going-clear[xrr rating=4.0/5]There are so many beyond-the-pale unbelievable moments in Going Clear, Pulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright’s latest book that catalogs the history of Scientology, that the latter third of the troubled religion’s story almost becomes boring, even as the events go from charmingly weird to stomach-turning sinister. Mind you, it’s not a banal type of evil in the Hannah Arendt sense of the term, it is much more animalistic and vile. Even so, as you come down the home stretch of Wright’s fastidiously detailed work, the volume of troubling moments that have piled up have a numbing effect. When you read about Scientology’s current leader David Miscavige beating up his underlings repeatedly, it’s met with a shrug that only turns into a shudder upon reflection, hours after you’ve closed the book. All of those moments – the beatings, the billion year contracts for its clergy, the wild story of the overlord Xenu – hold the key though. They are the answer for why a religion that is seemingly so far gone has survived in the first place and why people just can’t get enough of reading about its machinations. The latter point is obvious; its history has a little bit of sex, violence, Hollywood, Machiavellian inner politics, baby boomer wanderlust and copious amounts of greed all in equal (gargantuan) measure. Enjoying a good read about anything that has that much non-fiction fucked-up-ness is one thing. The fact that those elements also happen to be the glue that holds its followers captive is something else entirely.

Very few authors could have pulled off the task of combing through such salacious material and not rendering it sensational, but Wright did. He lays forth Scientology’s story in a dry, “just the facts, ma’am” style that allows the reader to develop their own conclusions, never inserting his commentary or bias despite the subject matter. It’s long form journalism at its peak. Told from L. Ron Hubbard’s childhood to the present, the story of the rise of all this craziness is captured by Wright through telling the story of its founder, Hubbard, its current leader, David Miscavige, and by demonstrating the cost it has extracted from so many of its followers.

Here’s surprise number one about Scientology: by all accounts its members find it helpful when they join. It’s not all thetans and beatings from the word go. In fact, the most common thread throughout the many stories of its practitioners is that these were people who had some sort of trouble, were a little bereft of community and they just needed someone to talk to. The lowest levels of Scientology’s auditing provide just that, as well as a ready-made community to empathize with and embrace you. That’s the hook. The sinker is that that given a little time, the community becomes all its followers have, and as they advance through the stages that later become incomprehensible, they have been inside that bubble for so long that they are numb to its facts, with no one to turn to but other Scientologists, stuck inside the “Prison of Belief” that Wright invokes in the subtitle to the book, with nowhere to turn. That is how the bizarre facts that normal readers find so captivating when an expose is published become the very things that trap its followers inside of the religion.

Imagine for a second you were down on your luck, brought into Scientology, were really helped out by its auditing techniques, and as you advanced you came to believe that Earth was really called Teegack at one point and maybe a despotic galactic overlord named Xenu really did commandeer all of Earth’s inhabitants and throw them into a volcano on a far off…you get the point. Even if you didn’t truly believe that, by the time you got that far, all of your friends had gone through the same thing too, were just as happy as you were and you decided to give L. Ron a pass on the whole Teegack thing because everywhere around you was evidence of the religion’s good. That story is as old as Plato. If you never leave the cave, you’ll always think those flickering images are reality and nothing else.

If the fascinating study of human nature provided by its followers may be the most the book offers up in intellectual fodder, its pulp is offered up in the stories of its only two leaders, Hubbard and Miscavige.

Hubbard’s rise from struggling pulp science fiction writer (hence Xenu) to leader of a bonafide religion makes up the first third of Going Clear. His creation myth varies wildly from Scientology’s official company line to the one detailed by Wright’s steady hand. A veteran of WWII, a hero by his religion’s account but not so much officially, Hubbard entered the post-war landscape as an unequivocally lost soul by any measure but Scientology’s. One of his early works, called a secret memoir by Wright but disavowed by the church in a 1984 law suit, offers a solemn glimpse into his mental state right after the war. How it reads as a text is troubling to define: “I can write/My mind is brilliant/That masturbation was no sin or crime…You will live to be 200 years old/You will always look young/You have no doubts about god/You are not a coward/….Testosterone blends easily with all of your own hormones.” Hubbard, who later developed a vehement hatred for psychology, would never be diagnosed clinically as manic, paranoid delusional or the like. Whether he may or may not have been mentally ill, he managed to publish Dianetics in the spring of 1950, and the precursor to his organized religion flourished, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for the better part of two years. It was a fad though, and Hubbard, unable to monetize the study groups that sprang up and disappeared in its wake, hatched Scientology as a call to permanence for his ideas, a so-called science of the human mind.

This set the ball rolling for the worldwide growth of his religion, but at the same time the rest of the portrait of Hubbard is that of a man sliding deeper and deeper into his own blend of madness while his religion grew and grew, almost in spite of him. Fiercely protected by his ever-rotating inner circle, Hubbard was a world-class philanderer, a charming storyteller and one of the all time monster narcissists to roam the planet Earth. His story takes him from homes in the U.S. and England to a never ending cruise through the Mediterranean, before finally settling back in the U.S., in Florida and then lastly California. It was a decades-long avoidance of hostile governments and U.S. tax code taken under the guise of a search for a permanent home for his people.

His final settlement in California is where David Miscavige enters the picture. In a story that has all of the elements Central Casting would want, Miscavige is your villain. Hubbard, for all of his faults, is more akin to everyone’s charming drunken uncle, kept at arm’s length during the year but always a welcome addition during the holidays. Miscavige is Lord Voldemort amplified by factor of 10.

A native of Philadelphia, his parents were both members of Scientology, indoctrinating him into the church from a young age. He caught Hubbard’s eye while working on a film crew that was shooting promotional videos. A few short years later, when Hubbard passed away at the age of 74, it was a 25-year-old Miscavige who would take the stage at a center in Los Angeles to announce that he had “shed his body.” Hubbard did not leave him in charge by decree, but the account of how he came to control Scientology set the pattern for a style of two faced leadership, bullying his inner circle while cravenly chasing celebrity involvement in the religion. Simply, he rounded up a group of thugs, off duty cops and private investigators to surround the house of the couple Hubbard had left in charge of the religion, Pat and Annie Broeker. The Broekers, seeing the writing on the wall, abdicated, with Pat fleeing and Annie being sent away to a far-flung outpost. The church would hire two private investigators to follow Pat Broeker for 24 years.

To detail the rest of Miscavige’s misdeeds here would be too tedious and, in that numbing spirit, a little boring. He’s a garden-variety bully who happened to find himself in an arena of unlimited power and resources. I’ll leave you with this though: well documented in the book are tales of its members being sent away to distant bases to repent for their misdeeds against the church (termed being RPF’d). It is in this setting that some of the most egregious of Miscavige’s crimes are catalogued. In 2006, his wife, Shelly, was sent away too, and with the exception of being escorted to her father’s funeral in 2007, she hasn’t been seen in public since. It’s been reported by ex-church members that she at a base near Lake Arrowhead in California and that it gets cold there in the winter. Also reported, Miscavige sent her a sweater and gloves for Christmas once.

If you’re looking for stories of celebrity, well, there is plenty of that as well, but it too is a little tedious and all well-covered ground. The book dances around John Travolta’s involvement with the church and intimates church officials’ fears about his sexuality but it never does plumb the depths of what might be there beyond anything else in the public record. And yes, Tom Cruise, his history in the church and his relationship with Miscavige are all there in all its glory. His intertwined history with the church is neither revelatory nor necessarily unfavorable to Cruise, besides exposing him as nothing more than a sheep of his chosen religion, sucked in by the over-the-top deference afforded him by Miscavige. If you come to Going Clear for celebrity gossip you’d be well advised to stay for the remainder of the story, that is where the intrigue really is.

Going Clear might not have the immediacy of the The Looming Tower, Wright’s chronicle of the rise of Al Qaeda that won him a Pulitzer. Of course, that subject matter had a logical, horrific end point to heighten its narrative. Going Clear stirs the reader into a trance that is fascinating right up until the near end. However, the sheer excess of unbelievable incidents contrives to make the book fizzle out as it crosses the finish line in a strange way. Not that I wouldn’t recommend it, as a story it’s all there after all. Maybe the fizzled end is, in fact, the point, a reflection of its subject matter; slowly meandering its bizarre way to an inevitable oblivion.

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