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Unexpectedly, Leah Remini's documentary made me feel empathy for famous Scientologists like Tom Cruise

Clémence Michallon

Leah Remini’s documentary series Scientology and the Aftermath earned its fourth Emmy nomination on Tuesday – two years after nabbing the Outstanding Informational Series or Special award in 2017. The show, which wrapped up its third season in February, is built upon the testimonies of former church executives and members (including Remini herself, who joined Scientology aged nine and left 34 years later, in 2013).

Throughout the series’ 45-minute episodes, former Scientologists describe the emotional and financial toll they say the church took on their lives. They offer up stories of being separated from their families after leaving the church, and, for some of them, of being stalked, placed under surveillance, or otherwise harassed.

Some share breathtaking tales about having to physically escape the premises in order to leave the organisation for good. One couple in the first season recount having to plot their respective escapes in secret. Others claim they had to leave spouses behind, or that they were allegedly chased on the highway after making a break for it on a motorcycle. One woman breaks down in tears when she shares her account of being forced to have an abortion after becoming pregnant while being a member of the Sea Organisation, Scientology’s religious order.

Throughout the show, Remini repeatedly professes her desire to share other people’s stories in order to prompt change and action against the church. Each episode and each testimony is preceded by statements from the organisation disputing the participants’ allegations and at times making claims against them. Scientology has vocally contested Remini’s entire show and created a website to discredit it.

The show makes for captivating – and often heartbreaking – viewing. It also offers an in-depth outlook into why people felt compelled to join an organisation such as Scientology, and the disillusionment they must have experienced when they decided to leave. “It offers you a sense of purpose in life,” Remini says. “Not only are you fixing yourself, but you’re also helping mankind.” Scientologists, we are told, believe they’re acting for the greater good as well as for their own salvation. Several participants recount joining its ranks because they were looking for something more – a higher purpose in life than what the daily grind has to offer. Throughout their Scientology careers, they attended “events” during which the church’s purported accomplishments were, according to the documentary, vastly blown out of proportion. This, coupled with the alleged coercive tactics that former Scientologists say they experienced, shines a light on how extremely difficult it must have been to leave. At one point, Remini urges viewers not to deride Scientologist’s apparent naivety, because doing so would erase their pain. This portrayal of well-meaning people who joined an organisation hoping to bring about positive change, only for them to be allegedly exploited, is the show’s most powerful takeaway.

For that reason, Scientology and the Aftermath has prompted me to unpack the complicated feelings I have around celebrity Scientologists. Tom Cruise, as we all know, is one of the church’s most high-profile members, as is John Travolta. Elisabeth Moss, Kristie Alley and Laura Prepon also associate with the church.

It’s tempting – and often justified – to hold celebrities accountable for their proximity with an organisation such as Scientology. When you’re a Hollywood star, proximity becomes promotion. So the public has rightfully questioned Moss’s affiliation with the church, since many of its alleged practices (especially regarding families, women’s rights, LGBT+ rights and women’s rights) seem irreconcilable with her role as June, a woman resisting against an oppressive government in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Cruise’s public criticism of psychiatry, as well as his remarks about Brooke Shields’s use of antidepressants, are outrageous at best and dangerous at worst. And it’s interesting to think about what would happen if such high-profile devotees as Cruise or Travolta were to publicly sever their ties to the church. Plenty wonder whether they will and why they haven’t. It’s easy – and understandable – to become frustrated: if Scientology is as abusive as the participants in Remini’s documentary say it is, and if those powerful A-listers have the power to publicly disavow such an organisation, why won’t they do it?

Remini has offered her thoughts on Cruise’s continued association with Scientology, suggesting both that he has been “fully brainwashed” and that he has no incentive to leave because of the power she says he yields within the church. Moss herself told the Daily Beast in the past: “It’s a complicated thing because the things that I believe in, I can only speak to my personal experience and my personal beliefs”, before asserting her support for women’s rights and LGBT+ rights.

Needless to say, I don’t know why celebrities aren’t leaving Scientology. I don’t know if it has to do with beliefs, power, fear, money, none of the above or all of the above. But having spent several hours watching Remini’s documentary, I cannot help but think of the ways they must have thought the church would help them.

Cruise has credited Scientology with helping him overcome his dyslexia, after years of carrying his learning disability with him like a secret. Prepon has said that Scientology has helped her feel more detached and worry less.

According to the church’s portrayal in Scientology and the Aftermath, Scientology allegedly preys on people’s need for betterment and exploits it for control and financial gain. And celebrities, whether we like it or not, are people with fears and insecurities just like the rest of us. So while it makes sense to hold them — public figures that they are — accountable for the beliefs and organisations they promote, I also can’t help but feel for them, just as I feel for each participant sharing their story in Remini’s series.

I didn’t start watching the series expecting it to make me feel more empathy for famous Scientologists, but I couldn’t help it: the alleged abuses described in the show are such that you can’t possibly wish them on anyone, famous or otherwise.