‘Going Clear’: Everything About Scientology (and Tom Cruise) You Never Wanted to Know
In Alex Gibney’s lacerating documentary, the “Church” of Scientology receives a fair-minded expose that is decades overdue.
Why do well-meaning and intelligent people sign their lives away to organizations that turn them against their friends and family, leech their money away, and demand they believe in things that are, well, ridiculous? That unsettling question was the impulse behind Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a landmark piece of investigative research that helped end the decades-long cone of silence that Scientology erected around itself via fear and lawsuits. Wright’s search for a credible answer is what makes the compelling companion film that he co-wrote with director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks) such frightening yet necessary viewing.
To explain his interest in Scientology, Wright notes that he has also studied radical Islam and the Jonestown cult. It’s not meant in a derogatory way. In fact, there’s very little in Gibney’s film that mocks, no matter how often Scientology’s absurd pageantry begs for it. Wright in particular is filled with empathy and curiosity for the people who think they have found the answer to everything, only to discover too late that they’re trapped.
Director and writer Paul Haggis (Crash), one of the many Hollywood folk whom Scientology has ensnared over the years, explains his own involvement in clear-eyed fashion. “There’s this cult in New York,” he remembers being told, with a sharp, self-deprecating amusement that brightens some of the film’s darker moments, “[and] if you give them all your money, they’ll make anything possible in your life.” Scientology’s open-ended belief system — only people who have advanced to certain levels and (of course) paid a lot of money, are allowed access to the theology — and application of practical Freudian-based psychology to overcome people’s self-doubts and fears made perfect sense to him.
Haggis — an appealingly acerbic figure who’s unsparing in his criticism of Scientology’s ultimate corruption but just as critical of himself for going along with it — was miserably in love and painfully unfulfilled, and looking for answers. He joined Scientology, moved to Hollywood, and soon his professional life started taking off. Spanky Taylor, a former friend and assistant to John Travolta, says that’s how it can be. People start taking Scientology “courses,” good things begin to happen to them, they assume that it must be because of Scientology. According to her, like Travolta, they become the “church’s captive.”
Going Clear illustrates Scientology’s clever appropriation of the venerable cult technique of constant questioning. In the process known as “auditing,” a Church member interrogates another who is hooked up to an “E-meter.” An essentially cheap gadget which Wright describes as “one-third of a lie detector,” it is supposed to detect the “engrams,” which are the bad memories keeping the interrogated person from happiness and clarity. The idea is that by identifying and confronting these engrams, people can deprive them of their power. It’s not dissimilar to effective therapeutic techniques. Only those techniques are usually not accompanied by E-meters, gobbledygook about past lives, never-ending demands for more money and further auditing sessions, and the fact that the intensely personal and revealing sessions are often recorded for future blackmail purposes.
That mix of cultish paranoia and rapaciousness grew straight out of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s die-hard belief in his own persecuted uniqueness, not to mention his stated desire to start a church because it was “the only way to make any real money.” Hubbard was a disaster of a naval officer during World War II (he accidentally shelled a Mexican island and claimed to sink a Japanese sub that wasn’t there) and incredibly prolific pulp science-fiction writer in the postwar years. He embellished the former into a superhuman biography that Bruce Wayne would have been jealous of, and used his skill at the latter to fashion a garbled and battle-minded theology that put his followers in a mindset of constant warfare. Hubbard, who worried he was insane and once wrote the Veterans Administration looking for psychological help, had an interest in practical therapy that he turned into the bestseller Dianetics, which later became the foundation of Scientology.
Hubbard’s self-improvement group became a money-making machine once he figured out how to charge people for successive levels of courses and auditings. At the higher levels, Scientology promised everything from higher IQs to perfect memory and health and near-supernatural powers. The goal was (and remains today) getting rid of all engrams, becoming a “Clear.” What with all the promised benefits, it sounded pretty good to a lot of people. One after the other of Gibney’s interviewees describes, with a kind of wonderment at how trapped they had been, how it seemed that everything good in their lives came from Scientology and everything bad was their fault.
Gibney pulls back on some of the historical backdrop once he hits the 1960s. That was when Hubbard’s hatred of paying taxes sent him on a years-long cruise crewed by his faithful “Sea Organization,” who infamously pledge their service for a “billion years.” These billion-year slaves spend their time (still today) scrubbing down decks and doing other manual labor for mere pennies a week. Any infractions are punished by spirit-crushing rounds of confinement in reeducation camps that appear to function like mini-North Koreas in Scientology strongholds like southern California and Clearwater, Florida.
Although Going Clear is a tight two hours, the enormity of Gibney’s task becomes clear once he launches into the latest stage of Scientology history. It is currently ruled in effect by David Miscavige, a Hubbard protégé who strong-armed himself into a commanding role via palace politics after “LRH”’s 1986 death — an inconvenient occurrence which Scientology explained away as the old man not so much dying as leaving his body for further studies; “going exterior,” they call it. After the semi-comical discussion of the origin story that Hubbard left for his religion (between the galactic empires and volcanoes, it’s like an early discarded draft for Attack of the Clones), Gibney pivots towards a tougher discussion of Scientology’s human toll.
The latter part of the film is dominated by many of Miscavige’s ex-lieutenants, defectors who are hounded day and night by loyalists for their public excoriations of what they witnessed: Corruption, violence, slave labor, and intimidation on a scale that would rival some smaller Third World dictatorships, and a level of theology-free venality that puts a lie to the tax-dodge fallacy that designates Scientology as a “Church.” Well, it would, had Scientologists and their squadrons of lawyers and followers not buried the IRS in harassing lawsuits until the federal government threw its hands in the air. More disturbing than that surrender are the skin-crawling stories that Wright dug up about Miscavige’s sycophantic grooming of Tom Cruise as Church spokesman and the forced laborers who reportedly slave away to assuage any desire of Cruise’s, from installing a sound system to finding him a new girlfriend.
What makes people join such a transparently mercenary outfit and stay with it, even after they get to a high enough level to read Hubbard’s ravings about the evil Xenu, prison planets, and the ghostly “thetans” that supposedly inhabit everyone? Like any other successful cult, Scientology is able to attract people with the lure of success and belonging and then trap them in a self-perpetuating cycle of debt and dependency. Unlike other cults, though, Scientology has Tom Cruise out there shilling for them, a boundless appetite for vengeance, and billions of dollars’ worth of tax-free real estate.
Going Clear doesn’t present the Scientologists it interviews as dupes or fools. If viewers laugh at some of Miscavige’s more Mussolini-like moments or Hubbard’s particularly charlatan-sounding pronouncements, that’s to be expected. Gibney and Wright understand how many honestly searching people there are out there, and how many wolves are waiting to separate them from the herd.
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright
Web site: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/going-clear