Janet Reitman: An Interview with the Author of Inside Scientology
On Tuesday, we sat down with Janet Reitman, author of the terrific new book Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, which is just hitting bookstores and will be released officially in July.
Inside Scientology is a masterful telling of Scientology's history, from L. Ron Hubbard's pulp fiction career in the 1930s to events happening just last year as an Independence movement splits with current Scientology leader David Miscavige. Along the way, Reitman brilliantly focuses on individuals like Jeff Hawkins and Nancy Many and Lisa McPherson to help us understand the appeal of Hubbard and his "technology," as well as the controversies that have rocked the organization over many decades.
We wanted to know: who is Janet Reitman, and how did she put together such an amazing book?
"I was your typical struggling freelancer for years and years," she says while we're sitting in the conference room at a warren of small offices in DUMBO. She'd even interned at the Voice, she let me know. But it was international reporting that she was determined to do after finishing Columbia University's journalism graduate program in 1992. That eventually took her to Rolling Stone, which sent her to Iraq for most of 2004. After 8 months covering the war, she says her editors wanted to find something else for her to do in 2005.
"Tom Cruise was jumping all over couches, right?" she says with a laugh. "I think my editors had wanted to do something on Scientology for a long time. I was basically the 'Iraq War girl' at that point and they were concerned that I was incredibly burnt, that I would get PTSD, that I needed something else to do. So my editor pitched this to me. 'You'll embed with them. Why don't you write them a letter saying you'd like to embed with the Church of Scientology.' Of course the church said no."
What she did instead is how her book starts, she points out. "I went to the New York org [on 46th St.]...I was basically myself. I think I switched the spelling of my last name by one letter. And I told them I was a creative writer, that I had just finished graduate work at Columbia (which I had, but it was ten years before). I told just a couple of fibs about my circumstances. I did tell them about my boyfriend -- I mean, I didn't tell them his name, but I was pretty honest. I told them I wanted to quit smoking and was stressed in general.
"That was my first experience. And I came back from that first day going, 'What's wrong with this group? I'm not seeing anything that wrong. It worked.' So that made me think, this shit works on me and I'm a really skeptical person, then what's the deal?
"After a couple of days I went through an incredibly exhausting orientation lecture with a guy, it was just me and him in a room. He started telling me all about what Scientology is, all the terminology. All the specific L. Ron Hubbard things about engrams. Some of it sounded pretty existential. I asked him if he'd read any existential philosophers, which of course he hadn't read. It became more and more obvious that if you go to college and study liberal arts you will quickly realize that this is something that's based on lots of different things, and has been disproved in so many ways. And some aspects of it are sort of blatant lies. Like psychiatrists being behind the Holocaust. You know, there are just certain blatant omissions of fact. But if you're someone who doesn't have that kind of education, it sounds so plausible, it sounds really smart.
"The people I met in Scientology, these are smart people. They have to be able to read these books. They are not easy books. These are not dolts. They just haven't had the advantages that some of us have."
After her experience at the New York org, Reitman traveled to Clearwater, Florida, the church's spiritual headquarters, where members travel for high-level training. "It's a bubble. It's a parallel universe," she says, talking about the way Scientologists separate themselves from the rest of society while living inside it. "They seem completely secular and normal. In Clearwater they're the wealthy Scientologists who show up to do their upper-level courses. They don't look like people in a cult. They look like people you would see every day."
Reitman went on several tours of Scientology facilities at Clearwater and says she worked hard to get the church's point of view on various matters. In all, she worked nine months on her story for Rolling Stone. Then, in January 2006, just before publication, she sent a list of additional questions to Mike Rinder, who at that time was the church's chief spokesman (he left Scientology the following year and has since become an important critic of the church).
Reitman says Rinder "freaked out" when he received Reitman's list of questions, telling her that she hadn't properly received Scientology's side of the story. So Rolling Stone flew her out for a three-day trip to California.
"I got a three-day trip with Mike Rinder and Tommy Davis, and it was the most extraordinary experience. That was my unique access, and it informed my book. I went out for them basically to spin me. But part of their spinning is to exhaust you, to get you there at 8 in the morning and keep you with them until 8 at night, or 10 at night, when you're jet-lagged from your trip."
Rinder and Davis took her to Scientology's secretive desert base near Hemet, to a prominent Scientology school, and to Scientology's anti-psychiatry front group, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and other places. Throughout her tours, she says she kept peppering Rinder with difficult questions, and she says he gave "uncensored" responses. "You got the feeling that he was burning to tell more than he could. I have great respect for him," she says. "Mike Rinder informed every page that portrayed the Scientology point of view in my story," she says.
The story was a big hit for the magazine, and her agent told Reitman that multiple publishers were interested in its potential as a book. She wrote a proposal, and it sold immediately. I asked her why publishers might be more interested now in a book on Scientology.
Reitman thought her unprecedented access had helped her sell her book, but that publishers could also see how things had changed in the media's treatment of Scientology. "Tom Cruise was out of control. Because he had become such big news...the whole thing was so weird, it fascinated people. And I think that publishers, I guess, felt that the interest was there," she says.
But Reitman's primary interest wasn't Scientology's celebrities. She wanted to write a book that would capture what L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology had meant to the religion's more prosaic members, to get their point of view and not just rehash the church's many controversies.
"The best lesson that I was ever taught at Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner was to cut out any prejudicial language from anything I wrote, because the material itself is so rich, let it speak for itself. I carried that lesson with me," she says. Despite striving for that objectivity, however, she doesn't know that Scientologists themselves will get to see that she made that effort.
"I don't know if they're going to be able to read the book at all," she says. But it was still important to her not to dismiss their way of thinking. "Scientology is different things to different people. There are people I've met for whom this stuff has worked. Like Natalie Walet. Natalie grew up in the church. She has her own mind. She's going to law school, that's just fantastic. For her this stuff works. I'm not going to judge that. I'm not a religious person myself, but I've certainly met people who believe that the rapture will happen. Who am I to judge what they believe in?"
In particular, she found young people in Scientology amazing to talk to. "Scientology kids are really remarkable," she says. If they are raised somewhat in a bubble, they impressed her with how focused they are and how well they present themselves. "Most kids are not able to communicate or be present with you in a conversation in the way Scientology kids are." On the other hand: "I meet these kids who are so bright and so together, and yet they couldn't name the two houses of Congress. Their education had been so deficient. What a tragedy."
Also key to maintaining the book's objective view was choosing the right people to interview and portray. "I made a huge point of looking for people -- it was a very arduous task to do this," she says. "What I wanted to avoid were the people who were very outspoken, the well-known critics. They'd been smeared by the church because they had an axe to grind. I wanted to find people who didn't have an axe to grind."
But just finding people wasn't enough -- she was determined to have them on the record. "I used this argument with them: you have power in numbers. If you all come out and use your names, they can't come after you. But if you do this silently, then they can intimidate you and no one will come to your defense because no one knows who you are."
Reitman's book does strive to get the church's point of view, as well as its critics. But she doesn't hold back on reports of the abuse of church members, and I asked her about that.