Why Aren’t Victims Of Cults Treated With More Seriousness And Respect?

Yesterday, I wrote a response to a Refinery 29 profile of an anonymous Scientologist named “Elaine” which I believe glossed over very serious allegations of abuse within the Church and ultimately served as a piece of PR masquerading as “journalism.” I took issue with a number of aspects of writer Kelsey Miller’s reporting on this story, which she said occurred over the entire summer, namely that she went to the Church directly and requested that they select an “average, regular member” for her to interview and then granted that person anonymity. (For what it’s worth, Tony Ortega at the blog the Underground Bunker has a pretty solid theory on who the real “Elaine” is and she’s hardly your “average regular member.”)

There aren’t just “rumors” about the Church of Scientology being horrible; there is more than enough evidence to support that claim, the most damning being the detailed, corroborated testimonials of actual members. These are the alleged victims of the Church of Scientology. There are many. I believe them just as I am inclined to believe all victims who come forward about abuse. I take what they say seriously. And what bothers me the most about this whole kerfuffle is that it’s clear in their approach to this profile and their response since that Refinery 29 really doesn’t take them as seriously as they should. But I don’t think they’re necessarily alone in their dismissiveness towards victims of cults.

For comparison’s sake, let’s imagine R29 decided they wanted to do “the story you haven’t heard” about the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, the frat at the center of a Rolling Stone story about a freshman who was allegedly gang raped by some of its members (and then told not to report it by campus officials). So, in this, again, hypothetical scenario, a writer for R29 reaches out to the fraternity’s national office and ask to be put in touch with the “average Phi Kappa Psi member” for a profile on their experience with the frat. What luck! Phi Kappa Psi has the perfect person for R29 to interview, but would prefer that they be give a pseudonym — after all, it’s not so easy being a member of that frat these days, what with all the negative attention. R29 agrees. During the course of the interview, this Phi Kappa Psi brother glows about his own experience within the fraternity — the parties! the brotherhood! the help with studying! the charity work! — and when asked about the rape allegations against certain members, he brushes them off as rumors and drama.

“No way, those are just rumors!” he says. “I’ve hung out with those guys at a couple of parties, and they seemed pretty swell to me!” And that’s the last word on that pesky subject.

While this hypothetical R29 article does the right thing by acknowledging that these rape allegations exist, it fails to directly point out that the member they’re profiling is not in a position to actually deny the allegations. He wasn’t there the night the alleged gang rape occurred, for starters. And secondly, his own experience hanging out with the accused members on other occasions really has nothing to do with the crime they’ve been accused of; his vouching for them as “swell” guys should not be treated as a reasonable denial that the victim’s accusations are untrue. He can state his opinion, but it’s up to the R29 article’s writer and editor to fact check and note any inaccuracies, like being very clear that what he calls “rumors” are actually serious accusations. In fact, if they took those accusations seriously — i.e. believed them to be more than just rumors — they would likely reach out to one of the victims or someone representing them for a response to their profile subject’s statement. If they didn’t, well, I can guarantee many, many people would be up in arms about the piece being dismissive of rape victims’ experiences and perpetuating rape culture.

The point being, when a publication chooses to profile an individual about their experience with an organization or group of people who have been accused of very serious things, they cannot in good faith argue that the story “isn’t really about” that group overall. Of course it is. Especially when the person you’re interviewing was selected for you by that very group. But this is exactly how Refinery 29 is defending their story about “Elaine.” After the story was posted yesterday and the comments started to pour in, R29 editor Mikki Halpin added an update to the post calling for civility and noting, “This is a reported story, written by a respected journalist. At Refinery29 we tell young women’s stories, and this is the story of one young woman.” Meanwhile, Kelsey Miller responded to commenters, writing, “This is a profile of a member, not the church itself” and “The piece was meant to present — not endorse — her opinions and experience to the reader.”

There isn’t an explanation for why “Elaine” didn’t want to reveal her full name, but the assumption is that because of Scientology’s reputation, “Elaine” might not be ready to be out about her beliefs to anyone outside a trusted circle of friends, family and coworkers. I would consider that a justifiable reason for being anonymous in many other situations, but not when we’re talking about membership in an organization that has faced decades’ worth of lawsuits and abuse allegations for which there is a lengthy paper trail and countless testimonials from former members, many of whom were once highly ranked within the church themselves.

To be clear, I don’t actually think Refinery 29 would ever do that hypothetical fraternity story, let alone in this manner. I cannot imagine a relatively progressive women’s blog (I read Refinery 29! I like it!) quoting some anonymous random frat boy’s irrelevant opinion that allegations of gang rape are just “rumors and drama” without then making it very clear just how serious those allegations are and giving the victim or her representative an opportunity to respond. But if they wouldn’t profile a hypothetical fraternity accused of years of insidious, damning behavior without parity, why would they cover Scientology with such a blind eye?

This is what was glaringly missing from Refinery 29’s profile of “Elaine,” not just for me, but for many of the people who commented on their story, quite a few of whom say they are victims of the Church of Scientology’s abusive practices. Of course, these people are not a monolith, so their comments ran the gamut from reasonable critiques about the lack of additional sources, to calls for Miller’s job, to accusations that she is a secret Scientologist herself. I don’t believe the latter, by the way, and I also don’t think Miller should lose her job, especially given that her editor is as much to “blame.” But honestly, while I think some of the comments on Refinery’s story go too far and are a little wild, I completely understand the anger behind them. It must be very frustrating and painful to have your life experience flippantly dismissed as “rumors and drama” by someone hand-picked by the very group that victimized you in the first place,  and who does not even have the courage to use their real name. That’s what I see more than anything in the hundreds of comments left on Miller’s article, even the ones making unfounded claims about her own Church affiliation — pain.

Sadly, I think far too many people, including Miller’s editor Mikki Halpin, don’t take that pain very seriously. Yesterday, Halpin tweeted the following about the reaction to Miller’s piece:

What I learned today: The anti-Scientology cult is as reactionary, bad at reading comprehension, and conspiracy-obsessed as the cult itself.

I find it offensive that Halpin characterizes these former CoS members as an “anti-Scientology cult” and lumps their claims together as “conspiracies.” Would she be so callous in her characterization of other alleged abuse victims who criticized a post on her website? I sincerely doubt it, especially given her history as an ally to various marginalized groups.

UPDATE: In response to my request for comment, Halpin wrote:

I completely agree with you that cult survivors and all abuse survivors deserve to be treated with respect and supported in every way. (In fact we ran a story today about a male domestic violence survivor, not a story you see often.) I understand that the statements made by “Elaine” were very painful for some people to read. And they have every right to express their anger at the Church of Scientology. Our piece didn’t endorse the Church of Scientology or Elaine’s beliefs, it reported on them. For example, if we profiled a member of a white supremacy militia as a news piece, it wouldn’t mean that we endorse those beliefs either.

I do apologize for upsetting anyone with my tweet. I really do. As you noted, many of the comments on our site were going way over the top and going so far as to make claims that our writer was a secret member of Scientology, digging up photos of her family, and being quite cruel and personal. I was reacting to that.

I was (and still am!) frustrated at what I see as misdirected rage. I get that those who are angry about the piece and about our writer don’t think their rage is misdirected. They feel justified in being angry with us, and I don’t think they are. That disagreement is probably not going to be resolved. However, I completely get their anger with the CoS.

Still, this is something I’ve noticed in the various conversations I’ve had with people over the years about Scientology. Most people are actually pretty quick to agree that Scientology is a cult, but for a lot of them, it’s almost always because of the things they’ve heard about the Church’s beliefs, like the Xenu story, rather than the long list of abuse allegations, stories about members being forced to disconnect from loved ones, etc. When I tell them these stories, many of which were told to journalists writing meticulously researched and fact-checked articles and books, I can still see on their faces that while they’re shocked and appalled, they are also slightly doubtful, like they think they might be exaggerations.

Scientologists are seen by many outsiders as “crazy” and even when they leave the Church, it’s like they take that crazy with them. What they say is never fully believed by anyone, except those others who went through the same trauma. Leaving the Church of Scientology is difficult enough — imagine how much harder it must be to realize the outside world isn’t so accepting either.