“When I first began filming this show, I thought I would just be documenting stories of families that were torn apart by the Church of Scientology’s policies and practices,” Leah Remini says in the opening scene of A&E’s new docu-series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. “But what I uncovered was much deeper and darker than I ever expected.”
The many abuses committed by the Church of Scientology against its own members since its incorporation in 1953 can’t really be called “shocking” anymore, can they? Not to readers of Lawrence Wright’s 2013 expose, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, or viewers of the 2015 HBO documentary based on the the book, or readers of the memoirs written by former Scientologists who left the church — including Remini herself, who published a book last year called Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology. Scientology and the Aftermath is a continuation of Remini’s stated project: To prevent even one person from joining an organization that she says she “promoted, defended, and believed in, most of my life.”
Scientology and the Aftermath, an eight-episode series that premiered on Tuesday, is one more salvo in the ongoing war between the church and its defectors. In the premiere, Remini describes her relationship to Scientology, which began when her mother joined the church when she was a pre-teen and ended in 2013 with her public departure from the organization that she once openly promoted.
That Remini was once a devoted believer makes her denunciation of the church all the more powerful. Over archival footage of the actress preaching the merits of Scientology in the late 1990s (“We are the most ethical group you’re ever gonna find”), Remini describes the appeal of the church. Scientology, she says, promises to transform you into the best version of yourself — to “reach the highest potential as a spiritual being.” Its message shrewdly espouses both personal and global gain, promising that its members are helping to make the world a better place. As Remini says, “It offers you a sense of purpose in life.”
But as the defectors featured in Scientology and the Aftermath explain, for members, the church is such an all-consuming force in their lives that it becomes increasingly difficult to see it for what it is. “If I succeeded, it was because of Scientology,” Remini recalls. “If I failed, it was because I wasn’t doing Scientology.” The organization works to separate Scientology from the outside world; anyone whom the church declares a “suppressive person” — basically anyone who dares question the church’s policies or practices — must “disconnect” from the church, cutting off all contact even with members of their own family.
After Remini announced she was leaving the church, others started to reach out to her — including Amy Scobee, a former Scientologist and high-ranking staffer who was responsible for the church’s Celebrity Centers. In the premiere, Scobee invites Remini and her camera crew into her home and describes the church’s aggressive pursuit of celebrities, who are considered “walking success stories”; her job involved making sure Tom Cruise, Scientology’s flagship celebrity and good friend of its leader, David Miscavige, was surrounded by members of the church. They were his housekeepers, his maids, his mechanics.
I’ve generally resisted the post-election urge to turn every TV review into a diatribe against Trumpism, but watching this series, I kept thinking of Masha Gessen’s New York Review of Books article, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” published on November 10. “It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room,” she writes. We’ve been hearing a lot about “normalization” since Trump’s election, and Scientology’s defectors provide a kind of case study on resisting the impulse to see order amid chaos.
Scobee describes how quickly she began to justify the abuse — physical as well as psychological — she saw on a regular basis, including from Miscavige himself. When Scobee was 14 and a new addition to the church, she describes how her married, 40-something superior coaxed her into staying late one night and having sex with him — statutory rape, she realized later. At the time, she stayed silent. “My mind would immediately justify why this crap was OK,” she tells Remini — until she had a “blinding realization” that she was “rationalizing insanities.”
After Scobee tells this story, Remini is livid that she can’t go back and break the man’s legs. But Mike Rinder, another defector who was once the church’s global spokesman, points out, “There’s one thing that can be done. It can be exposed.”
Most of what Scientology and the Aftermath “exposes” is already public knowledge, but that doesn’t seem to faze Remini. Her goal is nothing short of a populist uprising, a mobilization of current and former Scientologists against an organization that exploits its members physically, emotionally, psychologically, and financially. Scientology’s abuses may be well-documented, but as Gessen writes, “in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.”
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on A&E.