Thursday, August 26, 2021

Book 299: Going Clear

"Scientology is not just a matter of belief, the recruits were constantly told; it is a step-by-step scientific process that will help you overcome your limitations and realize your full potential for greatness. Only Scientology can awaken individuals to the joyful truth of their immortal state. Only Scientology can rescue humanity from its inevitable doom. The recruits were infused with a sense of mystery, purpose, and intrigue. Life inside Scientology was just so much more compelling than life outside."

Dates read: February 27- March 5, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I was not a popular child in my catechism class. When we learned about the transubstantiation of the host during communion, I asked if eating the literal flesh of Christ made me a cannibal. I was not shy about raising the hypocrisy of church leadership who engaged in the Inquisition while ignoring their own long history of sin. I suspect no one was disappointed when I finally stopped bringing a book to Mass and just ceased to attend entirely.

Lots of religious beliefs, like the aforementioned communion issue, sound really weird when you take them out of contexts. But it's difficult to top Scientology for oddball beliefs. It's hard to understand why public figures like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Laura Prepon and Elisabeth Moss would subscribe to a faith that features ancient aliens in volcanos and a galactic overlord named Xenu. Lawrence Wright's Going Clear takes a hard look at Scientology, the life of its founder L. Ron Hubbard and how the new religious movement took root and grew into the David Miscavige-controlled version we know today.

Much of what the book recounts is eyebrow-raising: Hubbard clearly was not entirely mentally well, and embellished his biography at best (at worst, he compulsively lied). His pride, his vanity, his use of the Sea Org as personal indentured servants are grotesque. But worst, and sadly, least surprising of all is his truly awful treatment of the women in his life. And things didn't get better when he passed on and control of the organization passed to Miscavige. If anything, they managed to get worse, with the harassment of critics and defectors taken to astonishing levels.

This was a fascinating book, full of information that was new to even someone like me who has enjoyed tabloid coverage of the faith (though I will say a lot of things that I used to read in The National Enquirer, which I loved in high school, were in here as well). Wright has clearly done his homework: his portrait of Hubbard is in-depth and revealing. He has a harder time with Miscavige, who would seem to have taken action to ensure that details about his life are difficult to come by. As such, the book loses some steam after Hubbard's passing. It's a story with enough drama that it doesn't unduly detract from it, but the focus is diluted.

One of Wright's primary sources for information about life inside of Scientology is Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis. As such, we end up getting quite a lot of information about Haggis' life, and to be honest this is the least compelling part of the book. Every time the narrative returned to Haggis, I groaned. Leaving the church behind isn't easy to begin with, and to do so knowing full well the kind of targeting he would experience by speaking to a writer working on something destined to be less than glowing is brave, but unfortunately that doesn't mean the details of his personal story are all that interesting. As a whole, though, if you've ever been interested in new religious movements, or Scientology in particular, I would definitely recommend this book, as it manages to be both readable and thorough, a tricky feat.

One year ago, I was reading: The Moonstone

Two years ago, I was reading: Death Prefers Blondes

Three years ago, I was reading: Oryx and Crake

Four years ago, I was reading: The Idiot

Five years ago, I was reading: Bel Canto

1 comment:

  1. I'm fascinated by Scientology, so I've had this book on my TBR list for years. I'm glad you found it interesting.