When I saw that Lawrence Wright was writing a book about Scientology I got excited. Since the Pulitzer-Winning The Looming Tower, Wright has been my guiding star when it comes to reporting.
I’d been interested in Scientology before, but it was tough to find something not written by an advocate of Scientology, or by someone with an obvious ax to grind. So my knowledge didn’t extend much beyond the Wikipedia entry, Dianetics sales figures, rumors about John Travolta, and that South Park episode about Tom Cruise.
I’m happy to tell you that Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison of Belief might now my favorite book of non-fiction. Despite the Church of Scientology’s secretive structure, it’s hard to imagine someone compiling a worthier, better researched chronicle of the religion than Wright has written for us.
The first half of the book focuses on Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. After he dies (or does he? I found the church’s explanation of his earthly demise as given to scientologists to be as hilarious as it was creative), the remainder of the book follows the individuals who continue to grow the church.
Also covered are the many scandals the church has faced, the church’s focus on celebrity recruitment, its punitive nature as it lashes out against critics and apostates, and much more. I found the church’s battle with the IRS, and the mutual loathing between the two organizations, to be particularly fascinating.
My goal is simply to pique your interest here. It’s a big book that deserves an enormous conversation and I can’t do it justice with a brief review. If you’re at all interested in the Church of Scientology, but aren’t ready to go in for auditing, Going Clear is a perfect starting point. Wright tells this story so well that it’s unnecessary for him to draw conclusions for the reader. Whether you view the story with horror, disbelief, admiration, or outrage, I’m confident than you will react.
In my opinion, the greatest question the book answers is the one that many readers will certainly have: How could anyone actually believe that?
The “prison of belief” from the subtitle is real, it is methodically constructed, and it is chilling.