March 2013

Josh Zajdman

nonfiction

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Admittedly, I approached Lawrence Wright's captivating, engrossing, and incredibly disturbing Going Clear with a certain assumptive quality. I had already read his previous tome, The Looming Tower, and knew he dealt the goods. In anticipation, I reread the now legendary piece on Paul Haggis's defection from the Church of Scientology that Wright penned for The New Yorker, which inspired the book. Beforehand, I had already encountered Dianetics (which Wright clarifies "predates Scientology") and though it'd been a while, the hair on my neck is still standing up. Still, nothing prepared me for the horrifying trip that is Wright's latest and bravest work.

I don't use brave lightly. The pages of Going Clear are littered with tale upon tale of litigation, mental and physical abuse, even death. To voluntarily fall down that rabbit hole and come out the other side with a narrative of staggering objectivity, organization, and propulsive pacing is a feat beyond measure. Regardless of aliens, couch jumping or far worse, this was ground Wright could navigate. The motivation to explore Scientology was the same that motivated him to explore fundamentalism elsewhere. "I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious beliefs on people's lives -- historically, a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics, which is the substance of so much journalism." I assumed Going Clear would be an exposť of the highest order and, of course, it is. Yet, it's more than that. It's a study of belief, power, corruption, charisma, the dangers of loneliness, and those of solidarity. Moreover, it's that rarest of reading experiences and most annoying of neologisms, unputdownable.

Tone is one of the most important aspects of Wright's book and its greatest asset. You take him at face value from page one. Throughout the entire book, Wright's tone is objective, inquisitive, and direct. He faithfully cites, annotates, and makes reference to countless documents, testimonies, and other records. He's aware of the double-edged quality this notation takes. "The church disputes the testimony of many of the sources I've spoken to for this book." Be that as it may, Wright cites and cites and cites. The Church merely denies it. From the very beginning, Wright outlines the myriad inconsistencies and flat-out bizarre eccentricities that fall under the banner of Scientology. Who wouldn't want this denied? It isn't just "claims [of] about 12 million square feet of property around the world... with twenty-six properties valued at $400 million," which raises a red flag. It's the vaults, too.

The Church of Spiritual Technology, the branch of Scientology that owns the trademarks and copyrights to all church materials, including Hubbard's immense body of popular fiction, maintains secret bases in several remote locations in at least three American states, where the founder's works are stored in titanium canisters in nuclear-blast-resistant caverns.

Though it's usually the Hollywood angle that interests people in Scientology, which Wright fascinatingly covers, he begins with the beginner. As a reader, it's one of the book's most fascinating sections. The Founder, L. Ron Hubbard, or more reverently, LRH, is a man known to many and understood by none. Until now, that is. He was a shape-shifter, mythmaker, prolific writer, lifelong liar, adulterer, and menace. Above all, he was a man who strove to mold his life into something it wasn't and to surround himself with those who believed in him as fervently as he did.

Throughout his life he would enlist people -- especially young people -- in romantic, ill-conceived projects, often at sea, where he was out of reach of process servers. He was beginning to invent himself as a charismatic leader.

The invention began in earnest after New Year's Day of 1938. During a dental operation, [Hubbard] had a revelation that would change his life -- and eventually, the lives of many others. During a dental operation, he received a gas anesthetic. "While under the influence of it my heart must have stopped beating," he relates. "It was like sliding helter-skelter down into a vortex of scarlet and it was knowing that one was dying and the process of dying was far from pleasant." In those brief, hallucinatory moments, Hubbard believed that the secrets of existence were accidentally revealed to him.

From that point onward, Hubbard felt he was connected with something and that it was his job to connect and enlighten others. Going Clear is divided into the three sections of the subtitle. While the first chapter of the Scientology section does focus on Haggis's introduction to the "religion" (many a time is Hubbard's desire to become a religion so as to avoid taxes mentioned), the remainder focuses on Hubbard. It's absolutely riveting -- just over 100 pages you will consume in one sitting. Or finish over a quiet meal while ignoring whomever interrupted you.

The genesis of Scientology, as depicted in the first section, is rife with complicated depictions of ugliness, manipulation, and power struggles. These are themes that are mirrored throughout the remainder of the book and extend down the many branches of the Scientology family tree, all the way through the present. The Hollywood section is what people will come to this book for and, while interesting, only serves to confirm what most people know about celebrity centers and famed Scientologists. Yet what sets it apart is Wright's depiction of compounds, executive privileges, and monetary abundance. Those in power within Scientology, including the menacing David Miscavige, the public face of Scientology, are at the abusive, corrupt, private black heart of it. This is in marked opposition to those who work for a handful of dollars and sign lifetime contracts. That's just one of the many things you aren't supposed to know. What are you supposed to know? That there are suppressive people out there. That's their language. That the earth is far older than we know and an ill-gotten gain in a galactic battle. Oh, one more thing. Remember those vaults? Well, the one in Trementina, New Mexico "has an airstrip and two giant interlocking circles carved into the desert floor -- a landmark for UFOs, some believe, or for Hubbard's reincarnated spirit, when he chooses to return." You may think you've heard or read about Scientology, but this will book will push all of that out of your mind and replace it with a plethora of disturbing facts.

Fundamentalism is disturbing in any religious tradition, but when you throw in aliens and a penal system to boot, things get even worse. Pick up this book, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307700667
448 pages