For decades, L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology was protected by a veil of mystery sustained equally by the church’s secretive practices and its reputation for terrorizing critics and defectors through lawsuits, harassment, and psychological warfare. That façade has begun to crumble over the years, as intermittent outbursts of bad publicity built into a hurricane of negative press that threatens the Church’s future. Scientology received another devastating blow in February 2011, when The New Yorker published “The Apostate,” Lawrence Wright’s riveting exploration of how Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis defected from Scientology in 2009 over the church’s long history of institutionalized homophobia. Now Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 9/11 book The Looming Tower, has expanded that profile into Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison Of Belief, a point-by-point deconstruction of Scientology’s core tenets.
In Going Clear, Haggis emerges as a figure of fascinating contradictions, a writer whose films hyperventilate with raw emotion, but who is so cold and removed in his personal life that, in a particularly moving passage, one of Haggis’ two lesbian daughters says she didn’t realize her father loved her until he began speaking out against the church’s treatment of gays. Haggis prides himself on being socially and politically engaged, yet for decades, he willfully blinded himself to Scientology’s civil-rights abuses, bullying, and history of contorting facts to suit its purposes.
Haggis stuck with Scientology throughout the decades because it worked for him. He was attracted to Hubbard as a magnetic figure, a prolific pulp writer who used fiction to express his big ideas about the world, though Haggis didn’t have much respect for Hubbard’s prose. Still, his system provided dreamers, artists, and spiritual seekers like Haggis many of the fundamentals of a healthy life: a sense of community, a valuable series of personal connections within his field, a sense of self, and a cosmology that made sense of an often scary, unknowable world while pointing the way to total happiness and complete self-actualization. Scientology’s worldview was rooted in far-out conceits involving other galaxies and evil space tyrants, but what religion, respected or otherwise, doesn’t involve similarly counterintuitive, far-fetched ideas?
Wright’s admiration for Hubbard’s ingenuity, insight, and force of personality is evident throughout Going Clear, even as he systematically debunks seemingly every aspect of Hubbard’s personal mythology, from his war record to his academic qualifications. Hubbard portrayed himself as a swashbuckling adventurer with the mind of a top scientist, a proto-Indiana Jones whose life leaped from peak to peak. Wright depicts him as a man plagued by misadventure more than adventure, suffering humiliating defeats and evasions as much as triumphs. He depicts two Hubbards: One is the genius and prophet of Scientology lore, who figured out the mysteries of the ages via a peerless understanding of the human condition. Then there’s Hubbard as seen by detractors: a con man and parasite who worked out a grift so elaborate, it outlived him. Going Clear splits the difference between these two competing, overlapping narratives, depicting Hubbard as an eccentric genius who was brilliant but arrogant, a pathological liar blessed with a world-class imagination and the energy and will to create his own religion out of bits and pieces purloined from Buddhism, New Age, self-help guides, and the psychotherapy he considered one of the great evils in the universe, in no small part because it posed such a threat to Scientology. Though he claimed he was sending acolytes on a bridge to superhuman abilities, Hubbard was a frail figure beset by physical infirmities who lived much of his life one step ahead of the law.
Where Hubbard ruled through charm, seduction, and canny manipulation, David Miscavige, his successor as the head of Scientology, rules through terror and brute force. Miscavige comes off as a psychotic Dennis The Menace, a pint-sized bully with a history of physically attacking anyone who displeases him. (One of the book’s many tragic ironies is that the people who would benefit most from psychiatric treatment and medication, like the perpetually apoplectic, violent Miscavige, are also the least likely to seek it out). The Church naturally denies Miscavige has ever hit anyone, along with pretty much everything else negative Wright reveals in the book. Wright peppers the footnotes with so many Scientology denials, they almost become a deadpan running joke.
In Wright’s telling, Miscavige led Scientology into a new golden age of abuse, abduction, and intimidation, as both rank-and-file membership and upper-church management were subject to Miscavige’s whims; those who displeased him wound up in brutal work camps as part of the sect’s Rehabilitation Project Force. His cruelty and immaturity are so over-the-top that they border on comic, littering Going Clear with pitch-black comedy moments that are too depressing to be funny. Miscavige professionally and personally attached himself to Tom Cruise with such intensity that they quickly became strange doppelgängers, united in their cravings for power and influence. The canny Miscavige realized he was in a position to give Cruise a form of validation far beyond anything the rest of the world had to offer. Miscavige gave a man who has everything the opportunity to see himself as a savior and a leader of mankind, a figure of profound historical importance.
Celebrities understandably gravitated to a new faith that actively courted them while promising gifts beyond wealth and fame, but the church’s intense affiliation with famous figures proved problematic when those carefully cultivated celebrities began malfunctioning, from John Travolta’s passion project Battlefield Earth becoming an international laughing stock to Cruise transforming himself from one of Scientology’s greatest assets to one of its greatest liabilities with his controversial, eccentric behavior. Scientology’s emphasis on celebrity acolytes makes it unusually vulnerable to celebrity defectors; the same power, prestige, and visibility that made Haggis a prize for Scientology also let him launch an attack on the church that falls somewhere between devastating and an outright death blow.
Sometimes Wright’s prosecutorial zeal gets the best of him. He continues to obsess about the lush, decadent details of Cruise and Miscavige’s personal fortunes long after establishing the financial gulf between church bigwigs and non-celebrity members. Wright lingers on brand names and luxury items so obsessively that at times, he threatens to turn into Bret Easton Ellis, lovingly cataloguing the brands of the Reagan era in American Psycho. His case against Scientology is strong enough that he doesn’t have to keep piling on: The facts speak for themselves, particularly the endless accounts of ex-Scientologists who were emotionally and physically abused and run ragged by the church, then shunned and humiliated when they found the courage to leave. Wright doesn’t need to keep twisting the knife.
Wright takes Scientology seriously as a new religion and as a philosophy. In a bid for objectivity, he contextualizes some of the hostility and skepticism greeting Scientology as a result of the church’s newness: It lacks the authority and moral weight that comes with being passed down through centuries or millennia. Wright points out that plenty of other now-accepted customs look surreal or even silly devoid of context, like Catholicism’s belief in transubstantiation, but he also makes it abundantly clear that a lot of that hostility and skepticism is richly justified by the organization’s actions.
In accessible, straightforward prose that does a fine job of rendering Scientology’s sometimes convoluted core concepts understandable, Wright captures its horrors and abuses, but also the seductive glamour. It’s a belief system with a sense of infinite possibilities in this world and the next, wedded to a life-affirming sense of community among true believers united in fighting for our planet’s salvation.
In spite of its occasional excesses and redundancies, Going Clear is simultaneously a fearless, compelling, exhaustive work of muckraking journalism and a masterpiece of storytelling. It’s a ripping yarn about ego, money, abuse, faith, and the corrupting nature of power when wielded by the wrong people. It’s as lurid, pulpy, and preposterous-seeming as anything Hubbard or Haggis ever wrote, but it’s much better, because it has the benefit of being true.