Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is largely a history of both the Church of Scientology and the one and only L. Ron Hubbard, its eccentric and obtuse founder. It also explores the membership of some of Scientology’s most well-known followers, like Anne Archer, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise, as well as filmmaker and screenwriter Paul Haggis, who left the church in 2009. Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a 2006 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, couldn’t have been more thorough in relating how this star-studded, richer-than-God religion came into being and remains relevant in spite of its notoriously repressive history and unsurprisingly thin following (according to Wright, a recent ad claims that Scientology welcomes 4.4 million new devotees every year—and yet, as was mentioned in a recent PolicyMic article, the number of Scientologists in America is less than half that of Rastafarians in America).
Those statistics are actually estimates from a survey compiled in the Statistical Abstract of the United States; there could be many more than 25,000 Scientologists in this country, and the aforementioned ad indicateds that’s the case. Given the stigma that comes with everything Scientology, it may very well be the case that many Scientologists are secret Scientologists—which would perhaps explain why I’ve yet to meet a single adherent. (I’ve yet to meet a single Rastafarian for that matter.) It’s stigmatizing enough to declare openly that Tom Cruise is my favorite actor—which he is. It’s stigmatizing enough to be friends with a Scientologist; there’s no real evidence that Cruise’s close friend, Will Smith, is a Scientologist and yet the bereaving jury of the court of public opinion is relentlessly out on him. Guilt by association.
While the anti-Scientology stigma may seem unfair particularly in a world dominated by religions that are just as wacky and, in most cases, much more violent and detrimental (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Libertarianism, etc.), that stigma isn’t entirely unfounded. Most if not all of what Hubbard either speculated or downright believed in and peddled as truth, either about his religion or about himself, were extraordinarily baseless, weird, idiotic, and wrong. For instance:
Cells are sentient.
The universe is four quadrillion years old.
A Scientologist can literally will away asthma, arthritis, menstrual cramps, and ulcers.
In addition to raising one’s IQ (a point every hour, apparently), one can remember experiences from past lives, as well as dreams he or she had as but little gametes if one is audited well enough.
Also if one is audited well enough, he or she can eliminate his or her “reactive mind,” the source of one’s nightmares, fears, and insecurities, and become “Clear”—meaning that you’re accident-proof and immune to bacteria among other silly perks that need not be listed.
Hubbard insisted that his “thetan” (the equivalent of that which other religions would designate a “soul” or “spirit”) had once been “a contemporary of Machiavelli’s” via a past incarnation, and that “the end justifies the means” had actually been penned by Hubbard; the famed author of The Prince had stolen it. (Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg and Machiavelli are the same thetan; how accomplished to have been both the founder of Facebook and the father of Realpolitik.)
A concoction of nicotinic acid and vitamins taken daily—“with milk and chocolate”—can cure cancer and sunburns.
Cited in “The Anderson Report,” a report by an Australian government board of inquiry in 1965, which according to Wright actually led to the banning of Scientology from two Australian states for a time, Hubbard claimed “that he has been up in the Van Allen Belt, that he has been on the planet Venus where he inspected an implant station, and that he has been to Heaven.” Needless to say, it’s very, very easy to believe he was a “wacko.”
However, I couldn’t help walking away from Going Clear wondering if that was too easy …
When describing Hubbard, the term “wacko” and its synonyms might actually be a little strong if not dismissive and misleading—for reasons not limited to the fact that they may actually be used within the psychiatric community in reference (off the record, of course) to individuals who technically are psychotic. I’m no physician. And even if I were, I’d still be in no position to ascertain definitively his mental condition: the man is dead, and so I wouldn’t exactly be able to psychoanalyze him, and to judge him off of his own claims, theories, and writings, as well as every anecdotal account of his exploits, his proven lies notwithstanding, would ultimately amount to psychoanalyzing a ghost, as tempting as that may be and as fair as that may seem. Many of Hubbard’s detractors as cited in Wright’s book are, or were, in my position.
In that aforementioned report by the board of inquiry for instance, Hubbard was “‘mentally abnormal,’ evincing a ‘persecution complex’ and ‘an imposing aggregation of symptoms which, in psychiatric circles, are strongly indicative of a condition of paranoid schizophrenia with delusions of grandeur.’” Its writer, Kevin Victor Anderson, was unfortunately not a physician of any kind. In Church of Scientology v. Gerald Armstrong, Paul G. Breckenridge, the case’s presiding judge, ruled that “the [COS] is clearly schizophrenic and paranoid, and this bizarre combination seems to be a reflection of its founder.” Again, not a physician.
Elsewhere, Wright quotes a man who “worked in the [COS] as Hubbard’s medical officer,” a professor of psychiatry, and a psychologist (and it should be noted that psychologists are not physicians) who all more or less consistently determined Hubbard to be a paranoid and delusional “manic depressive” and “malignant narcissist”—i.e., “a highly insecure individual protecting himself with aggressive grandiosity, disavowal of any and every need from others, antisocial orientation, and a heady and toxic mix of rage/anger/aggression/violence and paranoia.” The problem is that a lot of this is biased (and thus fault-prone) speculation; the psychologist, a “former lover” of Hubbard’s who had not yet become a psychologist at the time, was diagnosing him from memory, and the professor, Dr. Stephen Wiseman, is admittedly described by Wright as “a prominent critic of Scientology.”
Wright and many of his intrepid predecessors, like Paulette Cooper and Gerry Armstrong, have produced all the evidence one needs to heartily support the notion that Hubbard was an atrocious husband to his first two wives; that he was a pathological liar and a master manipulator; that he (like his successor, David Miscavige) was a shameless crook, who quite consciously and very shrewdly designed Scientology as a church so as to replicate for himself the enormous financial returns of other profitable religious establishments and figures; that he was a frightening man to cross. There’s plenty to suggest he was a hot-tempered, impulsive, and shameless crank; a braggart, a racist, a homophobe, a womanizer, and an utterly terrible father. (The children of his third marriage apparently didn’t begin their education until the eldest of them, Diana, “demanded to learn how to write her name.” Exactly how old she was when she demanded that Wright doesn’t say, but she may not have been younger than 6; Hubbard’s third wife bore him four children in six years.)
Is there enough to support the notion that this man was a wacko—“insane”? (Bear in mind the fact that the term “insanity” is strictly a legal one, having no place in the medical community—having had no place in the medical community since the 1920s and 30s). Perhaps. Perhaps he really was mentally ill… Or perhaps he was little more than terribly stupid.
Idiocy and insanity are by no means interchangeable; the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter.
In his 1940 review of Mein Kampf, a book which had been published in 1925 though for obvious reasons suddenly became very relevant, George Orwell writes, “it is difficult to believe that any real change has taken place in Hitler’s aims and opinions,” that “when one compares his utterances of a year or so ago with those made 15 years earlier, a thing that strikes one is the rigidity of his mind, the way in which his world-view doesn’t change” (emphasis his). I’m reminded of this because if I hadn’t known this was written by Orwell about the Führer, I could have easily mistaken it to have been written about someone like Hubbard—or Jeffs, or Koresh, or Jones, or McVeigh, or Bin Laden.
Whether or not these people are or were somehow crazy doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is the possibility that they were much simply dumb, and moreover that there are many people out there who are not merely dumb, but worse: content with being dumb. But far worse than even stubborn stupidity is the way the rest of us are content with tolerating and appeasing it. Sure, some people are passive; they wouldn’t hurt a fly. Others, however, are much too ambitious for passivity, for the obscurity of all the shadow around the spotlight—and they are the ones with the most alarming, most frightening potential.
Originally published on PolicyMic (2/5/13).
Edited by Elena Sheppard.