There’s never a good time to start a new religion. While common hazards used to include stoning or crucifixion, today’s would-be prophets face a new hurdle: fact-checkers.
Lawrence Wright’s insightful, gripping, and ultimately tragic exposé of Scientology, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief,’’ grew out of his 2011 New Yorker profile of Oscar-winning screenwriter/director and Scientology defector Paul Haggis, who told Wright plainly: “I was in a cult for thirty-four years.” During that time Haggis refrained from investigating anything negative he heard about his religion because he was “afraid of looking.”
But Wright wasn’t. Despite Scientology’s “vindictive behavior toward critics and defectors,” The New Yorker submitted 971 fact-checking queries to the church and received 47 binders of documents in return — 7 linear feet of previously secret church papers. “Going Clear’’ is the product of three years of researching those 47 binders, along with interviews with over 200 current and former Scientologists, and what it reveals about the organization will disturb everyone who reads it.
“Dianetics,’’ the foundational text of Scientology written by L. Ron Hubbard, was first published in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Wright devotes the first part of “Going Clear’’ to Hubbard, a man he describes as “complex, charming, delusional, and visionary,” following Hubbard’s extraordinary journey from pulp sci-fi author to religious leader.
This initial biographical section could stand as an engrossing book in itself. In 1950 Hubbard turned from sci-fi to self-help, writing “Dianetics,’’ marketed as an alternative to psychotherapy. It was a bestseller, but Hubbard had even bigger plans for his new spiritual “technology.” “I’d like to start a religion,” said Hubbard, who died in 1986 at 74. “That’s where the money is.”
According to Wright there may be only 25,000 to 30,000 active Scientologists worldwide, but the church holds $1 billion in liquid assets, a figure that “eclipses the holdings of most major world religions.” The money comes from “relentless fund-raising, the legacy of Hubbard’s copyrights to the thousand books and articles he published,” and the structure of Scientology’s program, in which believers must pay money in exchange for spiritual progress (via a process known as “auditing”).
The second section of Wright’s book, “Hollywood,” provides the answer to one of the great mysteries of the modern world: What’s the deal with Tom Cruise and Scientology? As early as 1955 Scientology published a list of celebrities it described as “game” to be “hunted,” including Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, and Walt Disney (none of whom took the bait). Scientology opened its first Celebrity Centre in 1969 in Hollywood to cater to the special needs of those burdened by fame, which today includes John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Beck, Will Smith, and Greta Van Susteren, among others. But Cruise is by far Scientology’s biggest trophy and most visible cheerleader.
In exchange for his support, Cruise receives individualized spiritual attention, gifts including custom motorcycles, and glory within the church. In 2004 Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, honored Cruise with Scientology’s Freedom Medal of Valor — a “diamond-encrusted platinum medallion” — for being “the most dedicated Scientologist I know.”
“There are really three tiers of Scientologists,” Wright explains. Cruise and other celebrities enjoy special status at the top. Below them are the everyday Scientologists — anyone who buys a copy of “Dianetics’’ and signs up for “auditing” These make up the majority of church members. At the bottom are, ironically, the clergy: the several thousand members of Sea Org, many of whom joined as children.
Almost all of the controversies surrounding Scientology stem from the experience of Sea Org members, but the church’s aggressive policy against naysayers has been disturbingly effective. The Cult Awareness Network, for example, was one of Scientology’s loudest critics until the church drove the group into bankruptcy in 1996, bought the rights to its name, and relaunched it as a pro-Scientology organization.
Wright concludes his tale by returning to Haggis’s painful defection from Scientology, and that of several high-level Sea Org members. When Marc and Claire Headley “escaped” from Gold Base, the church’s compound in Riverside County, Calif., they sued the church for violating human trafficking and labor laws. The court, however, agreed with the church’s argument that the Headleys “were ministers who had voluntarily submitted to the rigors of their calling.”
The Riverside Sheriff’s Department says it has never received a single report of abuse from anyone at Gold Base. “Although the Sea Org members lived inside a highly secure compound in a desert hideaway, surrounded by fences and high-tech sensors,” Wright argues, “most of them weren’t really being held against their will. On the contrary, it was their will that held them.” All the fact-checkers in the world can’t change that.
Buzzy Jackson, a historian and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.