Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"Believing in Madness" (on Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief)

believing in madness

Lawrence Wright Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (New York: Vintage Books, 2013).

Having just finished reading Lawrence Wright’s profoundly disturbing investigation into the Scientology “religion,” Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison of Belief, I realized even more how really elemental and ineffective the film was, based on this book, by Alex Gibney. For Wright’s work details so many dark twists and turns of Ron L. Hubbard’s mad, science fiction-like mania, that it’s hard to even begin to describe it, while Gibney’s film touched upon only the outer manifestations of the church’s strange and often perverted philosophy.
      Hubbard’s life, itself, reads like an improbable story of maniacal creation, belief, and ultimate madness. His early failures as a writer were transformed him into a sort of monstrously over-producing science fiction and western author, producing works so quickly that he rolled in vast sheets of butcher-block paper into his typewriter so that he might type for long hours at a time. These reveal, apparently, his vast ability of self-promotion and his gifts of over-exaggeration, including the claim that he had been an American war hero, suffering various major bodily problems that would help him to receive governmental financial help. 
     Wright details how Hubbard’s fiction and other genre writings gradually transmorphed into his religious arguments as expressed in his Dianetics, wherein, to briefly summarize, humans are returning thetans who began their lives centuries earlier in another planet which was destroyed. Oh, I forgot, our souls evidently where thrown by an evil force into a volcano. And there’s a great deal more. The important thing is that since the soul is eternal, the goal of Scientology is to recover as many memories from past lives as possible and free the individual from the collective behavior that may be blocking his achievements.
       The route or various “bridges” to self-discovery is through auditing by others through the use of a device called the E-meter which, supposedly, when hooked up to auditor somewhat like a lie detector, registers the suppressive or dangerous thoughts of the individual undergoing the auditing, as well as picking up the new “clearing” of the mind in the process. Thus, Wright’s title Going Clear.
       But, in fact, this group—which is seen by some as more a cult than a legitimate “church”— has never been very “clear” with the public about their beliefs, keeping many of their ideas as proprietary information which they gradually pass on to their members as they pay for and attain various levels of enlightenment.
        To the everyday reader, these theories and the unscientifically proven “methods” might very much appear, as director and writer Paul Haggis finally speaks of them, as a kind of “madness.” Yet Wright quite fairly evaluates such beliefs in the context of many such alternative post-World War II religions and groups, and quite brilliantly puts some of their more absurd elements in context by comparing them with even more established religions, including Christianity—among whose major tenants, we must remember, is the belief in a virgin birth and in a Resurrection wherein God, Son, and Holy Ghost become one and the same.
      What does become more and more apparent, however, as one encounters the vast amount of facts and testaments the author has gathered, is that this group suffers from another, far more serious kind of madness, having to do with the absolute power of church leaders and its sway over the minds of their followers. 
       Because of the church’s belief in suppressive behavior, time again Scientology from Hubbard’s lifetime to the leadership of its current head, David Miscavige, numerous everyday adherents and even church leaders have been declared suppressive and locked away in “Rehabilitation” centers (RPFs) in its Hollywood center (nicknamed “The Hole”) and in various Scientology compounds, some “disappearing” for years. Beginning with Hubbard’s Sea Org boats, led often by young teenage woman who were almost literally used as slaves, and where supposed infractions were often punished with the “sinners” being tossed overboard and then retrieved, the church’s short history, as Wright reveals it, has been a kind of catalogue of horrors. 
      Children have been overworked and punished for infractions by being locked away in rooms and even lockers for weeks at a time. Families have been separated and marriages destroyed by church authorities (including, perhaps, all the marriages and relationships that church spokesman Tom Cruise has had). Money has been stolen from believer’s accounts. Numerous individuals, declared suppressive, including some of the former church leaders, have been maltreated and—although continually denied by church lawyers and Miscavige—brutally beaten, sometimes by Miscavige himself. 
        Those who sought to escape have been often “recaptured” and, literally, kidnapped and forced to return the rehabilitation centers. Those who successfully left the church, such as Haggis, Mike Rinder, Mark Rathbun, and Sylvia Taylor, have been shunned by friends and family. Even noted celebrities such as John Travolta, who appearing to stray from the faith, were threatened with the revlation of personal information obtained through the E-Meter readings. In Travolta’s case, it appears that his homosexuality would be revealed if he left Scientology. Miscavige’s own wife is said to have “disappeared,” perhaps locked away in a RPF facility.
       Those who have attempted to investigate the group or have criticized it have been followed, their pets killed, their tires slashed, and, most importantly, sued by church authorities. Even the US governmental agency, the Internal Revenue Service, balking at granting the group tax-free status, caved in after numerous of their agents were tailed, taunted, and sued time and again. 
        Numerous church members, including Hubbard’s own son Quentin, have committed suicide. 
        What Going Clear truly outlines is not the spiritual purification of church members, but the refusal of honesty and openness of Church leaders themselves, who make millions of dollars through the spiritual desires of their believers. So powerful is church dogma that its adherents fear even to read contradictory materials, thus allowing their minds to be imprisoned in the most irrational aspects of their belief. As a former friend of Haggis’ admitted, reading critical messages of the church would be something like turning to Mein Kompf to read about Judaism. Scientology’s survival has clearly depended, time and again, on the simple denial of truth.
       For all of its revelations, however, Wright remains throughout objective and open-minded. As he points out at the end of this quite terrifying recounting of Scientology and its history:

                 Many religions—including Christian Science, Jehovah’s
                 Witnesses, even Christianity—have known scorn and
                 persecution. Some, like the Shakers and the Millerites,
                 died out, but others, including Mormons and Pentecostals,
                 have elbowed their way into the crowded religious land-
                      The practice of disconnection, or shunning, is not unique
                  to Scientology, nor is the longing for religious sanctuary.
                  American itself was founded by true believers who sep-
                  arated themselves from their non-Puritan kinfolk by
                  placing an ocean between them. New religious leaders
                  continually appear, giving expression to unmet spiritual
                  needs. There is a constant churning of spiritual movements
                  and denominations all over the world, one that advances
                  with freedom of expression. One must look at L. Ron 
                  Hubbard and the odyssey of his movement against this
                  historical backdrop and the natural human yearning for
                  transcendence and submission.

     For all that, it appears to me that if Scientology is to truly come out of the dark shadows in which Wright’s book implies it exists, the church itself must “go clear,” admit its violence and abuse of freedoms, and embrace the freedom of expression that it has demanded, leaving its madness’s behind.

Los Angeles, February 23, 2016