folding chair at Skylight Books in Los Feliz is taken, and standing-room
folks jam into any available spot offering a sight line to the front.
The questions pop out.
"What is the political agenda of the church?" asks an audience member.
"What's their attitude toward homosexuality?" asks another.
A third adds: "How much does the average church member spend on texts?"
in 2011, Angelenos are fascinated by and fearful of Scientology, the
organization started decades ago by philosopher-impresario L. Ron
The speaker this night is Janet Reitman, a tall, whippet-thin writer, who is discussing her book Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion.
She is an accomplished journalist who has traveled the world in pursuit
of stories and whose long piece on Scientology in the February 2006 Rolling Stone provided the seed for the book. She makes a strong point of the objectivity of her work.
It's the audience -- a group of highly educated, urbane, generally left-of-center folks -- that's a bit more conspiracy-minded.
"Who is getting the money?" asks a member of the crowd.
explains that money contributed by church members goes back into the
church and also that Scientology leader David Miscavige has lots of nice
"toys" -- expensive goodies of the sort enjoyed by the wealthy and
"How did Scientology get its tax-exempt status?" asks another.
organization had to lobby and work very hard on the U.S. government and
the IRS, says Reitman, not mentioning that tax-exempt status is not odd
or unusual for a religious organization, which the Church of
Scientology definitely claims to be.
"Do you know of any
connection of L. Ron to Jack Parsons, who was connected to JPL, and to
occultism like Aleister Crowley and so forth?" asks a man sitting near
the back. Reitman says the belief system is based on so-called "esoteric
knowledge," revealed in stages over time, as one ascends to higher
levels within the organization.
"Is there any sexual blackmail
involved in Scientology battling the U.S. government, or photos taken?"
asks a woman sternly. Reitman says there is no hard proof of such but
discloses repeated talk of the church having used an attractive woman to
draw a wealthy or connected man into Scientology. Then, supposedly, the
church has photos taken of the prospective member alongside said
attractive woman for potential later use as threat or blackmail.
crowd learns that the entire library of required texts for Scientology
members costs $8,000, and that one guy spent $50,000 on a collection of
books, old E-Meters and such.
Scientology undeniably provides
fascinating fodder for investigation and conversation, with its exotic
jargon, highly colorful "Sea Admiral" founder, notable celebrity members
and strong Hollywood presence -- the deep-blue East Hollywood
headquarters are practically visible from here.
One might think,
however, that an organization with maybe a couple hundred thousand
members total, all of whom join of their own free will, would be low on
the national peril meter compared with ideological groups numbering in
the tens or hundreds of millions, which intend to drastically cut
government programs, outlaw personal liberties or kill random people in
acts of terrorism.
But the Skylight event is impressively
attended. And Reitman's appearance two days later at the Steve Allen
Theater is off the charts. Rarely has the venue seen a show this
crowded. People spill into the lobby area.
The event is sponsored
by the Center for Inquiry-West. Reitman is joined onstage by Mark Ebner,
a pugnacious journalist acting as interviewer and moderator. If
Reitman's critiques of Scientology seem restrained, Ebner's contempt for
the organization is overt and pointed. He tells the crowd that the
"confidential" information gathered in audits -- private therapy/analysis
sessions held by the church -- can be released to harm and threaten
dissenters. He says that he tried some auditing and felt that it equaled
Nonetheless, he says, he believes Scientology's numbers
are dwindling, attrition is high and that it's open season online on
the organization. He says he's not afraid to report on the organization,
as it isn't a "snake in the mailbox" religion. Rather, he says, it is a
Outside the theater afterward, people mill around near the table where Reitman signs books.
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don't want the whole rant and rave anymore," says Laura Jones, 36.
"There's so much of that crap on the Internet to sift through. Her being
objective about it -- that's what people want now."
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