That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backwards to be fair to Scientology. Every deceptive comparison with Mormonism and other religions is given a respectful hearing. Every ludicrous bit of church dogma is served up deadpan. This makes the book’s indictment that much more powerful. Open almost any page at random. That tape of L Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, that Mr Wright quotes from? “It was a part of a lecture Hubbard gave in 1963, in which he talked about the between-lives period, when thetans are transported to Venus to have their memories erased.”
Oh, that period. Of course. How could I forget?
We are all thetans, spirits, trapped temporarily in our current particular lives. Elsewhere, though, Hubbard says that when a thetan discovers that he is dead, he should report to a “‘between-lives’ area” on Mars for a “forgetter implant”.
Oh dear, oh dear. So what are poor thetans to do? Left to Venus or right to Mars? For sure, they can’t stay here. “The planet Earth, formerly called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu,” said Hubbard, who was a best-selling science fiction writer before he became the prophet of a new religion. To suppress a rebellion, Xenu tricked the confederations into coming in for fake income tax investigations. Billions of thetans were taken to Teegeeack (you remember: Earth), “where they were dropped into volcanoes and then blown up with hydrogen bombs”. Suffice it to say I’m not hanging around Earth next time I’m between lives.
Hubbard apparently could go on for hours with this stuff. Mr Wright informs us, as if it were just an oversight, that “Hubbard never really explained how he came by these revelations,” but elsewhere he says they came to him at the dentist’s office. Of the Borgia-like goings-on after Hubbard’s death in 1986, Mr Wright says cheerfully, “Every new religion faces an existential crisis following the death of its charismatic founder.” He always refers to Scientology respectfully as “the church”.
But Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief makes clear that Scientology is like no church on Earth. Except that Scientology – if Mr Wright is to be believed – ran, and maybe still runs, a shadow totalitarian empire in the US, financed in part by huge contributions by Tom Cruise and others of the Hollywood aristocracy. “Naïve” doesn’t begin to describe the credulousness and sense of entitlement that has allowed actors, writers and directors to think they were helping themselves and the world by hanging around the Scientologists’ “Celebrity Centre”, taking “upper level” courses and gossiping about who was about to be labelled a “Suppressive Person” (bad guy).
Among the horrors Mr Wright either uncovers or borrows from previous Scientology exposés in Time magazine and The St Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times is “the Hole”, a hellish double-wide trailer parked at a California resort owned by the church. Forty or 50 people were housed there with no furniture or beds, eating leftovers, enduring cold-hose group showers. There are stories of people being beaten; and lots of stories of forced divorces, mandatory “disconnections” — orders not to talk with a spouse or friend who has offended in some way.
The real-life history of Scientology raises the same question that comes up whenever you see a lazily plotted movie or television show: why didn’t someone call the police? Most of the Scientologists who were incarcerated and humiliated by the group’s leaders were not literally in chains all day. They could have walked out or refused to return when caught. Why didn’t they?
The answer is partly familiar psychological explanations, variations on the Stockholm syndrome. But there were other barriers. Some had joined as children and signed “billion-year contracts” that they didn’t realise were preposterous. Some had no friends outside Scientology, no relatives they hadn’t been forced to disown, no mailing address or credit card. They had no place else to go. And if they asked to leave, they were told they needed to pay back some ridiculous sum like $100,000 for classes they supposedly had signed up for.
All this was going on under the nose of Tom Cruise, who, according to Mr Wright, allowed Scientology’s leaders to pimp for him, among other favours. Young women were told that they had been chosen for a “special programme” that would require they drop their boyfriends.
Lawrence Wright is so deeply into his material that he sometimes doesn’t realise when he’s left the reader behind. What is OT V status again? (It’s the fifth level of ascent for a thetan, achieved by taking expensive courses.) Which wife of L. Ron Hubbard are we talking about here? What does PTS/SP stand for? (Potential Trouble Source/Suppressive Person, or really bad guy.) Even the book’s title is unalluring to the uninitiated. (“Going clear” means – very roughly – reaching a level that makes you a real Scientologist.)
But don’t be deterred. Going Clear is essential reading for thetans of all-life-times.
Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Alfred A Knopf
430 pages; $28.95
©2013 The New York Times News Service