The Church of Scientology is a notoriously difficult subject for journalists. The press has long been considered an enemy of the church, which was founded half a century ago by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. (To give but one example, in the 1950s, Hubbard wrote that TIME's purpose was to "cause riots and disaffection.") In a new book, Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, author Janet Reitman tells the fascinating history of the mysterious organization and its members. "I have sought to understand Scientology: not to judge, but simply to absorb," she writes. "What I have found defies expectation, and even definition." TIME spoke with Reitman about what she learned.
What got you interested in this subject?
I covered the Iraq war for Rolling Stone, and when I returned to the U.S. in 2005, I was really burnt out and my editors did not want me to go back. This was around the time that Tom Cruise was jumping up and down on Oprah's couch and speaking out about Scientology, so my editor, referring to what I'd done with the U.S. military, suggested that I do an "embed" with Scientology to find out who they really were. The church turned me down, but I started to do my own reporting and realized that this was really a parallel universe, totally self-enclosed and completely unknown to the rest of the world. I decided that I needed to approach them the way a foreign correspondent would a foreign culture. That was the only way to look at them objectively, which was my biggest goal.
Is there a misconception that a lot of celebrities are Scientologists?
Yes there are really only a handful of true "celebrities," and then maybe a hundred or so people who work behind the scenes in prominent jobs in Hollywood. But part of the strategy, certainly since the 1990s, has been to present Scientology as a celebrity religion, although I'd say Kabbalah probably has more real celebrities. The irony is that we are a celeb-obsessed culture but also love to tear our celebrities down, and the Tom Cruise thing really backfired.
The last journalist who wrote a major book on Scientology was Paulette Cooper in 1971, and the church harassed her for years afterward. Did anything like that happen to you?
She was put through such hell. They filed something like 19 lawsuits against her. When I was writing my article for Rolling Stone [which the book grew out of], Scientology officials did call the magazine and try to discredit me; that didn't work. I'm not someone who's afraid. Plus, there's so much documentation of everything I write about that it's hard to argue with. Overall, though, Scientology has an image problem, and so I think the church is conscious that they can't just sue people who try to scrutinize them anymore because they'll be seen as big litigious monsters.