I'm going to tell you something about the origin of this planet that will literally blow your mind. That is, if it doesn't kill you first. Are you ready? Have you passed Operating Thetan Levels I and II? OK. Then here it is:
Seventy-five million years ago a Galactic Confederacy was ruled by an evil overlord named Xenu. After an attempted coup, Xenu and a few of his psychiatrist henchmen lured in his foes by telling them to come in for an income-tax investigation. Then he murdered them. Billions of them! After the slaughter, Xenu packed their bodies into spaceships that look exactly like DC-8 airplanes without propellers. He flew these dead people, called "body thetans," to a planet, then called Teegeeack. He dropped the bodies into volcanoes. Then he blew the volcanoes up with hydrogen bombs. But thetans are immortal: though their bodies were incinerated, their souls still roam the planet.
That planet is Earth.
Those thetans are inside YOU.
And this is Scientology, in a nutshell, according to Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright. Whether you are actively insane or just a bit sad, you can blame thetans. All those alien souls, milling around inside you, wrestling for control: no wonder we can't stay away from that cake! To get rid of the body thetans (and "go clear"), you need L. Ron Hubbard's religion.
And now that I've told you this, you're supposed to go mad and keel over. "The material involved in this sector is so vicious, that it is carefully arranged to kill anyone if he discovers the exact truth of it," wrote Hubbard, founder of Scientology, in 1967.
|Lafayette Ronald Hubbard|
Have you died yet? No? Me neither. Weird, huh?
For a few years, Hubbard did manage to keep this material secret from everyone except a few devotees — acolytes so thoroughly invested in Scientology that they were prone to accept whatever Hubbard said. But with the Internet, the Xenu story has become universally available to anyone with a computer. Now we don't have to do through all that work to find out why we have problems. Yay! Just pop into the nearest Scientology center and get yourself audited with an e-meter.
OK, so Scientology is easy to make fun of. Almost every religion, when you examine its origin story in this way, can be made to sound nutty, right? Wright goes to great lengths in Going Clear to be fair to Scientology, and to remind readers that whatever their religion, improbable stories are embedded in its doctrine. Perhaps Scientology only sounds crazy because it's a new religion, and new stories are met with more skepticism than old ones — which acquire a veneer of truth, maybe unfairly, through centuries of retelling.
But the wacky Xenu story is not the heart of Wright's book, which is a brilliant piece of straight-faced investigative journalism. The origins and tenets of the religion are fascinating, and the bio of L. Run Hubbard is astonishing, but what I found most disturbing is what the church is up to now. Because if Wright is to be believed (and I think he is), the church has turned into a sort of prison camp and brainwashing machine; people are literally locked away for years. Children are forced into labor and left unschooled. Followers are starved and beaten. And some people — like current leader David Miscavige's wife, Shelly — just disappear.
In a sense, this is fairly run-of-the-mill cult stuff. Cults often involve separation from family, isolation from the world, child abuse, slave labor, and heaps of brainwashing. They are headed by leaders like Hubbard and Miscavige: messianic, charismatic, and often violent. (The stories of Miscavige's violence are almost unbelievable. And of course the church denies it all.) At least, as Wright points out, Miscavige hasn't pulled a stunt like Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that carried out terrorist attacks. But what does make Scientology special, and slightly worrisome, is its very deep pockets. Those deep pockets come thanks to its close ties to Hollywood.
If you're like me, you've always been flummoxed by the connection between Scientology and Hollywood. What is it about L. Ron Hubbard's odd mix of sci-fi and self-help that appeals especially to movie stars? The explanation is a bit complex, but it has to do with Hubbard's own ties to the movie industry, and the way Scientology is such a perfect fit for vain, self-important celebrities. It's not a religion aimed at the poor and downtrodden, as Christianity (once) was: it's aimed at "making the able more able."Scientology promises adherents near-magical powers, and on a more realistic level there's the networking aspect: it's a chummy little world there in Hollywood, and it's strongly indicated that if you are a struggling actor trying to get a foot in that world, you'll have a much better shot if you join L. Ron's club. You'll be palling around with the likes of Travolta and Tom Cruise!
|Tom Cruise and David Miscavige|
So yeah: about Cruise. According to one of Wright's sources, Cruise is the Number Two man of Scientology. He's the Jesus to David Miscavige's God. Travolta is depicted as much more tangential and less enthusiastic — you get the feeling he doesn't really want to be there any more, but it's also clear that it's very, very difficult to get out. Cruise, on the other hand, is true believer, and the chief evangelizer. This makes him complicit in the church's egregious and painstakingly-documented wrongs. As one reviewer said, "Tom Cruise comes across as a horrible person." Another echoed, "After reading this, I will never go see another Tom Cruise movie."
Members are heavily tithed, and because so many are rich, Scientology has vast resources. Most cults are not so well-funded. Scientology may have far fewer members than it says — they claim 4.4 million, Wright estimates more like 30,000 — but with immense wealth comes great power. Even the US government, which has tried to stand up to Scientology on several fronts, has ended up cowed and defeated by the team of lawyers the church has retained. Those lawyers are as formidable as an army. Those lawyers have prevented anyone from rescuing the child-laborers, or Shelly Miscavige, or the people trapped in The Hole — a double-wide trailer where some executives have been imprisoned for months or possibly years. This, to me, was the central point of the book. You can laugh at strange people and their strange beliefs all you like; but right now, people are truly suffering because of L. Ron Hubbard's snake oil. And it seems nobody can help them. My hope is that with this book, pressure against Scientology will grow to a point the lawyer-army can't fix. And the whole thing will collapse. Because it's rotten to the core.
Read it as a study of a new and thoroughly American religion. Read it as a profile of two megalomaniacal men. Read it to understand how people can so thoroughly delude themselves. Read it to find out more about Cruise's weirdness. Read it to expose one wicked organization's crimes. Read it purely out of prurient interest. No matter what your motives are for picking up this book — you will not be disappointed.
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Please check out the other Cephalopod Coffeehouse book reviews here: