Mike Rinder’s ‘A Billion Years’: A gripping takedown of Scientology and its leader
There are many books about Scientology now, including some put out by major publishers. If you wanted a robust history of where Scientology has been over many decades, you could turn to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, or the earlier, deeply researched investigations by Russell Miller (Bare-Faced Messiah) or Jon Atack (A Piece of Blue Sky).
If you wanted to know what it was like to work in the rarefied heights of Scientology’s Sea Org, you could pick up titles by Amy Scobee (Abuse at the Top) or Marc Headley (Blown for Good) or Janis Gillham Grady (Commodore’s Messenger) or Jefferson Hawkins (Counterfeit Dreams). And if you wanted to understand what it was like to go from one of Scientology’s most useful supporters to one of its biggest critics, you could read the personal stories of Leah Remini (Troublemaker) or Ron Miscavige Sr (Ruthless).
So where does the new book from former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder — A Billion Years: My Escape from a Life in the Highest Ranks of Scientology, released yesterday from Simon & Schuster — fall in that cluttered landscape of histories, tell-alls, and escape narratives?
We’d argue that not only is it a terrific and enlightening book, but it also inhabits a somewhat unique position in the literature that has come before it: Perhaps no other book has managed to put together all of those perspectives in a single volume.
A fast read and yet incredibly comprehensive, Rinder’s book covers a vast amount of material as he grew up in Australia in a family that were among the earliest adopters of L. Ron Hubbard’s snake oil, Dianetics. He then personally witnessed virtually every important development in the Church of Scientology from the mid-1960s onward.
And Rinder was not only a witness. Few people have been in a better position to observe current leader David Miscavige take over Scientology after Hubbard’s 1986 death and then mold it into his own merciless and totalitarian force, for the simple reason that, as Rinder explains in some detail, he was often the person carrying out those merciless plans for his diminutive boss.
But first, he had to negotiate growing up in a town, Adelaide, where Scientologists were not only rare but also seen with suspicion. When his family made the pilgrimage to Hubbard’s headquarters in the UK in 1967, Rinder blended in easily, getting to know Hubbard’s own children, who were about his age. In ensuing years, he continued his Zelig-like rise in the organization, being the right guy at the right time, joining Hubbard’s navy then sailing the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
On a trip we made to Florida a decade ago, Rinder told us in an interview about the infamous “rock concert” incident in Madeira, when the locals took Hubbard and his strange ship for a CIA operation and tossed rocks at them until they sailed away for safety. In the book, Rinder gives a vivid rendition of the incident, which stranded him on the island and nearly made him the target of an angry mob.
And so it went for the young Sea Org operative as he rose in the ranks: Rinder repeatedly found himself in a position where he was fending off the attacks of the outside world, while doing his best to justify and resolve himself to the madness and contradictions in Scientology itself. Rinder knows that, while he describes one insane situation after another, and as he and other dedicated Sea Org soldiers were put through humiliating punishments and endless deprivations, the reader will repeatedly wonder, what kept you in? Why did you put up with it? Why didn’t you run away? And Rinder, maybe better than anyone before him, spends considerable time not only explaining what he did in Scientology, but what was going through his mind that kept him a loyal Miscavige foot soldier for so many years.
And it didn’t come without enormous personal cost. Rinder frames his book by placing it in the context of losing his adult children Taryn and Benjamin to the organization, and never tries to excuse the way he had been an absent parent in the Sea Org way. Since his defection from the organization in 2007, Scientology has viciously attacked him using his own children, primarily Taryn, who keeps up a bogus campaign blaming Rinder for supposedly causing her mother a horrible arm injury that seems to get worse every year.
Rinder has taken pains to explain the bizarre ambush by his former wife and other Sea Org officials that took place in the parking lot of a doctor’s office while Rinder was on the phone with BBC reporter John Sweeney. (We even published the audio from that encounter here at the Bunker back in 2014.) There’s simply no question that the slight injury his ex-wife received was judged “incidental contact” by the local sheriff’s office, and that Scientology is merely following the L. Ron Hubbard playbook by calling Rinder a “wife beater.”
Rinder opens the book with a letter to his two estranged children, and that device creates a tension that hangs over the entire book. While we’re drawn through this fast-paced adventure and look forward to learning how Rinder finally escaped from the madness in Scientology, we know from the start that it’s not going to have a happy ending.
Along the way, for this longtime Scientology watcher, Rinder recites a history that we already had some familiarity with, but with new details that we found absolutely fascinating. From the reorganization of Scientology following the 1977 FBI raid which was the agency’s largest in its history at that time, to Hubbard’s final years in hiding and who was with him, to Miscavige’s moves to take over as undisputed strong man, to the years of effort to wrestle the IRS to its knees in 1993, Rinder has brilliant new personal insights that help complete the picture of this evolution.
And yes, Rinder was also a personal witness to Miscavige’s obsession with celebrities and Tom Cruise in particular. You may have seen the excerpt published last week at the Daily Beast, which contained such morsels as Rinder’s experience showing Michael Jackson around the Hubbard Life Exhibition in Hollywood, or showing Barbara Walters around the New York org as a prerequisite to her getting an interview with Cruise. Rinder also saw John Travolta kiss his male massage therapist on the mouth, and he says that a soccer field was built at Int Base in California in an attempt to lure David Beckham into the church. You’ll be hearing plenty about those things from the tabloids. But even Rinder himself, at his website, acknowledged that the celebrity stuff was not the point of his book.
More interesting to us, for example, was Rinder’s description of the operations run by the organization he oversaw, the Office of Special Affairs, Scientology’s secret police and PR wing, which went after enemies and pursued scorched-earth litigation with an army of lawyers.
When Scientology was in a particularly bad spot after the 1995 death of a parishioner named Lisa McPherson, Rinder was dispatched to Clearwater, Florida to run the lawyers who were defending the church in criminal and civil cases stemming from her demise. He then had to deal with an upstart New England businessman, Bob Minton, who had decided to spend a large part of his personal fortune leading a protest effort over McPherson’s death by opening a storefront just down the block from Scientology’s holiest spot, the Fort Harrison Hotel.
When Rinder’s efforts were successful and Minton finally cried uncle and agreed to a settlement with Scientology, Rinder says that Miscavige was upset that his wife Shelly, who was in charge of the operation, didn’t manage to get a personal payment of a half million dollars to Miscavige out of Minton, something the lawyers advised was a terrible idea. Rinder wonders if Shelly’s inability to get her husband this kickback may have helped motivate him to banish her a few years later, in 2005. (In general, however, Rinder still agrees with us that Shelly is, to this day, being held at the Church of Spiritual Technology headquarters in a small mountain compound near Lake Arrowhead, California, and his book doesn’t offer any new revelations about that.)
Despite his handling of Minton and many other matters for the church, Rinder repeatedly found that his loyalty was rewarded with increasingly harrowing punishments from Miscavige, who was always looking for ways to prove that he was top dog. This led to the creation of “The Hole” at Scientology’s secretive Int Base in early 2004, as an increasingly paranoid Miscavige created a bizarre office-as-prison for his top lieutenants, including longtime colleagues who had been among his best friends. Rinder himself ended up in The Hole, and so he can personally describe its depravations.
But he was pulled out again when Miscavige needed him for a special operation: Handling the BBC’s John Sweeney, who was proving to be too much for the young new international church spokesman, Tommy Davis, son of Oscar-nominated actress and longtime Scientologist Anne Archer. Miscavige then personally directed Rinder and Davis to harass and surveil Sweeney as he was filming his 2007 special about the church. And we know this not only because Rinder says so (and the church, of course, will put out numerous denials as this book comes out), but he has long had proof of it: Actual texts from Miscavige that were on Rinder’s Blackberry when he made his escape later that year. Those texts have been entered as evidence in court, and Scientology did not dispute their authenticity.
That’s important, because it backs up Rinder’s assertion that Miscavige is not only a ruthless micromanager and sadistic meddler in the lives of the people under him, but also that far from the “ecclesiastical leader” image the church tries to put out, Miscavige is a foul-mouthed thug. It’s right there in his texts.
When Rinder finally got out of the Sea Org and then began finding a way to make a living in a modern world he had never really been a part of before (and that in itself is a fascinating story, the details of which we had never really heard before), he gradually began coming around to the idea that he must dedicate himself to exposing Miscavige and the insane cruelty of Scientology, and he begins talking to journalists and the FBI.
It’s at that point, however, that Scientology then begins targeting him with the same cruel vindictiveness that he’s seen it aim at others, and it goes immediately for the jugular: His relationship with his mother, still a Scientologist in Australia, as well as what little connection he still has with his children.
Like it would be for so many other former Scientologists, Rinder would now have his lifelong loyalty to the idea that Scientology was based on the betterment of mankind pitted against the reality that this bullying, ruthless organization was now spending vast resources to destroy him.
We remember interviewing Rinder a few years later, and we can personally attest that at that time (March 2012), he was still somewhat protective of Hubbard and the subject of Scientology itself. In that interview, for example, he didn’t hesitate telling us his “OT” level and that he was still doing Scientology, but outside the church. Later, at his blog, Rinder obviously went through a period of rethinking Hubbard and the subject of Scientology (which, tellingly, he now insists on not capitalizing). Now, we learn that it was reading Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah, the first, and still the best, full biography of Hubbard, that finally convinced Rinder that the founder was always selling deceptive nonsense.
This also became clear as he and Leah Remini took on the subject in their groundbreaking and Emmy-winning series for A&E, Scientology and the Aftermath. If a bit slowly at first, after the first season the duo eviscerated Hubbard and the subject of his “technology” in multiple episodes.
So, where does that leave Rinder today? Still in pain over the loss of his adult children, but grateful to have met another former Sea Org worker, Christie Collbran and her young son Shane, which resulted in a marriage that has given Shane a younger brother, Jack. With his new family, the promise of his partnership with Remini, and his new book, Rinder has found a way to turn all of the pain and insanity of his years in Sea Org, and the loss of his first family, into a fulfilling journey dedicated to exposing Miscavige and his toxic organization that deserves to be investigated by the federal government. In this, Rinder’s book succeeds brilliantly.
As much as we found this to be an enormously satisfying book with a lot of great new information, we know that there will be some readers who see it differently. While Rinder goes into rich detail about the way he and Christie were harassed and surveilled in the years after Rinder first began talking to the media in 2009, former targets of the Office of Special Affairs under Rinder may be left wondering whether there might have been a similar amount of detail in his book about their operations from OSA’s former director.
We expect that such OSA targets as Gerry Armstrong and Dennis Erlich and Jesse Prince, who are all mentioned in the book, will be left wanting more information about the specific ways that OSA made their lives miserable literally for years as they were targeted for destruction by Scientology. Yes, Rinder covers an incredible amount of information in this book and we’re fortunate that he touches on so many fascinating chapters from Scientology’s history. But expect to hear complaints from OSA’s past victims that its former boss still hasn’t come through with enough detail about the spying, the illegal tactics, and the skullduggery done against them in the name of L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige.
As it is, however, the general reader should not come away with anything but astonishment that such a vicious, vengeful, and dishonest organization is still doing business in the United States. And perhaps Rinder’s well written book will help convince someone in a position of authority to finally do something about it.
We can only hope.
We’re celebrating a little anniversary at the Bunker this morning. Yes, it’s been ten years since we started up tonyortega.org, and we can hardly believe it’s been a decade already.
We’ve had so much fun over that time, live-blogging court cases, for example, in California, Texas, Florida, and New York. Those days are always milestones. But we’re especially fortunate to have such a great commenting community. It’s what keeps us going.
So we’d like to hear what your highlights have been over the last decade. A HowdyCon? A court day? Some wild conversation in the comments section? Let us know.
We’re starting out our eleventh year preparing to cover perhaps the biggest court case we’ve ever watched, the Danny Masterson prosecution in Los Angeles, and we are so looking forward to having you along.
In honor of the anniversary, we’ve released another special “Your Proprietor” podcast for our paid subscribers, with some observations about the court cases we’re watching and some highlights from the comments section this week.
Thank you for reading today’s story here at Substack. For the full picture of what’s happening today in the world of Scientology, please join the conversation at tonyortega.org, where we’ve been reporting daily on David Miscavige’s cabal since 2012. There you’ll find additional stories, and our popular regular daily features:
Source Code: Actual things founder L. Ron Hubbard said on this date in history
Avast, Ye Mateys: Snapshots from Scientology’s years at sea
Overheard in the Freezone: Indie Hubbardism, one thought at a time
Past is Prologue: From this week in history at alt.religion.scientology
Random Howdy: Your daily dose of the Captain
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Episode 14 of the Underground Bunker podcast has been sent out to paid subscribers: We check in with Clearwater city councilman Mark Bunker about Scientology’s latest attempts to sabotage progress there. Meanwhile, we’ve made episodes 1 through 13 available to everyone, with such guests as Jesse Prince, Paulette Cooper, Michelle ‘Emma’ Ryan, Jefferson Hawkins, Patty Moher, Geoff Levin, Pete Griffiths, Sunny Pereira, Bruce Hines, Jeffrey Augustine, and Claire Headley. Go here to get the episodes!