Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

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I’ll try to follow Beej’s post, but I’m pretty sure this book review isn’t even going to come close. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, make sure to take some time and do so – it’s a great piece. Now, back to this book review…

Growing up in rural Missouri, religion has always been a big part of my family’s life. I grew up in small Southern Baptist churches, where the few rows of pews were always packed with the same familiar faces. Though some other kids obviously had different upbringings, being raised in the church and its teachings was pretty much the norm for most down in the Bootheel of Missouri. I always accepted the beliefs (and still do) and never had to take a big leap of faith like so many who are not exposed to the religion at a young age. Surrounded by others who had the same beliefs as me, my religious beliefs were rarely questioned or ridiculed as to put me in a place where I had to defend them.

One of my first classes in college was an introductory religion class. The class was just a general overview over many popular religions – Christianity, Mormonism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. – but, outside of my own religion, their beliefs seemed kind of outlandish to me at first. Mormons believe an angel came to their founder directing him to an ancient book, which was translated into the Book of Mormon? Buddhists believe in reincarnation that they try to stop through something called nirvana? It didn’t take me too long to put it in perspective. When you try to put pretty much any religious beliefs into a modern-day perspective, they all seem a little crazy (including my own). But people still take that leap of faith and accept these seemingly outrageous claims.

That is what always struck me as pretty odd about people poking fun at Scientology’s beliefs. Yeah they are a little out there, but everyone’s beliefs are. So when I first heard about this book, I was a little skeptical since it’s almost impossible to find any information that isn’t extremely anti-Scientology or extremely pro-Scientology. But after I saw Wright’s interview on Colbert and heard he was a pretty respected journalist, I decided to check the book out. I’m glad I did.

Wright starts out the book with pretty extensive biography of the church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard ended up being a pretty successful science fiction writer, publishing books like Battlefield Earth (which was adapted into an absolutely awful movie) and the Mission Earth series, plus a ton of other books. But Hubbard started to change from science fiction writer to religious leader with the publishing of Dianetics – a set of ideas Hubbard had about the way the mind worked with the body. This work ended up being the foundation of Scientology. How the founder made the jump from science fiction to religious teachings didn’t go unnoticed to some. But there were other things that called Hubbard’s credibility into question, mainly because many considered him to be a pathological liar. One of his biggest lies was his boast of being a war hero that was injured in action. He miraculously cured himself through the powers of Scientology. Through Wright’s detective work, the author was able to uncover that there was no record of Hubbard ever really suffering these injuries and no record of many of the war medals he said he was awarded (Hubbard just made up some of the medal names). This biography of Hubbard was the best part of the book, especially considering the lack of unbiased material on Hubbard.

The middle portion of the book is mainly made up of the history of the Church and dives a little bit more into their actual beliefs. But this is the part of the book that became a little hard to follow. Scientology uses a lot of words and terms that aren’t used by anyone else. If you heard a group of Scientologists discussing their religion, it would be tough to understand. With terms and phrases like thetan, Suppressive Persons, RPF, OT levels, and countless others, it was really hard to follow Wright as he dove deeper into the inner workings of the Church. At times, Wright also seemed to get off topic and seemed to go off on small stories. For instance, Wright discussed an instance where Hubbard was disciplining some junior members, which included David Miscavige (the modern leader of Scientology). Wright then goes into a mini-biography on Miscavige for a page or two but jumps right back into Hubbard disciplining the members.

Even though it was hard to follow at times, the book still contained some interesting details on the Church that aren’t anywhere else. Wright talks about how difficult it was to get hold of good sources since the Church uses all of their resources to suppress any information that’s negative about the Church (which probably helps explain why his book wasn’t organized really well). Anyone that speaks out against Scientology is suddenly tailed by private investigators and buried with lawsuits. Reporters are harassed and whistleblowers that defected from the Church are followed and usually convinced to come back.

While people outside the Church are treated pretty bad, that doesn’t compare to members of the Church. The Church uses Hollywood celebrities like John Travolta and, of course, Tom Cruise to lure members in. Then the Church identifies problems that prospective members need to work on, which can be accomplished through classes that cost a small fee. Members end up spending hundreds of thousands (if not a million plus) of dollars on all of this training. And most members are trapped in the Church. Some members are put in a type of prison (with conditions that can be worse than an actual prison), but are not there against their will – they are convinced that did something bad enough to deserve the punishment. And even the members that want to leave aren’t able to, whether by fear that the Church would harass them or simply because they aren’t prepared for life outside the Church since it is all they’ve ever known.

Wright acknowledges that the teachings of the Church actually do help some people, and that is important to remember. Wright points out flaws in the Church while not condemning the actual beliefs. But in the backdrop of the teachings, it’s interesting to see all the problems with the founder of the religion and the Church itself. Wright does a great job uncovering facts about the Church that I’m sure were extremely difficult to come by, but the weird organization of the book made it difficult to read at times and I found myself re-reading a few portions to make sure I read it right.

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