Book Review: “Going Clear”, by Lawrence Wright

GoingClearCoverHaving taken most of December and January off from blogging, it’s time to get back to it. What better way to start than with a book review. And a humdinger of a book it is.

You may have heard of Lawrence Wright’s investigation into the Church of Scientology. His book “Going Clear” is the result of a long-form journalism article that appeared in the New Yorker that told the story of Paul Haggis’s very public exit from the Church. Paul Haggis, for those who don’t know, is a screenwriter and director, most well-known for writing and directing the movie “Crash”. Additionally, you may have heard of the documentary “Going Clear”, directed by Alex Gibney. It is due to air on HBO on March 16th, after making a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival this past year. The documentary is inspired by Wright’s book.

The book itself continues to use Paul Haggis as it’s central core around which the rest of the narrative revolves. Haggis’s early experience with the Church open the book, and after a lengthy but necessary detour exploring the life and times of L Ron Hubbard, who founded the Church, and David Miscavige, who took over from Hubbard once Hubbard was no longer well enough to run the Church, the narrative returns to Haggis.

One of the great difficulties of writing on this topic, prior to Haggis’s departure and afterward, is the lack of information about the inner workings of the Church of Scientology. The Church, which goes out of its way to maintain its secrecy, has ttired to tightly control information about its inner workings. There is, therefore, very little documentation from which can be drawn an investigation. Wright uses, as his sources, many ex-Scientologists, which have given harrowing accounts of what life inside the Church is like; official public documents, such as the Naval records of Hubbard from his time in the service during WWII; leaked scriptural content, which ex-Scientologists have managed to smuggle out of the Church as they made their escape; and the few books and investigative articles that have come before. Interestingly, for this last category, there are very few. The reason is because the Church makes a deliberate effort to undermine these kind of investigations, and, failing that, harass the authors with private investigators, lawsuits, and even framing them for felony crimes.

profile-LRHBecause limits that the Church will go to in order to protect itself seem to be boundless, this book becomes a page-turner of a story, enumerating the actions the Church has taken over the years against individuals, businesses, and even an enormous government bureaucracy (the IRS). The founder of the Church of Scientology, the prolific science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, is presented in a manner that show him to be at best a pathological liar and at worst a paranoid schizophrenic. The current leader, David Miscavige, is portrayed as a tyrant rivaling some recently toppled despots, who is willing to use humiliation, degradation, and even physical violence and abuse to get what he wants.

In recent years, a number of stories about the inner workings of the Church have come to light. Stories of a place called the Hole, a set of un-air-conditioned trailers sitting in the dessert with bars on the windows and security guards at the door. Stories about how church members have been made to lick toilets clean or subsist off of leftover table scraps or sleep on floors covered with ants. What’s amazing is that these Church members are typically high-ranking members of the Church’s leadership whose only sin was to land on the wrong side of Miscavige’s ire. Additional stories have emerged from former Scientologists themselves, on sites such as exscientologykids.com.

When taken as the sum of its parts, the book never truly decides what it wants to be, which may its only significant flaw. It is a compelling read, and it’s easy to see why it was a finalist for the Nation Book Award. But there is a lot of stuff going on inside its 450+ pages, all of which relevant, all of which, when woven together tell a helluva yarn, none of which take a specific stand. Perhaps good journalism is like that, letting the reader determine the stand they must take. As such, “Going Clear” is part expose on human rights abuses, part biography of the charismatic and troubled founder, part investigation as to why Hollywood is so fascinated (some would argue “taken in” or “hoodwinked”) by the Church. Many people these days outside of the Church are most familiar with Scientology based on interviews celebrities such as Tom Cruise has given, where his defense of the Church has been oddly aggressive. Wright’s book shows that interior of Scientology is much darker, and it’s perceived weirdness much deeper than what most readers know. If anything, Wright’s book is as concise a history of the Church of Scientology as one is likely to find outside the church’s officially blessed and released histories.

It is in the epilogue where Wright’s investigation (the Church might in fact describe the investigation as “muckraking”) transcends the the rest of the book. He never offers an indictment of the Church, though, if even half of the stories that ex-members tell are true, then one is certainly warranted. He also never truly defends them. The epilogue is where he comes the closest, holding the Church of Scientology and all of its troubling history and downright bizarre space-opera cosmology up against other profoundly popular and recent theologies. The most obvious is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, who believe in a third book of the holy scriptures known as the Book of Mormon, a scripture based on an ancient set of holy tablets found right here in the good ol US of A. He compares Scientology, rightly or wrongly, to both cults and ancient religions such as Buddhism and Christianity. The Reverend Jim Jones, another charismatic leader, led hundreds to their death at their own hands in Guyana. Christianity, in its early days, was persecuted by the Romans who must have thought that the idea of a single god was absolutely bonkers. In both cases, as with active Scientologists, their belief is absolute. What any and all faiths rely on is that very word itself: “faith”. There are always going to be aspects of faith that are un-proveable. An atheist demands proof, which he will never get, and the believer believes blindly, never questioning whether that which he believes is maybe just a little bit crazy. In comparing Scientology to other faiths, creeds, and cults, Wright wraps up his book on a high note, reminding us without chastising us that matters of human rights abuses must certainly be addressed. Matters of individuals faith is really no one else’s business.

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