"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, February 16, 2013

'Going Clear' in Spite of Scientology

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For all the absurdity to be found in the story of Scientology, detailed in the new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, one quote from a critic of the religion bugs me most. In Chapter 7, a German labor minister named Norbert Blum says, “This is not a church or a religious organization. Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings.” I appreciate his sentiment; however, “machine for manipulating human beings” strikes me as an apt description of religion, albeit an undiplomatic one. It also makes for a good definition of fraternities, sororities, corporations, political parties, really any organization motivated by self-interest that sets out to sculpt whole societies.

I came to Lawrence Wright’s new book by way of having appreciated his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on al Qaeda in The Looming Tower. Going Clear has proved a less satisfying read, though not for lack of quality. Wright’s work continues to be first-rate long form journalism. He brings together copious amounts of new research, while providing thoughtful analysis of extant source material. Nevertheless, the book is dissatisfying and at times outright dismaying.

My dissatisfaction stems from the impossibility of achieving a complete and factual narrative. A clear picture inevitably remains hidden underneath a mountain of hearsay, slander, counter-slander, and unverifiable speculation by persons actually willing to give interviews. My dismay stems from almost everything Wright is able to verify. For all that is shocking or maddeningly esoteric about Scientology, it proves to be just the latest in an ever lengthening line of religions which pursue existential comfort at any cost: financial or intellectual. I write this as someone with a great deal of personal experience in religion.

It’s a credit to Wright that he can sift through the intellectual rubble, uncover so many troubling instances of ruined lives, all the while keeping a level head and coming back to the larger picture. And the larger picture must grant Scientology and its members some merit and understanding. Wright is able to confront the darker episodes but then pull back to remind worked-up readers like me that many in the church have harnessed the religion to attain fulfilling lives.

Wright is especially successful in making sense of Scientology’s fanatical crusade against psychiatry—a seeming hatred that comes to a head with Tom Cruise’s notorious on-air squabble with Today host Matt Lauer. Wright points out more than once the troubling underbelly of psychiatry, from its early and painful experimenting to its current reliance on profit-driven pharmacology. The fear and apprehension of Scientologists toward psychiatry, though hypocritical, is not entirely misplaced.

Where Going Clear achieves great value is in its perceptive and heartfelt portrayals of John Travolta and Paul Haggis (now an ex-Scientologist). The latter, screenwriter of the acclaimed films Crash and Million Dollar Baby, emerges as the book's protagonist. Wright has a tougher time pinning down founder L. Ron Hubbard, current leader David Miscavige, and cultural icon Tom Cruise. With these men, who lived or live cloistered behind public relations machines, Wright can do little more than report the wealth of critical testimony about them, while dutifully footnoting the blanket denials provided by these men’s spokespersons.

The notion of belief as a prison can seem disheartening, but Wright makes a strong and carefully documented case that it is often just that. Readers of every persuasion will be given much to think about if they read Going Clear. Though it is not a fun or uplifting work, the book candidly relates the pitfalls Scientology has created for itself and its opponents. Ultimately it is an all too familiar tale of religion in pursuit of the best but often winding up at the worst.

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