In response to:
Scientology: The Story from the April 25, 2013 issue
To the Editors:
Diane Johnson’s sophomoric line claiming that you can spot a Scientologist by their “glazed look” tells you everything you need to know about her bias and prejudice toward the global religious movement and why she was the wrong person to objectively review Lawrence Wright’s book [“Scientology: The Story,” NYR, April 25]. This does a great disservice to readers of The New York Review of Books.
Among Ms. Johnson’s misstatements:
• Like Mr. Wright, Ms. Johnson regurgitates the false allegation that L. Ron Hubbard once said that “he’d like to start a religion because that’s where the money is.” This myth was exposed years ago via several court judgments in two countries that established that Mr. Hubbard never made such a statement.
• Ms. Johnson seeks to perpetuate the myth that lawsuits “are Scientology’s principal weapons against its outside critics.” Yet she can cite no example more recent that 1971, and for good reason. In fact, the Church has not filed suit against a media organization in more than two decades. While we reserve the right to sue over defamation and the spreading of egregious falsehoods, the public record is clear: we go to great lengths to avoid litigation.
• She extols Lawrence Wright’s fact checkers, but omits completely that the Church has documented dozens of factual inaccuracies and undermined the credibility of key sources for his book. These inaccuracies include everything from citing an interview with a source with whom Wright never corresponded or met to claiming that the Church owns banks and schools in Clearwater, Florida, which a simple check of public records shows is false. He even botched the year a prominent celebrity Scientologist was married even though the wedding was covered by scores of media worldwide. Add to that tales Mr. Wright printed from news clippings without mentioning they were later recanted, along with allegations he prints from court cases that conveniently neglect to mention they were tossed out as baseless during judicial proceedings. In one case, Wright attributes a bizarre, unsubstantiated tale about a phantom crime even though police and court records show no such crime ever took place. Mr. Wright’s source: a man who once publicly claimed that his daughter and father had committed suicide with the Reverend Jim Jones in 1978, but later admitted he made it all up.
• Her sweeping pronouncement that “Scientology is a moneymaking outfit” flies in the face of six decades of reasoned conclusions to the contrary reached by judges, government administrative bodies, and religious experts worldwide.
• Ms. Johnson refers to Lawrence Wright relying on the work of Dr. Robert J. Lifton to condemn Scientology. Something Ms. Johnson and Mr. Wright failed to note is that in 1987 Dr. Lifton himself sharply criticized any use of his theories of coercive persuasion when applied to participation in new religious movements.
• The review happily embraces a small collection of former Scientologists and self-promoters behind an orchestrated media campaign. In an attempt to sell self-published books, they invent new, increasingly bizarre tales while “corroborating” each other. Yet they can’t find outside sources, police reports, public records, or any other objective, third-party means to verify their allegations.
We believe your readers should be able to judge for themselves whether Mr. Wright did his homework, or whether he merely compiled a laundry list of exaggerated claims and allegations made to newspaper and TV reporters by disgruntled ex-members. Publishers in the United Kingdom and Canada chose not to publish the book, which we believe speaks to quality of the facts, allegations, and sources Mr. Wright used. And while we are aware libel laws are stricter in those countries, if a book and its sources tell the truth there should be no cause for concern by a publisher….
Public Affairs Director
Church of Scientology International
Los Angeles, California
Diane Johnson replies:
It seems to me that the Church of Scientology’s quarrel is more with Mr. Wright than with my review of his book. In addition to a statement concerning Wright’s book at www.scientologynews.org/lawrencewright, the church has posted an elaborate website to discuss what it claims are his errors: www.lawrencewrightgoingclear.com.
Readers can decide, based on their experience with the reliability of The New Yorker magazine and books published by Knopf, whom they will choose to believe. Knopf has published a statement of its own policies and methods of fact-checking: knopfdoubleday.com/2013/01/17/a-statement-from-knopf-about-going-clear-by-lawrence-wright.
For the record, the glazed Scientology stare that I mentioned is also described by Jenna Miscavige Hill, Scientology leader David Miscavige’s niece, in Beyond Belief, her account of escaping from the group: Scientologists “recognizable by their uniforms and their blank stares” (p. 394), and elsewhere “a correct Scientology stare” (p. 117). She describes learning to stare: “The stated aim was to learn how to face another person without anxiety but, in actuality, it felt more like a mindless staring contest. In time, the stare would morph into a hypnotic trance…” (p. 69).
My piece concludes in part that “any merit of [L. Ron] Hubbard’s methods and thought is being lost through misguided institutional paranoia and secrecy,” of which the church’s response to Wright (and me) is an example. Perhaps defensiveness is a tendency of other religious groups, too, especially in the early years of their foundation; perhaps it is even a necessity for promoting cohesiveness and loyalty among the followers who don’t fall away.