Scientology is always going to be a fascinating topic, especially when it comes to talking about celebrity. The mystery surrounding the religion, reports from some of its ex-members, as well as mean-spirited jabs by light night comics ensure that Scientology will always be viewed by the mainstream public a wary eye. It doesn’t help that three of its most famous members: Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise are almost as famous for their unsettling and strange persona as they are for their acting careers. One of the faith’s celebrity members, Leah Remini, was a public advocate for Scientology, appearing in promo videos and speaking out in support of the religion. That all has changed in the last couple years when Remini famously left Scientology to the ire of the church and its celebrity followers. In her memoir, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, the popular TV comedienne goes into length on how she became involved in the faith, and what made her leave.
Though Scientology is a major part of the book, Troublemaker acts as a standard showbiz memoir, as well. It follows the pattern pretty closely: star reminisces about troubled childhood in humble beginnings, mentions supportive friends and family, discloses estrangement from other family members, details struggles to get to the top, and shares anecdotes about her time in Hollywood with other stars. There is some name dropping in the book, but it’s not obnoxious, and every celebrity that makes an appearance in the book is either a friend of Remini’s or a colleague (except for her passages that deal with her strange friendship with Tom Cruise). Her rise to the top of sitcomhood is gratifying, because she does a great job in detailing her struggles to get to her 9-year stint on King of Queens. Before that plum job, it looked like Remini would become the Queen of Failed Sitcoms, as she amassed an impressive record of canceled shows (though she did pay her dues in a recurring role on the teen comedy Saved by the Bell). As Remini points out in her book, talent agents and casting directors had a hard time figuring out what to do with her because of her strong personality – though model-gorgeous, Remini also has a prominent New York drawl, and an inability to play bullshit, which makes it difficult to be a player in an industry that is largely based on artifice and illusion. These factors initially worked against her, and boxed her into being typecast as the mouthy beauty from Brooklyn.
But after landing the role of Kevin James’ wife on King of Queens, Remini’s stock in her church skyrocketed, and soon church officials began to construct friendships between Remini and the church’s most famous member: Tom Cruise. The friendship would come to a strange crash during his glammy wedding to actress Katie Holmes. It was during this time that Remini began to see Cruise’s strange public behavior (the couch jumping, his public beef with Matt Lauer, his slamming of Brook Shields) as detrimental to Scientology’s public image. What Remini goes on to describe is a bizarre and convoluted world of reports, and admonishments, where friends and family members are urged to write up reports on others if they witness any transgressions. For those who insist that Scientology isn’t a cult, Remini’s experience may change their minds.
What’s more disturbing is Remini’s experience with the church as a teen. When she, her sister, and her mother left Brooklyn for Clearwater, Florida, otherwise known as the spiritual headquarters of Scientology, the young Remini faced a life marked by menial and manual labor, a culture of distrust, and an atmosphere that thrived on intimidation and fear. I was struck at how similar these early passages were to those of survivors of Peoples Temple. Remini’s innate rebellious nature often kept her at odds with church higher ups and in one awful instance, after an infraction, a teen-aged Remni was thrown from a boat into the water.
After the harrowing experiences in Florida, Remini’s mother took her kids to Los Angeles. It’s here that Remini began to pound the pavement to become an actress. Despite their awful time with the faith, Remini’s mom still kept the family in the church. And for outsiders looking in, this decision is head-scractchingly strange. But Remini’s sage advice is to not judge folks who stay because often Scientology is wrapped up in a person’s whole life, and her whole social network is involved with the church. If one is seen as truly subversive and destructive to the church, then the church encourages followers to shun and disown that friend or family member – Remini herself admits that after her public exit, she lost many friends (including Kirstie Alley, who publicly denounced Remini as a “bigot” and an “enemy”).
Though Remini’s known for being a funny lady, she’s also known for being frank. She admits that her rebellious nature (hence the title of the book) may have cost her friendships, relationships, even work – she goes into some detail about her very-public firing from her talk show, The Talk (which she concedes was a bad fit for her). At the opening of the book, Remini lays out all of her sins, including public and private indiscretions, infidelity, even violence. She does so because she knows that the church will try to discredit her by bringing up unsavory details of her life. She knows how the church operates, and she wants to scoop it. This fact should make readers aware of how destructive churches can be.
Leah Remini’s story is a troubling, though ultimately satisfying one. As a writer, she and her collaborator, Rebecca Paley, capture the actresses’ voice well – for the most part. There are moments – especially when Remini goes into detail about the various rules and regulations of Scientology, that her voice seems to be replaced by a blanker, journalistic voice. When she talks about her friends and family as well as her work, then Remini’s impish humor shines through. And even more important, what Troublemaker ultimately does, is expose the author as a brave and talented woman.