Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright

I am pleased with myself in re: this book because I placed an e-hold on it before my library actually acquired an e-copy, which means I got to check it out as soon as their e-copy arrived. I don’t know how long I’d really have had to wait for it if I hadn’t done this, but I choose to believe it would have been, like, months. And that I am a genius for placing an early hold and getting my greedy paws on it early. But you are not reading this post because you want to know what process I went through to acquire it. You are reading it to hear about crazy things. So, onward!

“He wouldn’t [believe you],” Matilda said. “And the reason is obvious. Your story would sound too ridiculous to be believed. And that is the Trunchbull’s great secret.”

“What is?” Lavender asked.

Matilda said, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.”

This passage from Roald Dahl’s Matilda sums up how I feel about scientology after reading this book. If Lawrence Wright had been less meticulous in citing his sources, or if he had done fewer interviews, or if he hadn’t backed up some of his craziest stories with, like, FBI evidence, I would have disbelieved a lot of the claims he makes about scientology in this book. For instance: L. Ron Hubbard orchestrated a large-scale espionage operation (he called it Operation Snow White) in which scientologists under his direction infiltrated various government and press organizations perceived as being hostile to scientology, then made secret copies of a bunch of their files (!) and brought them back to scientology headquarters for perusal. I guess this is a real thing that people know about, because it has this huge Wikipedia page, but I did not know, and you have to admit it sounds pretend. But no. It is real.

Another thing that sounds false but is true: When the FBI raided Scientology headquarters and found all these Operation Snow White documents, they also found documents indicating that the church had launched a massive crusade against a journalist who wrote unfavorably about them, with the end goal of having her jailed or placed in a mental institution. They phoned in fake bomb threats under her name! Seriously! That’s a thing that happened.

Those two things? Are by far not the craziest things that Lawrence Wright reports in this book. Like, by far. There were all the different categories of crazy things. There were crazy paranoid things, like L. Ron Hubbard being convinced the Swiss government was after him. There were crazy scary things, like the allegations by former church members of physical abuse and incarceration (including of children). There were crazy grudgey things, like L. Ron Hubbard turning against psychology forever because the APA said Dianetics was silly. There were even crazy things in the category of “Wait, huh?” like this:

The detainees [in the totally prisony part of this one scientology compound] developed a particular expression whenever Miscavige came in, which he took note of. He called them “Pie Faces.” To illustrate what he meant, Miscavige drew a circle with two dots for eyes and a straight line for a mouth. He had T-shirts made up with the pie face on it. Rinder was “the Father of Pie Faces.” People didn’t know how to react. They didn’t want to call attention to themselves, but they also didn’t want to be a Pie Face.

I just…what? Pie Face? What?

I talked recently about trusting nonfiction authors, and Eva said in a comment that she much prefers reading nonfiction by researchers rather than journalists. I mostly agree with this. I like that journalists place a premium on making their subject accessible to readers, and I like that researchers cite their sources. For a book like Going Clear, which deals with subject matter that is insane and hotly disputed as well as poorly researched over the past years (due to the secretiveness and litigiousness of the church, among other things), it becomes even more important to me to know that the writer took pains about his sources. By all accounts, Lawrence Wright is just the right person to write this book, a Pulitzer Prize winner who is known for his meticulous sourcing and fact-checking.

On top of that, his book takes care to note the sources for all of his quotations and claims. Some of these are better sources than others (scientology is, of course, imperfectly documented), but Wright provides the reader with that information for just about everything he says throughout the book. He’s also clearly aware of the areas where his sources are slightly weaker, and he takes pains to note the ways in which he tried to fact-check and find confirmation of what he was told, especially when it was crazy. I also listened to and read some interviews with Wright and with representatives from the church, and I came away feeling that the church really lacked credibility on these issues.

To give one example, Wright calls L. Ron Hubbard’s war record into doubt. It is central to scientology’s belief system (evidently) that Hubbard was wounded in World War II and healed himself using the techniques described in Dianetics. Wright has been able to find no evidence that Hubbard was ever injured in the war, and the response of the church has been to say that they have an expert, whom they won’t produce but who (they say) can assure them Hubbard was injured in the war. That’s just not a viable alternate narrative. If they could produce the person and I could inspect his credentials, then that would be another issue. But, Lawrence Wright gives you the church’s argument as well as yours, so you know what the choices are.

I thought Going Clear was an admirably well-sourced, engagingly-written history of scientology, and if you have a spare minute, you should listen to some radio interviews with Lawrence Wright. It made me think how cool he would be as a grandfather.

(He’s not old enough to be my grandfather. But you can have loads of grandfathers and you can only have one father, and my father is already the coolest and best one there is or has ever been.)

Near the very end of the book, Wright includes the following statement, which I thought was just — when you set it against how maddening it must have been to be perpetually denied access to key figures in the book you’re working on — about as restrained and gracious a reproof as there could be:

I was never allowed to talk to David Miscavige or any of the upper-tier executives I requested. (As I would learn, many of them were sequestered and not available in any case.) A reporter can only talk to people who are willing to talk to him; whatever complaints the church may have about my reporting, many limitations can be attributed to its decision to restrict my interactions with people who might have provided more favorable testimony.

Please imagine me doing a slow clap right now. That is what is happening inside my head. Lawrence Wright, you are a cool and classy fellow.

So now I am off to read Janet Reitman’s book about scientology! Apparently she had a lot of good access to practicing scientologists in the course of her researchings, and perhaps that will provide another, less insanely abusive view of the church and its history. But I rather suspect not. Oh how I love reading about religions.