GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Our book today traces the rapid rise of Scientology. And it starts in the late 1940s when L. Ron Hubbard, a pulp fiction and fantasy writer, decided to try something new.
JANET REITMAN: Early in the winter of 1949, L. Ron Hubbard wrote to his literary agent, Forrest Ackerman, to tell him that he was preparing a manuscript of brilliance. The book would be so powerful, Hubbard joked, that a reader would be able to rape women without their knowing it, communicate suicide messages to their enemies as they sleep, evolve the best way of protecting or destroying communism, and other handy household hints. He wasn't sure what to title his book - perhaps something along the lines of "Science of the Mind." This has more selling and publicity angles than any book of which I have ever heard, he said.
RAZ: The book would be called "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," and it would form the basis for a new religion: Scientology. Journalist Janet Reitman, whose voice you just heard, writes about this episode and others in her new book, "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion." Reitman spent more than five years researching L. Ron Hubbard, the church, and its current and somewhat controversial leader, David Miscavige.
REITMAN: When he was 16 years old, he decided to join their management, which is called the Sea Organization, and it is populated with children of Scientologists. And it's a kind of a paramilitary-style organization. And he, over the years, rose to a position of power. He was a very shrewd guy, kind of a tactician type. So when Hubbard died, Miscavige was in the position with a couple of other people, to kind of take over the church. And then he maneuvered so that he rose to be the ultimate power.
RAZ: And people have described him as a tyrannical leader to you.
REITMAN: Yes. They have described him as tyrannical, as sadistic. There are a long list of adjectives.
RAZ: He, of course, still is the head of the church, but he has been successful - for example, getting tax-exempt status for the church, fighting off an IRS inquiry in the late '90s. So he has actually been a successful leader, you could argue, for the Church of Scientology, right?
REITMAN: He's been successful in certain ways. I mean, he's definitely - he's obviously gained legitimacy for the Church of Scientology as a church. He has, you know, given it a certain mainstream appeal. On the other hand, he has made Scientology itself very rigid. And within the management of Scientology, he has imposed an incredibly punitive system, where people basically live in fear of him, especially those who work and live on what they call the international base, which is in the California desert. And it's where - that's kind of the headquarters, in a way, of the church. That's where Miscavige is; that's where all the top executives are.
RAZ: You actually had an opportunity to go out there a few years back with a man named Mike Rinder, who at the time was the chief spokesman for the church - and a major source for your book. He is no longer an official member of the church. Does he consider himself to be a Scientologist?
REITMAN: Oh, absolutely. Mike Rinder and another guy named Marty Rathbun, who was the number two in the church for many years, and Rinder was about number three - they have left the Church of Scientology.
RAZ: In part because of David Miscavige.
REITMAN: In full because of David Miscavige -without giving up a shred of their belief in Scientology or in L. Ron Hubbard. And they've started, essentially, a reform movement. Like, they call themselves the independents. They are trying to reform Scientology from the outside and have attracted a following of people who were very disenchanted with the organization but still, you know, want to do Scientology, still believe in it.
RAZ: But the church under David Miscavige, who has been called the pope of Scientology - they regard them as heretics; there - basically have been excommunicated, right?
REITMAN: Yeah, they have been excommunicated.
RAZ: I'm speaking with journalist Janet Reitman. Her new book is called "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion."
Janet, a lot of people who know a little bit about Scientology - or even nothing at all - know, of course, about Tom Cruise and John Travolta and Kirstie Alley - the celebrities, right? And we know that there's always been a push to bring celebrities in. L. Ron Hubbard was interested in opinion makers and opinion shapers.
There have always been rumors that - you know, you've heard and I've heard that with some celebrities, Scientology sort of holds a kind of pull and sway over them because they have their secrets; they know things about them that those celebrities don't want to be made public.
REITMAN: Yes. Well, there is a form of auditing.
RAZ: Auditing is like...
REITMAN: It's counseling. That form of auditing, it's called a security check. And it exists to make sure that members are on the right track, and are not thinking negative thoughts or not being influenced by negative outside influences. And so between the confessionals themselves and these security checks, the members reveal a tremendous amount of personal information. And they have to write this stuff up, and they also will be said verbally. And so that stuff is all basically filed away. The innermost secrets, the personal secrets are part of the record of the Church of Scientology. And you know, would they release that information if somebody like Cruise or Travolta decided to leave and denounce the church? That, I think, is a credible fear.
RAZ: You consider L. Ron Hubbard to be one of the most effective hucksters of his generation. And I'm wondering, after spending so much time with Scientologists and ex-Scientologists who clearly, the religion or the belief system has benefited many people, does it do any harm to the rest of us?
REITMAN: I think that's a really complicated question. Scientology...
RAZ: I mean, it gets, as you know, it gets criticized a lot.
RAZ: And it's easy to kind of bash Scientology as a - sort of a weird thing. But I mean, if it doesn't hurt anybody, what's the problem?
REITMAN: I don't see it as threatening in any way, really, to the public. But what I do think is kind of worrisome is that they take a very harsh stance against psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. Scientology is like, militantly against that.
RAZ: They believe that psychiatrists were behind the Holocaust.
REITMAN: Yes, they do. They basically believe that psychiatrists are the root of all evil. And they've lobbied very aggressively against psychiatry, against prescription of psychiatric drugs. And they also claim to be experts at drug rehabilitation, and they have a number of drug-rehab clinics, called Narconon. However, they have no 28-day time limit, and I'm not sure that alternative is workable. I think that alternative can be very harmful, depending on how far you go with it, and that's what I think is threatening.
RAZ: That's Janet Reitman. Her new book is called "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion." It's in bookstores now. Janet Reitman, thank you so much.
REITMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
RAZ: We contacted the Church of Scientology for comment, and the public affairs office sent an 11-page response. Part of that correspondence said, quote, Ms. Reitman's book is filled with inaccuracies. It is neither scholarly nor well-researched, and bears no resemblance to an inside story.
You can read the church's full statement at our website, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.