Kirstie Alley was known for her star turns in Cheers and Look Who’s Talking in the 1980s and 1990s. But in recent years, her affiliation with the Church of Scientology—and her resultant feud with Leah Remini—seemed to grab more headlines than her acting roles.
Alley died after a short battle with cancer that was “only recently discovered,” according to a statement her children, True and Lillie Parker, uploaded to her Twitter account on Monday. Soon afterward, pop culture commentator Yashar Ali alleged that Scientology makes specific mention of the terminal illness in its literature.
“One of the promises that Scientology explicitly makes to members (on paper!) is if you reach the upper levels of Scientology you won’t get cancer,” Ali tweeted. “Kirstie Alley and Kelly Preston, two dedicated Scientologists, have both died of cancer in the past two years.”
The Church of Scientology’s website doesn’t mention this, but does advise adherents to “seek conventional medical treatment for illnesses and injuries.” Newsweek has contacted the church for comment about Ali’s allegation that the church says rising in its ranks can prevent cancer.
The church’s relationship with medicine has long been a hot topic. It infamously became the subject of scrutiny in 2005 when another of its high-profile devotees, Tom Cruise, said on Access Hollywood that women who seek psychiatric treatment for postpartum depression are “irresponsible,” a view many linked to Scientology’s teachings about psychiatry. To this day, the religion’s website calls psychiatric medication “an elaborate and deadly hoax.”
Alley’s support of former President Donald Trump also caused controversy in recent years.
When Did Kirstie Alley Become a Scientologist?
“When I began doing Scientology, I was a drugged-out mess,” the late actress wrote in her 2012 memoir, The Art of Men. “I understood hell—depression, anxiety, addiction, failure, and loss.”
Alley details her relationship with the church in a chapter titled “The Art of Not Dying.” She stumbled upon Scientology during a dark period of her life in the late 1970s. “I’d done enough cocaine to kill several people,” Alley, who was still living in her native Kansas, wrote. “I weighed 112 pounds…. We didn’t have the term in 1979, but I was a hot mess.”
A friend sent her a copy of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics, which she read “while snorting cocaine from a silver tray and drinking limeades.”
Alley had driven past Scientology’s center in Redondo Beach, California, before and made a mental note of the luxury cars parked outside. Until she received Dianetics, all she knew of the religion was that its adherents seemed to have nicer “rides” than the Methodist families she’d grown up with, she wrote.
Why Did Kirstie Alley Join the Scientology Church?
Alley credited Scientology with teaching her that she had the strength to climb out of her drug addiction and depression. She drove for 26 days from Kansas to Newport Beach, California, to visit a Scientology center, stopping periodically along the way to buy drugs.
Coming off of a bender, Alley “rallied from” a “drug stupor” to attend her first Scientology counseling session, after which she “never wanted to do another drug,” she said. “Of course it was a lucky break and probably not something you would see happening every day in Scientology, but it happened to me.”
After Scientology helped her kick drugs, she became a devotee and spent decades publicly defending the church and building friendships with fellow adherents like Cruise and John Travolta. In 2001, she opened a Beverly Hills literacy center based on Hubbard’s teachings. It’s unclear whether that center remains in operation today. She purchased a home in Clearwater, Florida, from fellow Scientologist Lisa Marie Presley in 2000, blocks from the city’s Scientology center.
Alley said she saw Scientology help people deal with bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and more and railed against the psychopharmaceutical industry for overprescribing mental health medications. She wrote in her book that Scientology was “180 degrees apart from” traditional psychiatric treatment but stopped short of explaining exactly how the church treats mental health and addiction problems.
But Alley drew a line between doctors who treat physical ailments and those who treat mental ones.
“Yes, there are real things that attack the body, including cancer, diabetes, polio, viruses, infections, encephalitis, and the bubonic plague,” she wrote in her memoir. “People die from these or get treatment and recover. But Scientology deals with the spirit and its effect on the mind and the body.”
Why Is Scientology Controversial?
The church was founded by Hubbard, a science fiction writer, in 1953. Its teachings about psychiatry, which Alley explored at length in her book, aren’t the only thing that make it controversial.
The 2015 documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and a similarly titled 2013 book by Lawrence Wright allege that the church engaged in tactics like isolation, blackmail and wiretapping of its members. The church called the documentary’s allegations “false” and “propaganda.”
The church is also known for high-profile devotees like Alley, Cruise and Travolta. Former Scientologist Leah Remini has alleged that Cruise “knows exactly what goes on in Scientology” and urged fans not to ignore his involvement with the church despite the success of his most recent film, Top Gun: Maverick.
Remini wrote a book about her experiences with the church called Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology. Over the years, Remini and Alley exchanged barbs about Scientology, most recently in February when Alley tweeted, “I don’t know what’s real or what’s fake in this war. So I won’t be commenting. I’ll pray instead.”
Remini shot back: “She has no comment on these crimes against humanity? But she’s going to pray? Scientology, her ‘religion’, says Christ is a pedophile and a lie. Scientologists aren’t allowed to believe in anything else other than Scientology. So who is she praying to?”
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