Some science fiction writers spend their time sending off hopeful submission after hopeful submission hoping to rake in the money. Others, after a few years of this, say, screw this. I'm starting a religion.
Ok, maybe just one went with option two.
L. Ron Hubbard seems to have led a colorful life before deciding to go the religion route. I say, seems, because as Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief
notes, the details of Hubbard's early life are not entirely clear and may have been partly made up. It appears, however, that Hubbard did spend a lot of time travelling, was at least in the military (disputes about his military record form a large section of his book), was extremely successful at selling science fiction to pulp magazines, was abysmal to at least two of his three wives (and according to this book cheated extensively on all three of them), made friends with various science fiction writers and enemies of others (the quotes from L. Sprague de Camp are among the book's highlights) and founded a religion. Of sorts.
One reason Scientology has had issues obtaining official "religious" status is that many of its elements do seem to come from pure space opera – not surprisingly, given Hubbard's background. Wright details the more, um, interesting of these, while also noting that the earlier stages of Scientology – the ones advertised in those endless Dianetics commercials years back, have a combined quasi scientific and "Buddhist" feel. (I'm not sure that either Wright or Hubbard knows much about Buddhism.) The whole "reading" thing (to really oversimplify and risk the wrath of Scientologists, a machine that "reads" your energy as you kinda work through your memories and your problems going "up" various levels until, as the book's title has it, you are "clear,") is encased in scientific wording; the reincarnation is...well, it's not really Buddhism; the space opera stuff is pure pulp fiction. Ahem.
(Sidenote: MS Word is ok with Scientology, but not Dianetics. JUST SAYING.)
This science fiction background helps explain why John Campbell, editor of Astounding
for one, was an early adherent. Heinlein, however, was more skeptical, and eventually even Campbell backed off. But the science fiction writers backed off for multiple reasons. Scientology thrived, as Wright documents, by finding adherents in Hollywood, and by taking many of its most devoted followers on ships where they could be more easily controlled. In Wright's version – and in the testimony of many ex-Scientologists – the Scientologists engaged in frequent physical and emotional abuse of its members and engaged in techniques similar to brain washing (although Wright also notes some skepticism about whether or not brainwashing actually exists.) Top Scientologists within the church hierarchy enjoyed luxuries not available to others. They became, in the terms of many, a cult (many anthropologists reading the book will be banging their heads against the nearest wall when they reach that point of the book, but moving on). Defenders noted that some of their critiqued behaviors are at least superficially similar to some groups within the Catholic Church, which has a history of indulging some of its top leaders (hi, Vatican) and practicing self-flagellation in some groups. And, of course, Scientology could offer the hope of making connections in Hollywood.
It's easy to see why the Church of Scientology objects to this book. Wright scrupulously includes comments from multiple people, perhaps most notably Kristie Alley, who claim to have been helped by Scientology, and discusses Narconon, a Scientology program many people credit with breaking their drug addictions. Wright also scrupulously notes multiple denials from the Church and from various lawyers for John Travolta and Tom Cruise. (It's safe to say that Travolta and Cruise's attorneys would still not be happy with the final result.) But these denials and legal statements are generally buried in footnotes, and some of the more questionable negative stories about Scientology, like this one:
David Mayo was sent to the RPF. He was made to run around a pole in the searing desert for twelve hours a day, until his teeth fell out.
are presented without skepticism. The endnote for this anecdote credits an interview with Bent Corydon, a biographer who worked with Hubbard's estranged son Ronald DeWolf to write a biography that the Church of Scientology strongly disputes. I'm willing to admit that running around a pole in the searing desert for twelve hours could cause all sorts of medical issues, but unless David Mayo had prior major dental issues (the text doesn't say) I don't think that teeth falling out is one of them. "Collapse" or "death," sure. Teeth falling out....maybe not.
And although attorneys for Cruise and Travolta apparently reviewed sections of the book (and objected), other attorneys and celebrities did not, most notably Kristie Alley and two of Cruise's wives, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes. Given that Alley was reportedly a witness to some of the events Wright mentions, and Kidman and Holmes form a part of the allegations against Cruise in this book, this seems a bit odd. (None of the three are portrayed in a negative light; it just seems odd.)
Wright has one or two odd moments elsewhere. For instance, in his comparison of Scientology and the Catholic Church (specifically Franciscan friars), he claims that unlike Scientologists, Franciscans can enter or leave their orders without needing to cut off contact with friends and family. This has not always historically been true. (And going beyond the Franciscans, it's not always true today for some enclosed orders.) It's a minor slip, but it makes me wonder what other minor slips are in there. And from a narrative point of view, it might have been better to tell the story in a straightforward way, rather than beginning with screenwriter Paul Haggis, going back in time to Hubbard's life, then forward to Haggis, then back to Hubbard and so on. It's not particularly difficult to follow; it just made the book feel, how do I put this? More literary and less detached. I was also annoyed by Wright's continued avoidance of the word "bisexual" – come on, Wright, it's 2013. Some people are gay, some people are straight, some people are John Travolta, and some people are bisexual
I suspect most of you will be intrigued by all of the Hollywood gossip – I felt new levels of compassion for Kidman and Holmes (I told you Cruise's attorney would not like this book.) Speculative fiction writers, on the other hand, may be more interested in the tidbits at the beginning of the book – the bits where Hubbard is hanging out with the Heinleins and Campbell and so on. Also the bits where Hubbard seems to have been involved with a group that took its guidance from Alistair Crowley, because, you know, Satanism. This is all great stuff and frankly I found the IRS battles and the Hollywood gossip, even with the brainwashings, forced separation from spouses, parading potential spouses in front of Tom Cruise and so on kinda boring in comparison. My quibbles aside, fascinating read. Recommended.