Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Going Clear

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.

Please check out the other Cephalopod Coffeehouse book reviews here:

1.The Armchair Squid2.What's Up, MOCK!
3.Counterintuitivity4.My Creatively Random Life
5.Scouring Monk6.The Life and Loves of Clare Dugmore
7.Words Incorporated8.The Random Book Review
9.Writer's Block10.Trisha @ WORD STUFF
11.Bird's Nest12.Choice City Native
13.Hungry Enough To Eat Six14.C.M. Brown
15.Subliminal Coffee

23 comments:

  1. A very cogent and interesting review. When Scientology was actively recruiting on campuses and parks in the '60s, and again --under the guise of "Way To Happiness Foundation", which invited homeschool families to entrust the church with their childrens' moral education-- in the '80s and '90s, all one needed was to decline politely. Some didn't, and they were usually in a state of personal crisis. All I know is I lost touch with those who joined. They stopped reaching out. I hope they did ok. My wife and kids were indifferent to churches, so we never joined any. We did ok.

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    1. Steph, I'm with Geo. (Cogent and interesting.) You prove yourself a master at reviewing both fiction and non-fiction.

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    2. Thanks, both of you! I gather than all proselytizing religions recruit best from those in a state of personal crisis. That probably seems really obvious, but it was kind of a newsflash to me when I first realized it.

      I hope your friends are OK, too: a lot of people do leave the Church when they realize how deeply screwed up it is. If they haven't got themselves too deeply invested in it, that is. Obviously those in the Sea Org (the priesthood, of sorts) and those with helpfully large bank accounts have a harder time leaving. There are stories of people trying to leave and being literally stalked across the country and rather forcibly returned.

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  2. I never really realised what Scientology was actually about till I read this post. haha. I knew it related to aliens and Hubbard and all that, but I haven't ever bothered to learn more. I think because I'm not religious at all and am not really that interested in any of it. And yet THIS has always held a bit more fascination just for its sheer wackiness.

    Thanks for the education!

    I like Tom Cruise's movies, and some of them I actually love. But I would be scared to hang out with the actual dude. ;)

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    1. I love Minority Report, but I'm not crazy about TC's other films, so it won't be any great loss to me to boycott him. :) I guess it's good I made my kids watch Top Gun (they need the cultural education!) before I read this book, ha. I'm not religious either, but for whatever reason instead of finding it boring or irrelevant I've been fascinated with it. Like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture. I was just as caught up in Jon Krakauer's book on the FLDS Church (and the historical LDS Church), "Under the Banner of Heaven," which I'd also recommend.

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    2. Well, I can agree that the more 'wacked-out' religions out there hold a certain fascination. But I'll admit to having an almost agoraphobic fear of the cult aspect of many of them.

      Mostly I guess I'm bored because I just can't relate, but I definitely see your point on it being fascinating. :)

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  3. Wow! Sounds like an intense read. My parents live just a couple of blocks from the L. Ron Hubbard house in DC. I had to explain to them who he was, though.

    No matter one's beliefs, religion, money and power are a potentially dangerous combination. I would think it'd be a tricky subject to write about objectively for the very reasons you note: there are problematic aspects with every faith in the world. Pointing fingers can easily be framed as hypocrisy. It sounds from your review as if this book does a nice job of walking that line.

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    1. "I had to explain to them who he was, though." This made me laugh! As for writing objectively, when the New York Times reviewed the book, they said, "that crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology." Since he knew he was going up against that lawyer-army, he had to have all his ducks in a row, for sure. Other journalists who tried to unmask the worst practices had their lives literally ruined by Scientology's pitbulls. Almost every page of Going Clear has a footnote that reads: "the Church of Scientology denies that this even took place." It becomes comical after a while.

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    2. "the Church of Scientology denies that this even took place."

      I laughed at that, too. It was particularly intrusive in the audiobook, as it began to remind me of redacted CIA documents in which every single word is blacked out.

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  4. Lawrence Wright is a great writer so I have no doubt the book is exhaustive in detail and well explicated.

    Hubbard was an evil and cynical man who proved his point I guess, that he could manufacture a religion based on really absurd nonsense, and thereby gather a large fortune and lots of followers.

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    1. I assumed he was a scam artist, too, and he does have that sticky, snake-oil-salesmany look. But one of the really interesting aspects of the book is his biography chapter ("Source"), which indicates that Hubbard really believed most of this stuff. He wasn't just a con man who invented a religion in order to get rich. Wright spends some time wondering with other experts what Hubbard's diagnosis might have been, because clearly something was wrong with his brain. Bipolar? Sociopathic? Paranoid schizophrenic?

      He was often deeply unhappy, and tried to change that with some of the following Affirmations, which he wrote and repeated to himself:

      -That my magical work is powerful and effective.
      -That I am not susceptible to colds.
      -That the numbers 7, 25, and 16 are not unlucky or evil to me.
      -That masturbation was no sin or crime.
      -That these words and commands are like fire and will sear themselves into every corner of my being, making me happy and well and confident forever!

      (From p. 52 of Going Clear, listed in no particular order.)

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  5. Very nice review. Lawrence Wright did a fantastic job, I thought. It's shocking that a handful of nutjobs, even with an army of lawyers, can wield enough power to humiliate even the IRS.

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    1. I know! Although the IRS doesn't come across as an especially competent organization. :/

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  6. The Church of Scientology is the One True Church.
    The Church of Scientology is the One True Church.
    The Church of Scientology is the One True Church.
    The Church of Scientology is the One True Church.
    The Church of Scientology is the One True Church.
    The Church of Scientology is the One True Church.
    The Church of Scientology is the One True Church.

    Oh, wait, Joe, snap out of it! Having just read the book as well, and being equally shocked at what I read, the one thing I'll mention that Stephanie didn't above is that they also do not believe that there are any gods or a God with a capital G. That makes Scientology initially appealing even to atheists and agnostics because it appears not as a religion but as a scientific approach to bettering oneself. They petitioned to become a religion only because of all the favors it afford them: tax-free profits and the ability to hide behind the First Amendment whenever they imprison people.

    Sigh.

    Great review, Stephanie. Very good!!

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    1. You make me laugh, Joe!

      What I took away is that Scientology does allow for god-belief, but it's not especially central to their dogma. Hubbard himself professed to believing in God, and said his theism was important to him. On that same page I quoted above (p. 52 from the hardback book), here are some other Affirmations:

      -That I believe in my gods and spiritual beings.
      (and switching to his second-person Affirmations):
      -You have no doubts about God.
      -You believe implicitly in God. You have no doubts of the All Powerful. You believe your Guardian perfectly.

      But of course that was from Hubbard's secret journal, which I think the Church denies.

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  7. I wonder, if it's around in a hundred years, what Scientology will look like. That's the real trick to understanding these upstarts.

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    1. One can only hope they'll be defunct, but barring that — maybe the extra attention from this book will cause them to amend their worst human-rights violations.

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  8. This book and it's investigative journalism into Scientology just fascinates and repulses me at the same time. I am definitely going to have to read it! Thanks for the recommendation.

    PS Tom Cruise is from NJ; he was a jerk back when he lived here and only got jerkier in Hollywood. He ditched his first wife Mimi Rodgers as soon as he got a little taste of fame. After that he hooked up with Nicole Kidman and did a real mind job on her- she is lucky to have survived. Then he moved on to poor Katie Holmes....anyone else see a pattern here? LOL

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    1. When did he live there? I know he had an unstable childhood; Wright focuses on the Canada part of his early life. His father was apparently very abusive, and his mom finally left him and took the kids back to the US. That must be when he ended up in NJ.

      The book gets into his love life, and it's even weirder than you think. He basically turned to the Church to arrange his girlfriends (and then wives) for him. Wright doesn't really get into Kidman and Holmes and what life was like from their angle, probably for two reasons: 1. no interviews granted, and 2. too prurient, not relevant enough to the topic at hand. But I want to know! I confess to prurience. :)

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  9. Ridiculous, scary stuff. It's difficult to fathom how it has caught on, even with self-important celebrities. I suppose if it's a sort of network, a club that will make one successful by being affiliated with it, maybe that makes sense. Crazy.

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    1. That's what I was hoping to understand: how did it catch on? I can't say the book really made me understand that, but I've never been able to wrap my mind around the way people can so glibly trick themselves into believing things that are patently untrue.

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  10. If Cruise really thinks he's Jesus, then we're all going to hell in a handbasket! I've read and heard a lot about the church of Scientology, but I didn't realize how sadistic they've become with locking people away and forced labor camps. Scary, because it almost sounds like the Nazis. Again, a small group rising to great power only to perform abominable things. And mounds of money help it right along. Very sad, I think. I think I would find this book to be very interesting. Thanks for sharing, Steph!

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