2013. Alfred A. Knopf. Hardcover. 432 pages.
Recommendation from: Jenny of Reading the End
I heard an NPR interview of Lawrence Wright about Going Clear at the beginning of this year. I know as much as the next person about Scientology and never had a strong interest in it, so the subject itself was not enough to pique my interest in the book. But the interview brought up the fact that the church of Scientology is known for suing its detractors, and the fact that the church tries to intimidate its naysayers did make me want to read the book. And, as I told a friend, I decided to read it for the ‘crazy.’ And there is definitely some crazy. Using interviews from former Scientology members, public record, and publications from the church of Scientology, Wright takes us through the history of Scientology, which includes a biography of its founder L. Ron Hubbard. The book is bookended by the story of film director / writer Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) who was a member of Scientology for decades before his recent departure from the church.
For a fairly thick nonfiction book, I found Going Clear to be a fast read for me. I read it in a week. I think the book was most engaging during the chapters about L. Ron Hubbard. (I had to return the book to the library, so the following comes mostly from my memory, with an assist from Wikipedia). A lot hinges on his World War II service. According to Hubbard, he suffered war wounds which he then healed through the practice of Dianetics. According to public record, Hubbard never was wounded in combat and indeed seemed to do what he could to stay out of real danger in the war. All the craziness that accompanied his second marriage was especially fascinating and disturbing: according to the second wife Sara Northrup, Hubbard kidnapped their daughter for a time when Sara tried to leave the church. He accused Sara publicly of being a communist (in 1951) and urged the FBI to round her up. Eventually they divorced and he would later tell his adult daughter by that marriage that she wasn’t his daughter. He remarried and had more children, and when governments proved to be unfriendly to his new church, he started Sea Org, a fleet of ships manned by Scientology converts. He had a horde of preteen girls that served as his messengers to the other church members. People were thrown overboard for perceived infractions. At some point, a few Scientologists got mixed up with a coup in Morocco. When Hubbard returned to the United States, paranoia was his main operating worldview. In the end, he was hiding out in a fitted-out motor home with only a couple of trusted people acting as conduits between him and the now-burgeoning church that he founded.
Eventually Hubbard died (spoiler), and rising Scientology leader David Miscavige took over. Although Wright keeps up the level of detail that he did for L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘reign’, I started to weary of the Scientology story by then. As with Hubbard, Miscavige continues the practice of punishing people weirdly and cruelly for real or imagined infractions. It was the same cycle over and over again, just with different people. I’m not saying any of it should have been glossed over, but I think I would have appreciated a break from Wright’s focus on the particulars during the Miscavige / Tom Cruise section. In the last chapter – it might have been an epilogue – Wright does expound upon some larger themes, but this conclusion struck me as underdone. I hardly remember what Wright did say in his conclusion and it was only ten days ago.
While reading the book, and after reading the book, I mostly reflected on the dangers of churches/religions/groups obsessed with their own hierarchy. Going Clear is a chronicle of constant “who’s in and who’s out” games, with such decisions usually made by one mercurial person. The basic precepts of Scientology may have had the goal of making a person’s life better, but the church itself seems more interested in amassing power and money and (wealthy, powerful) members. To be fair, most religions have had this problem at some point, somewhere. But look, that’s probably as nice as I will be about Scientology. Reading Wright’s book certainly doesn’t make me an expert on the subject, but as far as I can tell, the church of Scientology’s use and abuse of people seems to be a fixture, and that is just sad.
In the end, my interest in the subject declined while reading Going Clear, but it was a worthwhile read, especially the parts about L. Ron Hubbard.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Killin’ Time Reading – “What Wright does (unlike Reitman) is present as neutral as possible an account, giving people credit where it’s due while still highlighting the discrepancies between the official Church record and other’s memories/experiences.”
Reading the End – “I thought Going Clear was an admirably well-sourced, engagingly-written history of scientology”
Views from the Page and the Oven – “For as much information as is packed into these pages, the book reads extremely well, probably partially because the topic is so crazy and at times unbelievable.”