In her hit A&E series “Scientology: The Aftermath,” actress Leah Remini has exposed many brutal facets of Scientology. From forced abortions to financial extortion, there’s no shortage of reasons Remini and her fellow ex-Scientologists call the “church” a cult, not a religion. An ongoing theme of the series has been the policy of “disconnection,” a cornerstone to the organization’s control over its adherents.
What is the policy of disconnection, and what does it require? The Daily Beast translates it as: “One of the most controversial practices of Scientology, in which converts are required to sever ties with all friends and family members believed to be unsupportive of their decision to join the church. Those hostile to the church—including members who become skeptical—may be labeled a ‘suppressive person’ forcing other Scientologists to shun them.”
Every interview conducted over the course of the Remini series touches on the ramifications of disconnection. She illustrates the effects on families of the “church’s” insistence that those still involved disconnect themselves in every way from those who have left.
In her book “Troublemaker” and on a prior TLC episode of her reality show “It’s All Relative,” Remini discussed her decision to leave Scientology, and how afterwards the organization gave her family a choice: ditch Leah or leave everything related to Scientology behind, even other members. Remini’s family lost lifetime friends when they decided to join Leah. Her brother in law lost his entire family as well. Remini’s brother in law, William Farrara, was forced to make a Sophie’s choice between his biological family and his wife and hers.
A Focus on Scientology’s Victims
The strength of the A&E series, as opposed to the work Remini has done about Scientology with TLC, is its focus on highlighting stories from other defectors from the cult. While Remini acts as a facilitator and brings her star power, charisma, and screen presence to the show, it isn’t about her, her family, or their decision to leave. While Remini discusses that in short vignettes between segments, the majority of each episode has focused on the story of one defector and how his or her story explains the theme of the episode.
Episode six was devoted to expounding on the policy of disconnection. Remini showcased how it keeps doubters involved in the organization long after they would have preferred to depart, and just how devastating it can be for those affected.
Remini and her cohost, Mike Rinder, the former International Spokesman for Scientology, traveled to Clearwater, Florida, in the shadows of the main base of Scientology, where many ex-members still live. One of these ex-members, Aaron Smith-Levin and his identical twin brother Collin started in the organization as preteens after their mother joined while seeking spiritual enlightenment and stability.
Cut Off Everyone You Love Or Else
Remini and Rinder interviewed Smith-Levin, who lost Collin when the latter left Scientology and Aaron did not. Several years after Collin’s death, Smith-Levin and his mother began to have their own doubts and read negative press coverage for the first time, including the groundbreaking series from the Tampa Bay Times, the first time Rinder spoke out against the “church” since his departure. When Smith-Levin’s mother’s doubts became known to the organization, she was “declared,” and essentially kicked out and cut off, the two say.
Because her son worked for a Scientologist, he says he was called into his boss’s office and essentially given an ultimatum: “Disconnect from your mother or lose your job, friends, and family.” For the next year, he pretended to be disconnected, but eventually their nanny, who was also a Scientologist, heard household conversations between the children that indicated they still maintained a relationship with their “GG,” or grandmother. This was enough for Smith-Levin to be kicked out as well, but not before he was fired from his job lest his boss risk a wrongful termination lawsuit. Smith-Levin’s wife Heather was also working in the Scientology world, and was given the same ultimatum: divorce your husband or lose your job, friends, and family.
Right before taping the A&E episode, Heather decided not to appear on camera alongside her husband out of fear of further alienating her family still involved in Scientology. This episode highlights that the policy of disconnection is a domino: When a member decides to leave, he or she risks losing friends and family. If those members decide to defect alongside the original member, they too force their family to make the same Sophie’s choice.
The Distress Is Heart-Breaking
In her TLC special, Remini sobbed while explaining how profoundly guilty she still feels that because she decided to leave, her parents and sister lost their lifelong friends, and her brother-in-law his entire immediate and extended family. Because of Scientology’s policy of disconnection, Heather and Aaron Smith-Levin’s three daughters do not have a relationship with their maternal grandparents, who live across the street (these same grandparents made a point of not disconnecting from the Smith-Levinses’ dog, however, because that would just be too cruel to the canine).
While adherents of major religions may experience strife and possible familial disownment if a member departs, Scientology is unique in that this not only occurs, but that it disownment, or disconnection, is required of those who wish to still be involved. This episode featuring a grown man sobbing on camera discussing the death of his identical twin brother was one of the most emotional moments of television I’ve ever seen.
Elisheva Avital, a fellow fan of the series and avid-Scientology watcher, remarked to me, “It’s different to know this happens than to witness the pain.” Like the rest of the series has done, here Remini distilled the information that was already available about Scientology in a way that makes it relatable and heart-wrenching, for those who were already familiar with its abuses and for the many who were not. With the biggest audiences A&E has ever seen for original programming, Remini continues to establish herself as the most dangerous force against the cult in its history.