« Reading List: Bug Jack Barron | Main | Reading List: The Last Man »

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reading List: Going Clear

Wright, Lawrence. Going Clear. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-307-70066-7.
In 2007 the author won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, an exploration of the origins, structure, and activities of Al-Qaeda. In the present book, he dares to take on a really dangerous organisation: the Church of Scientology. Wright delves into the tangled history of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the origins of the church, which, despite having occurred within the lifetimes of many readers of the book, seem cloaked in as much fog, misdirection, and conflicting claims as those of religions millennia older. One thing which is beyond dispute to anybody willing to examine the objective record is that Hubbard was a masterful confidence man—perhaps approaching the magnitude of those who founded other religions. This was apparent well before he invented Dianetics and Scientology: he moved into Jack Parsons' house in Pasadena, California, and before long took off with Parsons' girlfriend and most of his savings with a scheme to buy yachts in Florida and sell them in California. Hubbard's military career in World War II is also murky in the extreme: military records document that he was never in combat, but he spun a legend about chasing Japanese submarines off the coast of Oregon, being injured, and healing himself through mental powers.

One thing which nobody disputes is that Hubbard was a tremendously talented and productive writer of science fiction. He was a friend of Robert A. Heinlein and a regular correspondent with John W. Campbell. You get the sense in this book that Hubbard didn't really draw a hard and fast line between the fanciful stories he wrote for a living and the actual life he lived—his own biography and persona seem to have been as much a fabrication as the tales he sold to the pulp magazines.

On several occasions Hubbard remarked that the way to make a big pile of money was to start a religion. (It is often said that he made a bar bet with Heinlein that he could start a religion, but the author's research concludes this story is apocryphal. However, Wright identifies nine witnesses who report hearing Hubbard making such a remark in 1948 or 1949.) After his best-selling book Dianetics landed him in trouble with the scientific and mental health establishment, he decided to take his own advice and re-instantiate it as a religion. In 1954, Scientology was born.

Almost immediately, events took a turn into high weirdness. While the new religion attracted adherents, especially among wealthy celebrities in Hollywood, it also was the object of ridicule and what Scientologists viewed as persecution. Hubbard and his entourage took to the sea in a fleet of ships, attended by a “clergy” called Sea Org, who signed billion year contracts of allegiance to Scientology and were paid monastic subsistence salaries and cut off from contact with the world outside Scientology. Hubbard continued to produce higher and higher levels of revelation for his followers, into which they could be initiated for a formidable fee.

Some of this material was sufficiently bizarre (for example, the Xenu [or Xemu] story, revealed in 1967) that adherents to Scientology walked away, feeling that their religion had become bad space opera. That was the first reaction of Paul Haggis, whose 34 years in Scientology are the foundation of this narrative. And yet Haggis did not leave Scientology after his encounter with Xenu: he eventually left the church in 2009 after it endorsed a California initiative prohibiting same-sex marriage.

There is so much of the bizarre in this narrative that you might be inclined to dismiss it as tabloid journalism, had not the author provided a wealth of source citations, many drawn from sworn testimony in court and evidence in legal proceedings. In the Kindle edition, these links are live and can be clicked to view the source documents.

From children locked in chain lockers on board ship; to adults placed in detention in “the hole”; to special minders assigned to fulfill every whim of celebrity congregants such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise; to blackmail, lawfare, surveillance, and harassment of dissidents and apostates; to going head-to-head with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and winning a tax exemption from them in 1993, this narrative reads like a hybrid of the science fiction and thriller genres, and yet it is all thoroughly documented. In end-note after end-note, the author observes that the church denies what is asserted, then provides multiple source citations to the contrary.

This is a remarkably even-handed treatment of a religion that many deem worthy only of ridicule. Yes, Scientologists believe some pretty weird things, but then so do adherents of “mainstream” religions. Scientology's sacred texts seem a lot like science fiction, but so do those of the Mormons, a new religion born in America a century earlier, subjected to the same ridicule and persecution the Scientologists complain of, and now sufficiently mainstream that a member could run for president of the U.S. without his religion being an issue in the campaign. And while Scientology seems like a mix of science fiction and pseudo-science, some very successful people have found it an anchor for their lives and attribute part of their achievement to it. The abuses documented here are horrific, and the apparent callousness with which money is extracted from believers to line the pockets of those at the top is stunning, but then one can say as much of a number of religions considered thoroughly respectable by many people.

I'm a great believer in the market. If Scientology didn't provide something of value to those who believe in it, they wouldn't have filled its coffers with more than a billion dollars (actually, nobody knows the numbers: Scientology's finances are as obscure as its doctrines). I'll bet the people running it will push the off-putting weird stuff into the past, shed the abusive parts, and morph into a religion people perceive as no more weird than the Mormons. Just as being a pillar of the LDS church provides a leg up in some communities in the Western U.S., Scientology will provide an entrée into the world of Hollywood and media. And maybe in 2112 a Scientologist will run for president of the Reunited States and nobody will make an issue of it.

Posted at February 15, 2013 23:40