This past June, a surprising case came before a jury in Massachusetts: a woman was charged for her role in the suicide of her boyfriend. In text messages between the two, Michelle Carter cajoled her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself, and he followed through in July 2014. The case sparked a firestorm: is one person responsible for the actions for another? A jury decided in the affirmative, and Carter will serve 15 months for involuntary manslaughter.
The last two weeks of Leah Remini’s “Scientology and the Aftermath” series have posed to viewers a similar ethical question about former members of the cult who have gone on to commit suicide. How much responsibility does the “church” have to the family and friends left behind?
Half of the second episode of the season focused on the story of a young woman, Tayler Tweed, who committed suicide after countless cries for help on social media. Her friend, Lauren Haggis, daughter of outspoken ex-Scientologist celebrity Paul Haggis, discussed Tweed’s death at length with Remini and her partner, ex-Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder.
The last half of the episode was a bit odd, especially following the harrowing story of former Sea Org member Marie Bilheimer, whose husband Aaron Poulin committed suicide shortly before a court hearing to face charges of prostituting himself. Sea Org is the inner circle of Scientology members. Haggis’ story was entirely based on watching her friend’s social media postings unfold, because the women had not had an in-person relationship much past being roommates at a Scientology boarding school together.
The next week, as they always do, Scientology’s response statements were aired, and for the first time, they had a legitimate gripe against the crusading pair. The organization declared, “Remini featured a so-called ‘friend’ of Lauren Haggis to speak about Tayler even though Lauren had no relationship with Tayler Tweed for a decade.” Tweed’s mother, who made pointed public statements about her daughter prior to her death, made similar denouncements of the episode, declaring her daughter would have been free to seek any mental health treatment she had desired, presumably even the ones her own religion derided.
The whole second half of the episode felt like a stretch, perhaps an excuse to justify having Haggis appear on camera. Scientology may have been hoping that after an entire season of featuring the stories of defectors, Remini and Rinder were running out of subjects.
The season’s third episode featured a first: a third-generation Scientologist, and a defector. Elizabeth Gale, the daughter of Marie Gale, the spokeswoman for the anti-psychiatry wing of Scientology, told the story of her family’s fracture and the suicide of her brother on the founder of Scientology’s birthday. Prior to her brother Phillip’s suicide, Elizabeth had sought to end her own life, and when her mother visited the hospital after the attempt, she worked to ensure Elizabeth wasn’t treated by the hospital’s psychiatry staff. The family is now completely splintered, and Marie Gale has decided to sell the family property, which has been in the Gale family for more than 100 years, lest she leave it to her estranged daughter Elizabeth.
The basis of the second season of “Scientology and the Aftermath” was for Remini not just to tell stories, but also do something. What that “something” is has yet to be clearly spelled out, though it appears the show’s stars and producers are working to make a case for law enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service (which has granted the organization tax-exempt status on the basis of being a religion) to investigate.
While the stories of suicide in episode two and three are indeed tragic and heart-breaking, how much responsibility does the “church” have for them? If Remini and Rinder are using this season to build a case against the group, this is among the least compelling they could have created. While a jury in Massachusetts may have found Carter somewhat at fault for her boyfriend’s death, it’s a considerably more difficult, if not impossible, case against an entire organization like Scientology.