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“Going Clear”: Scientology Exposed

Lawrence Wright's enthralling, meticulously fact-checked account of the insular church and its celebrity members.

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The church adopted its scorched-earth policy toward critical journalists back when Paulette Cooper published “The Scandal of Scientology” in 1971; she was subsequently slapped with 19 lawsuits, as well as subjected to a harassment campaign with the stated intention of seeing her “incarcerated in a mental institution or jail.” What the organization did not foresee was that the effectiveness of such tactics could never be more than short-term. So ominous is the reputation of the Church of Scientology in this respect that when a major news organization of legendary rigor committed itself to an exposé, there could be no doubt that it was fact-checked to a fare-thee-well. The result, extended to book form by one of that organization’s most esteemed journalists, is completely and conclusively damning.

Not that Wright is the least bit intemperate in his account of the improbable rise of Hubbard from an unimpressive career as a naval officer and pulp science-fiction writer to a millionaire guru presiding over a high-seas empire of slavish devotees to reclusive leader holed up in a well-appointed mobile home. He doesn’t have to be. Hubbard’s outrageous shenanigans and flagrant misdeeds speak for themselves, so Wright need only convey the facts with a minimum of hoopla. He strives to be fair, noting all the ways that Scientology resembles other religions that began as suspect or fringe movements, but he catches church spokesmen in so many lies and unearths so much evidence of malfeasance that his caveats do tend to get swamped.

It turns out that even the craziest stuff I read on the Internet back in 2005 is essentially true, and that the history of the church under its current megalomaniacal leader, David Miscavige, is, if anything, even more disgraceful. (Hubbard died in 1986.) Wright has assembled an overwhelming number of confirmed reports of Miscavige punching, kicking and otherwise attacking church leaders, often without warning or explanation. He details a well-developed system of isolation and indoctrination imposed on the members of Sea Org. (Scientology’s equivalent of a clergy), creating a population that provides the church with virtually free labor and submits to extravagantly harsh and humiliating punishments, such as cleaning bathroom floors with their tongues and scrubbing out dumpsters with toothbrushes. Meanwhile, Miscavige lives in luxury, bathed in Kim Jong Il-levels of totalitarian hagiography, at the church’s secluded base in rural Southern California.

Wright’s particular interest is in how the church courts and coddles its celebrity members. These Scientologists are carefully shielded from the harsher conditions and uglier aspects of the organization. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Anne Archer and Jenna Elfman number among the church’s most prominent trophies, as did Haggis — before he became disgusted with the leadership’s refusal to denounce an anti-gay ballot proposition in California and decided to dig beneath the flattering, gleaming face it presents to its celebrity members. Wooing emerging actors and entertainment-industry players was one of Hubbard’s most inspired initiatives, and the church continues to deploy such people strategically, introducing balky local politicians to movie stars and fostering the impression that a Scientology affiliation will help Hollywood aspirants climb to the top of a ruthlessly competitive profession.

I could go on and on, listing Hubbard’s tall tales, paranoid delusions and eccentricities, as well as Miscavige’s brutalities and tidbits from the famously wacky and decidedly unscientific Scientologist cosmology. All of it makes for a wild ride of a page-turner, as enthralling as a paperback thriller. But I keep coming back to my original impression of “Dianetics,” and the sobering realization that one man’s personal damage can, if transmitted with sufficient charisma and intuitive skill, infect tens of thousands of people, many of whom believe they’ve been helped by it.

 
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