In early 2011, Lawrence Wright published a piece in the New Yorker describing both the recruitment of James Haggis by the Church of Scientology and his defection from it thirty-five years later. This book is essentially a larger and broader treatment of the church and its practices, as seen not only by Haggis (a highly successful screenwriter) and others, but also by church officials themselves.

Scientology has three tiers, Wright suggests. First, the Public Scientologists, as he calls them—ordinary men and women who join the church, perhaps participate in “auditing” (a kind of therapy), and, if they leave the organization, do so with little or no fanfare. A second tier is made up of celebrities, particularly movie stars, for whom the church runs Celebrity Centers in Hollywood and elsewhere. Much of Scientology’s public image, for good or ill, comes from them, and they are expected both to contribute heavily to the institution and to speak out for it publicly. At the third level is the church’s clergy, or Sea Org, the name derived from the years when L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, directed his followers from a small private fleet of ships.

Yet Going Clear is less a general history of Scientology than a consideration of some of its particular aspects as a “new religious movement” (NRM, the term adopted by some scholars to replace the vagueness of “cult”). Thus Wright generally ignores ordinary church members, concentrating instead on its celebrity and elite clerical aspects. Though many of his sources come from Scientology itself, many others are critical, especially those whom he interviewed after they left the church, and he is at pains to emphasize that much of what he reports is denied by the church itself.

If Scientology’s creed is new to you, as it was to me, and if you are a stranger to celebrity worship, as I am, you might find parts of the book a bit murky (a brief glossary of Scientological terms—such as “blowing”—would be helpful, for though the index is adequate, it’s not much more). Suffice it to say that you—a “thetan”—have had many previous lives (the universe is, after all, several quadrillion years old), and you retain deep and painful scars from those pasts. Auditing will help you rid yourself of them (enabling you to become “clear”), and if you persevere and are willing to pay, you can rise to become one of the eight levels of Operating Thetan (OT). (I know that’s inadequate, but try explaining Erastianism in a few words to someone who’s never heard of Christianity, or Nichiren to someone ignorant of Buddhism.)

Hubbard got started as a prolific writer of pulp science fiction prior to World War II when he was commissioned a naval officer before Pearl Harbor. His military record is a bit fuzzy, though the accomplishments he claimed—and the dangers he claimed to have faced—are not borne out by naval records, according to Wright. In 1950 his self-help book Dianetics appeared, spending weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and by 1954 Churches of Scientology (the successor to Dianetics) were founded in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, thus bringing the new movement both a religious label and tax exemption. In 1967 the IRS, claiming that the church was a commercial enterprise benefitting Hubbard, stripped it of its tax exemption, and after that Hubbard built up his private fleet, cruising the Mediterranean, the Canaries, and the West Indies with his retinue. In 1973, he launched Operation Snow White, an extraordinary infiltration by Scientologists of a hundred and thirty-six government agencies worldwide (Project Dopey was in Italy, Grumpy in Germany, Sleepy in Austria, while Wicked Witch and Stepmother were reserved for the United States).

By 1974, Hubbard was back ashore, establishing bases in Clearwater, Florida, and Southern California, long a spawning ground of NRMs. There, says Wright, “American culture, and soon the rest of the world, was bending increasingly toward the worship of celebrity, with Hollywood as its chief shrine.” Scientology sought to recruit the young, rich, beautiful, and talented, providing reassuring massages to their uncertain egos. Fame thus assumed a spiritual value, perhaps as, for some Calvinists, worldly wealth might be an indicator of predestined bliss.

Several legal challenges, scandals, and near-scandals (some relating to Hubbard’s often uncertain marital status) did not prevent the church from expanding its physical holdings and amassing considerable wealth. Its greatest victory, perhaps, came in October 1993, when, with the help of a storm of Scientology-launched lawsuits, it clawed back from the IRS its tax-exempt status (which it maintains today).

Wright does not question that some Scientologists have gained much from their association with the church. Nor does he question their right to believe what they choose, to charge what the market will bear for their “auditing” courses, or to rake in huge donations and fees from their supporters, celebrity and otherwise. He doesn’t even question their current tax exemption (though others do). For some years the actor Tom Cruise has been their poster boy and chief public supporter (though my search of his official website,, turned up nary a mention of the religion). In return, Scientology, anxious not to lose Cruise and others like him, not only provides him with luxurious quarters at their elaborate Gold Base, some thirty miles from Riverside, California, but helps him through his marital misadventures, searching out glamorous new girlfriends for him.

We may be repelled by celebrity worship, but there’s nothing illegal in it; after all, you can’t generally legislate either good taste or good sense. If Wright is to be believed, however (and his research seems convincing to me), the way the church often treats those who fall from its favor is a different story. After a brief power struggle following Hubbard’s death in early 1986, the twenty-eight-year-old David Miscavige took charge in 1988 and remains in power today. According to Wright’s findings, he has been particularly hard on the members of the Sea Org elite, some of whom were recruited as teenagers and have known little of life outside. Their missteps (offending a desirable celebrity, for instance) can result in punitive action, particularly confinement in the “Hole,” a building (whose existence the church denies) that is part of the Gold Base. Here they are subjected to long hours of work, bad food, and violence, and at least one former inhabitant claims that when he complained, he was beaten and forced to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue. Others who have left claim that Miscavige himself often led or took part in the beatings. Those interned also participate in public meetings, detailing their sins against the church, and writing out signed confessions. Since, says Wright, “Scientologists are trained to believe that whatever happens to them is somehow their fault,” they spend much time discussing why they deserve their fates.

Tales like these raise questions of human rights, as does the church’s alleged flouting of labor laws, such as allowing underage children to operate dangerous machinery. The church, of course, denies such reports, accusing its critics of religious bigotry. Many of the stories, though, are eerily reminiscent of the accounts by otherwise normal Chinese who found themselves targets of Mao Zedong’s thought-reform campaigns, or of Red Guard units during the Cultural Revolution, and Wright indeed makes use of Robert Lipton’s work on the psychology of ideological discipline and obedience in Mao’s China. Of course the testimony of defectors, whether from Scientology, communism, or anything else, can be suspect, but eventually the sheer number of such stories and the similarity of independent human experiences lend them a certain credibility.

Though Haggis eventually turned against the church largely because of its perceived bigotry in supporting California’s Proposition 8 (which would forbid gay marriage), others seem to have escaped, or simply left, sensing serious differences between Scientology’s stated purposes and its actual behavior, particularly under Miscavige’s leadership. Going Clear is a disturbing and compelling book that raises all sorts of questions about American culture, among them: How do we define a “religion”? Is it simply by the IRS’s ability to grant or withhold tax exemption? And why do so many of us believe that celebrities can teach us to have happier and more fulfilling lives, or what policies we should favor, or whom we should vote for? As I read Going Clear, I was also re-reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great twentieth-century African-American migration from south to north, and found it always a great relief to turn from the creepy characters Wright describes to the real people who form the backbone of Wilkerson’s marvelous story. There are many reasons to be skeptical of Scientology’s claims, but surely its dependence on Hollywood’s rich and famous exemplifies a particularly unfortunate strand of contemporary popular culture.


Published in the 2013-05-03 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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