Lawrence Wright's new book tackles the cult of Scientology

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Lawrence Wright


L. Ron Hubbard was a professional fabulist, and Lawrence Wright's new book makes an extensive case that it wasn't just a day job. A prolific sci-fi writer with a mystical bent and a talent for self-promotion, Hubbard invented a more illustrious World War II naval career than he actually served, humblebragged of war wounds more grievous than any he appears to have suffered, then began peddling a book about the mental techniques and otherworldly revelations he used to heal his body and open his eyes to the true nature of the universe. To this day, thousands of Church of Scientology members take Hubbard's every non-pulp word as literal gospel.

Wright built Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief out of his lengthy 2011 New Yorker profile of Hollywood screenwriter/director and Scientology apostate Paul Haggis, but the book is best considered as a profile of two other men: Hubbard and David Miscavige, the current head of Scientology.

While Hubbard is in his prime, Going Clear is a surprisingly entertaining read. Wright depicts Hubbard as a charismatic huckster who drew early followers as much with his force of personality as with his techniques for mastering mind and body, and his revelations about human frailty as the ostensible product of ongoing psychic fallout from ancient galactic wars. The early chapters are full of bizarre details, such as Hubbard's extended flirtation with Crowley-style Satanism, and megalomaniacal bluster. But as Hubbard goes on the run from lawsuits-sailing the world with a crew of believers and later holing up in desert trailers before his death in 1986-Wright starts piling up accounts of Scientology's Draconian cult-like control (e.g. open-ended punitive manual labor for modest offenses) and ruthless retribution against its detractors (including former members).

By the time he gets to heat-seeking 20-something comer Miscavige subverting Hubbard's designated spiritual successors to take control of the church in 1987, Wright's take on Scientology makes for grim reading. (According to several former Scientologists, Miscavige expressed displeasure by beating them.) Wright devotes an ample number of pages to Scientology's intense relationships with its celebrity adherents such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but the stories that stick with you are those of all the ordinary men and women who believed and found their belief abused, and the two men most responsible.

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