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

materialistic everywhere.

“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

litigation machine.

Outside the theater afterward, people mill around near the table where Reitman signs books.


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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