The Short Version: After his 2011 profile of Paul Haggis in The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright dug further into the realities behind the mysterious religion-to-the-stars, Scientology. Beginning with an exploration of the eccentric founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and moving forward to the present-day church, he throws back the curtain on this secretive ‘religion’ with sobering results.
The Review: Religion is a complicated thing to talk about. As Wright points out several times with increasing clarity throughout the book, religion requires belief in things unseen or incomprehensible. A pregnant virgin, the parting of a sea, reincarnation – what’s to say that all of these things, if you believe in them and they help you live your life, can’t be ‘true’ for you? Where is the line drawn between belief and outright fiction? And is that line different for different people?
Wright’s tolerant and even-handed tone makes the eventual takeaway of this book that much stronger, though: Scientology is dangerous. Oh, I have no quibble with the ordinary believers – people who, it seems, are well and truly helped by their faith in this religion. Good for them. But Wright’s systematic uncovering of the abuses, deceptions, and outright thuggery of the modern day “church” of Scientology forces the reader to take a stand on one side of the issue or another. There can be no equivocation here – and based on the well-researched evidence presented by one of the absolute paragons of journalism, it’s hard to come down on any other side of the issue but that Scientology is a cult and a dangerous one.
Wright begins with (and weaves through the entire book) the story of Paul Haggis, Academy-Award-winning screenwriter and director. Yeah, sure, Crash was a pretty awful movie and how it ever won Best Picture is a question for other times and places – he also wrote Casino Royale, folks, so cut him some slack. More importantly, he is one of Scientology’s most high-profile defectors and Wright’s piece on him in The New Yorker was what led to this book. But before we can get to the present, we jump back in time to follow the life of the mysterious and charismatic L. Ron Hubbard. Anyone who is a moviegoer may have trouble separating Hubbard from the late Phil Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in The Master – but perhaps that’s the easiest way to come to terms with a truly larger-than-life figure. Hubbard’s story, from his childhood to his time in the armed forces, to his work on first Dianetics and then the larger mythos of Scientology, is a fascinating one and one left still relatively shrouded from view. Wright peels back some of the layers but there are parts of the story that may well be lost to time entirely – or stories that have been told from so many different perspectives that it’s impossible to say which is the closest to what actually happened. It’s an impressive piece of mythmaking on Hubbard’s part (his whole life, that is) and regardless of his legacy, it cannot be denied that he was an impressive storyteller and possessed of a towering intellect.
But I’d argue that the life of L. Ron Hubbard and even the basic tenants of the stories behind Scientology are not why you’re coming to this book, not why you should read it. They are interesting but they’re nothing that you can’t find anywhere else – hell, the South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet” recounts the actual OT III belief memo with as much clarity and aplomb as Wright does. Instead, the most fascinating – and by fascinating, I mean sickly so, like a car wreck that you cannot look away from – part of the book is the details of Scientology that we don’t necessarily see in the media. The stuff you only ever hear about faintly, in the background, usually because the church is exceptionally talented at throwing money and lawsuits at a problem until it goes away.
We’re talking physical, emotional, and mental abuse. We’re talking child labor violations. We’re talking families being torn apart. We’re talking bribery, extortion, espionage, misdirection, miscommunication, and all sorts of other terrible behavior. And Wright lays it all out there for the reader to see – carefully annotated countless times to state that this Scientology representative or that lawyer have stated that this isn’t true or that the real truth is something else, but the categorical denunciation of pretty much anything even vaguely negative about the church is balanced against a multitude of stories from former Scientologists and even vetted to some extent by the church itself (a surprisingly harrowing scene near the end of the book recounts The New Yorker staff meeting w/ some of the head reps of Scientology to do a whole mess of fact-checking and clarification – the whole thing pulses with uncertain dread, making me even less likely to go to Times Square in the near future). It is impossible to read this book, with Wright’s careful and caring tone, and come away with any other sense but that Scientology is a cult – a prison of belief, as it were.
Because, despite the terrible things perpetrated by the group, Wright does not condemn them. Again, it’s very clear that people have been helped by Scientology and while the belief system as laid out by a former science fiction writer turned grand poobah is utterly ridiculous (seriously, a sixth grader who has seen Star Wars could write better sci-fi) that doesn’t meant that the day-to-day realties aren’t working for people. I know plenty of Christians who don’t believe in the more fantastic bits of the Bible but who, instead, believe simply in a single God and in trying to live up to a general sense of ethics and morality as instilled by ‘His’ teaching. Similarly, there are Scientologists who don’t believe necessarily in Xenu and all that but who like the structure of the psychological examination and the spiritual fulfillment therein.
Instead, Wright’s ire is turned towards the people at the top of the organization – ruthless folks like David Miscavige and his rotating cast of enforcers. It’s not my place to, ah, ‘ruin’ the stories laid out in this book – I couldn’t do them justice even if I tried. But the things that have been reported to Wright and that he, in turn, is reporting to us, are enough to turn your stomach. I found myself unable to look away from the book even as I wanted to put it down and read something happier or nicer or better. I went into the book curious – I came away with genuine fear. Not for myself or anyone in particular, but a sense of fear towards this massive sprawling organization that was able to commit one of the most wide-reaching acts of domestic espionage in history and then, at the end of the day, exhaust the IRS into giving them exactly what they wanted. We don’t live in a world run by religions anymore, much as the Republican Party might like to believe otherwise – but Scientology, as depicted here by Wright, shows us that it’s still entirely possible. People always want something to believe in – and once they believe, you can do anything to them in the name of those beliefs.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. How are you supposed to rate this book, actually? On the one hand, it is exceptional journalism. Wright’s measured and readable tone (of which I have been a fan for many years) in considered, intelligent, and knowledgable – you come away wishing that everyone was so well-spoken in their delivery of sensitive and inflammatory information. But that same information is truly disturbing, at least in my opinion. Even as I sit here working on this review, several hours and things and stories later… I feel my palms a little sweaty, a pall over my visage, and a furrow in my brow. I am disturbed in a way even few horror novels have ever been capable of achieving. I do not seek to feel this way, no matter how enjoyable horror novels usually are, and I will never be able to walk down the North side of 46th St without looking over my shoulder or a shudder as I pass the Scientology building. And yet, I cannot do anything but wholeheartedly recommend this book – it sheds light onto the darker parts of human nature in a way that we all should come to understand.