The Problem With Refinery 29’s Profile Of A Church Of Scientology Member
The lifestyle website Refinery 29 is in a bit of hot water after writer Kelsey Miller published a profile of a young, female Scientologist called “Elaine” (not her real name) that, frankly, could have been ripped from the pages of Freedom magazine. (Freedom is the Church of Scientology’s propaganda magazine.) Former Scientologists — including a number of ex members who have been excommunicated from the Church — descended upon the post’s comments section accusing Miller of essentially penning an endorsement for the controversial faith, while others implied that Miller might be a Scientologist herself. Miller defended herself in the comments, writing, “I’d only heard the story from an outsider’s perspective, and I was curious about what an average, active member might have to say. The piece was meant to present — not endorse — her opinions and experience to the reader.” While I believe Miller’s intentions were good (and I don’t believe she’s a member herself), I’d like to join those ex members in calling bullshit on her methods. Her “profile” of “Elaine” reads very much like straight up propaganda, not journalism.
First, full disclosure: I think Scientology is a cult. Not because of what church doctrine teaches, necessarily, but how they indoctrinate and treat many of their members, including children. I came to that conclusion after spending 10 months in 2007 working as the assistant to journalist Janet Reitman on her book, Inside Scientology. A large portion of my time was spent organizing all of Reitman’s research and notes, which were extensive, and transcribing dozens and dozens of interviews, many of them with former high-ranking members of the Church of Scientology. Her interviews were in-depth and lengthy and these ex-members told many of the stories that have now become fairly well-known. They talked about being on the receiving end of church leader David Miscavige’s violent outbursts; being sent to the now infamous “Hole” (which the Church denies exists) where high-ranking members who had fallen out of favor with DM were sent for months and even years; the inhumane work hours and quite literally unlivable wages; being forced to disconnect from family members and separated from spouses and children; facing years of harassment for daring to leave. The stories were horrible and corroborated by others. The Church would have you believe these are just rumors or lies being spread by ex members out of revenge. But I believe with rock solid certainty that they are true. Since working on that book, I’ve read a number of other meticulously researched books on the subject, not to mention countless articles and testimonials about its history, ideology, recruitment methods and organizational structure. Personally, I would have little interest in profiling a current Scientologist, because based on all of that research — research Miller said she did too, by the way — I know that no dedicated member would ever say anything that could be construed as negative about the Church. At the very least, I would approach profiling a current member with a healthy amount of skepticism.
To be clear, Miller does address the Church’s bad reputation in her piece, and she links to a number of sources for those accounts, but “Elaine” and the Church are given the upper-hand, as Elaine is the only person Miller actually talked to, so her narrative is the dominant one. What Miller seems to forget is that even when you are profiling someone, you are not exempt from actually interviewing other sources, especially when the subject matter is as controversial as Scientology. Miller didn’t even find “Elaine” herself — she approached the Church and asked them to put her in touch with a regular, average Scientologist and they gave her Elaine, a 30-year-old event planner. Miller may have requested an “average” Scientologist, but did she consider what the Church’s motivations might be in selecting that person for her? That they might, I dunno, hand her someone who would sing nothing but the Church’s praises, who would be prepped to dismiss any and all criticisms as “rumors,” “lies” and “drama” as Elaine did when she was asked about Church abuses, their stance on gay rights, and the long and ever-growing list “blown” members, including outspoken former celebrity members like actress Leah Remini and director Paul Haggis? There’s no suggestion in the piece that Miller pressed “Elaine” on these topics or asked follow up questions when “Elaine” tried to brush them off.
For starters, what about acknowledging that “Elaine,” as a public member of the Church and not a member of the Sea Org (their “religious order”), would never be privy to how the Church works behind the scenes and would not have been present in any of the high level meetings during which Miscavige is alleged to have gone postal? Did Miller not do research into how the Church structure actually works? Why is “Elaine”‘s opinion on those topics treated as if its one of authority? And by not actually talking to any former members to get their “side,” Miller ends up giving “Elaine”‘s point-of-view more validity than the accusers or those who would actually be in the know.
Miller says she was just doing “journalism” with this profile. But given the disturbing nature of many of the allegations against the Church, giving a current member (especially one who was hand-selected by the Church) a forum to sing its praises and laugh off the alleged abuses is not journalism. Whether she knows it or not, Miller played right into the Church’s hands. If things don’t work out for Miller at Refinery 29, Freedom might just have a job for her.
UPDATE: Here is a followup post I wrote.