(Audio)Book Talk: GOING CLEAR, by Lawrence Wright

going clear lawrence wright indieboundGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Audiobook read by Morton Sellers
Vintage (November 2013), Paperback (ISBN 0385393040 / 9780385393041)
Nonfiction, 560 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, January 2013, ISBN 9780385393058; Audible ASIN B00AYLFLCM)

I’ve spent about 40% of my life in places where the Church of Scientology’s presence is hard to ignore: the obvious one is here in Los Angeles, and the other one is Tampa Bay. (The fact I haven’t lived there for over 25 years is probably why I’d forgotten that the organization’s “spiritual headquarters” is in Clearwater, Florida.) But I work just a few blocks away from several Scientology centers in Hollywood, which makes it a lot harder to forget their presence here, and it’s such a significant presence it seems important to understand it. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief was on a lot of best-nonfiction-of-2013 lists, so I decided I’d see what I could learn from it.

What I Learned, in bullet points:

  • Scientology bears little resemblance to what most people think of as a “religion,” despite an official (and controversial) determination from the IRS that it is one;
  • The rigidity of Scientology’s practices, its attitude toward dissenters, and the power of its dangerously charismatic leaders suggest that those who see it as more like a cult than a “church” may not be wrong;
  • Scientology has a caste system of sorts which places entertainment-industry members at the top, catering to them with its “Celebrity Centers,” and its own clergy somewhere near the bottom;
  • The ongoing, long-term coursework required to progress “up the bridge” makes it quite costly to be a Scientologist;
  • Some of the things Scientology teaches its members, particularly in the early stages, are surprisingly useful and sensible. The “surprise” comes because they resemble some of the ideas and practices of pyschology, which Scientology considers a thoroughly evil discipline. Scientology’s origins in founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and its antipathy to the mental-health profession are, to put it charitably, difficult to reconcile.

Going Clear‘s subtitle defines the book’s structure. The first section pretty well covers “Everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology (and quite a lot you’d never have thought to ask),” and that begins with the rather colorful biography of its founder, the exceedingly prolific writer L. Ron Hubbard. Everything in Scientology’s belief system comes directly from Hubbard’s texts, some of which seem to be strongly influenced by his earlier science-fiction writing. That said, Hubbard grasped the human need for explanations and answers, and he devised some that have made sense to a huge number of people for over six decades.

Another thing Hubbard grasped was that Scientology’s teachings could be particularly appealing to “artistic” types, and from early on, they were pitched toward a specific type of artist above all others–those in the Hollywood-based entertainment industry. A list of entertainers associated with Scientology would contain a lot of familiar names; you can Google them yourself, but you’ll find Tom Cruise at the top of the list. For over a decade, Cruise has probably been the most-recognized Scientologist in the world, let alone in Hollywood, and he’s prominently featured in the latter sections of Wright’s book (along with numerous footnotes citing denials and “no comments” from his attorneys).

It’s Wright’s revelations regarding Scientology’s “prison of belief” that made news when the book was originally published, particularly those concerning the “billion-year contracts” signed by members of its clergy, the Sea Org (often at very young ages), and the extreme, sometimes abusive conditions under which those members work. Many of his primary sources were once high-ranking executives within the Sea Org or other Scientology divisions. In some cases, their departures were more like escapes, and much of the information they’ve given the author was closely guarded by–and within–the church. Most of this material is made public for the first time in Going Clear…and much of it is may still remain unknown by current, committed church members, who will likely be directed to ignore or denounce the book (if they have access to it at all).

While these revelations are one of the main reasons to read Going Clear, they’re also the source of my primary issue with it; pardon another church analogy, but I feel that Wright’s preaching to the choir. The book’s most likely readers are those who are already suspicious or skeptical about Scientology (and yes, I’d count myself among them); there’s not much here that will dispel that, and a good amount that will reinforce it. That said, I was impressed with this as a piece of journalism. Wright had unusual access to Scientology insiders–departed and/or disaffected insiders, granted–but is able to relate their stories with an outsider’s sense of perspective and a reporter’s mandate to check with other sources (as documented by more of the previously-mentioned footnotes, frequently citing attorneys).

I was less impressed with Going Clear as a piece of writing than as reporting, and I didn’t feel that the audiobook’s narrator, Morton Sellers, brought much to the material–then again, this isn’t material that lends itself to audio-performance embellishment very easily.

The story of the Church of Scientology isn’t over; what Wright does here takes it out of Scientology’s hands, exposes it more widely and broadly than perhaps ever before, and may change its future direction. I was fascinated, sometimes frightened, and occasionally flabbergasted by what I learned from Going Clear–it wasn’t entirely satisfying reading, but I do think it’s important reading.

Rating: Book, 3.75 of 5; Audio, 3.25 of 5

From the publisher’s website:

A clear-sighted revelation, a deep penetration into the world of Scientology by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, the now-classic study of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack. Based on more than two hundred personal interviews with current and former Scientologists—both famous and less well known—and years of archival research, Lawrence Wright uses his extraordinary investigative ability to uncover for us the inner workings of the Church of Scientology.

At the book’s center, two men whom Wright brings vividly to life, showing how they have made Scientology what it is today: The darkly brilliant science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, whose restless, expansive mind invented a new religion. And his successor, David Miscavige—tough and driven, with the unenviable task of preserving the church after the death of Hubbard.

We learn about Scientology’s complicated cosmology and special language. We see the ways in which the church pursues celebrities, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and how such stars are used to advance the church’s goals. And we meet the young idealists who have joined the Sea Org, the church’s clergy, signing up with a billion-year contract.

In Going Clear, Wright examines what fundamentally makes a religion a religion, and whether Scientology is, in fact, deserving of this constitutional protection. Employing all his exceptional journalistic skills of observation, understanding, and shaping a story into a compelling narrative, Lawrence Wright has given us an evenhanded yet keenly incisive book that reveals the very essence of what makes Scientology the institution it is.

From Chapter One:

“London, Ontario, is a middling manufacturing town halfway between Toronto and Detroit, once known for its cigars and breweries. In a tribute to its famous namesake, London has its own Covent Garden, Piccadilly Street, and even a Thames River that forks around the modest, economically stressed downtown. The city, which sits in a humid basin, is remarked upon for its unpleasant weather. Summers are unusually hot, winters brutally cold, the springs and falls fine but fleeting. The most notable native son was the bandleader Guy Lombardo, who was honored in a local museum, until it closed for lack of visitors. London was a difficult place for an artist looking to find himself.

“Paul Haggis was twenty-one years old in 1975. He was walking toward a record store in downtown London when he encountered a fast-talking, long-haired young man with piercing eyes standing on the corner of Dundas and Waterloo Streets. There was something keen and strangely adamant in his manner. His name was Jim Logan. He pressed a book into Haggis’s hands. ‘You have a mind,’ Logan said. ‘This is the owner’s manual.’ Then he demanded, ‘Give me two dollars.’

“The book was Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, by L. Ron Hubbard, which was published in 1950. By the time Logan pushed it on Haggis, the book had sold more than two million copies throughout the world. Haggis opened the book and saw a page stamped with the words ‘Church of Scientology.’

“’Take me there,’ he said to Logan.”

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