Monday, January 18, 2016

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear is about the enigma that is Scientology, a religion marketed to the wealthy and famous who can afford undergoing years of auditing sessions. It's a secretive religion that unfolds information in stages, making the stranger tenets of Scientology more palatable after acclimating one's mind to less shocking, but priming "truths." As a newer religion (founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the mid 1950's), Scientology has recent history to its detriment. And it is this with which Wright begins...the story of L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, who wanted to leave a permanent mark on history.

Wright digs into Hubbard's past, including his military service, revealing how Hubbard's claims as a war hero (among other things) are at odds with archival data. Wright also explains how Scientology began as a group of Hubbard's followers roaming the high seas (yes, you read that correctly). Hubbard and his followers traveled around the world, looking for a place to build his church and avoiding others that wanted nothing to do with his new movement. This history is why today, the top level of Scientologists are considered a part of the "Sea Org."

Scientology eventually settled, ending up with Los Angeles as one of his church's hubs, complete with a celebrity center that caters to stars like John Travolta, Kirstie Allie, and most famously, Tom Cruise. While a celebrity endorsement of the church is great advertising, you have to wonder what kind of damage the church can do to a public individual, whose deepest darkest secrets are memorialized via auditing sessions, which are a kind of confessional/therapy session involving a lie detector made with two metal cans.

In discussing Hubbard and the Church, Wright alleges abuses by the church's top level leaders, including the church's current leader, David Miscavige. We are talking serious stuff, like Miscagive physically assaulting people with little provocation, or hazing people using tactics reminiscent of my college years, and worse. Some things are almost too crazy sounding to be true, but then again, we are talking about people who believe they were banished to earth by the dark Lord Xenu, or some such shit.

Among some of the church's more infamous headlines is the decades long battle between the church and the IRS. While the IRS went after the church for unpaid taxes, the church hired private investigators and whistle-blowers to harass the IRS. Eventually, Miscavage negotiated tax-exemption status for Scientology, in exchange for agreeing to withdraw the many lawsuits and forms of harassment Scientology laid against the IRS. This important decision by the IRS was a big win for the church financially, and also culturally. Despite decades of perceived illegitimacy around the world, the US Government now recognized Scientology as an organized religion (that's why I call it a religion, not a "religion," because the IRS said so). Praise be to Hubbard.

The Church also launched Operation Snow White in the 70's. The goal of this secret operation was to infiltrate government offices and purge any documents that were disparaging to Scientology. This operation involved more than 30 countries and reads like a spy novel. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this whole Snow White thing was starting to make me look at my tin foil in a new way.

While Going Clear gives a lot of insight into the workings of the church and its leadership, I felt it lacking in the actual meat and bones of the Scientology doctrine. I was hoping for more accounts of what a Scientologist undergoes during auditing, or what gatherings of Scientologists are like...are there sermons about reincarnation and how to fight off suppressive persons? What do Scientologists bring to a potluck? Do you still have to get a flu shot after going clear? Do Scientologists secretely giggle when they hear the word, "Xenu?" While some of these things are touched upon in Going Clear, I'm guessing you can read one of the many books written by former Scientologists to get more detailed info.

One thing to keep in mind, this book is very one-sided. It's not an unbiased presentation of Scientology. Rather, Wright uses information from former Scientologists. While he attempts to meet with church leadership (including Miscavage) to tell their side of the story, a lot of the information he gives in their "defense" is a simple statement such as "the church denies x and y" or something to that effect. That's not all Wright's fault, however. He explains that, understandably, the church wasn't the most willing participant in his writing endeavor. And while he provides some information the church gives to refute certain things, a lot of it comes down to a he said/she said account, which appropriately, I guess you just have to take on faith.