In his new book, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright goes inside the Church of Scientology to explain its appeal for celebrities. James Kirchick salutes an investigative work with revelations about Tom Cruise, John Travolta, L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige—and unsettling questions about the Church’s behavior.
Two years ago, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright published an exhaustive report about screenwriter and director Paul Haggis’s theretofore unknown travails in and out of the Church of Scientology. Alongside global celebrities Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Haggis, (who wrote the back-to-back Academy Award-winning films Million Dollar Baby and Crash) was a Scientology poster boy. He was precisely the sort of show business star whom Church officials could trot out as an example of their religion’s ability to help adherents “go clear,” Scientology lingo for the achievement of a state of enlightenment via a long and expensive process of Church-administered courses. Wright revealed how Haggis, who had joined Scientology in his early 20’s as an aspiring television scribe, had recently undergone a painful split from the Church, triggered by its bigoted attitudes on homosexuality (Haggis has two lesbian daughters). Through the story of this single individual, Wright illuminated the highly troubling behavior of the religious movement that many consider to be a dangerous group.
The story of how a normal, well-adjusted, and goodhearted person like Haggis could be so deceived and for so long cried out for a longer study, which Wright provides in a revealing and disturbing new book. In Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Wright deploys the skills he demonstrated so ably reporting about another totalitarian religious movement in his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome The Looming Tower—Al Qaeda—to explain the “enduring appeal that survives the widespread assumption that Scientology is a cult and a fraud.”
Wright situates Scientology within the realm of the American “new religious movement[s]” of the second half of the 20th century, a time when unconventional faiths gained followers seeking a type of spiritual salvation not on offer from mainstream churches. A crucial and largely unremarked upon difference between Scientology and, say, Mormonism—another relatively new religion which has enjoyed far more mainstream acceptance—is the former’s emphasis on pecuniary enrichment, both its own and those of its members. Scientology, Wright reports, has amassed some $1 billion in liquid assets, more than any other of the major religions. Making the world a better place –though certainly a feature of the Scientology creed—comes largely as an afterthought to self-improvement and the need to “MAKE MONEY,” as founder L. Ron Hubbard once wrote in a directive to his followers.
Ultimately, Scientology is partly a new-age self-help mantra and get-rich-quick scheme, with a little “space opera”—Hubbard’s description of how human suffering is a result of 75 million-year-old alien remains residing on human bodies—thrown in as creation story. While Scientology is easily derided by the likes of South Park and the internet hacker collective Anonymous as a fantastic and cunning scam, Wright turns a sympathetic eye to those who have joined its ranks with a view towards explaining “the damage that is done to people who are lured into such groups, not out of weakness in character but through their desire to do good and live meaningful lives.”
In Going Clear, Wright tracks the tumultuous history of Scientology from Hubbard’s youth to the Church’s present-day crises, largely brought about by the mercurial and authoritarian leadership of Hubbard’s successor, Tom Cruise confidante David Miscavige, who allegedly has a penchant for physically abusing his underlings and making them salute his dog. Wright intersperses this narrative with a fuller account of the personal journey Haggis made from zealous convert to embittered apostate that he originally detailed in his 24,000-word New Yorker profile. Those most interested in the history of the Church and its founder Hubbard—a pulp fiction novelist, megalomaniac, confidence man, deadbeat dad, bigamist, alcoholic, kidnapper, and compulsive liar – would be better served by reading Rolling Stone writer Janet Reitman’s 2011 Inside Scientology, which provides a more thorough basis for understanding the Church’s founding, development into a global enterprise, and its arcane system of beliefs and salvation-by-pyramid-scheme.
Where Wright excels is as a reporter. He provides a series of devastating revelations that will come as news even to hardened Scientology buffs who follow the Church’s every twist and turn. Wright interviewed dozens of former members, some of them very high-ranking, who provide titillating details on a range of subjects; some suggest to him, for instance, that the Church is essentially holding John Travolta hostage to its whims by blackmailing him with evidence of homosexuality (rote denials by the lawyers of Cruise and Travolta—who refused Wright’s interview requests—after nearly every mention of their names provide perennial amusement in what is an alternately maddening and depressing book).
Though written in a dispassionate tone, Going Clear provides a virtual rap sheet against Scientology. There are endless, harrowing tales of those who join the elite “Sea Org,” membership in which requires the signing of a “Billion Year Contract” subjecting adherents to a form of indentured servitude from which one must literally escape should he decide he wants out. There are the Scientology children who work for the Church full time and don’t attend school, in clear violation of federal and state labor laws. There is the Scientology executive who was physically assaulted by Miscavige’s minions and made to clean a bathroom floor with his tongue. Wright’s investigations into “The Hole,” a hidden Scientology gulag in southern California where errant Church members are sent to perform menial tasks and take part in “org[ies] of self-abasement,” led him to break the story of an FBI investigation—since aborted—into human trafficking.
Despite his revelations, or perhaps because of them, Wright bends over backwards to be charitable to Scientology and its adherents. Hubbard’s decision to codify his profitable new enterprise as a religion “may” have been motivated more by “the legal and tax advantages that accrue to religious organizations than it did with actual spiritual inspiration.” Likewise, those who might ridicule Scientology’s sci-fi theology would do well to remember that, “religion is always an irrational enterprise, no matter how ennobling it may be to the human spirit.” Writing of Hubbard’s obsession with “creating a step-by-step pathway to universal salvation,” Wright asks, “If it was all a con, why would he bother?” He even gives Tom Cruise some credit for challenging the effectiveness of psychotropic drugs, citing the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to issue suicide warnings on the labels of two prescription anti-depressants just days after Cruise’s ++disastrous appearance on the Today in the summer of 2005, wherein he attacked Brooke Shields for treating her postpartum depression with said drugs and delivered a lecture to host Matt Lauer about how he was being “glib.”
But it is precisely Wright’s measured tone, his use of a scalpel instead of a hammer to dissect Scientology and its manifold abuses, which renders his conclusions all the more damning. Acknowledging that members of a religion can “believe whatever they choose,” Wright adds the important caveat that “it is a different matter to use the protections afforded a religion by the First Amendment to falsify history, to propagate forgeries, and to cover up human rights abuses.” Scientology critics, myself included, have long argued that the U.S. government should follow the lead of other countries and at the very least revoke the Church’s tax-exempt status, if not take harsher measures against it for a variety of criminal activities. Lawrence Wright’s courageous investigation is a warrant to act.