Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright - review

From reincarnation to revenge to extraterrestrial time travel, a straight-faced and scrupulous exploration of Scientology's dark and outlandish belief system

The Guardian, UK/January 30, 2013

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950. According to Bridge Publications, itself an arm of the Church of Scientology, at least 80 million copies have been sold. That sounds possible, if you credit the church's claim that it has 8 million members. But then you have to reckon with more objective external estimates that the membership might be just 50,000, while one assumes that the book sales are inflated by deliberate bulk-buying by church members. So what are you going to believe?

Here's a quick experiment. Amazon ranks books according to their current sales. I thought I would compare Dianetics with Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The Rand novel was published in 1957 and it apparently has a devoted readership eager to believe in the free mind solving all problems. My experiment was conducted on 20 January 2013. The hardback of Atlas Shrugged was then ranked 62,059, the Kindle edition at 976 and the paperback at 416. I was surprised and impressed, but I've seen people on buses, in parks and at the beach reading Atlas Shrugged. I have never seen anyone reading Dianetics, and this might be why: the hardback is ranked at 402,370 and the paperback at 24,618. There isn't a Kindle edition, but the audio book is ranked at 318,283.

All of which would begin to bear out the thought that there can't be that many people who would fall for the preposterous doctrine of Scientology, or be ready to tolerate the ugly behaviour of its church. Admittedly, that is a personal opinion, but on your behalf I have acquired it from reading Lawrence Wright's account of this phenomenon. His book is admirably judicious and thoroughly researched (within the limits of secrecy or paranoia imposed by the church), but I often had the feeling that Wright himself was uncertain whether this was fit material for a sober book of non-fiction, or would he collapse in fits of helpless laughter and tears at the stuff he was obliged to report? Even if the church had just three remaining members (Tom Cruise, John Travolta and its present leader, David Miscavige), it would be a demented venture worthy of Mel Brooks or Monty Python.

When I say on your behalf, I have to tell you, and remind myself, that fears of litigation are preventing publication of this book in Britain. Both the Church of Scientology and Tom Cruise have a history of being litigiously aggressive, and both have denied the veracity of a great deal of the material in the book.

Hubbard was one of the great scoundrel tricksters of American history (the competition is intense); a man who was fuelled and inspired by his own myth, a flamboyant charismatic, inclined to bombast, fantasy and running for cover whenever the heat came on. He was a drop-out and drifter, returned to shore by the navy in wartime because he was deemed unfit to command, as well as a womaniser and a betrayer, and a liar not just from expediency but because it was his calling. He was also a writer of pulp fiction, and what prepared the way for the language and delirium of Dianetics was several years of writing adventure-packed short stories and science fiction junk novels.

Wright is scrupulous and straight-faced in describing the self-help philosophy that emerged. At its heart was this proposition: if you feel troubled, inadequate and wasted in life, come listen to this. Life was proposed as an eternal force, always threatened by the negativity of "en-grams" - any destructive or dishonest urges you might be subject to. The way to conquer these bugs was through auditing, a prolonged process of being talked to by trained auditors who took you back over the details of your life - into the womb and beyond. A machine, the E-meter, was invaluable in these auditing procedures, detecting tiny skin deviations in nervous reaction.

Yes, it sounds like a lie detector, and the whole method seems like a version of psychotherapy in which problems are talked out until the subject can recognise them and deal with them. Put aside the machine and the jargon and you can see how the prospect might appeal to some people. But there was more to it. According to Wright, the audited confessions were often recorded, filed away and likely to be used as blackmail if the subject felt he or she had had enough. At that stage, the bill for the auditing could be delivered, and it was sometimes in six figures. The goal of the enterprise was for the subject to reach the status of "Clear". At first hardly anyone got there, but then gradually it spread: Clears were thick on the ground, even if some ran amok or killed themselves soon after they made the grade. Nicole Kidman "went Clear in no time".

As Wright tells it, behind the promise of self-help lay extortion, intimidation and a kind of imprisonment that makes one think of Soviet history. If you did a bad thing in Scientology, such as questioning Hubbard or joking at the fatuous pomp of the enterprise, you might be rounded on and generally humiliated. Hubbard himself was an astute paranoid. To every innocent suggestion that getting Clear sounded like clearing your mind through psychotherapy, the "church" said no, because psychiatry is the devil and must be attacked.

Scientology is now famous for revenge and the obsessive pursuit of its own righteousness. The most striking example of that is not the suicides or the disintegration of some miscreants, nor the reported church-ordered divorces; it's the way Miscavige launched a campaign against the Internal Revenue Service to deter it from ending the church's tax-exempt status. Wright has it that scientology deluged the IRS with lawsuits that began to impair its regular functioning - and so in 1993 the government caved in, no matter that the threatened bill for tax arrears would have terminated the church. Hubbard died in 1986, but his voice is still out there, and heard by the lucky ones such as Miscavige (who dropped out of school at the age of 16, and is now said to have a net worth of $50 million).

Much of this is hard to believe, and Wright, previously the author of The Looming Tower, a history of the ideology of terrorism, has armed himself with detailed source notes and regular footnotes to the effect that the church or Tom Cruise's lawyers "deny this ever happened". And this is where "Hollywood" gets into the subtitle. It's true that the church was as keen to get Hollywood names on to its books as the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was to name movie people who might be reds. But this is not really a book about show business, and I wonder if "Hollywood" hasn't been pushed up front out of publishing's needs. Moreover, if the church reckoned that Cruise would be a draw for recruits, I suspect the unstable life and antics of the 50-year-old actor have done more to discredit than assist Scientology.

The subject of this book starts off as astounding, to be sure. (Hubbard's early stories were for the Astounding Science-Fiction magazine. In Scientology, he kept many elements of extra-terrestrial time travel and reincarnation: he reckoned that when he died, he would become a heavenly body, twinkling in the Kubrickian depths.) But it is so crammed with unpleasant people and degrading stories, and so helplessly clotted with Scientology jargon and acronyms, that it's not easy reading. Nothing dispels the feeling that Scientology was a horror and farce that was dwindling in advance of this book.

Of course, the church has given Wright very little help (and perhaps some hindrance). In the popular estimate today, I think that Scientology is considered less as a way to better mental health than as a means of thought control, punishment and vindictive pursuit, founded and managed in fear, not hope. Wright points out that there are countries (Germany for one) where Scientology has come close to being outlawed.

So it's a very American dream, and there is a natural affinity with Hollywood in that it preys on an idea of fantastic escape. But if you look again, it's alarming to realise how thoroughly the legend of escape becomes a new kind of prison. Being Clear is an inducement to darkness and disarray. You may laugh at it at first, but get ready to weep.

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