Due to secretive, controversial beliefs and high-profile celebrity members (and the whacked-out behavior of said celebrity members), the Church of Scientology has been a source of fascination for several decades now. However, because of its reputation for aggressive harassment and lawsuits, few journalists or academics have investigated or researched the mysterious religion. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, Lawrence Wright, interviewed over 200 hundred current and former members and studied archival research to uncover the inner workings of Scientology in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Alfred A. Knopf 2013). He details the origins, beliefs, policies, and clergy of the religion, plus the histories of mythic founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and current leader, David Miscavige. The books also examines the church’s relationship with Hollywood and the psychological hold it has over its members. Plus, it has a LOT of juicy stories.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve always considered Scientology to be a crazypants cult. It’s not because of the out-there beliefs that defy logic and science, although that whole Xenu thing is really weird. After all, most religions are based on stories or beliefs that can’t be definitively proven, though. I don’t particularly care what you believe, as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else and you don’t try to push your religious beliefs onto me, particularly in a legislative capacity. HOWEVER, I don’t think a true religion makes you pay for enlightenment. The only way to move up and learn the secrets of Scientology is to pay for auditing and classes that costs THOUSANDS of dollars. Scientologists who work their way up the bridge, will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the church in their lifetime. That screams cult to me. And though I thought the members and probably most of the clergy were sincere in there beliefs, the people at the top were knowingly and cynically bilking people out of their fortunes. A couple of years ago though, a resignation letter from the church by Oscar winning writer Paul Haggis leaked online and all sorts of crazy allegations of abuse, treachery, and slave-like working conditions made by many high-ranking former members of the Sea Org (the clergy) emerged. The church denied all allegations, but my feeling is that when there’s that much smoke, there has to be fire somewhere and even if only 10% of the accusations were true, then they were beyond horrible and corrupt. So needless to say, I was NOT an unbiased reader going in. Just a heads up and thanks for indulging me since you probably don’t care about MY feelings.
Anyway, THE BOOK. Lawrence Wright takes a very measured, even-handed approach to the material. He tries to show both sides of the story–though the church doesn’t give him much access beyond blanket denials of abuse–but he doesn’t let the church off the hook. The book is thoroughly researched and detailed, which is probably necessary when writing about a group that’s as notoriously litigious as this one. The writing is simple and straightforward, and the tone is very matter-of-fact, which keeps the reader from feeling like they’re reading US Weekly. Don’t get me wrong, I love the occasional US Weekly, but the celebrity stories and out-there tales are a part of the Scientology story as a whole, and not just there for some salacious gossip. Although it’s some really good gossip. I found his extensive research into the life of L. Ron Hubbard particularly interesting because I’d not heard much about him and the official church biography is understandably skewed. It turns out he was ALLEGEDLY a pathological liar, bigamist, abuser, narcissist, and also a bit brilliant. He had some keen insights into human behavior, which have been obscured by the more outlandish elements of his teachings.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief ultimately didn’t really alter my views about Scientology. In fact, I already knew a lot of the material from recent articles and online sources. However, I found it extremely insightful in answering two questions about Scientology that I was always curious about: why would a person join and why would a person stay. If you’re looking for a comprehensive view on Scientology, this book is and excellent place to start.
*The post title is a quote by Paul Haggis on page 362 of the book.