book reviews

Reposted: A review of Leah Remini’s Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology

This review appeared on my original blog on November 15, 2015. I am reposting it as is.

When I heard that actress Leah Remini had decided to leave Scientology, I was definitely intrigued.  Over the years, I’ve read a number of books about fringe religions, which I certainly consider Scientology to be.  Leah Remini is also my age and I have seen her in a number of television shows, though not her big hit, The King of Queens.  According to Remini’s book, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, her sitcom, which aired for about nine years, was one of the most successful in television history.  She achieved this success while still a devout Scientologist.

I decided to read Leah Remini’s book because I wanted to read her story and learn more about Scientology from the standpoint of a celebrity.  Remini was not a celebrity when she became a Scientologist.  She and her sister, Nicole, joined the church with their mother when they were young girls.  Remini’s father was, from what she writes, an abusive and angry person, while her mother was more free spirited.  When her parents split up, Remini’s mother sought a belief system that could help her make sense of the world.

Leah and Nicole joined the Sea Org when they were adolescents.  The Sea Org is an elite group of Scientologists who are basically supported by the church in exchange for their work.  They dropped out of school when Leah was in the eighth grade.  Both signed “billion year contracts”, which meant they were expected to serve the church for a billion years.  The girls didn’t last long in the Sea Org, though.  Leah got in trouble for messing around with boys.  Their mother saved the girls from being “RPF’d”, which would have meant they would have been basically Sea Org slaves for a time.  But because they didn’t submit to the punishment, it meant they were out of the Sea Org.  After that, it seemed that Leah devoted herself to becoming an actress.  Lo and behold, she was eventually successful, but not before she and her family lived in poverty for awhile.  There is a picture of Remini in a used Toyota Tercel that she bought.  It was later repossessed. 

As she became more and more successful, the church began to place more demands on Leah Remini’s time and money.  She began to notice a lot of shenanigans and outright toxic behavior among church members, especially Tom Cruise, who has pretty much become the de facto kingpin of Scientologists.  Though Leah enjoyed more prestige in the church, there were also more demands that she set a good example for other Scientologists.  Meanwhile, she was asked to donate as much as $1 million at a time.

Never one to hold her tongue, Leah began speaking out against Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, and David Miscavige, whose wife, Shelly, seemingly disappeared a few years ago.  This outspoken behavior got her into more trouble with church leaders, who sought to stifle Leah’s outbursts until she finally decided to leave the church and tell her story.

Troublemaker was ghost written by Rebecca Paley, who does a pretty good job of making the book sound like it came straight from Leah Remini.  In fact, I kind of think Paley did too good of a job projecting Remini’s voice.  I am not known for being a shy, demure type myself, but even I got tired of some of the profanity in this book.  I am not offended by the word “fuck”, but when it gets overused, it becomes annoying.  I thought the crass, over the top, language used in this book, while certainly true to Remini’s reputed coarse vocabulary, was a bit overdone.  I’m no stranger to obnoxiousness, but even I felt like Remini sometimes came across as obnoxious rather than funny.

I also got the sense that while Leah Remini is out of Scientology, she sort of misses some of it.  She admits that some of the techniques she learned were useful to her in her career.  It seemed to me that had the Scientologists not been so heavy handed and shifty in their treatment of her, she might have even stayed in the church.  At the same time, Remini writes of protecting her friend, Jennifer Lopez, from being recruited by the church.  It seems that Scientologists are on a never ending quest to find new celebrity members with big bank accounts.

Aside from Remini’s revelations about Scientology, she also writes about working with the likes of Sharon Osbourne and Sara Gilbert on The Talk.  She was one of the original panel members when the show started in 2010.  After the first season, she was let go.  Then we saw her on Dancing With The Stars… or, at least some people did.  I didn’t.

To be honest, I have read better celebrity memoirs.  Also, while Remini’s stories about being a celebrity Scientologist are interesting, I have read better books about the church itself.  In fact, just a few months ago, I read Going Clear, which is a vastly superior book.  Those who really want to learn about the church should read that book over Leah Remini’s Troublemaker.  From the standpoint of celebrity memoirs, I would say that Troublemaker is about average.  Leah is probably laughing all the way to the bank, though, and more power to her.

I highly recommend Leah Remini’s series about Scientology, which has run for three seasons and came out after she wrote her book.

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book reviews

Reposted: My review of Going Clear by Lawrence Wright…

This book review appeared on my original blog on June 18, 2015. I am reposting it as is.

I have spent the past few days here in The Netherlands reading all about Scientology.  Lawrence Wright, author of 2013’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, was recently made into a documentary for HBO.  I am not in a position to watch the documentary, but I could certainly read the book.  I’ve had a lot of time on my hands, too, which gave me the ability to really pay attention.  A lot of people know next to nothing about Scientology.  I have been following it for awhile, mainly because my husband, Bill, got interested in it.  Bill is a former Mormon and there are some interesting similarities between Scientology and Mormonism, as Wright points out in his book. Both “religions”, for instance, were founded by blatant liars and con men.  Both cost a lot of money to be a member.  And both can very punitive toward members who go astray.

Lawrence Wright offers a very complete and fascinating history of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.  As a kid, I used to see television ads for Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s “bible” for Scientologists.  Back in the 80s, it was regularly hawked for sale on TV.  I remember my former best friend wanting to read it as a kid…  talk about dangerous advertising.  L. Ron Hubbard was a talented science fiction writer and the religion he founded definitely offered a way for him to sell his books.  As a prolific writer, Scientology offered Hubbard a way to make a lot of money… and a lot of money he did make.  Scientology was founded in 1954 and it’s a burgeoning religion, especially among entertainers.

I remember this ad so well.

Wright explores the whole weird premise behind Scientology, how it was received by people around the world, and how celebrities came to embrace it.  He writes extensively about Tom Cruise and John Travolta, two very high profile Scientologists.  He has less to say about Scieftologist celebrities like Will Smith and Kirstie Alley, but then Travolta and Cruise offer plenty of material for a book.  There are discussions of the church’s scary legal attacks on critics, political pressure on governments to recognize Scientology as a legitimate religion, and mysterious physical attacks and murders that occurred under shady circumstances.  Suffice to say if you aren’t a celebrity, your experience as a Scientologist is not going to be like that of Tom Cruise’s.

Going Clear is fascinating reading.  As I paged through it, I found my mouth dropping open.  More than once, I told Bill that L. Ron Hubbard was completely psycho.  I said more of the same about David Miscavige, the current leader of the church, whose wife Shelly has been missing since 2007.  Based on what was reported in Going Clear, it wouldn’t surprise me if Shelly isn’t locked up somewhere kept under guard.  Indeed, I have new respect for Katie Holmes and Nicole Kidman, although Kidman was apparently blindsided by her divorce from Tom Cruise. 

I will admit that I wasn’t totally surprised by what I read in this book.  I have read a lot of books about Scientology and a lot of what is in Going Clear was in those other books.  On the other hand, a lot of what is in Going Clear surprised me.  I mean, I knew it was a nutty belief system, but Wright drives home just why it’s nutty and why it’s really dangerous.  It amazes me that in 2015, we have belief systems that get away with some of the blatant criminal activity that is evidently going on in the Church of Scientology.  I’m talking about practical slavery and unlawful detention of people.

Wright includes pictures as well as lots of juicy tales about weird shit that went on on the ships Scientology sailed around the world.  He includes lots of stories about how Hubbard hoped to take over countries and introduce his belief system around the world.  I know religious beliefs are one of those things people tend to respect a lot.  Those of you who read this blog regularly already know I have little respect for Mormonism and now I have even less respect for Scientology.  It’s a load of hooey.

Anyway, I highly recommend Going Clear.  It’s very well-researched, well-written, and fascinating.  Let me just put it this way.  I got to about 62% on my iPad when I was done with the book.  The rest is all notes.  It’s very well-documented reading and will give you plenty of follow up reading should you require it.

If you’ve ever been curious about Scientology, you should read this book.

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book reviews

A review of Escaping Scientology: An Insider’s True Story: My Journey With the Cult of Celebrity Spirituality, Greed and Power by Karen Schless Pressley

For the past ten years or so, I’ve been learning more about Scientology. It’s been called a “church”, but I think it’s really much more of a cult. Watching Leah Remini’s show, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, which aired on A&E for three seasons, has shown me just how truly messed up Scientology is. But, the truth is, I’ve known for years that it’s a cult, and I’ve read a lot of books written by ex Scientologists, like Nancy Many, Leah Remini, and Ron Miscavige.

I remember watching actor Jason Beghe’s videos on YouTube back in 2009, mouth agape at hearing about what Scientologists go through, particularly when they are members of the Sea Org. The Sea Org is supposedly made up of “elite” Scientologists. It’s supposed to be an honor to be a part of that organization. But the truth is, people in the Sea Org are in a paramilitary organization based on the Navy and they basically live like slaves. That reality has been confirmed in the books I have read about Scientology, many of which were written by former “church” members who had been in the Sea Org. Leah Remini is among them, as is Karen Schless Pressley, author of Escaping Scientology: An Insider’s True Story: My Journey With the Cult of Celebrity Spirituality, Greed and Power (2017).

Karen Schless Pressley is the ex wife of music composer Peter Schless, who is still a member of the Sea Org and a devout follower of Scientology. Before he was a Scientologist, Peter Schless was a promising musician who had played in Melissa Manchester’s band. He’s also the man behind the melody for the 1982 love song, “On the Wings of Love”, sung by Jeffrey Osbourne, who wrote the lyrics. This song kept running through my head as I read this book. It’s quite an ear worm.

Peter Schless composed the melody for this song… and Osbourne, who was the lead singer for the group, LTD, wrote the lyrics. Jeffrey Osbourne is not a Scientologist.

Peter Schless had some other successes in the early 1980s. Had he not encountered Scientology, he might have been a big star. He might have been a heavy hitter in the music business. As it is, he and Karen made a lot of money off of this song, which was a big hit and still shows up in commercials sometimes. If he hadn’t left mainstream pop music, maybe Schless would have been a true hit maker, with repeated successes and wide name recognition. Unfortunately, Peter and Karen were swept into Scientology, and Peter Schless has been composing music for the church ever since. Karen writes that Peter Schless is now afraid of trying to compete against musicians of today, outside of the church.

Prior to joining Scientology and becoming a member of the Sea Org, Karen Schless was a promising fashion designer. She and Peter met and married before they were in the “church”. It was a fellow musician who pulled them into the cult, with promises of becoming “clear” and learning techniques that would make them better at producing their crafts. They didn’t know that once they signed the “billion year contract”, their lives as free artists would be finished. They would be owned by Scientology, living in squalor, paid a pittance, and tracked constantly. They would have no privacy and no right to move freely. They would be yelled at, punished, and any attempt to leave the church would result in being hunted down by Scientology security and forced to do manual labor in dangerous conditions. That’s what Karen Schless Pressley describes in her book about her ordeal.

I just finished reading Karen’s book this morning. In it, I discovered how difficult leaving a cult can be, particularly when someone you love dearly is also trapped and doesn’t see the truth. Karen tried to escape twice before she finally succeeded. Twice, she was lured back into the cult by her ex husband, a talented man she dearly loved, from whom she hated to separate. After both of her failed escape attempts, Karen was severely punished by Scientology powers that be. As I read about her desperate struggles to get out of Scientology, I felt frustration on her behalf. Even on the third, successful attempt to disconnect, she still submitted to the demands of the cult, going back to Los Angeles to speak to church officials when she should have just told them to pound sand.

Actress Elisabeth Moss, who is famous for her role as Offred in Hulu’s dystopian series The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel by the same title, was raised in Scientology and is still a practicing member. The church is chock full of celebrities– people like John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, Anne Archer, and Will Smith. Celebrities are catered to in the Church of Scientology. “Public” members– people who aren’t in the Sea Org, but pay exorbitant fees to take Scientology courses, don’t live the same lifestyle as people in the Sea Org do.

It’s hard to imagine Elisabeth Moss portraying Offred in a dystopian society like Gilead, yet still enthusiastically supporting Scientology, which for members of the Sea Org, is not that much unlike Gilead. Unlike the women in Gilead, however, women in the Sea Org are strongly encouraged to have abortions when they get pregnant… and the oppressive, squalid lifestyle demanded by the Sea Org pretty much guarantees that female Sea Org members will choose abortion over trying to start a family. Karen Schless Pressley writes of how even married Sea Org members are often separated for lengthy intervals without any regard for their preferences. Married couples who are lucky enough to live together share small bedrooms in apartments shared with at least one other couple. That keeps everyone “accountable”, and living by the rules. It’s hard to talk about escaping the cult as a couple when you never have any time alone.

For the most part, I found Escaping Scientology a riveting read. Although I didn’t necessarily learn anything earth shatteringly new about Scientology by reading Karen Schless Pressley’s book, what I had read in other books was confirmed yet again in her account. I felt compassion for Karen’s family members and friends outside of the cult, and was gratified to read about those who helped her escape the clutches of greedy, power hungry church leaders like David Miscavige. It was also good to read about how Karen was able to reclaim her life. She had a lot of help from kind people, and even admits that her many years of being a Scientologist had caused her to forget things like social graces, which are important in the South. Karen’s mother, who was instrumental in helping Karen escape, lived in Atlanta, and Karen had to learn to relate to Bible believing southerners again after having been steeped in a culture where people are constantly criticized, confronted, and belittled. I could easily see how overcoming those obstacles was challenging for Karen, and I was glad to see she recognized and tackled them.

There were a few things about this book that I didn’t like. For one thing, Karen has a Web site where she directs readers to go for more reading on certain subjects. I would have preferred her to address those subjects in the book rather than her Web site, especially since she doesn’t link the site. I was reading on a Kindle app, where that would have been easy to do. For another, I found some of Karen’s phrases and sentence constructions a bit awkward. She writes things like “I could care less” (I couldn’t care less) and uses words like “menial” when she means “meager”. She writes the book in the first person, yet in the photos sections, the captions are written in the third person, which seemed odd to me. Sometimes, Karen’s writing is stiff and formal, even when she’s relating a personal story. Other times, it’s more personal and easier to read. Really, these are minor editing glitches that were annoying, but didn’t detract that much from her story.

Overall, I think this is a worthy book for those who are interested in learning more about why Scientology is a cult. It’s truly scary to think of how many people are caught up in so-called “religious” organizations that employ mind control, intimidation, and cruel techniques such as shunning and physical punishment to keep members engaged. If I were rating this on a scale of 1-5 stars, I think I’d award 3.5 stars. The story rates at least 4, maybe 4.5 stars, but the editing glitches and occasionally amateur writing is worth about 3 stars.

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