Author: Lawrence Wright
Read By: Morton Sellers
It is my custom to highlight the audio books I have heard in my annual, end-of-the-year book reviews. But I found that Lawrence Wright’s history of Scientology to be such an amazing story, I wanted to share with readers now rather than wait until December.
Scientology was the first major cult I encountered after moving to Los Angeles. A friend and I once visited one of their big training centers downtown. I recount the story in this post.
Most Americans are vaguely familiar with Scientology because of its connection with Hollywood elites, particularly Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Others through the prolific science fiction writings of the founder, L. Ron Hubbard. While the average person maybe recognizes the name “Scientology,” and the better than average person may know it’s a religious organization of some sorts, what the general public doesn’t know is the dark and disturbing underbelly of the secretive group, and that is what Wright’s book exposes for us.
I had read the author’s previous history about Al Qaeda, entitled The Looming Tower (That’s an excellent book as well, by the way), so I knew that Wright was a fabulous researcher who had the ability to weave together an engaging story. I was interested in his book on Scientology because the “Church’s” presence swirls around in Southern California, plus the influence through the celebrity pop culture.
The book is broken into three major parts. The first opens by recounting the “conversion” of writer Paul Haggis in 1975. A skeptical atheist, Haggis, was drawn to the claims that Scientology was a scientific approach to self-help and personal betterment, He stayed devoted to the Church until the late 2000s when Scientologist leadership refused to take a public stand against Proposition 8, California’s traditional marriage bill.
After setting up Haggis’s story, Wright moves to a detailed biographical overview of L. Ron Hubbard and his troubled life and his pursuit of a Bohemian lifestyle. He tells about Hubbard’s early life and washout in the navy during World War 2 and how he gained a following writing for pulp science fiction magazines. Hubbard had the ability to write voluminous amounts of scifi stories that were published under a number of pseudonyms.
He was also fixated on the occult and would dabble in the occultism of Aelister Crowley while living in Pasadena. He and a friend created an occultic sex ritual designed to summon an ancient goddess by the name of “Babalon.”
His friendship with his occult associate dissolved and after a number of attempts to make money with his writing, he finally hit pay dirt with the publication of Dianetics in 1950. Hubbard fancied himself a self-taught, self-help guru, and unlike most of the flash in the pan books of the self-help genre that are popular for a year or so and then disappear completely, his book stuck, because he used it as the gateway to introduce readers to further material he developed that was promised to help individuals get over their personal problems and take control of their lives. Through that, Scientology was born.
Wright then goes into an overview of what it is that Scientology teaches and why. He lays out the development of all the Scientology lingo, like “going clear,” “Emeters,” “suppressive person,” and the “Rehabilitation Project Force,” which is more like a North Korean gulag designed to rehabilitate members who had failed to meet expectations or were believed to be “goofing off.” He also explains the various operating levels within Scientology and the history behind Xenu, the tyrannical space overlord who banished the souls of his people to earth killing them in volcanoes. Those souls are called “thetans” and attach themselves to human beings causing them all sorts of emotional and mental harm. The gist of Scientology is to separate those thetans from your body so that you can then go clear.
Some of the more unbelievable revelations Wright recounts involve Scientology’s attempts to destroy by harassment anyone who would tried to leave the church or write negatively about it, the most notable being Paulette Cooper, a journalist who wrote one of the first ever scathing reviews of the group in 1971. She became the victim of numerous lawsuits and other countless personal attacks that almost drove her to suicide. Even more stunning was Scientology’s Operation Snow White, a criminal conspiracy attempted by members working in at least 30 countries in more than 130 government agencies around the world to purge any negative reports on the group. They wiretapped and stole documents from many of those agencies, including most notably, the IRS.
The second part of the book deals with Scientology and their influence among many elite Hollywood movie stars and entertainment moguls. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, a young “messenger” in the sea org named David Miscavige organized a take over of the Church and purged all the senior members in Hubbard’s absence. He was the one who brought Scientology to a place of having tax exemption from the IRS (through lawsuits and harassment campaigns against the IRS), as well as a more prominent roll among Hollywood elites. A good portion of this section tells of Tom Cruise’s involvement with Scientology and his influence within the group, as well as his public relations for them.
The third section of the book returns us to the life of Paul Haggis. In 2008, when proposition 8, the traditional marriage bill was to be voted on in California, Haggis was troubled that the official church in San Diego had given contributions in support of the bill. Haggis had two lesbian daughters who had been raised in the Church, and he saw Scientology’s support of prop. 8 as hypocritical against everything he believed they stood for.
When attempts to change the mind of church leaders failed, Haggis began his own investigation through the internet and began to have his eyes opened to the fact that Hubbard had always believed homosexuality was a subversive behavior that needed to be purged from those who practice it. That began to lead Haggis to question what he had always believed and eventually leave the church altogether.
Wright’s book on Scientology is fantastic, both as a compelling story, as well as an important apologetic work. While it certainly provides insight to one of the more strange, but secretive mind-science cults in the world, it also is a study on the power of how what one believes can be so enslaving, the idea behind “Prison of Belief” in the subtitle.
Members of the church for the most part come from irreligious families. Many, like Haggis, profess no religious affiliation at all and even claim to be atheists. They are initially drawn to Scientology because it is said to be the study of “science” and the mind techniques developed by Hubbard are claimed to help people overcome their hang-ups, phobias, and other personal anxieties on your own apart from the help of doctors or psychiatrists.
Many Scientologist testify that the basic, introductory courses they took immediately helped them with their mental health issues, much more than any doctor or prescribed medication could ever hope to do. That “breakthrough” is what entices them to continue with the church. Some even join the top fraternal order called the Sea Org signing the billion year contract basically staying committed for all eternity to Scientology.
Thus, they willingly embrace as true the bizarre scifi space “revelations” of Hubbard, along with the abusive hazing rites that happens at all levels throughout the organization. For example, when the FBI raided the Hollywood headquarters in the aftermath of the revelations of Operation Snow White, agents found a large room in the basement filled with men and women wearing boiler room working outfits. None of the people welcomed their “liberation” from what really amounted to cruel captivity, but saw the FBI as wrongfully intruding in their necessary program to keep themselves in good standing with the church.
The RPF is just a small slice of the abuse Scientologists are exposed to. They’ve been forced to divorce spouses, give up their children, get abortions, and subjected to some of the harshest bullying imaginable. Even children are subjected to what really amounts to slave labor by performing tasks for the church. Yet, as Wright points out, none of them would say they are being abused. They would claim that they personally are the problem, and would never imagine their leaders, particularly David Miscavige, is an insane and brutal individual.
I plan to eventually pick up the physical copy of the book to have as a reference. But if you can listen to the audio edition, I would highly recommend it.
If I may give a thought or two about audio books. I have come to realize the abilities of a reader can make or break a book’s presentation. I’ve listened to several audio books the last few years and I have come to have personal favorites, like George Guidall. The reader for this book, Morton Sellers, did a superb job. He had a clear voice that was precise with his pronunciation. I loved his steady, matter-of-fact cadence when he read. As far as I know, this is his first book, because I can’t find any others he has read. I hope to hear more from him.