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Monday, April 15, 2013

Going Clear: On Scientology, Hollywood, and A Little Bit of Crazy

Without knowing much about them, it's easy to dismiss Scientologists as a cult of crazy weirdos. But to do so ignores the immense influence they have. And not just in Hollywood. Yes, the No. 1 takeaway from Lawrence Wright's fantastic, fascinating, and more than a little frightening "biography" of Scientology is simply the lengths the "church" has gone to over the years to a) Promote its own mythology, and b) Destroy or discredit anyone who says or publishes anything negative.

What I learned is that the principles and practices of Scientology (auditing, studying, E-Meters, etc.), strange and unorthodox though they may seem to non-Scientologists, have legitimately helped many people who were suffering. But just as many (probably many more) have been snared into an organization that only seems to have its own best interests and survival in mind. While the practice of Scientology may seem relatively harmless, the Church of Scientology itself, if Wright's account is to believed (and why not? He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) is corrupt and immensely self-serving, its founder L. Ron Hubbard was a wife-beating, narcissistic, money-grubber liar, and its current leader (David Miscavige), is one of those people so used to lying, he now believes his own stories. (Also, according to many of Wright's sources — ex-Scientologists who have "blown," meaning they've left the church, Miscavige regularly beats up his subordinates. He's not a good man.)

L. Ron
The first third of the book is a biography of L. Ron Hubbard — we follow him through his youth, his Navy service, the publication of Dianetics, and the founding of the "religion" on the principles spelled out therein ("I'd like to start a religion, that's where the money is," he once said). We watch as he sails around the world with his followers, at one point taking them on a literal treasure hunt for gold he supposedly buried in his past lives. We're disturbed as we learn about the doctrine LRH creates for the higher levels of Scientologists — by now, the story is familiar, having first been released in the press in the early 1980s. Seventy-five million years ago, an evil being named Xenu banished his subjects, called "thetans," to the planet that is now Earth. And Scientologists audit themselves both to expel bad feelings from past lives ("engrams") as well as these "bodily thetans" who now inhabit their bodies.

Wright gives us some really interesting discussion on Scientology vs. psychology, and why the mental health community was the first vocal critic of Scientology. We learn about cult vs. religion, brainwashing, and how those can be applied to Scientology and its history. And we're shocked to find out about the lengths Scientologists have gone in order to suppress anything bad written about them (for the cliff notes, read about Paulette Cooper, and also Operation Snow White).

And then, the juicy Hollywood gossip — John Travolta's apparent homosexuality, and Tom Cruise's "auditioned" girlfriends. What's interesting here, though, is Wright's explanation for why and how Scientology is (and always has been) so adept at courting celebrities. And then Wright wraps up with the story of Paul Haggis — and his leaving the church because of the church's apparent support for Proposition 8 in California. Wright originally told this story in a long New Yorker article in 2011 — and the last chapter of this book chronicles the meeting he and the New Yorker staff had with a Scientology spokesperson named Tommy Davis, and the church's lawyers. This is when it becomes apparent how self-serving and loose with facts the church is.

I can't recommend this book more highly — it's utterly engrossing. It's long, but it reads more quickly than just about any non-fiction book I've ever read. It's one of my favorites of the year so far.


8 comments:

  1. I'm glad you enjoyed this so much. This was a bona-fide "couldn't put it down" read for me. While I definitely came into it with preconveived notions about the church's methods and madness, I admittedly knew very little about LRH. While I assumed he had a couple of screws loose, I didn't understand the full extent of his delusion. I can't even count the number of times the words "Are you f***ing kidding me?" left my mouth while I was reading this. It's easily going to factor into my "Best of" list at the end of the year.

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    1. Yeah, I didn't know much about the actual LRH before this, either - and I'm with you on the WTF?! moments about his life. What a schmuck that guy was! I mean, he was just a deluded weirdo, he was actually a bad person, seemingly. That story about the Parsons cult in California where he met Sara Northrup - that was just scary!

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  2. I think *I'll* start a church too! Yikes. I can respect people's beliefs because hey, why not right? But when these "religions" start treating people badly or tearing people down...that's just not cool.

    I'm a big nerd for nonfic and I'm absolutely going to make time for this one! Thanks for this great review!

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    1. You'd love this, I think - it's rather eye-opening. (Wright at one point makes fun of Romney, too - he's talking about how terrible Battlefield Earth is, and then he includes in a parenthetical that Romney cited it as his favorite book of all time. Hehe.)

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  3. We seem to be running parallel for the last few books - I'm reading this one right now. My book club chose this for April and I can't wait to get tipsy and dish on the crazy. I've always been fascinated by Scientology, but this is still a total page turner for me.

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    1. There is certainly plenty of crazy on which to dish. It's mind-boggling. And very a page-turner - you're exactly right!

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  4. I'm currently on the waiting list at my local library for this one. I thought The Looming Tower, Wright's book about the events leading up to the September 11 attacks, was fantastic.

    But, I don't know....much of the criticism people make about Scientology seems to apply to all many other religions. I had a professor once, an expert on Hinduism, who answered a student's question on the difference between a religion and a cult this way--I practice a religion; you practice a cult.

    I'll probably get my turn at the book once school is our for the summer.

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    1. I really liked The Looming Tower too - one of the main reasons I picked this up. Wright definitely addresses the idea of the difference between religion and cult, what constitutes a religion, and how Scientology - in its youth - resembles many other religions in their youths. It's fascinating!

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