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“You talk to as many people as you can—what I call horizontal reporting. Gradually the word gets out that you’re becoming encyclopedic and people don’t want to have their stories left out. Then you will always find some sources who are more candid, more insightful, and more connected than others. Those sources you go back to again and again and again—what I call vertical reporting. Using those two axes, you gain a broad view but also one that has depth.”—New Yorker writer and Going Clear author Lawrence Wright on reporting for longform stories
Lawrence Wright - Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (2013)
Lawrence Wright’s fascinating Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief is an in-depth look at Scientology covering both its history and present state. After Paul Haggis, most known to younger folks like us for writing/directing Crash, which I never saw but heard was awful even though it won all those awards, left the church, Wright wrote a pretty amazing piece on his reasons for leaving following Haggis’s resignation email being posted on the internet by a former Scientologist Executive. This led to an encounter with Tommy Davis, Anne Archer’s son who was the church’s spokesperson for a few years—he’s been missing since 2012—who gave Wright access to many church documents.
More people than ever have some awareness of Scientology thanks to Tom Cruise jumping on couches, calling Matt Lauer “glib,” and, of course, that South Park episode where they reveal what Scientologists learn at OTIII—a step on “The Bridge” to spiritual transcendence or something—about that rascal Xenu. Most talk of Scientology these days tends to revolve around the galactic emperor, but there’s quite a bit to be concerned about besides an odd origin story.
Wright starts with a confused young Paul Haggis joining the church. From there he segues back to L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author and founder of the church. To Scientologists, he’s a man on the level of Jesus Christ and Mohammed, to others he’s a con man who spent a lot of his life purporting to be a great adventurer while leaving behind a trail of unpaid taxes and stories that don’t quite match up with reality.
When looking at Hubbard and the rest of Scientology, Wright doesn’t outright criticize anything. He seems like a person who believes in thorough research—he interviewed over 250 people for the book—and genuinely seems entranced by the subject. He doesn’t try to paint Hubbard as anything, but lets the facts speak for themselves.
Of course, the facts are absolutely insane. I didn’t know much about Hubbard or the workings of the church, but it all is on another level of crazy. Hubbard spent a huge portion of his life fleeing from tax collectors on a private Scientology fleet. After he becomes ill and “drops his body” to pursue higher planes of existence, the church starts to resemble Stalinist Russia with purges, gulags, and lots of violence once David Miscavige wrestled control from Hubbard’s chosen successors and became leader of the church.
Again, Wright is pretty neutral throughout the book, letting some of the horrors of Scientology speak for themselves. Dating back to Hubbard’s leadership, Scientology has a program called the Rehabilitation Project Force. “Bad” Scientologists go into the RPF to be reeducated. In the RPF they work long hours doing manual labor, which sometimes involves doing things for Tom Cruise, barely eat, and live in horrible conditions. Scientology also isn’t adverse to forcing children to work long hours without proper education whilst separating them from their parents.
Elsewhere, Wright explores the relationship between Scientology and celebrities—apparently they sometimes audition people to be Tom Cruises’s girlfriends; Cruise and church leader David Miscavige are also best buds as you can see from the picture above—and it’s all still very absurd. The whole thing just seems like some ridiculous farce until you realize Scientology is entirely real and the church is committing awful human rights violations.
I try to stay away from reviewing anything political or dealing with current events because that’s not the purpose of this blog. The issues this book deals with real issues that are very serious and disturbing, but above all it’s an amazing piece of journalism, it’s very “entertaining,” and simply a page turner I would recommend to anyone provided they aren’t a Scientologist.
- Throughout the book are footnotes with denials by the church or lawyers. It’s hilarious. The acknowledgement section where Wright discusses how the church wouldn’t let him talk to pretty much anyone besides Davis is also ripe with amusement.
- Apparently William S. Burroughs was a Scientologist during his most fertilely creative period and then got kicked out in the ‘60s for “treason.”
- Celebrities who are Scientologists: Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Sonny Bono, Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart Simpson), Jenna Elfman, Juliette Lewis, Christopher and Danny Masterson (Francis on Malcolm in the Middle and Hyde on That ‘70s Show) , Greta Van Susteren (Fox News anchor with bad plastic surgery), and Beck.
- Charles Manson also studied Scientology while in prison.