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Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief - Lawrence Wright "It ain't agin religion…It just abolishes it…It's science, boy, science."
-Letter from L. Ron Hubbard to Robert Heinlein on Dianetics.

I have to admit to having a bit of a fascination with L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Not as an adherent, mind you, but strictly as an outsider. I remember years ago thinking of Scientology as that kooky thing that movie stars like to dabble in. It still is that, but there is a darker side that is probably the world's worst-kept secret, since some defectors have for years been very vocal about the abuses that take place within the confines of Scientology's tightly knit network. Strangely enough, I think that many people are still unaware of this dark side despite some very high-profile negative news over the years and think of Scientology as eccentric but relatively harmless.

Lawrence Wright in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief presents L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology to us beautifully, in all its bizarre, hilarious, horrifying, tragic and dubious glory. He does this in a manner that is critical of the Church of Scientology without condemning the beliefs, per se, or casting aspersions on its members in general. This is an important point because the Church of Scientology has been known to push the limits of religious freedom, claiming that any attack on Scientology is also an attack on the First Amendment and is an example of religious intolerance.

Look, people can believe whatever they want. It makes no difference to me and I won't ever value someone less because he or she believes something that I don't, nor would I restrict it. That is part of tolerance. Some things I don't tolerate are: slave labor, human trafficking, harassment, stalking, illegal imprisonment, excessive litigation and taking advantage of people who simply are trying to find some purpose in life. And these are all things Wright presents in this book, taken from interviews with defectors and a wide variety of other sources. The Church of Scientology is known for litigating critics into oblivion, as well as harassing them with stalkers and private investigators, so I have to give props to Wright for all the research done for this book. While he humbly acknowledges that a greater measure of the courage to speak out about the Church of Scientology belongs to the defectors and others that spoke out before him, surely he's on the CoS's shitlist right now and that's nothing to take lightly. 

Wright charts the course of Scientology beginning with its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who reminds me a little bit of that weird uncle that everyone has (okay, not everyone). You know, the one that is lying all the time and telling stories, but he's so damn good at it and full of energy that you can't help but look forward to his occasional visits. Oh, and he's rich, so he gives you, like, twenty bucks every time he visits. While Hubbard's charisma and obvious talent for storytelling were countered (or complemented?) by his character flaws, namely lying, scamming and narcissism, these are but mild eccentricities that masked a much darker aspect. Plagued by insecurities, he nurtured his ego to gigantic proportions and the results were often very disturbing. Hubbard's life, the way Wright tells it, was one bizarre venture after another. The absurdity of it all makes it hilarious. Hubbard's lunacy and those who were entranced by it makes it tragic.

Wright then presents Scientology in its present form, after Hubbard's death and the takeover coup by everyone's favorite demented man-child dictator David Miscavige, the account of which read as excitingly as any political thriller. Miscavige himself is representative of the Church's dysfunctional nature. Here he is being taught how to fish by his brother-in-law:

Brousseau recalls looking over at Miscavige five minutes later. He was visibly shaking, his veins were bulging. "You got to me kidding me!" he said. "This is it? You just sit here and fucking wait?"

Brousseau said that was the general idea.

"I can't stand it!" Brousseau remembers Miscavige saying. "I feel like jumping in and grabbing a fish with my fucking hands! Or cramming the hook down their fucking throats!"

That was the end of the fishing trip.

Now he is known as COB, or "Chairman of the Board," and is the Ernst Stavro Blofeld in this real-life version of SPECTRE, and the accounts of him punching, choking and kicking his underlings are legendary. Sometimes he orders one of his goons to punch someone for him. It's so ridiculous it might be funny if it weren't for the fact that this is real life and not a comedic film. Miscavige is, to put it mildly, a psychotic little prick who desperately needs his butt kicked by someone who isn't willing to put up with his bullshit. His favorite hobby is kissing Tom Cruise's ass. Cruise features prominently in this narrative, being one of Scientology's most famous public figures, as does John Travolta, and famous Hollywood screenwriter Paul Haggis' story is told from his induction to the day he very vocally left the Church.

But while I've covered the highlights of the book, between these are many other stories of Scientology executives, adherents and defectors whose stories are lower-profile but no less fascinating. I found the account of Quentin Hubbard's (LRH's son) particularly poignant. Wright's narrative voice flows easily and needs no sensationalistic embellishment. The stories themselves are weird and intriguing enough as they are. Wright does a near-perfect job of conveying the paranoia that surrounds the Church and those who deal with it.

The theme that connects these stories is the "prison of belief" and Wright illustrates how belief can be more confining than any chains or cages. When we wonder to ourselves why the abused don't simply run away (some do) the answer to that question is usually because they are held prisoner by their own beliefs. It is their sense of order in the world, which may be quite different from most people's, that keeps them confined, even if it means risking their own well-beings. Hubbard built the foundation of this belief and built the stone walls of its structure. Oddly enough, Hubbard stacked the bricks around him with no consideration for an exit and became a prisoner in the prison he himself built.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief will remain in my mind for long time. Wright brings to light all the eccentricities and abuses of Scientology as well as those of its founder while still being respectful to those people that actually have found some spiritual benefit it. A fascinating and scary piece that earns every bit of the five stars I'm giving it.