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Clear and Fear: Scientology Under Review

Book Review

Wendy M. Grossman

Volume 37.3, May/June 2013

covers of the books listed below

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
By Lawrence Wright. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.
ISBN: 978-0-307-70066-7. 432 pp. Hardcover, $28.95.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape
By Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer. William Morrow, New York, 2013.
ISBN: 978-0-06-224847-3. 404 pp. Hardcover, $27.99.

The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology
By John Sweeney. Silvertail Books (www.silvertailbooks.com), 2013.
ISBN: 978-1-909269-03-3. 324 pp. Paperback, £12.99.


We very likely have Katie Holmes to thank for the timing of this latest crop of books on Scientology, the belief system so notably promoted by her ex-husband, Tom Cruise. Yes, at least two of these authors have been researching their books for many years, but for promotional opportunities you can’t beat a good celebrity crack-up. That said, the Church of Scientology’s known love of litigation and the United Kingdom’s libel laws have made British publishers skittish: Transworld canceled New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, and BBC investigative journalist John Sweeney’s agent, turned down by every major British publisher, created a new independent publishing company to get The Church of Fear into the marketplace.

Wright’s frame for Going Clear is the personal story of Hollywood screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash, Million-Dollar Baby), which ran in the New Yorker in 2011. A good choice: Haggis found Scientology as an alienated twenty-one-year-old in London, Ontario, in 1975 and stayed with it through his waxing and waning career. He didn’t begin asking questions until 2008, when the Church’s name appeared on a list of organizations supporting Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative to ban gay marriage. When Haggis, two of whose daughters are gay, failed to get satisfactory answers about the issue, he began researching the Church he thought he knew. What he learned led to his resignation. He tells Wright: “I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”

All told, Wright interviewed more than two hundred current and former Scientologists in addition to research in archives and on the Internet. The effort shows. If you haven’t been following the progression of books and articles over the last thirty years, this is as complete and rounded an account of Scientology and its people as you’re likely to find—now or in the future. Wright notes that for years the Church has been buying up original Hubbard-related journals, letters, and photographs and withdrawing them from public view.

If you have been following the Church, however, it’s surprising how much of the book’s material is familiar. Most of the details of the life and lies of Scientology founder and pulp-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard were laid bare in two 1987 books, British journalist Russell L. Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah and American former Scientologist Bent Corydon’s Messiah or Madman?. In Time’s “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power” (1991), Richard Behar took a hard look at the Church’s operation and finances. Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth published a close-up look at Tom Cruise’s love life just prior to Holmes, showing the Church’s micromanagement of everything its biggest celebrity spokesman might want. Finally, in 2011’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, Janet Reitman broke new ground by studying the transfer of power within the Church after Hubbard died—pardon me, “discarded his body”—to current leader David Miscavige, uncovering the level of torture and abuse endured by members of Scientology’s elite “Sea Org,” and taking a first look at the stories of kids who’ve grown up in Scientology.

Elements of all these prior works are visible in Wright’s account, which pulls them together and fills in missing detail and personal context. The material less familiar to me included Hubbard’s “Affirmations,” a thirty-page diary of sorts that the Church calls a forgery but that was introduced as an exhibit in the Church’s 1984 lawsuit against its former archivist, Gerald Armstrong. In it, Hubbard wrote candidly about himself and his fears that Wright believes are an early attempt at using the methods later known as Dianetics, Scientology’s precursor and foundation.

Wright has also done a good job on the Church’s finances. Its extreme wealth derives in part from the 1993 settlement with the Internal Revenue Service that classed it as a tax-exempt religion. Hubbard stopped paying tax in 1973; by 1991 the Church owed $1 billion in back taxes and had brought more than 2,300 suits against the IRS on behalf of individual Scientologists and two hundred of its own. The two organizations went all out spying on each other until, in 1991, Miscavige, by then installed as leader, abruptly called on the commissioner and proposed détente. The settlement took two years to negotiate; the Church eventually paid $12.5 million in back taxes and dropped all its lawsuits. The kicker: if they had paid the full sum in 1991 the Church by now might be just a historical oddity. Instead, it has $1 billion in assets, mostly held in offshore accounts, despite declining membership according to polls and census figures.

“Public” Scientologists—that is, those who live and work outside the Church and simply take courses or use “the tech”—almost certainly have little idea how the Church treats those who give their lives to it by becoming members of the inner-circle “Sea Org.” They are told to avoid the media and are offered Internet filtering software to block anti-Scientology sites that might tell them that anyone, from highly visible spokespeople to children, may abruptly disappear for months or years of punishment where their basic biological needs are barely met and they are forced to do hard physical labor at exploitive or nonexistent rates of pay. Even more protected from the reality of this side of the Church are its celebrity spokespeople; their experiences of Scientology are limited to its beautifully appointed Celebrity Centers.

Where Wright’s book is at its best is in the personal stories: Haggis’s, of course, but many others, including that of Spanky Taylor. For a time she was John Travolta’s trusted personal Church liaison until she was abruptly sent away for punishment and finally left the Church. It can happen to anyone: even Church president Heber Jentzsch, a frequent public spokesman in the 1990s, has been in “the Hole,” whose tortures are vividly described to Wright, since 2006.

This decade’s significant change in how we think about Scientologists—as opposed to Scientology—has to be this: a substantial portion of today’s Scientologists did not choose to join. Instead, as Miscavige’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, recounts in Beyond Belief, their involvement is a result of decisions made by their parents or grandparents. Hill’s parents, like Miscavige himself, were brought into Scientology as children; she knew she was a Thetan as soon as she could talk. She was two when her parents abandoned family life in New Hampshire and committed their lives entirely to the Church. Hill grew up with other Scientology kids in a rigidly controlled, isolated environment on a ranch in Southern California, rarely seeing her parents and schooled primarily in Hubbard’s writings. One day, with the other kids, she signed a billion-year contract with the Sea Org. She was eight.

A billion years, thirty years—it’s all the same when you’re eight, but as Hill grew older she began to realize what she’d given away: her individuality, the right to ask questions, the right to family life. You can rationalize that, as well as punishments such as isolation and scrubbing bathrooms with a toothbrush, as long as you believe it’s to benefit the greater good. The Miscavige name subjected her to additional pressure and scrutiny as well as resentment from those who thought it gained her special privileges. In her mid-teens, Hill underwent months of “sec-checks” intended to force her to find and confess “withholds” from her present and past lives, and couldn’t understand why. Eventually she was told: her parents had left the Sea Org. Expected to go with them, she was being given the standard leaving treatment; the Church was collecting secrets it could use to silence her later.

She didn’t want to leave, not then. That came later, after she met and fell in love with Dallas Hill. After many struggles, internal and external, the pair “blew” for the real world. Hill has gone on to have the children she wouldn’t have been allowed inside the Sea Org and cofound the ExScientologyKids website. Gradually, she came to realize the extent to which her life had been owned by the Church. In 2007, when the high-ranking Mike Rinder blew, she finally learned the inside story of why and how her life had been micromanaged at the behest of her uncle.

Rinder’s high-profile defection, one of several over the past five or six years, came after his appearance as a Church spokesman in the documentary Scientology and Me, a 2007 episode of the BBC’s Panorama, a pro­gram with roughly the national weight and reach of 60 Minutes. The award-winning investigative reporter behind it, John Sweeney, followed up in 2010 with The Secrets of Scientology. Despite his long history as a war correspondent, Sweeney says his life’s most frightening moments came while investigating Scientology. This is the story he tells in The Church of Fear; it’s the stuff they didn’t broadcast, including detailed accounts of interviews with the actresses Anne Archer, Leah Remini, Juliette Lewis, and Kirstie Alley, all celebrity supporters. For me, it contains the most new and original (and entertaining) material of the three books reviewed here. Sweeney even visited Trementina, the “space alien cathedral” miles out in the New Mexico desert that stores all of Hubbard’s work on gold-plated discs in a heavily protected underground vault. Also in the book are leaked BlackBerry messages between Miscavige, Rinder, Davis, and other handlers showing that Sweeney’s developing paranoia that he was being spied on was entirely justified.

Sweeney has apologized many times for “the exploding tomato” incident: the moment in 2007, widely viewed on YouTube, when he turned bright red and started bellowing at Church spokesman Tommy Davis, Anne Archer’s son. By 2010, enough of Sweeney’s 2007 handlers had defected that he could put them on the air to explain exactly how he was goaded and manipulated following Hubbard’s strategy of pushing the enemy until he does things you can use to discredit him. However, this strategy collided with the strategy devised by Sweeney’s producer, Sarah Mole, which cast Sweeney as the hypothetical goat in Jurassic Park: bait to pull the predators into the open. A few days before the 2007 broadcast, the Church published the clip of his explosion, following later with a counter-documentary, Panorama Exposed. As an effort to discredit, it failed: the license fee-paying British public was inclined to view the tomato incident as an understandable lapse.

It was the pressure of lying in re­sponse to Sweeney’s knowledgeable point-blank questions that led to the defection of Mike Rinder, who had been pulled out of the Hole to handle Sweeney. The question that broke his back: Had David Miscavige ever hit him? In 2007, Rinder said no. In 2010, a much happier Rinder said instead that the culture of violence in the Church starts at the top and spreads outward and estimated he’d personally been beaten by Miscavige fifty times. Wright lists twelve people who say they, too, were victims of assault by Miscavige and twenty-one who say they witnessed such incidents.

The Church repeatedly has denied these and the other claims of violence, abuse, and deception that all three of these writers and many others continue to spread across the media, backed up by the many Internet sites that are enabling disaffected former Scientologists to find each other and share their stories. Church spokespeople have called critics, even Scien­tology’s own blown former top spokesmen, criminals, sex offenders, bigots, liars, suppressive persons, evil, and psychopaths. Midway through Sweeney’s book, as the number of such characterizations multiplies, it becomes impossible not to think of the actor’s agent George Fields (Sydney Pollack) in the 1982 movie Tootsie, explaining reality to his brilliant but unemployable client, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman): “They can’t all be idiots, Michael. You argue with everybody.”

Wendy M. Grossman

Wendy M. Grossman is the founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic (U.K.) and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow. Her writings can be found at www.pelicancrossing.net and on Twitter at @wendyg.