Big business: The Church of Scientology and its network of corporations, non-profits and other legal entities reportedly bring in more than $500 million a year from the organization’s paying members and other revenue sources
Book review: ‘Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief’ by Lawrence Wright
By Lisa Miller, Published: January 18
Americans have a suspicion, justified or not, of unfamiliar faiths. We like our spirituality comfy and upbeat, suitable for summarizing on a Hallmark card. Newfangled religions, outre theology, secret rituals — these are threatening and titillating in equal measure; the more a religion’s leaders block or deflect reporters’ probes, the more the public wants to know (and the more sinister the faith can seem).
Mormonism has suffered most recently and obviously from this bias. Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election because he was the lesser candidate; still, it couldn’t have helped that every time he stood before a crowd in his banker’s suit, the television audience was yearning for X-ray glasses, the better with which to see his sacred undergarments.
Scientology has been a target, too, of much derision. Its founder was the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who once told an employee that his adherents wanted him to appear in the sky over New York but that he declined, not wishing to overwhelm them. Its theology is built on the nuttiest of founding myths, involving incidents that Hubbard said occurred 75 million years ago in something called the Galactic Confederacy, in which an evil overlord named Xenu sent human souls (thetans, in Scientology jargon) to Earth in space planes resembling DC-8s.
Scientology’s elite corps of clergy belongs to something called Sea Org, whose purposes and activities are shrouded in secrecy. And its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise, has come across in recent years as domineering, overzealous and cracked.
The many endnotes in Lawrence Wright’s book on the church, “Going Clear,” are the first clue that this author is not fooling around. Sixnotes explain facts on the introduction’s first page, and they multiply from there, 40 pages worth, wedged between the bibliography and the acknowledgments, not including the footnotes in the text itself, which signal “he said, she said”-type differences of opinion and feature boilerplate denials from lawyers and publicists. (One of my favorites reads, in part, “Cruise’s attorney says that no Scientology executives set him up with girlfriends, and that no female Scientologist that Cruise dated moved into his home.”)
Scientology has for almost all of its history been one of the most notoriously secretive and litigious religious organizations in the world, its leaders among the most paranoid and obfuscating. In this book, Wright, a staff writer at the New Yorker and winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” brings a clear-eyed, investigative fearlessness to Scientology — its history, its theology, its hierarchy — and the result is a rollicking, if deeply creepy, narrative ride, evidence that truth can be stranger even than science fiction.
“Going Clear” starts with exactly the right questions: “What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible?” And in his early chapters, Wright implicitly draws parallels between this religion and those with which readers may be more familiar.
Scientology is, in its components, a stew of traditional religious concepts. There’s immortality, transcendence, salvation and ethics. There are rituals as well as ritual punishments. There’s a founder, or a prophet, mediating capital-T truth for the people and transcribing it in books and pamphlets that serve as scripture. All this is wrapped up in a package that, while not recognizably Christian, or Buddhist, or Freudian, or Jungian, or occult, has elements of all.
Wright knows that crazy-seeming religious beliefs and practices are not, in themselves, sinister or evil. If they were, then every nominal Christian who cherishes the story of the virgin birth — not to mention the resurrection — would be suspected of malevolence. Wright does not muck up his story with the smarmy outrage that characterizes so much writing about religion. He merely lets the details speak for themselves.
And as his story unfolds, it becomes impossible to regard Scientology — or, to be specific, the people who run Scientology — with anything like dispassion. “Judge not that ye not be judged,” Jesus said, but the case Wright builds calls for a jury, too. Hubbard was a voluble, charismatic, imaginative man, a writer who liked to spin fantastical stories. He was also a liar, according to Wright. The author builds a case that Hubbard lied about his health, his age and his military service — including about the medals he had earned — and in one extraordinary instance, while commanding a ship in the Pacific during World War II, Hubbard spent 68 hours attacking “at least one, possibly two” Japanese submarines that, according to subsequent official reports, did not exist.
He was married thrice and had innumerable extramarital liaisons; his second wife, Sara Northrup, accused him in divorce papers of “systematic torture” including “sleep deprivation, beatings, strangulations, and ‘scientific torture experiments.’ ” Even after the divorce became official, Wright recounts, Hubbard tried to renege as he was driving her and their daughter to the airport.
“I got out of the car,” Northrup remembered. She grabbed the child and her purse, leaving all their belongings in the vehicle. “I just ran across the airfield, across the runways, to the airport and got on the plane.” It was the happiest day of her life.
Hubbard’s famously paranoid worldview is extensively documented here as well. When a negative reputation began to taint Scientology worldwide, he launched what was perhaps his most grandiose and outrageous scheme. He called it the Snow White Program. Starting in 1973, Wright asserts, Hubbard placed as many as 5,000 Scientologists as spies in government agencies all over the world, charging them with unearthing official files on the church, “generating lawsuits to intimidate opponents, and waging an unremitting campaign against mental health professionals.”
In the United States, Wright says, the spies penetrated the IRS; the Justice, Treasury and Labor Departments; the Federal Trade Commission; and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Rich from the sales of his best-selling 1950 book Dianetics” — and from the fees charged to church members for course work and counseling that allowed them to ascend to ever-higher levels of enlightenment — Hubbard was able to actualize what in a poorer man might have remained a half-cocked delusion. “Nothing in American history can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White,” Wright says.
LRH, as he is called among Scientologists, died in 1986, and since then, under the leadership of a reputedly authoritarian and violent man named David Miscavige, the organization has grown ever more barbaric. Wright describes instances in which believing Scientologists are counseled to “disconnect” from — sever relations with — their nonbelieving relatives. At the highest levels of the organization, some married people are compelled to divorce. Wright notes that Miscavige has been accused of mistreating his employees and giving them unprompted beatings — an allegation he denies, through a spokesman, in a footnote.
If a powerful Scientologist, someone who has seen the organization’s inner workings at the highest levels, attempts to leave the church, Wright reports, he or she is followed — to the airport, to a motel — and every attempt is made to force a return. Certain Scientologists, notably Miscavige’s wife, Shelly, haven’t been seen publicly in years. (Wright’s sources suggest she’s being kept under guard at a Scientology facility in Running Springs, Calif.
One of Hubbard’s innovations was a system of penance called the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), in which members who need religious remediation are allegedly consigned to live like medieval ascetics, without contact with the outside world, forced into labor and fed the most meager of meals. Custom furnishings for Cruise’s airplane hangar — “a dry bar, table and chairs” — were milled at an RPF base in Los Angeles, according to Wright.
That Cruise does not get more than a passing mention until halfway through the book is a testament to Wright’s even-handed treatment of his sensational material. But when he does, it’s worth the wait. The reader learns that Miscavige had fields of flowers planted in the desert near Scientology headquarters in Southern California after learning that Cruise and his then-girlfriend, Nicole Kidman, yearned to run through them. We are told that, before Katie Holmes, Scientology found a different girlfriend for Cruise, one who was raised in the church and groomed and styled to suit the star; she moved into his house, but after a gaffe at a dinner party, she was unceremoniously dismissed. “Cruise was too busy to say good-bye,” Wright writes. The girlfriend’s “last glimpse was of him working out in his home gym.”
Any casual observer who might have considered Cruise a benign or naive participant in a Hollywood spiritual fad will have a different opinion after “Going Clear.” The star comes across as a narcissistic monster who finds in Scientology an army of acolytes ready to deliver on his whims.
In a recent interview with New York magazine (where I am on staff), the pop musician Beck dismissed his longtime involvement in Scientology with a shrug. “It’s just something that I’ve been around,” he says. “Some people do yoga, some get into meditation.”
Mining Wright’s book, one encounters a long list of well-known people who have found in Hubbard’s teachings some degree of truth and help. Besides Cruise and John Travolta, there’s TV host Greta Van Susteren; actresses Anne Archer, Juliette Lewis and Jenna Elfman; actor Giovanni Ribisi and his sister (Beck’s wife) Marissa. Wright does not train his investigator’s eye on them, nor on the vast majority of Scientologists who have found clarity and comfort in the religion and — like adherents of so many other faiths — ignore or make an uncomfortable peace with the sins of their leaders. He only asks why they would.
1:59 AM EST
Scientology is under permanent observation by the domestic intelligence agencies in German and France.
1:56 AM EST
Scientology is in effect organized insanity…. a mechanism for mind control & spiritual vampirism. The Europeans know this and have put the cult in its place. In the US, however, the culties have too much political power and are close to untouchable.
12:54 AM EST
Most religions are scams, but Scientology is a long con that only the most profoundly stupid people could buy.
12:38 AM EST
Do they still have their underground vault in Petrolia, Cal,?
12:36 AM EST
Religion is a human social construction like science. But of course we all worship science as if it is not based on “faith” but “truth”. All human cultural artifacts (religion, science, logic, mathematics, politics, history, truth itself, good and evil) are equally “fictions”. But you would need to actually study human history to know this. That’s quite inconvenient for both religion and science.
12:37 AM EST
Twist in the wind, Beckett.
12:54 AM EST
Too much history for ya LeeWhitt? Sorry, but I actually know what I’m talking about. Want to compare educations?
1:00 AM EST
@Beckett: Sure, let’s compare educations. For example, I have a job. Do you? Speaking of which, responsibility calls. Sleep well, Beckett. See you when you wake up tomorrow afternoon in your parents house.
12:32 AM EST
If you equate cults like Scientology and Mormonism with historically established religions like Christianity and Judaism you are simply ignorant of history and the basic concepts of religious studies. There is vast difference between 4,000 years of Jewish-Christian tradition, theology, and doctrine and some ludicrous cult established by a charlatan.
12:36 AM EST
@Beckett: I see *exactly* the same dynamics.
Charlatans and power-hungry Men are eternal.
12:39 AM EST
There is a difference between the historical Jesus (who granted, has been banished from the religion called “Christianity”) and a lying pedophile racist thief called Joseph Smith and a lunatic megalomanic called Ron Hubbard.
12:44 AM EST
The only difference between neo cults and “historic religions” is in these more recent faiths we can see the sausage being made. We know the human foibles of the founders. But the beliefs themselves are no more plausable. And for course the crimes committed in their names over the centuries are much greater in seriousness and number. Read the celebration of the genocides in the Old Testiment. The persecutions, cursades, wars of religion in the name of Christianity are manifest.
12:49 AM EST
Sorry, the historical Jesus and the historical Buddha are not the same as Brigham Young and Tom Cruise. This is not about which religion has done the worst in terms of atrocities, it’s about historical conditions and historical interpretation. Yes, all religions are “fiction”- wow, what an insight! All politicians are power hungry. That does not mean that Gandhi and Pol Pot were “the same”.
12:00 AM EST
I would not argue that religions are not fictions. But, my argument is what do people need and what keeps society functional? Also, what tends to produce more pro-social behavior? Of course, you’ve got the Inquisition, Al Qaeda and all that. But, would things be even worse without it? Confronted with the reality of their eventual death and demise, isn’t this too much for many to deal with without fictions of one kind or another? But, some fictions are whackier then others.
12:45 AM EST
We cannot escape our deaths, but we could do so without the threats of hell and guilt.
12:50 AM EST
Bored boredom eternal kingdom of BLAH BLAH GTFO
12:58 AM EST
Very deep LeeWhitt!
1/20/2013 11:42 PM EST
Catholics, Scientologists, Jews, Muslims..all the same FICTION.
1/20/2013 11:36 PM EST
All religions are cults and all cults are religions.
1/20/2013 11:35 PM EST
People are drawn to these cults because of the sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness in their lives. Unfortunately, the internet and digital technologynonly leads to further isolation and existential crises. They are looking for something. Science and technology helps a little, but still ends up in a dead end if people try to adopt it as a religion. So, they turn to cults.
1/20/2013 11:19 PM EST
All religions begin as cults. However, there are two major differences between those sanctified by time and those of modern vintage.
The miraculous events and/or tales of foundings and the cosmology that supports the ancient faiths which have monopolized the belief systems of current-day humanity were similar in kind to views already held at the time. In other words, the virgin birth of Christianity, the revelation of Mohammed and many other such narratives were within the realm of the possible of the beliefs held by people at the time and within the limit of their knowledge of how the world worked.
Now, after many centuries, these beliefs have been sanctified by cultural embedding and solidarity over millenia. From infancy on, you absorb the trappings of religion along with words of love and your mother’s milk. Few would vouch for another virgin birth or resurrection in the present time. And in fact, Islam has prohibited a recurrence of its founding narrative.
In the modern era, many of us are familiar with the law of cause and effect and even if we give our cultural belief systems a pass, new cults are not spared the same lack of scrutiny. Mormonism was allowed to incubate in a closed hothouse environment (Utah) that protected the young belief system from outside intervention. Notice that the religion’s founder was long gone and replaced by an able administrator and organizer to keep things under control.
Similarly, Scientology incubated among a disconnected and generally depressed group of candidates seeking rejeuvenation from something outside the familiar; something powerful and exotic.
Subscribers to scientology are nearly universal in their desire for a transformative miracle. Their lack of scientific knowledge or even failure to question precludes their examination of the dynamics of the cult. And the success they achieve, if any going forward, seals the deal. Secrecy and compulsion–both the carrot and the stick–keeps believers in line.
1/20/2013 7:42 PM EST
This may cause this not to be printed or to be removed, but, a number of points.
Among other things, whenever I have tried to place comments with legitimate criticisms of aspects of things like Scientology and Mormonism, in venues like NPR, they always end up removed. They have no personal attacks, no vulgarity, no links, but I still don’t see them.
For example, the very word “scientology” is all but an admission that it is all a fraud. “Scientology” is an illegitimate hybrid of Latin and Greek. “Scient” from Latin and “ology” from Greek. Philologically, that is invalid. Actually, as much as “homophobia” is equally illegitimate. Such things come across as gratuitously “official” sounding machinations intended to con the insipid. No one representing The Almighty and The All Just would engage in that kind of frippery.
In much the same way, Mormonism plays with realities of the religions it claims to estend. Moroni, for example, is described as “an angel” but also as an Israelite elder, that is, a human. But humans cannot be angles! Because, in God’s hierarchy, humans are higher than angels. Angels have power but supposedly not the depth of spirit or will or mind to utilize it as humans would. To make a human an angel is a demotion in the religions Mormonism claims to be part of. Going in the opposite direction, Mormonism includes as “saints” the first settlers of the Salt Lake City area. People were settling all across the U.S., in worse places than that! There was nothing miraculous about it, and, since saintliness is supposed to go hand in hand with ethical high standards and spiritual depth, calling Mormons “saints” just because they managed to settle an area is literally spitting on the very idea of a saint!
The fact is that many do, indeed, look at religion as nothing more than an amusement park ride, a chance to engage in something odd and picturesque. It’s little more than a vacation.
Lawrence Wright Publisher Defends Book Against Church Of Scientology Claims
Belgium To Prosecute Scientology As Criminal Organization; Church Faces Charges Of Extortion, Fraud
Clock strikes ten
12:33 PM on 01/19/2013
In the early 90′s, I was approached on the street to take a personality test. A bit young and naive, I had heard only of Scientology via ads for Dianetics on television and this group did not advertise itself as part of the organization. So I was game and took the test. The results, I was told would be shared later once they had been ‘analyzed’. I basically forgot about it until the phone calls started asking me to come to their office for the results – I wasn’t interested and declined. But the phone calls (several a day) didn’t stop and over time, they became hostile and aggressive. On top of that, I started receiving letters. It was actually a little frightening and felt very ‘cultish’. It took me stating that I was on the verge of talking to a lawyer about harassment for them to stop. Totally freaked me out.
Scientology was inevitable: the lesson of Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear
It’s easy to mock Scientology, but in its veneration of celebrity it is the perfect product of 20th-century America
The Guardian, Tuesday 29 January 2013 12.47 EST
Scientology’s star man … Tom Cruise.Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images
Some dairy-devoted Americans smuggle hunks of unpasteurised cheese back into their country after holidays in hedonistic ol’ Europe. This American engaged in a similarly contraband importation when I returned to London on Monday from a trip to New York with a particular book in my suitcase. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright is one of the most keenly awaited books of the year, but those in the UK will continue to wait in vain for it (or fork out exorbitant shipping fees from US-based online booksellers) as, owing to Britain’s stiflingly archaic libel laws, Transworld, the book’s British publisher, announced earlier this month that “legal advice” had convinced it not to publish Wright’s study of the world’s most controversial religion. This is a real shame for anyone in this country who is interested, not just in free speech, but learning more about Scientology.
To the fun stuff first. The gossipy details in the book about the mentality and mendacity of Scientology’s founder, L Ron Hubbard, and the increasing weirdness of Hubbard’s most high-profile devotee, Tom Cruise, are certainly jaw-dropping. But they will not come as much of a surprise to those who have read Wright’s 2011 New Yorker article about Scientology and Vanity Fair’s recent damning piece about Cruise. Yet even if such stories aren’t wholly new, it still feels pretty mindblowing to have them reported by Wright: nearly every horror story you’ve heard about the violence and secrecy in the Scientology church, every bit of gossip about Cruise and his fellow Scientologist, John Travolta, are pretty much supported by Wright (if denied by the church) and, despite what the Scientology church has said, Wright – a New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer prize winner – is about as credible as they come.
It is easy to mock a religion that is based on the teachings of a – as Wright describes him – priapic, violent, bigamist pulp-fiction writer who experienced his formative revelation while under anaesthetic during a dental operation, which is partly why so many people do. Similarly, it is easy to argue that Scientology’s beliefs are no whackier than those in other religions, although this argument underestimates the cruelty that is not just covered up by Scientology’s leaders (Roman Catholicism, after all, is no slouch in that department) but, according to Wright, condoned by them. But it was also the perfect product of its time and place, and continues to be so.
Scientology is a neat reflection of the worst aspects of American culture with its repulsive veneration of celebrity; its weird attitudes towards women, sex, healthcare and contraception; its promise of equality among its followers but actual crushing inequality (one of the more memorable claims in Wright’s book is how Scientology promises its followers access to the celebrity world yet is hierarchical to such an extent that when it was discovered Cruise and his then wife Nicole Kidman had a “fantasy of running through a field of wildflowers together”, Scientology followers were instructed to “plant a section of the desert”.)
Its history is at least in part the history of US counterculture: when Scientology officially began in 1950 with the publication of Dianetics, it emerged in an America fascinated with tales about outer space and increasingly concerned about psychiatry, which was going through a period of brutal experimentation. (Jon Ronson also describes some of the horrors of the mistakes and abuses conducted in the name of psychiatry in mid-century America in The Psychopath Test.) Yet there was a huge influx of patients in mental health wards at this time, partly, Wright suggests, due to the societal changes wrought by the cold war. This is the dark side to the story of the Greatest Generation, and it’s a side that produced Hubbard and opened up a window into Scientology. Hubbard promised cures to these patients in hours that were “superior to any produced by several years of psychoanalysis” (and that remains a very American trait: the promise of near instantaneous effects with minimal effort.)
By the 70s, Scientology was seen in Los Angeles – which is where its highest concentration of followers still live; it’s a city that has, perhaps unsurprisingly, produced many niche religions – as an expression of bohemian creativity. But by the 90s, America had a growing fear of cults, exacerbated by the disastrous Waco siege, which simultaneously underlined the danger of totalitarian religions but also the government’s ineptitude at handling them. This dual anxiety, Wright suggests, is what helped Scientology regain from the IRS its tax exemption status as a bona fide religion.
Hubbard had always been entranced by Hollywood but it was David Miscavige, the church’s current leader, who truly upped the celebrity ante, equating fame with a spiritual value and kowtowing to celebrities accordingly.
Recently, on a trip to LA, a friend and I walked across the street to check out the Scientology Celebrity Centre. An extremely polite woman, who had moved from Japan to work for the centre, walked us through the heavily airbrushed history of Hubbard and Scientology before giving us a personality test which would ascertain whether Scientology would be able to “help us”. The questions ranged from the banal (“Do other people interest you?”) to the baffling (“Do you chew the end of your pencil?”) to the creepy (“Could you agree to strict discipline?”) But the most memorable part of the trip for me was the wall of photos of celebrities, as if the centre was one of those old New York delis, plastered with yellowing autographed photos of stars who have popped by for corned beef hash, so surely you want some, too? Scientology may not have many members, but it has an outsize presence due to wealth, fame and fear. It is, in its own dark ways, the inevitable religion to emerge from 20th-century America.