The full title of this book is actually Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, but honestly, I’m a little scared to mention the word Scientology, or even write about this book in great detail. If I learned nothing else from Lawrence Wright’s extensive, exhaustive research, it’s that they, the Scientologists, can find you anywhere. It’s pretty scary.
I found myself completely lost in this book. Partially negatively so, because Wright introduced so many new faces at such a rapid pace that it was hard to keep track, but mostly positively so, because that pace contributed to the whirlwind, disorganized, fussy nature of what I can only imagine it feels like to be writing about and immersed in such a fascinating, terrifying topic. I don’t think I’ve ever learned this much from a single book before.
Wright is as completely objective as possible. There are dozens of instances when he quotes L. Ron Hubbard or current church leader David Miscavige, and both of them come across as positively idiotic, but then Wright will make a point of footnoting their or the church’s response to the quote, which most of the time is something like, “Lawyers claim that no such statement was made.” He paints the positive aspects of Scientology in as positive a light as possible, explaining that, as in many other religions, there are certain aspects of the faith that have come to help people. That portion of it — about how Scientology can give wayward people structure, about how it can get people to believe in their own minds, and about how the church itself provides a tight-knit community in a giant world — made me at least come to understand why the church appealed to so many people. But the overwhelming evidence, with minimal editorializing from Wright, points in the direction of the batshit crazy. It really comes down to that.
L. Ron Hubbard was completely insane, and he made up a religion. (He also philosophized about the human mind like Freud, which is legitimate, albeit disturbing point that Wright makes at the end of the book.) He lived in a world in which his own logic was everyone’s absolute truth, and he stopped at nothing to make sure that everyone had a chance to live this truth. He led a contradictory, self-indulgent, tumultuous life, filled with marriages, children, celebrities, sex, egoism, pain, writing, fiction, boats, and charisma. Despite this book being a detailed account of his religion, the book also details just how impossible it is to account what actually, truly happened to him. Scientology is so shrouded in mystery, even still, and so undeniably bent on keeping its own secrets, that the real and the fake blend together into a bumpy, unpredictable, inconceivable story. Frankly, it’s not unlike the story of Michael Jackson. We don’t know what to believe, because we don’t know which sources to trust, because none of us were really there, and none of us know how much the people who were there have to lose by telling the truth or keeping it a secret. It’s a vicious cycle of farce, and maybe, somewhere on down the line, it won’t matter so much anymore. At least that’s the case for Jackson. So long as Scientology is a religion, people will continue to be affected by it, pour their life savings into it, and continue to be misled by it. They may also be helped by it, but at the expense of others.
The portions that focus on the one-two celebrity punch of John Travolta and Tom Cruise are particularly fascinating, of course, and they quench that perpetual thirst we have for voyeurism and gossip, but they also leave a lot of questions unanswered. The two of them are always discussed as separate pillars, but do they themselves have a relationship at all? Was there a point during which they strategized and hung out? What’s John Travolta up to now? Why did Nicole Kidman last so long as Cruise’s wife if she was such a skeptic? Why didn’t Mimi Rogers last very long as Cruise’s wife, despite being more hardcore than he was, at least at the time? Only the internet can tell me, at this point, and I’m not sure I’d trust it, anyway.
It’s bizarre to really think about the Scientology side of Tom Cruise. We’re all accustomed to the images we’ve seen of him with David Miscavige, and with Oprah, and with all of the public antics and statements. But Wright paints another picture, and that is of the genuine devotee. Sure, Cruise’s religion is a load of bollocks, and sure, he is treated as the king of kings, arguably better than Hubbard himself was ever treated, but Cruise has certainly put in the time. He’s taken the classes, completed the audits, really made the religion his own, all while being the biggest movie star in the world, while promoting movies, while filming on location, while sharing custody of his two kids with Kidman. That’s saying… something. I don’t know what it’s saying. It’s certainly not making me think he’s less crazy, but for a man as privileged as he is, he doesn’t slack off. No one loves Scientology more than Tom Cruise.
I’d like to keep talking about this book, but even though I read it and learned from it, I still feel wildly uninformed. Not because of Wright; he did his duty, and he opened my mind to thousands more questions that hours on the internet will only begin to answer. This is the kind of book that sparks conversations by starting with as many facts as it can, and as many sides to the rumors as are out there. It also digs up the aforementioned dirt on Cruise, Travolta, and the rest of the poster boys and girls, as well as giving ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis some major page time. In fact, we learn about his entire journey through the religion, from start to finish. I wonder if Haggis himself will write a book someday.
I highly recommend this book to the information-hungry. Like I said, you won’t be without questions. You’ll also be wholly shocked and disturbed and entertained, because this book gives you more information than you thought was out there, while also withholding some, because not all of it is out there, nor will it ever be. I’ll leave you with my favorite quote, which actually appeared in a footnote on page 169:
“Miscavige has been circumspect about what missions he actually performed in his capacity as Action Chief. He once testified: ‘What is a mission? Okay. Well, you have a situation and a situation is defined as a departure, major departure from the ideal scene, and at the bottom of that there’s some Y. Y is defined as an explanation that opens a door to a handling. And if you have actually pulled the strings on the situation all the way down, you will now have a Y, which means that the situation can be resolved. A mission would take a situation, knowing what the Y is, an therefore knowing what exact handling steps are thus possible as a result of the door being opened because the Y was found by evaluation, and they would…operate on what is known as a set of mission orders, and the set of mission orders in an exact series of steps, sometimes consecutive, sometimes not, sometimes they can be done concurrently within each other… These mission orders have an exact purpose to be accomplished, exact major targets, exact primary targets, exact vital targets, exact operating targets; they have listed the means of mission communication, and they have also listed the target date for completion.’ He did not clarify the situation further.”