Clearly he's OK with it. Right?

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Why Breaking Up With Scientology Is Hard to Do

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last night, I watched "Going Clear," the HBO documentary about Scientology. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that the director, Alex Gibney, is the brother of my longtime editor James Gibney, who will accordingly not be editing this or even looking at the piece before it runs. In the further interests of full disclosure, I thought it was brilliant, and I recommend it heartily to all of my readers.

But this is not a review of the movie; rather, it's a chance to ruminate on something that Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post wrote about it. In the interests of even further disclosure, Alyssa is a friend who has had dinner at our house and ... hey, that's Washington for you. She also will not see this piece before it runs, in case you were wondering.

Anyhoo, Alyssa made what I think is the most trenchant criticism of the film, which is that it gives you a good sense of the weirdness of Scientology but very little idea why people would join, or stay in, a religion that is -- in the movie's telling -- pretty crazy and awful. "Gibney’s film is full of the sort of mockery that has helped make Scientology a marginal, if wealthy, organization with a negligible membership," she writes. "What it lacks is empathy for the individuals who are still members of Scientology and an understanding of what might make them stay -- or help them leave."

I think this is fair. But I also think that it is a mostly unavoidable problem in this sort of story. Arguably, the most fundamental problem in any kind of reporting is this: Your narrative is shaped by the people who are talking to you. History, it is said, is written by the winners. But the history of close-knit groups ends up being written by the losers -- the people who hated that group so much that they severed all ties and left. This is true of Scientology, but also of stories about the life of women in Saudi Arabia, or citizens of the Soviet Union, or members of the Quiverfull movement. We tend to think that what we are getting is the "real story" about life in these strange cultures, when at best what we are getting is the "real story" about being alienated from them.

I'm not saying that the people who tell these stories are lying, by the way. I'm just saying that what you remember and how you remember it are shaped by your relationship to the society you're describing. First of all, the people who leave are, almost by definition, the people who do not enjoy the life as much, or believe as firmly, as the people who stay. Second of all, the people who are motivated to speak out about leaving are probably the people who feel strongest about their experience -- which means the people who were most angry and alienated by it. Third of all, the people writing are also usually the folks who have the fewest ongoing ties to the community, and therefore the least worry about upsetting the people who are still there; there's a reason that memoirs about horrible family members tend to get published after the targets are safely dead.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, we tend to edit our memories in light of what we now know. Ask a newlywed about their relationship and you're likely to hear a gush about how great their partner is, but 10 years later, after an ugly divorce, you'll get a list of the warning signs that the marriage was doomed from the start. After an ugly breakup, it's hard to call up that feeling of love and trust that initially held you together. The reason that we so often say the words "What was I thinking?" is that it is genuinely hard to recall what motivated you to do something that now stands revealed as a bad idea. You can reconstruct your thought process in a sort of abstract way, but without the emotions that animated them, your reasoning now seems paltry and insufficient.

As I watched the movie, I couldn't help but think of a quote from Nelson DeMille's "Word of Honor": "Let me tell you something -- let me reveal to you the one great truth about war, Mr. Tyson, and it is this: Ultimately all war stories are [balderdash]. From a general's memoirs to an ex-Pfc's boasting in a saloon, it is all [balderdash]. I have never heard a true war story, and I never told one, and neither have you."

You could say the same thing about any human tale: What we tell is not what happened, but our story of what happened, and even if none of the details are false, the account is nonetheless incomplete. As I frequently say in talks, a realistic model of the universe is ... the universe. Since we can't build one of those in our backyard, we're left constructing smaller scale models that inevitably leave out something, and perhaps something important. And the more emotional the issues are, the more likely we are to edit certain things out.

Exiting an insular community is not war, of course. But it shares some of the psychological torment, the profound dislocation, that human memory then tries to scrape into a simple, meaningful narrative. Along the way, a lot of details inevitably get lost. And they are probably the details that explain why you might have wanted to stay, rather than the many reasons you left.

So while I agree that "Going Clear" is missing a satisfying account of why people join the Scientologists -- or stay there so long -- I'm not sure such an account is possible outside the Church of Scientology. And by the time you have enough information to construct that tale, I'm not sure you'd have a good account of why you should leave.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net