Articles of Faith

A densely reported look inside the secretive world of Scientology. Paul Elie reviews Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear."

January 11, 2013

'On a rainy morning in late September 2010," Lawrence Wright recounts in "Going Clear," representatives of the Church of Scientology met in New York with him and a number of his colleagues at the New Yorker, from David Remnick, the magazine's editor, to its head of fact-checking and its in-house lawyer.

The Scientology delegation brought with them forty-eight three-ring binders of supporting material, stretching nearly seven linear feet, to respond to the 971 questions the checkers had posed. It was an impressive display. The binders were labeled according to categories, such as "Disappearance of L. Ron Hubbard," "Tom Cruise," "Gold Base," and "Haggis's Involvement in Scientology." Davis [Tommy Davis, a church hierarch close to Tom Cruise] emphasized that the church had gone to extraordinary lengths to prepare for this meeting. "Frankly, the only thing I can think that compares would be the presentation that we made in the early 1990s to the IRS."

The IRS presentation had been a complete success. Scientology emerged victorious from a "two-decade" showdown with the agency that included a huge campaign of lawsuits ("200 lawsuits on the part of the church and more than 2,300 suits on behalf of individual parishioners in every jurisdiction in the country," according to Mr. Wright). The IRS granted Scientology tax-exempt status as a church, forgiving it most of $1 billion in unpaid back taxes. A thousand Scientologists met at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to celebrate that "the war is over!" The "imprimatur of the American government on the church as a certified religion" rather than a "commercial enterprise," Mr. Wright argues, has shaped the movement's subsequent history, giving it financial security, long-sought legitimacy abroad and the ability to invoke freedom of religion as a justification for the whole range of its activities.

"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," Mr. Wright declares, and he prefaces "Going Clear" with an overview of Scientology as a new religious movement. He parses the differences between the church's claim to have eight million members and his own estimate of 25,000 active members, 5,000 of them in the Los Angeles area. He sets out the three tiers of affiliation: public members, including the sort of casual initiate who began with the free "stress test" the church offers in shopping malls and subway stations; celebrity members, such as actors and actresses (and hopefuls) in Hollywood; and the Sea Org, the "religious order" that carries out much of Scientology's day-to-day operations. He explains how Scientology's efforts are rooted in its "colossal financial resources"—derived from its intensive fundraising among members, its real-estate holdings ($400 million in Hollywood, $168 million in Clearwater, Fla., according to Mr. Wright), and the proceeds from the thousand or more books by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Over the course of the book, Mr. Wright explains how Scientology's adherents say it works: Members use a practice called "auditing" and a device called the "E-Meter" to expel mental blockages supposedly left by traumatic experiences, with the goal of "going clear"—attaining an unimpaired state of being that will enable them to exert control over themselves and the world around them.

"How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible?" Mr. Wright asks. That is the $64,000 question in journalism about religion, and Mr. Wright explains that he sought to understand "the process of belief" by writing this book. But his main text has a different emphasis. In it Scientology emerges as a secretive organization scarcely akin to the little church around the corner and one whose story poses reportorial challenges akin to those he faced in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 book about al-Qaeda, "The Looming Tower." It is a story of sad lives, power struggles, petty disputes, physical and mental conflict, and secrets kept and unkept.

Two characters dominate the book: L. Ron Hubbard and the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis.

They are an unmatched pair. Hubbard (1911-86) emerges as one more grandiose American male of the postwar years, a dogged but undistinguished pulp-fiction writer—according to the church, he wrote 100,000 published words a month—who clawed his way out of the science-fiction ghetto and sought to frame his ideas so that they would have consequences in people's lives. With "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" (1950), a self-help manual that introduced the idea of the "clear," he went, one reviewer declared, from science fiction to "fictional science," a human-potential schema vouchsafed by his own mind. It became a best seller, giving Hubbard the money and the calling card he needed to attract converts. In "Going Clear," Hubbard is presented as a man who makes things up as he goes. But he also believes everything he says. In that, he is more akin to Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary—word-addled men who passed through literature to "automatic writing" to something like automatic thought, extemporizing in a never-ending performance.

Paul Haggis, by contrast, emerges as a writer above all. In the mid-1970s, Scientology helped him extricate himself from a thwarted life in blue-collar Ontario. The movement was thriving through its association with its first famous member, John Travolta—at the time the biggest screen star in America—and it opened doors for Mr. Haggis in Hollywood. It appealed to the single-mindedness that for three decades saw him neglect his family out of devotion to his work and to Scientology. But it seems incidental to his work—such as his scripts for the yuppie TV drama "Thirtysomething" or for Clint Eastwood's film "Flags of Our Fathers." When success and remorse led him back into contact with his three adult children from his first marriage—two of them lesbians—he spoke out against what he saw as anti-gay elements in Scientology and then turned away from the movement. He left Scientology in 2009.

Mr. Wright told Mr. Haggis's story in a long 2011 profile in the New Yorker. Though "Going Clear" is considerably more than a fleshed-out magazine piece, it is told in the magazine's high style, through the methodical accretion of social detail and vivid commentary in the voices of the protagonists. Abstruse ideas are explained matter-of-factly: The "Hole" is the brig-like penitentiary at a church complex in the desert east of Los Angeles into which, Mr. Wright asserts, authority-resistant Scientologists are plunged, sometimes for months at a stretch; "thetans" are the Scientology equivalent of the soul, "immortal spiritual beings that are incarnated in innumerable lifetimes."

The story is grounded in firsthand testimony: One former member "says that he began working full-time in the organization when he was eleven and recalls that, along with other Sea Org members, including children, his days stretched from eight in the morning until eleven thirty at night, excepting Saturday, his single day of schooling. Part of his work was shoveling asbestos that had been removed during the renovation of the Fort Harrison Hotel. He says no protective gear was provided, not even a mask." Point of view is strategically deployed: "Dincalci [a former Hubbard aide] had long since come to the conclusion that Hubbard was not an Operating Thetan. He was obese and weird and he failed to exhibit any of the extraordinary powers that are supposed to be a part of the OT arsenal. Moreover, he was under siege by various countries. Why couldn't he simply set things straight? Wasn't he supposed to be in control of his environment? How could he be so persecuted and powerless? What was he doing hiding out in Queens, wearing a wig and watching television when the planet needed salvation?"

Critiques of Scientology are presented mainly through deft quotation. Ted Koppel is heard asking, "See if you can explain to me why I would want to be a Scientologist." A BBC reporter is shown shouting to John Travolta, "Are you a member of a sinister, brainwashing cult?" A German labor minister tells Maclean's magazine: "This is not a church or a religious organization. . . . Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings."

Mr. Wright himself makes narrower but nevertheless provocative allegations: that the movement works members beyond the limits allowed by U.S. labor regulations, typically for salaries of $30 a week; that it educates its children sporadically or not all, leaving some of them "illiterate"; that Sea Org members who became pregnant were pressured to have abortions; and that it skirted the bounds of its tax-exempt status by allowing members to render services to a single individual, namely Tom Cruise, whose mansion was lavishly renovated by squadrons of poorly paid Scientologists.

The book is salted with denials from the church and others, which become a kind of running counterpoint in the footnotes: The church calls Mr. Wright's claims exaggerations or "pure fantasy," says it adheres to all child-labor laws and denies that any Sea Org members were pressured to have abortions. About Mr. Cruise's mansion, we learn this: "Cruise's attorney remarks, 'So far as I know, Mr. Cruise has always paid for any services he received.' "

"The many discrepancies between Hubbard's legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement," Mr. Wright declares, but "Going Clear" is quite often something other than fascinating. Few of the people who read the book will likely need disillusioning (the estimation of L. Ron Hubbard could hardly be any lower in polite circles). The claims about Tom Cruise's beliefs and behavior are not especially surprising (the surprise is that, in spite of them, he is still a movie star). Mr. Wright doesn't oversell his book as a tale of the rich and famous or an exposé of an operation poised to take over Hollywood. Instead, he leaves the impression that Scientology, for all its power, for all the benefits that it claims to have rendered to people around the world, is a charmless system of belief and a small-time organization made large through celebrity and money.

It isn't fascinating reading, but it is a feat of reporting. The story of Scientology is the great white whale of investigative journalism about religion. The Los Angeles Times, the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times and other publications have published lengthy series on the church. Two years ago, Janet Reitman expanded a Rolling Stone article into "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion." Now Mr. Wright has given us a full-dress version complete with an Oscar-winning leading man. The book's power lies not so much in the presentation of appalling revelations (though there are dozens of them) as in our awed recognition that Mr. Wright spent years of his life on this story—that he interviewed dozens of odd or compromised or fearful people, assembled the intricate edifice of Scientology's beliefs, mapped the territory of its empire, and traced its ill effects, even though the organization and its people aren't particularly interesting.

Half a century ago, Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" derived its power from the tension between the tawdriness of the material and the fine tooling of New Yorker style. Six years of reporting, 8,000 pages of notes, and a written text published in four parts in the magazine in 1965—through all this, Capote made the frankly unnecessary story of a rural murder utterly compelling.

"Going Clear" is sometimes hard going on account of its subject matter. But it is an utterly necessary story even so. As "In Cold Blood" is now a monument to the age of New Journalism, "Going Clear" may wind up a monument to an age of enlightened corporate journalism, a time when powerful magazine editors and their book-publishing counterparts had the wherewithal to devote resources to vital stories of scant direct pertinence to their readers—stories told by full-time, expenses-paid writers backstopped by researchers, fact-checkers, lawyers and insurance companies.

The surprise isn't that Mr. Wright presents Scientology as a perplexing and alarming organization. The surprise is that he has managed to tell its story at all.

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