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Review: ‘Going Clear’ offers harrowing look at Church of Scientology

In No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie’s excellent biography of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she observes that Smith’s boundless imagination would have served him well as a novelist.

The quote came back to me time and again as I read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, an exhaustive look at the Church of Scientology.

Only unlike Smith, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard actually was a science fiction novelist, and a fairly successful one. Manic at the typewriter, Hubbard’s own imagination conjured new worlds and allows the church he founded to boast that he is one of the world’s most prolific writers.

Wright clearly wants us to see Hubbard’s fictional imagination at work in the cosmology of Scientology, which gets a good bit of attention in Going Clear. But it’s the real-life application of those ideas — abuse, imprisonment, slave wages and the debasement of even loyal church members — that occupies the vast majority of the 372 pages (not counting extensive endnotes and bibliography).

Of course, no church’s doctrines are immune from sounding insane to people not its adherents, who have not grown up in the faith or been around seemingly rational people who embrace it. A six-day creation of the entire universe, by a god who commands his followers not to murder but then directs them to genocide and even to sacrifice their own family members? A virgin birth, water changed into wine and a miraculous resurrection from the dead? To outsiders, these can easily sound like the fables of a people gazing about a very big, very mysterious universe and grasping for answers to the most basic questions. The fact that we still can’t answer them — despite supercolliders that can peer into the tiniest fragments of matter and super-telescopes than can peer billions of years into the past — shows the enduring appeal of religion of all stripes.

(Here, however, it must be said that while Scientology seeks to keep some of its more outlandish beliefs secret, revealing them only to initiates who have progressed to a certain level in the faith, other religions put their doctrines on full display. Roman Catholicism, certainly, has much for which to answer — the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pederasty scandal — but it preaches to believers and nonbelievers alike the whole enchilada every single Sunday.)

Wright’s exhaustive reporting, most of which is denied flatly by the church, a fact of which we’re repeatedly reminded in footnotes, portrays a religion that thrives based on the hard work of its true believers. But, he reports, those believers are often mistreated, punished for petty statements or thought crimes detected in “audits” on the church’s ubiquitous E-Meter. Punishments can include confinement in horrid conditions, hard labor for little or no pay, and — in some of the most shocking passages — beatings allegedly administered by the church’s current chief, David Miscavige. Those who turn on the church are subjected to intense persuasion to return. Those who investigate the church — whether lawyers seeking damages for clients or the United States government in the form of the Internal Revenue Service — are themselves investigated, intimidated and, in some cases, allegedly blackmailed, according to Wright.

Among the most ironic revelations, however, is this: Some who are subjected to the church’s harshest treatment don’t simply walk away. This is an astonishing thing to the reader, who might wonder why anyone would put up with the abuse Wright documents in his exhaustive reporting. But faith is a powerful thing, and fear of what happens in the afterlife to someone who has misbehaved in this one has filled more than a few pews in the history of religion. What the late atheist essayist Christopher Hitchens called “mind-forged manacles” are no less confining just because they may not really exist. Why else would an otherwise rational person sign a contract committing to one billion years of service, as Wright reports is required of members entering the Sea Organization, the backbone of Scientology?

Wright spends a good deal of time debunking some myths that have grown around Hubbard since his 1986 death, especially those surrounding his war record. That’s no doubt in part due to former church spokesman Tommy Davis’ remark — in a pivotal meeting between Scientology officials and editors of The New Yorker, for whom Wright was preparing a story — that the truth hinges upon it. If Hubbard wasn’t hurt in the war, injuries he allegedly cured using Scientology, then “the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore Scientology is based on a lie.”

Davis produced a document to prove Hubbard’s injuries, but Wright unearthed others to show that Hubbard applied for a pension, citing those very (unhealed) injuries as justification. Dueling versions of Hubbard’s military separation paperwork portray vastly different circumstances, and archivists at the military’s St. Louis records facility have denounced a church version supplied to The New Yorker as a forgery.

Is there an explanation? Always: Hubbard was in intelligence, and intelligence officers often have two sets of records. Sounds like an excellent plotline for a very compelling novel.