id’s #CBR5 review #5: Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Speaking of narcissists . . Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear, being interviewed by Stephen Colbert's alter ego.

Speaking of narcissists . . Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear, being interviewed by Stephen Colbert’s alter ego.

(This review is of the audiobook version, read by Morton Sellers)

As Pajibans, we inexorably come around to the issue of Scientology’s involvement in media and celebrity culture. Even if our interest in Scientology is about as small as a communion wafer, it’s influence on entertainment is real & significant because what power the church doesn’t exercise in hearts & minds, it wields like a aluminum baseball bat through lawsuits, politics and intimidation. You have to go to marginalized extremes within Christianity, Islam or other world religions to find sects willing to carry out acts of force against the world and individual people as Scientology does.

In his Introduction, Wright explains why he wrote Going Clear:

“Obviously, there is an enduring appeal that survives the widespread assumption that Scientology is a cult and a fraud. I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious beliefs on peoples’ lives, historically a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics, which is the substance of so much journalism. I was drawn to write this book by the questions that many people have about Scientology. What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do it’s adherents get out of it?  How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom? These questions are not unique to Scientology, but they certainly underscore the conversation. In attempting to answer them in this book, I hope we can learn something about what might be called the process of belief.”

I don’t know what Wright’s religious education is, but the process of belief is a common term used in protestant Christian theology. (And anyone who mentions Bad Religion will get my foot up their ass) Coming from the periphery of Methodist doctrine & clergy, where I live, the Process of Belief means something much different while using the same words. The process of belief Wright is looking for is not the self-realized adoption of faith, that glistening pure moment of euphoria or enlightenment, but the creation of standards and theology, dogma and bureaucracy. Despite this confusion, Lawrence Wright has written an exceptionally comprehensive history of Scientology’s birth and childhood.

In case readers may not know about Scientology, the brief overview is this: L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science-fiction and adventure novelist from the golden age of science fiction (~1936-48), began to create a system of belief in the 1950’s. Extensive documentation of Hubbard indicates he suffers from wild paranoia and other psychological issues which he seemingly tries to moderate or control through self-help treatments or disciplines he invents. Hubbard begins to market these treatments as Dianetics, making large sums of money even though the discipline is obviously not helping him or many of the other practitioners. Dianetics and Hubbard’s church actually engage in cruelty to it’s adherents, extra-legal warfare, spying against governments, and host of other bizarre events through the 60’s and 70’s. Dianetics evolves into Scientology, and LRH dies in 1986 as the head of a wealthy religion. After Hubbard’s death, a 2nd generation Scientologist, David Miscavige, becomes the de facto leader of the church; under Miscavige’s leadership, the church’s tendency to abuse continues and grows.

Lawrence Wright’s opportunity has been to assemble interviews with a number of recent Scientology defectors, including former clerics in the ‘Sea Organization’ or SeaOrg, and celebrities, and then marry the contemporary narratives with the unadulterated historical archives. Scriptwriter Paul Haggis, of Crash, frames much of Wright’s book as someone whom we see the entire Scientology organization through – as it became infamous in the 70’s and he becomes a believer, through the 70’s and 80’s as he and it grew into success, and then finally as Haggis walked away in the Aughts over California’s Prop 8 and Scientology’s widespread homophobia. Interspersed are events from Hubbard’s life – his 3 marriages; his dalliances with satanism; self-aware letters to family, friends and himself regretting his failings; absolutely insane claims of abilities and achievements. Xenu’s DC-8s are just the tip of the iceberg. In the end, Wright concludes that the creation and growth of a religion (at least in the modern era), may necessitate full-blown narcissism and sociopathy, citing comparisons to Heaven’s Gate and David Koresh’s Brand Davidians. Hubbard and his successor, Miscaviage, certainly fit the bill.

Going Clear is engrossing reading when it’s not utterly frightening. Personally, I had a hard time slogging through through several sections because of the psychological issues at the heart of the religion. I was abused for a time in my 20’s by someone with narcissism and I’m still having to deal with her effects in my life. A major discipline of Scientology, in ‘auditing’ it’s practitioners lives, has them relive crisis moments of their lives until the emotions are stripped away and the practitioner can judge the moments without discomfort. At the same time, Going Clear details tens of hundreds of events where Hubbard or Miscavige engage in textbook examples of cruelty and paranoia against their followers, and Scientology theology maintains these cruelties are the result of the victim’s failures. If you’ve been the victim of psychological abuse, I wouldn’t touch this book without regular counseling and a strong grip on your own fears.

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