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Book Review - Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Why I Chose to Read Going Clear
I’ve long been fascinated with belief systems in general, but that fascination is even more so when they’re surrounded by scandal. I’m sure part of my interest is due to the voyeurism / train wreck factor, but I also truly want to know what makes people tick, why they believe thing things they do, and how their beliefs color their actions.
Scientology definitely feels scandalous – the questionable mental health of its creator, L. Ron Hubbard; its lengthy battle with the IRS; Tom Cruise’s bizarre antics, the reprehensible behavior of church Chairman of the Board David Miscavige, the human rights violations, the neglect of children in its care, the stalking / paparazzi-like behavior of what I call “the goon squad,” the multitude of lawsuits, the church’s secrecy, and its refusal to honestly address the many allegations of wrongdoing.
When I first heard about HBO’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, I was beside myself. I’d read a few books over the years, most recently Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard (originally released in 1987, but due to lawsuits by the Church of Scientology, it was never officially published in the United States until its re-release in 2014) by Russell Miller and Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill, David Miscavige’s niece. Since I was unable to watch the documentary when it first aired I decided to read the book it was based on: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright.
Since I like to learn about myself too, throughout reading the three books mentioned above, I found myself asking if I could or would be susceptible to being convinced to blindly follow a flawed leader. Would I be capable of not questioning instructions, guidelines, or the tenants of whatever the belief system is? Generally my answers are yes and no, respectively. I’m fairly certain my tendency to buck authority would negate my doing anything that would be harmful to me or adversely affect those I care about, by extension.
The truth is, though, I don’t know for sure, and that’s about as unsettling a thought as they come. I’ve never been face with making a decision that would definitely answer the question. A desire for acceptance is inherent in everyone, I think, and finding that acceptance with like-minded people can be a powerful draw and the potential to lose that support system if one walks away sometimes keeps the leash short.
I followed up with the following questions: What is it that sets me apart from someone who gets drawn into something like Scientology, which I personally consider to be a cult? What is it that makes us different from each other so that they got caught up in this particular web instead of me?
I don’t have an absolute answer, but I’m inclined to go with, “Not much.” That’s a pretty scary thought.
I’ve discovered, too, that’s it’s terribly easy to write off adherents to Scientology and other religious cults like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate as being weak-willed or stupid or gullible. As I understand it, many followers are actually educated and highly intelligent and frankly who among us hasn’t been gullible about one thing or another over the course of our lives? It’s also easy to poke fun and the belief system and forget that they’re real people who’ve often times paid heavy prices for their involvement – some with their lives. I struggle with stepping back from my intellectual examination, such as it is, and empathize. I’m not sure what that says about me, but moving on…
Lawrence Wright on Going Clear
Because Scientology is secretive about everything, in the Introduction author Lawrence Wright begins by addressing the most basic of questions: how many followers are there? According to Wright, the church, “informally … claims 8 million members worldwide,” a figure he states is “based on the number of people who have donated to the church”. He immediately counters that with 30,000, the number of International Association of Scientologist (IAS) members provided to him by “a former spokesperson for the church.” To strengthen his point, Wright notes that Scientologists “are forcefully encouraged to join” the IAS.
Straight out of the gate, Wright presents two separate sides of the story – that of the Church of Scientology and that of its critics. He continues this method of operation, noting where the church has refused to answer questions or address any allegations, throughout the book. While much of the evidence Wright presents is damning for Scientology, he does attempt to present the information in an even-handed way.
Further on in the introduction, Wright asks the following questions:
- What is it that makes the religion alluring?
- What do its adherents get out of it?
- How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible?
- Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom?
Wright strives to answer these questions by examining the personal stories of ex-Scientologists – how they entered the world of Scientology, their lives during their tenure, their escapes, and the shenanigans they experienced at the hands of church members afterwards. He also examines the role Hollywood and celebrity adherents play and the lengths the church, and its adherents, have gone and will go to protect its vast fortune under the guise of defending its legacy and reputation.
Very little, if any, of the information Wright presents is new information, and much of the book reads like bullet points with a few tenuous threads to tie everything together. This makes it difficult to understand how everything fits together, but it also serves the purpose of creating an intense unsettled feeling in the reader, especially in the Part 1 Scientology section. By the time Wright gets to the part where L. Ron Hubbard and his ships being denied entry to a vast number of ports, it’s unclear how things reach that point; how Hubbard and Scientology became well-known enough to warrant being turned away. There are other books that more effectively relate the time between Scientology’s beginnings and the years Hubbard spent aboard ship, should the intricacies of that time period be of interest.
The human-interest stories—those of the ex-Scientologists—were most interesting. Even if their accounts are only half true, the overall picture painted of Scientology is frightening. Their stories generally relay the same information: devotees held against their will; punished for the most minor of infractions; physical and emotional abuse; very little pay (well less than the minimum wage) they sometimes didn’t receive.
Overall, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright is well worth the read, even with the gaps in information. It provides a decent overview of Scientology, examines its dark underbelly, and leaves the puzzle unfinished with its unanswered questions: Why the lack of current investigation by any government entity, local or federal? What trump cards does Scientology continue to hold? And why, with all the information readily available online from many different sources, do people still gravitate to Scientology, even if the numbers aren’t nearly as high as indicates?
The Verdict Explained
- Even-handed look at the information presented
- Inclusion of personal stories by ex-Scientologists and what they experienced during their time in Scientology
- Decent overview of Scientology
- Leaves the overall puzzle unfinished for further investigation
- Includes gaps in information, which may leave the reader wondering how they got from point A to point B
- Very little in the way of new information