I guess I should begin with what you already think you know about Scientology…
It’s true. When a church member is deemed worthy of attaining the level of “Operating Thetan III” he, or she, is led into a room and presented with a document informing them that billions of years ago the evil Galactic Emperor Xenu brought millions of innocent souls (thetans) to Earth on spaceships resembling DC-8s, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. That story is, however, neither the most interesting nor the most controversial part of Scientology, nor of Lawrence Wright’s exploration of it in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
The controversy is in the details of the history of the Church. An organization birthed of human trafficking, slave labor, abuse, neglect, murder(!?), litigation and intimidation. The church seems to have achieved tax exempt status, and therefore the ability to act in all things with near impunity, through a concerted effort to coerce and intimidate the Internal Revenue Service into granting it that status. The litany of charges brought forth in the book, indeed the “prison of belief” of the title, is the alarming fact that this organization can commit such crimes without recourse and mostly without its victims even being cognizant of the fact that they are being wronged.
Yet the surprisingly compelling through line for the first third of Going Clear is its biography of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. And while Hubbard almost certainly is not the mythical hero Scientologists would have you believe he is, he’s not the flim-flam man that outsiders assume he is either. The truth of LRH lies somewhere in between, and that fact makes him a surprisingly compelling anti-hero for much of the book. Hubbard is our Walter White: he acts in detestable ways and yet we cannot help but look to see what he does next.
In this, if not in the description of Scientology’s actual cosmology, Going Clear succeeds somewhat in bringing the reader into the mind of the religion’s adherents. The characters at its center–Hubbard, as well as current leader David Miscavige and of course Tom Cruise–are so utterly compelling that you find yourself just a little more interested in this thing than you thought you could. Though even as Wright seeks to understand Scientology and pass that understanding to his readers, the teachings of the church remain alien enough to never risk taking root. This book will sell no one on Scientology as a religion.
The aforementioned anti-heroes take up the bulk of the book, but if there is a likable protagonist in all this, it is Paul Haggis. Haggis’ previously documented story of leaving Scientology shows the reader how the church wields much of its power over its adherents, and how that power can fall away. The way that Scientology seems to succeed in winning the minds of its followers beyond OT III is much like the cook who slowly turns the water temperature up. Before converts realize how crazy things have gotten, it’s too late. They’ve spent fortunes and surrounded themselves entirely with like-minded adherents who have been conditioned to shun non-believers, even family. Indeed, that policy of “disconnection” plays a key role in Haggis’ awakening.
Going Clear is a fascinating read, and it was one I kept wanting to talk to those around me about (though friends mostly though I was crazy). I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves rubbernecking at the scary cult headlines and the unending articles of defectors and escapees. Wright’s story of the Church of Scientology is arguably as compelling as the Church’s story of Scientology.