In 2013, the actor Leah Remini left the Church of Scientology after more than 30 years. Her new memoir, Troublemaker, might make her the most famous former Scientologist to publicly criticize the religion. (The Church calls the book "revisionist history.")
The story starts when Remini was nine, growing up in Brooklyn. Her dad had just left, and her mom got a new boyfriend. He was a Scientologist. Her mom joined the church, too.
When Remini and her sister got into fights, her mother suggested they go to Scientology classes and learn how to communicate. Remini says she liked being treated like an adult at the Scientology center. "As a kid, I think, it offered structure, I think we loved that there was structure to these courses. And then the second part of that was, we were told that you're a spiritual being, and you're very powerful, and you're not a child."
Then in the early 1980s, Remini, her sister, and her mother moved to Florida, where Remini worked to join an order within Scientology known as the Sea Organization, or Sea Org.
"We were living in a run-down motel off of a freeway in Clearwater, Fla.," Remini tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "We lived in dorms with other children. It was roach-infested; oftentimes we didn't eat if we didn't wake up when meals were being served. But again, you're a child that all of a sudden has this independence, so in one way, it was scary ... but it was also, we felt independent, and we were in charge of ourselves. We didn't have an education other than Scientology education, so we were kids living on our own."
At first it was a struggle. But she eventually landed a lead role on a big sitcom, The King of Queens, which ran for nine years. As a celebrity, Remini was able to ascend to the upper levels of the church; in a 2002 interview she said it had helped with her confidence and career. She took hours of classes every day, and continued to do auditing, or counseling sessions, which both cost money. "During my thirty-plus years in Scientology," Remini writes in the book, "I spent close to $2 million for services and training, and donated roughly $3 million to church causes."
But Remini started doubting whether those donations were going toward a good cause, as the Church of Scientology told her. She wanted to see what critics of the church were saying. But, she tells McEvers, she knew she could be questioned for that.
On her fear of punishment and why she stayed in Scientology
You don't really look on the internet, you don't watch Nightlines or Datelines and 20/20s critical of the church. And if you do, you have to go in and you have to deal with why you were looking at those things ... Now from there, you would be taken off of what you were doing in the Church, and then you would be put into a security checking ... it's sort of like a lie-detector test, and you're hooked up to that and you're asked a series of questions: Do you have evil intentions towards your church? Are you talking to certain enemies to our church? And you're just interrogated.
This is an extremist organization — there's no half-in, half-out. You have to 100% be on board, or you're considered an enemy to your group. I wasn't ready to walk out the door and say goodbye to my mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, all my friends — most of my friends were Scientologists. Everybody.
On attending the wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and asking about the whereabouts of Shelley Miscavige, the wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige
People were scattering any time I asked about Shelly Miscavige, who I considered a friend. And when I say, "Where's Shelly?" at a very public event, I was basically told I didn't have the rank to ask such a question. And that is not something that sits right with me. And then it just kind of went downhill from there.
On her final decision to leave the church
It was six years until I actually left, six to seven years. I was trying to work within the system. I knew that my questioning would lead to my family being investigated, which was what started to happen. I'm a person who has to be right — this is one place that I was hoping to be wrong. I spent my whole life in it. My mother spent her whole life in it. I got my husband into it. So I did not want to be right, here.
At the end, they had us all in different rooms, interrogating us all, and asking us not to talk to each other about what we were doing in those rooms. And we got together, and we said, we need to stick together as a family, and we need to stop. And we all decided as a family, that was enough.
On how hard it was to leave Scientology
You know, I'm looking at my phone, to invite my friends to my daughter's birthday party, and I'm like, oh, can't. Oh, can't. Oh, oh, she can't talk to me. She can't talk to me. And, you know, I saw my goddaughter at my local coffee shop and I couldn't go and embrace her because her mother can't really talk to me. So it was part of our everyday life, it gave a sense of purpose. And that is taken away. That part was hard.
But then I started going to therapy, which is, you know, taboo to that church. And I started reading books, and going, oh my god, there's other things in the world, things that actually do help people. There's good people in the world, it's not that us-against-them mentality. There's good in the world. And that's what's been amazing. So yes, there was a short-term heartbreak, and finding your new everyday normal, but filling it with family and friends who are not judging you on your religious beliefs, or how much money you donated, or how much time you spent — it's so much more fulfilling.
A representative for Tom Cruise did not respond to our request for comment, but the Church of Scientology directed us to a response online and sent us a statement, excerpted below, in which a spokesperson disputed much of Remini's account of events.
On Remini's comments regarding conditions at Scientology facilities in Clearwater, Fla.
This is a false, mischaracterization of her time in the religious order. In the first place, she was not there for long and the conditions were not as she claims. The Church follows all laws and the facilities she stayed in received regular inspections by the Pinellas County Health Department. All licenses were maintained in good standing during the entire period that Ms. Remini was in Clearwater.
On the church's policy of "Disconnection"
Ms. Remini knows that the Church's practice of disconnection is a voluntary practice (spelled out at www.scientology.org) designed to help members remove themselves from abusive and hostile relationships. The Church's disconnection policy is similar to that of the Jewish faith of shunning. There is no policy in Scientology that requires Church members to disconnect from anyone, let alone family and friends who simply have different beliefs.
On Remini's concern about the cost of church courses
As with most religions, donations by parishioners are the primary source of financial support for Churches of Scientology. As with all religions, donations vary depending on each member's means.
On Remini's concern about the church's handling of funds for charitable work
All funds donated for the purposes of humanitarian and relief endeavors are used to support those efforts. ...They are well documented and a matter of public record.
On Remini's concern about the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige
This claim is false, thoroughly debunked by the Los Angeles Police Department. Ms. Remini has been harassing the Church about this matter for some years. Mrs. Miscavige is not now and has never been "missing."