There is a new book about Scientology that is getting a great deal of media attention. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Lawrence Wright, the book is exhaustively researched and includes the full story of Paul Haggis, a well known Hollywood director who left the cult after many years and went fully public - which is very unusual since most people who leave are terrified to speak out. He told his story in the New Yorker last year.
I knew some ex-members of this organization and a good friend of mine has counseled many former followers. I posted some info on the recent film THE MASTER that came out last year and is roughly based or inspired by the early years of Scientology. As I have said elsewhere, this kind of organization is far more cultic and toxic than Shasta or any of the other authoritarian Buddhist organizations that we have talked about on this site, in my opinion. Based on this book and other accounts, Scientology is so bizarre, it is fascinating. Nonetheless, in the mode of using these stories and situations as mirrors, as more reflections of human nature, experiences of religious organizations, group-think, religious myths and beliefs, guru-based groups, you can see aspects of Shasta and Kennett and Shimano and Sasaki in these accounts.
This last Thursday night on the NBC News program, ROCK CENTER, there was a terrific and candid interview with Paul Haggis as well as some other former members of this organization. And when Paul talked about his experience, there were many aspects that anyone who has been in an authoritarian church like Shasta could relate to. I understood - from personal experience - precisely what he was talking about.
Here is a link to the show's website -- and you can watch the entire piece on line. I recommend it: http://rockcenter.nbcnews.com/
January 17, 2013
Eyes Wide Shut
By MICHAEL KINSLEY
Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief By Lawrence Wright - Illustrated. 430 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.
That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology. Every deceptive comparison with Mormonism and other religions is given a respectful hearing. Every ludicrous bit of church dogma is served up deadpan. This makes the book’s indictment that much more powerful. Open almost any page at random. That tape of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, that Wright quotes from? “It was a part of a lecture Hubbard gave in 1963, in which he talked about the between-lives period, when thetans are transported to Venus to have their memories erased.”
Oh, that period. Of course. How could I forget?
We are all thetans, spirits, trapped temporarily in our current particular lives. Elsewhere, though, Hubbard says that when a thetan discovers that he is dead, he should report to a “‘between-lives’ area” on Mars for a “forgetter implant.”
Oh dear, oh dear. So what are poor thetans to do, where are they to go, when they find themselves between lives? Left to Venus or right to Mars? For sure, they can’t stay here. “The planet Earth, formerly called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu,” said Hubbard, who was a best-selling science fiction writer before he became the prophet of a new religion. To suppress a rebellion, Xenu tricked the confederations into coming in for fake income tax investigations. Billions of thetans were taken to Teegeeack (you remember: Earth), “where they were dropped into volcanoes and then blown up with hydrogen bombs.” Suffice it to say I’m not hanging around Earth next time I’m between lives.
Hubbard apparently could go on for hours — or pages — with this stuff. Wright informs us, as if it were just an oversight, that “Hubbard never really explained how he came by these revelations,” but elsewhere he says they came to him at the dentist’s office. Of the Borgia-like goings-on after Hubbard’s death in 1986, Wright says cheerfully, “Every new religion faces an existential crisis following the death of its charismatic founder.” He always refers to Scientology respectfully as “the church.”
But Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” makes clear that Scientology is like no church on Earth (or, in all probability, Venus or Mars either). The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday: the ruthless struggles for power, the show trials and forced confessions (often false); the paranoia (often justified); the determination to control its members’ lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick); the maintenance of something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years and punished if they tried to escape; what the book describes as mysterious deaths and disappearances; and so on. Except that while the American Communist Party, including a few naïve Hollywood types, merely turned a blind eye to events happening in faraway Russia, Scientology — if Wright is to be believed, and I think he is — ran, and maybe still runs, a shadow totalitarian empire here in the United States, financed in part by huge contributions by Tom Cruise and others of the Hollywood aristocracy. “Naïve” doesn’t begin to describe the credulousness and sense of entitlement that has allowed actors, writers and directors to think they were helping themselves and the world by hanging around the Scientologists’ “Celebrity Centre,” taking “upper level” courses and gossiping about who was about to be labeled a “Suppressive Person” (bad guy).
Wright’s last book, “The Looming Tower,” a history of Al Qaeda, won the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the author of, among other books, a charmingly presumptuous premature autobiography, “In the New World,” published in 1987. He belongs to a small cult of his own — an Austin-centered group of writers dedicated to preserving long-form narrative journalism. With this book, he’s certainly paid his dues for a few years.
Wright is well advised to be calm and seem neutral in his presentation of the Scientology story, since the group has been known to make life miserable for its critics, its favorite weapon being the lawsuit, often brought in order to bury the defendant in legal costs and hassles. The purpose of a lawsuit is “to harass and discourage rather than to win,” Hubbard said. Perhaps, though, this knowledge that any mistake will be abnormally costly does lend added credibility to Wright’s vast research and reporting.
Among the horrors Wright either uncovers or borrows (with credit) from previous Scientology exposés in Time magazine and The St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times is “the Hole,” a hellish double-wide trailer parked at a California resort owned by the church. Forty or 50 people were housed there with no furniture or beds, eating leftovers, enduring cold-hose group showers. There are stories of people being beaten; and lots of stories of forced divorces, mandatory “disconnections” — orders not to talk with a spouse or friend who has offended in some way. But only once in 430 pages filled with lurid anecdotes did my skeptical antennas start to twitch. Wright asserts that someone was punished by being “made to run around a pole in the desert for 12 hours a day, until his teeth fell out.” Really? That’s the first thing that happens when you run in circles in the desert all day? I need to know more. How many days are we talking about? Did they let him floss?
But I shouldn’t jest. Wright’s favorite Scientologist, at least in this life, is the television and film writer Paul Haggis. (He wrote and directed “Crash,” which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2006.) Haggis talked at length with Wright and therefore gets off way too easily in the retelling. I was about to write that Haggis is no fool, but let me amend that: he is no fool in the particular matter of cooperating with the author of a book about events you were involved in. In Washington it’s called the Bob Woodward rule — always talk, or you’ll regret it.
Haggis is quoted advising Tom Cruise to have a sense of humor about himself, “something that is often lacking in Scientology,” Wright says dryly, in one of the few passages where he shows his cards. That is certainly true, and possibly a problem, but if so it is among the least of them. When people are running something akin to a private gulag across the United States and, to a lesser extent, the entire world, who cares whether they get the joke? And what is the joke, exactly?
The real-life history of Scientology raises the same question that comes up whenever you see a lazily plotted movie or television show: Why didn’t someone call the police? Most of the Scientologists who were incarcerated and humiliated by the group’s leaders were not literally in chains all day. They could have walked out or refused to return when caught. Why didn’t they?
The answer is partly familiar psychological explanations, variations on the Stockholm syndrome. But there were other, practical barriers. Some had joined as children and signed “billion-year contracts” that they didn’t realize were preposterous. (Some adults also contracted away the next billion years of their lives.) Some had no friends outside Scientology, no relatives they hadn’t been forced to disown, no mailing address or credit card. As a practical matter, they had no place else to go. And if they asked to leave, they were told they needed to pay back some ridiculous sum like $100,000 for classes they supposedly had signed up for (not easy on a weekly salary — often not paid — of $50).
All this was going on under the nose of Tom Cruise, who, according to Wright, allowed Scientology’s leaders to pimp for him (no, no: all women), among other favors. Young women were told that they had been chosen for a “special program” that would require they drop their boyfriends. But the fish that got away, Scientologists believed, was Steven Spielberg. He told Haggis that Scientologists “seem like the nicest people,” and Haggis responded that “we keep all the evil ones in the closet,” which was close enough to being true that Haggis was in hot water with the Scientology powers-that-be. But he didn’t quit.
Haggis joined Scientology in 1975, when he was 21. Wright assures us that Haggis “never lost his skepticism,” but he must have misplaced it for a few decades. He remained a member and rose to be a top thetan among Scientologists through the death of L. Ron Hubbard and the rise of his successor, David Miscavige, who has often been described as sadistic. Then he read on the Internet about children “10, 12 years old, signing billion-year contracts, . . . and they work morning, noon and night. . . . Scrubbing pots, manual labor — that so deeply touched me. My God, it horrified me.” Still, he didn’t quit. Once again like American Communists on the eve of World War II, a few “useful [banned term]” like Haggis held on through every moment of doubt and twist in the story. What finally pushed him over the edge, away from Scientology and out into the real world, was the church’s refusal to endorse gay marriage. Now, I’m for gay marriage. And Haggis has two gay daughters, so it’s understandable that he should feel particularly strongly about this issue. But some perspective, please: it’s like hanging on through the Moscow trials and then quitting the Communist Party because it won’t endorse . . . oh, I dunno — well, gay marriage.
Lawrence Wright is so deeply into his material, and there is so much of it, that he sometimes doesn’t realize when he’s left the reader behind. What is OT V status again? (It’s the fifth level of ascent for a thetan, achieved by taking expensive courses.) Which wife of L. Ron Hubbard are we talking about here? What does PTS/SP stand for? (Potential Trouble Source/Suppressive Person, or really bad guy.) Even the book’s title is unalluring to the uninitiated. (“Going clear” means — very roughly — reaching a level that makes you a real Scientologist.)
But don’t be deterred. “Going Clear” is essential reading for thetans of all lifetimes.
Michael Kinsley is editor at large at The New Republic.
Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 08:01 PM EST
“Going Clear”: Scientology exposed
Lawrence Wright's enthralling, meticulously fact-checked account of the insular church and its celebrity members
By Laura Miller
Several years ago, for a series of Salon articles about Scientology, I was asked to review the founding text of the church, “Dianetics” by L.Ron Hubbard, first published in 1950. The book seemed so clearly the work of a man suffering from particular and pronounced mental health issues that I became, for the first time, curious about its author. Like most self-help books, “Dianetics” frequently invokes case histories or hypothetical scenarios, but unlike most self-help books, Hubbard’s stories featured an alarming amount of violence, specifically domestic violence.
Over and over, when imagining a childhood source for an individual’s problems, Hubbard spins tales of unfaithful wives and husbands who beat and verbally abuse them, sometimes kicking their pregnant bellies. Perhaps we can attribute some of this to a preoccupation with prenatal trauma; “Dianetics” insists that fetuses can understand damaging statements made to the women carrying them. Nevertheless, to me, the most striking thing about the book — besides Hubbard’s belief that it is “not uncommon” for women to make “twenty or thirty” attempts at a self-induced abortion with orange sticks and other implements — is its author’s assumption that such beatings are a commonplace aspect of most people’s home lives.
I wanted to find out if Hubbard had grown up amid such abuse, or had experience of it in his adult life, so I went online to poke around. What I found, on assorted anti-Scientology websites and discussion forums, seemed so outlandish and extreme that I decided not to refer to those charges at all in my review. I couldn’t be sure they were substantiated.
Scientology has involved preposterous claims from the very start — from before the very start, actually, since “Dianetics” (published two years before the foundation of the church) promises that a “clear” (an individual who has succeeded in using the Dianetic “technology” to free him- or herself of all impairing “engrams”) will attain assorted superpowers. These include healing his or her own disabilities and illnesses, as well as perfect recall, the capacity to perform “mental computations” at lightning speeds and various forms of mind reading and control. Scientology’s critics, on the other hand, accused Hubbard of — yes — domestic violence (including an incident in which he demanded that his second wife kill herself to prove she really loved him), to bigamy, lying about his service in World War II, engaging in black magic rituals and throwing followers who displeased him off the high deck of his ship. The church has countered such attacks by flinging accusations at its critics, from public drunkenness to adultery and homosexuality.
The whole mess seemed like a seething farrago of bizarre fantasies, vendettas and nightmares, indistinguishable from whatever grains of truth lingered here and there. A phenomenally diligent and rigorous investigator could probably sort it all out, but the Church of Scientology is notorious for using nuisance litigation to hound skeptical journalists to the brink of destitution and despair. Who’d be up for that?
Lawrence Wright was, and my long preamble is all by way of explaining why his new book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief,” is so invaluable. There have been other exposés of the church — including last year’s fine “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” by Janet Reitman, a book Wright praises in his own — but this one carries the imprimatur of both Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and the New Yorker magazine, where Wright first wrote about the church in a story on its cultivation of celebrity members, as exemplified by movie director Paul Haggis.
The church adopted its scorched-earth policy toward critical journalists back when Paulette Cooper published “The Scandal of Scientology” in 1971; she was subsequently slapped with 19 lawsuits, as well as subjected to a harassment campaign with the stated intention of seeing her “incarcerated in a mental institution or jail.” What the organization did not foresee was that the effectiveness of such tactics could never be more than short-term. So ominous is the reputation of the Church of Scientology in this respect that when a major news organization of legendary rigor committed itself to an exposé, there could be no doubt that it was fact-checked to a fare-thee-well. The result, extended to book form by one of that organization’s most esteemed journalists, is completely and conclusively [banned term].
Not that Wright is the least bit intemperate in his account of the improbable rise of Hubbard from an unimpressive career as a naval officer and pulp science-fiction writer to a millionaire guru presiding over a high-seas empire of slavish devotees to reclusive leader holed up in a well-appointed mobile home. He doesn’t have to be. Hubbard’s outrageous shenanigans and flagrant misdeeds speak for themselves, so Wright need only convey the facts with a minimum of hoopla. He strives to be fair, noting all the ways that Scientology resembles other religions that began as suspect or fringe movements, but he catches church spokesmen in so many lies and unearths so much evidence of malfeasance that his caveats do tend to get swamped.
It turns out that even the craziest stuff I read on the Internet back in 2005 is essentially true, and that the history of the church under its current megalomaniacal leader, David Miscavige, is, if anything, even more disgraceful. (Hubbard died in 1986.) Wright has assembled an overwhelming number of confirmed reports of Miscavige punching, kicking and otherwise attacking church leaders, often without warning or explanation. He details a well-developed system of isolation and indoctrination imposed on the members of Sea Org. (Scientology’s equivalent of a clergy), creating a population that provides the church with virtually free labor and submits to extravagantly harsh and humiliating punishments, such as cleaning bathroom floors with their tongues and scrubbing out dumpsters with toothbrushes. Meanwhile, Miscavige lives in luxury, bathed in Kim Jong Il-levels of totalitarian hagiography, at the church’s secluded base in rural Southern California.
Wright’s particular interest is in how the church courts and coddles its celebrity members. These Scientologists are carefully shielded from the harsher conditions and uglier aspects of the organization. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Anne Archer and Jenna Elfman number among the church’s most prominent trophies, as did Haggis — before he became disgusted with the leadership’s refusal to denounce an anti-gay ballot proposition in California and decided to dig beneath the flattering, gleaming face it presents to its celebrity members. Wooing emerging actors and entertainment-industry players was one of Hubbard’s most inspired initiatives, and the church continues to deploy such people strategically, introducing balky local politicians to movie stars and fostering the impression that a Scientology affiliation will help Hollywood aspirants climb to the top of a ruthlessly competitive profession.
I could go on and on, listing Hubbard’s tall tales, paranoid delusions and eccentricities, as well as Miscavige’s brutalities and tidbits from the famously wacky and decidedly unscientific Scientologist cosmology. All of it makes for a wild ride of a page-turner, as enthralling as a paperback thriller. But I keep coming back to my original impression of “Dianetics,” and the sobering realization that one man’s personal damage can, if transmitted with sufficient charisma and intuitive skill, infect tens of thousands of people, many of whom believe they’ve been helped by it.
Hubbard, as Wright acknowledges more than once, was a charmer, with a knack for manipulating people. He knew, somehow, that there is no behavior more likely to foster fascination and dependence than intermittent reinforcement, enveloping approval and assurances of future bliss shot through with unpredictable episodes of domination, insults and terror. That is the dynamic of the abusive family, a dynamic that prevails in Sea Org. and the hidden enclaves of Scientology. From what Wright reports, it looks like my curiosity about Hubbard’s earliest years will never be satisfied. But now I can make an educated guess.
Articles of Faith
A densely reported look inside the secretive world of Scientology. Paul Elie reviews Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear."
By PAUL ELIE
'On a rainy morning in late September 2010," Lawrence Wright recounts in "Going Clear," representatives of the Church of Scientology met in New York with him and a number of his colleagues at the New Yorker, from David Remnick, the magazine's editor, to its head of fact-checking and its in-house lawyer.
The Scientology delegation brought with them forty-eight three-ring binders of supporting material, stretching nearly seven linear feet, to respond to the 971 questions the checkers had posed. It was an impressive display. The binders were labeled according to categories, such as "Disappearance of L. Ron Hubbard," "Tom Cruise," "Gold Base," and "Haggis's Involvement in Scientology." Davis [Tommy Davis, a church hierarch close to Tom Cruise] emphasized that the church had gone to extraordinary lengths to prepare for this meeting. "Frankly, the only thing I can think that compares would be the presentation that we made in the early 1990s to the IRS."
The IRS presentation had been a complete success. Scientology emerged victorious from a "two-decade" showdown with the agency that included a huge campaign of lawsuits ("200 lawsuits on the part of the church and more than 2,300 suits on behalf of individual parishioners in every jurisdiction in the country," according to Mr. Wright). The IRS granted Scientology tax-exempt status as a church, forgiving it most of $1 billion in unpaid back taxes. A thousand Scientologists met at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to celebrate that "the war is over!" The "imprimatur of the American government on the church as a certified religion" rather than a "commercial enterprise," Mr. Wright argues, has shaped the movement's subsequent history, giving it financial security, long-sought legitimacy abroad and the ability to invoke freedom of religion as a justification for the whole range of its activities.
Going Clear By Lawrence Wright - Knopf, 430 pages, $28.95
"I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious beliefs on people's lives—historically, a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics," Mr. Wright declares, and he prefaces "Going Clear" with an overview of Scientology as a new religious movement. He parses the differences between the church's claim to have eight million members and his own estimate of 25,000 active members, 5,000 of them in the Los Angeles area. He sets out the three tiers of affiliation: public members, including the sort of casual initiate who began with the free "stress test" the church offers in shopping malls and subway stations; celebrity members, such as actors and actresses (and hopefuls) in Hollywood; and the Sea Org, the "religious order" that carries out much of Scientology's day-to-day operations. He explains how Scientology's efforts are rooted in its "colossal financial resources"—derived from its intensive fundraising among members, its real-estate holdings ($400 million in Hollywood, $168 million in Clearwater, Fla., according to Mr. Wright), and the proceeds from the thousand or more books by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Over the course of the book, Mr. Wright explains how Scientology's adherents say it works: Members use a practice called "auditing" and a device called the "E-Meter" to expel mental blockages supposedly left by traumatic experiences, with the goal of "going clear"—attaining an unimpaired state of being that will enable them to exert control over themselves and the world around them.
"How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible?" Mr. Wright asks. That is the $64,000 question in journalism about religion, and Mr. Wright explains that he sought to understand "the process of belief" by writing this book. But his main text has a different emphasis. In it Scientology emerges as a secretive organization scarcely akin to the little church around the corner and one whose story poses reportorial challenges akin to those he faced in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 book about al-Qaeda, "The Looming Tower." It is a story of sad lives, power struggles, petty disputes, physical and mental conflict, and secrets kept and unkept.
Two characters dominate the book: L. Ron Hubbard and the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis.
They are an unmatched pair. Hubbard (1911-86) emerges as one more grandiose American male of the postwar years, a dogged but undistinguished pulp-fiction writer—according to the church, he wrote 100,000 published words a month—who clawed his way out of the science-fiction ghetto and sought to frame his ideas so that they would have consequences in people's lives. With "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" (1950), a self-help manual that introduced the idea of the "clear," he went, one reviewer declared, from science fiction to "fictional science," a human-potential schema vouchsafed by his own mind. It became a best seller, giving Hubbard the money and the calling card he needed to attract converts. In "Going Clear," Hubbard is presented as a man who makes things up as he goes. But he also believes everything he says. In that, he is more akin to Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary—word-addled men who passed through literature to "automatic writing" to something like automatic thought, extemporizing in a never-ending performance.
Paul Haggis, by contrast, emerges as a writer above all. In the mid-1970s, Scientology helped him extricate himself from a thwarted life in blue-collar Ontario. The movement was thriving through its association with its first famous member, John Travolta—at the time the biggest screen star in America—and it opened doors for Mr. Haggis in Hollywood. It appealed to the single-mindedness that for three decades saw him neglect his family out of devotion to his work and to Scientology. But it seems incidental to his work—such as his scripts for the yuppie TV drama "Thirtysomething" or for Clint Eastwood's film "Flags of Our Fathers." When success and remorse led him back into contact with his three adult children from his first marriage—two of them lesbians—he spoke out against what he saw as anti-gay elements in Scientology and then turned away from the movement. He left Scientology in 2009.
Mr. Wright told Mr. Haggis's story in a long 2011 profile in the New Yorker. Though "Going Clear" is considerably more than a fleshed-out magazine piece, it is told in the magazine's high style, through the methodical accretion of social detail and vivid commentary in the voices of the protagonists. Abstruse ideas are explained matter-of-factly: The "Hole" is the brig-like penitentiary at a church complex in the desert east of Los Angeles into which, Mr. Wright asserts, authority-resistant Scientologists are plunged, sometimes for months at a stretch; "thetans" are the Scientology equivalent of the soul, "immortal spiritual beings that are incarnated in innumerable lifetimes."
The story is grounded in firsthand testimony: One former member "says that he began working full-time in the organization when he was eleven and recalls that, along with other Sea Org members, including children, his days stretched from eight in the morning until eleven thirty at night, excepting Saturday, his single day of schooling. Part of his work was shoveling asbestos that had been removed during the renovation of the Fort Harrison Hotel. He says no protective gear was provided, not even a mask." Point of view is strategically deployed: "Dincalci [a former Hubbard aide] had long since come to the conclusion that Hubbard was not an Operating Thetan. He was obese and weird and he failed to exhibit any of the extraordinary powers that are supposed to be a part of the OT arsenal. Moreover, he was under siege by various countries. Why couldn't he simply set things straight? Wasn't he supposed to be in control of his environment? How could he be so persecuted and powerless? What was he doing hiding out in Queens, wearing a wig and watching television when the planet needed salvation?"
Critiques of Scientology are presented mainly through deft quotation. Ted Koppel is heard asking, "See if you can explain to me why I would want to be a Scientologist." A BBC reporter is shown shouting to John Travolta, "Are you a member of a sinister, brainwashing cult?" A German labor minister tells Maclean's magazine: "This is not a church or a religious organization. . . . Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings."
Mr. Wright himself makes narrower but nevertheless provocative allegations: that the movement works members beyond the limits allowed by U.S. labor regulations, typically for salaries of $30 a week; that it educates its children sporadically or not all, leaving some of them "illiterate"; that Sea Org members who became pregnant were pressured to have abortions; and that it skirted the bounds of its tax-exempt status by allowing members to render services to a single individual, namely Tom Cruise, whose mansion was lavishly renovated by squadrons of poorly paid Scientologists.
The book is salted with denials from the church and others, which become a kind of running counterpoint in the footnotes: The church calls Mr. Wright's claims exaggerations or "pure fantasy," says it adheres to all child-labor laws and denies that any Sea Org members were pressured to have abortions. About Mr. Cruise's mansion, we learn this: "Cruise's attorney remarks, 'So far as I know, Mr. Cruise has always paid for any services he received.' "
"The many discrepancies between Hubbard's legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement," Mr. Wright declares, but "Going Clear" is quite often something other than fascinating. Few of the people who read the book will likely need disillusioning (the estimation of L. Ron Hubbard could hardly be any lower in polite circles). The claims about Tom Cruise's beliefs and behavior are not especially surprising (the surprise is that, in spite of them, he is still a movie star). Mr. Wright doesn't oversell his book as a tale of the rich and famous or an exposé of an operation poised to take over Hollywood. Instead, he leaves the impression that Scientology, for all its power, for all the benefits that it claims to have rendered to people around the world, is a charmless system of belief and a small-time organization made large through celebrity and money.
It isn't fascinating reading, but it is a feat of reporting. The story of Scientology is the great white whale of investigative journalism about religion. The Los Angeles Times, the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times and other publications have published lengthy series on the church. Two years ago, Janet Reitman expanded a Rolling Stone article into "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion." Now Mr. Wright has given us a full-dress version complete with an Oscar-winning leading man. The book's power lies not so much in the presentation of appalling revelations (though there are dozens of them) as in our awed recognition that Mr. Wright spent years of his life on this story—that he interviewed dozens of odd or compromised or fearful people, assembled the intricate edifice of Scientology's beliefs, mapped the territory of its empire, and traced its ill effects, even though the organization and its people aren't particularly interesting.
Half a century ago, Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" derived its power from the tension between the tawdriness of the material and the fine tooling of New Yorker style. Six years of reporting, 8,000 pages of notes, and a written text published in four parts in the magazine in 1965—through all this, Capote made the frankly unnecessary story of a rural murder utterly compelling.
"Going Clear" is sometimes hard going on account of its subject matter. But it is an utterly necessary story even so. As "In Cold Blood" is now a monument to the age of New Journalism, "Going Clear" may wind up a monument to an age of enlightened corporate journalism, a time when powerful magazine editors and their book-publishing counterparts had the wherewithal to devote resources to vital stories of scant direct pertinence to their readers—stories told by full-time, expenses-paid writers backstopped by researchers, fact-checkers, lawyers and insurance companies.
The surprise isn't that Mr. Wright presents Scientology as a perplexing and alarming organization. The surprise is that he has managed to tell its story at all.
—Mr. Elie, the author of "Reinventing Bach," is a senior fellow in Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace,and World Affairs.