My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
There has been a spate of recent books about the Church of Scientology published recently, most of which have not been complimentary to say the least. Everyone who has any dirt to dish on the Church of L. Ron Hubbard seems to have a book on the shelves these days. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes the reader all the way back to Hubbard’s childhood. Wright attempts to dig through the various contradictory accounts of Hubbard’s education and military career. He finds many instances in which the official church account conflicts with government records and other reports. Piecing together the disparate stories about Hubbard’s life could not have been easy for Wright as he acknowledges the contradictory nature of what has been said and written about. For example, Hubbard has, at various times, claimed to have been an engineer, a physicist, and a plant physiologist while in reality, he never finished college. Hubbard has also made claims at having been a war hero, though the official record indicates that his one command of a patrol boat resulted in him accidentally bombing Mexico after claiming to have spotted a German U-boat.
In Going Clear, Wright presents a picture of Hubbard of a colorful figure with a dark, even abusive side. During World War II, Hubbard appears at once to have been eager to show he could be a great leader, yet always finding some health reason to get out of assignments that might result in him having to prove himself worthy of that ambition. Wright then takes the reader through Hubbard’s post-war life, detailing various failed marriages and relationships, his health problems in the late forties and his supposed discovery of a self-cure for all of his ailments through Dianetics, the forerunner of Scientology. The reader is presented with details of drug use, spousal abuse, and financial shenanigans as Hubbard founded his religion, all of which, of course, the Church of Scientology denies.
Throughout the book, however, Hubbard remains something of an enigma. Wright doesn’t assert whether Hubbard is an inveterate liar or a con man who fell victim to his own hype. Instead, he presents what he could document, either through records or witness accounts, and lets the readers draw their own conclusions. As the book reaches Hubbard’s final, paranoid, and reclusive years, the narrative shifts to his successor, David Miscavige. As with Hubbard, Stewart traces Miscavige’s life to his early childhood and how he quickly rose to be one of the most powerful leaders in the church while still in his twenties. There have been numerous allegations of abuse made against Miscavige over the years, and Stewart appears to document them all. Miscavige comes across as a psychopathic megalomaniac who dishes out physical and emotional abuse to his staff on a regular basis. Stewart describes sadistic games of musical chairs designed to pit executives against one another under threat of firing if they lose. The conditions under which members of the Sea Org (Scientology’s version of a monastic class) allegedly live boarder on slavery.
As the subtitle implies, Wright spends a lot of time focusing on the strange relationship between Hollywood and the Church of Scientology. He discusses the recruiting of celebrity scientologists like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but if the book can be said to have a main protagonist, it’s writer/director Paul Haggis. Wright begins the book with Haggis’ recruitment into scientology and ends when he leaves it.
Stewart brings many allegations of abuse and criminal activity to life and he carefully names his sources, mostly ex-members of the Church, many of which once held high ranks in the organization. He describes the Church’s actions and history and explains many of the Church’s arcane words, with often a strange mixture of naval terminology and corporate buzzwords. Often, Scientology appears more like a never ending corporate pep rally than a religious organization. His descriptions of the abuse becomes so commonplace that the sentence, “The Church denies all of these allegations” becomes almost a standard coda for every page.
Going Clear is a gripping, well-research exploration of one of the world’s most bizarre religions and the strange hold it has on people. It is not an easy read, but anyone with an interest in Scientology should definitely pick this up before they attend their first “auditing” session.