Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer prize for his 9/11 book, The Looming Tower, but Going Clear is the first piece of writing I’ve ever read by him. Judging by this book, he very much deserved that Pulitzer. Going Clear is an exhaustive long-form journalistic look at Scientology. Wright must have spent years and countless hours researching, writing, and fine-tuning this thing. It’s evident in every page, every carefully chosen word and phrase. Then again, if his own research is to be believed, he couldn’t afford not to be as careful as possible, given what has happened to journalists in the past who have dared to go up against Scientology (bad things, life ruining things).
As it’s subtitle might suggest, the book is split into three parts. The first eases us into the waters with a brief biography of Paul Haggis, a writer and director most famous for Best Picture winner Crash, but whose other credits include thirtysomething, Walker, Texas Ranger, Casino Royale, and Million Dollar Baby. It was Wright’s 2011 piece in The New Yorker on Haggis’ decision to leave Scientology (see: “The Apostate“) that spurred Wright to investigate Scientology at a deeper level. From there Wright segues into a biography of Scientology’s founder, prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and the inception of the ideas that would eventually become Scientology. Using insider accounts, Wright paints a picture of a mentally unbalanced, narcissistic genius (he never actually comes out and says this, it’s just the impression I got) who seemed to have a lot of answers that comforted a spiritually empty, post-war generation. His bestselling book, Dianetics, enabled him to start his own religion, and the ingenious pyramid scheme nature of the organization itself (members take expensive classes to reach the next level in their spiritual enlightenment) brought in even more income. Wright paints an honest picture of Hubbard. I know this because even despite the crazy moments — and there were a lot — I found myself understanding how so many people could be drawn in by his message, able to ignore the warning signs (the physical abuse, the crazy demands, the belief that there was a conspiracy of psychiatrists who are trying to take over the world, etc.) Throughout the book, Wright presents facts and witness accounts and let’s us as readers draw our own conclusions.
From there it gets even scarier. Parts two and three chronicle the troubles the church faced after Hubbard’s death: a battle with the IRS and the media that could have ended the church once and for all if they had been declared a business instead of a religion, the rise of David Miscavige as Hubbard’s replacement (and his strange relationship with Tom Cruise), and the difficulties members in the church face. Miscavige comes off as a violent sociopath, which probably won’t be a surprise to anyone. The thing I found most surprising is the way the church’s clergy — called the SeaOrg — are treated. From the way Wright tells it, the vast majority of Scientology’s members have no idea what actually goes inside the organization: imprisonment, mental and physical abuse, forced separation of families, tampering of evidence, refusal of medical treatment, etc. The list goes on. Wright (and Haggis) seem to come to the conclusion at the end that if the incredible secrecy of the organization were breached, it would in an untenable position. Unfortunately this isn’t as easy as it would seem.
I’m going a poor job of explaining all of this, just like I knew I would. There’s just too much to tell, and it all adds up to one pretty frightening picture. What Wright has accomplished in this book is staggering, not just in the care and precision he took in writing it, but in the content of the story itself. I’m glad I read it, and I think you should, too.