Nonfiction

Scientology’s weirdness and wizardry

 

Lawrence Wright attempts to penetrate a secretive and tightly controlled sect.

Most readers will come to Lawrence Wright’s much-anticipated expose of Scientology in search of two things: perfidy and celebrity. They won’t be disappointed. Which is a shame, since Wright’s stated ambition is “to learn something about what might be called the process of belief.” He’s well qualified, the author not just of a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 study of al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, but also of a number of smaller, even intimate books about the experience of belief, including the minor classic Remembering Satan.

Going Clear begins in that close-up spirit with the early years of Paul Haggis, the screenwriter and former Scientologist Wright profiled in The New Yorker. For a precious few pages, we’re allowed to encounter Scientology something like the young Haggis did: as a creed more modern, more sophisticated, more intelligent, more liberating than any he was likely to find in the blue-collar Ontario of his youth.

Then comes Chapter Two, and L. Ron Hubbard, red-haired and big-mouthed, literally and figuratively, a relentless teller of tall tales. He lied about his naval record (abysmal), his education (no nuclear physicist, he), and his allegedly uncanny powers.

Before Scientology, there was Aleister Crowley, the English “magician” revered by generations of would-be wizards. When Hubbard and a friend tried to breed an Antichrist according to Crowley’s teachings, even Crowley rolled his eyes: “I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these goats.” Of course, Hubbard — “Source,” just “Source,” no “the,” of Scientology — didn’t really want Crowley’s approval. According to the Church of Scientology, he was undercover for “naval intelligence” on a mission that “broke up black magic in America.” Phew!

At times you can sympathize with pre-Scientology Hubbard, as one might for one of filmmaker Wes Anderson’s imaginative, excitable boy-man heroes in films such as Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom. Here’s Hubbard writing for himself in what Wright calls a “disputed document” — in the sense that any questioning of Source’s stunning perfection is disputed — titled “Affirmations”: “You never illustrate your point with bogus stories. It is not necessary for you to lie to be amusing and witty.” And “You are radiant like sunlight.” And just one instance of an affirmation on a subject to which he returned many times: “You do not masturbate.”

It’d be pathetic if it weren’t for what followed, first the bestselling “Dianetics” and then the reconfiguration of Hubbard’s ideas according to the “religion angle,” as Hubbard described it. Wright notes that this apparent cynicism is a key text of “anti-Scientology narrative,” but he’s too smart to leave it at that, following Hubbard’s thinking through the rest of that particular letter to what sounds like not so much calculation as a begrudging recognition by Hubbard that the practices he’s proposing are, in fact, a religion.

We can’t conclusively answer the question of Hubbard’s sanity or, for that matter, his access to revelation. What we do know is that he exercised the control he came to have over his followers with violence, terror, misogyny and caprice — methods and qualities, Wright argues, emulated by church elites thereafter.

There is much more of this — and, yes, celebrity stories — than there are insights into “the process of belief.” Why would anyone want to follow such a man? There are glimpses of his charisma in a chapter dedicated to Hubbard’s creation of the “Sea Org,” a mini-fleet of ships from which he ran Scientology for several years. He was, if nothing else, entertaining, drinking rum and Coke and telling stories about spaceships and sexy priestesses and epic battles so fabulous that nobody worried if they were true.

Ultimately, the more interesting question than “Why would someone want to be a Scientologist” is “Why do so many of us — far, far more than ever come into any actual contact with Scientology — care?” That is, why does this tiny religious movement inspire such fascination that it is the subject of not one but two blockbuster books in the past few years?

Jeff Sharlet reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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