Lawrence Wright on ‘Going Clear’

Categories: Chicago Tribune

In an interview with Printers Row, Wright discussed L. Ron Hubbard and his controversial legacy.

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

4:27 p.m. CST, January 18, 2013

Covering the church beat takes on an entirely new dimension when that church is the Church of Scientology. Since its founding in 1954 by former pulp fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the church has aggressively used the courts and public relations campaigns to undermine and intimidate journalists who seek to dig deeper into its controversial doctrines and practices. Lawrence Wright's 432-page book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” expands on his lengthy 2011 report in The New Yorker that follows the defection of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director, while confronting the firm resolve of true believers who are crucial for the church's survival in the midst of growing claims of human trafficking and imprisonment of some members and physical abuse conducted by David Miscavige, its top leader. 

In response to a request for comment, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw calls Wright's book "a work of fiction" and says the church was not provided with a copy of the book before publication and that, despite the church's request for written questions, Wright "studiously avoided the Church, providing only about a dozen obscure and esoteric fact-checks — none on any relevant subjects."

"The one thing 'clear' about Lawrence Wright's book is that he continues to carry water for a handful of angry, bitter individuals. … Apostates constitute 95 percent of his interviews," she says.

Wright says he "repeatedly asked for the opportunity" to talk with top church leaders "to give them the opportunity to put their side of the story forward," but the church "chose not to respond to those requests."

Based in Austin, Tex., Wright earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for "Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" (Knopf). The dark side of extremism he explored in that book is also a theme in "Going Clear," especially in passages that document the abuse of its youngest and most vulnerable clerics and retaliation against certain members who choose to exit the church publicly. Wright's research debunks elements of Hubbard's biography, and the disparity he illustrates between the church's dwindling membership (estimated at 25,000) and its booming fortunes ($1 billion in liquid assets) suggests Scientology is less about promoting enlightenment and more about protecting a profitable global enterprise.

However, despite such revelations, his writing humanizes a religion that is often too freely characterized as cultish, and he remains respectful of believers who say their lives were ultimately bettered by Hubbard's methods that led them to achieve "Clear," a state that washes away repressive memories. He suggests that whatever value Scientology has for its members is stained by the paranoia of its leaders toward the outside world and the prominence assigned to courting Hollywood's elite.

Wright recently took time to talk by phone from his home about what went into writing "Going Clear." Following is an edited transcription of our conversation.

Q: The church contradicts most of your reporting, and in one moment of the book, its attorneys show up at The New Yorker with 48 binders of material stretching about 7 linear feet, a tactic you suggest was intended to intimidate you into reversing course. Why didn't it work?

A: It could be they thought they were going to drown me in information, which is the wrong approach. For a reporter, it's pouring water on a fish. When they rolled in those 48 volumes, I looked at those binders with absolute joy. After our meeting, we loaded them on dollies and took them to an unused computer room in The New Yorker's office with no windows. Just a long narrow room with a long desk. I lined all the volumes up and closed the door and had them all to myself. I was really happy.

Q: It is well documented that journalists probing the inner world of Scientology have been stalked, threatened and forced into litigation. Did that history give you pause?

A: I was aware of the past history. I didn't go into it with my eyes closed. But when you have a situation where there are so many allegations and there is a history of threats and also of inaction on part of police agencies, it's an important spot for an investigative reporter to step in. That's what we were created to do. I thought the ideal spot for me, as a reporter, was to try to assess the truth of the situation.

Q: So much of what one associates with Scientology is the secrecy, which, to be fair, is a hallmark of many religions. However, in Scientology, it feels much more stern and with an obvious litigious bent. Why?

A: The church's culture of secrecy is part of its DNA. It was in the personality of its founder. Hubbard was, by nature, secretive. He spent a decade on the high seas out of the reach of process servers and the press. The last several years of his life he was in hiding. From the very beginning of this movement, Scientology has always been a very closeted organization. That aura of secrecy is something that the present-day management continues.

Q: But why, when it might be seen as turning off potential believers?

A: There are two ways of looking at it. The church wants to protect the copyright on its arcane doctrines. But those doctrines have been long since spilled out in the courtroom through its many court challenges. Very little is to be gained now when (details of the doctrines are) openly mocked on "South Park." But they continue to want to protect what they think … is a very valuable copyright of their doctrines. People pay to have access to those secret doctrines. That's part of the Operating Thetan experience: As you climb up the ladder of Scientology's spiritual hierarchy, these secrets are revealed. But they've already been dumped into the public, so it's unclear what people are paying for.

The other thing is that Hubbard himself wrote out the policies for how to deal with public and the press, and his words are considered essentially scriptural. The person leading the church, David Miscavige, feels obliged to follow those dictates literally. If you look at them, Hubbard spells it out: Openly harass your critics and sue them even though you have no possibility of winning. The point is to intimidate your critics. And that's the policy the church continues to follow.

Q: Your book reveals how Tom Cruise is so intimately tied to the church and how far it has gone to keep him happy. Is he immune to these charges raised in your book?

A: I do think (his career) has suffered because of his allegiance to the church. For instance … (Viacom Inc. chairman) Sumner Redstone canceled his (Paramount Pictures) contract (in 2006). And his image suffered in the public, too. He is a great actor and an incredibly charismatic movie star, so he can ride through a lot of that because people love to see him in movies. Certainly Scientology bent over backward to make him happy. There's no other member of the church that I know of that's been given the extraordinary treatment he has: the gifts, the special accommodations, the awards, the recognition that Tom Cruise received. He's certainly the most visible Scientologist ever. But in my opinion, he has a responsibility to understand what else is going on inside that organization that he promotes so heavily.

Q: Yet he does not, nor do many other Hollywood believers. Why?

A: Haggis had asked Mark Isham, an Emmy-winning music composer, "Why don't you read the (2009 exposé of Scientology in the) St. Petersburg Times?" So I asked Isham, "Did you follow up on Paul's suggestion?" And his response was, "I started to, but it was like reading 'Mein Kampf.'" I was stunned by that. This was straightforward, objective reporting on the abuses inside the church, and he didn't want to look at them. The church cultivates this kind of response on the part of its members.

Q: You uncover evidence that many of the claims related to Hubbard's military service are not true. What does this mean for the believers? Does it matter?

A: I do think that the contradictions in Hubbard's bio are very telling. But whether they would change the opinion of people involved in Scientology is another question. A lot of times, when people get into the church they feel they've been helped by the auditing. Sometimes people have extraordinary, paranormal experiences, such as remembering past lives and out-of-body sensations. When that happens, logical accounts of what exactly happened to Hubbard during his wartime experience, those things don't matter as much.

I do think its influence is for people who are considering going into the church. But for those who have already gone in and felt they have gotten something from Scientology, I don't think it's going to change.

Q: When you listened to the experiences of people you interviewed, did any of them move you to feel that there was validity to what Scientology offered its believers?

A: I do think some people were helped by Scientology, and Haggis himself said he got something from it, especially in early days. A lot of people who go into Scientology never have been into therapy, and they experience being audited as a kind of therapeutic situation. People often pulled into Scientology want to address personal problems in their life, and Scientology says we have technology that addresses these kinds of problems. Just focusing on the problems and trying to remedy them can be helpful.

I don't dispute Scientology can help people; I think that is a very important fact to keep in mind. There are things about Hubbard's writings that are very perceptive and useful. If you can pare those things off, it would be a different organization than it is.

Q: The church has only been around since the second half of last century yet has been the subject of so much scrutiny. Why did the IRS agree to award it tax-exemption status in 1993?

A: IRS is very poorly equipped to make a distinction between what is a religion and what is not. But the opinion of IRS is the only one that counts. How did they come to that conclusion? You can say, on one hand, they were persuaded by the arguments that the Church of Scientology made or they were intimidated by more than 2,400 lawsuits launched against the IRS and its members by the church and its members. And they were overwhelmed. I don't take a position on it. I just observe that the IRS was overburdened by these lawsuits and part of the deal was to eliminate them.

Q: Yet in Germany the government does not recognize Scientology as a religion, and its members cannot join its major political parties.

A: We have two very different constitutions. The First Amendment for religious liberties is very extensive. But it makes potential violations of child labor laws and human trafficking more difficult to prove in the court of law. As Scientology has done in past, they can bring in a Franciscan monk who lacerates himself on Fridays in imitation of the suffering of Jesus on the cross and who has no belongings at all. Well, that's a religious manifestation, and it's very difficult to be against such a thing in this country.

In Germany, the fight against Scientology fits that country's tremendous fear of what they call sects that can develop into dangerous organizations. So they are much more on guard about that kind of manifestation than we are because of their history. Whereas in this country, the main principle in our Constitution is the First Amendment, which promises liberty to such organizations.

Q: Your description of Miscavige makes him sound like a rock star with expensive taste. In what ways does he fit into the context of other charismatic church leaders?

A: He's in the same position that Brigham Young was in when (The Church of Latter-day Saints founder) Joseph Smith died. Perpetuating a new religion means suffering a lot of persecution and being seen as a heretical sect by most Americans. So the test of a religion's ability to persevere often falls on the lieutenant who follows the founder. In that sense Miscavige passed the test. Scientology is still alive, even though its numbers may be diminished. It's financially very successful. And it has a cadre of attorneys that keep it from sinking from under the weight of all these different lawsuits it's experienced. In that sense, he's been an effective leader.

Q: In the book, you describe an incident involving Miscavige and a game of musical chairs that turned violent. It's interesting that this is one anecdote the church does not deny happened.

A: Every person who was there was deeply humiliated by this experience. Bear in mind these were his principal subordinates. I am puzzled by the fact that one of the reasons the church has an IRS tax exemption is (that) there are supposed to be layers of accountability. But the truth is, there's only one person running that church, and he exercises his control by subjecting other executives to this extended period of humiliation.

Q: Scientology is so ingrained with pop culture that it is hard to imagine it existing without Hubbard's fantastic imagination and charisma.

A: Hubbard was the most interesting person I ever had opportunity to write about. An unbelievably intriguing and contradictory figure. So many people think of him as an outright fraud. I don't see him that way. If he was really a con man and created a religion to make money, as so many people believe, at some point he would have taken the money and gone to Monte Carlo. That never happened. He put his whole life into the bureaucracy he created.

People inside the church think he's the greatest man who ever lived. The evidence doesn't support that. He was, in many respects, mentally troubled. I'm not trying to classify him or diagnose him one way or another; his own exploration of his mentality is far more complete. No one has ever taken a more detailed internal sounding of his own mind than L. Ron Hubbard in his writings. All of the contradictions, all of the apparent paranoia he displayed, are evident in the church he created.

Q: Scientology presents itself is as an alternativeto psychiatry, which was stigmatized in Hubbard's day. But therapy, as well as self-help culture, is generally accepted now. Does this shifting world threaten Scientology?

A: Scientology's approach to therapy is somewhat different. Between what they call the auditor, who in another term might be a therapist, and for the person receiving the treatment, there is the E-Meter device that functions as sort of a handicapped lie detector. If you believe that it can detect what is true and not true, that becomes a very potent intermediary. Hubbard said that it could register what lies below consciousness and it knew better than you what was true.

So let's say you enter into this therapeutic situation and an auditor asks what is troubling you. And they ask for early examples of situations, and finally, you run out of such examples, but they continue to press you and you get an image in your mind and the auditor is looking at you and says "What's that?" and you say, "Well, I don't know. It's just an image; I don't even know where it came from. It's an old English village." You flesh out this imaginary occurrence that the E-Meter validates. So it gives substance to fantasies that becomes a storehouse of these past life events. And that's very potent for a lot of people and reassuring that they've lived before and they will live again. Scientology has demonstrated to them that they are an eternal being. Once you gain that knowledge, you would be very reluctant to let go of it.

Q: How do you see Scientology's future?

A: It's too rich to actually go out of business. Interest in Scientology is obviously diminished. The proclivity people had for it in the past, the novelty, these things have all diminished with the weight of all these revelations that have come out about the church and inside behavior of its regents. Their reckoning is on the horizon. Whether it will come in the form of a federal investigation, or it is just a matter of the decision of its members and potential recruits to put distance between themselves and the church, that is something I can't answer.

Mark Guarino is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, where he covers national news out of the Midwest.

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