On his way to a dinner party in Los Angeles, Marlon Brando cut his leg helping a stranded motorist. When the legendary actor arrived in pain, John Travolta offered to help him with a Scientology procedure known as an “assist.”
Brando let Travolta touch his leg. The two celebrities closed their eyes for 10 minutes. Then Brando, not a Scientologist, opened his and said, “That really helped. I actually feel different.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Lawrence Wright has sewn numerous precious scenes like this into his much-awaited new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.
The ambitious work is Wright’s meticulous, nuanced, and engaging telling of the story of L. Ron Hubbard and his controversial creation, the Church of Scientology.
It is a massive landscape for one book to cover — from Hubbard’s early days as a writer, explorer, and budding philosopher, to the church’s founding in 1954, to the intriguing adherents drawn to his teachings.
Wright renders a portrait of an organization in a perpetual and often awkward struggle for acceptance.
Because he chronicles the stories of abuse that have come in recent years from former members, the church has criticized his work, saying it lacks corroboration. But Going Clear also chronicles the stories of people who say Scientology has helped them.
There are no major new disclosures. Wright does offer a rich portrayal of Scientology, full of insight, detail, celebrity intrigue, and graceful writing.
He reports that when Scientology leader David Miscavige takes the former Hollywood couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman under his wing, the leader surrounded them with “a completely deferential environment, as spotless and odorless as a fairy tale.”
The author explores what he calls the “three tiers of Scientologists.” They are the parishioners who live secular lives, the celebrity Scientologists who are at the center of church marketing efforts, and the Scientology clergy, the zealous members of the religious order, the Sea Org.
He opens with Hollywood director Paul Haggis’ conversion. Wright then traces the arc of Hubbard’s remarkable life.
His well-researched narrative shows Hubbard’s galvanic personality, his ability to charm and impress. Hubbard’s dark side is presented, too — the womanizing, his indifference toward his first wife and children, his marriage to his second wife while still married to the first.
Wright also reports exaggerations and discrepancies in Hubbard’s official church biography.
Especially insightful are passages describing how Hubbard developed the theories foundational to Scientology. Wright also presents new information about the church’s formative years — the 1950s through mid 1980s. He then returns to Haggis, using the director’s 30-plus years in Scientology as the spine of a story that brings in many characters.
Miscavige is the brassy and often violent church leader who regularly interferes with the revolving door love life of top parishioner Cruise.
In Wright’s portrayal, the leader seems obsessed with tapping into celebrity culture to enhance his image and personal comfort, and to enlarge the church’s imprint on society.
Cruise is the on-again, off-again, on-again church celebrity, who becomes Scientology’s most visible, vociferous, and pampered parishioner. Wright has him meeting with top officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations to help Scientology make inroads at home and abroad.
Travolta is portrayed in a more sympathetic light. Wright tells the story of a fund-raising dinner at the actor’s home. When a guest refers to one of the waiters with a slur offensive to gay people, Travolta admonishes the guest, saying such remarks were not tolerated in his home.
“Haggis was flooded with admiration for the firm but graceful way that the star had handled the situation,” Wright says.
As time wears on, Haggis’ initial fascination for Scientology wears off. He finds it unsatisfying. And in rare encounters with Miscavige, he cannot bring himself to be deferential.
A major disagreement with the church sends him on a personal “investigation” that uncovers unflattering reports about his church.
Like others before him and after, Haggis walks away.