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These are tough times for Scientology, the deceptively presented and authoritarian-run religious corporation founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954 and led the past quarter century by the reclusive David Miscavige.

For more than a decade, the Internet has proliferated with websites created by former members and other critics that reveal disturbing church practices and once-secret teachings.

Another setback came in 2006 when actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise became a laughingstock for his anti-psychiatry rant against Matt Lauer, and leaps off Oprah Winfrey's couch.

The strange behavior led the creators of "South Park" and others to disparage the highly litigious and combative organization in a public way few dared before, cracking a hole in what many consider to be Scientology's menacing facade.

Recent years have also seen an unprecedented number of departures -- and revelations -- by Scientology officials.

Now, the latest blow has arrived on bookshelves -- "Inside Scientology: The Story of American's Most Secretive Religion."

Janet Reitman, whose research began with a 2007 article in Rolling Stone, has crafted a scrupulously written and ultimately devastating portrait of Scientology. The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, so it has the distribution clout of a major publisher.

Reitman takes the reader from Hubbard's Nebraska childhood and adventurous younger years to the origins of Scientology, including the financial benefits he thought could be reaped by creating a religion, to his last years as a recluse.

She also uses ex-members to inform readers about the inner sanctums of Scientology's off-limits international home base in Gilman Hot Springs, Calif.

Reitman explores several of the structures and policies Hubbard put into place. They include:

* Emphasis on earning money. Through expensive courses and materials, "auditing," a form of counseling done to followers and prospective converts by members without recognized accreditation, and expected contributions to spinoff organizations, it can cost individuals hundreds of thousands of dollars to climb "the Bridge to Freedom."

* Anti-psychiatry zealotry. Archaic characterizations date back to the bitter rejection Hubbard, a successful pulp fiction writer, faced after writing the self-help "Dianetics" in 1950, his "mental science" precursor to Scientology.

* Security and surveillance. This includes a quasi-prison system, detailed dossiers and strong-armed pressuring of members, and an aggressive stance against critics backed by an army of high-priced attorneys.

* Practice of "disconnection." Members are pressured to sever ties with loved ones critical of Scientology, including spouses, parents and children.

* Sea Organization. These core members are required to sign billion-year service contracts, often as children, work long hours for little pay and are often raised by the church after parents sign away guardianship rights.

Reitman begins by examining the intriguing founder who, with considerable charisma, was drawn to fantasy and adventure -- and sometimes self-promotion that involved exaggeration and lying.

Hubbard's military record during World War II is one such area. He would later claim that while hospitalized he healed himself of ulcers, blindness and a crippled condition despite no evidence appearing in his medical records.

(The naval record sent to The News by the church showed medals and commendations not issued in World War II, the U.S. Navy confirmed.)

Hubbard's abandonment of wives and children, and his paranoia in later years gave way in 1986 to Miscavige. Reitman chronicles Miscavige's ascension to power by purging perceived rivals, his penchant for cruelly humiliating underlings, including beatings, and an intolerance for criticism.

In the book's most chilling account, Reitman tells the story of Scientologist Lisa McPherson. After suffering a mental breakdown, she was checked out of a Florida hospital by several Scientologists and transferred to a Scientology-owned hotel, where she died 17 days later without adequate medical care.

Just as gripping is the story of Stefan and Tanja Castle, a young couple who worked in Scientology's international home base. Stefan's complaint to Miscavige's wife about not getting enough free time to see his wife landed him in the Rehabilitation Project Force for four years doing menial labor, Scientology's equivalent of a prison camp.

Tanja, one of a number of Miscavige's attractive female assistants, divorced Stefan after succumbing to pressure from Scientology leaders. Their reconnection despite the base's stringent security provides the book's greatest intrigue.

The story of Scientology's Operation Snow White, the largest case of domestic espionage in U.S. history, is recounted. Led by Mary Sue Hubbard, Hubbard's wife, members infiltrated, burglarized and wiretapped government agencies, including the IRS and FBI.

Two years after investigative reporter Richard Behar wrote the 1991 Time cover story on Scientology, "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power," (and in a sidebar, revealed the church had hired six private investigators to rummage through his life), the U.S. government restored the church's tax-exempt status it lost in 1967. The action, which succeeded in allowing Scientology to shield its financial activities and give it various legal protections, came after members launched some 2,200 lawsuits against the IRS and private investigators were hired to look into the private lives of agency officials.

Reitman reports that Miscavige promised IRS officials the harassment would stop if its tax-exempt status was granted.

Hubbard's dream of recruiting Hollywood stars to popularize Scientology, and the elaborate steps taken to rope in Cruise, its biggest prize, also reveal interesting details.

Reitman reports that Cruise drifted away from Scientology after he reached the third of eight "OT" levels Scientists aspire to, and learned of Hubbard's belief in traumatized, extraterrestrial souls that cling to people and can only be removed by auditing.

Cruise reportedly reacted in disbelief, furious that this was the secret he'd waited years to have revealed.

Now, instead of having to pay a fortune to learn about Xenu, "xenu" can be found in a matter of seconds -- with commentary -- on the Internet.

The spreading of online information about Scientology may be its biggest challenge. Elvis Presley, though, didn't need to read up about Scientology on the Internet to form an opinion.

Presley was dating Peggy Lipton of "Mod Squad" fame, Reitman reports, when she brought him to a Scientology center in Los Angeles.

"F--- those people! All they want is my money," Presley reportedly said. Though Lipton stayed in the group for a number of years, Presley, Reitman quoted a friend as saying, "stayed away from Scientology like it was a cobra."

Mark Sommer is a News reporter. He wrote a four-part investigative series about the Church of Scientology of Buffalo in 2006.