Review of "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief"

So several months ago I watched this interview of Lawrence Wright by Steven Colbert and became interested in reading Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. After a initial anecdote of the Church practices meant to illustrate them as psychologically manipulative but also helpful for people wishing to overcome a specific problem in their life, Wright opens by deconstructing much of the Church’s official biography of LRH’s early life. The truthfulness of his purportedly self-healed injuries are subjected to criticism as are his credentials as an atomic physicist and war hero. What is instead presented is someone who is deeply concerned with winning accolades for bravery, becoming distinguished as a leader, writer and thinker, someone that is extremely anxious over his many relationships with women and is constantly moving across the country. LRH is depicted as a caddish lothario that cuckold’s several prominent personages of the time, included fellow science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. The tensions displayed in LRH’s notebooks and actions is familiar to anyone who has great energy, insight and capacity but has yet to find the correct form in which to put it.

One of the more interesting aspects of these first section is his contextualization of LRH within the social/religious milieu of the time. He does this by providing accounts of LRH’s many influences, Sigmund Freud, Aleister Crowley, Alfred Korzybski, and illustrating the post-war American longing for new a religious feeling that would bring people closer together following the dissemination of the news that humans now had the power to destroy the world many times over with the atomic bomb. With the threat of annihilation real, with a greater affluence that allowed for disposable income to go to self-improvement courses – be it Transcendental Meditation, Jungian Therapy or Dianetics Auditing – he clearly shows that the drive for greater human perfectibility becomes a more significant factor in American social relations. This new religious impulse and LRH’s capacity to synthesize concepts from his vast reading in spiritual works and formulate his findings into psychological maxims in simple, positivistic terms informs Dianetics initial success as a popular form of self-therapy.

While some of his claims on the abilities and transformations that could be achieved by someone whole wholly devoted themselves to this may have been overblown, and while LRH’s background LRH is likely exaggerated claims, Wright admits that there were many cases of positive development by those that joined what evolved into the Church of Scientology. Using the initial success of and interest in Dianetics, LRH expanded, refined, codified and created the organizational structure which would then became the Church. Wright recounts many disturbing and fascinating narratives when LRH’s was Commodore of the SeaOrg and touches upon intriguing situations worthy of books themselves – such as Operation Snow White, the Church’s battle with the IRS, their attempts to take over the Psychiatic Congress, etc. The unrelenting and ruthless attacks against the Church’s enemies are both frightening and impressive – such as the Church’s bankrupting of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) via lawsuits, their purchasing of the organization’s name through an intermediary and subsequent distribution of CAN literature that states Scientology is not a cult.

Wright shows how the manner in which LRH lived and his level of productivity on certain issues clearly indicate that though he was making his living off the church it was in no means simply so that he could live an opulent lifestyle. One simply, paraphrasing Wright, does not put as much of his life energy into such a project as LRH did just to bamboozle people. This archetypal role of false leader is assigned to David Miscavige. Miscavige is the Stalinistic figure, though instead of gaining control of the PolitBureau he uses his powers and capability for intrigue to gain control of the Church. As should be apparent, I found Wright’s journalistic prowess to be very impressive. What I wished would be delved into more, however, was more extended analysis of the dynamic components of the religion itself. Wright does touch upon them in the chapter The Faith Factory. He exposits on the late 1950’s era psychological concepts of ideological totalism, self-referential paradigmatic thinking that “blinds” one to “facts” and it’s relation to social groups, and throughout the book intersperses similarly oriented comments. AS his concern is more with the ascent of Miscavige, the rationale and effort to focus upon celebrities and the willful self-imprisonment of Scientologists it’s understandable that he doesn’t delve to deep into this. That said he does quote from a longer, comparative religion work that delves into some of these issues elsewhere and provides information for supplementary reading. Wright’s clearly critical of the religion, but finds many other admirable aspects within it. He is even able to state that “Hubbard’s throughout could be compared with that of other moral philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Soren Kirkegaard, although no one has ever approached the sweep of Hubbard’s work,” and finds that “like every new religion, Scientology is handicapped by the frailties of its founder and the absence of venerable traditions that enshrine it in the culture”. Put simply, people fear or are averse to what they don’t understand and a basic knowledge of the “tech” is worthwhile.

Some of the things most interesting to me personally was the discovery that some of the things that my father would do when I’d been hurt or was having trouble with school would be considered Scientology tech. I vividly remember contact assists, repeatedly placing an injured part of my body against the thing that injured it until the fear/energy was dissipated, and being assisted in visualization and materialization exercises to increase my recall and comprehension of material that I’d studied, a practice that I continue to this day. From reading I also learned of other overlaps between Scientology and my more recent studies in psychotherapy. For instance while LRH was later to categorize hypnotherapy as a degraded form of moving forward on the bridge to freedom, he was clearly influenced by it as evidenced in his early notebooks and recordings. Wright’s assessment and my own research into this particular aspect of therapy suggests that LRH’s later disavowal of it can be see a misprision in order to greater distinguish his tech from that of other similarly minded practitioners.