By Julia Langbein
Hollywood Boulevard.

Hollywood Boulevard.

If we so choose, we can all live our lives free of Scientology, a cash-rich but localized sect with fewer than 25,000 members.*  This differentiates Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief from his previous book, The Looming Tower, which traces Al Qaeda from its roots in the mid-20th-century anti-Western philosophy of Sayyid Qtub through the World Trade Center attacks.  We can avoid the Dianetics creep in the subway, but none of us can live free of the ideological conflicts that shape The Looming Tower.

And yet Going Clear is terrifying, even for the stable-footed reader who has never really seen the bright side of Branch Davidianism.  The book has been touted as an “exposé” of Scientology’s craziness, but in Wright’s telling, Scientology exposes the craziness of some mainstream American values and institutions.  Take lawsuits, for example: America’s culture of litigiousness has been Scientology’s biggest enabler.  It was the club the church used to beat the IRS into giving it tax-exemption in 1993, (if tax exemption had been denied, the church would have crumbled under its $1 billion debt of back taxes and penalties.)

Shockingly, writing about Scientology might put Wright in more personal danger than writing about Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda isn’t going to sue Larry Wright’s pants off for talking about how Osama bin Laden played volleyball growing up. Scientology ruthlessly (and criminally) targets anyone that has exposed their inner workings.  When Paulette Cooper published a far less in-depth or widely-anticipated book than Going Clear entitled The Scandal of Scientology in 1971, the church sued her nineteen times.  I’m sure it was scary when a “florist” tried to shoot her cousin in the temple (thinking it was her).  But then, a woman impersonating Cooper made threats against the Secretary of State and the President; the US Attorney’s office believed the set-up and indicted Cooper for mail threats and perjury.  Her reputation, along with her mental and physical health, were ruined. A 1977 FBI raid on Scientology headquarters revealed that the campaign against Cooper had been entitled “Operation Freakout,” and that its target had been to get Cooper “incarcerated in a mental institution or jail.”  This is homegrown terrorism, California style.

If the scope of the book is broader than just the church, nevertheless the hard and fast details of L. Ron Hubbard’s behavior, the church’s structure, and the rules it enforces will defy belief.   Passages of iconic perversity will singe themselves into readers’ minds.  

Just a sampling:  

Hubbard posted two teenage girls, called “Messengers,” outside of his office on Sea Org, his roaming ship-borne headquarters, in white hot pants and platform shoes who delivered his messages in his tone of voice (“fucking asshole,” they might communicate to a crew member, who had to address them as “sir.”)  Hubbard did their hair and makeup.  

Once, on Sea Org, Hubbard delivered a punishment whereby two crewmembers, both older men with families on board, had to race around the splintered deck of the ship in front of the assembled crew, pushing peanuts with their noses. They were left with bloody stumps on their faces.

Toothbrushes and identical Thom McAn sandals have been positioned by the shower in all of the personal bathrooms maintained by Scientology staff for Hubbard, in anticipation of his return (he died in 1986.)  

One does not easily forget this image: Tom Cruise sitting in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Hollywood doing “Tone Scale drills,” ie., “guessing the emotional state of random people coming out of the store.”  

Nor does one forget the image of Hubbard’s own neglected son, the son of a man who was supposed to perceive others’ minds transparently, at 22 years old, five-foot-one, a hundred pounds, naked and comatose—he would die shortly— in a white Pontiac at the end of the runway at McCarran Airport, Las Vegas, a vacuum tube connecting the exhaust to the passenger’s vent window.  He’d wanted to be a pilot, and Hubbard wouldn’t let him.  

These moments belong to Scientology’s own delimited history of exquisite weirdness and its private ledger of lives destroyed.  But Wright never lets the book become a freak show, and among the values that have nurtured Scientology from without, celebrity-worship is one of the most powerful.  Scientology’s basic promise is hyper-capability: The dianetic “Clear,” or person who’s reached a certain level of self-knowledge through auditing, has heightened personality and creativity.

“Among other qualities the Clear has a flawless memory and the capacity to perform mental tasks at unprecedented rates of speed; he is less susceptible to disease…”

But the models Scientology proffers of high-performing Clears are not doctors or scientists, world leaders or teachers.  The religion’s vision of hyperachievement and supercapability is Tom Cruise’s vision of hyperachievement and supercapability: Tom Cruise. (Remember when Matt Lauer interviewed Cruise on MSNBC and Cruise told Brooke Shields to get off antidepressants and that he could cure her? He meant it.)  These values aren’t esoteric or weird, Wright wants to say.  There’s a reason Scientology’s heart is in Hollywood—the religion thrives on a pervasive and narrow American definition of pop-culture stardom as success, even superpower.

Readers of Wright’s 2011 New Yorker profile of Paul Haggis (“The Apostate”) should not feel they’ve seen this story before.  Haggis cedes the place of protagonist to Tom Cruise, or rather, Cruise, as he did in Tropic Thunder, as he does everywhere, out-charismas everyone in Going Clear. I feel that I understand “TC” a little better now. TC is an amazing movie star for the same reason that he is a fully committed scientologist: a kind of cosmic arrogance, a confusion of entertainment and salvation (or as Wright put it, the difference between creating a believable world and believing in it.) Just so we can all be clear: Tom Cruise thinks he’s the third most important BEING in the universe, after LRH and church president David Miscavige. I enjoy being glib (like Matt Lauer) about Tom Cruise but Wright is amazingly balanced.

By the end of the book, when Wright has told us that underpaid or unpaid Scientology peons do housework for Cruise and custom-finish his Honda Rune and he rides around with Miscavige on their choppers fist-bumping about how they can’t wait to join Hubbard and form a tripartite Godhead, Wright does not say what most people would say, which is  “Hey, Tom Cruise, yeah, you, with the extra teeth, nailing yourself to a cross: Can you just ACT in War of the Worlds and not actually try to save the world?” (The answer of course is, No, he can’t. That’s why he’s so good in War of the Worlds, and every other over-the-top heroic role he fills to bursting.)

TC comes in for no ridicule from Wright.  Instead, Wright remarks that “no other member of the church derives as much material benefit from his religion as Cruise does, and…none bears greater moral responsibilities for the indignities inflicted on members of the Sea Org, sometimes directly because of his membership.”  It is a leonine feat of perception and magnanimity on the part of Wright to shoot right through Cruise’s idiotic leatherwear to the heart of the matter, which is not about Cruise’s arrogance, his Hubbard-like sense of self-aggrandizement, but about moral duty. Wright respects that Scientology might morph into a respectable religion.  If Cruise wants to see that happen, he would do well to take Wright’s advice and help curtail the unethical treatment of its members, to say nothing of terrorizing its detractors.

Readers of the Looming Tower might remember Wright conducting his symphony of mounting drama—waving his baton at the rolling drums (the towers, looming) and then hushing them back and pulling in the sweeping strings (the rich scene-setting—Saudi Arabia in the 70s!), etc.  It was a ripping read.  Going Clear, on the other hand, ticks along carefully, sometimes seeming almost authorless, bloodless.  Yet one of the deepest insights of Going Clear remains implicit in this limpid prose.  The extreme simplicity, the mere laying out of Wright’s research without commentary, metaphor or filigree is a deliberate strategy, a foil that makes Scientology’s manipulation of language emerge all the more distinctly as an insidious hex, a virus that Wright has to handle with rubber gloves in a white antiseptic laboratory of his own precision.  

Surely Scientologists will protest Wright’s portrayal, which includes such contested terrain as Hubbard’s military service and David Miscavige’s reputed beatings of staff. (Goodbye, Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels; you are free to anger-smile at someone else, for tiny papal schoolyard dick David Miscavige has replaced you in my nightmares.)  But by giving texture to the time and place of Scientology’s generation—California from the 1950s through the 1970s—Wright actually gives shades of reason to the church’s claims.  Its deep mistrust of psychiatry, for example, makes more sense given that the science of psychiatry after World War II entered an ethically ugly phase of experimentation with lobotomy, electroshock therapy and LSD.  Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950), the bible at the heart of the religion, began as a theory of consciousness, and like other such theories, grew out of and fed a fear of Chinese communist brainwashing—a fear that prompted the CIA to start its own research into mind control using hallucinogens and elecroshock.  (Again: You want to call Scientology sketchy and bonkers? Take a look at its sparring partner, the CIA.)

Returning to the question of language, Hubbard’s Dianetics owed a lot to another contemporary theorist of the human mind, Polish American philosopher Alfred Korzybski, whose writings had circulated among Hubbard’s sci-fi peers at midcentury.  Korzybski blended a half-baked Saussurean linguistics (the word is separate from the thing it represents) with a belief that altering word usage in the mind could alter not just mental but physiological conditions, so that “emotional disturbances, learned disorders, …heart problems, skin diseases, sexual disorders, migraines, alcoholism, arthritis, even dental cavities” could be cured with “semantic training.”  

Not one for deep theoretic study, Hubbard got just enough of a whiff of Korzybski’s powerful association of neologism and cure to apply it: He “saw the need for creating a special vocabulary, which would allow him to define old thoughts in new ways (the soul becomes a thetan, for instance); or invent new words such as ‘enturbulate’ (confuse) and ‘hatting’ (training.)” One of the most consistent Scientological manipulations of language is a subtle grammatical conversion of parts of speech, so that adjectives like “overt” become nouns—an “overt” is an act committed against the religion—or possessing a “high level of confront” entails being a person of courage.  These slight tweakings of form may seem innocuous, but the thin membrane between Scientologist language and common usage makes the terms both proprietary and inscrutable—they mean what Hubbard meant them to mean.

Perhaps the question most frequently asked about Scientology is, “why does anyone stay?” The Prison of Belief in Wright’s subtitle hints that this is his big question, too.  One wants to ask this of a man like Paul Haggis, a wealthy, capable, independent thinker with choices galore, the writer of Million Dollar Baby and Crash, who enrolled his daughter in a Scientology academy where she remained illiterate until age 11.  And what about Sea Org staff, who sign billion-year life service contracts, often submitting themselves to backbreaking physical labor for meager wages and undergoing harsh and capricious sentences at underground penal camps? Scientology, per Wright, is a tiered organization, where the higher-ups live lavishly, celebrities are coddled and served, and Sea Org members at the bottom wear standard-issue uniforms and earn fifty dollars a week minus penalties.  Why do the lackeys stick around?

The answer has much to do with each recruit’s vulnerabilities, but Wright returns over and over to questions of language and thought, especially the weirdness of “Scientologese,” and the refusal of anyone to approach language as ambiguous. In his pedagogical principles, Hubbard stressed that “WORDS SOMETIMES HAVE DIFFERENT OR MORE THAN ONE MEANING.”  We can all agree there—this is what underlies much of poetry, and irony.  But this polyvalence isn’t generative or rich for Scientology—Wright points out that there is almost no connection to arts or culture in the church, and also, (a big turn-off for Haggis the writer) little tolerance of irony.

The multiplicity of meanings possible in any given word is combatted by keeping dictionaries and Scientology glossaries close—Hubbard wants to pin down single meanings, and fend off polyvalence like a poison gas.  Because lifelong members of the church have read nothing but Hubbard, many of them have no skills or education—a major hamper when it comes to leaving.  Sea Org staff living at Gold Base, Scientology’s HQ in the California desert, are so sequestered from the textual material of daily life that they may not know the name of the sitting President.  

Occasionally even within the church, the Scientological disavowal of common notions of meaning and knowledge causes problems.  Miscavige named a new Scientologist to take over the flailing construction of a new Religious Technology Center at Gold Base in 2001.  When the new supervisor showed up, he saw that “there were no actual architectural drawings for the building; there were only renderings of what it should look like….The walls weren’t actually connected to the floors.”  This was $47 million into the project.  They just drew a picture from the outside.  That, Wright’s research makes shiningly clear, is no way to build a house.

Credit: Flickr user foxxyz. Used with a Creative Commons license.

*by some estimates