Tuesday, December 2, 2014


"I can't get with any religion that advertises in POPULAR MECHANICS"-Woody Allen, ANNIE HALL (1977)

You didn't have to be crazy to be a pulp fiction writer in the early twentieth century but it didn't hurt if you were. Consider the life and career of Texan Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), creator of Conan the Barbarian and other sword and sorcery heroes. Howard was, by all accounts, crazier than a shit house rat but boy, that sum bitch sure could write. He's one of my all time favorite yarn spinners and it's a shame that he took his own life at the astonishingly young age of thirty.

L. Ron Hubbard, another pulp writer, was apparently crazy too. Crazy like a fox. A prolific wordsmith of marginal talent, Hubbard hacked out (figuratively and literally) a career in the pulp jungle of the '30s and '40s. He wrote a few novels in addition to the hundreds of stories he churned out in a variety of genres. But Hubbard's career really took off when he wrote DIANETICS and subsequently founded the Church of Scientology.

Scientology's "theology" is based on a story told by Hubbard that wouldn't have appeared out of place in the pages of  the pulp science fiction magazine AMAZING STORIES. But this yarn along with other writings by Hubbard, became the basis for a worldwide church that is staggeringly wealthy and powerful.

All of this and more is meticulously detailed in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD & THE PRISON OF BELIEF (2013) by Austin based writer Lawrence Wright. I finished reading this one about a month ago and it's one helluva read. Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for THE LOOMING TOWER (2006), bends over backwards to present as fair and balanced a portrait of Hubbard and Scientology as possible. He conducted dozens of interviews and offers a revealing peek behind the scenes of this highly secretive religion.

What emerges in the pages of GOING CLEAR is the story of Hubbard, who appears to have been a pathological liar and control freak with delusions of grandeur. Those delusions were ultimately fulfilled however by the creation of his church of Scientology which brought him untold wealth and power. Scientology comes off as a group of not-so nice people doing extremely questionable things. The leaders of the church seem obsessed with courting such Hollywood stars as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and, most importantly, Tom Cruise. Having a big name actor serve as the public face and spokesperson for Scientology seems to lend an air of credibility and respectability to the church and the leadership will go to any extremes to keep Tom Cruise front and center. And happy.

The leadership also indulges in punishing members for mistakes, subjecting them to treatment that some frat houses wouldn't condone during pledge week. Members are made to suffer and suffer some more when they don't pass their "audits". The church is also extremely vindictive and litigious when it comes to any negative portrayal in the media. The church leadership has filed countless law suits against their "enemies" and have resorted to other strong arm tactics including blackmail and coercion.

Criminal acts and terroristic behavior abound in the pages of GOING CLEAR. Wright and a small army of attorneys (most of them from THE NEW YORKER magazine) faced off against the current church leader David Miscavige during the writing of this book. Screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who spent years in Scientology, is now out of the church and served as one of Wright's main sources of information. There are many other people, former church members, who speak out in the book as well.

GOING CLEAR is a fascinating book. It reveals everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology and then some. It's not a pretty picture although, to be fair, many people have benefited from the religion over the years. It's the people who have been abused by the church that make up this extremely compelling, eye-opening, page turner of a history of a man and his followers. GOING CLEAR was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award. The book is currently being adapted into a documentary by HBO and is slated for release at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

 HBO had 160 lawyers review the film out of fear of litigation by the Church of Scientology.

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