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We Know Everything About Celebrity Scientologists, But Nothing About Scientology

Most new religions, like most new businesses, die a quick crib death. Scientology, however, is not about to disappear. Scholars put the number of adherents in this country at about 25,000—a far cry from the millions of members its leaders claim, but hardly insignificant for a group that was founded about 50 years ago. Despite all its bad press, the allegations that it terrorizes its critics, its cult-like secrecy and hounding of apostates, and its very weird science-fiction cosmogony, it has become a part of the fabric of communities across the country. Not all of its adherents are deranged, confused or lonely. So why do they spend time with, and money on, Scientology?

Three recent books about Scientology—Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology, Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology, and now New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief—have attempted to study the faith. I reviewed the first two books, with admiration, for The Nation. Reitman’s remains the most thorough overview of Scientology; Urban shows how both the Cold War and Scientology’s fights with the IRS have affected the religion’s practice. Wright builds on Reitman’s achievement, getting yet more ex-Scientologists on the record, and tracking down even more documents, proving for good what a total fabulist and fraud founder L. Ron Hubbard was. Above all, with the cooperation of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis, the screenwriter and director, Wright has written what is so far the best book about Scientology’s prominence in Hollywood.

it’s a curiously empty achievement, for what is actually a pretty obvious reason. Yes, the organization has attracted a small but high-proof trickle of celebrities, like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But just ask yourself: What do celebrities have to tell us about any aspect of American life, except perhaps our worship of celebrity? Celebrity dads are not like me. Celebrities do not dress like you. They are, by definition, atypical. So knowing a lot more about Tom Cruise’s relationship to Scientology ends up telling us startlingly little about Scientology.

There’s an obvious reply, which is that no religion besides Scientology has placed “Celebrity Centres” all over the world. Recruiting celebrities was one of Hubbard’s prime goals. But as Wright knows—for he is the author of some of the great journalism about religion and duplicity, like the classic Remembering Satan and the collection Saints & Sinners—it never makes much sense to take religious people at their word. Just because Scientologists want us to think of theirs as the religion of celebrities, that doesn’t mean it is. Whatever their numbers, 25,000 or many millions, celebrities are just a tiny portion. There may be some justification for Wright’s thesis that there are “three tiers of Scientologists” —the anonymous members of the public, the clergy, and “a small number of Hollywood actors and other celebrities”—but by focusing on the tiniest of the three groups, Wright is, in a perverse way, doing the Scientologists’ propaganda.

Not that the Scientologists will see it that way. Where Reitman’s book, building on reports from the St. Petersburg Times and elsewhere, documented the horrific abuses that take place in at the Scientology headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., Wright shows that similar atrocities take place in Southern California. Scientologists who want to leave are held against their will, possibly enslaved, he implies. If they leave, they may lose contact with their families forever. One young Scientologist was recruited to be a girlfriend—a sex toy, it seems—for Tom Cruise, who it seems dumped her when he got bored. Wright’s book is a strong indictment, and I found it exciting, and prurient, to read.

But Wright’s passion for the Hollywood story accounts, I think, for two major flaws in the book. First, it is obvious that he loves his L.A. material best—especially his Paul Haggis scoop, which originally appeared in The New Yorker: revelations about the church’s inner workings from a high-profile, celebrity apostate. But much of the book is curiously slack, and filled with errors of emphasis and judgment. Wright writes phrases that may sound right but, on closer inspection, are all Swiss-cheesey. For example, was Southern California after World War II really “swarming with Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Zoroastrians, and Vedantists”? How do we know it was swarming thus? The footnotes are spotty. Wright seems to be relying here on Hugh Urban’s work, but his précis of it does not inspire confidence. Why include Zoroastrians, who are not members of some faddish cult but in fact of a Persian religion older than Christianity? Wright says that Cruise “was a natural actor, but also persistent and choosy”—why “but”? I’d think that the best actors are, of course, persistent and choosy. Cruise’s hair is not “spiky,” as several hundred million people can tell you. I want to believe in the existence of “a charismatic Belgian obstetrician named Luc Journet,” but is Wright sure he was charismatic? Or is that just a bit of automatic, feel-good writing? Throughout, Wright tries to keep his paragraphs lively by substituting unearned conclusions and gap-ridden inferences for real writerly vigor. The original New Yorker article about Haggis was taut, lean, and muscular—like the coiffed Cruise, a perfect specimen.

But my real concern with this In-N-Out burger of a book, hastily cooked but scrumptious, is that its focus occludes the story we really need: what life is like for “the public” Scientologist, the average, everyday Scientologist. Wright can only write the book he is called to write, of course. But now that Reitman has turned her Rolling Stone articles into a book, and Wright his New Yorker article, now that Urban and others have taken a scholarly view, we still lack a journalistic or ethnographic account of what life is like for, say, a middle-class Scientologist in New Haven, Conn.

I don’t pick that example idly. At the end of my block lies the Scientology center of New Haven. During the Halloween children’s parade through the neighborhood, as my daughters and others did a quarter-mile loop through the business district in their costumes, the Scientologists were handing out candy, just like the other tenants in the small village of shops. My children consumed Scientologists’ Tootsie Rolls (if I recall correctly). But the local church seems to have fallen on hard times. In 2003, it purchased the old Hallock’s appliance-store building, which before that had been a Masonic temple. But perhaps because the Scientologists never raised enough money for a renovation, the Scientologists stayed in their office storefront on Whalley Avenue. Then, a few months ago, they vacated their street-level space for what is likely a cheaper upstairs office.

I know several local Scientologists, and I have spoken with their local leader. None of them, as far as I know, is enslaved. They hold real-people jobs. One of them babysat my daughters, once. Yet they obviously are willing to send their dollars up the hierarchy to people who, if all this scrupulous reporting can be believed, are pretty well evil, and do evil things to those who have the misfortune to displease the bosses.

Why did they join the church, and what keeps them in the church, never meeting Tom Cruise or Kirstie Alley or Jenna Elfman, just working normal jobs and paying steep fees for classes and “auditing” sessions? Does their choice make them analogous to the Catholic who disagrees with the pope but still supports her local parish? Perhaps, in a sense. There is an analogy there, but there are, by necessity, disanalogies. All religions are different. The interior quality of being a faithful Muslim in a village in Indonesia is different from the interior quality of being an Israeli Jew in Tzfat, or a Zoroastrian in the American diaspora. All three may have faith, but the faith probably feels different, works on them differently. And they are embedded in different communities of faith.

What is it like to be embedded in the minority culture of small-town Scientology? Almost nobody has studied that. Instead, we just keep reading about Tom Cruise.

And not just because we all are drawn to Tom Cruise. It would be very hard to write a book about a Scientology community from the inside. No academic is likely to get the story. To get his research proposal past an institutional review board, a social scientist or other scholar would have to promise to identify himself to his subjects, to the Scientologists—who would of course then refuse to cooperate. And many newspapers, like my own, The New York Times, forbid reporters to gather news under false pretenses (restaurant critics are exempt). I would not be allowed to join the Scientology center down the street under the pretense that I was just a curious soul, then write a series of articles about it.

So who could? Perhaps a reporter from a scrappy alt-weekly newspaper, or from a college paper, or from a web ’zine. I hope that someone reads these words and heeds the call. Because until someone does, we are going to get more stories about Scientology in Hollywood and in Florida. And while I love a juicy story about the pope in Rome, I also realize that the church, the real church, is not just there, but everywhere.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times. He is the author of the memoir Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate, and he tweets here.