Book review: Going Clear (Scientology)

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright, is a fascinating biography as well as a great way to learn about Americans in general. The 450 pages are never dull, partly thanks to L. Ron Hubbard’s quirky personality and partly due to the author’s skill in telling the story of Scientology and its followers.

What is probably toughest for a contemporary reader to understand is what a compelling individual Hubbard must have been. He does not seem to have been a likely leader of thousands. Hubbard claimed to have been wounded in action as a Navy officer during World War II and to have recovered from horrifying injuries with special techniques that would later become part of Scientology. However, it was pretty easy for journalists to discover that Hubbard had never served in combat. In fact, whenever he got close to being shipped off to a dangerous assignment he would develop a mysterious stomach ailment and require hospitalization. Due to the Navy’s desperation for experienced sailors, Hubbard was given command of a small ship (PC-815) for about 80 days but he stayed close to shore and had a couple of mishaps. On the very first excursion out into the ocean Hubbard, who had finished near the bottom of his class in SONAR interpretation, thought that he heard a Japanese submarine just off the coast of Astoria, Oregon. Depth charges were dropped, other Navy ships were called in, but no submarine was found (and Japanese records uncovered after the war indicated that no sub was in the area at the time). Hubbard also opened fire with the ship’s guns on (1) a log, (2) an island near Baja that he thought was owned by the U.S. and acceptable for target practice (in fact it was owned by Mexico and the Mexicans were not too happy about the incident).

Hubbard’s personal life did not go any better than his Navy career. There were multiple wives, sometimes at the same time, abandoned children, lawsuits, etc. When he did take care of children it wasn’t exactly what you’d expect a father of the time to be doing: “When the girls became old enough to start wearing makeup, Hubbard was the one who showed them how to apply it.” [Disclaimer: I painted a 2.5-year-old girl's toenails purple, but I don't think that puts me in Hubbard's league because I did so incompetently and would certainly not have suggested to anyone of any age that I possessed special knowledge regarding makeup.] Hubbard promised adherents of the new religion powerful tools to triumph over age and disease but Hubbard did not seem to be grappling with these foes any better than the average person:

Other members of the Sea Org were having a hard time coping with the blatant contradiction between Hubbard’s legend and the crabby, disconsolate figure howling in his stateroom. “If he is who he says he is, why does he have so little staying power?” Hana Eltringham wondered. “He has a motorcycle accident, he doesn’t recover quickly, and he doesn’t use Scientology techniques on himself.”

Hubbard was sixty-four years old in 1975, as the Apollo began its circumnavigation of the Caribbean. He weighed 260 pounds. He was still meticulously groomed, but his teeth and fingers were darkly stained from constant smoking. He was on the run from the courts, fearful of being discovered, marked by age, and visibly in decline. In Curaçao, he suffered a small stroke and spent several weeks in a local hospital. It was becoming clear that life at sea posed a real danger for a man in such frail health. His crew rationalized his obvious decline by saying that his body was battered by the research he was undertaking and the volumes of suppression aimed at him. “He’s risking his life for us,” they told each other.

There is an almost funny side to the book, mostly when talking about the various Hollywood stars who are members of the Church of Scientology. The church takes on the challenge of matching up Tom Cruise with a new wife (pre-Katie Holmes):

The Scientology search team came up with another aspiring actress, Nazanin Boniadi, twenty-five years old, who had been born in Iran and raised in London. Naz was well educated and beautiful in the way that Cruise was inclined to respond to—dark and slender, with large eyes and a flashing smile.

At one point during the intensive auditing and security checks, Wilhere informed her that she would have to break up with her longtime boyfriend in order for the project to proceed. She refused. She couldn’t understand why her boyfriend posed any kind of problem; indeed, she had personally introduced him to Scientology. Wilhere persisted, asking what it would take for her to break off the romance. Flustered, she responded that she would break up if she knew he had been cheating on her. According to Naz’s friends, the very next day, Wilhere brought in her boyfriend’s confidential auditing files and showed her several instances of his infidelities, which had been circled in red. Naz felt betrayed, but also guilty, because Wilhere blamed her for failing to know and report her boyfriend’s ethical lapses herself; after all, she had audited him on several occasions. Obviously, she had missed his “withhold.” She confronted her boyfriend and he confessed.

Cruise was charming. He said that he and Davis were headed over to the Empire State Building and then to Nobu for some sushi—why didn’t they join them? Afterward, they all went skating at Rockefeller Center, which was closed to the public while they were on the rink. It was beginning to seem a little too perfect. She spent that first night with Cruise in the Trump Tower, where he had taken an entire floor for his entourage.

Two weeks later, Jessica Feshbach told Naz to pack her things. Cruise was too busy to say good-bye. Naz’s last glimpse was of him working out in his home gym. Davis later explained to her that Cruise had simply changed his mind about the relationship,

In February 2005, Naz went to Clearwater [Florida; a center for Scientology] to take the courses. At first, she was treated like a VIP, but soon one of her friends noticed dramatic changes in her— she was weeping all the time. Naz confided that she had just gone through a wrenching breakup with Tom Cruise. The shocked friend immediately reported her to Ethics. Naz was assigned a condition of Treason and ordered to do reparations for the damages she had done to the group by revealing her relationship with Cruise. She was made to dig ditches and scrub public toilets with a toothbrush. Finally, in June, she worked her way back into good standing with the church, but she was ordered to stay away from the Celebrity Centre. Davis advised her to go live in some far corner of the world and never utter another word about Tom Cruise.

(Katie Holmes at least got a helicopter ride on her first date, according to the book.) We also learn about Tom Cruise’s fondness for monster SUVs:

Miscavige purchased another Excursion for Cruise to replace the one that had been botched. Meanwhile, Brousseau spent the next six months personally rebuilding the original Excursion. He ripped the vehicle down to its frame and installed handmade reclining seats and wood paneling fashioned from a burl of a eucalyptus tree that had been toppled in a storm.

Stepping back from the colorful anecdotes and the celebrities, Wright does give some consideration to what has made Scientology meaningful

SCIENTOLOGY WANTS TO BE understood as a scientific approach to spiritual enlightenment. It has, really, no grounding in science at all. It would be better understood as a philosophy of human nature; seen in that light, Hubbard’s thought could be compared with that of other moral philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard, although no one has ever approached the sweep of Hubbard’s work. His often ingenious and minutely observed categories of behavior have been shadowed by the bogus elements of his personality and the absurdity that is interwoven with his bouts of brilliance, making it difficult for non-Scientologists to know what to make of it. Serious academic study of his writing has also been constrained by the vindictive reputation of the church. The field of psychotherapy is Scientology’s more respectable cousin, although it cannot honestly claim to be a science, either.

[Separately, if you are feeling any sadness about Mitt Romney's failure to unseat Barack Obama as president, reading this book will cheer you up a bit. Romney apparently identified Hubbard's Battlefield Earth as his favorite novel.]

If you’re a parent, portions of this book are very painful to read. According to Wright, Scientology has forced followers to divorce spouses, abandon children, have abortions, and do some less drastic things that yet deprive children of the right to have a normal childhood.

On balance it is a very interesting book. Despite the relatively small impact of Scientology on American society (due to the small number of members), the book is interesting because it covers a guy (Hubbard) who achieved far more than anyone could have predicted based on his family background and education. He lived out a kind of American Dream.

More: Read Going Clear

5 Comments

  1. Steven

    June 8, 2013 @ 2:47 am

    1

    Wright also wrote an excellent article on Paul Haggis leaving the church
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright?currentPage=all

    There is also enjoyment to be had reading the reviews of the new Will Smith movie
    http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/news/article-2334240/Will-Smiths-new-film-After-Earth-accused-propaganda-Scientology-tanks-box-office.html
    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/the-awful-i-after-earth-i/276417/

    There’s no doubt that LRH built huge organization dedicated to washing the ghosts of alien souls off of your body in a very expensive way
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thetan#Body_thetan

    That probably makes for a sort of American Dream. But discovering a cure for arthritis or inventing a great snow plow would definately have earned him more repsect.

  2. Mads Storm Andersern

    June 8, 2013 @ 8:48 am

    2

    Have you read Battlefield Earth ?? Considering it is actually quite good.

  3. philg

    June 8, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

    3

    Mads: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battlefield_Earth_(novel) is not very encouraging, e.g., “It’s dreadful and tedious beyond endurance” and “atrociously written, windy and out of control”. Aside from Romney, the novel’s fans seem to be mostly science fiction writers. I haven’t read the book. What would you say puts it in the same league as Anna Karenina or The House of Mirth?

  4. Josh

    June 8, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

    4

    The only similarities of Battlefield Earth and Anna Karenina is that they’re both very long books. I personally have never read the book, but I’m in the camp of semi-pretentious sci-fi readers who wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole based on what we’ve heard about it. Even a review specifically made to make fun of the *movie* was almost too unbearable to watch.

    My favorite skeptic podcaster did an episode about them and was at first disappointed when he concluded that on the list of scams to worry about, this one should be pretty low on the list, then afterwhile decided that seems perfectly reasonable, since even though everyone in the country knows about it in some way, it really doesn’t affect too many people – even its members.
    http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4242

  5. Steve

    June 10, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    5

    I’d also recommend Lawrence Wright’s “Looming Tower” about Al Qaeda.

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