Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
Scientology has taken so many hits as of late that the muckraking exposé of L. Ron Hubbard’s perpetually controversial quasi-religion has become a thriving literary subgenre. The king of these exposés is Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, an epic exploration of Hubbard and the empire he created in his own megalomaniacal image that also explored Oscar-winning filmmaker and longtime Scientologist Paul Haggis’ very public break with the church. The bestseller was later turned into a widely seen documentary from Alex Gibney (who you might know as the man who makes all of the documentaries) that aired on HBO and brought the book’s message to millions more people.
Scientology tried all its old tricks to combat the film version of Going Clear. It attacked the credibility of just about everyone involved, but mostly it just succeeded in making itself look bad. Scientology may not have the power it once did, but it still takes a lot of bravery to release a book like Leah Remini’s Troublemaker, knowing that an exhausted force like Scientology will use its diminishing resources to attack her and her family.
When attacked by ex-members, the church has historically derided these disgruntled former parishioners as drug addicted, abusive, mentally ill people of low moral character who are not to be believed or listened to. So Remini audaciously begins her memoir by portraying herself as an apostate, a liar, a cheater, a woman whose current marriage began with her falling in love with the married man who is now her husband, and a selfish, combative woman. She goes further, portraying herself as, in her own words, “on occasion, a horrible daughter, mother, sister, aunt, stepmother, wife.” She doesn’t stop there. Because Scientology likes to attack the families of its apostates, she offers up that her husband, also a “serial cheater,” was previously a drug dealer; her mother was promiscuous in her early days (although Remini uses a less neutral term to describe her mother’s flings); and her father sold drugs and spent time in prison.
This tactic serves multiple purposes. Scientology likes to expose critics’ darkest secrets as evidence that they are not to be trusted, but Remini is shamelessly exposing not only her own darkest secrets, but those of her loved ones. She’s preemptively exposing her own shortcomings before Scientology’s goons have a chance to do so. In opening the book with a thorough rundown of her many mistakes, she’s also humanizing herself. She’s like us: flawed, a little bruised and battered by life’s strange journey but trying to do better, to be better. Finally, she’s establishing what kind of a woman she is: blunt, brutally honest, and real.
So how did someone who prides herself on being a potty-mouthed straight-talker who stands up for herself, her friends, and her family end up in a faith maniacally focused on controlling every aspect of its members’ lives? How did this rampaging bull of a woman end up in a delicate little china shop of a religion like Scientology? There was only one way this strange union was going to end: badly.
When considering why a self-styled troublemaker ended up in a cult that makes blind obeisance to authority a core tenet of its faith, it’s worth noting that Remini is a second-generation Scientologist. When Remini was a little girl, her hippie Jewish mother fell in love with a Scientologist and embraced the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard with the zeal of a convert. Incidentally, Remini’s dad is Italian, making her perfectly suited to turn her memoir into a crowd-pleasing one-woman show called My Mom’s Jewish, My Dad’s Italian, I Escaped The Brutal Cult Of Scientology At Great Personal And Professional Peril And I Need Therapy! But, you know, Troublemaker is a good and appropriate title as well.
On some level, Remini chose Scientology. On another, it chose her. From the very beginning, Remini was an atypical Scientologist. She was less interested in following rules than in bending and breaking them. She was street smart and confident enough to get away with things less aggressive souls wouldn’t. And for a while, Scientology worked for Remini. When you’re a latchkey kid from a broken home in New York with a spiritual seeker of a mother and an angry, verbally abusive father, being told that you’re a special spiritual being with a holy mission to save the planet can be pretty damn seductive. Every child wants to feel special, and Scientology tells children caught up in its web that they are better than non-believers, that they alone understand the true nature of the world and how to correct the problems endemic in being human.
It’s not as if Remini was blind to the downside of Scientology as a precocious aspiring actress. While still essentially a kid, she was “over-boated”: a barbaric—but Scientology-approved—practice where, as the name suggests, members are thrown off a boat for some minor transgression. As a young Scientologist with a knack for breaking the rules, she nearly ended up in the Rehabilitation Project Force, the cult’s brutal punishment system, which is like the gulags of Stalin’s Soviet Union but less humane.
Why would a strong-willed woman remain committed to a faith that had treated her with such casual sadism? For the same reasons people stay in abusive relationships of the personal rather than institutional variety. Remini didn’t necessarily see her relationship with Scientology as abusive, and the faith instills in members the idea that they alone are responsible for their problems, while Scientology is responsible for anything good that happens in their lives. Remini was as invested in Scientology as she was to her family and her career, and to acknowledge that she’d made a mistake in dedicating herself to Scientology would also mean that she’d devoted countless hours—and a fortune—to a spiritual pursuit that wasn’t just wrong, but an active force for evil.
Once Remini became rich and famous thanks to her starring role on Kings Of Queens, she donated millions to the church and devoted much of her free time to coursework and study. Yet she continued to pursue her own idiosyncratic spiritual path. Celebrity Scientologists are encouraged to proselytize to both the public and their fellow celebrities, but Remini went out of her way to keep her personal faith and private life separate. She didn’t waste her time on the set of King Of Queens trying to convince Jerry Stiller he needed to get serious about ridding himself of body thetans.
Scientology is a celebrity religion. It’s a measure of how greedy and rapacious the church is that it clearly wasn’t satisfied with a mere television star like Remini donating millions to Scientology—it cast shame on her for her unwillingness to use a public forum to proselytize on its behalf. It wanted Remini to use her longtime friendship with Jennifer Lopez—whose father is a Scientologist—to try to coax her and her similarly rich and famous (if not quite as rich and famous) husband (at the time) Marc Anthony into joining Scientology.
The church was neither subtle nor artful in its machinations. The weirdness began when Remini and her husband were recruited into joining Tom Cruise’s entourage. Remini at first was mildly seduced by Cruise’s sociopathic, crazy-eyed, toothy-smiled charm, by his ability to make whoever he’s addressing feel like the most important, if not only, other person in the world. But Remini soon grew tired of Cruise, who she depicts as a mentally ill overgrown child, the kind of endlessly pampered brat who decides on a whim that he and the people’s he with should spontaneously start playing hide and go seek or start baking cookies, and freaks out if the world doesn’t immediately bend to his wishes.
Then Remini was asked to invite Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony to Cruise and Katie Holmes’ wedding. Things go from bad to worse to intolerable. The church made a huge miscalculation in thinking it could control Remini, and when she rebels against their dictates she is made to feel that she ruined Cruise’s wedding, humiliated Scientology, and must make elaborate amends.
In Going Clear, filmmaker and Remini’s fellow Scientology apostate Paul Haggis’ decision to turn against the church is prompted by a principled revulsion toward Scientology’s institutional homophobia, particularly as it related to Haggis’ own children. In Troublemaker, Remini begins to turn against Scientology because powerful assholes within the church were awful to her, her husband, and her close friends.
Remini’s account of the church’s transparent attempts to use her friendship with Lopez and Anthony to try to recruit these mega-stars into the faith is gossipy, shameless, and tabloid ready, full of shit-talking and naming names. That’s a big part of what makes it so juicy. Remini doesn’t just attack a corrupt faith for betraying and abusing its members. She also snitches on church members for extramarital flings, profane lapses in judgment, drinking alcohol in defiance of church laws, and generally being the worst.
But even when confronted with Scientology’s elite behaving like spoiled, deranged children, Remini maintains faith in the church and its methods. For a while, she’s convinced that the technology remains correct, bordering on perfect—only it’s been corrupted by people who do not have the church’s best interests at heart. She’s convinced that with her hurricane-force personality and force of will, she can hold the church accountable for its actions. She’s naive enough to imagine that if she only tells the truth, changes will be made and people like Cruise will be punished for their actions. She realizes just in time that when the church abuses and manipulates members in a desperate bid for wealth, glory, and power they aren’t betraying L. Ron Hubbard’s vision for his curious quasi-faith so much as they are conveying and honoring it in sadly pure ways. The problem wasn’t a few people ruining a perfect faith; the problem is that the whole belief system is rotten to its core.
Remini begins to question the church and comes to discover that its crimes go far beyond being overly aggressive in seeking superstar new recruits and ruining weddings. She goes through a period of disillusionment that will feel familiar to serial readers of Scientology exposés. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Remini stayed in the faith as long as she did, considering the clash between her personality and the personality of the church.
Then again, simply Googling “Scientology” along with “evil cult” is considered a horrible crime within the church. Remini willfully blinded herself to much of Scientology’s evil, and when she begins to realize the true nature of the cult she’s devoted decades of her life to serving she decides that it’s finally time to make a conclusive break. In separating from the church, she embraces her troublemaking spirit and finds her own truth.
Troublemaker is, like its author, and the rest of humanity (with the notable exception of Tom Cruise) ragingly imperfect. There’s a section on Remini’s disastrous, short-lived stint on a The View knockoff called The Talk that could easily be excised. But Remini and ghost writer Rebecca Paley capture the veteran actress’ melodramatic journey of faith and disillusionment in a voice that’s feisty and relatable. This short treatise on how a street-smart New Yorker made some very dumb decisions in Hollywood never wears out its welcome.
Remini’s engaging account of losing her religion is more breezy beach read than serious tome. Troublemaker isn’t an exhaustively researched magnum opus like Going Clear, but rather a compulsively readable, if minor, addition to the growing field of literature dedicated to the notion that Scientology isn’t just dishonest and misguided, but something approaching a crime against humanity.