Covering the church beat takes on an entirely new dimension when that church is the Church of Scientology. Since its founding in 1954 by former pulp fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the church has aggressively used the courts and public relations campaigns to undermine and intimidate journalists who seek to dig deeper into its controversial doctrines and practices. Lawrence Wright's 432-page book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” expands on his lengthy 2011 report in The New Yorker that follows the defection of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director, while confronting the firm resolve of true believers who are crucial for the church's survival in the midst of growing claims of human trafficking and imprisonment of some members and physical abuse conducted by David Miscavige, its top leader.
In response to a request for comment, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw calls Wright's book "a work of fiction" and says the church was not provided with a copy of the book before publication and that, despite the church's request for written questions, Wright "studiously avoided the Church, providing only about a dozen obscure and esoteric fact-checks — none on any relevant subjects."
"The one thing 'clear' about Lawrence Wright's book is that he continues to carry water for a handful of angry, bitter individuals. … Apostates constitute 95 percent of his interviews," she says.
Wright says he "repeatedly asked for the opportunity" to talk with top church leaders "to give them the opportunity to put their side of the story forward," but the church "chose not to respond to those requests."
Based in Austin, Tex., Wright earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for "Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" (Knopf). The dark side of extremism he explored in that book is also a theme in "Going Clear," especially in passages that document the abuse of its youngest and most vulnerable clerics and retaliation against certain members who choose to exit the church publicly. Wright's research debunks elements of Hubbard's biography, and the disparity he illustrates between the church's dwindling membership (estimated at 25,000) and its booming fortunes ($1 billion in liquid assets) suggests Scientology is less about promoting enlightenment and more about protecting a profitable global enterprise.
However, despite such revelations, his writing humanizes a religion that is often too freely characterized as cultish, and he remains respectful of believers who say their lives were ultimately bettered by Hubbard's methods that led them to achieve "Clear," a state that washes away repressive memories. He suggests that whatever value Scientology has for its members is stained by the paranoia of its leaders toward the outside world and the prominence assigned to courting Hollywood's elite.
Wright recently took time to talk by phone from his home about what went into writing "Going Clear." Following is an edited transcription of our conversation.
Q: The church contradicts most of your reporting, and in one moment of the book, its attorneys show up at The New Yorker with 48 binders of material stretching about 7 linear feet, a tactic you suggest was intended to intimidate you into reversing course. Why didn't it work?
A: It could be they thought they were going to drown me in information, which is the wrong approach. For a reporter, it's pouring water on a fish. When they rolled in those 48 volumes, I looked at those binders with absolute joy. After our meeting, we loaded them on dollies and took them to an unused computer room in The New Yorker's office with no windows. Just a long narrow room with a long desk. I lined all the volumes up and closed the door and had them all to myself. I was really happy.
Q: It is well documented that journalists probing the inner world of Scientology have been stalked, threatened and forced into litigation. Did that history give you pause?
A: I was aware of the past history. I didn't go into it with my eyes closed. But when you have a situation where there are so many allegations and there is a history of threats and also of inaction on part of police agencies, it's an important spot for an investigative reporter to step in. That's what we were created to do. I thought the ideal spot for me, as a reporter, was to try to assess the truth of the situation.
Q: So much of what one associates with Scientology is the secrecy, which, to be fair, is a hallmark of many religions. However, in Scientology, it feels much more stern and with an obvious litigious bent. Why?
A: The church's culture of secrecy is part of its DNA. It was in the personality of its founder. Hubbard was, by nature, secretive. He spent a decade on the high seas out of the reach of process servers and the press. The last several years of his life he was in hiding. From the very beginning of this movement, Scientology has always been a very closeted organization. That aura of secrecy is something that the present-day management continues.
Q: But why, when it might be seen as turning off potential believers?
A: There are two ways of looking at it. The church wants to protect the copyright on its arcane doctrines. But those doctrines have been long since spilled out in the courtroom through its many court challenges. Very little is to be gained now when (details of the doctrines are) openly mocked on "South Park." But they continue to want to protect what they think ... is a very valuable copyright of their doctrines. People pay to have access to those secret doctrines. That's part of the Operating Thetan experience: As you climb up the ladder of Scientology's spiritual hierarchy, these secrets are revealed. But they've already been dumped into the public, so it's unclear what people are paying for.
The other thing is that Hubbard himself wrote out the policies for how to deal with public and the press, and his words are considered essentially scriptural. The person leading the church, David Miscavige, feels obliged to follow those dictates literally. If you look at them, Hubbard spells it out: Openly harass your critics and sue them even though you have no possibility of winning. The point is to intimidate your critics. And that's the policy the church continues to follow.
Q: Your book reveals how Tom Cruise is so intimately tied to the church and how far it has gone to keep him happy. Is he immune to these charges raised in your book?
A: I do think (his career) has suffered because of his allegiance to the church. For instance ... (Viacom Inc. chairman) Sumner Redstone canceled his (Paramount Pictures) contract (in 2006). And his image suffered in the public, too. He is a great actor and an incredibly charismatic movie star, so he can ride through a lot of that because people love to see him in movies. Certainly Scientology bent over backward to make him happy. There's no other member of the church that I know of that's been given the extraordinary treatment he has: the gifts, the special accommodations, the awards, the recognition that Tom Cruise received. He's certainly the most visible Scientologist ever. But in my opinion, he has a responsibility to understand what else is going on inside that organization that he promotes so heavily.