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Book Review - Going Clear



International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, 68-69.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Lawrence Wright

Reviewed by Terra A. Manca


New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2013. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. ISBN-10: 0307700666; ISBN-13: 978-0307700667 (hardcover), $20.12 (Amazon.com).

Going Clear is author Lawrence Wright’s eighth book (seventh nonfiction). Wright has been on staff with The New Yorker since 1992 and has written several plays and movies. He has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower (The New Yorker, 2013). His work on Scientology began with a 26-page article about director Paul Haggis’s exit from Scientology (Wright, 2011). With Haggis as a key informant for his book Going Clear, he has covered various topics but focuses on Scientology’s history, current Church leader David Miscavige’s rise to power (and his alleged abuse of Scientologists), and the experiences of high-ranking Scientologists and celebrities. The book has proved to be controversial and consequently has not been published in Canada or the United Kingdom (Calderone, 2013; The Daily Beast, 2013).

Throughout the book, Wright switches topics readily by following tangents (often for pages), but he covers his intended main themes. Indeed, Going Clear is informative, entertaining, and has been well received by most reviewers. That said, current Scientologists might find this book offensive. The Church of Scientology created a website with the intention of “correcting” alleged errors in Wright’s book and contesting his use of former members as informants (Church of Scientology, 2013). Wright may have included some very minor errors. For instance, Wright states that in “November 2007, actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes married,” when in fact the couple wed in November 2006 (p. 303). Even so, such minor errors are less extensive than the Church of Scientology (2013) suggests (see The Daily Beast, 2013). Furthermore, Wright was aware of many competing narratives between his sources and church documents or officials—which he primarily shares in footnotes. When possible he has provided detailed descriptions of current members’ perspectives, such as those of Tommy Davis, who was Scientology’s spokesperson during Wright’s research.

Going Clear appears to be largely based on former members’ accounts and bolstered with both media and academic reports. Wright has interviewed hundreds of individuals whose stories supported one another’s and much of the existing literature about Scientology (p. 370). It seems problematic that Wright’s journalistic citation style at times obscures which informants he is citing, and at times what type of information source he is citing. Nonetheless, these narratives are integral to understanding an organization such as Scientology. Moreover, Wright’s lack of clarity about his informants likely helps his efforts to preserve the anonymity of interviewees who may fear that Scientology or Scientologists may react to their participation in his research (p. 370).

Wright alleges that Scientology is based on a lie, but he asserts that Scientologists should be free to practice their religious beliefs without abuse or mistreatment from the Church of Scientology or other Scientologists.[1] Going Clear appeals primarily to people who are interested in a critical overview of Scientology, celebrities’ experiences with Scientology’s rise in Hollywood, and some of the controversies surrounding the organization. As a journalistic narrative, Wright’s book provides an excellent overview of Scientology’s public presentation in relation to the control and repression that many former members recount. Wright’s book is a worthwhile read for entertainment and an informative discussion of how Scientology rose to prominence amidst controversy.

It is a shame, however, that Wright failed to mention the work of many other researchers who preceded him. In some instances, he provides enough information about key academics. For instance, he provides a short account of Robert Lifton’s book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism as part of his explanation as to why many people in Scientology’s forced reeducation and labour system (the Rehabilitation Project Force, or RPF) remain loyal to Scientology. Although this account is not detailed, it provides a concise explanation of Lifton’s work, which has shaped many debates on cults and new religious movements.

Unfortunately, while he correctly notes that many academics have supported Scientology, Wright neglects much of the body of critical academic work on Scientology. In fact, he lists five very influential academics in this area: Roy Wallis, Harriet Whitehead, Hugh Urban, David S. Touretzky, and Stephen Kent. Even so, he fails to cite Touretzky, and the only reference to Kent’s work on the RPF resides in a footnote
(p. 392, note 141). As such, the reader has little idea of what these academics (and most of the critical academics listed) have written about Scientology. Other recent but absent articles that relate to discussions in Going Clear include those of Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi (2003), Jodi Lane and Stephen Kent (2008),[2] W. Vaughn McCall (2007), Susan Raine (2009), and my own work (Manca, 2010). I suspect (or hope) that he omitted these authors accidentally rather than deliberately. Although his book is well written and informative, Wright’s analysis of academic discussions about Scientology is weak.

Bibliography


Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 2003. “Scientology: Religion or racket?” Marburg Journal of Religion, 8(1). Retrieved from http://www.uni-marburg.de/fb03/ivk/mjr/past_issues

Calderone, Michael. 2013 (Jan 17). Lawrence Wright publisher defends book against Church of Scientology claims. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/17/lawrence-wright-publisher-scientology_n_2489798.html

The Daily Beast. 2013 (Jan 23). Scientology v. Lawrence Wright. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/23/
scientologists-claim-errors-in-lawrence-wright-book.html

The New Yorker. 2013. Contributors: Lawrence Wright. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/Lawrence_wright/
search?contributorName=lawrence%20wright

Church of Scientology International. 2013. “How Lawrence Wright got it so wrong: A correction on the falsehoods in Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology.” Church of Scientology International. Retrieved from http://www.lawrencewrightgoingclear.com

Kent, Stephen A. 1999. “Scientology—Is this a religion?” Marburg Journal of Religion, 4(1). Retrieved from http://www.uni-marburg.de/fb03/ivk/mjr/past_issues

Manca, Terra. 2010. “Alternative therapy, Dianetics, and Scientology.” Marburg Journal of Religion, 15. Retrieved from http://www.uni-marburg.de/fb03/ivk/mjr/past_issues

McCall, W. Vaughn. 2007. “Psychiatry and psychology in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard.” Journal of Religion and Health, 46(3): 437–447.

Raine, Susan. 2009. “Surveillance in a new religious movement: Scientology as a case study.” Religious Studies and Theology, 28(1): 68–94.

Wright, Lawrence. 2011 (February 14). “The apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology.” The New Yorker (Profiles). Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/
lawrence_wright/search?contributorName=lawrence%20wrighthttp://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright?currentPage=1

[1] Wright claims that the charitable status of Scientology (based partly on its religious claims) is relevant only to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service of the United States). This claim may be overlooking a more complicated relationship between religiously claimed charitable status and the state’s hesitation to involve itself in the organization’s practices, which is likely part of the reason Hubbard sought religious status in the first place (see Kent, 1999; Manca, 2010).

[2] Lane and Kent’s (2008) article relates very strongly to a conversation that Wright cites with psychiatrist Stephen Wiseman, so it is curious that Wright did not address this document.