Americans have a suspicion, justified or not, of unfamiliar faiths. We like our spirituality comfy and upbeat, suitable for summarizing on a Hallmark card. Newfangled religions, outre theology, secret rituals - these are threatening and titillating in equal measure; the more a religion's leaders block or deflect reporters' probes, the more the public wants to know (and the more sinister the faith can seem).
Mormonism has suffered most recently and obviously from this bias. Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election because he was the lesser candidate; still, it couldn't have helped that every time he stood before a crowd in his banker's suit, the television audience was yearning for X-ray glasses, the better with which to see his sacred undergarments.
Scientology has been a target, too, of much derision. Its founder was the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who once told an employee that his adherents wanted him to appear in the sky over New York but that he declined, not wishing to overwhelm them. Its theology is built on the nuttiest of founding myths, involving incidents that Hubbard said occurred 75 million years ago in something called the Galactic Confederacy, in which an evil overlord named Xenu sent human souls (thetans, in Scientology jargon) to Earth in space planes resembling DC-8s.
Scientology's elite corps of clergy belongs to something called Sea Org, whose purposes and activities are shrouded in secrecy. And its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise, has come across in recent years as domineering, overzealous and cracked.
The many endnotes in Lawrence Wright's book on the church, "Going Clear," are the first clue that this author is not fooling around. Sixnotes explain facts on the introduction's first page, and they multiply from there, 40 pages worth, wedged between the bibliography and the acknowledgments, not including the footnotes in the text itself, which signal "he said, she said"-type differences of opinion and feature boilerplate denials from lawyers and publicists. (One of my favorites reads, in part, "Cruise's attorney says that no Scientology executives set him up with girlfriends, and that no female Scientologist that Cruise dated moved into his home.")
Scientology has for almost all of its history been one of the most notoriously secretive and litigious religious organizations in the world, its leaders among the most paranoid and obfuscating. In this book, Wright, a staff writer at the New Yorker and winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," brings a clear-eyed, investigative fearlessness to Scientology - its history, its theology, its hierarchy - and the result is a rollicking, if deeply creepy, narrative ride, evidence that truth can be stranger even than science fiction.
"Going Clear" starts with exactly the right questions: "What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible?" And in his early chapters, Wright implicitly draws parallels between this religion and those with which readers may be more familiar.
Scientology is, in its components, a stew of traditional religious concepts. There's immortality, transcendence, salvation and ethics. There are rituals as well as ritual punishments. There's a founder, or a prophet, mediating capital-T truth for the people and transcribing it in books and pamphlets that serve as scripture. All this is wrapped up in a package that, while not recognizably Christian, or Buddhist, or Freudian, or Jungian, or occult, has elements of all.
Wright knows that crazy-seeming religious beliefs and practices are not, in themselves, sinister or evil. If they were, then every nominal Christian who cherishes the story of the virgin birth - not to mention the resurrection - would be suspected of malevolence. Wright does not muck up his story with the smarmy outrage that characterizes so much writing about religion. He merely lets the details speak for themselves.
And as his story unfolds, it becomes impossible to regard Scientology - or, to be specific, the people who run Scientology - with anything like dispassion. "Judge not that ye not be judged," Jesus said, but the case Wright builds calls for a jury, too. Hubbard was a voluble, charismatic, imaginative man, a writer who liked to spin fantastical stories. He was also a liar, according to Wright. The author builds a case that Hubbard lied about his health, his age and his military service - including about the medals he had earned - and in one extraordinary instance, while commanding a ship in the Pacific during World War II, Hubbard spent 68 hours attacking "at least one, possibly two" Japanese submarines that, according to subsequent official reports, did not exist.
He was married thrice and had innumerable extramarital liaisons; his second wife, Sara Northrup, accused him in divorce papers of "systematic torture" including "sleep deprivation, beatings, strangulations, and 'scientific torture experiments.'?" Even after the divorce became official, Wright recounts, Hubbard tried to renege as he was driving her and their daughter to the airport.
"I got out of the car," Northrup remembered. She grabbed the child and her purse, leaving all their belongings in the vehicle. "I just ran across the airfield, across the runways, to the airport and got on the plane." It was the happiest day of her life.
Hubbard's famously paranoid worldview is extensively documented here as well. When a negative reputation began to taint Scientology worldwide, he launched what was perhaps his most grandiose and outrageous scheme. He called it the Snow White Program. Starting in 1973, Wright asserts, Hubbard placed as many as 5,000 Scientologists as spies in government agencies all over the world, charging them with unearthing official files on the church, "generating lawsuits to intimidate opponents, and waging an unremitting campaign against mental health professionals."
In the United States, Wright says, the spies penetrated the IRS; the Justice, Treasury and Labor Departments; the Federal Trade Commission; and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Rich from the sales of his best-selling 1950 book "Dianetics" - and from the fees charged to church members for course work and counseling that allowed them to ascend to ever-higher levels of enlightenment - Hubbard was able to actualize what in a poorer man might have remained a half-cocked delusion. "Nothing in American history can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White," Wright says.
LRH, as he is called among Scientologists, died in 1986, and since then, under the leadership of a reputedly authoritarian and violent man named David Miscavige, the organization has grown ever more barbaric. Wright describes instances in which believing Scientologists are counseled to "disconnect" from - sever relations with - their nonbelieving relatives. At the highest levels of the organization, some married people are compelled to divorce. Wright notes that Miscavige has been accused of mistreating his employees and giving them unprompted beatings - an allegation he denies, through a spokesman, in a footnote.
If a powerful Scientologist, someone who has seen the organization's inner workings at the highest levels, attempts to leave the church, Wright reports, he or she is followed - to the airport, to a motel - and every attempt is made to force a return. Certain Scientologists, notably Miscavige's wife, Shelly, haven't been seen publicly in years. (Wright's sources suggest she's being kept under guard at a Scientology facility in Running Springs, Calif.)
One of Hubbard's innovations was a system of penance called the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), in which members who need religious remediation are allegedly consigned to live like medieval ascetics, without contact with the outside world, forced into labor and fed the most meager of meals. Custom furnishings for Cruise's airplane hangar - "a dry bar, table and chairs" - were milled at an RPF base in Los Angeles, according to Wright.
That Cruise does not get more than a passing mention until halfway through the book is a testament to Wright's even-handed treatment of his sensational material. But when he does, it's worth the wait. The reader learns that Miscavige had fields of flowers planted in the desert near Scientology headquarters in Southern California after learning that Cruise and his then-girlfriend, Nicole Kidman, yearned to run through them. We are told that, before Katie Holmes, Scientology found a different girlfriend for Cruise, one who was raised in the church and groomed and styled to suit the star; she moved into his house, but after a gaffe at a dinner party, she was unceremoniously dismissed. "Cruise was too busy to say good-bye," Wright writes. The girlfriend's "last glimpse was of him working out in his home gym."
Any casual observer who might have considered Cruise a benign or naive participant in a Hollywood spiritual fad will have a different opinion after "Going Clear." The star comes across as a narcissistic monster who finds in Scientology an army of acolytes ready to deliver on his whims.
In a recent interview with New York magazine (where I am on staff), the pop musician Beck dismissed his longtime involvement in Scientology with a shrug. "It's just something that I've been around," he says. "Some people do yoga, some get into meditation."
Mining Wright's book, one encounters a long list of well-known people who have found in Hubbard's teachings some degree of truth and help. Besides Cruise and John Travolta, there's TV host Greta Van Susteren; actresses Anne Archer, Juliette Lewis and Jenna Elfman; actor Giovanni Ribisi and his sister (Beck's wife) Marissa. Wright does not train his investigator's eye on them, nor on the vast majority of Scientologists who have found clarity and comfort in the religion and - like adherents of so many other faiths - ignore or make an uncomfortable peace with the sins of their leaders. He only asks why they would.