Monday, June 22, 2015

‘Going Clear’ (Book Review)

After reading insider Jenna Miscavige Hill’s tell-all memoir Beyond Belief about her growing up in the Church of Scientology, I thought it would be a good idea to read something that would give me a slightly more objective view about L. Ron Hubbard and his religious creation. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013) was just the thing.

In this book, author Lawrence Wright pulls together material from considerable research and numerous personal interviews to tell story of one of the newest and one of the most controversial religions around today. He starts off with Hubbard’s early life and goes into his wobbly career with the U.S. Navy, his involvement with the Occult, and his stormy relationships with his wives (both official and common) and children. This helps the reader really put Hubbard’s science fiction writing, development of Dianetics, and founding of Scientology into a larger perspective.

While at first, Going Clear might appear as a Hubbard biography, later on the book shifts focus, discussing the suspicious take-over by David Miscavige, the church’s turbulent relationship with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, charges of abuse, and other scandals and lawsuits. Wright fills his narrative with testimonies of members past and present, both famous and not-so-much, providing a variety of perspectives about Scientology, its legitimacy, and where it’s headed.

As the work of a previous Pulitzer Prize winner, I wish the book had been a smoother read. It seemed to jump from here to there at times, probably because there was so much information and so many people to discuss. It made it difficult to remember who was who sometimes. However, I really appreciated how Wright took the time to explain a lot of scientologists’ practices and beliefs. One problem I had had with Hill’s book was that she often seemed to assume her readers knew what she was talking about, and the Scientologese (Scientology unique set of acronyms and vocabulary) is not always easy for a casual reader unfamiliar with the religion to remember.

Some readers might take issue with me calling Going Clear “objective,” and I admit that’s a bit of a stretch. A better word choice might be “fair.” Wright lets both side have their say, while he does betray his own position at times. For example, I think he could’ve been more critical of filmmaker Paul Haggis when discussing Haggis’ upset about the church’s support of CA Proposition 8 (2008) concerning the legal status of same-sex marriage. I thought that Haggis’ correspondence with church officials provided an excellent illustration of how celebrities were accustomed to receiving special treatment. Here was one who thought he had a right to demand a change in the church’s doctrine and political position, regardless of the view of the church’s leaders or other members. Haggis’ behavior shows what problems the church faces when constantly catering to high profile members’ sense of entitlement, and I think Wright was too focused on the discussion about the treatment of homosexual members to make observations like these.

I would like to say that, whatever biases might have penetrated the rest of the book, Wright’s conclusion was quite fair. Christian readers might think of 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 and how Christianity stands or falls on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead when, in Going Clear, Wright notes the significance of a statement made by Scientology’s then-spokesman Tommy Davis. In effect, Scientology stands or falls on Hubbard’s claims that Dianetics helped heal him from his war wounds. As Wright shows, Hubbard unabashedly lied about his war record and exaggerated his health problems. All I can say in response is “Case closed.”

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