The following is content I wrote as two comments on the Village Voice’s Runnin’ Scared blog in response to an update by Tony Ortega on the Janet Reitman book, Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion. My comments somewhat strayed from the point of Ortega’s post, which was merely a short interview with Reitman on how the books is being received (well, though some good sales opportunities were quashed by Casey Anthony and other news cycles), and contained links to a number of reviews (overwhelmingly and deservingly positive). I realized that my comments amounted to a sort of review so I decided to post it here. I’ll edit it a bit so it makes sense outside the context of the Voice’s comment section.
Disclaimer: The below critique is in no way meant to disparage Reitman’s book, which I heartily endorse as the best book on the history of Scientology to date. Beyond getting the history and reporting right, Reitman is an excellent writer, and manages to make an extremely dense story as breezy as it possible. My issue with the book is practically insignificant, but concerns Reitman’s depiction of a young Scientologist named Natalie whom Reitman interviewed and whose views on Scientology Reitman creatively positions as a counterpoint to the egregiously awful version we all otherwise know and fear.
Inside Scientology works because Reitman had the foresight to deliberately attempt to make it unassailable, knowing full well that Scientology was going to man the harpoons. Consequently, Scientology’s boilerplate talking points and criticisms of the book have been profoundly weak. The most damning criticism appears to be that she got the date of Hubbard’s death wrong in one section of the book (but got it right in another). The other criticism leveled at Reitman is that she didn’t talk to Scientology officials, which is manifestly disingenuous given that she did talk to Scientology officials—who then left the organization. Scientology is in charge of retaining its staff members, not Reitman, who can hardly be blamed for so many Scientologists fleeing the ship.
Reitman covered an amazing amount of territory and did justice to each subtopic she covered, but especially Lisa McPherson, which account serves as probably the best cautionary tale, to date, of a dystopian world run by Scientologists clumsily misdiagnosing the human condition, substituting their delusional certainty for the scientific method at every turn, and finally allowing the poor girl to die because of cult member after cult members’ obstinate refusal to recognize how inapplicable Hubbard’s “tech” is to real world issues.
Not that such a dystopia is realistic—luckily, Hubbard managed to egotistically sabotage Scientology by prohibiting its evolution, which will prevent it from competing even in the self-help arena, much less the religion arena, where it’s widely and properly regarded as a cult.
Which brings me to my only minor quibble with the book, where Reitman expresses hope for the future of Scientology by viewing it through the eyes of a Natalie, a hopeful youngster from an obviously well-off family. I think the decision to include Natalie was a great one, as both Reitman and the reader benefit by the depiction of Scientology’s best possible angle. But at the same time, I don’t see any reason to view Natalie as anything but a distant outlier to the general rule, which has only ever seen the people most active and nearest to power in Scientology always employing ends-justifies-the-means rationales to consolidate power, attack critics, destroy families, surreptitiously seek coddling from government agencies (or alternatively, attack them), etc., etc.
What historical evidence has only ever shown us is that Scientology ultimately and always rewards those who apply its highest and defining precept—Keep Scientology Working—above all else. And so KSW will always trump any other bland human betterment precept cited by Hubbard and delusionally clung to by what few Natalies remain in Scientology. It was a nice thought by Reitman that the Natalie view could somehow one-day prevail (Reitman doesn’t directly suggest, but I’m inferring as much due to her ending the book with Natalie), but I don’t see any reason how or why it ever would. My criticism, therefore, isn’t that Reitman included Natalie’s viewpoint, but that she depicted Natalie’s Scientology as a potentially viable counterpoint to the formal organization’s version of Scientology without properly contextualizing it.
I think rather than Natalie’s viewpoint prevailing and supplanting the far more cynical version on display presently (keep in mind Natalie would likely vehemently disagree that hers and Organized Scientology’s version differ, but only because she doesn’t know any better), she is far more likely to leave when she gets out from under her parents as I can’t imagine she’ll take kindly to the regging when he parents cease buffering her from that reality. It’s not hard to find Independent Scientologists who get similarly doe-eyed about LRH’s contradictory views on humanity, which get harder to reconcile when you’re not permitted to speak with your family, so/but perhaps she winds up in that camp.
I’ve heard that heroin addiction is actually manageable if you’re filthy rich and well taken care of—it’s the stopping, starting, failing to eat properly, committing other crimes because you can’t properly support your lifestyle, that winds up killing you more often than the heroin. To the extent that analogy is accurate, Natalie presently enjoys many luxuries but once they stop she’ll likely come to realize that her warm fuzzy religion is a humorless and insatiable money-gorging beast. Natalie’s Scientology doesn’t stand a chance.
So maybe (to think out loud from Reitman’s vantage for a moment) Natalie’s view comes to prevail in the Independent community, and it’s the Independent community that is truly Scientology’s future. It’s at least a more likely scenario than Natalie’s view prevailing at INT Base. But it’s still pretty unlikely as so many real-world structural hurdles exist before you even get to talk about competing ideologies, for starters the fact that there are no Independent Scientology tax-exempt entities, much less an impenetrable byzantine corporate web like that overseen by David Miscavige. Independent Scientology could only compete with organized Scientology by an IRS reversal or litigation and it’s not hard to figure who’d be odds-on favorites in either scenario.
Add to this the fact that the Independent Scientology community is comprised entirely of ex-members of the organized Scientology community—the former has no recruiting mechanism, so would have to come to resemble the organized Scientology community far more than it presently does in order to compete. And this is a scenario that present-day organized Scientology would do everything in its power to prevent. So I’m not terribly optimistic about the Independent Scientology community—which, indeed, is presently having a deleterious effect on organized Scientology—ever becoming a viable competitor. At least a kinder gentler competitor anyway—it may be possible for Marty Luther Rathbun to once again to become what he ostensibly hates most and supplant Miscavige. But even this is unlikely because CST, RTC, et al. were structured and endorsed by the IRS to keep David Miscavige in power for as long as he wants to be there.