Scientology, with its far-out sci-fi origin story, is an easy target for laughs. Until you consider that this multi-billion-dollar, celeb-driven, international enterprise trades in human trafficking.
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Usually I’m the person who leaves the cinema kvetching that the book was better than the movie. But as I watched Alex Gibney’s documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, my tune changed.
The film, which aired last night on HBO, was adapted from Lawrence Wright’s critically acclaimed book of the same name—a dazzling, meticulously reported indictment of the possibly evil and certainly screwy institution that calls itself Scientology. For weeks after reading the book, I buttonholed people to share what Wright had found out. The so-called church appears to engage in human trafficking. Its celebrity promoters—most famously and prominently, Tom Cruise—appear indifferent to human-rights atrocities. Wright convincingly argues that Cruise’s motorcycles, with no protest from Cruise, were detailed by child-slaves in the church’s so-called Sea Org.
But Gibney’s visual storytelling hit even harder, and included heartbreaking new material. I couldn’t banish the grief-stricken face of Sara Goldberg, a former high-level Scientologist who raised her family in the church, and then found herself forced to choose between her two grown children. Her son—a one-time star of Scientology—had refused to break with a friend who had criticized the religion, and was labeled a “Suppressive Person.” To remain in good standing, Goldberg would have to cut all ties to him.
She didn’t, and this meant, in the eyes of Scientology, that she was an SP, too. This is where the agony comes in: Unlike Goldberg, her daughter, brought up as an obedient Scientologist, did not hesitate to banish, or “disconnect” from, mother and brother. Describing her last visit with her daughter, Goldberg tries to stay composed, even as her eyes well up with tears. She doesn’t retreat to safe, abstract language. She recalls her daughter’s “smell,” and the touch of her grandchild, whom she will never again be permitted to contact. We see, over time, how Goldberg evolved from an ebullient young recruit to a depressed older woman struggling to make sense of the church’s nonsense underpinnings, to the woman she is today—wounded, brittle, trying to function in a world where every tenet that once guided her life has been exposed as a sham.
Where the book spoke to my rational brain, the film spoke to my heart. Where the book left me thinking that Scientology was a nefarious institution that should not have been granted tax-exempt status as a religion, the movie enflamed me. I wanted these sadistic human-traffickers stopped and stopped now.
Gibney fills the screen with tight close-ups of former Scientologists—their faces contorted with shame and fear. Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, once brutal enforcers for L. Ron Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, are sad old men whose eyes moisten when they admit to lying for the church. In a powerful juxtaposition, the filmmaker contrasts the mature Rinder with a videotape of his younger self, passionately arguing the truth of information he knows to be preposterous.
We also see a typed directive from Scientology’s founder, science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, urging church lieutenants to find out what a potential defector most values in his life—and to threaten it. In the movie, this translates to constant video surveillance of Rathbun’s wife, who was never a Scientologist, and their child. The wife tells Gibney she keeps a “Louisville slugger” under her bed in case the church-sanctioned hooligans, who camp outside her house, come after her with a weapon.
I had read in Wright’s book about Spanky Taylor, an assistant to high-profile Scientologist John Travolta, who, as a girl of 15, signed a billion-year contract to serve the church. Seeing her, though, brought a lump to my throat. She wasn’t easily articulate, perhaps because her education was abruptly cut off when she enlisted—as is typical for child slaves in the Sea Org. About the time of Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever, she was incarcerated for a reeducation program. It included sleep-deprivation, forced labor, and other practices evocative of Abu Ghraib. What pushed her over the edge, however, was the condition of her 10-month-old daughter in the church’s Child Care Org: sick with whooping cough, covered in fruit flies, her eyes sealed shut with mucus, lying in a urine-filled crib. Taylor had to escape and rescue the child.
To his credit, John Travolta appeared concerned about Taylor’s fate. This separates him from Cruise—or Cruise as he is revealed in this film—whose self-infatuation and indifference to other people’s suffering makes him an easy target for manipulation by Miscavige, the paranoiac leader of the church. Miscavige has made Cruise’s every whim a mandate for the Sea Org slaves, who work on his houses and cars. At five-foot-one to Cruise’s five-foot-seven, the insidious Miscavige truly makes the star feel larger than life—in every way.
Travolta’s unwillingness to criticize may stem from something else—the tapes and notes from his Scientology “auditing” sessions—confessions of painful or embarrassing incidents that are compiled as part of the recruitment process. Stored in vast vaults, these tapes and notes may be used to discourage defection.
Many believe Travolta’s files contain information on his sexual identity. “The church hierarchy was desperately concerned that their most valuable member would be revealed as gay,” Wright writes. “At the same time, the church was prepared to use that against him.”
Scientology openly condemns homosexuality. In 2008, the church’s San Diego chapter did not conceal its support of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure against marriage equality. And the high-profile defection of screenwriter Paul Haggis was in large part sparked by the way the church encouraged its members to shun his two openly lesbian daughters.
Were it not for the slavery and larceny, parts of Going Clear would be laugh-out-loud funny. L. Ron Hubbard, who founded the church, portrayed himself as a World War II hero. But his war record shows the only injuries he suffered were an ulcer and pink eye.
Near the end of his life, Hubbard appears in historical footage as a bald, stout, paranoid grotesque, not unlike the raging tyrant that Tom Cruise (sporting a bald cap and fat suit) portrayed in the 2008 movie Tropic Thunder.
Yet more comical, in the vein of “Springtime for Hitler,” was the 1993 grand event in the Los Angeles Sports Arena that Miscavige threw to celebrate Scientology’s victory in its battle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. As the film tells it, the IRS granted tax-exempt status to the church to elude hundreds of nuisance lawsuits it had filed against individual IRS agents. With torch imagery and a giant, creepy picture of Hubbard, the stage looks like it had been cribbed from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
The Scientology genesis myth is also hilariously absurd, involving a sinister universal overlord named Xenu, who freezes petulant underlings and dumps them (along with some atomic bombs) into volcanoes on Earth. Here their spirits, called Thetans, torment contemporary humans. Former Scientologists note wryly that the religion withholds this myth from church members for years. Knowing upfront might deter recruitment.
“I am not sure any religion withstands Western, rational analysis of its core tenets,” groused a friend when I mentioned the myth on Facebook. But many religions are at least open about their irrational tenets. I suspect even non-Christians know that Christianity involves a story about a god/man who was crucified and resurrected.
Often people point out that while they may not like Scientology, other religions have done worse things. But are horrible things—human-trafficking, torture, incarceration—not still horrible because other things may have been worse?
I originally saw Going Clear several weeks ago in L.A., in a theater located a few blocks down Sunset Boulevard from the monolithic Scientology complex featured in the movie. I was massively depressed. The church owns billions of dollars of real estate around the world—maybe even trillions. It is too rich to be challenged.
Or is it? According to the website of Tony Ortega, an investigative journalist interviewed in the film, I learned that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has considered a push to get the IRS to review its 1993 ruling. A push like this would require a big popular groundswell. Citizens might need to be stirred emotionally as well as intellectually. If Going Clear moves others the way that it moved me, this is certainly plausible. Or at least more plausible than Xenu dumping bombs and Thetans into volcanoes.
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