Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear

Like Inside Scientology, Going Clear gives a history of the “Church” of Scientology and its leaders—first L. Ron Hubbard and then David Miscavige. It’s written in a similar straightforward journalistic style. Going Clear is an expansion of a New Yorker article; Inside Scientology is an expansion of a Rolling Stone article.

Though this book has somewhat more on the celebrity side of Scientology (one of its main sources is Paul Haggis, a prominent Hollywood screenwriter who was a long time Scientology member and then woke up), the books overlap considerably.

It sounds like there’s a good chance Scientology “has something” on some of its celebrity spokespersons. That’s one of the advantages after all of putting members through the “auditing” sessions. Auditing is like a perverse version of confession in Catholicism. Members are strongly pressured—“for their own good,” for therapeutic purposes—to confess in detail any weakness, any misdeed, or anything they are ashamed of, especially any negative thoughts they’ve had about the “church” itself. The “church” keeps the tapes of these sessions (after the loathsome Miscavige has a chance to listen to any sexual parts of them). It’s not a stretch to think they’re used for blackmail.

Both Tom Cruise and John Travolta, especially the latter, have at times pulled back a bit from the “church,” only to soon resume their close ties. There’s no proof available publicly yet, but the speculation, stories, rumors, etc. is that they—again, especially Travolta—are threatened when necessary with being outed as homosexual if they stray. Maybe they have Travolta on tape describing the details of homosexual encounters or something.

Though an interesting rumor that makes it all the more complex is that Travolta at one point threatened the “church” that he would embarrass them by coming out as gay. If so then I guess there were competing threats for a time—“If you don’t toe the line, we’ll let the world know you’re gay!,” “Oh yeah? If you piss me off I’ll tell the world one of your most prominent members is gay!”

As described in the book, a lot of the common defenses of Scientology boil down to noting how the allegedly objectionable aspects of it are present in one or more mainstream religions. So, the idea is that criticizing Scientology manifests unjustified hostility toward a new religion that’s really no less worthy of respect and acceptance than more longstanding, “normal” religions. Is there anything to this?

I’m not likely to be swayed by such an argument, because I think mainstream, organized religions are pretty bad in many respects, so telling me you’re like them is not going to score a lot of points with me.

I think Scientologists would be fine with that though. If they can establish that their critics are hostile to religion in general, that’s a public relations win for them.

I think the opportunity to even present this line of argument is just another advantage of pretending to be a religion. The primary motivation for that ruse was financial—to escape having to pay taxes on their ill-gotten gains—but another advantage is it puts them in a class of organizations that many people are hesitant to criticize.

Like at one of the many trials Scientology has been involved in over the years, the “church” was able to bring out a large number of people, including some celebrities, to protest outside the courtroom. Stevie Wonder sent along a recorded message of support, the gist of which was that once the government starts suppressing newer or unpopular religions, no religion is safe.

Again, to some extent my response to “Hey, don’t pick on us. We’re no worse than the other religions” is “OK, a pox on all your houses then. None of you should be exempt from taxes, and none of your kooky beliefs should be exempt from criticism.” But I don’t think those who are more favorably disposed than I toward religion should feel obligated to put Scientology on a level with real religions.

The whole thing is a marketing scam to feed the megalomaniacal greed for money and power of Hubbard and Miscavige. It’s a business. Just because the IRS was bullied into calling it a religion for tax purposes, that doesn’t mean anyone else is obligated to regard it as one. If Exxon or Walmart or the mafia got a few of their people at the top to wear clerical collars, and they started calling themselves the Church of Walmart or whatever, that wouldn’t constitute the formation of a new religion in any meaningful sense.

There’s an interesting passage in the book about a Frank K. Flinn that’s an example of Scientology supporters’ tendency to equate their enterprise with religion.

Flinn, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a former Franciscan monk, is one of Scientology’s go-to defenders in court and before the media. When confronted with allegations that Scientology works some of its dupes inhuman hours for little or no pay, humiliates them regularly, makes it difficult or impossible to leave their compound when they’re being punished, and then if they do somehow escape aggressively tries to collect thousands of dollars in deferred fees for the privilege of being treated like shit for years, Flinn dismisses these and other criticisms as applying just as much to other religions.

It’s common in a religion, he notes for example, for there to be a very wide disparity between the richest and poorest members. Religions are often hierarchical, with a high value being placed on obedience. Their biographies of their founders are often as hagiographic as the provably false claims made about Hubbard by himself and others in Scientology. Many expect or require their members to limit their connections with non-members, including family.

As far as the inner circle folks being treated inhumanely, you could say the same thing, he claims, about a lot of religious orders. As a Franciscan monk, he had what he regards as more extreme experiences than what Scientologists undergo, and no one is calling for the Catholic Church or the Franciscans to be shut down because of it. “He willingly submitted to the religious practice of flagellation on Fridays, whipping his legs and back in emulation of the suffering of Jesus before his crucifixion. Flinn also spent several hours a day doing manual labor. As a member of a mendicant order, he owned no material possessions at all, not even the robe he wore.”

I think there’s a place for that kind of voluntary poverty. I can understand an institution facilitating its members voluntarily embracing humility for their spiritual growth.

But with Scientology, we’re talking about a ruthless capitalist enterprise. When Miscavige and his minions hold people against their will and put them through torture and near-torture, any spiritual growth is decidedly incidental. They are being punished—for not raising enough money, for saying or doing something that could put the “church” in a bad light, for criticizing Miscavige, or just arbitrarily to manifest Miscavige’s power. Somehow I don’t see that as having the solemnity of a monk or nun suffering while meditating about the crucifixion, or Gandhi undergoing a fast for spiritual purification.

Or as the author puts it:

However, when [Flinn] finally decided to leave his order, instead of being incarcerated or given a freeloader tab, he was given a dispensation releasing him from his vows. He never felt the need to escape. He took off his robe, put on civilian clothes, and walked away. His spiritual adviser gave him five hundred dollars to help him out. He was never punished or fined, or made to disconnect from anyone.

The “escape” phenomenon is an intriguing one. Clearly there are times people are forcibly prevented from leaving Scientology property. I don’t mean rank and file folks who buy a book or buy a class or buy an auditing session. I mean the administrative or “Sea Org” people—Miscavige’s bureaucrats and slaves who live in a cultlike fashion largely cut off from the outside world. Especially when they are being punished, they are confined. They aren’t going anywhere unless they escape.

But then the question arises, if people really are being held against their will, and a few of them manage to escape, why aren’t Scientologists charged with kidnapping or some such crime?

The short answer is because according to the author they never call the police. I believe the only partial exception cited is when one of the higher ups finally manages to break free, he calls the police from a motel as a preventive measure to tell them that he suspects the Scientologists might attempt to take him back by force. But he doesn’t report them as having broken the law by holding him in the first place.

But again, why? The Scientologists’ answer would be because those people aren’t in fact being held against their will, that that’s all a myth. But why really?

It may or may not be classifiable as “brainwashing” (a term that is controversial in itself), but you have to remember these people are pretty badly messed up, and not likely to do what might seem rational or common sense to an outsider.

This is an organization they either joined voluntarily, or were born into. They sign contracts pledging themselves to the “church” for a billion years. Hammered into them for months, for years, for decades are such messages as that they will benefit from remaining loyal to the “church” and serving it, that anything they do against the “church” will be the worst form of treason, that their fate after death depends on how obedient they are to the “church,” that everyone outside the “church” is an evil tempter and enemy who means them only ill, etc. They are cut off as much as possible from media, family, or anything that might in any way conflict with these messages.

As a result, most of the people don’t want to leave. The majority of those who decide they do want to leave are ambivalent, wracked with guilt, prone to change their mind and decide to stay, lacking in any material resources and most life skills, fearful of the retribution of Scientologists, fearful of the outside world they’d be entering, reluctant to break ties with the only people they’ve been allowed to have relationships with for most or all of their life, and so on.

If in spite of all that they do find a way past the armed guards and electrified fences and such, they’re such emotional wrecks that they just want to put the experience behind them, not enter into a legal conflict with one of the wealthiest, most litigiously ruthless organizations known to man. They’re self-conscious, maybe embarrassed, about the fact that for most of their time in Scientology they really were there by choice. Maybe they’re still not sure they did the right thing in leaving. Maybe they are sure, but they don’t want to have to explain why they were on the other side of that issue for so long. So they don’t call the police. They don’t seek anyone’s arrest. They don’t sue. They just try to get on with their lives, or worse yet they drift back into the clutches of the “church.”

For me, one of the most haunting passages of the book is the description of the near-escape of one of the officials who had fallen out of favor with Miscavige. Encouraged by her husband, who had already left the “church,” she eventually got up the nerve to try to get away.

She fled the compound, soon followed by Scientology goons in hot pursuit. Her goal was to join her husband in Maine. She managed to get a flight from California to Boston, where she was to catch a connecting flight to Maine.

The Scientologists, who use the sophisticated and detailed files they keep on their members to anticipate where they will flee to and such, and use private investigators who specialize in getting information (credit card usage, airline itineraries, etc.) that is supposed to be confidential, soon found out what plane she was on. One of Miscavige’s toughest henchman set off at a hundred miles per hour for the airport. He got on a plane to Boston, one that would arrive twenty minutes after the escapee’s.

Upon arrival, he sprinted to where her connecting flight was boarding:

The passengers were still on the ramp; Annie was only six feet away from him. “Annie!” he cried. She turned around. As soon as she saw who it was, her shoulders slumped, and she walked toward him.

They secured the use of John Travolta’s private jet to whisk her back to captivity as quickly as possible.

No one put a gun to her head. No one picked her up physically and dragged her kicking and screaming away from the plane to Maine. But she had been so weakened, and her mind so messed up, that she meekly surrendered to her fate. It must have felt to her like “They’re even here at the airport on the other side of the country. They’ll never leave me alone. I can never truly get away from them.”

She didn’t scream for the police. She didn’t seek assistance from airline personnel. She didn’t seek to board the plane to see if he would try to stop her. There was no fight left in her.

Going Clear is the kind of book to give one nightmares.

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