I would not have taken a second glance at this book had it not been a book club selection. But to my surprise, I enjoyed this well-researched non-fiction account of the spiritual (?!) organization founded by L. Ron Hubbard. (Or as he is referred to by the believers, LRH.)
Scientology began as a self help movement based on LRH’s book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which LRH wrote after a successful career as a science fiction writer. Dianetics was positioned as an alternative to psychoanalysis, and upon its publication in 1950 the book attracted a large following particularly among the young and southern California hipsters.
Dianetics made LRH wealthy, but through overly aggressive expansion and a messy divorce, he lost it all and the rights to Dianetics too.
Only momentarily sidetracked, the ever inventive LRH launches Scientology, which was really warmed over Dianetics.
But Scientology soon surpassed its parent. By 1967 Scientology had outposts in the USA and Saint Hill, England, where the world headquarters was located. About that time LRH took to the sea with a group of young devotees and a flotilla of boats. For a decade LRH ruled his empire from the water. Sea Organization, as the floating business was called, eventually docked for good in Clearwater FL where thanks to their terrific cash flow and strong arm tactics, they become an overwhelming presence in the community.
Over time, LRH becomes increasingly paranoid and reclusive. Eventually accompanied by two faithful retainers, LRH disappears altogether to an undisclosed location. His departure leaves a leadership void for an ambitious colleague named David Miscavige.
Scientology post-LRH is Miscavige’s story. Upon LRH’s death in 1986, he formally assumes control of the church. A child of Scientology, Miscavige, who dropped out of high school in 1960 join the movement, has supervised the celebrity marketing strategy and the triumph of IRS tax exemption ruling. But for all his business successes, he is as suspicious as LRH and just as ruthless.
One can mock the doctrine of Scientology, but as Reitman points out, thanks to abundant cash, aggressive litigation, dubious labor practices, and savvy marketing, they are a thriving business.
Scientology is having a moment now, and two other books on the subject have appeared this year, Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, and Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill, David Miscavige’s niece.