoctrinating will find the answer to their prayers and fears in this . . . what? religion, business, cult, crusade? All of the above. It is to Reitman’s credit that she grasps and delineates the different circles and levels of the Scientology movement and perceives the enigmas of its allure while organizing and conveying a great store of the previously available research and her own investigations and interviews.

I suspect some Scientologists – “apostates,” “squirrels” who are no longer affiliated with current (and volatile and violent) headmaster David Miscavige’s more contemporary version of Hubbard’s fantasies, speculations, regimens and inventions – will find Inside Scientology biased, inflammatory, even persecutory, but it seems to me a serious and scholarly attempt at, if not objectivity, at least an informed, restrained and fair-minded subjectivity. Reitman never dismisses or ridicules the Sea Org, the OT levels, Over the Rainbow, Int Base or the dragnets for celebrity members, but chooses instead to cite those closer to the action than she. A veteran Rolling Stone reporter, Reitman knows to allow the fugitive former members to testify, but she also invites the true believers to present their side, though of course their full case consists of the millions of words of scriptures (“the tech”) manufactured by the Founder and his followers. Since overwhelming volume and involuted references are the OT weapon of choice (when threats, harassment, sabotage, extortion, legal suit and tireless surveillance won’t do), she has to impose limits. The above list of ploys are widely believed be the church’s preferred tactics, and Reitman presents a strong case that the rumors and fears are not exaggerated. Hubbard never suggested turning the other cheek.

The need to digest, summarize and winnow data on this vastly documented topic is great, and Reitman does so with astuteness and responsibility, leaving herself to focus on the experience within Scientology of several individuals, some of whom are still devoted members, others who have fled for their lives and sanity, and a few, particularly Lisa McPherson, who were less lucky. McPherson died in Clearwater, Florida in 1995 from complications of malnutrition after several of her colleagues had attempted to cure her of being entheta.

The life, death and post-mortem wrangling about McPherson provide one of the book’s centers, as the author resourcefully explores the rise and demise of a faithful member, even a zealot, who fell from favor. The other primary elements of the book include a decoding (with the help of the wide-open revelations about Dianetics and Scientology on the Internet) of the therapeutic scheme of the group, a history of L. Ron Hubbard’s shape-shifting biography and mythology, an examination of the economics and marketing of the organization, and a chronicle of the current leader’s coup and transformation of the community.

Many will no doubt want to read this book to find out what drew Cruise, Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman, Sonny Bono, Chick Corea and their celebrity colleagues to the Flagship, how they were targeted, curried through “admiration bombing” and groomed, how this often-excoriated organization has affected their lives. This aspect is not a digression, as the celebrity endorsements of these Hollywood pilgrims has been, as Reitman suggests, the greatest marketing tool of an organization, which has from the start had to counter an immediate ground surge of resistance and repression.

Reitman doesn’t actually say “repression,” because her researches tell her that every time a community, the IRS or the FBI has scrutinized the practices of Scientology, the evidence of foul play has been sound. Still, many outsiders don’t wait for the facts before they begin to scorn Scientology. It’s tempting to take the Wikipedia article as ample explanation, then brandish torch and pitchfork, but Reitman knows that the abuses of the organization are often more subtle, byzantine and far-reaching than a superficial scan would suggest.

Looking at the assaults, forced abortions, manipulated marriages and divorces (Cruise-Kidman, for instance), fraud, betrayals and complete paradigm shifts concerning the sacred words of the Founder, one understands all the need for secrecy and labyrinthine language, all the moving of venues, banishment of insiders and redirection of cash flow channels. It’s difficult not to think of Orwell, Clockwork Orange, Jim Jones, Charles Manson (a dabbler), Svengali, Area 51, Herbalite, PTL, the Illuminati, but the salient revelations from Inside Scientology which I can’t stop ruminating on are: how did “LRH,” a pulp fiction writer who chain smoked Kools and fabricated his own life story with unabashed boldness, whose instinctive nomenclature ran from Operation Snow White, Sea Org, goldenrod and the Wall of Fire, convince sane and intelligent people to believe that Auditors armed with simple polygraphs called E-meters (sometimes 24-caret gold ones) could disclose and banish psychological problems planted by ancient aliens? And how did he get rich at it? The answers to both lie in the magnetism of Hubbard, a spellbinding storyteller (“obviously a phony” but “not a dummy,” according to Neisson Himmel), and the insight which outstrips Howard Hughes’ grandest schemes: instead of producing something to sell to people, LRH sold them the chance to better themselves in a closed-system unverifiable by and unaccountable to the larger world. He concocted a bottomless parlor game more seductive than the Ouija and infinitely more expensive to the players. He had Barnum’s instincts for spectacle and hype and Woolsey’s commitment to conspiracy as the bread of life and paranoia as a management style.

How this Pied Piper attracted such a large and bedazzled following, how the early Dianetic pseudo-science evolved into a corporation worth billions and a church for millions is the fascinating story Reitman unfolds with an engaging style, suppressed humor and an understanding of how many of the glittery bits of information and rumor are necessary to make the narrative compelling and persuasive, not to mention when to stop, which is probably when “human voices wake us and we drown.” Or when the church’s flagship and primary shore facility are crewed by youngsters in faux-navy uniforms reminiscent of the sailor boy on the Cracker Jacks box. Permission to go ashore, sir.