Going Clear | Lawrence Wright
The award-winning journalist conducts a Scientology audit.
The Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles looms over the 101 Freeway, a monument to Scientology’s wealth, exclusivity and carefully cultivated mystique. Flanked by palm trees, the palatial building is a refuge for its rich and famous members and a venue for luring new recruits. That celebrity Scientologists are prized members of the church is commonly known. In 1955, the Scientology-affiliated publication Ability urged members to enlist famous people, promising, “If you bring one of them home you will get a small plaque as a reward.” But treatment of clergy—members of the Sea Organization, who’ve signed contracts for a billion years of service—is another story. Accusations continue to emerge of physical and psychological abuse by leaders, including chairman of the board David Miscavige, and of Sea Org members being subjected to harsh, prolonged punishment in “the Hole,” a high-security detention center in the California desert.
Risking harassment and lawsuits, various journalists have written about these alleged human-rights abuses, including Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin of the Tampa Bay Times, former Village Voice editor Tony Ortega and Janet Reitman in her 2011 book Inside Scientology. Now Pulitzer Prize–winning author Lawrence Wright—who wrote a 24,000-word story for The New Yorker on director/screenwriter Paul Haggis’s decision to leave the church—offers his own investigation of Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, $28.95). Drawing on testimony from many former members and extensive research, he delivers a coherent, even-handed account of a complicated history. There’s familiar information, freshly presented—including Hubbard’s bizarre escapades on the high seas—and shocking new details. We learn more about how the church courts the Hollywood elite but frequently shames and disavows the Sea Org. (Public Scientologists comprise the majority of membership but mostly stick to talk-therapy sessions or “auditing.”)
“I didn’t want to do an exposé exactly, because it didn’t seem like there was any point to it,” Wright tells me. “Scientology has been exposed in the past.” Instead, he says he sought to understand what draws people—often very intelligent, skeptical, caring people—to the religion and prompts them to surrender their will.
Going Clear brims with weird and disturbing stories, including that of Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, a Sea Org member who worked as John Travolta’s handler. When her friend Yvonne (founder of the Celebrity Centre) developed a brain tumor, Spanky was determined to get Yvonne auditing and pleaded with the financial officer for funds. The officer refused, and Taylor called her “Yvonne’s assassin.” For her insolence, Spanky was sentenced to RPF, or Rehabilitation Project Force, and her newborn daughter was taken away, the book says. Spanky told Wright she was ordered to work virtually nonstop, eat slop and sleep on a soggy mattress, and that Travolta and other Scientologists could no longer speak to her because she had been deemed a “Suppressive Person.”
Elsewhere, Wright alleges mistreatment of children in the Sea Org who are assigned to work long hours and do jobs such as shovel asbestos (sans protective gear) and operate heavy machinery.
“One of the things that really surprised me in my research is the way that children are enlisted into their clergy at a shockingly early age and then deprived of education, impoverished by their service,” Wright says. “Where is the law in those occasions? I’m mystified by that.”
Meanwhile, the portrait Wright paints of Miscavige is one of extreme wealth, a violent temper and an obsession with power and prestige—a man who spends a significant amount of church resources trying to impress his right-hand man, Tom Cruise. For instance, when Cruise and former partner Nicole Kidman fantasized about running through a field of wildflowers, Miscavige had Sea Org members plant a meadow in the desert. When Kidman was declared a Suppressive Person, Miscavige allegedly had a search team audition other women for the “role” of Cruise’s girlfriend.
Wright believes celebrity Scientologists have an obligation to look at what’s really going on. “They’re being merchandized and sometimes even in their name, people are being exploited. I think they should shoulder that responsibility to reform their church from the inside. If it’s going to be changed, they’re going to have to be the ones to do it.” His revealing book provides them with an opportunity to examine new facts, but Wright knows few will read it. “In Scientology terms, it would be an ‘enturbulating,’ which is to say confusing, influence,” he says. It’s also the very info that intelligent, caring members should want to know.
Wright talks Going Clear on Tuesday 29.