Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief” is a colossus of documentation, with 42 pages of endnotes, plus quite a few on-the-page footnotes, often in spots where a subject or a lawyer has disagreed with something the author reports.
No doubt Wright and his publishers want to be in a strong position if the Church of Scientology comes after them. When Paulette Cooper published “The Scandal of Scientology” in 1971, she was sued 19 times. That wasn’t all, as Wright recounts:
“One day, when Cooper was out of town, her cousin, who was staying in her New York apartment, opened the door for a delivery from a florist. The deliveryman took a gun from the bouquet, put it to her temple and pulled the trigger. When the gun didn’t fire, he attempted to strangle her. Cooper’s cousin screamed and the assailant fled.
“Cooper then moved to an apartment building with a doorman, but soon after that her 300 neighbors received letters saying that she was a prostitute with venereal disease who molested children.”
It may be just a coincidence, but a 1977 FBI raid on Scientology offices turned up a file devoted to “Operation Freakout,” whose goal was to get Cooper “incarcerated in a mental institution or jail,” Wright says.
In an email to Bloomberg News, Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw called the book “a rehash of tabloid allegations about Scientology going back many decades” and wrote that the factual allegations in the book, in particular the “salacious and false allegations concerning violence,” were “disproven long ago.”
The Church of Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard (1911-86), a prolific writer of pulp science fiction who in 1950 turned to self-help with “Dianetics” (18 million copies sold, according to the church).
Religion was next. “That’s where the money is,” he’s reported to have said, though Wright doesn’t think his motives were entirely venal.
Hubbard told his followers that some 75 million years ago the earth became a prison for billions of disembodied spirits from a faraway galaxy. These “thetans” attach themselves to human beings and impede spiritual progress; the methods of Scientology can not only expel them but also enhance physical powers (like eyesight) amazingly.
As doctrines go, it’s probably no wackier than believing that God walked on water, or that an angel bestowed golden plates of revelation on a prophet in upstate New York, or that (as Jared Diamond put it in his recent “The World Before Yesterday”) “a supernatural being gave a chunk of desert in the Middle East to the being’s favorite group of people, as their home forever.”
Hubbard became increasingly paranoid, according to Wright. In 1967, he began leading his flock from a small fleet of ships, to evade the reach of governments. In 1973, he conceived Operation Snow White, under which “as many as 5,000 Scientologists were covertly placed in 136 government agencies worldwide” to purge their files of incriminating documents and evidently, according to Wright, to collect potential blackmail material.
Meanwhile, Wright says, Hubbard developed an interest in punishment and imprisonment as a road to spiritual redemption.
He came up with some imaginative torments, according to Wright, such as ordering three miscreants to “race each other around the rough, splintery decks while pushing peanuts with their noses. ‘They all had raw, bleeding noses, leaving a trail of blood behind them,”’ a witness recalled.
According to Wright, the abuses have continued under Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige. More than two dozen people told Wright they had been slapped, punched, kicked or choked by Miscavige, or had witnessed him abusing others.
The punching bags don’t, of course, include the church’s two most famous boosters, John Travolta and Tom Cruise, both of whom Wright writes about extensively. He admires Travolta, recounting, for example, a story about the star verbally slapping down a dinner guest who used the word “faggot.”
Cruise creeps him out. (I have exactly the same response to both actors onscreen.) The church, Wright reports, has been intimately involved in finding Cruise girlfriends, and at the end he charges him with some of the “moral responsibility” for the sect’s abuses. (The church has said that Cruise has no trouble getting his own girlfriends and doesn’t need its help.)
For a book so bursting with weirdness, “Going Clear” is meager on drama. It’s a little flat. Of course, florid writing would do Wright no favors in court if the church decided to sue him. But his fanaticism about facts diverts him from asking more interesting questions:
Why did Hubbard’s followers swallow it? Were they stupid? Were they cowed? Or were they sad, empty products of a consumer society who found no answers in established faiths and needed something to believe in? Is that why newly minted religions flourish in America?
The further I got into “Going Clear,” the more I wondered what use I could make of all these carefully documented facts about the Church of Scientology. I didn’t need them to make me wary of it. I was wary before I began.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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