Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

  • Lawrence Wright
  • Knopf
  • 448 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • March 8, 2013

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s latest work explores Scientology.

Lawrence Wright seems like a natural fit to author a book about Scientology. “I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious belief on people’s lives — historically, a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics,” he writes in the introduction to Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. What goes unsaid — but what’s immediately apparent to anyone who’s read even a few pages of his other nonfiction work — is that Wright is a meticulous researcher and a balanced writer: the perfect combination for tackling complex topics fraught with moral angst.

And as complex topics go, Scientology is a pretty angst-filled one. Wright begins his narrative with the religion’s founding by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who became an overnight sensation with the publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950. Thousands of people were drawn to Dianetics’ supposed ability to cure afflictions and ease troubled minds; but Hubbard, faced with accusations that he was a con man and possibly insane, would spend much of his remaining life on the move from country to country, increasingly isolated despite an entourage of loyal acolytes. Scientology — the eventual name for his movement — took particularly deep root in Los Angeles, where followers made a special effort to recruit actors and artists. Wright covers this drama with a journalist’s detachment, careful to relate even the most dramatic events in a cool tone.

“Scientology promised these neophytes an entry into the gated community of celebrity,” Wright writes about those early years. “The church claimed to have a method for getting ahead; just as enticing was the whispered assertion that a network of Scientologists existed at the upper levels of the entertainment industry eager to advance like-minded believers.” Hubbard had built a complex spiritual foundation for Scientology, which followers learned in bits and pieces — provided they continued to pay for coursework and auditing by their peers.

Eventually, a number of truly famous people (Tom Cruise and John Travolta among them) would join Scientology, boosting its wealth and visibility. As Wright describes, the movement also attempted to seed the federal government with spies, resulting in a backlash of FBI raids and IRS probes; not until the early 1990s did it secure the tax-exempt status enjoyed by religions in the United States.

One of Wright’s star sources is the screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who wrote the award-winning films “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.”Haggis famously broke with the Church of Scientology in 2009, an event documented by Wright in a lengthy article for The New Yorker. Much of that story resurfaces in Going Clear, most notably Haggis’s choice to quit after a Scientology chapter in San Diego supported the Proposition 8 ballot initiative banning gay marriage — something that grievously offended him as the father of two gay daughters.

But Haggis isn’t Wright’s only source. The book features interviews with a number of Scientologists, some of whom climbed to a high rank within the organization’s hierarchy before breaking away. As the narrative progresses and these sources tell stories of their time in Scientology, footnotes begin to sprout every few pages, many of them quoting a church official. (“The church denies that blow drills exist,” reads a representative one; Tom Cruise’s attorney is likewise a frequent presence in the lower margins, denying that his client did this or that.)

Scientology has good reason to issue such fervent denials. Wright devotes a significant portion of the book to former Scientologists’ claims of abuse while they were members of the church. Isolation on Scientology properties, relatively austere rations, backbreaking (and sometimes humiliating) labor and miserable pay are just the beginning; these sources also assert they were forced to “disconnect” from loved ones, never speaking to the latter again. The response by Scientology spokespeople, of course, is that those heretics are lying in order to damage their former faith.

By the end of the book, the Church of Scientology’s attempts at pushback have leaked from the footnotes into the narrative itself. The penultimate chapter, “Tommy,” recounts a meeting in September 2010 among Wright, staff from The New Yorker and a collection of high-ranking Scientologists in New York City. The Scientology delegation brings 48 binders filled with material about L. Ron Hubbard, Tom Cruise and other hot-button topics. With everything (literally) on the table, church spokesman Tommy Davis does his best to punch holes in Wright’s narrative, but doesn’t succeed; the story runs in The New Yorker, and becomes the nucleus of the eventual book. But the subtext of the chapter is clear: fact-checkers and lawyers have pored over Wright’s work and found it suitable to print — an essential step when dealing with an organization prone to firing off lawsuits.

While Scientologists have a right to believe whatever they choose, Wright writes, “it is a different matter to use the protections afforded a religion by the First Amendment to falsify history, to propagate forgeries and to cover up human-rights abuses.” He never questions the validity of Scientology as a religion in the United States (“the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS”), and he even draws parallels between some of Hubbard’s writings and those of Immanuel Kant and Carl Jung. Yet the allegations of abuse by church officials, and the question of whether its followers can truly leave the organization, overshadow the narrative. 

Wright belongs to a generation of reporters who take exceptional care not to reveal their personal opinions on their subject matter, at least not within the confines of a book or article. In that vein, he’s also unwilling to speculate when the evidence simply isn’t there, and as a result, parts of his narrative simply drop into a void: characters disappear, deaths go unexplained and motivations become murky. As someone who knew little about Scientology heading into the book, I found those loose ends somewhat frustrating; there’s a part of us that always hungers for the complete story. But there’s still more than enough meat here to chew over for quite some time. 

Religious belief can be the scaffolding that supports believers’ good and meaningful lives, Wright argues — but as the title slams home, it can just as easily become an earthly prison. His exploration of that divide is a fascinating read.

Nick Kolakowski is an editor at Slashdot. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon, and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titled How to Become an Intellectual, was published by Adams Media in 2012.

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