On Tuesday, brassy TV actress Leah Remini opened herself up on Reddit and took questions about her decades as a high-ranking Scientologist. For a secretive religion like that one, the Ask Me Anything format with a defecting celebrity adherent should be a total fucking nightmare, and Remini did not disappoint.
I grew up in a somewhat closed spiritual community—the Transcendental Meditation Movement in Iowa—that is often compared to Scientology. Just like Remini, I became a committed follower when my single mother was abandoned and destitute, and our Movement helped us find stability. And like Remini, I lived in a bubble where a charismatic leader dictated our reality and monetized our spiritual hopes. But that is where the comparisons end. Unlike Scientology, I could quit meditating whenever I wanted and the worst abuse I suffered was having my meditations graded and being too poor to learn secret mantras. Remini describes a far darker world, rife with fraud and physical abuse. (In response, the Church of Scientology has said that Remini is a publicity-hungry opportunist who was on the verge of being kicked out. They’ve also set up a dynamic website dedicated to debunking her.
In response to the barrage of questions from the people of the internet, Remini described an organization that physically and mentally abuses the devoted. She says she’s not allowed to speak to former member Katie Holmes, that all the Church “auditing” (talk therapy) is secretly recorded as insurance against defection and that when adherents reach the highest levels of the religion, they are told that there is no God and that there are still more levels to go. Her deepest scorn, though, was reserved for David Miscavige, the hard-driving and secretive head of the Church. He “definitely knows” that Scientology is a scam, she wrote. “Miscavige is directly responsible for that fraud.”
Remini’s appearance on Reddit is a part of her multi-platform barrage against the Church, which began with the release of her memoir, Troublemaker in September and continued with this week’s eight part series on A&E. Best known as for her work on the CBS sitcom King of Queens, Remini was a longtime champion of Scientology, one of the many celebrity followers who lined up to defend their faith and speak earnestly of its transformative powers. She once likened her faith to a “best friend.” She left the Church in 2013, and has been on the warpath ever since.
Does the strangeness of belief blind us to its abuses?
Despite Remini’s revelations about Scientology, it is hard to know these days what will change the minds of the faithful, given the extended negative publicity. I worked on an investigative piece about Miscavige back in 2005 for the Los Angeles Times that revealed a financially well-endowed, top-down organization that used parishioners to serve celebrity followers such as Tom Cruise. The church leader I interviewed back then, Mike Rinder, is now prominently featured on Remini’s show as a disaffected member who recounts physical abuse and imprisonment. His stories of the inside of the church hierarchy were first revealed in the Tampa Bay Times’ investigative series back in 2009. Numerous journalists have taken on Scientology, from the Richard Behar’s cover story in 1991 for Time magazine to Rolling Stone reporter Janet Reitman’s tome and Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, which led to the HBO documentary of the same name.
But it hasn’t been just journalists who have described Scientology’s leadership as corrupt—David Miscavige’s own father and niece have written tell all books in the last few years, including the allegation that the leader of the Church was conducting full-time surveillance on his father.
So what I find most distressing about Remini’s crusade against the abuses of her Church is how little it seems to matter. After all, as Remini described it, rank and file members aren’t allowed to read or watch anything critical of Scientology. Her response to a question from one user about how she maintained her commitment to the Church for so long, despite all the negative publicity, is chilling:
Very early on in the brainwashing process, L. Ron Hubbard’s “technology” teaches you that outside sources (i.e. the news, the internet, books, magazines) are ALL LIES and hellbent on destroying something decent like Scientology. The AMA, and APA [the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association] and all “governments” do not give Scientology its due because they have a vested interest in not healing people. And Scientology is in the business of making people better. So Scientologists are taught that their safest bet is to get their info from the only true decent people…and those are Scientologists. And if they look on the internet if they read Time mag, they will be met with punishment at their expense.
Perhaps what is hardest to read in Leah Remini’s responses is her desperate sense of mission to change the faith that she grew up in. If the hermetic seal of faith surrounds members of the Church, you start to wonder who, exactly, we are exposing these “truths” for.
And this is maybe the most insidious thing about these closed religious leaders and their communities: the way in which they are able to craft an alternate world within our own, in which rules of equality and decency do not apply. Does the strangeness of belief blind us to its abuses?
This idea of the invisibility of religious abuse reminded me of a recent profile of Elizabeth Smart, the young Mormon woman who was kidnapped from her bedroom at the age of 14 by a man who believed he was the Messiah. While Smart suffered unimaginable cruelties at the hands of this man and his wife—rape, beating, starvation—over the course of nine months, the most disturbing part of her story was how she existed in plain sight. Smart lived for months in her hometown, clothed in the bizarre sackcloth burka that her captor constructed for her. And while she looked out from inside this strange hellish realm, her eyes silently pleading for help, she found the world around her normalized what they were seeing.
It was freaky and weird, and it wasn’t their problem.