New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright's long-awaited Scientology book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, will be released this Thursday, and the reviews are already coming in. Based in part on a 2011 profile of director and former Scientologist Paul Haggis, the book focuses primarily on the legacy of L. Ron Hubbard and his successor, David Miscavige. It contains over 200 interviews with both "current and former" Scientologists from all ranks within the organization.
This is one of the more eagerly anticipated book releases in the last few years; The Hollywood Reporter has run an excerpt detailing the "smear campaign" run against John Travolta's former Scientology handler. From the Chicago Tribune's review:
"Going Clear" is an attempt to cut through the morass of obscurity and misinformation, to provide an accurate account of Scientology's history and a fair assessment of its claims. This is not an easy task, in large part because Scientologists themselves - particularly those at the top of the Church's hierarchy - have long made it their policy to discourage open inquiry, both by members and by outsiders.
The book chronicles Hubbard's more unusual behaviors: his secrecy, his paranoia, his fear of the government, and how they shaped the development of the church. Cigarette smoking (in honor of Hubbard's own habit) is "still a feature of the church's culture at the upper levels," along with 1950s slang, "casual misogyny," and a ban on perfume and scented deodorant, which leaves you with the most delightful image of high-profile Scientologists acting like disaffected greasers.
"Hey, you old ankle-biter, hand me another one of them cancer sticks, willya baby? And wipe that perfume off. It's time to make with the back-seat bingo and lemme clue ya: I'm not gettin' mushy with any dolly that smells like a paper shaker."
The book also takes an in-depth look at current and former abuses committed by the church.
Many of the more disturbing parts of "Going Clear" describe campaigns of harassment directed at those who have criticized it or attempted to expose its inner workings. This includes "Operation Snow White," an attempt, spearheaded by Hubbard himself, to infiltrate government organizations with church operatives, in part to gather blackmail material for possible future use against church opponents. "Nothing in American history," Wright writes, "can compare with the scale of domestic espionage of Operation Snow White."
The Wall Street Journal acknowledges that "few of the people who read the book will likely need disillusioning," but calls it a "feat of reporting" to tackle the "great white whale of investigative journalism about religion."
But every religion constructs some species of "prison of belief" for its followers, and most, in their fundamentalist forms, are just as dedicated as is Scientology to explaining away, or else simply denying, evidence that undermines their claims to authority. "There is no point in questioning Scientology's standing as a religion," Wright concludes. "In the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS; moreover, people do believe in the principles of Scientology and live within a community of faith - what else is required to accept it as such?" What is most disturbing about Scientology is not what distinguishes it from other religions, but the resistance to criticism and objective evidence that it seems to share with them.