I rarely read nonfiction, but Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology exerted a pull on me. There’s a Scientology center rather prominently located on the main drag at the University of Texas, where I obtained my library degree, and I’ve been fascinated by its unique position within the American religious landscape since I first heard about e-meters and stress tests (not to mention the gossip surrounding Tom Cruise and his paramours).
Wright’s book is a deep dive into Scientology, one that that chronicles both the life of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, from his childhood onward as well as the religion’s character in the 21st century. It’s long, dense, and very detailed. It’s different from a lot of nonfiction that I generally gravitate toward in that it doesn’t have much of a thesis. There’s analysis here, but it’s mostly relegated to the epilogue, which I found the most compelling. Most of the book is simply a chronicle of events, very journalistic, without a lot of conclusions drawn (though perspectives of many people with divergent views are included). There’s not a lot of authorial voice. I wouldn’t call this a weakness; it’s just a different style from which I’m accustomed.
Those looking for the salacious details regarding the church’s treatment of its celebrities won’t be disappointed (Wright writes at length about Scientology’s interview process for Tom Cruise’s girlfriends). But there’s a much darker underbelly to the church, one that I was mostly unaware of going into the book. Wright chronicles the physical abuse sustained by members of the church who had broken one of its tenets or simply pissed off one of its leaders, the organized system of punishment called RPF (where penitents spend years doing manual labor for a couple of dollars a week and aren’t allowed to leave), the method of brainwashing children by deliberately keeping them from their families, and the threats and intimidation exerted upon those who leave. Perhaps most stomach-churning are the revelations into L. Ron Hubbard, who routinely beat his wife and subsequently kidnapped his daughter when his wife threatened to leave him, telling her he had their child killed. The book is a damning portrait of Hubbard, his creation, and those who lead the church today (including David Miscavige).
Wright’s sources are almost entirely those who have left the church (and he talked to over 200 people), though he did give the church the opportunity to rebut the statements given by these former adherents, which are mostly relegated to footnotes that simply state “The church denies these allegations.” The amount of evidence against the church is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to take these blanket denials seriously.
Many people of faith object to Scientology being classified as a religion, and Wright touches upon its fight to be called one (mainly via the IRS giving it tax-exempt status, which is the only official way religions are defined in the United States). The arguments for and against are equally compelling. The RPF, for instance, is brutal to outsiders, but those “on the RPF” routinely state that they wish to be there and can leave if they choose to. Wright draws a comparison between it and some Catholic sects, whose adherents willingly undergo severe physical deprivation. While it may be easy for non-Scientologist readers to state what is harmful about Scientology, it’s much more difficult to simply write it off as a cult with a larger-than-usual following and a weirder-than-usual belief system.
I listened to this one on audio, read by Morton Sellers, and he does it quite well, in a solemn, even tone. I appreciate that Sellers reads all of the footnotes, which he sets apart by stating “Footnote” and then “End footnote.” I did find it amusing that he read off all web addresses that began with “http://” as “aitch tee tee pee colon forward slash forward slash.”
Compared with the book, the HBO documentary that aired a couple weeks ago is light on content, despite its run time of two hours. I enjoyed seeing the faces and hearing the voices of those Wright wrote about in his book; it definitely adds another level to their stories. If you enjoyed the documentary or found it enlightening, I highly recommend getting hold of the book. It paints a much fuller, and even more alarming, picture.