A Careful Writer Stalks the Truth About Scientology

By Charles McGrath
The New York Times
January 2, 2013

AUSTIN, Tex. — The writer Lawrence Wright doesn’t seem at all the sort of person you’d find in public wearing a black cowboy shirt emblazoned with big white buffalos. He’s shy, soft-spoken, a little professorial. But as if he didn’t have enough to do, besides working on three plays simultaneously and getting ready to publish a new book in two weeks, Mr. Wright has been taking piano lessons with Floyd Domino, the two-time Grammy winner, and on a recent Saturday, in his buffalo shirt, he played in a concert at the Victory Grill here with the band WhoDo. Mr. Wright was at the keyboard, and sang solo on “Sixty-Minute Man” and the Count Basie tune “She’s Funny That Way.” Not bad for a bookworm.
“I decided a while ago that I would only do things that are really important or really fun,” Mr. Wright said. “This is really fun.”
More fun, probably, than dealing with lawyers. His new book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief” (Knopf) is about the famously litigious Church of Scientology, and he said he has received innumerable threatening letters from lawyers representing the church or some of the celebrities who belong to it. (Transworld, Mr. Wright’s British publisher, recently canceled its plans to publish “Going Clear,” though a spokeswoman insisted that the decision was not made in response to threats from the church.)
The book, which recounts the history of Scientology through the interwoven stories of key figures like L. Ron Hubbard, the religion’s founder, and celebrity Scientologists like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, claims among other things that the church has virtually imprisoned some of its members, threatening blackmail if they try to leave, and that its current leader, David Miscavige, has physically abused some of his underlings. The book won’t do anything to enhance the image of Scientology, already diminished by Janet Reitman’s 2011 book, “Inside Scientology: The History of the World’s Most Secretive Religion.”
In a statement, Karin Pouw, a Scientology spokeswoman, said Mr. Wright and his publisher refused to provide a copy of the book in advance and “showed little interest in receiving input” from the church. “The portions you cite from the book are preposterous lies,” she said, adding that “the allegation about Mr. Miscavige is false and defamatory.”
But Mr. Wright insists that he did not set out to write an exposé. “Why would I bother to do that?” he said. “Scientology is probably the most stigmatized religion in America already. But I’m fascinated by it and by what drives people to Scientology, especially given its image.”
He added: “There are many countries where you can only believe more or you can believe less. But in the United States we have this incredible smorgasbord, and it really interests me why people are drawn to one faith rather than another, especially to a system of belief that to an outsider seems absurd or dangerous.”
Mr. Wright, whose previous book, “The Looming Tower:” Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, is no stranger to writing about secretive organizations. In the case of Scientology, he said, he had been looking for what he calls a “donkey” — a character strong and sympathetic enough to carry a complicated story. “I don’t mean it in a disparaging way,” he explained. “A donkey is a very useful beast of burden.” In 2010 he finally found one in Paul Haggis, the winner of back-to-back Oscars for “Million Dollar Baby,”which he wrote, and “Crash,” which he wrote and directed, who defected from Scientology in 2009, after 34 years in the church, during which he rose to one of its highest ranks.
In 2011 Mr. Wright published a profile of Mr. Haggis in The New Yorker, and in the course of the fact-checking process Tommy Davis, the international spokesman for Scientology, did Mr. Wright an unwitting favor. He showed up in The New Yorker offices with four lawyers and 47 white binders full of material about the church.
“I suppose the idea was to drown me in information,” Mr. Wright recalled, “but it was like trying to pour water on a fish. I looked on those binders with a feeling of absolute joy.”
Among his peers Mr. Wright is known for his thoroughness and for his legal pads and his filing-card system, which in the computer age is as complicated and as antique as the historian Robert Caro’s. Lauren Wolf, a recent graduate of the journalism school at the University of Texas, who worked for Mr. Wright as a fact checker and researcher on “Going Clear,” said, “I think the reason Larry hired me was that in the interview I said, ‘I think one of my faults is that I don’t know when to stop researching.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think that’s a fault.’ ”
She added: “He’s incredibly thorough. He does an immense amount of reading and researching and talking to sources.”
In all Mr. Wright spoke to some 200 current and former Scientologists, only a few of whom insisted on anonymity. He started with Mr. Haggis, he said, and one name led to another. It helped that, starting in 2009, a number of high-ranking officials had broken from the church and began talking to The St. Petersburg Times. (The spiritual headquarters of Scientology is in nearby Clearwater, Fla.)
“The church for decades has been mopping up as much information as they can,” Mr. Wright said. “That’s why there are so few photographs in the book. They’ve also silenced people through nondisclosure agreements and through intimidation. But this has not been a perfect job on the part of the church.
“There are a lot of people out there who were very high up in the church and know a lot about it who have become outspoken. I’m very lucky to come along at a time when a lot of these people are ready to talk.”
One of his sources, Amy Scobee, said of meeting Mr. Wright: “I had already taken the plunge and decided to speak out. But I’ve been approached by a lot of people who just want a quick sound bite. He wasn’t a Johnny come lately. I felt he had real integrity.”
Another ex-Scientologist, Tom De Vocht, a construction manager for the church who left after 28 years, said: “I could tell that Larry wasn’t just out to get the church — which would have been fine with me, actually. He really had dug into this, which made it easier to talk to him.” He added: “I couldn’t not say anything. I feel I’ve got to make the truth known.”
A color-coded outline for “Going Clear” is still on a wall-size whiteboard in Mr. Wright’s office in his house here. Next to it is an equally large whiteboard outlining a play Mr. Wright has written about the Camp David accords, which is expected to have its premiere at Arena Stage in Washington next season. In February he is going to London for a reading of a play he has written about the making of the movie “Cleopatra.” And in March a play he has written about the journalist Oriana Fallaci will open at Berkeley Rep in California.
Fallaci, he explained, was someone he admired and in some ways loathed. “She was a very formative figure for me,” Mr. Wright said, “though I’m not sure what I think about some of her techniques now. She went a little crazy at the end and after 9/11 her anti-Muslim rhetoric was so provocative and inflammatory. But I’m still very interested in the tension between Islam and the West, and so Oriana Fallaci became for me a great vehicle, another donkey.”
Mr. Wright, who despite his shyness has also appeared in two one-man shows based on his own journalism, said that he didn’t see much disconnection between his books and his theatrical writing.
“They’re all kin,” he said. “I did interviews and have note cards for Oriana.” He also interviewed people who had worked on “Cleopatra.” “I like the serendipitous surprises of reality,” he said. “I get more pleasure from discovering it than from inventing it.”
Excusing himself because he had to go practice the piano, he added, “I get very antsy when I’m not occupied.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 4, 2013
An article on Thursday about the writer Lawrence Wright and his new book about the Church of Scientology included an outdated title for the book. While it was previously titled “Going Clear: Scientology, Celebrity, and the Prison of Belief,” it will be published on Jan. 17 as “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief.” The error was repeated in an accompanying picture caption.