'Going Clear' takes a hard look at Scientology

First-rate reporter Lawrence Wright reveals the insidious and wacky


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The buzz is already on about Lawrence Wright's exhaustive and critical history of Scientology, a controversial belief system, intimately linked to celebrity, that would blur science and fiction. "Going Clear" covers the life of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the proliferation of Scientology -- which the IRS has treated as a religion since it lost a suit over its tax-exempt status -- its secretive nature, and the consequences its defectors face.


"GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF"

By Lawrence Wright
Knopf ($28.95).


Scientology officials, through private investigators and well-funded legal efforts, routinely harass critics, including reporters, Mr. Wright documents. There is no reason to think this will change with publication of this book, because the picture Mr. Wright paints is anything but pretty. It is one of rampant ego, abuse of power, physical violence and a culture of narcissism.

Already, digerati who follow Scientology indicate there will be pushback against it, especially on the talk-show circuit.

"Scientology was a religion rather perfectly calibrated for its time and place, since American culture, and soon the rest of the world, was bending increasingly toward the worship of celebrity, with Hollywood as its chief shrine," Mr. Wright writes, noting the founding of the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles in 1954.

"Going Clear" (a reference to the "auditing" that brings Scientologists closer to out-of-body self-realization) does not flatter Tom Cruise or John Travolta, the Hollywood stars most closely identified with Scientology -- and, in the former case, with advocacy for it. (Mr. Wright effectively details the relationship between Mr. Cruise and David Miscavige, whom Mr. Wright depicts as alternately charming and abusive, like Hubbard.)

Mr. Miscavige, whom Mr. Wright depicts as Napoleonic, is chairman of the board, Religious Technology Center, a nonprofit "formed in 1982 to preserve, maintain and protect the Scientology religions," his website says. Mr. Wright says Scientology claims 8 million followers.

Chief among the defectors from Scientology, which took seed with publication of Hubbard's seminal book, "Dianetics," in 1950: Hollywood screenwriter/director Paul Haggis, whose apostasy was the germ of this book. Mr. Wright (who won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Looming Tower," his 2006 history of al-Qaida) wrote a long piece on Mr. Haggis for The New Yorker in early 2011. His new book, an outgrowth of that profile, begins with Mr. Haggis, suggesting he'll use Haggis' story as a platform for a more general history.

But Mr. Haggis never becomes a major character. Hubbard, a homophobic explorer of mind, marriage and sea who developed a "science" based on the notion of the "thetan," an eternal being within all of us, overshadows him. Joining Scientology by signing billion-year contracts meant total loyalty (apparently, it still does).

It is nothing if not a totalitarian system, its acolytes in thrall to those "clearer," higher than they are on the "tone scale" of human behavior. "Suppressive Persons," staffers who balk at the teachings, are sent to "rehabilitation project force" (RPF) centers -- prisons, essentially -- for punishment. Members of the Sea Org -- established by the self-inventive Hubbard on ships, this inner circle of Scientology devotees is now land-based -- might grow up ignorant of anything but the world of L. Ron.

Meticulously reported, "Going Clear" is sure to generate a lot of publicity for Scientology, publicity it likely will battle.

• • •

Mr. Wright's reportorial techniques seem impeccable; this is nothing if not balanced, so whenever Mr. Wright reports on something that might offend Scientology's hierarchy, he qualifies it by seeking official comment. Still, details will out, like these substantiating the "bromance" between Tom Cruise, a star of the silver screen, and David Miscavige, a star of this new faith:

"His uniforms and business suits are fashioned by Richard Lim, a Los Angeles tailor whose clients include Cruise, Will Smith, Ray Charles and Martin Sheen," Mr. Wright writes of Mr. Miscavige, footnoting each sentence with sources. "His shoes are custom-made in London by John Lobb, bootmaker to the royal family. His wardrobe fills an entire room. Two full-time stewards are responsible for his cleaning and laundry. Mr. Cruise admired the housecleaning so much -- even Mr. Miscavige's lightbulbs are polished once a month -- that the church leader sent a Sea Org team to Mr. Cruise's Telluride retreat to train the star's staff."

In "Going Clear," Lawrence Wright shines a light on a world that prefers to keep its players off stage, and the public in the dark.

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Carlo Wolff (carlowolff.com) is a writer and critic living in Cleveland and a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.


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