Book Review: Leah Remini Troublemaker
Leah Remini's autobiography interweaves the events of her life with her exposé of the problems with the "Church" of Scientology. That's because almost her entire life revolved around Scientology, as it does with many of its members. Like other cult religions, members spend an inordinate amount of time (and in the case of Scientology, money) devoted to being "good" members.
In her TV series on A&E she interviews past members about the abuses of the church: bleeding members' financial resources, forcing families to "disconnect" from members who left the church, punishment for "crimes" (including beatings). This is an important exposé because these things are common to so many extreme religions. I can imagine relatives of people involved with Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, or Independent Funadamentalist Baptists watching her show and thinking "wow, that's like my brother's church!"
In the book, she tells mainly her own story, which is a whopper. She joined the church as a child and experienced several different aspects of the church. She began her "studies" in Scientology in middle school, commuting from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn to the Times Square building where she would meet up with her mother. This was in the 1980s, when Times Square was not a nice place for little girls. Soon, her mother took her and her sister to Clearwater, Florida, where the kids were put to work cleaning a Scientology hotel. Children of members lived in motel rooms converted to dorms, and babies spent their days in a collective nursery. Kids were not properly cared for . At. All.
Takeaway #1: Scientology does not believe in the connection between family members -- all humans are supposedly "spiritual beings" who are equal to each other, including children and babies, whose needs are not special.
She & her sister joined "Sea Org" as a way out of their circumstance, and they flunked out. L. Ron Hubbard disapproved of sex before marriage, and the definition of "sex" was rather wide. They were rather innocent teens but told they were sluts. The family moved to Los Angeles after that, and Leah was determined to help her family by becoming an actress (her lifelong dream anyway). Meanwhile, she & her sister worked at whatever jobs they could find despite not being old enough to work. The Scientology network in the area helped them find jobs, but the cost of being a member was a constant strain for them. Fees were the same for everyone - no 10% tithing for them! And being equal to adults, they didn't have to go to school and their mother didn't punish them as most parents would. She used Scientology on them.
Remini describes some of the training she received, some of which seems to have some psychological validity -- for example, learning to keep your cool while being baited by your trainer. There is also a rating scale for emotionality, with "low" or negative numbers on one end and "high" positive emotions on the other. I can see how this could be a handy concept in life, too. People around us can influence our moods, and thinking about that in our interactions is potentially a good thing. It's easy to see how you can feel like you're getting something for your money, at least in the beginning.
Takeaway #2: Scientology offers members a sense of community and mutual support, while giving them a few psychological tools. The downside is that these things also give them a sense of superiority to outsiders, which cements their relationship to the church.
As Remini started having some success in Hollywood, she also continued in Scientology, but she tried to avoid discussing it during her work life. The culmination of her career was a 9-year run co-starring in the sitcom, "King of Queens." Now she had two sources of community and friendship: her church and her sitcom family. She also got entré into the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles. She continued her "training" after work and during breaks, and rubbed elbows with Tom Cruise and the other celebs. As a celeb she was pressured to donate more and participate more. And she also witnessed more. My personal opinion is that her coworkers on "King of Queens" gave her an alternate universe that helped her see the crazy of Scientology for what it was. She also seemed to have a fighting spirit that was impervious to Scientology's "tech."
As a true believer, she was disturbed by what she saw. Members were supposed to tattle on each other whenver they saw someone committing a "crime," i.e. not being a perfect Scientologist, and she took her responsibility seriously. She and her husband went to Tom Cruise's famous wedding in Italy, her friends J-Lo and Marc Anthony along for the ride. Absent from the wedding party was Miscavige's wife, Shelly, whom Remini considers a friend. The wedding guests also included married people who were cheating with each other, and caregivers for Suri who were clueless about caring for a baby. (Remini doesn't mention the cognitive dissonance of a baby being born out of wedlock to people who weren't supposed to be having sex outside of marriage)
Leah reported on the misdeeds of the higher-ups, including Cruise and post-LRH leader David Miscavige. She honestly believed the church would care about and fix the situation (with more training at the miscreants' expense). Instead, she was punished and this became the biggest wedge between her and her religion. After the famouse Cruise divorce, she tried to clear her record (and get her money back), and she got no satisfaction. She asked why the regular members had to pay for retraining when there had been a report on them, but the people at the top didn't. She also got no satisfactory answers to her questions about Shelly MIscavige's whereabouts. That didn't stop her from trying, and it led to her separation from the church.
Takeaway #3: You can take the girl out of Bensonhurst but you can't take the Bensonhurst out of the girl... which is a very, very good thing.
As she was getting the runaround, she looked -- for the first time -- for former members' stories on the internet and in person. This got her into even more trouble. One was Mike Rinder, who accompanies her on the show. She was now "disaffected" -- unhappy with the church -- and her friends were being told to help straighten her out. As things got worse, her friends started disconnecting from her, too. Eventually she decided she'd had enough, and took a step that would get her labeled as a "suppressive person:" She filed a missing person report on Shelly Miscavige with the LAPD. I had heard about this, but hadn't connected Remini with it. I have even more respect for her now that I know this.
Takeaway #4: Scientology punishes dissenters, and even has a facility near Hemet, California, that is like a prison.
After coming out as being out, Remini decided to speak up for those who can't. Fortunately for her, she had friends outside the church (though she lost dozens of friendships by leaving the church), and her family left too.
Takeaway #5: Belonging to a religion doesn't make you a better person in any way if people who don't belong to a religion can be better friends, colleagues, and family.