Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
“At last!” said Damian Thompson in The Spectator. It has taken over two years, but a British publisher has finally “summoned up the nerve to bring out Going Clear, an astonishing exposé of the Church of Scientology”. It came out in the US in early 2013, but no big UK publishing house would touch it, out of fear of our libel laws and Scientology’s “relentlessly aggressive” lawyers. The book’s portrayal of founder L. Ron Hubbard is sure to “infuriate” the church. Hubbard emerges as a “priapic wife-beater” and dabbler in Satanism who died a recluse, his health “wrecked” by the anti-anxiety drug Vistaril (an awkward irony, given Scientology’s vehement anti-drugs campaigns). Wright is also very good on Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, “whose plastic smile conceals a ferocious temper”. Miscavige, we learn, will go to “extraordinary lengths” to keep his most “valuable” follower, Tom Cruise, happy – such as hiring 100 contractors to “tart up” the actor’s Beverly Hills mansion.
Hubbard, born in 1911, was a prolific sci-fi author who “started believing his own fantasies”, said Francis Wheen in The Mail on Sunday. “I’d like to start a religion,” he is reported to have said. “That’s where the money is.” His was to be based on the belief that “our bodies are inhabited by Thetans, the spirits of extraterrestrials who were brought to Earth in a spaceship 75 million years ago by the emperor Xenu”; in time he became genuinely convinced by the theory. Financially, Scientology has proved successful: 30 years after Hubbard’s death, despite “dwindling membership” – Wright thinks there are as few as 30,000 – the money still “pours in”. The Church has about $1bn in cash reserves, plus a global property empire. The actress Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, has donated $10m.
Although certainly “weird” and unhinged, Hubbard embodied a “not unimpressive kind of American dynamism”, said Sukhdev Sandhu in The Guardian (reviewing the US edition of Going Clear). He was a “Barnum-like huckster” with an “epic” will to power; and the same “ambition” drives the church and its adherents today. Yet some of Wright’s revelations are properly “disturbing”. At the church’s headquarters, there is apparently a guarded punishment block called The Hole, where difficult members and their children are confined. And when one executive spoke up about violence in the group, he was “made to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue”. Going Clear is “diligently researched, calmly expository and full of fascinating side-stories”.