But discerning what is true about the Church of Scientology is no easy task. Tax-exempt since 1993 (status granted by the IRS after a long legal battle), Scientology releases no information about its membership or its finances. Nor does it welcome analysis of its writings or practices. The church has a storied reputation for squelching its critics through litigation, and according to some reports, intimidation (a trait that may explain why the creators of South Park jokingly attributed every credit on its November 2005 sendup of Scientology to the fictional John and Jane Smith; Paramount, reportedly under pressure, has agreed not to rerun the episode here or to air it in England). Nevertheless, Scientology’s critics comprise a sizable network of ex-members (or “apostates,” in church parlance), academics and independent free-speech and human-rights activists like Wachter, who have declared war on the group by posting a significant amount of previously unknown information on the Internet. This includes scans of controversial memos, photographs and legal briefs, as well as testimonials from disillusioned former members, including some high-ranking members of its Sea Organization. All paint the church in a negative, even abusive, light.
When asked what, if anything, posted by the apostates is true, Mike Rinder, the fifty-year-old director of the Church of Scientology International’s legal and public-relations wing, known as the Office of Special Affairs, says bluntly, “It’s all bullshit, pretty much.”
But he admits that Scientology has been on a campaign to raise its public profile. More than 23 million people visited the Scientology Web site last year, says Rinder, one of the highest-ranking officials in the church. In addition, the church claims that Scientology received 289,000 minutes of radio and TV coverage in 2005, many of them devoted to the actions of Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist in the world, who spent much of the spring and summer of 2005 promoting Scientology and its beliefs to interviewers ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Matt Lauer.
Shortly after Rolling Stone decided to embark on this story, Cruise called our offices to say that he would not participate. Several weeks later, the magazine was visited by Cruise’s sister, Lee Anne DeVette, an upper-level Scientologist who until recently also served as Cruise’s publicist, along with Mike Rinder. Both expressed their dissatisfaction with previous coverage of Scientology by major media outlets, and they warned against what they perceived to be the unreliability of the faith’s critics — “the wackos,” as Rinder described them. He then invited Rolling Stone to Los Angeles to show us “the real Scientology” — a trip that took five months to set up.
A number of people who have spoken for the purposes of this article have done so for the very first time. Several, in speaking of their lives spent in the church, requested that their identities be protected through the change of names and other characteristics. Others insisted that not even a gender be attached to their comments.