Truth to Power Award: Leah Remini on Leaving and Confronting Scientology
The Truth to Power Award, a new addition to the IDA Documentary Awards roster, recognizes an individual or institution that has shown conspicuous fortitude, tenacity and resoluteness in holding those in power to account. This inaugural honor goes to actor/producer/author Leah Remini, who, as an outspoken critic of the Church of Scientology, of which she was formerly a member, has been subjected to a withering series of attacks—from online trolling to death threats—from the Church.
Three years ago, Remini did the unthinkable when she produced an A&E documentary series that exposed the Church of Scientology's deepest and darkest secrets. Called Scientology and the Aftermath, the series, hosted by Remini and fellow former Scientologist Mike Rinder features ex-Scientologists (known in the church as Suppressive Persons) who detail the emotional and physical abuse they suffered while members of the organization birthed by L. Ron Hubbard. In addition to being an immediate critical success, the series drew strong ratings and won an Emmy for Informational Series in 2017, as well as an IDA Documentary Award nomination for Best Episodic Series.
Known for her hit CBS sitcom King of Queens, Remini left the Church in 2013 after 35 years as a devout member. Two years later her tell-all memoir, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, was published. The actor's departure came a few years after producer-director Paul Haggis' high-profile split with the Church and just months after the publication of Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, which served as the basis for Alex Gibney's HBO documentary of the same name. Earlier this year, after 36 episodes, Scientology and the Aftermath came to a close (although it's now streaming on Hulu), but Remini’s fight against the Church of Scientology is long from over.
DOCUMENTARY: You left The Church of Scientology in 2013. How long were you thinking of leaving?
LEAH REMINI: Six years. It took me that long because I was indoctrinated in Scientology as a child by my parents. You're raised with a cult mentality that whatever's being disseminated in the public are lies and that the people who are speaking out against Scientology are criminals. You're not allowed to reach out to those people who were speaking out because if you do, you will be expelled [from the church]. You will be shunned and you will get a "Fair Gamed," which is Scientology's policy on how to attack and discredit people from speaking the truth about what happened to them as a member of Scientology.
D: Is it accurate that you started to doubt the church due to the absence of Shelly Miscavige, the wife of the church's leader, David Miscavige, at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' 2006 wedding?
LR: Yes. That began my questioning. I don't understand how a human being goes from being seen everywhere David is to not being seen. Then I was told that I didn't have the fucking rank to ask about Shelly Miscavige. Then I found out all my letters were never sent to her because they were inappropriate. Then I started looking on the internet and reading about people leaving Scientology who were physically abused by David Miscavige. The answer that I was given when I asked about it was, "You have no right to look at these things. You are showing your disaffection if you are looking at things on the internet." So I was interrogated and sent to Florida for reprogramming.
D: What was the most frightening part of leaving the Church in 2013?
LR: Losing my family. The second part was losing all of my friends of 30-plus years. [The church’s Disconnection policy "asks" members to not associate with former members.] Also, losing my community and losing this false purpose, which was, as Scientologists, we thought that we are saving mankind and the world.
D: The Church of Scientology achieved tax-exempt religious organization status from the IRS in 1993. Is Scientology like other religious organizations?
LR: Number one, Scientology isn't a religion. We also don't call it a church. There is no 'You can assimilate information and the teachings of the Bible.' Instead, in Scientology it is: 'You have to learn things verbatim. You cannot think outside the box. You cannot go outside of Scientology for information. And you are paying for Scientology.' I'm not talking handing out a basket and putting in what you can afford. Scientology is a pre-set pricelist. But what makes it even more different than any real religion is that Scientology has a department solely dedicated to going after people who are speaking out against it. People who have been raped, molested and abused are going up against a $3 billion business [Scientology] that has a department called OSA [Office of Special Affairs], which is dedicated to silencing those people from speaking out. What real church has a division that does that?
D: Is it over the top to say that the Church of Scientology sounds similar to the Mafia?
LR: No. I think you're insulting the Mafia [by making the comparison]. The Mafia has never claimed to be anything but. They are an organization with rules of engagement. Rules of war. There are no rules in Scientology. They call themselves a religious organization that stands up for free speech and freedom of religion, but they are the antithesis of that.
D: In 2015 you wrote Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology. That was followed by producing and hosting A&E’s docu series Scientology and the Aftermath for three years. What has your life been like for the past four years?
LR: I've received death threats. Every person who has appeared on our show has a hate website put out on them within seconds of the show airing. There have been 444 letters written to the show’s advertisers by a Scientology front group called the STAND League. So millions and millions of dollars of tax-exempt money has been used simply to destroy [the show’s and my] reputation and to silence those who are speaking out and to hopefully prevent any victims from coming forward in the future.
D: How hard was the decision, not only write the book but to do the show?
LR: In the beginning, it was not a hard decision to make. I feel a need to do the right thing. I can't just walk away, especially seeing what [Scientology] is doing to people who don't have a platform to get their stories out there. I never thought I would get death threats. I thought that Season One of the show would get the attention of the FBI, the Department of Justice, the local police departments, but it didn't. So we continued to do the program and more and more people kept reaching out to us.
D: Scientology and the Aftermath had a dedicated following. Many of those viewers had no connection to Scientology. What do you think drew those people to the series?
LR: I think people are feeling apathetic about what they can do. I also think that they our program as a beacon of hope. There will be a mom from Florida or a guy from Minnesota speaking up and out about a $3 billion cult who goes after you when you do and I think that gives people hope to do something about things that they want to see changed in the world that have nothing to do with Scientology.
D: Do you think leaving Scientology has affected your acting career?
LR: Yes. It probably has affected my career, but I don't want a career if that means not doing this work. This is something that I just won't give up on. And if that means Hollywood is loyal to John Travolta or Tom Cruise or Kirstie Alley, than I don't want to work with them. And I'm okay.
D: Was it hard to see Scientology and the Aftermath come to an end?
LR: We were doing the work when cameras were rolling and when they weren't rolling and we are still doing the work. Mike and I are very dedicated to continuing the fight. We are not going to give up. We haven't and we won't.
D: Back in 2016 you told Larry King that your biggest fear was that nothing was going to happen to the church. Is that still your biggest fear?
LR: Things have happened. The good news is that their membership is declining. I also think that [the church] went from being considered by the [general] public as that funny, crazy, little innocuous organization to people seeing how truly toxic and dangerous it is and how it's destroying families and lives and obstructing justice. I also think the fear of the press is going away because now the press is doing their own articles and research and finding out the truth. And of course Alex Gibney and HBO doing Going Clear, as well as Lawrence Wright’s book coming out, are all huge steps in the right direction.
D: What are you most proud of with regards to your work against Scientology?
LR: I'm proud that people continue to speak out and I'm proud that people now know what Scientology truly is, how it affects people and how it's attempting to destroy people's lives. Scientology knows that we are telling the truth and the contributors of our program are telling the truth and that is why they are doing what they're doing [against us].
D: Do you think the Church will ever go away?
LR: Yes, I do. This could be very Pollyanna of me and very naive, but I do believe that good will win out in the end.
Addie Morfoot has been covering the entertainment industry for the last 15 years. Her work has appeared in Variety, The New York Times Magazine, Crain's New York Business, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Documentary and Adweek. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Salon, Cosmopolitan.com and the Los Angeles Times.