Books of 2013 #5: Going Clear

Going Clear is award-winning journalist Lawrence Wright‘s new book about Scientology, and holy crap should you ever read it. Actually, you should probably read a couple of Wright’s books; the hype and anticipation about this particular book are due in no small part to Wright’s resume — among other things, he wrote The Looming Tower, which is absolutely the definitive history and analysis of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the mid-east and central Asia in the years before 9/11. (Seriously; if you haven’t read this book, whatever opinions you have about the sources and causes of modern terrorism in the region — and how it affects us — are absolutely incomplete. Go check it out. For bonus points, read Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game first; it’s the definitive study of empire gamesmanship in central Asia, and it’s that backdrop that leads into the hornet’s nest the region has become.)

There are other reasons for hype here, too. Most proximately is the celebrity-gossip “what a bunch of kooks” buzz that surrounds modern Scientology, thanks in part to the antics of Tom Cruise. More specifically, though, Wright’s 25,000 word New Yorker (14 February 2011) profile of screenwriter and director Paul Haggis set some pretty high expectations for the book — expectations which I believe are met handily.

Haggis spent 34 years as a Scientologist, starting in his early twenties. He raised his children in the church, and was a vocal supporter and financial backer even after gaining access to the infamous OT III information (famously detailed on South Park). What finally broke his faith, though, was Scientology’s overt support for California’s Proposition 8. As it turns out, Haggis’ two daughters are gay.

After making this break, Haggis had a bit of the zeal of the un-converted, if you will: he was willing to speak in detail and at length about the church, its doctrine, its internal workings, its misbehavior, and the changes wrought within by the ascendency of David Miscavige after the founder’s “departure.” (By the way: they still think he’s coming back.)

I promised a friend of mine I’d write a bit about this one, and then read it in 48 hours and promptly got hyperbusy such that, weeks later, I’ve still said nothing. Fortunately, there are others talking about this book, too; Michael Kinsley’s New York Times review begins with an excellent point:

That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology. Every deceptive comparison with Mormonism and other religions is given a respectful hearing. Every ludicrous bit of church dogma is served up deadpan. This makes the book’s indictment that much more powerful.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Wright goes out of his way to be fair, knowing full well that you need only Scientology’s actual words and deeds to paint an accurate picture. This is far and away a different league than, say, the rants of an atheist about Christianity; the core of Scientology is the ravings of a lunatic science fiction author, and it makes the provably fraudulent pronouncements of Joseph Smith look positively tame by comparison. But it’s worse than that, because within this prison of belief operate what are effectively prison camps for backsliding members too afraid to cut ties, where they are held in isolation in fear of violence. More than once, Wright talks to ex-Scientologists who speak of the total isolation and information blackout at work for core Sea Org members — some, upon exit, have never read a book not authored by L. Ron Hubbard.

That kind of isolation alone is an excellent cult hallmark, but it’s not the only thing that marks the CoS as something other than a “regular” religion. To tell the story properly, though, it’s necessary to tell the story of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, which Wright does in great detail. What becomes immediately clear is that Hubbard was a legitimately brilliant, fascinating and accomplished guy — but also a megalomaniacal compulsive liar, even when the truth wasn’t damaging. He exaggerated his military exploits, his accomplishments, and his education, to hilarious degrees. He was a serial philanderer, and by all accounts a terrible father. There’s more than a hint of narcissism. And, like Joseph Smith before him, when he sought to found a religion for his own benefit, he had the poor planning to make pronouncements that were trivially easy to disprove even within his lifetime (such as the conditions on planet Venus).

Not, of course, that this has limited the Church, apparently. Scientology has become a quintessentially American cult, focussed as it is on Celebrity and wealth. The explosion of celebrity-worship in the late 20th century in some ways seems to have made Scientology almost inevitable, especially since it was really getting started in a period of time when many baby boomers were actively seeking new meaning and structure. There remain no small number of “ordinary” Scientologists who insist the church’s methods — auditing, e.g. — have helped them overcome challenges, meet goals, and achieve success. But the church’s underbelly is a seedy and awful place, so it’s hard not to view even that as the fruit of a poison tree.

The most fascinating fact about this entire phenomenon may be the existence of dedicated Scientologists who have “escaped” the clutches of the mainline church, but who persist in auditing and meeting and study as “independent Scientologists.” For them, the problem is not the church or its doctrine (even Xenu and the intergalactic war); the problem is the cult of personality surrounding Miscavige. They may have a point, but they can’t explain away Xenu, or the thus-far undemonstrated powers supposedly granted to those who have “gone Clear.”

Read this book.

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