This may be the first time I read a book about something and at the end, feel like I have learned absolutely nothing about the subject.
Not because Going Clear is not a good book, but because so little is known about the organisation it discusses, the Church of Scientology, that it’s hard to know what to make of it. A quick google search doesn’t reveal anything more: the book says X, the church says Y. In fact, there is an entire website – run by Scientology- devoted to debunking the book, chapter by chapter. It’s more than a little sinister. I’m assuming that, considering the church’s litigious tendencies, Wright was careful about fact-checking – the entire final chapter is about that and the book has over 100 pages of documentation – but in the end, I’m none the wiser.
Going Clear tells the story of Scientology, starting with the life story of its ebullient founder, L. Ron Hubbard. It portrays him as a magnetic but instable personality, power-hungry yet possibly at least somewhat well-intentioned, though it never answers the questions about whether he was in it for the money or whether he actually believed what he wrote. It also documents the path people take through the church, though the difficulty – which Wright, to his credit, points out at the end – is that the only people willing to share their life stories are the ones who left and who have a grudge against the church, often contradicting their previous, pro-Scientology selves; yet they are legion and their stories have a lot in common. (The church, of course, says they’re all lying.)
The book also focuses extensively on the Hollywood element within the church; it is, after all, the most visible branch of the church and the closest many of us will ever get to the church (though not for lack of trying on their behalf). On the one hand, there is writer/director Paul Haggis, who publicly and famously defected several years ago after being in the church for decades. On the other, there is Tom Cruise, high up in the church and best buddies with its current chairman (COB, in Scientology speak). The path through Scientology the book maps out for him doesn’t, to put it mildly, put him in a good light: it makes him seem like a petulant child who depends on the Church for everything, from kitchen refitting to girlfriend procuring. (John Travolta, on the other hand, comes across as a nice guy.)
There is no general overview, no facts and statistics background, about the church’s growth, but then again, considering the church has never released those figures, this is to be expected. Instead, the book offers tales so extreme it’s hard to know what to believe, whether it’s the church’s oft-derided OT III story of Thethans and Xenu, the semi-voluntary human slavery of Sea Org and its billion year contracts, or the bouts of violence Cruise’s BFF David Miscavige is apparently prone to. It all sounds a little too fantastical, but we’ve heard it all before. It’s not hard to see why Scientology membership is declining (the church, of course, claims it isn’t).
A few weeks ago I reviewed Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven about the history of Mormonism. Interestingly, the point that Wright makes very carefully is that new religions, like Scientology and Mormonism before it, tend to be ridiculed at the start but become mainstream once society familiarises itself with the narrative and customs. But mainstream Mormonism has long let go of its more extreme tenets. It’s hard to see Scientology do that. In the end, I preferred Under the Banner of Heaven to this book, but that’s not Wright’s fault. Scientology is an immensely frustrating subject. I don’t know what to make of it.
But perhaps that’s just my Tetans talking.