Book review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013) by Lawrence Wright

Reader Norm kindly sent me a copy of the above book and said that he had enjoyed it and I must say that it was a real page-turner. I had intended to write a full review but I came across a good one by Diane Johnson in the New York Review of Books, along with a review of a memoir by Jenna Miscavige Hill (the niece of the current Scientology leader David Miscavige) who defected from the church, that captured much of what I wanted to say so I will just refer you to that review and add some thoughts of my own.

The book is split into three parts, as indicated by the subtitle.

The first section deals with the biography of the founder L. Ron Hubbard and the imaginative way in which he re-wrote his life history. Born in 1911, he used his skills as a writer capable of a prodigious rate of output coupled with having an immensely fertile imagination to re-write his life story repeatedly, portraying himself as a heroic adventurer who had been injured in World War II and had largely healed himself using techniques that he himself had discovered.

In addition, he concocted an entire worldview that involved an exotic cosmology and creation myth in which the universe existed for trillions of years and included an extra-galactic civilization headed by a villain named Xenu 75 million years ago that resulted in each person having multiple lives that stretch on seemingly forever. Interestingly, there is no god as such, but there is no explicit denial of a god either, leaving such an entity as a vague overarching presence. This makes it a religion akin to Buddhism, attractive even to atheists who are looking for a club to join.

At its heart, Scientology is a self-help program based on something called Dianetics. It uses cheap gadgets that have similarities to lie detectors by which you detect ‘body thetans’ and ‘engrams’, those things that are blocking your growth and development, and prescribes repetitive exercises to eliminate them so that you can reach your full potential as a pure being or a ‘thetan’. Us ‘wogs’ (the term given to those who are not Scientologists, kind of like Muggles) are in a state known as ‘pre-clear’. (Incidentally, wogs was also the derisive way that racist British imperialists referred to people of color of South Asian descent like me.) Once we are initially successfully ‘audited’ using those gadgets and techniques, we become ‘clear’ and can start on the various stages of being an Operating Thetan (OT) by embarking on the upward journey on the Bridge to Total Freedom by successive stages, gaining new powers along the way as well as learning the deeper secrets of the religion, all the way up to the highest level of OT VIII.

(Thanks to jaxkayaker in the comments, I can point you to the cartoon program South Park that had a hilarious and pretty accurate episode about Scientology that you can see in full here or the part containing just the doctrine here.)

Of course, all this costs money. The church doctrines were guarded zealously and getting access to the revelations of higher levels requires shelling out larger and larger amounts of it. It was the release of all its doctrines as a result of a court case and the posting of them online by WikiLeaks that removed a lot of the mystique that kept people within the church by tempting them with new revelations as they rose up the Bridge by paying accordingly. The public release of the documents also led to considerable ridicule of Scientology and all its Xenu fantasies and likely led to a decline in its membership. This clip from the 1987 the BBC program Panorama briefly summarizes some of the doctrine.

The second section deals with the church’s assiduous courting of Hollywood celebrities, who give them a lot of revenue. The book started out as a New Yorker article about Paul Haggis, successful screenwriter and director (Crash, Casino Royale, Million Dollar Baby) and his story begins and ends the book. Haggis was an atheist and joined when he was 21 and made a very public exit 34 years later in 2009, writing a widely circulated resignation letter lambasting what he said were the lies and abuse that he saw going on. He says that his eyes began to be opened when he was angered by the church’s endorsement of the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California. Two of Haggis’s daughters are gay and he took this attack personally as well as objecting on principle.

You can see a list of current and former Scientologists (those who either left or are dead) here. Two well-known Scientologists who figure prominently in the book are Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Cruise turns out to be as cold, creepy, and manipulative as his public persona suggests, someone who seems to need the lavish attention that the church bestows upon him as a mark of his self-worth. The church actively uses Cruise to court other celebrities. They made a big effort to get Steven Spielberg to join but that failed.

Travolta, on the other hand, comes out quite well, a nice guy and good father, whom people like more the more they get to know him, but at the same time someone who seems a little weak and insecure, the kind of person that a cult can manipulate.

The third section of the book gets to grips with the question of how it can be that people join and stay in an organization that can be so exploitative and abusive, both physically and mentally. The tales of people being forced to work at the most menial tasks for little or no pay, punished in bizarre and painful ways for the most minor of infractions or for no reason at all, kept prisoner in compounds and bleak buildings within compounds, given meager food while Miscavige, someone who comes across in the book as a sociopath who took over the church after Hubbard died in 1986, lives a life of luxury. The fact that so few seem to leave is the real story. Much of it is due to fear of punishment and persecution, being cut off from family, and having little or no marketable skills to survive outside the bubble. It also speaks to the power of religious indoctrination.

What was also shocking is the extraordinarily vicious way that the organization deals with critics and apostates, going to extreme levels of intimidation. It does this all under the umbrella of being a religious organization and enjoying tax-exempt status. At one stage during its fight with Scientology over its IRS status, the IRS tried to define religion in such a way that excluded Scientology but included other mainstream religions but failed in the effort.

Although the church claims a huge membership, it is declining and some estimates put the current membership now as low as 30,000, although it has about $1 billion in liquid assets, which is where it gets its real power because that enables it to wage wholesale war on its opponents and critics, hiring platoons of lawyers and investigators who flood the courts with lawsuits and threaten people with the personal information they dig up.

Jenna Miscavige Hill is quoted in the Johnson review as saying:

To me, the Church is a dangerous organization whose beliefs allow it to commit crimes against humanity and violate basic human rights. It remains a mystery to me how, in our current society, this can go on unchecked.

It is not really a mystery. Scientology is merely taking advantage of what all religions do, demanding that we respect its bizarre belief structure and claiming that suffering is something that its acolytes voluntarily accept as part of the process of redeeming themselves, just a variation of the practices of fasting, abstinence, celibacy, and even flagellation found in other religions. It is all meant to make the followers better people.

The book provides a fascinating window for us to see how a religious cult began and grew largely within our own lifetime. We have seen how a similarly bizarre cult started in the 19th century by Joseph Smith also had staying power and is now the Mormon church, while going back in time, the cults of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism also started similarly and took firm root. But at the same time, many, many cults have begun and then disappeared.

What makes some cults last and come to be called religions while others disappear after a brief existence is something worth pondering. The jury is still out as to which category Scientology will fall.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ms. Hill probably intended only to speak of her uncle’s enterprise in the quote given above, but her take on “The Church” certainly applies much more widely.

  2. baryogenesis says

    In the 70’s and 80’s Scientology made quite a splash in this city (Toronto), some members being busted for infiltrating city hall positions which allowed them access to files involving disputes and the removal of damaging information. There was even a “celebrity center”, a pricey drop-in space for movie stars, etc. Been very low-key lately. I think if you mentioned it other than as a joke, it would only evoke eye-rolling and jaw-dropping. Yea intertubes!

  3. says

    At its heart, Scientology is a self-help program based on something called Dianetics. It uses cheap gadgets that have similarities to lie detectors by which you detect ‘body thetans’ and ‘engrams’, those things that are blocking your growth and development, and prescribes repetitive exercises to eliminate them so that you can reach your full potential as a pure being or a ‘thetan’.

    It’s quite narcissistic, isn’t it. I guess it never occurred to me before how unabashedly self-oriented it encourages people to be.

    It’s also, apparently, absurdly speciesist:

    Throughout the ages, man [sic] has traditionally viewed himself as a spiritual being. It is only in the last century that the materialistic idea that man is a mere animal similar to a monkey or rat has taken hold. Scientology teaches that this idea is patently false, unworkable, and acts as a barrier to personal understanding of life.

  4. Spooky Tran says

    The joke goes like this:

    Q. What’s the difference between a religion and a cult?

    A. In a cult there is one person at the top who knows the whole thing is as a scam. In a religion, that person is dead.

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