By Eric Jayne
The Minnesota Atheists Burnsville Book Club recently discussed Janet Reitman's book Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion. After reading Reitman's investigative report many of us at the book discussion discovered the violent history, marketing campaigns, private rituals, and unique vernacular that not only contributed to make Scientology America's most secretive religion, but also quite possibly America's most miserable religion. Reitman's book was so intriguing that I was compelled to visit the local Scientology office in St. Paul to see real-life Scientologists and grab some free proselytizing literature for book club attendees.
The first part of Reitman's book focuses on the biography of L. Ron Hubbard. The reader learns that Hubbard was a successful and ambitious 1930s pulp fiction magazine writer in his 20s before he became a sailor in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After being discharged from the Navy in 1945, Hubbard adopted many esoteric mystical beliefs about the mind and body from Jack Parsons—an eccentric acquaintance he roomed with who practiced occultist magic.
A failed yachting business venture, funded through money he swindled from Parsons, left Hubbard broke and depressed. In desperation, Hubbard sought assistance from the Veterans Administration which encouraged him to get psychiatric help. Instead, he relied on the mystical beliefs and practices Parsons taught him which served as the genesis of the beliefs and practices of Scientology today.
The inspired Hubbard got to work in writing a book that, once completed, he claimed would teach his readers to "rape women without knowing it, communicate suicide messages to their enemies while they sleep…evolve the best way of protecting or destroying communism, and other handy household hints" (page 22). After the American Psychological Association declined Hubbard's offer to write a detailed paper on this "groundbreaking discovery" that he called Dianetics, an editor of a popular science fiction magazine, enamored with Hubbard's pseudo-psychiatry, promoted Dianetics as the "most important subject imaginable" (23).
Reitman explains that Hubbard lost his rights to the Dianetics name and merchandise due to bankruptcy assisted by a backlash from the psychiatry field and his own poor money management. Hubbard responded by creating and marketing Scientology as a way to not only reveal the secrets of the mind as Dianetics allegedly did, but also to reveal the secrets of the human soul (which Hubbard identified as a "thetan"). For the rest of his life, the professional associations in the field of psychiatry were his number one nemesis. The IRS later joined psychiatry as a co-enemy after his "church" was stripped of its tax exempt status due to evidence that Hubbard was making such large profits.
It was surprising to learn how Hubbard gathered church operatives to spy on and infiltrate the IRS. Reitman also goes into great detail explaining the secret sub-organizations within the church, training camps, education camps, and an overall structure eerily similar to Orwell's Oceanic society. After Hubbard's death in 1986, David Miscavige took over as Chairman of the Board of the Church of Scientology and he effectively led the church to defeat the IRS. Miscavige then enforced stricter loyalty codes, severe punishments for those who dared to question his authority, and he ordered increased financial contributions from members. He also successfully defeated the court system—thanks to a botched coroner's report—over the death of a young Scientologist by the name of Lisa McPherson, who tragically died while under the sole control of the church's purification program.
Miscavige, being a faithful follower of Hubbard's teachings, re-introduced Hubbard's 1955 "Project Celebrity" campaign as a way to recruit famous people—whom Hubbard identified as "opinion leaders"—in order to disseminate and promote the Scientology doctrine (253). Thanks to a lot of money and resources Miscagive eventually landed Tom Cruise who was (and still is) arguably the biggest, most recognizable celebrity in America. Although she doesn't get into it too much, Reitman should satisfy your appetite for salacious celebrity gossip as she explains how Miscavige contributed to breaking up Cruise and Nicole Kidman as well as his part in Cruise's wedding to Katie Holmes.
The book concludes with the current influence the mainline church has throughout the world as well as the current circumstances and sentiments of recently defected Scientologists who either left Hubbard's teachings completely or who started their own denomination of Scientology divorced from Miscavige's control.
As mentioned earlier, I visited the local Scientology office in St. Paul for some real-life interaction. The office is located downtown on the skyway level of the First Bank Building. The first thing I noticed was a table displaying Dianetics books, audio books, pamphlets, and posters. The rest of the room was adorned with promotional posters depicting Hubbard's books and smiling faces from diverse ethnicities hovering over captions celebrating Scientology. A young African-American man behind a desk greeted me and asked if he could help me. I was then greeted by an older African-American man and a middle-aged Caucasian woman. All were extraordinarily friendly and asked how they could help. I was honest and told them I was interested in collecting free stuff to hand to people in the atheist book club. They gave me a bag and filled it up with complimentary DVDs, booklets, pamphlets, and specialized personality quizzes. The woman adamantly told me to stay away from all websites and information pertaining to Scientology except for scientology.org and dianetics.org. I kindly thanked her for the information and she encouraged me to come back with friends for a free introductory session. Not surprisingly, there were very few at the book club discussion interested in her offer when I brought it up. Those who were interested wanted to go just for fun.
Although Scientology has some violent and scary elements, and it's completely detrimental to those in need of mental health therapy, I deeply appreciated the helpful Scientologists at the St. Paul office. They truly enhanced the Burnsville book discussion. If you're interested in joining our book discussions please visit the Minnesota Atheists Meetup page for more information. We usually (but sometimes it varies) meet at 7pm the first or second Wednesday of every month at the Davanni's on Country Road 11 and Country Road 42.
UPDATE: The Church of Scientology has a new fancy home in the old Science Musem building next door to the Fitzgerlad Theater.