‘Going Clear’: Lawyers, Guns, Money & Scientology

Church of Scientology "Big Blue" building at Fountain Avenue/L. Ron Hubbard Way, Los Angeles, California -- Image from

Lawrence Wright’s devastating, impeccably researched history of Scientology’s “Prison of Belief” vividly illustrates the ability of this “Church” to successfully prey upon nearly every dark strain in the modern American psyche, from celebrity-worship to ego-mania and the lust for power and money.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 448 pages
Author: Lawrence Wright
Price: $28.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-01
“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.)

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.

Next Page

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.