Strangely, I wanted to read Going Clear, not because it’s about the crazytown that is Scientology, but because it was written by Lawrence Wright. I loved The Looming Tower and Wright’s ability to define and explain the birth and history of Al Qaeda had been clear and relatively free of prejudice. I was impressed with his ability to create a roadmap of the terrorist network from it’s fundamentalist beginnings to the massive 9/11 attack and was impressed with his informative and yet accessible writing style. I knew an examination of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard made a perfect undertaking for Wright’s investigative journalism skills and I was not disappointed.
Going Clear is really a story in two parts. The first, examines the life and work of L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Dianetics and subsequently, The Church of Scientology. The Church is notoriously protective of it’s founder’s image, yet Wright seems to have dexterously separated the facts from the fiction—mostly propagated by Hubbard himself. I found this section to be the most fascinating. It’s a deep-dive into the psyche of a seemingly self-loathing sociopath who managed to turn himself from a charismatic prevaricator into a messiah; a man who used his own self-defeating tactics to create a never-ending series of humiliating tests that would keep his followers on an unobtainable quest to become “clear.” Since Hubbard himself began his career as a science fiction writer, it will surprise no one that ultimately his new religion would include aliens and a quadrillion-year back story that generally serves to confuse even the most committed acolytes. I had heard jokes about Xenu and Thetans, but upon reading the full explanation, I was laughing out loud.
As Scientology grew, Hubbard became more of a recluse, continuing to add to the church cannon, promoting newer and ever more bizarre levels of auditing, as well as instituting cult-like processes for curing mental illness and curbing potential detractors and defectors, labeling them Potential Trouble Sources (PTS) or Suppressive Persons (SP) guilty of enturbulating. To avoid criminal prosecution, he took to international waters on a series of ships, staffed by the Sea Organization (SeaOrg) who signed billion-year contracts which basically allowed them to be ritually humiliated, punished, starved and abused by Hubbard and his increasingly paranoid whims.
The second part of Going Clear focuses on the rise of David Miscavige, the current leader, who filled the vacuum created by Hubbard’s death in 1986. (Though is it not admitted that Hubbard actually died—just that he left his body for a higher plane.) Miscavige is Hubbard on steroids. A second generation member, he has doubled down on the secrecy and paranoia, the intense separation, punishments and slave labor of the SeaOrg and the cultivation of the wealthy to support the upper echelons of the church. In a situation much like Hubbard’s disappeared third wife, Miscavige’s wife, Shelley, hasn’t been seen since 2007.
On its surface, Scientology appeals to a certain type of person—someone looking for positive reinforcement and the promise of improved thought and concentration. It is and has always been highly supported by the Hollywood crowd. I was quite surprised to find out how many of today’s celebs are second generation disciples. Most Scientologists never make it to OTIII level where the craziness starts in earnest (that’s where you learn about that wacky Xenu) but most will spend upwards of six figures for the privilege of trying to get there.
There is plenty of juicy gossip about the public Scientologists we all know about, Tom Cruise and John Travolta, as well as anecdotes about Anne Archer, (who’s son, Tommy Davis also rose to high ranks in the church) Kirsty Alley, Jenna Elfman and Giovanni Ribisi. Wright documents the increasingly devastating cult-like environment of the SeaOrg at the headquarters in Florida, the Hollywood Celebrity Center and the Hemet, California compound where Miscavage currently resides.
Wright’s sources are mostly ex-members—long-timers who grew up in the church or joined as young adults. The screenwriter/director Paul Haggis is Wright’s central source. He joined Scientology in the early 70s, raised and enrolled his children in Scientology schools and only separated himself from the church over its intensely strident and negative positions on homosexuality (two of his children are lesbian). Throughout his career, he was supported in his work and ensuing success by other Scientologists who were in positions of power to help him, never realizing the depth and breadth of their influence in Hollywood. The more rich and famous a Scientologist becomes, the more privilege he enjoys within the organization. Anyone who questions the system can be excluded and separated from family and friends forever by being labeled as an PTS or SP.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Going Clear. I was by turns amused, concerned, outraged, surprised and downright confused by the entire conceit of Hubbard and his creation. It’s well worth a read and will not disappoint any reader.