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Scientology: The Story

Paul White/AP Images
Tom Cruise and David Miscavige, head of the Church of Scientology, at the grand opening of the new Scientology church in Madrid, September 2004

Not to be read home alone on a stormy night: Going Clear, Lawrence Wright’s scary book about Scientology and its influence, with its accounts of vindictive lawyers and apostate captives confined in the “Hole,” a building that held dozens of people at a time. It’s a true horror story, the most comprehensive among a number of books published on the subject in the past few years, many of them personal accounts by people who have managed to escape or were evicted from the clutches of a group they came to feel was destroying them.

Wright’s report on the rich, aggressive organization (now we are supposed to say “new religious movement”) infiltrating the government and intimidating judges seems even more immediate now that we’ve seen the giant Scientology ad at the 2013 Super Bowl, and the Scientology “advertorial” on the website of The Atlantic, before it was hastily taken down—both perhaps intended by the Church of Scientology as damage control ahead of the publication of Wright’s evenhanded, chilling, and distinctly circumspect investigation. There is more damage as well in the latest survivor memoir among a gathering plethora, this one by Jenna Miscavige Hill, Scientology leader David Miscavige’s niece, who was born into its peculiar, circumscribed world, to a family of Scientologist grandparents and parents on both sides.

Scientology, founded in California in the Fifties by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, was at its beginnings a straightforward method of psychological self-help. It claimed that a follower, by improving his mental health and communications skills, could become happier and more successful in life. The group was especially opposed to two fashions of the times, drugs and mainstream psychiatry, both of which, ironically enough, are sometimes prescribed for someone who succeeds in breaking away from a long involvement in a group that seems to have become domineering, secretive, and greedy to the point of erasing the good it was intended for.

The exact number of Scientologists today is a matter of conjecture, whether the twenty-five or thirty thousand officially registered or the eight million the Church claims. According to Wright, it has at least $1 billion in liquid assets (one knowledgeable former insider says $2 billion), and property estimated at about the same amount, making it among the richer world religions, its money gained from sales of its materials for self-help, from smart investing, and from contributions wrung from its followers. People guess that Tom Cruise, its most visible disciple, has given millions, as have others with names less well known.

Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his judicious and wary book about Islam, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), seems to have a particular ability to understand and explain issues related to religion, recovered memory, fanaticism, and deviance—and the nerve to withstand objections and threats. With this set of qualifications, he is able to put Scientology into its broadly American social setting. Reviewing Wright’s book, which isn’t being published in England because of libel laws, the Web version of the English newspaper The Guardian notes (rather woundingly) that

Scientology is a neat reflection of the worst aspects of American culture with its repulsive veneration of celebrity; its weird attitudes towards women, sex, healthcare and contraception; its promise of equality among its followers but actual crushing inequality…. It is, in its own dark way, the inevitable religion to emerge from 20th-century America.


Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, born in 1911 in Nebraska, was more like Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale—gurus born in the late nineteenth century who were apostles of self-reliance and the evils of drugs—than like such mind-expansion seekers of the Sixties as Timothy Leary, Michael Murphy, or Ram Dass. The young Hubbard led a knockabout life of adventure, ambitious but failed projects, and a period in the Navy in World War II, hence the naval theme in the uniforms prescribed for his close lieutenants. He had talent as a writer, and evidently a good deal of personal charm.

In Wright’s presentation, he began like one of those slick, often attractive, self-made characters of Fifties films, played by Jimmy Stewart, with a lot of incorrigible spirit, and, in the beginning anyhow, maybe a sincere wish to help mankind, along with making a name for himself and a buck. He developed as charismatic leaders do, into a character like the one reportedly based on Hubbard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the recent Paul Thomas Anderson film The Master: sleazy, manipulative, cynical, and alcoholic.

A recent search of the archives of the Explorers Club in New York, an exclusive, serious century-old body with honorary members like Scott, Amundsen, Perry, and Byrd, turned up periodic communications from Hubbard, who, however much he may have been co-opted as a guru, continued to foster the Explorers Club’s view of himself in the nineteenth-century tradition of gentleman scholars making scientific contributions from their vicarages. Though the rest of his life may have been spoiled by his own frailties, allowing followers and dependents to push him in directions of self-indulgence and infallibility he found hard to resist, he apparently needed to see himself as a serious thinker, and maybe even was one. Wright notes, “Hubbard’s thought could be compared with that of other moral philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard,” though he tactfully doesn’t venture what the exercise in comparison would lead us to conclude.

Hubbard’s reported sayings and deeds could also suggest a tongue in cheek—people have attested that they witnessed a barroom bet he made with fellow sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein that he’d like to start a religion because that’s where the money is. His personal trappings might come from a Busby Berkeley musical—he ran a corps of teenage girls, the “Commodore’s Messengers Organization,” that wore sailor hats, white hot pants, halters, and platform shoes. He’s quoted as saying in one of his lectures that some people worried about the Prince of Darkness, adding “Who do you think I am? Bwahahahaha.” Moral philosopher or charlatan, he ended his life in relative simplicity in a double-wide trailer, working to the last on his books, with millions in the bank.

From Wright’s outline of the tenets of Scientology, or by dipping into Hubbard’s 1950 book Dianetics itself, you find nothing particularly alarming or enlightening either:

A science of mind is a goal which has engrossed thousands of generations of man. Armies, dynasties and whole civilizations have perished for the lack of it. Rome went to dust for the want of it. China swims in blood for the need of it…. No quest has been more relentlessly pursued or has been more violent. No primitive tribe, no matter how ignorant, has failed to recognize the problem as a problem, nor has it failed to bring forth at least an attempted formulation.

The language is in the simple, genial, and tutelary tone of a person devising an ontology from scratch, with the help of Will and Ariel Durant and the entries for Newton, Buddha, and John Stuart Mill in an old edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica; he invents some new-age terms for familiar concepts—“the awareness of awareness unit” instead of “consciousness,” and so on. Hubbard’s words are taken by his followers as papally inerrant, and one of the complaints by some current Scientologists is that the present leadership is tampering with the sacred texts. Some fallen-away members call for a Reformation, along the lines of Martin Luther, to recover what they see as LRH’s original vision, and expose the corruption that they feel has crept into the institution, as it has into other religious hierarchies.

The initial appeal and utility of Scientology seem mainly to be the speeded-up process of psychotherapy by which a follower or “preclear,” “audited” by another, “trained” Scientologist, moves toward an eventual goal of becoming “clear” of hangups by digging up traumatic events in the past, abetted by holding a “cylindrical electrode” in each hand through which the preclear’s reactions register on a meter (called an “E-meter”). In conventional terms, the patient or preclear is dredging up repressed memories (“engrams”), thereby being freed of their damaging effects, much as mainstream psychiatry tries to do. The Beat writer William S. Burroughs, an early enthusiast, described it in a letter to Allen Ginsberg: Scientologists “do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.”

Though Wright gives a long description of Scientology’s beliefs, it’s still hard to get a sense of how “the method” really works. In a 1955 revision of his original Dianetics, Hubbard describes six main procedures to master in order to progress, and the one dramatized in Anderson’s film resembles “8-C,” the “Opening Procedure.” Hubbard called it “one of the most effective and powerful processes ever developed” for self-understanding.

It begins with the auditor directing the “preclear” to look at something in a room, walk over to it, touch it, let go, step away, and then repeat this performance, along with certain verbal commands. This process seems to go on and on, but Hubbard explains that “the main error which is made in the Opening Procedure of 8-C is not to do it long enough. It takes,” he said, “about fifteen hours…to bring a person into a completely relaxed and Self-Determined state of mind regarding orders.”

I have noticed that Scientologists often seem to have a glazed look, as anyone would after fifteen hours of doing the simple repetitive act he describes; it’s worth noting, too, that to pay an auditor to sit there for fifteen hours would cost a lot in the normal world of psychotherapy, so it’s no wonder Scientology would have relied on unpaid, convinced believers as auditors.

Hubbardian techniques may work perfectly well. Modern life privileges fast therapies: aversion, “life coaching,” primal screaming, rebirthing, pillow fights, fasting, high colonics—instead of the more leisurely and expensive divagations of traditional psychotherapy. All forms of therapy depend on the energy and belief of both client and therapist, qualities abundant in Hubbard and his followers.

As a person gets clear, he gets to be an OT (Operating Thetan), then an OT level II, III, and so on, moving over a “bridge” toward enlightenment. Thetans are what we are in essence, independent of our present bodies according to an elaborate sci-fi mythology of human origins. “I had always believed that I was a Thetan,” Jenna Hill says; coming out of Scientology, it was a shock to her to realize maybe she was just a human being with only one life.

To climb up to the bridge in Scientology is expensive, perhaps in proportion to what the church thinks you can afford and find worth the expense. Some people go into bankruptcy to stay, some balk and leave, but Scientology is a moneymaking outfit, like Avon or Herbalife, getting revenue by giving each person a bonus for recruiting others to the sales force, so that besides conviction, there’s a financial incentive to serve the group. Participants’ earnings—“stats”—are expected to be always rising, or else they face punishment and demotion.

The Hollywood actor Jason Beghe estimates that he spent nearly $1 million on Scientology donations, material, and courses. One of Wright’s principal informants, Paul Haggis, a successful and talented television and screen writer and director (Casino Royale, Crash), also spent a considerable fortune. Haggis was a Scientologist from 1975, when he was twenty-one, until 2009, thirty-four years later, when he’d become disillusioned, and was also successful and prosperous enough to withstand the pressure and bullying he knew he could expect to punish his defection.

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