“I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.”
—L. Ron Hubbard
In his introduction to Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, his devastating history of the last of the great, strange American self-improvement cults, Lawrence Wright notes that he has spent much of his career as a writer exploring the effects that religion has on people. It’s one of the great questions for a writer to examine, particularly in an era that has given us the twinned phenomena of increasing acceptance of atheism in Western societies and the backlash of anti-scientific Christian fundamentalism and the mass homicides of Muslim extremists. (Wright also wrote one of the definitive books on Al-Qaeda: The Looming Tower.)
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
(Alfred A. Knopf; US: Jan 2013)
The book that follows will be seen by many Scientologists as an attack. But Wright has made clear that he sees no point in penning a takedown of Scientology (he told the New York Times: “Why would I bother to do that? Scientology is probably the most stigmatized religion in America already”). He goes on to write in the book’s introduction that what’s fascinating about Scientology are the same things that fascinate about any religion:
“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?”
These are the same questions many non-Scientologists have asked about the group whenever the behavior of some more popular adherents have been lit up by the media. While the third question is a particularly Scientology-focused query (no other modern faith has so assiduously courted and touted its celebrity followers), the first two should be asked of any religion.
Wright is at pains to show how many of the tenets of Scientology are, on their surface, no more absurd to non-believers than those of ancient and established religions, whose beliefs are littered with mystical tales of virgin births and magical transmutations of matter. The tangled mythology of Scientology, with its intergalactic battles between good and evil, shares an epic, apocalyptic quality with religious texts from the Hindu Mahabharata and the Book of Revelations to the Book of Mormon.
The “Church” of Scientology shown in Wright’s book, however, is a curious creature that makes it particularly fertile ground for study of what Wright calls “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 over 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.”
The gripping, enraging book that follows contains much more evidence of Scientology’s motor propelling its followers toward behavior and beliefs far more socially destructive than constructive.
The Carnival Begins
“To keep a person on the Scientology path, feed him a mystery sandwich.”
—L. Ron Hubbard
Every new religion needs more than a great myth and belief structure, it also requires a charismatic popularizer. The L. Ron Hubbard who emerges from Wright’s book is a man apparently programmed to attract followers like scattered matter to a black hole. Hubbard was born in Nebraska in 1911 and proved early on to be made for the life of the renaissance man. Mercurial and personable, with a hotwired mind and a knack for deciphering the vulnerabilities and desires of others, Hubbard was made for the restless life. Like many with his temperament, he rarely stayed in one place, with one profession, or with one partner for long (he would father seven children with three women). As a born storyteller, he also had a knack for embroidering the truth; a tendency his followers would take to extremes normally reserved for carnival barkers.
By his early 20s, Hubbard was actually making a living telling stories. At a time when writers like Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner were filling the “gigantic maw” of pulp magazines crowding newsstands, Hubbard was cranking out stories about cowboys, submarines, zombies; whatever would sell. He worked at a furious pace, using up to 20 pen names. Between 1934 and 1936, he produced 100,000 words of fiction (roughly two novels’ worth) each month, typing on a roll of butcher paper to save time. It was good work while it lasted; and excellent training for somebody who would start a religion obsessed with melodrama, shadowy enemies, secret rituals, and ancient but ongoing wars. (According to Wright, “Some of the most closely guarded secrets of Scientology were originally published in other guises in Hubbard’s science fiction.”)
Thus was created one of Scientology’s great myths: L. Ron Hubbard was one of the greatest writers who ever lived.
A second myth came with World War II, a conflict some Scientologists might be forgiven for believing their founder won by himself. After spending a few years in New York, hobnobbing with writers and womanizing, Hubbard joined the Navy. In Scientologist lore, Hubbard’s war years were like something dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter with a taste for the fantastic.
Among other exploits, Hubbard claimed he was the sole survivor of a US destroyer sunk off the coast of Java, then barely escaping a Japanese patrol before sailing a raft to Australia. His actual war record is less impressive. As the commander of a sub chaser, he spent almost three days battling a Japanese sub that wasn’t actually there. He later shelled South Coronados Island, “a dry atoll that he apparently failed to realize was a part of Mexico.”
After being relieved of command, he spent months in the hospital with ulcers. But in a letter to his family, he put the stay down to being injured after “pick[ing] up an unexploded enemy shell that had landed on deck and had blown up in midair when he tried to throw it overboard.” And so on. According to Wright, Hubbard later admitted—in a long-secret document (revealed in a 1984 lawsuit) that Wright terms Hubbard’s “secret memoir” but is called a forgery by the Church—that his service record was “none too glorious.” But that didn’t stop Hubbard from dining out on his stories of glamorous danger.
A well-timed visit by Hubbard to the hospital in 1945 came one month before he was to ship out for Okinawa, site of some of the war’s most savage fighting; he had stomach pains. Later the Church of Scientology turned this stay into a climactic fight for survival. Although his records showed no sign of any wounds received during the war, Hubbard claimed to have cured himself using techniques later preached about in Dianetics. “The legend of the heroic Navy officer who had been blinded and crippled by the war” became not just one of the Church’s formative stories, but also formed the kernel of its core beliefs.
The Billion-Year Contract with Ron
Like most non-religious movements of the post-war period, Scientology was primarily concerned with self-improvement. For people feeling lost in a rapidly modernizing and urbanizing society, overshadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation, Scientology held out the promise of being able to self-perfect and control one’s mind, body, life, and surroundings. Just like Hubbard supposedly did in that Naval hospital.
How precisely Hubbard came up with the beliefs that formed Scientology is ultimately as vague as the source of any inspiration. The scene in the postwar years that Wright presents is one of a troubled man searching. Beset by waves of paranoia and self-doubt, Hubbard floated. He set himself up in Hollywood as what Wright calls a “freelance guru”. He worried about his sanity. He lived with some people in a Pasadena mansion where the menu of interests included copious amounts of drugs, Aleister Crowley-inspired paganist rituals, and fencing matches in the living room. He begged the Veterans Administration for more money.
Then, Hubbard wrote to his friend Robert Heinlein (another sci-fi writer enthralled with fantasies of omnipotence) about a book he was working on “which details in full the mathematics of the human mind, solves all the problems of the ages, and gives six recipes for aphrodisiacs and plays the mouth organ with the left foot.” The book was Dianetics. Published in 1950, it’s known in Scientology as simply Book One.
The theory that Hubbard lays out in its pages is that the mind has two parts. The good half is the analytical or conscious mind, which serves as the “storehouse of all past perceptions” and is basically rational. The other half is the “reactive mind”, where reside all painful emotions, which he thought were physically recorded in the cellular structure. Those recordings, or “engrams”, were the source of most human woes. Most of Scientology’s teachings can be boiled down to ways of eliminating engrams and the reactive mind, at the end of which a person can finally be termed a “Clear”.
This belief system proved helpful for Hubbard and what became the Church of Scientology in establishing a system of so-called “auditors” who kept believers coming back for successive treatments that created a self-reinforcing loop of insecurity and generated massive amounts of revenue; two key elements to any successful cult. No serious scientific study of Hubbard’s therapeutic process (which appears to have started out as little more than guided hypnosis aided by some good showmanship) has shown it to have any lasting psychological value.
As nonsensical as it seems, Dianetics was on the bestseller list for six months and eventually sold millions of copies. It served as the seed of the pseudo-self-improvement cult that would grow up around a successful author and unsuccessful sailor and call itself a church. The promise of attaining near God-like powers (which, according to Wright, is very close to what Scientology’s claims about Clears sound like) was apparently quite intoxicating to a war-traumatized population.
Belief and Surrender
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.