Let's pretend for a minute that you're a longterm Scientologist, and you have just decided to read Lawrence Wright's 2013 opus Going Clear, on the history of that movement. Why are you reading it? You have perhaps been warned not to do so by your other friends in the Church. You have been informed that the book is nothing but lies, fabricated by people who left Scientology and who now want to validate their new existences on the outside by telling journalists whatever they want to hear-- whatever accusations against the Church will sell. This is still your consciously-held belief.
But perhaps some upset of conscience has also afflicted you (an "enturbulation," you might call it). Perhaps you've fallen behind in your coursework and your auditing sessions, and there is talk that you need to be "recovered." Perhaps a friend in the Church was asked to "disconnect" from a family member. Perhaps someone you knew in the Sea Org vanished rather suddenly from your life, and no one will tell you where she is. Or perhaps the doubt was intellectual. Perhaps you met one too many Operating Thetans who, for all their supposed spiritual attainments, didn't seem to be able to heal their own infirmities or preserve their own relationships.
But even in your somewhat lapsed state, you retain your affection for the Church. Maybe you saw one of their ads recently, like the one that aired during the Superbowl last year. The ads used some word or phrase, perhaps, that seemed to reach inside you and make you melt. Something so powerful and deeply personal that it presented itself to you as truth. And all your old loyalties and affections flamed up again.
So when you buy Wright's book, you are half-furtive and half-ostentatious about it. The one part of you views the purchase as a betrayal. The other side sees it as an act of courage-- perhaps even of devotion to the Church. You tell yourself that your loyalty runs so deep that you don't have to be afraid of what you may find in some book. Your trust in Hubbard's teaching is sufficient to withstand the battery of any journalist. Maybe less committed Scientologists should keep clear of such materials. But you are fully equipped to plumb the depths of error without losing your balance-- to see how the enemy thinks and to learn from his movements, without forgetting where your true sympathies lie.
At home now with the book, you perhaps lift it from its bag and prop it open. Chortling to yourself, you start to read. At each assertion, you weigh the errors and calculate the misrepresentations. Your mind is constantly formulating counterarguments and adducing proofs and evidences against Wright's claims. Meanwhile, you snort your disapproval and your withering amusement. "How perfectly typical." "He would say that."
Yours is a "closed system," as Arthur Koestler would have called it. Your worldview is one that cannot be refuted within its own terms. It has its own, inbuilt ways of explaining all evidence that appears to contradict it. Because it is common knowledge, for instance, that the non-Scientologist is blind, and deaf, and spiritually starved, it is no wonder that he should wish to destroy and spread lies about the movement. The Stalinist is not thrown into doubt by the witterings of bourgeois idealists, nor the Evangelical by the visible works of Satan. So why should you care what someone who has never gone "clear" has to say about Scientology?
You have a warm feeling of comfort as you read on. Nothing in the book upsets you-- it is all familiar, even dull. You realize now that, for all your bluster, you had actually been somewhat afraid of the book, and of what you would find in it. But not anymore. Content in the knowledge that the book cannot harm you-- that nothing in it can challenge those beliefs that you do not wish to see challenged-- you even let yourself enjoy it. You allow yourself some affection for the authorial voice of Lawrence Wright-- calm, studied, refusing to offer opinion in place of verifiable claims, never stooping to crass epithets like "cult" or "con artist." You had perhaps been told by friends in the Church that Wright was a hack, who accuses Scientology of brainwashing and torture and slavery. You don't find him to be such. His portrait of L. Ron Hubbard that constitutes the first portion of the book seems almost affectionate, in places.
Of course, there are all those passages in which Wright accuses Hubbard of lying about his past. You admit that you hadn't inquired all that fully before now into the details of Hubbard's life. The Church had always placed a great deal of emphasis on some of those details-- such as the wounds Hubbard sustained in the war, and of which he healed himself by the use of his spiritual "technology." This sort of issue, however, was less important to you. One of your unutterable secrets as a Scientologist, perhaps, was that your devotion to Hubbard and his teachings did not have an especially supernatural flavor. In violation of all official doctrine and teaching, you perhaps privately admitted to yourself that the man was fallible, a product of his time who retained some of its blindnesses and bigotries, but who had nevertheless done a lot of good for the world, and whose methods genuinely worked.
Everything negative in Hubbard's biography that Wright adduces seems only to confirm this human frailty that you had never really doubted was there-- or else it rests on a subjective personal account from someone who knew him, which could well be false or misleading. Some of the descriptions of Hubbard's marriage perhaps perturb you (Wright, Ch. 2). You try to remind yourself that his wife could have been lying in her account of later events, but perhaps you know something about the pattern of abusive relationships-- the appeals to sympathy, the way your instinct for compassion is turned against you, the way you are made to blame yourself-- and the wife's account rings true.
You read on. Hubbard's human frailties are numerous, it turns out. Some of them must simply be inventions and outrageous libels, you tell yourself. But there's still that portion that seem indisputable. And presented in such bulk, they seem to overwhelm Hubbard's good qualities. You struggle to remember what those good qualities were. You had never doubted that there would be frailties, but now Hubbard is starting to seem all frailty, and no firmness. Who was Hubbard? What had he said or written, in fact, that had first appealed to you so deeply?
You reach a portion of the book which describes Sea Org members throwing a man from the upper decks of a ship on Hubbard's orders, to plunge several stories down in to the ocean (Wright, p. 135). Well, no one was drowned, you say; they were fished out again, right? You try to view the episode as a prank-- something that might have been done in good humor. Or as a spiritual penance-- conducted with pious solemnity, and with the grateful and voluntary participation of the people who were to be committed overboard. This explanation perhaps works for a time-- but then: what about the woman who, according to Wright, was bound hand and foot before she was thrown overboard and "screamed all the way down"? What, for that matter, about the four-year-old child who was allegedly kept in the ship's chain locker for two days, on Hubbard's orders, without even getting a chance to leave to go to the bathroom? (Wright, p. 137)
You think, perhaps, that the worst must be over. Every religion has some false starts, you remind yourself. Each passes through an over-zealous phase in its early years, but it eventually settles into respectability. You think that as the narrative progresses, Scientology will become less violent, and the story of its actions will afflict your conscience less keenly.
You continue to think this after every page you turn. Surely that was the worst story Wright has to report. Well, surely that one was. Or at least this one.
But it just goes on. The overboarding comes to seem immensely tame by comparison to the "Rehabilitation Project Force" or RPF. You of course knew such a thing existed. You perhaps had friends in the Sea Org who had been assigned to it for bad behavior. Your understanding was that RPF served a salutary function of enforcing discipline and of helping people to acknowledge and repair their faults. You also had the impression that people willingly submitted to its rigors. But here, in Wright's book, you read that RPF incarcerates people against their will. You read about a woman escaping from RPF in order to rescue her baby from Scientology's Child Care Org, where it has been abandoned in a soiled diaper, has contracted whooping cough, and is covered in flies. She has to flee with the child in her arms by hopping into a friend's car under a different pretext and telling her to floor it (Wright, p. 195). You read about a man "made to run around a pole in the searing desert heat for twelve hours a day, until his teeth fell out." (Wright, p. 212)
Well, hang on. Where are these stories coming from, you ask? They are all sourced, but many of the sources are ex-Scientologists, including numerous former executives of the Church. Ah! They must just want to ingratiate themselves now to the world outside the religion, you perhaps think, having lost their former associates. They'll say anything negative about the Church, even if it discredits their former selves, and they'll probably believe all of it too. You are aware that memory is a social instrument. It responds to the expectations of those around it, and it is quick to please. "Torture? Sure, that happened. Slavery? Why not!" False memories implanted by suggestion-- that's all these accusations are. Besides, if the Church really was operating vast prison camps inside the continental United States, wouldn't everyone know about it? Wouldn't the camps have long since been closed down? Wouldn't someone have stopped it all?
But as you read, you discover that some have tried. In Wright's telling, journalists critical of the Church have been hounded into bankruptcy, despair, and suicidal depression. One of them, Paulette Cooper, was at one point offered a petition to sign by a stranger. She accidentally placed her hand on a piece of paper taped below it. This paper turned out to be an incriminating letter, supposedly written by Cooper, and which now bore her fingerprints (Wright, p. 147). She was nearly convicted on the basis of the letter, you learn, only to be saved by a dramatic episode in which she took "truth serum" and was questioned under its influence (Wright, p. 173). Other critics of the Church are followed by private detectives or harassed by anonymous phone calls. Their pets are drowned in their pools, or their car tires are cut.
Was the Church responsible? You tell yourself no. The Church would not have been that foolhardy, let alone that malicious. But then, the Church's public and legal actions against its critics perhaps strike you as nearly as cruel as its alleged illicit behavior. You read of its endless lawsuits, its innumerable court cases that it never intends to win-- that it only pursues in order to break the will and siphon off the bank accounts of its critics.
And somewhere in high 100s of the book, you realize that you are no longer a Scientologist. Without forming any conscious resolution to do so, you have already left the Church.
You know what this means. This means that you wasted thousands of dollars over the years on a pipe dream. This means losing every friend in the Church, who will be asked to "disconnect" from you, on pain of their own expulsion. This means that the place you viewed as a spiritual home will be barred to you. But your resolution is not reached through any process of weighing such costs and consequences. It will simply be a physical impossibility to return to the Church, you realize, or to ever attend another auditing session, or to ever sign up for another course.
How did this happen?
You remember, perhaps, a relationship you once had that went sour. Someone you thought you had loved did something that seemed to defy what you believed you knew of him. It was only a single incident, but it was a key-- it helped you to understand everything else that had ever happened in the relationship-- the pattern that informed it. You could not unsee what you had seen. You couldn't go back to viewing the person the way you did before. You couldn't make yourself love him again, once you had first ceased to do so. And now in the same way you can't make yourself remain a Scientologist.
A sudden transformation? It will perhaps seem so to your friends, once you tell them. But it actually wasn't sudden at all. This, you realize, was why you bought Lawrence Wright's book in the first place. You knew exactly what you would find there. You knew precisely what effect it would have on you. You had known all along. Yes, you had told yourself that you were reading Wright in order to refute him. But you see now that you were actually reading him because you were ready to be convinced. You wanted to be shown the key. You wanted clarity.
As you read on, Wright receives only half your attention. The other half is busy reassessing every episode of your life, in light of the key you have just been handed. Perhaps you used to read books that weren't about Scientology, and that hadn't been written by L. Ron Hubbard. Remember that section of Richard Wright's Black Boy, when he has finally left the Communist Party? "I knew in my heart that I would never be able to write that way again," he says, "would never be able to feel with that simple sharpness about life, would never again express such passionate hope, would never again make so total a commitment of faith." At the time, you read this passage with vague pity. How sad for Richard Wright, that he had staked so much hope on such a paltry illusion. Why didn't you see that he was speaking to you? Now you see it.
Remember that time you walked past some boutique spiritual enhancement center in the bohemian district? The woman outside tried to pitch you on the perfections you could attain within, at a starting rate of only $1,000, with the rate increasing with each level of enlightenment you attained. You were perhaps struck then by the pathos of the woman-- particularly by the distance between what had evidently been promised to her and what she had actually received. The boutique was offering the acquisition of extraordinary mental powers, eternal wisdom, an eloquence capable of overturning thrones and inspiriting crowds. But the woman, who had supposedly gained all of these things through her time at the center, was glassy-eyed and inarticulate. You asked her why you should sign up. "It's just really, really, really... great," she had said. You had left, wondering at what sorry fools some people could be. Didn't you see that that was you? That you were just like that woman? You see it now.
Your attention shifts back to Going Clear, only to skitter off again in the direction of anxiety. Now that you are leaving the church, will you be followed on the streets? Your phone bugged? Your family harassed? Reading about what happened to Paulette Cooper, you realize how little there is in life that is absolutely safe. If someone is sufficiently unscrupulous, and convinced of the justice of their actions, there is very little you possess that they cannot take from you. You reflect how easy it would be to crush you, if someone was so inclined. They need do very little to intimidate you-- your imagination would fill in the gaps. You would mentally conjure every appalling circumstance that might befall you, and terrify yourself quite adequately with the spectacle.
But you know, in spite of all, that you can't go back. You allowed yourself to think the fateful thought. And having formulated it at last, you see inescapably that it is true.
Isn't that always the way with doubt? There's a passage in First Corinthians, which you recall from your upbringing as a Christian. Paul is trying to argue that the resurrection of the flesh must be real, because if it is not, then none of the rest of Christian doctrine could be real either. What struck you as a child, and what led you to renounce your faith as an adult, was that as soon as Paul has allowed himself to even form the thought that Christianity might be false, he seems already to have conceded that it is. Paul's hypothetical worldview -- which he means to sound so emotionally devastating that no one could accept it-- suddenly took on more plausibility for you than the worldview he defends. "If there is no resurrection of the dead," he says, "then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. [...] Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15 NIV). And now you renounce another faith, and as you do so, you discover another Paul, and another First Corinthians.
Toward the end of Wright's book, you observe that the author has an interview with Church official Tommy Davis, in order to fact-check some of his claims against the Church's own narrative of events. You read that one of the chief disagreements between Wright and the Church centered on L. Ron Hubbard's war record. Wright maintains that there is no evidence Hubbard was ever injured in a serious way while serving in the military. Davis retorts, according to Wright, that "if it was true that Hubbard had not been injured, then 'the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore Scientology is based on a lie.' He concluded: 'The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.'" (Wright, p. 434).
Davis's last line seems to you to lack conviction. There is far more conviction, you perhaps think, behind the lines that precede it. In formulating the possibility that Scientology might all be a lie, Davis almost seems already to have admitted that it is.
You see it all now through a lens of crystalline limpidity. You had ceased to be a Scientologist long before. You had ceased to be one as soon as you allowed your mind to formulate the thought that the critics might be right-- that it might all be bunk, that Hubbard might have been insane and abusive; that his spiritual "technology" might have been cobbled together from psychological half-truths, common sense observations, and paranoiac delusions; that the Church might be in essence a criminal organization, involved in massive violations of human rights over several decades. You see it.
And you see your future stretching before you. You note that it won't be possible to live in a way that is not defined by the decision you made today, that does not take that decision daily, hourly into account. And you are made to feel, by this fact, just a little bit exhilarated.
I of course don't know if any of this ever happened to you, or to anyone else. But I would imagine that scenes like this must have unfolded all around the world after Lawrence Wright published his book last year. The Church of Scientology cannot withstand any degree of sustained scrutiny, which is why it has always feared and resisted any form of investigative journalism. And Wright has at last succeeded in subjecting it to the most thorough, well-researched, and cautious journalistic treatment it has ever received. By doing so, he has surely brought nearer to completion a process of dissolution that was already under way. His book portrays a Church leadership that is gradually cannibalizing itself, like Stalin's court or the Jacobins in their final days-- a higher church echelon where, as in those latter two places, loyalty is rewarded by ever greater indignities, because the loyal seem most willing to suffer them. At some point, everyone will want out, just as they eventually wanted out of Stalinism and the Reign of Terror. They will "blow" (to use the alleged Scientology term for fleeing the Sea Org), as so many church executives have "blown" already. When enough people have left, the Church will collapse.
I'm sure that there will be other Scientologies in the future, or things like it, but I'd bet that this one's song is sung. Good riddance.