I found it difficult to read Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Random House, 2013): it gave me a sense of unease, forcing a frequent over-the-shoulder glance to see if someone was following me just because I was reading it. But nonetheless, it proved compelling – so much so that I dropped all other books and read it cover to cover, uninterrupted earlier this summer.
It is by far the most complete, detailled expose of the church I’ve read to date, and it made me wonder, why hasn’t all of this come to light before? Or did it and I just missed it?
It’s definitely not a flattering look at the church and if you know nothing about Scientology, it’s a real eye-opener. A scary one, at that.
Gibney’s film convincingly argues that their methods and practices are exploitative, abusive and dysfunctional on a massive scale.
And the review in The Independent concluded:
Gibney is too subtle and diligent a film-maker to indulge in a one-sided hatchet-job. The tone of Going Clear is inquisitive, not sensationalist. The documentary is painstakingly researched. If its accusations are “entirely false” (as the Church claims), it is surprising that quite so many former members continue to make them.
(The documentary isn’t on HBO Canada, by the way, but is on HBO USA – one of the reasons I don’t have cable any more: too much of this exclusive, anti-Canadian nonsense.)
Even if you look for it on YouTube, it’s not there (only the trailer is). You will, however, find several pro-Scientology rebuttals, some of them very acerbic and confrontational. Which is to be expected, if Wright’s claims in the book about the church’s paranoid and aggressive responses to any criticism are true. That also jives with the BBC reports I’ve linked to YouTube videos here.
And in my experience, I have reason to believe at least some of the claims for aggressive defence are true.
In the early 1970s, I was running a bookstore in Toronto that featured a lot of ‘New Age’ content: books on theosophy, Buddhism, yoga, astrology, astral travel, secret societies, magic, Taoism and so on. It offered a lot of material on spirituality, religion and faith from all cultures. One week, I casually ordered a book from a publisher’s catalogue called “Inside Scientology,” by Robert Kaufman.
At the time, the store had Dianetics** – Hubbard’s original book that became the launching pad for Scientology – on the shelf, but nothing else related to Scientology. I had never read it, still haven’t. I knew close to nothing about Scientology except what little had been in the media. I didn’t know anything about the book I ordered, either, except that reviews reported it was somehow controversial. Why, I couldn’t have said. But controversy sells books, so I ordered it.
Two copies came in and were duly shelved but no one even cracked the spines that I recall. I didn’t think anything of it until a week or two later when the phone rang asking if we had it in stock. I said yes, and then a man, alleging to be a lawyer for the church, started threatening to sue the store if we didn’t immediately remove it from our shelves and send it back to the publisher. I argued with him about freedom of expression and speech, to no avail. He continued to bluster and threaten until the conversation ended.
I never knew if he was an actual lawyer or even associated with Scientology. For all I know, it could have been a prank call.
Needless to say, his belligerence made me keen to read the book. After all, what was so damaging to spark that violent a reaction? Threats never make me compliant.
The book was one of the first popular exposes of Scientology and reading it kindled in me what has been a 40-year interest in fringe faiths, cults, pseudoscience and conspiracies. I kept it on the shelves, and when I started my own bookstore, a couple of years later, I made sure to stock it, although by that time popular interest in it had waned. My own copy has long since vanished, but I still remember that it fascinated me.*
Since then, many other books exposing Scientology have been released, including another in 2011 of the same name by Janet Reitman. (I haven’t read it, but hope to in the near future, now Wright’s book has re-lit my interest).
And, of course, thanks to the internet, a lot of other material has surfaced corroborating much of what the books have in them, and even expanding on it. I have continued to read about Scientology in part because the mechanisms of belief and persuasion still intrigue me, moreso when the beliefs are, in my view, outlandish, illogical, outside the bounds of reason or simply incredible. It’s not my main topic of interest, but one that has periodically engaged me.
Going Clear is one of the best books in that area I’ve read. And it’s utterly fascinating stuff, a combination of gossip, celebrity voyeurism, cult fanaticism, intrigue and travelogue. (By the way, the books suggest the church folk hate it if you refer to them as a cult, and are as likely to sue you for that word as anything else, at least so the authors claim, but I am at a loss for a better word… it certainly doesn’t meet the qualifications for a religion as I understand that term).
It not only details the life of the church’s eccentric and troubled, yet obviously intelligent and charismatic founder, L. Ron Hubbard, but also the church’s development and history, as well as gives a lot of solid content about its beliefs and core tenets. And it’s far from flattering. Hubbard comes across as a pathological liar, a bully and sociopath, delusional, autocratic and obsessive. But equally someone who was able to identify then brilliantly exploit human weakness and needs.
His belief model, as described, simply strains my vocabulary for anything suitable to describe it in its utter wackiness. I suppose my innate skepticism comes to the fore here, too, because I simply cannot accept anything of this sort based on mere faith. It contradicts everything I know.
The tale reads like Hubbard decided to create a religion with a belief system designed to deliberately strain credibility, and thus prove a point about the utter gullibility of humankind. A psychological experiment that grew wildly, beyond all expectations.
The beliefs described here challenge all the logic and reason fibres in me. Surely no one can accept this folderol as real. But, if the book is true, many do. Not as many as the church wants you to believe, apparently, but enough, and they have a passel of celebrities on their side.
Writing so intimately of these beliefs and of the church’s history, I suspect, places the author in great danger, because by all sources, the church has been unforgiving and unrelenting in its treatment of critics and apostates. Which the book also documents. Wright himself replied to this in an interview on NPR in 2013:
Is Wright afraid of Scientology’s fearsome legal reputation? “We’ve had a lot of letters from lawyers,” he says. “But I went into this with my eyes open. I’ve been careful. I’ve done what I can to query the church about factual matters. It’s been a very difficult relationship with them, often very hostile in tone on their part, but the thing is, it’s an irresistible story, and for someone like me, the risk was worth it.”
But you, gentle reader, should be in no danger from either this blog or reading the book.
You might also like to read the Rolling Stone review of the subsequent documentary based on this book.
Whether the allegations are true in part or wholly – and there is other evidence, other credible authors, to suggest it is the latter – it makes fascinating, chilling reading. I highly recommend it.
* Around this time, I was walking up Avenue Road towards my apartment one afternoon and was just past Yorkville when I was approached by a young man offering me a ‘free personality test” inside an old, refurbished church. I knew this was owned by the Scientologists (the Krishna, as I recall, had their church across the street), and this was part of the recruiting ploy, but it had just started to rain and I didn’t feel like walking the remaining blocks in the wet. So I entered and joined several other people in a room set aside for watching movies.
Before any of us could be ‘tested’ we had to sit through a promo video about the benefits Scientology that featured Hubbard being interviewed about the church, apparently from an old BBC archive. At the end of the short film, we were asked if we had any questions. The obvious plants in the audience asked the sort of staged questions one expects that gave the leaders a chance to expound further on how wonderful the church was, and how magnificent was Hubbard as the apex of all its beliefs. None of the people who had actually come in for the test asked anything. So I raised my hand.
“Is it true that Scientology promises me complete mental and physical control of my mind and body?” I asked.
“Yes!” replied the eager man at the front of the audience, beaming. He expanded on that theme. But I wasn’t finished.
“And, “I continued, “Is it true that Ron Hubbard is the epitome of everything you believe in? That he has reached the apex of his own teachings and has complete mind and body control?”
“Yes!” he said again, adding something about how the leader was the most perfect person on the planet. I stayed standing.
“Then why does he have a nervous tic and keeps blinking his eyes?”
Heads bobbed anxiously and someone in the audience, one of the street people, chuckled. At that we were rather unceremoniously hustled out of the room.
We were handed the questions for the ‘test.’ I soon protested that some of the questions were not answerable as presented, like the one about whether I feel sympathy for the animals I kill when I hunted or fished. “I don’t hunt or fish and I am a vegetarian,” I said.
“Answer it as if you did hunt or fish,” I was told. But I left it and some other questions blank. (curiously, this same test resurfaced a few years back when a consulting agency was hired by a local dental office to improve their efficiency and staff were given it to complete… a little online research showed the consultants had a long history with Scientology. I never found out whether they were infiltrating the dental industry or had appropriated the test for their own private uses.)
As a result of my intransigence, my ‘personality test’ showed I had too much empathy for other living creatures and needed help desperately, but my incessant questions and protests had gotten under a few skins. While the others in my group were taken for private counselling (and I expect attempts at recruitment), I was asked to leave.
Aside from that and the lawyer’s call, I’ve had no other personal experience with Scientology, and my knowledge of them is based on media reports, internet sites and books like this one.
…perhaps the most unfortunate element in Dianetics is the way it is written. The mixture of some oversimplified truths, half truths and plain absurdities, the propagandistic technique of impressing the reader with the greatness, infallibility and newness of the author’s system, the promise of unheard of results attained by the simple means of following Dianetics is a technique which has had most unfortunate results in the fields of patent medicines and politics; applied to psychology and psychiatry it will not be less harmfull.
In the January, 1951, issue of Scientific American, Dianetics was reviewed:
This volume probably contains more promises and less evidence per page than has any publication since the invention of printing. Briefly, its thesis is that man is intrinsically good, has a perfect memory for every event of his life, and is a good deal more intelligent than he appears to be.
More recently, Dianectics was reviewed by Salon in 2005 in a more damning, but more humourous, piece:
The first thing you notice about “Dianetics” is that it is spectacularly dull. L. Ron Hubbard promises, in this seemingly endless treatise, that his “modern science of mental health” will cure everything from schizophrenia to arthritis, claims for which he presents no credible evidence whatsoever — unless you consider merely insisting that you’ve got evidence to be the same thing as offering it. But I am here to testify that “Dianetics” is a phenomenal remedy for at least one widespread affliction: insomnia…
Perfectly clear words can be dragooned into sentences so grammatically torturous and incoherent that any meaning once inhabiting those words runs screaming from the wreckage. Context only helps you figure out a word’s definition when the context itself makes sense, and in “Dianetics,” it often doesn’t. Still, there’s a certain twisted panache to preemptively scolding your readers for not trying hard enough to grasp your point before you bedevil them with logic-defying exercises in the hanging modifier and the passive voice. You don’t get it? That’s because you didn’t look up enough words! What did I tell you, idiot?
In a review on the Skeptic’s Dictionary site, it also notes:
One of the more controversial fictions of L. Ron Hubbard involves a story about Xenu, an alien leader who lead a contingent of space ships to Earth 75 million years ago. The great leader parked the ships around volcanoes and blew them up. Something of these annihilated aliens remains as a sort of “original sin” to be passed on by humans, causing us continual spiritual harm. The Church of Scientology considers the story of Xenu a piece of “religious writing” on par with the Old Testament.
I have not personally read the book and am not tempted to do spend the money on it when so many other books await my attention.