Monday, November 25, 2013

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief This 2013 National Book shortlist nominee for the Nonfiction Award is in many ways a classic of investigative journalism. There is practically nothing Wright left out about the ways and means the Church of Scientology was established and how it continues. Considering the Church is shrouded in secrecy and its documents confidential, this was a strenuous bit of digging. His thoughts at the end of the book are enlightening, especially the bit about art—how this church seems deficient in artworks, though one could reasonably argue that it is based on the most convincing fiction ever written. And what is good fiction if not art?

I am not going to deny that listening on audio to this book was almost unbearable. It wasn’t the delivery nor the writing that overwhelmed me, but the subject matter. Wright begins this massive investigation with an introduction that concludes with the following paragraph:
”I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious belief on people’s lives—historically, a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics, which is the subject of so much journalism. I was drawn to write this book by the questions that so many people have about Scientology. What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do 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? These questions are not unique to Scientology, but they certainly underscore the conversation. In attempting to answer them in this book, I hope we can learn something about what might be called the process of belief. Few Scientologists have had a conversion experience—a sudden, radical reorientation of one’s life; more common is a gradual, wholehearted acceptance of propositions that might have been regarded as unacceptable or absurd at the outset, as well as the incremental surrender of will on the part of people who have been promised enhanced power and authority. One can see by this example the motor that propels all great social movements, for good or ill.”

What we find, after reading or listening to Wright’s testimony, is that many people find a group, a type of acceptance, and a structure of belief that gives them guidance on how to act. Most are normal, everyday people who want to be good, and perhaps want even more—celebrity, for instance, since the Church places celebrities in an enhanced position of authority in their hierarchy. They want to be better people, to be leaders, to be listened to. Just as people flocked to read Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” people flocked to hear Hubbard, who used many of Carnegie’s tenets in his own writings, among other things. He also used his own research to create an elaborate step program for believers, promising more power and authority the higher one rose in the levels.

Hubbard comes across as delusional, or a clever illusionist who struggled all his life to find a way to achieve the glory and attention he thought he deserved. According to documents uncovered by Wright, Hubbard lied about his military record and the illnesses he suffered. He was a science fiction writer of some repute before his stint in the military, and could research and write easily and with some coherence. He sought stability in his financial income and managed to put his skills to work creating an elaborate “religion” that required booth paying for the “step” materials as well as unquestioning fealty and obedience on pain of punishment—not in the afterlife as the Christians do, but in the here and now—by imprisonment and slave labor.

It didn’t take me long to understand that Hubbard was not someone I would believe to get me across the street safely, let alone allow him to tell me how to think. But Wright goes on and on, piling fact upon data until finally he concludes that religions are seldom built on strict truth anyway but beliefs, and that most religions, when examined for their grounding in historical fact come up short. (Disclaimer: I was a Catholic once. I came to think the Catholic Church was a large, empty mitre, but that was back after I’d stopped being indoctrinated daily in my near-teens.)

No matter what Scientologists believe, Wright’s book is a damning assessment of the Church of Scientology, pointing out instances of criminal behavior and flagrant abuse still going on. These activities are so egregious that I barely had the stomach to listen to it. When we get to the part about Tom Cruise and his Church activities and behaviors, it read like a gossip column but with the libelous parts still in. Cruise denies all of it, but we get a picture of what his life must be like as a superstar. If you needed reminding never to envy someone else his/her life, you’ve got it here.

The Church probably should be stripped of its designation as a religion which, because of its tax status, keeps the church alive. The wealth mostly goes to keeping the top ranking officers in handmade shoes and designer clothes. But I just can’t bear to spend another minute thinking about Hubbard and his team—it feels like a sin.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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