Back Pages: New book dissects Scientology

1152020_CA_0113_Lawrence_Wright.IKReaders should try hard not to approach Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s comprehensive new volume “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief” (Knopf) expecting either a hatchet job or celebrity expose.

Some of its detractors, particularly those in the Church, have already labeled it both of those things in a dismissive manner, trying to blunt the journalistic impact of more than 400 pages that come as close as any prose work can to pulling back the curtains on a mysterious, secretive organization.

scientology2Wright’s past works, most notably his 2006 masterpiece on Al-Qaeda “The Looming Tower,” have closely examined the nexus of faith and obsession. “Going Clear” details how Scientology initially attracts individuals. He takes readers through its various stages as new members undergo a thorough and expensive process known as auditing.

Though he never uses the term “brain-washing,” and goes to great pains avoiding being judgmental in his analysis, Wright’s factual presentation shows how thoroughly Scientology blends persuasion, rewards, fear and punishment. The church carefully balances these things to ensure both obedience and positive reinforcement.

Wright divides the book between an exploration of a former true believer’s disappointment and disengagement (screenwriter/producer Paul Haggis), a litany of Scientology’s beliefs and practices over its evolution, and a look at two pivotal figures.

One is Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard, a remarkable person by anyone’s yardstick. Hubbard was a global adventurer and science fiction author before creating Scientology. He was also well versed in psychology, mysticism and several other areas.

The other is the church’s current head David Miscavige, who’s shown as a smart but violent soul who doesn’t hesitate to try destroying anyone he considers an enemy. He’s the person most feared by many former members. Yet, he’s also simultaneously credited with expanding Hubbard’s vision and making the church even wealthier and more influential in Hollywood.

Wright never directly addresses the question of whether Scientology is a religion or a cult. But he shows just how much familial touches are emphasized. Former members who leave feel extremely isolated and lost, as if they’re abandoning their entire family and all their friends. It becomes even tougher to depart when the church sends teams to track folks down and “persuade” them to return.

Tom Cruise at opening of Scientology church in MadridThough not the book’s main focus, Wright devotes plenty of space to Tom Cruise, perhaps Scientology’s most famous convert. His treatment isn’t positive or negative as much as thorough. Cruise’s views don’t get demonic or cartoon character treatment, even when he ventures into areas that would seem absurd to many (his opinions on psychiatry and counseling for instance).

Interestingly, Haggis’ disillusionment with Scientology was political as much as religious. He was disappointed and a bit shocked at anti-Gay rhetoric that came from Scientology leadership in response to same-sex marriage initiatives in California. That, plus other incidents, led him to finally abandon the church he credited with saving him from ruin and helping launch his career.

A number of Scientologists have gone public with harsh criticism of “Going Clear,” calling it everything from a mockery to outright falsehood, distortion and a deliberate attempt to denigrate a religion that still packs considerable punch in Hollywood.

From my end, it’s a more detached and objective presentation than Janet Reitman’s volume “Inside Scientology,” mainly because Wright has no agenda beyond dispensing information.

Indeed, he’s been criticized in some circles for not going far enough, not pressing the point on whether it’s a religion or a cult, why it has grown so large, and why so many people still cling to it.

I’m not sure any one book or writer can completely answer any of those questions. “Going Clear” certainly provides plenty of ammunition for those who feel Scientology’s negatives far outweigh its positives.

“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 430 pages, $28.95).

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.