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Originally published Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Book review

'Inside Scientology': an in-depth look at a secretive religion

In her new book "Inside Scientology," Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman takes an in-depth look at Scientology and the secretive religion's prospects for survival.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion'

by Janet Reitman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pp., $28

The difficulty that confronts Janet Reitman and "Inside Scientology" is that what once seemed so secret is not so secret anymore.

Yes, Scientology is a secretive religion, but when its most closely held doctrine gets lampooned on South Park, satire has overtaken mystery. The curious have already been allowed inside — and many of them appear to be laughing.

From Paulette Cooper in 1971 to Richard Behar in 1991 to Lawrence Wright in 2011, tenacious reporters have exposed the inner workings of Scientology — and often at considerable risk, given the church's notorious litigiousness and propensity to attack. Add to that roll call the brilliant work of the St. Petersburg Times, a newspaper whose dogged coverage of the Florida-based church has spanned the decades.

Reitman, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, spent five years researching Scientology. Her goal, she writes, was "not to judge, but simply to absorb." That's an odd note to strike — typically, writers don't aspire to the quality of a sponge — and it's followed by other peculiarly defensive notes, such as Reitman's insistence on labeling her work as "objective." (Yes. Of course. Do your best to be fair. But please don't talk about it.)

That said, Reitman is no apologist for the church. She covers everything from Scientology's curious beginnings to the recent allegations of physical abuse within its ranks.

And she achieves the most important of her book's goals. She has written a modern history of Scientology notable for its depth and sweep. Reitman's research pays off not only in rich portrayals of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and current leader David Miscavige, but in intimate portraits of people who have been swept up along the way. These include devotees who continue to swear by the church as well as followers who suffered mental collapse.

Reitman's analysis of Scientology's ability to survive scandal and mockery is compelling and persuasive. She describes Scientology as a "shape-shifting" organization, attuned to changes in the national mood, able to be whatever people in a given time most want: a religion, a UFO story, a countercultural movement or a self-help program.

She explains the success of Scientology as a business model, with its embrace of profit-generating franchises (think McDonald's) and its fending off the Internal Revenue Service (now think of McDonald's as tax-exempt).

Reitman goes deep into Scientology's doctrine, or "tech." She reads L. Ron Hubbard so you don't have to. She defines words you won't find in Webster's, from wog (a non-Scientologist) to Xenu (the tyrannical leader of a Galactic Confederation who, 95 million years ago, deposited billions of his enemies on Earth, where he destroyed them with hydrogen bombs).

And while her depiction of Hubbard as a fabulist covers familiar territory — Naval records suggest he was a war hero only in his mind — Reitman does a wonderful job of drawing from Hubbard's letters and communiqués to capture his philosophy and strategy.

In encouraging lawsuits against his church's critics, Hubbard wrote: "The law can be used very easily to harass" and cause "professional decease," adding: "If possible, of course, ruin him utterly." To his church's finance officers, Hubbard wrote: "MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHERS PRODUCE AS TO MAKE MONEY."

As "Inside Scientology" shows, there's no doubt Hubbard's church has made money. But silencing criticism has proved a greater challenge.

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com.

A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity," winner of the 2011 Edgar Award

for best fact crime book.

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