Lawrence Wright | Interview outtakes
When I spoke with Lawrence Wright about his much-buzzed-about new book on Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, I asked him if he has been hassled by the notoriously litigious Church. (His book doesn't paint a very flattering picture of the organization, see.) "So far it's just been innumerable threatening legal letters with lawyers," he told me. "But I haven't been attacked or followed, that I know of, nor do I even think that much about that sort of thing."
Right on cue, the Church of Scientology issued a statement last month discrediting the book and its author. Knopf, Wright's publisher, responded with a statement of its own: "Given the arc and scope of Wright’s narrative, and the readership it is likely to draw, it is unsurprising that the Church has chosen to vilify Wright, as well as reach out to media organizations in an effort to influence their coverage of his book.”
Wright says he didn't want to write an exposé exactly but wanted to understand what happens to people when they decide to join the Church or choose to get out. Here's more from my conversation with the award-winning journalist.
Was it difficult to convince people to share inside information about the Church with you?
When you're first starting on a project, you feel shy because you don't know very much, and you know that you're going to be ignorant and seem ignorant. Then you're talking to people—in the case of Scientology, many of them are very frightened, they have a lot at stake, they have family members that are in the organization—and there are so many reasons they don't want to talk. So to actually have people trust you and tell you their stories, it's a terrific privilege.
Did you feel like that trust was something you had to earn along the way as you acquired more knowledge and sources?
I think the more you know, the more you'll get. People love to talk about the things that are important to them, but oftentimes as a journalist if you're entering a world that's pretty esoteric and difficult to penetrate, and has many barriers to outsiders, then the people inside that world just don't have the same language as you do. When you begin to acquire that language and understand their way of thinking, the reticence begins to fall away. And often there's just a torrential outburst [of sharing] because someone finally understands what you think and why you're doing what you're doing. It's a very powerful thing.
I think what's so frustrating about daily journalism is that you don't have the opportunity, unless you're on a beat, to develop that kind of expertise that allows you to break through those emotional barriers.
After Paul Haggis was willing to talk to you for your piece in The New Yorker, did other former Sea Orgs then come forward to share with you?
It did make a difference that Paul chose to talk to me. It set a precedent. If someone as significant as Paul Haggis was willing to put his name on this as a source, then others would follow. There were so many people that initially didn't want to be on the record, but many of them were eventually persuaded to put their names on it. That was a very brave action for so many of them. But there was strength in numbers. The more people that say, "Yes, you can use my name. I'm going to stand up and be counted," their friends begin to say, "Okay, I'll do it too."
When you set out to write Going Clear, did you have a specific idea of what you did or didn't want to do based on other books about Scientology that have already been written?
I wanted to understand it. I thought that what was missing was an investigation into the Church that would sympathetically understand what happens to people: why they go into the Church, what they get out of it and then why people—oftentimes very intelligent, skeptical, caring people—surrender their will. Especially in the clerical group, the Sea Org, so many of them have alleged abuses and have been confined, sometimes for years on end, in these reeducation camps. How did that happen?
In the section about L. Ron Hubbard, I was amazed by how many inconsistencies you identified between what Hubbard said of his own history and what has been proven to be true. Was it difficult to get the facts straight?
It was very troublesome because the Church has a narrative of L. Ron Hubbard's life that is often at variance with the evidence. For years, the Church has been going out and trying to monopolize as much of the evidence as they can. In terms of photographs, it's very difficult to get any photographs the Church doesn't own. They've silenced knowledgeable people with nondisclosure agreements, and they've threatened and intimidated critics. This makes it challenging. It's not impossible. There is evidence still out there…but boy, it was hard.
Why do you think the topic of religion has held such interest for you in your career?
Well, I didn't realize that religion was going to become a big theme in my career until I looked back and realized that I'd been writing about religion, in one way or another, for almost the entire time that I've been in journalism. I was a very religious teenager, and I moved away from that. But I did gain an appreciation for the power of religious beliefs in people's lives. Oftentimes when I was reporting on conflict somewhere in the world or prison or wherever I might be, I'd be struck by the fact that religious beliefs were sometimes transformative, sometimes a motivation for violence. These beliefs, these faiths that people adhere to seemed to me so much more powerful than political beliefs in terms of affecting actual human behavior.
Do you think Scientology's popularity will continue to grow or do you think it's waning?
What it has is a lot of money. What it doesn't have is a lot of members. As long as it has plenty of money, it's going to stay in business, but that doesn't mean it's going to prosper in terms of being an effective force in the community. It's a small sect that has so much more influence than its membership would suggest. The two factors of money and celebrity can carry it a long way.
I don't see Scientology as a threat to our society. It's not a terrorist organization, but it is a very fascinating phenomenon. You can learn a lot from studying it. It's not to say Scientology couldn't change. All religions evolve and change, and it might change for the better and it might change for the worse. But certainly it will change.