by Lawrence Wright
I try to steer away from religion. In conversation, in life, and certainly on the net. But sometimes, just once in a while, a man reads a book about religion. And that man has a blog about books, and feels obligated to document what he reads, all to satisfy his adoring public.
Scientology. I certainly know more about it than I did before. I don’t want to get into their doctrine; I’d just fuck it up. Here’s South Park to explain it for you. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I know you like South Park. If you hate following links, and you can stand a significantly shittier Youtube video, here you go:
So that’s part of Scientology, but Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear isn’t really about Scientologist doctrine, and it’s hardly about the religion at all. Instead, Wright takes it upon himself to meticulously document the life of the religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the birth and growth of the Church itself. It’s a pretty remarkable story, and Wright takes his task seriously.
The story starts with Hubbard, a man who, from his early days, seems to have exhibited that great American trait, the gift of bullshitting. Other, less profane, people, might call this gift ‘imagination’. And for a science fiction writer such as Hubbard, not only is there nothing wrong with this, it’s actually essential for success. Given how much pulp science fiction existed in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, an outsized imagination and a strong work ethic could help one emerge from the pack. Hubbard had plenty of both, and used them to become one of the most prolific and successful authors of all time.
Of course, the flip side, the ‘bullshit’ side, has to come out sometime. Hubbard’s recollections of his childhood are often, to put it mildly, of dubious accuracy. His military record doesn’t back up his own account of his experience in World War II, and he appears to have lied his way into the Navy in the first place. According to Wright, Hubbard sent false recommendations along with his application, and he embiggened his qualifications as a seaman and a scientist. Having secured his appointment as an officer, it appears that he bounced around from post to post, with his superiors often wondering how the hell they got stuck with a man who seemed to have no business in the military.
His military experience- as told by him- served as the foundation for his first stab at self-help, published in 1950 as Dianetics. The techniques outlined in this text allegedly helped him cure his war wounds, including blindness, though his records document no combat-related injuries. From what I can tell, the book itself is a jumble of pseudoscience that’s pretty much a ripoff of old school psychoanalysis, which is ironic given Hubbard’s and Scientology’s view of psychotherapy as an evil profession.
Dianetics evolved into Scientology, a set of beliefs and practices whose adherents would fight for decades to be considered followers of a legitimate religion rather than a cult. Hubbard would lead the Church of Scientology through persecution, exile, legal battles, and personal struggles, till his death in 1986. He was succeeded by David Miscavige, who leads the Church to this day. Though recognized in the United States as a religious organization, and therefore tax-exempt, Scientology continues to have a worldwide perception problem.
Wright weaves this history with the personal stories of Scientology ‘defectors’, including high-ranking Sea Org members as well as acclaimed film director Paul Haggis. Each of these people tells a different story, but all of them relate their enchantment, frustrations, and growing disillusionment with Scientology’s leaders and institutions. Haggis, for example, takes issue with the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and his fury when the Church stonewalls his inquiries into the matter leads to his resignation.
(The Church’s view of homosexuality is especially interesting in light of its desire to be associated with Hollywood, not exactly a homophobic culture; indeed, one of the Scientology’s early celebrity converts, John Travolta, strongly supports the gay community and has had his own sexuality called into question. According to Wright, the organization even helped Travolta maintain his straight public image. Additionally, several Church members, including L. Ron Hubbard’s son Quentin, are alleged to have been gay.)
Other ex-Scientologists describe what happens when one joins the Sea Org, Scientology’s clergy. In the 1960’s, feeling unwelcome in many countries, Hubbard and his followers took to the open sea- hence, the Sea Organization. Scientologists who join the Sea Org sign billion-year contracts, dedicating their mortal lives and a good chunk of whatever comes after to serving their Church. Though one might think that Scientology’s clergy and management would be treated better than most adherents, Wright and his witnesses claim that the opposite is the case. The Sea Org overworks and underpays its recruits, using their total faith and dedication to keep them in line. Wright describes horrifying conditions, including disgusting housing and meals that consist of scraps. These conditions only get worse for the Sea Org member who fucks up somehow, as they can be sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force, or RPF. Jesse Prince, one of Wright’s interviewees, claims that he was “incarcerated” in the RPF for threatening to leave the Sea Org, and made to work there for an indefinite amount of time, in his case a year and a half. And from the looks of it, the RPF is not somewhere you’d wanna be sent.
To be honest, Going Clear reminded me a lot of Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick’s account of North Korea from defectors’ perspectives. North Korean defectors claim a reluctance to defect out of fear for their families’ safety; the ex-Scientologists Wright interviews often worry about being labelled a Suppressive Person (SP), preventing future contact with their families and perhaps bringing the wrath of the Church down on family members. North Koreans recall a mix of fear, awe, and acceptance that keeps them in line; the former Sea Org members describe sticking with Scientology in similar terms.
While Wright is meticulously detailing the foundation and growth of Scientology, he continuously explores the reasons someone would join the religion, commit to the Sea Org, tolerate the abuse that members are put through. According to several sources, both Hubbard and Miscavige subjected their underlings to physical abuse. How can people trust a leader who at any point may give in to violent rages? When the FBI raids Scientology offices in 1977 and stumbles upon over a hundred RPF members in a dark basement, none of them try to flee; Wright wants us to ask ourselves why. Were they brainwashed? Or was it simply dedication to their beliefs?
For Wright, it really comes down to this question: how do we define the differences between a religion, a cult, and a criminal organization? Does that distinction matter?