Review- Wright, “Going Clear”

Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” (2013) (narrated by Morton Sellers) – I’m of just about the right age and almost the right level of online to have the cultural struggle against Scientology be a notable part of my political/cultural coming of age. I’ve never worn a Guy Fawkes mask outside of an auditing center (or anywhere else), but sympathized with those who did. Eventually, I came to roll my eyes a little as there seemed to be either little overlap between those who did that kind of thing and those who fought other, larger forms of oppressive power, or there was all too much overlap and it made things work funny (see Occupy)… Similarly, I was never a regular “South Park” watcher or a militant “new atheist” but I was around people who were both. I watched “Battlefield Earth” and chortled merrily at its ineptitude, back when that seemed like sticking it to the Church in some undefined way.

I’ve been interested in Scientology for some time in a slightly different way. I see it as part of a tradition of American prophecy and religion-building that includes the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, the Church of Satan, the Nation of Islam, assorted offshoots of all of these, etc. Witnessing the founding of religions within the modern time frame and in my country of origin and academic speciality fascinates me. I like finding out the various nooks and crannies of their belief systems and where they came from. The founders interest me as well- before I could finally track down a hard copy, I had printed out Russell Miller’s L. Ron Hubbard biography, “Bare-Faced Messiah,” kept out of print by repeated lawsuits, and stored it in a binder. “No Man Knows My History,” about Joseph Smith, is a classic as well, and I sometimes give it out as a gift. I wish there was a good biography of Anton LaVey, but I suppose he is a shallower figure than his peers in any event. It’s hard to get shallower than that guy.

But if you want to go beyond the founder of Scientology, you basically have to go to “Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright’s journalistic account of the church. He does a thorough job, chasing down records (especially of Hubbard’s own accounts of himself, which, putting it charitably, vary wildly from the official records he left behind) and working with numerous defectors. Like a lot of journalistic books, it has a narrative framing device, in this case the journey of Paul Haggis, screenwriter, director (he won the Academy Award for the now widely-derided “Crash”), and longtime Scientologist turned critic. He and other defectors supply much of the information for this book, much of which footnooted with “The Church denies any of this happened.”

Needless to say, the stories of lived experience carry more weight than the anodyne denials of the organization, though I wonder if the Scientologists are quick enough to pick up on the sort of rhetoric now going around on the “Satanic Panic” in the 1980s, which could be used to cast doubt on witness testimony. That said, the worst of the Satanic Panic rested on coached testimony from children, not multiple independent confirmations from adults, the way the abuses of Scientology have been.

The book is divided into three parts (“Scientology,” “Hollywood,” and “The Prison of Belief,” appropriately enough). The first part goes over the now reasonably familiar ground of the life of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, followed by his decline and the takeover of the organization by Scientology wunderkind David Miscavige. The next part concerns the organization under Miscavige as it places more and more weight on celebrity endorsement, particularly in the person of Tom Cruise. This part contains many of the most explosive revelations. The stuff about Hubbard — his tyranny over the Sea Org as it sailed around, his cult of preteen girl “Messengers,” his bigamy — was relatively well known. Less well known is what Scientology gets up to more recently: its continuing use of quasi-slave labor from its own members, and “The Hole,” a desert trailer park gulag for its own executives where David Miscavige and his underlings savagely beat and mistreated dozens, in a sort of parody of Stalinist terror over the leadership of the Communist Party. Interestingly, this isn’t what got Paul Haggis, our narrative inside man so to speak, to quit- I’m not sure he knew about it, maybe I missed a part where Wright confirmed or denied. Haggis quit because he had lesbian daughters, and the Church supported Prop 8 in California, the anti-gay marriage ballot initiative.

To the best of my knowledge, Scientology has never recovered from a series of revelations arcing from the first time OT-3 (the stuff about Xenu and the alien nature of the “thetans” Scientologists were supposed to “clear”) material was posted online through the publication of this book and the documentary made based on it. These days, it seems, Scientology is more like a multi-billion dollar real estate portfolio with a small religion attached, which has assets (cheap labor) and liabilities (a tendency to make dumb moves like pissing off The Internet).

One of the reasons Scientology is interesting to me is as a case study of a new religion with a number of interesting historical features: it went through the historical phase-shift of the 1960s, it experienced the death of a charismatic leader and went on going (always an interesting point for any religion), it developed its own subculture, and it interfaced in a variety of interesting ways with changing American mores and ideas of the individual and their place in the universe. Wright considers some of this, but at the end of the day, the book is more about Scientology’s (many and fascinating) crimes and misdeeds, and people’s journey with and out of it. Basically, I’d like this work of journalism to be more like history. But that’s really the only issue with it, otherwise it was a good read. ****’

Review- Wright, “Going Clear”

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