For the Church of Scientology, the shit has hit the fan. If you can only read one book about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, this is the one. I have had a perverse hobby of researching this cult for many years, and I’ve read most of the important exposes of the cult. They are all informative and most often riveting, but this book is the gem of Scientology critiques because of its journalistic rigor and completeness. It is very well written.
(There has been a recent HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), directed by Oscar-winning documentary maker, Alex Gibney, which is based on Wright’s book and which includes interviews with Wright.)
Although I have read many books about Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (L. Ron Hubbard, or “LRH,” 1911-1986), this book by Lawrence Wright provided a lot of additional information about him and his religion. Wright dug deep and interviewed many “apostates” who left Scientology but who were witnesses during its important years, and he mastered the vast literature of the multitude of ex-Scientologists.
He also acknowledged some of the reasons that make Scientologists so loyal to their group. He sees LRH as not only as a liar and a fraud but as a charismatic fabulist that fascinated many people and made them believe him on faith. He notes that LRH, while still successful at grabbing money for power, spent much of his time alone with his E-meter developing his “spiritual technology.” LRH worked obsessively on working out a route to higher levels in his church doctrine. Wright asks: “If it was all a con, why would he bother?” He apparently believed his own bullshit. LRH was astoundingly complex, and Wright appreciates this while not sparing him radical criticism.
Lawrence Wright is an eminent American journalist on the staff of The New Yorker, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, in which he accurately nailed the relevant terrorist ideology, origins, and activities.
He wrote this book on Scientology in a measured style, honest and reality-oriented – brutally honest – yet also showing sincere compassion for true believers who were positively affected by Scientology. E.g., Scientology has netted some celebrities as high-profile icons/recruiters; and actress Ann Archer (Patriot Games, Fatal Attraction) and her husband agreed to be interviewed by Wright – and I really respect them for such openness and forthrightness – and Wright is respectful of their deep devotion to Scientology.
Scientology is very much a Hollywood style religion of the late 20th century, but it has its perverse dark sides and the well-documented extreme horror stories of totalistic confinement, mind control, families ripped apart through forced “disconnection,” and ruthless revenge against anyone who is considered to be a critical “enemy” of the church. The Hollywood celebrities are shielded from such controversies.
Academy Award winner Hollywood screenwriter and director Paul Haggis is a big part of this story because Wright wrote a long 2011 article on Haggis’s journey in and out of Scientology in The New Yorker called “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology.” Chapter 1 of Going Clear is “The Convert,” an account of Haggis as a young man pursuing the allure of Scientology in the early 1970s. The book will tell, near its end, of Haggis investigating and re-thinking Scientology after 35 years in it, and Haggis is very honest and courageous in his criticisms.
Chapter 2, “The Source,” focuses on LRH (Hubbard), the “source” of all cult doctrine. He was such a bullshitter! His lies about his wartime service and intellectual accomplishments are covered in other of my posts here.
Chapter 3, “Going Overboard,” covers LRH’s exile when running from governments in the 1960s and 70s. One very interesting item is about when he wrote the “theological” level Operating Thetan Three (OT-III), the secret knowledge of Galactic overlord Xenu 75 million years ago and how Xenu caused the mindfuck that continues on planet Teegeeack (aka, Earth). In the late 60s LRH was in Tangiers “researching” OT-III, the “Wall of Fire” level, and he wrote to his wife in England that he was “drinking lots of rum” and downing drugs, “pinks and grays,” while researching. He sounds inspired. The reaction of Paul Haggis when he finally earned the right to read this secret story about Xenu – which is now all over the internet – is one of my favorite parts of the book.
Hubbard moves his base of operations to Clearwater, Florida in the early 1970s, while personally hiding out elsewhere. This is the time of his aggressive campaign to “destroy” Paulette Cooper, a journalist who wrote The Scandal of Scientology (1971), and he almost did destroy her. (Her story is the subject of another great recent book by Tony Ortega, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, which I will review soon.) The Church of Scientology is infamous for its litigious practices, suing opponents into the ground. Hubbard’s doctrine was to viciously attack and to completely destroy perceived enemies. The church’s dirty tricks were often criminal.
At this time Hubbard also declared war on the US government, and other world governments, in his “Snow White Program,” which I have described before. It is called the biggest domestic infiltration of the US government in history. The FBI raided the church in 1977, and 11 high-level church officials, including Hubbard’s wife, ended up going to prison.
Chapter 4 is “The Faith Factory.” Borrowing from Jon Atack’s research, Wright applies the work of Robert Jay Lifton on “ideological totalism.” Lifton studied Maoist “thought reform” (which the CIA called “brainwashing”), especially the techniques of public confession and then re-education. Numerous Scientology defectors describe these exact techniques as a principal tool of control in the Sea Org (SO), the core “clergy” unit of the church. The horror stories are consistent from many different informants.
Meanwhile, the cult cultivates celebrities, especially Hollywood ones. John Travolta was one of the first big names. Tom Cruise is now the biggest name. LRH always emphasized going after famous people as icons and recruiters, and Hollywood was his main target. Celebrities are insulated from the harsh realities of rank and file church members.
LRH died in 1986 – or rather his mythology says that he “dropped his meat body” in order to do research amongst the galaxies and he will reincarnate someday here on Earth. He had still been an exile living in secret locations, hiding from his enemies.
New to me were some of the further historical details about Scientology’s present supreme leader, David Miscavige (DM). DM took over the church after the death of LRH, and he continues the ruthless policies of the Founder. With a vengeance.
DM micromanages every detail of the church’s activities, including the extremely cruel traditional LRH revenge and dirty tricks actions. Miscavige’s violent physical and mental assaults on his staff are very well documented elsewhere, but Wright’s documentation of DM’s history of violence shows us that he was abnormally violent while a young teenager. I can only conclude that Miscavige is a psychopath, by most accounts a dangerously angry bully who delights in crushing anyone he dislikes. And he has over a billion dollars in a slush fund which he uses to litigate or hire private detectives to harass his enemies.
Most of the recent Scientologists who have “blown,” i.e., who have managed to escape this religion that ruthlessly tracks you down and harasses and intimidates you to stay within the cult, have already told their stories elsewhere and the stories are very, very consistent.
Most of Hubbard’s own children have blown. Quentin Hubbard, LRH’s heir apparent, blew in 1976. Quentin was gay in a religion that considered this extremely perverse. He was found in Las Vegas, comatose in a car with the engine running and a hose from the exhaust to the window, and he died later. When Hubbard got the note about Quentin’s suicide, his reaction was: “That little shit has done it to me again!” (!!!)
Hubbard’s daughter Suzette blew in 1988. As did his youngest son Arthur that same year. The only remaining child of his third marriage, Diana, lives as a recluse on the California desert base.
In 1993 the Church of Scientology won a long-fought victory against the IRS, gaining tax-exemptions as a recognized religion. They won by wearing the IRS down through over 2,000 lawsuits against its district offices and individual employees. The IRS lawyers were completely overwhelmed, and the director made it all go away by simply surrendering to the cult’s demands. Now Miscavige has accumulated billions in cash and real estate.
“Google: ‘Lisa McPherson’.” In 1995 Lisa was given the church recognition of having achieved the state of “Clear,” meaning being perfectly healthy and on her way to higher Scientology levels. Yet she was psychotic. Who was the church auditing case supervisor who declared her to be “Clear”? It was David Miscavige. DM himself (although the church now denies it). When Lisa was soon hospitalized in a psych ward for running naked in the streets, the church moved her to their own hotel and “treated” her with LRH’s wacky theories. In 17 days she was dead. Miscavige micro-managed her entire treatment. The church only resolved the embarrassing situation in their favor after declaring a long war on the medical examiner and forcing her to reverse her judgment and retire in shattered health. Bastards.
You won’t believe some of the nutty accounts in Chapter 8, about David Miscavige in the Church headquarters out in the California desert near Hemet. But the witnesses are too many and too consistent. Give a madman like him money and unlimited power, and the incredible cruelty follows when no one will speak up at the time. Meanwhile TC (Tom Cruise) and DM are best buddies, and the abuses just cruise over Tom’s head.
The Sea Org (SO) members work endlessly for measly pay and are “thought reformed” into submission. All their (rare) phone calls are monitored, their mail opened, their bank records watched – like under the Stasi. Meanwhile, DM lives a lavish lifestyle with the best of everything.
Defections from the cult are multiplying, and they include high officials. Mark “Marty” Rathbun was second only to DM in the cult, as the Inspector General. With decades in the church, Marty was trusted to “audit” (i.e., counsel, mentor) Tom Cruise on the E-meter when Tom returned to an active role in the church. Rathbun blew in 2004, stayed silent for five years and then started a blog critical of DM’s dictatorship. He has been harassed unmercifully under DM’s micro-managed revenge machine. His inside knowledge of the church is priceless.
Marc Headley blew in 2005, and this also reflected badly on Tom Cruise. When Tom was in earlier church training he had to in turn audit someone else. Marc Headley was a SO employee who never had time to do his own advancement in Scientology levels, so DM had Tom audit Marc. The point is that if Marc blew, his auditor (Tom) is supposed to share a lot of the blame. Not that it will happen. Marc’s wife, Claire Headley, blew after Marc did, and she was the overall case supervisor of Tom Cruise’s auditing process. Embarrassing, no? Marc’s fine book, Blown for Good was reviewed earlier here.
In 2010 John Brousseau blew, and this shook things up because he had intimate knowledge of DM’s behavior and of the work SO laborers did for Tom Cruise for slave wages.
In 2007 Mike Rinder blew. Mike was a top official, the church’s spokesman for many years and executive director of the Office of Special Affairs (OSA), the cult’s spy org that replaced the old Guardians Office. With uncommon inside knowledge of the cult, he knows “where the bodies are stashed.”
As far as Hollywood celebrities blowing, Jason Beghe, an actor who takes no BS from nobody, left the cult loudly and unafraid. Paul Haggis was concerned about the hypocrisy he saw in church leadership, and he did (forbidden) research on the internet to have his eyes opened to church abuses. Haggis wrote a long detailed letter of resignation from the Church of Scientology and he shared it with a few people. The letter found its way to Marty Rathbun, who asked Haggis for permission to reprint it on his blog. Haggis said sure. What surprised Haggis was that Rathbun’s blog post with his letter had 55,000 hits that very afternoon! Scientology is being watched by multitudes of folk who don’t like what they see.
There is much, much more interesting material in this masterful work. Lawrence Wright had a legion of fact-checkers and an army of lawyers doing their homework before publication, because the cult is notorious at suing critics into the ground. Their work was so well done that the cult can only squawk.
In his Epilogue, Wright puts the Church of Scientology into historical perspective. He compares them with the early Mormons. Joseph Smith was a pathological liar, habitual fraud, and a con man, but he was charismatic enough to have a following of thousands in his short life, and today the Mormons are a flourishing almost-mainstream sect. They even had a Mormon run for president. (Although Mitt said his favorite novel was Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard! Jesus Christ! People voted for this guy?) Wright points out that the Christian Scientists oppose mainstream medicine even more the Scientologists, yet they have been accepted in American life for the most part (even though they are diminishing in numbers these days). And as far as Scientology’s policy of “disconnection”, the Amish do the same thing, calling it “shunning,” and the Amish have settled into their niche as an accepted, marginal, sect. Scientology won’t die soon, despite the shit hitting the big fan right now. What will it evolve into?
Wright is harsh when he has to be and compassionate when that is called for. But he is adamant that the Church of Scientology has to be confronted for its egregious abuses. He calls on the celebrity members, naming Tom Cruise and John Travolta, he maintains that they cannot be blind to these abuses, and he challenges them to take responsibility and renounce or try to change the cult’s present practices under David Miscavige.
In sum, this is a great book. I enjoyed reading it, even though many (not all) of the facts were already known to me – mainly through reading the daily blogs on Scientology by the indefatigable journalist Tony Ortega for many years now; Ortega has been covering Scientology for 20 years and is a clearing house of info, and he is also interviewed in Gibney's documentary Going Clear.
Wright is able to combine impeccable documentation with wonderful storytelling. This is a book I will be reading again someday, as a timeless account of the cult.