Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a typically first rate piece of documentary filmmaking from HBO and director Alex Gibney (an Oscar winner for Taxi to the Dark Side), based on Lawrence Wright’s scientology exposé of the same name. Notably, Wright is one of the talking heads in an engrossing, fascinating, densely packed piece, and he sets out that an exposé was not his intent; he merely intended to understand what it was the church’s members got out of their religion. If Going Clear has a fault, it’s that it’s transparently one-sided, and so is in danger of coming over as pure polemic but, with its interviewees mostly high-ranking ex-members owning up to their own misdeeds in the name of the L Ron Hubster, it’s difficult to see this as other than straight up.
At times, as Gibney introduces us to L Ron Hubbard’s exotic and inventive history, Going Clear takes on something of the fascinatingly immersive patchwork histories Adam Curtis is apt to weave, just without an overriding philosophy he’s trying to glean from it. The use of sound, archive footage and narration is creative and illuminating (elsewhere there’s a spot of dramatic retelling, which feels ill-fitting), and anyone familiar with Hubbard’s oft-cited motivation to start a religion as the best way to make money will only be surprised at how unashamedly this is underlined.
Along the way we encounter his World War II record (relieved of his command when he accidentally shelled a Mexican island), dip into his flirtation with Jack Parsons and the rocket man’s Babalon Working rituals, which will be familiar to any Robert Anton Wilson fans, cover his prodigious science fiction publishing career, and subsequent reworking of fictions for the benefit of humanity as Dianetics, his SeaOrg and its sadistic work practices, his devout dedication to tax evasion (making Scientology a recognised church being crucial to this, albeit it happened after his death and followed the Church’s slew of lawsuits against IRS members; the IRS agreed for an easy life, essentially), and his own paranoia and potential for madness.
Wright’s perceptive conclusion is that, while Hubbard indeed wanted to make lots of money, this wasn’t a mere scam to him. He cites L Ron spending hours every day on the e-meter auditing himself, and his belief that he had a particularly powerful Thetan attached to him. In Wright’s view, the Church was his own form of self-therapy, and its adherents gradually descend into the same mental space as its somewhat potty founder; “Scientology is a going into the mind of L Ron Hubbard, and the more you get into it, the more like L Ron Hubbard you become”.
The doc has frequent moments of humour, and in particular there’s Paul Haggis recounting his stunned disbelief being given the secret Hubster manuals to read once he attained Operating Thetan (OT) status, and how none of it made any sense, with its talk of a Xenu the Galactic Overlord, hundreds of thousands of Thetans climbing into our bodies and the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago being just like the ‘50s (“What the fuck are you talking about? What the fuck is this?”)
While the origins make for a fascinating history, the heir incumbent of the church, David Miscavige, is where the main meat is found. The confessionals of former second-in-command Mark Rathbun and head of the Office of Special Affairs Mike Rinder (who left soon after the 2007 Panorama documentary into the church’s activities, in which he was the main talking head) dish the most dirt, and paint a damning portrait of Miscavige’s own monstrous paranoia and edicts, including the establishment of an effective prison system.
While Rathbun and Rinder’s insights are sobering (particularly the harassment of the former by Church members after he left), and the insights into families split apart as some are declared Suppressive Persons, such that all ties are to be severed, are disturbing, it’s the more Hollywood-tinged elements that provide the spice and colour. I’ve mentioned Haggis, but Jason Beghe is absolutely hilarious (“All scientologists are full of shit” he claims, noting that they go around saying how great they are while suffering from terrible migraines), a little less off-the-wall than his Richard “mangina” Bates in Californication, but a real live wire (and one of the biggest active denouncers of the religion). He ponders how many people would join the church if they were told on day one what it actually believes; “Oh yeah, so why is Tom Cruise paying a thousand buck s to have invisible aliens pulled out of his body?”
And inevitably there’s the juicy gossip. Although no one is coming out and saying anything directly about Travolta or Cruise, there are clear enough pointers as to why and how neither has broken ranks; as much as the Church can bring its weight to bear when accusations hit the news and protect the member, so it can threaten that member with all the dirt it has accumulated during the course of decades of auditing.
Travolta’s one-time best friend ponders “I often wonder what could possibly keep him there” amid headlines shown of lawsuits brought against him. Travolta, in footage shown, comes across as not all that bright, truth be told, whereas Cruise, as (I think) Beghe puts it “drank the Kool-Aid”. We see footage from the Church’s big gala events, hosted by Miscavige where he wheels out buddy Tom, the leading face of the church who received a “Freedom Medal of Valor” in 2004. We hear how Miscavige, a contemporary of Cruise who looks increasingly desiccated every time we see a more up-to-date piece of footage, engineered wayward Tom’s breakup with Nicole and disapproved of “how perverted” his sex life was.
Gibney neatly draws to a close with his interviewees’ exit dates of from the Church, most of them members for several decades or more, and notes that the Church’s active membership is now fewer than 50,000 people, but it has accumulated a vast store of wealth and property through its mercurial methods. It’s speculated where its future lies, now it no longer has a public affairs guy (and appears to have no intention of installing someone).
Going Clear isn’t perfect, as compelling and fascinating as it is. There’s no sense of balance, perhaps understandable given all the leading pro-lights turned down the opportunity to set out their side of things (the Church claims they proposed some 25 individuals to talk, but Gibney turned them down as he feared they were simply put forward to smear his own interview subjects). Also, the sense we get of what its ex-disciples got out of it is limited to the wow-seduction-factor, and it would be interesting to hear more of what/if they felt when they were actually there. For example, Beghe’s comments about having out of body experiences (“I went exterior!”) suggest something in their technique was doing something of note, even if the much-vaunted optimal mythic place of telekinesis and telepathy is framed as so much bunkum.
Crucially, just as we get to the point where Rinder comments on Scientology’s ability to control in relation to other religions Going Clear draws to a close. Because a broader sense of perspective is also needed. Not that Scientology isn’t nutso and loopy, but how nutso and loopy is it in comparison to other and longer established religions, cults and sects? Is it so scrutinised just because it happens to have a couple of high profile celebrity proponents, and garners its justified opprobrium because it is more tangibly crazy (its mythology being less ingrained and so less mundane)? For most people Scientology isn’t an everyday-encountered and mundane belief system, so its outré-ness still provokes a reaction.
One of the interview subjects comments, “When you’re in the organisation, all the good that happens to you is because of scientology. And everything that isn’t good is your fault”. You could pretty much claim that as the operating principle of any religion ever, so it may not be in bad company there. Or, as someone else says, “You take on a matrix of thought that is not your own”. Scientology’s paradigm is merely a little easier to recognise and mock than the ones most of us sleepwalk through everyday.