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Book review: 'Inside Scientology' by Janet Reitman

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Small wonder that L. Ron Hubbard had the creative chops to parlay his 1950s self-help system, Dianetics, into a worldwide religion — and a very lucrative one at that. Hubbard was, after all, a science-fiction writer, a dreamer, a charming teller of tales and the inventor of much of his own history: He fabricated or embellished aspects of his military service, education and personal adventures, not least of them his purported run-in with a polar bear in the Aleutians.

His most famous invention, of course, was Scientology, a controversial religion-without-a-deity that has its own "technology," galactic story line and quirky vocabulary. It teaches that spiritual freedom — the state of "clear" — can be reached through one-on-one counseling known as auditing, aided by a polygraph-like device called an "e-meter." The sessions, along with extensive training courses, can cost Scientologists hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That Scientology has endured for six decades, attracting generations of devotees despite a legacy of secrecy and widespread allegations of intimidation and abuse of its own members, is in itself remarkable. Then again, as Janet Reitman demonstrates in "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion," the church has always found a way, through a "combination of flexibility and mystery" to morph with the times: In its early days in Los Angeles, it reached out to free spirits and hippies, later to celebrities and, more recently, to African Americans and legislators.

Reitman's book, which grew out of an article the Rolling Stone contributing editor wrote for the magazine in 2006, is a well-researched and compelling read, especially for those who start with little knowledge about Scientology, Hubbard or his successor, David Miscavige. While it lacks blockbuster revelations, it mostly delivers on Reitman's promise of an "objective modern history" of the church.

Intertwined with the church's history is that of Miscavige, who spent his teenage years as one of Hubbard's cadre of young aides. He was 25 when he assumed control in 1986, when "LRH" died as a paranoid recluse on a ranch in Creston, Calif., under investigation by the IRS. Miscavige went on to be instrumental in ending "the war" with the IRS and securing the tax-exempt status that deemed Scientology a church, a financial boon.

Sometimes called "the pope of Scientology," Miscavige in the book lives up to previous reports depicting him as a small but intimidating leader, an occasionally unhinged little tyrant alleged to have frequently whomped his top execs. He is said to live much higher on the hog than anyone else, including the elite "Sea Org" members posted to Scientology's international headquarters, or "Int," a former resort near Hemet. Even his beagles, Jelly and Safi, who wore "tiny blue sweaters with commander's bars," fare better than people who have signed billion-year contracts with the church: "Miscavige was known to make his staffers salute the dogs, who held ranks higher than those of many people on the base."

Much of Reitman's material is culled from, and duly credited to, earlier works including Hubbard's own writings, books by his critics and newspaper stories stretching from the Los Angeles Times' groundbreaking series in 1990 to the St. Petersburg Times' multi-part exposé in 2009.

But Reitman obviously has done her own extensive legwork too, digging deep into the details of the death of Lisa McPherson, a "clear" Scientologist who suffered a mental breakdown and died after 17 days in isolation in the church's care in Clearwater, Fla., its spiritual headquarters. Nearly 16 years later, her death is still a rallying point for Scientology's critics.

Reitman also offers up the insights of members from the church's past and present, giving the material a fresh feel and sense of fairness. She balances high-ranking defectors' eyewitness accounts of oppression, abuse and escape with the observations of practicing Scientologists who come across as believers but not robots — and ask some pretty good questions of their own.

"All the people who've come out and told the press these things were in a position to do something about it — to change things," said Natalie Walet, a young Scientologist who doesn't excuse the abuses. "Instead, they stood there and watched. Why?"

It would be easy to deride or dismiss many of Scientology's more eccentric elements, such as the long-held secret story of Xenu, the evil tyrant leader of the "Galactic Confederation." Only after reaching an advanced level are Scientologists taught that he killed his enemies with hydrogen bombs 75 million years ago and then captured their souls, or thetans, and electronically implanted them with false concepts. These altered thetans later glommed on to human bodies, the story goes, causing spiritual harm and havoc for mankind.

Even Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist, "freaked out" and was like, 'What the …?''' when he learned of it, according to one former member. But in a nice touch of fair play, another ex-member reminds readers that more mainstream religions also have stories that require a long leap of faith. Water into wine? Raising the dead? How plausible are those?

Hubbard made many claims during his life, but parting the Red Sea was not among them.

kim.christensen@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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