Back before L. Ron Hubbard was commodore of the Church of Scientology, he was a writer of pulp novels — westerns, first, and then science fiction. The religion that he founded in 1952 seems to have sprung from his early imaginings of intergalactic travel, reincarnation, levels of consciousness and being, and bizarre names for people and places. (In Scientology, one’s eternal soul is a “thetan.” Earth is “Teegeeack.” The evil lord who set things in motion some 75 million years ago was named “Xenu.”) Hubbard experienced his first significant revelation when he was having a tooth pulled. And yet, in just 50 years, thousands (the church claims millions) of people have been drawn into this odd new faith.
“Some of the most closely guarded secrets of Scientology were originally published in other guises in Hubbard’s science fiction,” Lawrence Wright says in his new book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.”
Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” has built a career exploring the intersection of religion and modern life. His new book is a harrowing history of the Church of Scientology and a biography of the two men who have run it with increasingly iron-fisted control — Hubbard, who died in 1986, and his successor, David Miscavige.
It is a fascinating account of bad stuff (bigamy, forgery, lies, philandering, infiltrating the U.S. government, shunning and greed) that pales in comparison with the truly appalling stuff: beatings, misogyny, spousal abuse, kidnappings, imprisonment, child abuse, brainwashing, extortion and terror. Married couples are forced to divorce; children are separated from parents; women are forced to terminate pregnancies; journalists are harassed and intimidated, and members of the Sea Org (the church elite) who fall out of favor are banished for months and years to “the Hole,” a near-gulag hidden behind barbed wire and guard dogs on a remote California compound.
(Miscavige’s wife, Shelly, has not been seen in public nor heard from since 2006, though the church says, rather chillingly, that they know exactly where she is.)
In the Hole, they live 50 to a trailer with no furniture and little food, laboring for up to 16 hours a day. Punishments come in the form of beatings and humiliation — such as being made to wash the bathroom floor with one’s tongue.
Those few who “blow” (escape) are tracked down and hauled back — not too difficult, given that the church knows their bank account numbers, Social Security numbers, cell-phone numbers and the locations of family members.
The power in Wright’s book lies as much in his meticulous investigative reporting as in his evenhanded approach. He allows the church to rebut his points repeatedly in the text (sometimes as footnotes). He doesn’t label — never calls the church a cult, never accuses church officials of brainwashing (although he quotes others who do). He stops the narrative twice to discuss religion, and to muse on Christianity as well as more recent faiths such as the People’s Temple, Christian Scientists and Branch Davidians.
His tone throughout is that of a person who is deeply curious, but who also is determined to hold the church accountable for its actions. “Going Clear” is a fascinating read, and a chilling one.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @stribbooks.