Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of belief by Lawrence Wright - review

Lifting the lid on the church that the film stars fall for.

Evening Standard, UK/March 25, 2016

By Joshi Herrmann

It is a strange feeling to pick up a newly released book in a second-hand book shop in New York, as I did last week. 

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, by Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, came out in the US in 2013 but is only being published here this month, a year after the HBO documentary of the same name by Alex Gibney was released. The book was dropped by its original publisher, Transworld, presumably under legal pressure from the famously litigious church, and is now being released by Silvertail. 

Wright interviewed more than 200 members and former members of the Church to write his definitive account of the organisation, a magnificent feat of investigative storytelling which starts with the strange life of L Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder. 

Hubbard was a charismatic and a startling fantasist. He claimed to have worked on films in which he was not credited. His obsession with naval culture (fleeing lawsuits, he eventually took Scientology to sea on a fleet of boats) seems to have given birth to a string of invented wartime stories. He claimed to have been crippled by battle wounds and healed himself with techniques that would later become central to Scientology, but those injuries are absent from his military and hospital records. 

Scientology was germinated in 1938 when Hubbard went to the dentist and hallucinated under gas anaesthetic. 

“In those brief, hallucinatory moments, Hubbard believed the secrets of existence were accidentally revealed to him,” Wright explains in the deadpan that he employs throughout the book, even when narrating Scientology’s most ludicrous beliefs about intergalactic wars and volcanos being blown up by H-bombs. He surmises that the book Hubbard claims he wrote straight after the experience — Excalibur, which apparently left its first six readers so shattered by its revelations that he withdrew it from publication — probably never existed. 

The allegations against Hubbard go further than dishonesty. He is accused of beating and abducting his second wife Sara Northrup Hollister, and threatening to kill their daughter, Alexis, whom he also abducted. 

After Hubbard’s death, the narrative moves to the reign of his successor David Miscavige, who has been accused of assaulting senior members of the Church, many of whom have now left and have begun to tell their stories to the likes of Wright and the British journalist John Sweeney. Miscavige and the church strongly deny this and counterclaim that his accusers are guilty of abuse and hence have been expelled from the church. Sweeney’s 2013 book, Church of Fear, documents Scientology’s use of private investigators and the courts to harass and intimidate critics. As investigative journalist Richard Behar put it: “Those who criticise the church often find themselves engulfed in litigation or stalked by private eyes.”

Some of Going Clear’s most entertaining passages relate to the church’s fanatical courting of celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, who Wright says acted as a lobbyist for Scientology to foreign governments (he apparently asked Bill Clinton how the church could influence Tony Blair) and an emissary to the rest of Hollywood — Wright says he tried to convert Steven Spielberg, Will Smith and even David Beckham. The Church denies the book’s claim — allegedly taken from two sources — that Miscavige videotaped Tom Cruise’s “auditing” sessions (Scientology’s signature form of therapy) and passed on the sexual anecdotes Cruise had been asked to confess to friends. 

Despite its dwindling membership (Scientology has claimed to have about eight million members, but one recent estimate puts its active congregation at more like 40,000, the capacity of Stamford Bridge), the revelations in Going Clear depict a frightening organisation, capable of imprisoning people often without keeping them imprisoned. But the book’s delayed publication must make us readers think — how much can we fear an organisation that’s this scared of us?

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