(Andrew Theodorakis/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, after Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise, a media frenzy ensued. The tabloid site TMZ alleged the divorce was not about money or other normal sources of marital strife, but rather Tom’s plan to enroll their 6-year-old daughter, Suri, into Scientology’s elite religious order known as “Sea Org.” On CBS, Eliza Shapiro reported—based on the testimony of apostate Scientologists—that six-year old Suri Cruise was being “groomed to be part of the upper echelons” of the faith. According to Shapiro, leaving the church “might be scary and dangerous” for Holmes. Since the divorce was announced, “mysterious men” have been reported following Holmes around New York, though a lawyer for Scientology has denied the church is involved. (Who other than Scientologists would possibly stalk a celebrity undergoing a divorce?)

Ever since Holmes and Cruise married in a Scientology ceremony in 2006, some have viewed Holmes as a prisoner of her husband’s religion. Headlines since the divorce have included “Katie Breaks Free” and “How Katie Holmes Escaped Scientology.” One woman even achieved her own fifteen minutes of fame by selling “Free Katie” T-Shirts. People’s Larry Hackett compared the current Holmes story to the fairy tale of Rapunzel locked in a tower. In fact, the narrative now being spun in the tabloids is derived not from fairy tales but from a familiar story about the suffering of women at the hands of the “religious Other,” the roots of which lie very deep in the American psyche.

Scientology, with its hierarchical structure, rigorous secrecy, and involvement with celebrity culture, has become America’s favorite religious Other. Narratives about escaping the faith have become commonplace. After news of Holmes’ divorce broke, The Daily Beast published an “escape story” from former Scientologist Astra Woodcraft, who described growing up on a Scientology compound and joining Sea Org. She married an older Sea Org member at 15, and finally escaped by becoming pregnant—which was cause for immediate expulsion from the group. Last November, Valeska Guider Paris alleged, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), that the Church of Scientology held her captive for twelve years aboard its cruiseship, The Freewinds. The details were salacious: She described being unable to go ashore without a chaperone, having to sleep in a room where she was monitored by a camera, and performing hours of hard labor in the engine room, all while church authorities provided classes and entertainment to high-profile members—including Tom Cruise at his 2004 birthday party.

Like Woodcraft, Guider Paris was a member of Sea Org—the elite Scientology order to which Cruise has allegedly pledged his young daughter. To be certain, the testimony of these former Sea Org members is both tragic and disturbing. But the media excitement over their tales, much like the current speculation over Holmes, says more about our culture’s fascination with religious minorities than about Scientology. The stories of these young women—their “capture” at the hands of a cult, and their eventual escape and happy ending—continue a long American tradition of “captivity narratives” that reinforce our fascination, horror and prejudice toward the religious Other.

GEORGETOWN AMERICAN STUDIES SCHOLAR Edward Ingebretsen describes the captivity narrative as “the first American mythology.” One of the earliest of these stories was Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, published in 1682, which documented her abduction by Native Americans during King Philip’s War. The book was so popular it went through four editions in one year. Rowlandson’s description of her experience, which is both anecdotal and graphic, served to inscribe the status of the New England Puritans as servants of God opposed by demonic savages. Later American captivity narratives occupied a similar space between autobiography and folklore, always describing the horrors inflicted on a young, white woman at the hands of religious minorities. In 1834, a mob burned down the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The following year, Rebecca Reed, an Episcopalian who had been a student at the convent, published her novel, Six Months in a Convent. It described the convent as a prison in which nuns inflicted horrible punishments on their Protestant students. Reed’s novel fueled a wave of anti-Catholicism and inspired numerous pornographic novels depicting convents as “priest’s harems” and “consecrated brothels.”

The charge of imprisoning virtuous women has remained a ready-made accusation against minority religions. In the nineteenth century, the stereotype of the lecherous Catholic priest was easily adapted to Hindu religious leaders, who were likewise accused of holding women against their will using hypnosis. In 1910, Pierre Bernard, the early American proponent of yoga, was charged with “abducting” two of his female students. He spent three months in prison before the alleged victims fled town and the case was dismissed. The trope of the captured woman has also featured prominently in negative characterizations of Mormons, such as Zane Grey’s novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912, and more recently, in Jon Krakauer’s account of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in Under the Banner of Heaven. The 1980 book, Michelle Remembers, a story constructed from “recovered memories” taken under hypnosis, describes Michelle Smith’s captivity and torture at the hands of a Satanic cult. Although the cult appears to have been entirely imaginary, this book inspired a moral panic over “Satanic ritual abuse.” Similarly, Betty Mahmoody’s* 1987 book Not Without My Daughter—later a feature film starring Sally Field—detailed her experience as a hostage in Iran, but also fueled American hostility towards the Muslim world.

With Scientology as the latest religious Other, the stories of Holmes, Woodcraft, and Guider-Paris fit almost seamlessly into a ready-made captivity narrative, complete with the requisite stock characters. These women are photogenic, young, and white; the alleged captors represent a highly secretive and hierarchical religion. With these familiar elements present, it is hardly surprising that these stories become so popular. Yet, who does the outrage inspired by this story serve? Do we truly sympathize for these women? Or is the real appeal of such stories that they inspire a feeling of being united and energized against an evil and deviant religion?

SCIENTOLOGY, FOUNDED IN 1952 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has become one of the most stigmatized religious movements in the Western world. Early Scientologists took to the sea much for the same reason that early Christians took to the catacombs. In 1968, Hubbard was deported from the United Kingdom and faced similar hostility from governments and media in Australia and the United States. That same year, he formed Sea Org, so named because it was originally housed aboard his fleet of ships, notably his flagship, The Apollo. Sea Org was to be an elite corps of Scientologists, comparable to monks in other religions. Their stated mission was nothing less than healing mankind and saving human civilization from self-destruction. In 1975, the group took up a permanent headquarters in seaside Clearwater, Florida. Only one vessel remains from Sea Org’s fleet—The Freewinds. According to an official statement from the church, today the cruise ship serves as “a religious retreat where Scientologists come for events, conventions, courses, and spiritual counseling.”

Joining Sea Org requires signing a contract that pledges a commitment of, literally, a billion years. Their motto is “revenimus” or “We Come Back,” indicating that the pledge is binding through multiple reincarnations. Critics of Sea Org point to the group’s nautical uniforms and strict adherence to protocol as evidence of a totalitarian agenda. The pledge taken by Sea Org members to serve the group’s mission for a billion years has been parodied on The Simpsons and elsewhere as a sign of insanity. Yet it could be argued that this pledge is similar to the bodhisattva vow in Mahayana Buddhism, in which adherents pledge to work countless lifetimes for the benefit of all sentient beings. Even more than the rank and file Scientologists, Sea Org has been the target of deep suspicion. Apostates have accused them of brainwashing, child abuse, and human trafficking.

Unlike Katie Holmes, Valeska Guider Paris and Astra Woodcraft have leveled allegations at the Church of Scientology that should be taken seriously. None of this is meant to cast doubt on their testimony or to exonerate the Church of Scientology from any possible wrongdoing. However, it is clear their stories resonate with already-held prejudices about secretive religions, a fact that may make us all too willing to believe them, evidence or not. Looking back at our long tradition of captivity narratives allows us to pause and reflect before engaging in yet another round of excoriating an already stigmatized group. Do we want to “free Katie” because the Church of Scientology represents an actual social problem? Or have we transformed the lives of these women into classic tales of good and evil, meant to entertain more than edify? If so, we may be engaged in our own sort of imprisonment, confining living people to roles that have haunted our culture since the days of the Puritans. Perhaps Katie is still not free.

Joseph Laycock holds a PhD in religious studies from Boston University and is the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism.

*Correction: The article originally and incorrectly identified the author as Betty Mahmoud.