When a writer of Lawrence Wright’s status takes on a subject like Scientology, it’s no trivial matter, but a page turner of a book isn’t necessarily the expectation. Wright won the Pulitzer for his 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. After hundreds of interviews with former Scientologists, he returned with 2013’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
Writing such a book is a challenge on many levels. While people often make jokes about Scientology, most of us don’t know anything concrete about its beliefs. Even for an insider, those belief are hard to follow, with various levels of access gained after years of study, investment, and rising through a complex organization; tenets that have shifted over time at the whim of Scientology’s leaders; and strange terminology that can sound almost like complete nonsense to the uninitiated. To write about it, one has to talk to those who have gained the religion’s upper levels, but even these people may not have the full story. Unless they’ve turned against the religion, these sources won’t tell an outsider much and what they do share will be filled with propaganda, deliberate obfuscations, and outright lies. If they have turned against the religion, their embittered state may make them equally unreliable, so the only way to reach the truth is to talk separately to hundreds of different people and compare the notes, as Wright did. Even if one manages this obstacle course, physical courage is still required, as Scientology has a history of running smear campaigns, filing law suits, and in some cases even physically intimidating critics.
Wright navigates all of that successfully with Going Clear, bringing readers the story of founder L. Ron Hubbard and the strange development of his religion (often on ocean-going vessels, traveling the high seas while trying to find a home country that would tolerate his tax dodges, espionage campaigns, and the questionable treatment of followers). When Hubbard died in 1986, the story became, if possible, even stranger. A mid-level leader in his organization, David Miscavige, led what essentially was a coup to take over leadership of the Church, but as Wright documents thoroughly, Miscavige is a man with a history of cruel techniques aimed at followers who threaten his authority or who try to leave Scientology, cruelties that sometimes even rise to the level of personal physical beatings from Miscavige.
Wright explains the development of Scientologist beliefs such as the payment for “auditing” sessions that are required to rise in the religion, the influence of past lives on one’s current state and the use of hypnosis to access them, the ability to overcome physical problems with the mind, and the Church’s systemic hatred for psychology. Wright documents, as well as one possibly could, the tactics Scientology used to gain tax-free status while becoming rich on real estate investments. He shows the history of shunning, psychological torture, deliberate splitting of families, forced labor, and the brainwashing, near starvation, and keeping of “suppressive” individuals in squalid, prison-like conditions.
For those interested in the Hollywood connection of Scientology, Wright doesn’t disappoint either, documenting Scientology’s carefully planned pursuit of celebrity advocates and its strange relationships with celebrities like John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, musician Chick Corea, and most importantly, Tom Cruise. It’s an odd tale of extravagant catering to the needs of celebrities mixed with threats against those who then decide to leave. One of Wright’s chief informants was the Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, now a fierce critic of Scientology.
Does Wright know everything about Scientology? No, it’s a complicated enough organization that no one possibly could, even a true believer at a high level. But Wright does a masterful job in documenting the many cult-like aspects of this strange American-born religion and the many questions an informed person should be asking about its practices. It’s an eye-opening book that is also entertaining to read, a sure bet to create a lively discussion at your next book group meeting.