The Church of OMG
By Jenny Lower 02/14/2013
& the Prison
By Lawrence Wright
(2013, Alfred A. Knopf)
Lawrence Wright’s latest book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, is one humdinger of a takedown. The page-turner reads like pulp fiction — incidentally, Scientology founder and writer L. Ron Hubbard’s former genre — packed with lurid tales of bigamy, black magic, paranoia, wife beating, forced abortions, kidnapping and espionage.
It almost sounds too far-fetched to be credible — adults, in this day and age, packed into airless trailers in the desert, deprived of food and sleep, convinced they’ll endanger their immortality if they flee? But if the journalist and his 200-plus sources (many former high-ranking members) are to be believed, these stories may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Going Clear expands Wright’s prize-winning 2011 New Yorker article “The Apostate.” That piece mostly profiled director Paul Haggis, who publicly denounced Scientology in 2009. Haggis remains, but the expanded version (which takes its name from a state of enlightenment on the church’s Bridge to Total Freedom) now examines Scientology’s vast financial holdings, its courtship of celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and fantastic accounts of alleged mistreatment.
But Wright’s book doesn’t read like gotcha journalism. If anything, he displays studious fairness toward Scientology. The church’s more exotic cosmology, like its belief in an evil emperor Xenu who ruled over a Galactic Confederacy 75 million years ago, is presented without irony. Wright concedes Hubbard’s extraordinary charisma, despite the man’s obvious flaws.
Footnotes document each disputed assertion, like the accusations of physical assault lodged against current leader David Miscavige, which the church categorically denies. (Wright cites 11 people who claim to be victims; 22 say they witnessed abuse first-hand.) Exhaustive endnotes and a four-page bibliography document Wright’s sources. An entire chapter is devoted to a meeting hashing out the church’s response to the New Yorker’s 971 fact-checking queries: the Scientology delegation arrives with 48 three-ring binders’ worth of material stretching nearly seven feet.
The mountain of information can be overwhelming at times, but it contains unforgettable narratives. One of the many profoundly disturbing episodes Wright recounts is the case of Daniel Montalvo. Now in his 20s, Montalvo joined the Sea Org with his parents at age 5. He says he spent 15-hour workdays cleaning up asbestos without protective gear before moving, in his teens, to Scientology’s publishing division in Los Angeles. While working there with the guillotine-style machine that slices notches into each book’s appendix, he cut off a finger. Doctors, believing he’d injured himself in a skateboarding accident, tried and failed to reattach it.
Wright acknowledges that in many religions, what seem irrational or absurd teachings to outsiders become articles of faith for their members. He compares Scientology to other homegrown religious movements, like Mormonism and the Amish. But Wright’s painstaking reporting amasses evidence of an institution that seems so flawed that, if even one-tenth of his findings were to prove true in court, for example, they would likely place the church’s survival in serious jeopardy. As it is, given this book, the court of public opinion may accomplish that anyway.