Lawrence Wright’s avowed purpose in writing “Going Clear” is to understand whyScientology, a religion known for its bizarre creation myth, mining of church members’ secrets and draconian punishment system, has appeal. “What do its adherents get out of it?” he asks. “How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do public personalities” — he’s talking to you, Tom Cruise — “associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom?”
Mr. Wright says that he has spent much of his career “examining the effects of religious beliefs on people’s lives.” He did this most notably in “The Looming Tower,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Sept. 11. But Mr. Wright was more successful at penetrating the thought processes of Al Qaeda than he is at seriously grasping whatever Scientology has to offer.
That’s not to deny that “Going Clear” is a hotly compelling read. It’s a minutiae-packed book full of wild stories and accusations about both L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, and David Miscavige, his volatile successor (who, according to someone who once went fishing with him, got so impatient after five minutes that he wanted to grab trout out of the water or shove hooks down their throats). And it is full of testimony from former Scientologists who describe being treated abysmally. But as for how the religion works, its creator put it far better than Mr. Wright can. “To keep a person on the Scientology path,” Hubbard once said, “feed him a mystery sandwich.”
“Going Clear” doesn’t have much mystery on its menu. But it has Paul Haggis, the writer (“Million Dollar Baby”) and director (“Crash”), as its example of conversion, faith, blind loyalty and, finally, apostasy. Mr. Haggis was a perfect recruit (young, disaffected, going nowhere) when he signed on for Scientology in the 1970s. When he had evolved highly enough on the Hubbard scale to gain access to one of the founder’s manuscripts, he came out of a locked room asking, “Is this a metaphor?” It wasn’t.
For decades he accepted these tenets until a mounting sense of outrage ended his loyalty. The genesis of “Going Clear” is the genuinely shocking profile of Mr. Haggis that Mr. Wright wrote in The New Yorker in 2011.
The book goes on to tell the Hubbard story in a carefully evenhanded way. Mr. Wright acknowledges that “the tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man.” And he sees that “to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling.” He also tries to correlate the extremes of Hubbard’s science fiction writing (he was hugely prolific) with a religion based on events that took place 75 million years ago in a Galactic Confederacy ruled by the tyrannical overlord Xenu.
As the power of Scientology’s secretiveness evaporates on the Internet, and more and more books are written about it (Janet Reitman’s 2011 “Inside Scientology” shares much common ground with “Going Clear”), sci-fi absurdity has become old news. Yes, “Going Clear” includes a photograph of Mr. Hubbard using his electronic E-meter on a tomato to measure its pain. But quoting his casual teachings can be much more startling. On the super strength of someone who has reached the religion’s Operating Thetan level, he said in a 1963 lecture: “Supposing you get mad at somebody on the other end of the telephone. You go crunch! And that’s so much Bakelite. The thing either goes into a fog of dust in the middle of the air or drips over the floor.”
Quoting from what is claimed to be a short secret Hubbard memoir (though the church calls it a forgery) Mr. Wright also extracts these nuggets, part of a long personal list: “Material things are yours for the asking. Men are your slaves.” “You are a magnificent writer who has thrilled millions.” “You will live to be 200 years old.” “Self-pity and conceit are not wrong. Your mother was in error.” “Snakes are not dangerous to you. There are no snakes in the bottom of your bed.”
But Mr. Wright does not read too much into, say, the snakes-in-the-bed idea. “Going Clear” appears to have been heavily vetted by lawyers (though it still contains enough lawsuit bait to have been dropped by its British publisher, Transworld).
“Going Clear” loses much of its exoticism after Mr. Hubbard’s death in 1986 and the accession to power of Mr. Miscavige. This part of the book deals with stories of the church’s acquisitiveness and its abuse and the virtual imprisonment of underlings. Mr. Miscavige’s wife, Shelly, has reportedly not been seen in public in years. She may be living in a cold climate: Mr. Miscavige is said to have sent her a sweater and gloves as Christmas gifts.
The strange and ugly behavior described in this latter part of the book takes it even further away from that original idea: What makes the acolytes stay? And what made Scientology (founded in 1952) outlast so many of the other faiths that blossomed in the heady 1970s, when the culture was at its most receptive to new forms of groupthink? Mr. Wright suggests that Hubbard’s emphasis on creating rigid rules gave his religion an appealing structure, that longtime attachment to the church makes resuming outside life very difficult, and that the big-money clout of Scientology is hard to defy.
He offers one perfect formulation of Mr. Hubbard’s staying power as a theological figure: “He was bold. He was fanciful. He could easily invent an elaborate, plausible universe. But it is one thing to make that universe believable, and another to believe it. That is the difference between art and religion.”