Book Review: Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
by Lawrence Wright
Publisher – Knopf
448 pages
Copyright – 2013

Rating – 9.5/10

Summary – Scientology is a hot topic among the press and celebrity watchers. At this writing, the Church is facing intense scrutiny amidst the departure of many of its top officers. Lawrence Wright does a terrific job of explaining the religion – and its challenges – in Going Clear.

Review – Going Clear casts a wide net in examining the Church of Scientology. There are long sections on founder L. Ron Hubbard, current head David Miscavige, the Church’s use of celebrities to promote itself, and the Church’s current decline. While I was familiar with much of the Hubbard material through prior reading, the rest of the book was terrific, “can’t-put-it-down” reading.

Miscavige the Miscreant

If some of the material on Hubbard is familiar, Wright does a thorough (and entertaining) hatchet job on David Miscavige, who took over as the leader of Scientology following Hubbard’s 1986 death. In Wright’s telling, Miscavige has all of Hubbard’s weaknesses without his strengths. More specifically, Miscavige is portrayed as a vindictive man who goes to extraordinary lengths to punish any potential challenge to his leadership.

There are dozens of amazing Miscavige stories in Going Clear. Several concern the RPF (Rehabilitation Project Force) to which “misbehaving” Scientologists are assigned. In Wright’s telling, the RPF is little more than a slave-labor camp in which Scientologists are locked in a secure building and let out only to work. RPF “members” undergo all sorts of degrading interrogations and punishments; one woman is assigned to stand in a tub of water while wearing a sign around her neck that says “Lesbo.”

Another anecdote also captures the “Twilight Zone” feel of life inside Scientology. At one point, Miscavige forced the top people in Scientology to play a game of musical chairs to the sounds of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The losers were to be stripped of their positions in Scientology and the game resulted in frantic fights for chairs among the participants.

The Miscavige information is something of a revelation, as he has remained largely out of sight since giving an interview to Ted Koppel on Nightline in 1992. Wright portrays the interview as a disaster for Miscavige and Scientology. After reading Wright’s account, I watched the interview on YouTube. While hardly a triumph, I thought that Miscavige’s appearance was not the complete fiasco reported by Wright.

Celebrities – Tom, Paul, & Tommy

Certainly one of the main drivers of interest in Scientology is the Scientologists’ ability to recruit celebrities such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley to their ranks. In this respect, Going Clear does not disappoint; there is plenty of celebrity gossip. Wright’s main point is that celebrities do not see the same side of Scientology as do the “regular folks” who join. Instead, the celebrities are coddled and shielded from the Church’s abuses.

Tom Cruise plays a role in Going Clear, but the revelations are not particularly scandalous. The main takeaway for most readers will be that the Scientologists will do just about anything to keep Cruise happy. One amusing story concerns a time when Cruise complained in front of Church leaders that he did not have a girlfriend and the Church immediately began screening women for him. Also, one gets the idea that Cruise’s Church-appointed handlers keep a close eye on him so that he does not stray from the flock.

The most-detailed, celebrity account in Going Clear concerns Paul Haggis (the screenwriter responsible for Traffic and Million Dollar Baby). Haggis joined the Church as a young seeker in the 1970s and stayed for about 35 years as he became a success in Hollywood. Going Clear details how Haggis became enmeshed in Hollywood’s Scientology community before he decided to leave when Scientology refused to oppose actively California’s anti-gay Proposition 8.

Going Clear also features Tommy Davis, the son of Anne Archer and – for a time – the Church’s spokesperson. Tommy had high-profile confrontations with Nightline’s Martin Bashir, CNN’s John Roberts, and the BBC’s John Sweeney before he (apparently) decided to leave Scientology. Though Davis is often seen as a villain, I have some sympathy for him, as his mother is a Scientologist and – like most people – he ended up following the faith of his family.

Decline & The Future of Scientology

Near the end of the book, Wright includes a number of damning statements about Scientology’s fortunes. He states that the number of believers is decreasing and that the organization has been decimated by the departure of many top Scientologists. Some of the statistics are grim. For instance, there are now more Australians who list their religion as “Jedi” than who list “Scientology.” It remains to be seen whether Scientology can reverse its steep decline.

Strange Ending

After slamming Scientology as little more than a sham perpetrated by master con artist, Wright throws the reader a curve in the Epilogue. Here, he discusses Scientology in a more-serious vein, comparing it to other new faiths, such as Christian Science or Mormonism. Wright even notes that Hubbard showed real skill in pulling together the tenets of Scientology from so many disparate sources. This material is pretty good, but the shift in tone is jarring. It’s almost as though – after “dishing the dirt” for hundreds of pages – Wright felt that he needed to reposition Going Clear as a more-serious book.

In Conclusion

Back in the mid-90s, I read a book titled Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller. It is a biography of L Ron Hubbard and served as my introduction to the strange world of Scientology. Both Bare-Faced Messiah and Going Clear are fine books. I probably enjoyed Bare-Faced Messiah a little more; but I read Messiah first, so the material was fresher; inevitably, my prior knowledge made some of Going Clear seem redundant.

Going Clear is a terrific read for anyone interested in thinking about religion or the gullibility of some of our biggest celebrities.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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