A charismatic prophet. Bigamy. Covert ops. Tax evasion. Space aliens. Celebrities. Money, money, money. It's a story made for the tabloids, and in fact National Enquirer did run an exposé ("Bizarre Brainwashing Cult Cons Top Stars Into Backing Its Drug Program") as early as 1981. Unlike many stories in the Enquirer, this one was never refuted.

"Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion," a major expansion of Janet Reitman's 2006 Rolling Stone article, traces Scientology from its beginnings (Dianetics) through its establishment as a religion in 1950, with special attention to its post-L. Ron Hubbard incarnation under the leadership of David Miscavige. Part I details Hubbard's biography, and, even shorn of self-mythologizing and outright fictions (had he done everything he claimed, he would have had to live to be 200), what a bizarre and interesting journey it was from pulp science fiction writer to He Who Must Be Obeyed at the head of a worldwide religious corporation.

While debunking many of Hubbard's "embellishments," Reitman acknowledges his "magnetism" and his flat-out genius at making money; he just might have been the best salesman of all time. It's not a hatchet job: The portrait that emerges is of a complex character who believed at least some of his own stories and was, in early life, capable of seeing himself quite clearly (he admitted to "pathological lying" and "professional mediocrity" in one of his early self-analysis sessions).

Part II follows Hubbard and his organization to sea (Hubbard calling himself "Commodore" and chain-smoking Kools while attended by teenaged Scientologists bearing ashtrays) and, beginning in 1980, into seclusion (again attended by teenaged Scientologists bearing ashtrays). It was during the isolation years that Hubbard wrote the doctrine, still part of Scientology, of galactic warfare resulting in a hydrogen bomb that left extraterrestrial souls stranded in a Hawaiian volcano. In Reitman's account, even Scientology's most faithful celebrity recruit, Tom Cruise, had to be carefully wooed back after receiving this information.

When Hubbard died (or, if you prefer, ceased to need his physical body) in 1986, control was assumed by Miscavige, a cradle Scientologist and, in Reitman's account, consummate dictator who consolidated his power through purges, a "holy war of litigation" against perceived enemies and a "celebrity magnet" strategy. Not surprisingly, Scientology is a different animal for Cruise and his ilk than for the rank and file, many of whom sign "billion year contracts" to work for the organization in exchange for free training. Should they wish to leave, they are labeled "freeloaders" and presented with a bill -- often to the tune of $50,000 or more. For Cruise, by contrast, the organization built a $200,000 tennis court, provided a chef, remodeled a private condo and refurbished a rifle range.

As Reitman admits, it's difficult to write about an organization whose hallmarks are secrecy and control; most of her sources have left Scientology, often bitterly, which perhaps renders them less than objective. But the horrifying stories they tell are remarkably consistent, and Reitman reports them without overt editorializing. Her interview subjects do include a number who have been helped by Scientology, and she profiles a second-generation Scientologist named Natalie who comes across as an independent, happy critical thinker. Still, "Inside Scientology" is unlikely to attract converts, celebrity or otherwise.

Patricia Hagen teaches at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.