In its latest documentary, “Going Clear,” HBO has joined the decades-long effort to shed some light on the often-mysterious practices of Scientology. And the light is not always flattering.
“Going Clear” may be short on big, new revelations, but it is dotted with disturbing detail. Interviews with former members show the tremendous hold Scientology can have, even when people are made to suffer the indignities of abuse or reeducation. And footage of earlier scandals speaks to the persistent turbulence of the church’s half-century history.
One thing “Going Clear” doesn’t include is rebuttal. While the filmmakers reached out to the Church of Scientology, the church declined to participate. So their side is not well represented.
Here are some of the most arresting revelations of “Going Clear.”
Over the years, the leaders of Scientology have developed a range of tactics for controlling members.
• The practice of Scientology is built around therapy sessions, called “auditing.” The church has used information from these sessions against members – for instance, by threatening to expose some of their deep personal truths.
• Committed Scientologists who fall out of favor can be sent to a kind of reeducation labor camp where they are separated from their families and asked to perform exhausting manual work.
• Some high-level Scientologists were made to live in a barred and unsanitary trailer — called “the hole” — where they were subjected to physical and mental abuse.
• When you leave the church, you leave alone. Friends and family members still committed to Scientology are told not to speak to you.
It’s not unusual for a religious organization to amass substantial wealth. What is different about Scientology is that much of its money comes not through donations but from a fee-for-service model. You pay for each audit session and each level of insight.
• Even before L. Ron Hubbard officially founded Scientology, people were paying $500 for training. Today’s introductory sessions can be as affordable as $50, but as you move up the ranks costs grow into the thousands.
• The people who form the backbone of Scientology — called the “Sea Org” — are generally paid as little as 6 to 40 cents per hour, or less than 6 percent of the minimum wage. Children, too, are sometimes asked to do work for the organization. These kinds of labor practices might be illegal in other places, but religious groups are given more latitude.
• The Church of Scientology never paid taxes, even when it wasn’t yet considered a church. By the early 1990s, it owed the IRS roughly $1 billion. Rather than pay, it fought hard to get tax-exempt status as a religion, and it won.
Another thing that distinguishes Scientology is its commitment to hiding some of its core tenets. Over time, however, details have slipped out.
• Enlightenment isn’t the only goal. Those Scientologists who reach the highest levels are said to be able to read minds, implant thoughts in others, and move objects with their brains.
• Most religions have some kind of origin story, a tale that begins “in the beginning.” Scientology’s sci-fi infused origin story involves intergalactic rulers, frozen bodies dropped in volcanoes, hydrogen bombs, and menacing free-floating souls called thetans.
• A full commitment to the church extends not just through this life but for a billion years.
L. Ron Hubbard
Since its founding in the 1960s, Scientology has sought to recast Hubbard’s life in saintly terms, but parts of his biography are rather less otherworldly.
• Hubbard was relieved of his command on a submarine chaser in World War II after shooting at a floating log and also a Mexican island.
• During a dispute with his first wife, he apparently absconded to Cuba with their child.
• One of the tenets of Scientology is a belief in former lives. Hubbard seems to have thought he was a prince in many of those former lives, amassing and burying treasure throughout the Mediterranean.
Courting celebrities has been a longstanding strategy for Scientology. “Going Clear” discusses two of Scientology’s most famous celebrities, Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
• The church played an active role in breaking up the marriage between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
• They also tried to groom a new girlfriend for Cruise. After it didn’t work out, she was punished for telling people about her experience.
• One of John Travolta’s good friends, Spanky Taylor, left Scientology after spending time in the reeducation camp. She said on camera that she didn’t understand why her ordeal wasn’t enough to shake Travolta’s commitment.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz