For decades, actress Leah Remini – best known as the female lead on the hit TV series King of Queens — was one of Scientology’s most diehard celebrity members, along with fellow actors Jenna Elfman, Giovanni Ribisi, Kirstie Alley, John Travolta and, of course, Tom Cruise. She appeared in promotional videos and at events designed to recruit new followers, dazzling them with stories of how Scientology was not only responsible for her success in Hollywood, but offered the only solution to curing the planet of its many ills.
Then, in 2013, after 34 years of devotion, Remini left the Church of Scientology and became the religion’s most famous defector – and its most outspoken critic courtesy of Troublemaker, her 2015 memoir about her time as a member. But the book’s publication failed to provide her with closure; as she learned about the experiences of other ex-members, including former high-ranking officials, the actor found herself unable to walk away with a clear conscience. Having participated in promoting propaganda and vehemently defending the organization against criticism, Remini felt a responsibility to help undo the damage she says the Church has caused. So she began documenting these stories for her new A&E series, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, hoping to use her star power to expose the abuses of what the show calls a “multi-billion dollar church, corporation, empire and cult.”
Like her memoir, this TV documentary series breaks down Scientology’s allure, ably explaining the manipulative and abusive tactics used to indoctrinate followers into prioritizing the Church’s supposed goals over anything else. Here are five things we learned from last night’s premiere episode.
1. Remini was severely reprimanded after questioning the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige
In 2006, while attending the lavish Italian wedding of fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise to Katie Holmes, Remini inquired about the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige, the wife of Scientology’s current leader David Miscavige (who took over following Hubbard’s death in 1986). The fact that Shelly – herself a high-ranking member of the Church’s spiritual clergy, the Sea Org – was not in attendance at “the wedding of the century” struck Remini as “weird.” But this innocent question was seen as a major infraction against the Church’s hierarchy, where the “pecking order” puts even famous parishioners like Remini below that of Sea Org members. Thus, Remini did not have the “right” to ask about the whereabouts of the Church leader’s wife.
Not one to be bullied, Remini began to ask more deliberate and probing questions, further angering the top brass. Her queries were proof, they said, that the actor had committed “crimes” against the Scientology, and she was subjected to – and billed for! – interrogations on the e-meter, the organization’s lie detector-esque device that purports to uncover spiritual transgressions. Remini broke yet another Scientology rule and sought them out on the Internet. Countless news articles and blog posts later, her belief in Scientology was shattered. Unfortunately for the Church, she has refused to go quietly into the night.
2. Members are encouraged to lie to parents, loved ones about signing “billion-year” contracts
Amy Scobee, a former member who led Scientology’s recruiting efforts and established the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, began working for the Church at just 14. When she was 16, officials went behind her parents’ back and convinced her to join the Sea Org, which required quitting high school and working for Scientology full-time. Scobee’s mother Bonnie, herself a Scientologist, was not informed of her daughter’s billion-year pledge until the last minute, and begrudgingly signed the parental consent form required for underage members.
Scobee also told Remini that she was instructed to lie to her father, who was not a member and would not approve, telling him she was leaving home to work as a model. When he found out, he was incensed, but it was too late. He did not have a relationship with Scobee until she finally left the Church in 2005. Scobee is just one of many people to join the Sea Org as children. Though the Church downplays and even outright denies recruiting children to join the Sea Org, Scobee’s story is one of many, some of which are recounted on the website Ex-Scientology Kids.
Ex-Sea Org members who have devoted years, even decades, to working for the Church leave with very little to show for it. While their bare necessities are provided for, they also make well below a living wage; paying the Church back for any Scientology services incurred during their membership is a consequence of breaking their billion-year contract. As a result, many leave the Sea Org without a bank account, let alone any money, and only the Church on their resume.
3. Crimes committed by Scientology members are handled in-house
Scobee told Remini that when she was 14 and working for Scientology, she was the victim of statutory rape at the hands of an adult male member. The man confessed to his wife, and then to officials at the Church, who not only did not report him to authorities; they did not even tell her parents what had happened to her. Scientologist are taught that the criminal justice system does not work and that crimes committed by members are to be handled by the Church, not the laws of the outside world.
Even more horrifying is the fact that, according to Scobee, the Church’s way of “handling” such crimes as child sexual abuse and rape is to blame the victim. Scientologists are taught that bad things that happen to them, be it sexual assault or a cancer diagnosis, are the result of their own past “crimes”; in other words, Scobee was made to believe that her rape was her own fault. Scientology’s solution to any problem is always “more Scientology,” so the only way to get justice, absolution, healing, or help in any form, is to pay for more courses – yet another example of the ways the Church of Scientology profits off of pain.
4. The Church of Scientology’s “pope” rules with a closed fist — literally
In 1987, following the death of Hubbard, Miscavige was officially named the head of the Church of Scientology, known by the title “Chairman of the Board.” Tom Cruise, Scientology’s most famous member, considers Miscavige his BFF; he was the star’s best man at his wedding to Holmes. He’s essentially Scientology’s version of the Pope, rarely seen but always revered. But to Sea Org members like Scobee and Rinder, who spent decades working alongside Miscavige, he’s a brutal tyrant who, they allege, uses physical abuse to dominate and humiliate his staff.
“He’ a very angry man,” Scobee says. “If you said something that didn’t please him he would go off on you. If you were a man, he’d likely hit you, knock you down, choke you … I witnessed that on at least a dozen occasions.”
For years, she explained, she rationalized these violent outbursts, telling herself it was “because we’re clearing the planet, because we have no time, because Miscavige has most of the pressure, because people are failing at their jobs and he’s having to do it, that’s why it’s okay that he is beating people.”
“I was rationalizing,” Scobee continued. “My mind would immediately justify why this crap was okay. Then I had a blinding realization. I realized that what I was doing was rationalizing insanities.”
Remini, for her part, understands why Scobee stayed silent about the abuses she witnessed while working with Miscavige. “Can you imagine if someone said the Pope hit somebody? C’mon! That’s insanity!” Remini says. “Whats should she do? Write a report that David Miscavige is beating people? To who?! There’s no one above him. Now what?”
5. The Church’s former International Spokesperson struck back – and is now considered a public enemy
Mike Rinder was a Scientologist for 46 years, and for 20 years, he worked by Miscavige’s side as the International Spokesperson for the Church of Scientology. Part of his job was to “discredit and destroy critics who spoke out” against the organization, including journalists and former members like Scobee. “If the Church decided someone was an enemy and needed to be silenced or destroyed, it was my job, and I did it,” he says during the series’ first episode.
One of the first steps is to label the enemy a “suppressive person,” the Church’s term for people they say seek to harm practitioners and their mission to save the planet. Scientologists are taught that the influence of an “SP” is so harmful to their own spiritual progression that all contact with them must be severed. Members are also manipulated into believing that this practice of “disconnection” – which, like every criticism ever leveled against them, the Church of Scientology vehemently denies as the lies of bitter, disgraced ex-members – is for the SP’s own benefit, as reconciling with the Church is the only way to regain salvation and their family.
So when Rinder left the Church in 2007, he knew exactly what the blowback would be for going public, including losing contact with his two children from his first marriage. Neither of his kids speak to him because he has been deemed a suppressive person.
“My biggest regret is that I caused two children to be born into and raised in Scientology,” Rinder says in Aftermath. “I effectively lost them because they’re still there. They don’t communicate with me. If I can help one person who I may have harmed in the past, or prevent someone from being harmed in the future, if one family, just one, who is torn apart because of the practices of Scientology, it’s worth making it known and hopefully preventing that.”
UPDATE: A spokesperson from the Church of Scientology contacted Rolling Stone and responded to this story with the statement below:
“Leah Remini is doing this for the money and now tries to pretend otherwise. Ms. Remini is being compensated for this show, just as she profited from her book. In addition, she attempted to extort the Church by first demanding $500,000, followed by an additional $1 million, because the Church invoked its First Amendment right to respond to her false claims with the truth. This shows the extent Leah Remini is willing to go to in order to distort the truth about Scientology.”