Hubbard gathered followers to his self-improvement cause through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and money poured in. Then came the Sea Organization, or Sea Org. Starting in the late ‘60s, an increasingly disconnected from reality Hubbard became convinced that the British, American, and Soviet governments wanted to harness Scientology’s psychological insights for their own uses. With three ships under the 57-year-old Hubbard’s command, Sea Org cast off in 1967 with “no destination or purpose other than to wander” the high seas, free from government control.
Hubbard roamed the world like some maddened commodore, exciting rumors that he was an operative for the CIA, drinking heavily, fantasizing about taking over Rhodesia, and searching for a lost underwater city that only he knew about. Crewing the ships were a youthful band of believers who had signed contracts pledging themselves to Sea Org “for the next billion years.” (The last is one of many details Wright seeds the book with that beg to be taken as comedy, but ultimately can’t.)
Over the years, the mythos of Scientology began to layer campy science fiction over the core message. Hubbard’s “revelations” spun windy tales about the birth of the universe (four quadrillion years ago), a tyrannical overlord named Xenu who allied with some evil psychiatrists, a Galactic Confederacy, volcanoes, hydrogen bombs, and a war that was still being waged in the modern era by mostly invisible forces. It all helped strengthen the believers’ sense (furthered by an ever-manic and paranoid Hubbard) that strong forces were always arrayed against them.
In 1955, Hubbard had published a pamphlet on Russian Communist methods of brainwashing. Wright states with characteristic understatement that “there is an eerie mirroring of the techniques described in the pamphlet and some Scientology practices”:
“The text specifies how to realign the goals of the individual with those of the group. The first task is to undermine the ability of the person to act and to trust himself. Next, his loyalty to his family is destroyed… The individual’s trust and affection for his friends is shattered by anonymous reports… Ultimately, all other emotional claims on the person have been broken; only the State or the group remains.”
And so the Sea Org recruits sailed the oceans at the behest of their mad-seeming and raving captain, who over the years turned increasingly to methods of punishment and control that would stay with the Church long after his death.
In 1974, Hubbard created the “Rehabilitation Project Force”. While he called it a process for “redemption”, it was little more than a Scientological gulag system. Those perceived as having broken the rules or becoming a “Suppressive Person” (Hubbard’s catch-all term for a negative person who blocks a thetan, or spirit, in its progression towards going Clear) were put into RPF. Hana Eltringham, an early Sea Org recruit, discovered what RPF meant when she boarded one of the vessels:
“…she found dozens of crew members housed in the old cattle hold belowdecks, illuminated by a single lightbulb, sleeping on stained mattresses on the floor. They were dressed in black overalls, called boiler suits, and forbidden to speak to anyone outside their group. They are using their hands from a bucket of table scraps, shoveling the food into their mouths as if they were starving.”
After all, they had signed a contract for a billion years.
“I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”
Ever since the pre-war years when Hubbard had tried failed to break into the movie business (he would later say, unconvincingly, that he’d worked on classics like Stagecoach), his life revolved to some extent around the star that was Hollywood. (Hubbard even tried to write and direct his own Star Wars knockoff in 1979.) Southern California was America’s great incubator of manias in the 20th century, from celebrity fetishes to born-again preachers like Aimee Semple McPherson to diet and New Age fads. Scientology slowly but stiffly insinuated itself over a period of years into the movie machine’s structure like so much kudzu. It wasn’t an accident, but a deliberate strategy that went well beyond figures like acting teacher Milton Katselas, a “vital link to the Hollywood celebrity machine” whose protégés included everyone from Al Pacino to George Clooney.
After taking the first section of his book to lay out the genesis and beliefs (such as they are) of Scientology via the story of L. Ron Hubbard, Wright examines the particulars of how the Church operates like a cult, particularly when it comes to celebrity members. His great get here is screenwriter and director Paul Haggis. A onetime roustabout from Canada who was headed for rock-bottom before finally breaking into Hollywood, Haggis was one of those artists who people were always surprised to find was a Scientologist. This is partially due to the type of reporting that goes on. If Tom Cruise or John Travolta belong to some obscure religion, that’s tabloid fodder. What tabloid readers care what directors get up to?
Haggis was the featured character in Wright’s 2011 New Yorker expose, “The Apostate.” (The famously litigious and prickly Church’s response to that article, which involved trying to bury Wright with documentation, was actually the springboard for this book.) A lot of the material from that article shows up in Going Clear. Wright uses the story of Haggis, who charted an unlikely career path from working on The Facts of Life to writing and directing Crash, as his up-close lens on how the Church operates (especially via its networks of influence in Hollywood), from roping in new recruits to keeping them on the hook to dunning them for funds at every available opportunity.
What Wright includes here about Haggis and his many decades in the Church also come the closest to answering the question that he poses at the beginning of the book: namely, given all the negative connotations that the Church has in American society, what do people get out of this, and why do they join? In his case, Haggis seems to have appreciated Scientology’s ability to help him focus and direct a life that could previously have been described, charitably, as wandering.
Perhaps because so much of what Haggis went through in his eventual decision to leave the Church was already written, this material is generally the least engaging parts of Wright’s otherwise fascinating text. More engaging in the later sections are Wright’s detailed investigation of the powers that took over the Church following Hubbard’s death in 1986 and the expansive system of control that keeps the followers in line.
The man who essentially became the Church of Scientology in 1986 was David Miscavige. Wright describes this highly driven high school dropout who went Clear at the age of 15 as “tough, tireless, and doctrinaire”. He worked as Hubbard’s appointed “Action Chief”, who “ran missions around the world to perform operations that local orgs were unable to do themselves.” Wright reports that Miscavige would bond tightly with another hard-charging Scientologist, Tom Cruise, one of several celebrities the author paints an extremely poor picture of. (While Wright is mostly circumspect in his writing, he dips into a more splenetic tone when describing the Sea Org workers working like indentured servants to prepare Miscavige’s prison-like Gold Base HQ in the California desert for Cruise, who arrives with all the expectations of a czar being whisked through a Potemkin village.)
What Wright describes about the reeducation camps and controlling psychological warfare that appear to have characterized Miscavige’s reign has more than a hint of the Stasi to its sadism, mixed with the Soviet gulag. This seems to have all come straight from the Hubbard playbook. In the ‘70s, Hubbard, who had wargamed for the Navy with Heinlein at Princeton at the end of World War II, and was terrified of being investigated by the government, launched Operation Snow White. This was nothing less than an organized effort to place Scientologists in positions of power throughout the federal government in order to squelch any campaign against or even criticism of Scientology.
“Nothing in American history,” Wright states, “can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White.” He reports that, following a devastating 1991 expose in Time magazine, the Church assigned 100 lawyers with a $20 million annual budget to launch a concerted counteroffensive against any and all perceived enemies. It’s perhaps a sign of the declining power of the Church that Wright’s book was even published, given such a history.
Wright crafts Going Clear with care and balance, almost too much of the latter, particularly when revealing details like Hubbard’s beating of his second wife and the legacy of torturous mind games that he bequeathed to his successor. Wright places himself squarely in between the Scientologists and anti-Scientologists, whose “tug of war” he says “has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man.”
It feels like a false equivalency. After reading Going Clear and its epic story of how one self-help book turned into a mini-nation, one can find reams of evidence supporting the latter contention, and just about none to back up the former.
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