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…

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