Wide Angle

An Ex-Scientologist Explains the Danny Masterson Trial—and How Scientology Got Desperate

Danny Masterson in a mask at the trial.
Actor Danny Masterson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Getty Images.

In Los Angeles, the trial of That ’70s Show star Danny Masterson just finished its third week. Three women have accused Masterson of rape in incidents dating from 2001 to 2003. He has denied all the charges.

Among trials of celebrities for sexual abuse, this one is particularly notable because Masterson was and is a Scientologist, as were the three women at the time of the alleged assaults. (They’ve since left the group.) The plaintiffs are also pursuing a civil case against the organization for alleged harassment, stalking, and intimidation—including the killing of pets—that they say was retaliation for going to the Los Angeles Police Department with their stories. (Scientology denies the claims.) On the stand, one accuser broke down as she spoke about this retaliation, saying “I can’t breathe,” and seeming, as one reporter who was in the courtroom wrote, to have a panic attack.

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After a couple of decades marked by high-profile and powerfully negative media portrayals of Scientology, the trial has provided another unflattering window on the internal dynamics of the organization. To learn more about how deeply this will cut for the church, I spoke with Mike Rinder, an ex-Scientologist who was in the group for almost 50 years, including time spent as its international spokesperson, before finally leaving in 2007. Rinder recently published a book, A Billion Years: My Escape From a Life in the Highest Ranks of Scientology, and co-hosts a podcast, Fair Game, with prominent fellow ex-Scientologist Leah Remini. Rinder and I talked about the stakes of this trial for an organization that seems to be losing traction among celebrities—and in the wider world. Our discussion has been edited and condensed.

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In a lengthy response, a Scientology spokesperson disputed nearly every claim in this interview, said that Rinder was excommunicated, and suggested any malfeasance Rinder described would have happened under his watch. Rinder says he was unaware of the alleged rapes until years after he left Scientology.

Rebecca Onion: In this trial, there have been a couple of interesting moves that Masterson’s defense lawyers have made. They screened jurors for having consumed media about Scientology, including shows like Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath, and have tried to get the judge to agree that Scientology should not be discussed at all. The judge said that the trial will “not be a trial on Scientology,” but wouldn’t exclude any mention of the organization.

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Mike Rinder: Obviously, the issue in this case is that the three alleged victims were, at the time of the incidents that he’s being prosecuted for, all Scientologists, and the circle of people around them were all Scientologists, and the world in which they lived and the way that they made decisions about what to do in any circumstance was influenced enormously by their participation in Scientology. It’s hard to keep that out when you have people that are talking about, This is what I believe happened to me, and this is what I did subsequent to that. When the issue becomes, Well, so why didn’t you go to law enforcement immediately?, the thinking of people in the world of Scientology is entirely based on, What does Scientology tell you that you should and shouldn’t do? That’s obviously part of just the facts of the case.

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It seems so far, from reading coverage of how the trial is unfolding, that the topic of Scientology is popping up in the courtroom, even though the injunction was given to try not to bring it in too much.

If you’re a Scientologist, Scientology dictates everything about your life, everything about how you make decisions, everything about what you think is right and wrong. It also impacts your relationships with your friends, with your family. The threat of losing your friends and losing your family through Scientology disconnection is a very, very real, visceral threat. It’s not a hypothetical. The organization has enormous influence on people’s decisions, so it’s not surprising to me that despite the judge saying that she doesn’t want this to be a trial on Scientology, it’s almost inevitable that the issue of Scientology and how Scientologists act is going to be a part of it because Scientology pervades people’s lives. It’s very difficult for those outside of Scientology to understand just how pervasive it is.

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If you have someone that’s accusing someone of being a pedophile or a rapist inside Scientology, their first inclination if that person is a Scientologist is not to go to law enforcement, but to go to Scientology, to what is called the Office of Special Affairs, which is what I used to be the head of, and report it. Then efforts to deal with this situation inside the Scientology bubble go into full effect, and that means rounding up anybody else that knows anything about it or may have seen something and making sure that they are keeping everything inside the bubble of Scientology, and not going off and talking about it to inappropriate people or thinking that they have to make a report outside of the organization. You’re required to report inside the organization, but discouraged from reporting outside the organization.

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Why “required to report inside”?

Because Scientology is a snitch culture. If you see something or even suspect something that is detrimental somehow to Scientology or is in violation of the laws and rules of Scientology, you are required to report it in writing to the Scientology organization. The penalty for failure to do that is that you are liable to the same penalties as the perpetrator of that transgression, if it’s discovered subsequently that you knew or suspected that that was going on but didn’t report it. [Scientology denied this policy or practice exists.]

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So that then, the organization can control the fallout from it.

Absolutely. The organization can make sure that there is no leakage of information, nothing that goes by that they don’t know about that could be a problem.

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These rules even apply to celebrity members like Masterson?

Yes. They apply to anybody. Celebrities are given greater leeway [within the organization] in certain things. For example, if a celebrity wishes to end their marriage for some reason, particularly if the other person in the marriage isn’t a big fan of Scientology, that is facilitated rather than frowned upon. But if you’re a [non-celebrity] Scientologist, you’re expected to resolve any issues in your marriage using Scientology. It’s a bit of a case-by-case analysis when it comes to celebrities as to what may be enforced or not because always, the decisions about what happens in Scientology are based on what’s good for Scientology.

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Maybe if the person is a really big celebrity, they might have a different set of reactions.

Yes, I wrote in my book about how when Tom Cruise [who was married to Scientologist Mimi Rogers at the time] wanted to get together with Nicole Kidman, and Nicole Kidman was a huge up-and-coming rising star. That was seen as being something that would be beneficial for Scientology, so they went ahead with the divorce. And when Kirstie Alley wanted to divorce Parker Stevenson … Parker was never a Scientologist. I mean, he may have dabbled, but he didn’t consider himself to really be any sort of dedicated Scientologist, so that was like, OK, we’ll put that aside. Like I said, it’s a case-by-case basis.

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When I was reading your book, I had some revelations about the culture inside Scientology that I hadn’t had before, especially around the topic of abuse, which obviously overlaps with rape. It seems almost like a culture where dominance, or having power over someone else, is just the way life is.

The most important thing to understand about Scientology, when it comes to this topic, is this concept of what [Scientology’s founder L. Ron] Hubbard called the “overt-motivator sequence,” or as it’s shorthanded in Scientology—What did you do to pull it in? This is an absolutely fundamental principle of Scientology. That if you get run over by a car, you are supposed to look with the Scientology e-meter, and search out and find the time when you ran someone over with a car, because you did something bad first and then craved something bad happening to you of a similar nature.

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If a woman reports that she has been raped by someone, the Scientology response to that is, OK, write a report about it. Now, we are going to find out what you did to pull it in. This is the ultimate in victim-blaming, and it is an absolute inviolate law of Scientology, this idea that if something bad happens to you, it’s because you did something similar bad yourself previously. It is very, very dangerous and damaging, but if you ask a thousand Scientologists or ex-Scientologists, What does “What did you do to pull it in” mean to you, they would all give you exactly the same answer. It is such a standard thing in Scientology. [Scientology said this is false, and contended nothing in Hubbard’s teachings ever used this phrase.]

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The second thing that is really important is that Scientology doesn’t believe in law enforcement, the judicial system. Hubbard wrote a lot about how it’s corrupt and criminal, and getting yourself in the hands of the judiciary is tantamount to your death sentence. Instead, we need to apply Scientology justice procedures. The idea in the mind of a Scientologist is, We have the only answers to resolve the crazy things that people do. If we have someone here who is a kleptomaniac, turning them over to law enforcement will just punish them but will not cure their urges to steal things. Only Scientology can do that. Only Scientology can get to the bottom of why someone feels the need to steal. It is cruel and unusual punishment to turn someone over to the judiciary or law enforcement when we could actually help them and solve their problem and get rid of their impulses to steal in the future.

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This is the mindset that Scientologists have. There’s a lot of discussion about, Well, Scientology, you’re forbidden from going to law enforcement. Scientology comes out and puts out these statements saying, No, that’s not true. There’s no policy that forbids that. Well, actually, there is … But also, what isn’t understood generally is, in the mind of Scientologists, it’s not just following a rule. It is what they believe is the best thing to do, to turn the person over to Scientology to be helped, not turn them over to law enforcement to be locked up and tortured.

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I was interested to hear that they surveyed the jurors in this trial for having consumed media about Scientology. I feel like, with the podcasts, documentaries, and books like yours out there, the last 20 years have really saturated the market with negative perspectives on Scientology. (One potential juror, Variety reported, said during the selection process that he’d read many articles about the organization; when asked if those articles were positive or negative, he said “I don’t believe I’ve read a positive article about that organization.” He was excused.)

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I think that there’s been a lot that has happened that has brought the sort of dirty underbelly of Scientology out into the light. I think that Going Clear, when Alex Gibney made that film and it appeared on HBO, that sort of put a big crack in the dam of secrecy of Scientology. Then I think that The Aftermath showed, because it went on for so long every week over three seasons, with just people’s stories … The idea that every one of them was just a liar, and they’re all just making this stuff up, and they’re all doing it for the money—whatever Scientology would say? It sounds ridiculous. I think the perspective has changed.

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The other thing that has accomplished that is just the internet. I mean, these days people Google everything. You Google Scientology and it’s not pretty. It can’t be that everything that anybody ever has said that’s negative about Scientology is not true, because there are so many people who have now spoken up, and they all tell similar sort of stories. It’s not like you have one guy over here saying one thing, and then someone over here saying something completely different. The experiences that people have had in Scientology are so consistent that it’s impossible to dismiss them.

I mean, you’re even seeing it in the mayoral race in Los Angeles. Rick Caruso and Karen Bass are in a mudslinging contest as to who can shit on Scientology the worst. Ten years ago, nobody [in a race like that] would even utter the word Scientology. They just wanted nothing to do with it. Now it’s like, I’m going to get brownie points with the electorate by saying that I hate Scientology more than you do.

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What do you think the stakes are for Scientology, of this trial? It feels like, within the world of celebrities, that being a Scientologist doesn’t seem to be quite the thing anymore. They seem to be having a little bit more trouble attracting people. I don’t know if that’s an accurate thing to say. It feels like people have left, and it doesn’t feel like you hear about new celebrities joining, necessarily.

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That’s the information age. There hasn’t been any new big-time celebrity come into Scientology that I can actually recall. The only one who has emerged as sort of a major star is Elisabeth Moss, but she was raised a Scientologist. She’s a second-generation Scientologist. She’s not someone that was brought into Scientology and suddenly had a revelation about how This has made my career. That was the world of John Travolta and Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley back in the day. Nowadays, those guys don’t talk too much about it either. There is a change in the perception of Scientology in the world at large.

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As you say, it’s the volume of stories on the internet, but it’s also justthe internet is just hard for anyone to manage. In Googling your name, for example, I noticed that there’s a paid Google result with a negative website about you. But immediately I’m like, OK, Scientology paid to put that there, and then every other result is your work. It’s just like, it’s too big. There’s just so much out there that any given entity is going to have trouble.

Information is the poison that ultimately kills cults. There is no battling the information age and the internet. Scientology’s future is doomed unless they were to change how they go about doing things. But they can’t change anything because it’s all dictated by L. Ron Hubbard, and he’s dead.

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