It would be difficult to overstate the number of unhinged anecdotes that appear in Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, or in the HBO documentary adaptation that premieres on March 29. There’s the time David Miscavige, the current leader of the church, conducted a game of musical chairs among officers—to the soundtrack of Queen’s greatest hits—telling them that all but the winner would be shipped off to remote Scientology bases. There’s the time L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, claimed to have access to an underground space station north of Corsica. And, of course, there’s Tom Cruise. So much Tom Cruise.
Born of interviews with 200 current and former Scientology members, Wright’s Going Clear details Scientology’s 1950s origin story through its present-day troubles, and earned him “innumerable” threatening letters from lawyers representing the church. HBO’s documentary, directed by Alex Gibney, covers a decent portion of Wright’s book, and features interviews with ex-Scientology members that include screenwriter Paul Haggis (35 years in the church) and actor Jason Beghe (13 years), as well as former Scientology higher-ups like Spanky Taylor, a member for 17 years who was John Travolta’s onetime point person; Mike Rinder, church spokesman from 1982 to 2007; and Hana Eltringham Whitfield, a founding member of the Sea Organization (Scientology’s clergy of sorts), who left the church in 1982 after 19 years.
“My goal wasn’t to write an exposé,” Wright tells Gibney early in the documentary. “It was to understand Scientology…. I was interested in intelligent and skeptical people who are drawn into a belief system and wind up acting on those beliefs in ways they never thought they would.”
Both iterations of Going Clear outline the church’s creation myth, which is always worth repeating: Seventy-five million years ago, according to Hubbard, people lived in a world very much like 1950s America, save for Xenu, the tyrannical overlord of the 76-planet Galactic Confederacy. Xenu sought to solve a burgeoning overpopulation problem by freezing people with glycol injections after luring them in under the auspices of “tax audits.” The frozen bodies were then shipped in boxes via space planes to the prison planet Teegeeack (Earth), where they were dropped into volcanoes and blown up with hydrogen bombs. Being immortal, these disembodied spirits (“thetans”) were then trapped in an electromagnetic ribbon and placed in front of a “three-D, super colossal motion picture” for 36 days, where they were forced to look at images called R6 implants. “These pictures contain God, the Devil, angels, space opera, theaters, helicopters, a constant spinning, a spinning dancer, trains and various scenes very like modern England,” Hubbard wrote. “You name it, it’s in this implant.”
Since then, thetans have been inserting themselves (often in multiples) into newborns on Earth, where Hubbard believed them to be the source of individual fears, neuroses and insecurities. Through Scientology—more specifically, through one-on-one auditing sessions using an Electropsychometer—these thetans can be dispelled. (The church says an e-meter can detect the “mass of your thoughts,” while Wright describes it as “a third of a lie detector test.”) This progression through what are known as “Operating Thetan levels” (OT levels) is called “The Bridge to Total Freedom.” To “go clear” is to have rid oneself entirely of body thetans and their related “engrams” (traumatic memories).
While the book does a more nuanced job of explaining Scientology’s appeal, both versions of Going Clear suggest a certain grandiose altruism at play in constituents’ decision to join the church. Scientology, as envisioned by Hubbard, aims to create a world without war, criminality or insanity and that emphasis on global salvation has helped draw in thousands of converts. “I know of no other group that their goals are that clear,” Travolta says in an interview shown in Going Clear. “I was deeply convinced that we were going to save the world,” echoes Whitfield in an interview with Gibney. “I considered myself tremendously fortunate to be in that position.” In footage from a Scientology gala shown in the documentary, Cruise, wearing a comically large “Freedom Medal of Valor” awarded to him by Miscavige, asks the assembled crowd, “So what do you say? Want to clean this place up?”
On a more individual level, Going Clear highlights the church’s promise of self-improvement, and its initially limited emphasis on dogma. “I can say that I understand [Scientologists] now,” Gibney said at a Going Clear screening in New York this week. “Through auditing, Scientology offers a kind of therapy that’s not that different from Freud’s talking cure. You get things off your chest. You talk to somebody who provides a kind of empathetic ear.”
The Guinness World Record holder for most published author, L. Ron Hubbard wrote more than a thousand (mostly science fiction) books in his lifetime, including Scientology’s canonical text, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Hubbard had a brief military stint—he was dismissed from the Navy after accidentally shelling a Mexican island—and then a brief magical one, having once been involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a magical order dedicated to the teachings of British occultists/magician Aleister Crowley.
In 1946, Hubbard married Sara Northrup and moved to New Jersey, where he began writing Dianetics in 1950. “He said the only way to make any real money was to have a religion,” Northrup says in a first-person account that appears in Going Clear. “That’s essentially what he was trying to do withDianetics—get a religion where he could have an income and the government wouldn’t take it away from him in the form of taxes.”
In 1966, Hubbard named himself commander of three ships and for eight years dodged an IRS investigation by sailing the Mediterranean with his crew—the original Sea Org—in search of treasure he had buried in past lives. During this nautical period, Hubbard also developed “Ethics Technology” as a means of doling out punishment for perceived thoughts or actions against the church. On board his “fleet”—the Enchanter, the Avon River and the Royal Scotman [sic]—punishments could include hard labor or being literally thrown overboard.
Current Sea Org members, according to Going Clear, sign billion-year contracts to “get ETHICS IN on this PLANET AND THE UNIVERSE” (emphasis theirs), and are subject to punishments that include disconnecting from so-called Suppressive Persons (SPs for short, this includes anyone considered a detractor of the church) and spending months or even years in “the Hole,” a pair of unfurnished double-wide trailers on Scientology’s Gold Base in California. While the church emphatically denies any physical abuse at the hands of Scientology leadership, both Wright and Gibney also document firsthand accounts of Miscavige personally doling out beatings, and Wright’s book contains numerous examples of the church going after journalists, critics or members who have “blown” (left the church).
“What I have received is nothing compared to what’s happened to the people who are in the film,” Gibney said earlier this week (his lawyer receives near-daily letters from the church). “I know that some of them have received physical threats, I know some of them have received threats that their homes and financial stability would be taken away. I know they’re followed by private investigators.”
In a five-page letter to the The Hollywood Reporter earlier his month, the church—which has set up dedicated websites to discredit both the film and those interviewed in it—called Going Clear “a bigoted propaganda piece” and said it includes “at least one major error every two minutes.” The letter goes on to question the trustworthiness of nearly everyone interviewed in the movie, but does little to address specific criticisms of abuse.
Although its founder died in 1986—Miscavige characterizes Hubbard’s death as attaining an OT level “completely exterior from the body”—Going Clearsuggests that Scientology is still rolling in money. The church now holds some $3 billion in assets, despite a membership that has dwindled to fewer than 50,000 people. Much of that wealth is tied to real estate holdings, but Scientologists must also pay for coursework and auditing sessions needed to move up on The Bridge.
“The best traps, you get a guy to just keep himself in jail,” Jason Beghe says in a 2007 video shown in Going Clear. “That’s what Scientology does.”
There’s so much to unpack in Scientology that to even give an overview of its 65-year history is a heavy burden. Wright’s Going Clear is a dense book with mountains of detail and Gibney’s documentary just doesn’t compare when it comes to small colorful portraits of life in the church, like Miscavige making special Sea Org Captain vests for his five beagles and demanding that members on Gold Base salute them. Rather, HBO’s Going Clear paints with broad strokes, and it is stronger as a corollary to Wright’s text than a stand-alone film. Mostly, its scenes lend humanity to some of the people involved. Here’s a young Travolta calling Hubbard a “genius” he’d be honored to meet. There’s a defected Haggis laughing about the first time he read the story of Xenu. “I remember for one fleeting second thinking, Well, maybe it’s an insanity test,” he says. “Maybe if you believe this, they kick you out.”
Neither version of Going Clear is particularly sympathetic to the church, and both suggest that Scientology is more insidious than a kooky religion with good intentions and off-the-rails execution. As Gibney puts it, those speaking out now are “telling people the kind of damage that can be done by a group that puts itself above the welfare of the individuals within it.”
But for all the church’s bizarre doctrines and disconcerting scandals, some of the most interesting portions of Going Clear—book and movie—have to do with Hubbard himself, a man who seems to veer between magnetism and mania. “Do you ever think that you might be quite mad?” a reporter asks Hubbard in 1968 footage shown in the documentary, one of the few times he ever appeared on camera. “Oh yes,” Hubbard answers without hesitation. “The one man in the world who never believes he’s mad is a madman.”
TITLE: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
AUTHOR: Lawrence Wright
PAGES: 560 (in paperback)
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FIRST LINE: “London, Ontario, is a middling manufacturing town halfway between Toronto and Detroit, once known for its cigars and breweries.”
Re-posted with permission from Newsweek.com.