By Heidi Simmons
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief
Scientology is one of those subjects that fascinates and mystifies. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Alfred A. Knopf, 430 pages) by Lawrence Wright is a detailed investigation of the Church of Scientology. It contains juicy celebrity revelations and in many places reads like a psychological thriller.
Author Wright takes on the subject with an agenda. He says he was drawn to write the book by the questions many people have about Scientology: What makes the religion so alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? And how can rational-seeming people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible and absurd?
Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion — which I reviewed upon its release in 2011 — is also a detailed account of Scientology but her telling is without a specific agenda other than defining Scientology and understanding its complex and bizarre hierarchy. She has no particular bias, judgment or analysis.
Both Reitman and Wright are award-winning journalist and do an excellent job getting into the subject and finding those who are willing to tell their stories from the inside.
Wright’s approach is to answer the questions for those of us who are on the outside looking in. He mainly follows ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis’ experience with the organization. Wright also focuses on the two men who made Scientology what it is today: The odd and brilliant — perhaps insane — science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard who invented the religion; and his successor, David Miscavige, who has the difficult job of maintaining the “church” after the “death” of Hubbard.
Scientology’s odd cosmic theology, if one can call it that as well as its peculiar jargon, is unveiled. Wright documents the organization’s concerted effort to attract celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the hopes that their fame and following will help market the validity of the “church” to their fans.
The part I found most fantastically crazy and immensely entertaining is Wright’s reporting of Hubbard’s last days alive and Hubbard’s description of what happens when a member dies. Hubbard himself claimed to have come back to life on two or three occasions.
According to Wright, there is an unstated belief that Operating Thetans (OTs – a level a person achieves in Scientology above Clear who can handle things and exist without physical support or assistance. Buddha and Jesus would be considered above Clear but not OTs) do not grow frail or lose their mental faculties. Old age and illness are embarrassing refutations of Scientology’s core beliefs. When a Thetan finds his body dead, the Thetan has to report to a “between-lives” area which for most of them is the planet Mars. There, the Thetan is given a “forgetter implant.” The pre-Clear is then seated before a wheel, which contains pictures. As the wheel turns, the pictures go away from him. The whole effect is to give the impression that the Thetan has no past life. The Thetan is then sent back to Earth to pick up a baby’s body as soon as it is born. The baby takes its first gasp, and a Thetan picks it up. Got all that? It’s crazy. Right? And that’s just about death.
Most intriguing is how Going Clear examines what fundamentally makes Scientology a religion. Is it a religion? It certainly makes you question what is religion? Wright does a good job exploring the effects of Scientology’s “religious” beliefs on the lives of its members. In doing so, he helps us look a little closer at our own beliefs — or lack of — and those who lead us in our thinking.
I’m still not sure I understand why any rational person would join Scientology nor can I comprehend what a member gets out of it. For me it’s still not clear.