Nothing’s Shocking: On Lawrence Wright’s ‘Going Clear’and the Lies We Tell Ourselves
By Adam Boretz
I have a confession to make: I was laboring under a significant misapprehension when I nominated Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear for Football Book Club. My thinking at the time went something like this: Here’s an interesting book full of wacky/weird/funny/ridiculous stories about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. That will be a fun read.
And while Going Clear does document a host of such stories and offer up all sorts of strange details about Scientology — everything from Thetans and E-Meters to Xenu and the Bridge to Total Freedom — the book is actually a dark and disturbing catalogue of systematic abuse, corruption, torture, broken families, and ruined lives left in the wake of Scientology.
From the religion’s early days with Hubbard — he once punished two members of Sea Org by forcing them to push peanuts across the deck of a ship with their noses while shouting “Faster, faster!” as they left “a trail of blood behind them.” — to its more recent history under the leadership of David Miscavige – who has been repeatedly accused of punching, kicking, and choking various church members: “When another executive spoke up about the violence, he was beaten by two of Miscavige’s assistants and made to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue.” — the facts about Scientology documented in Going Clear are undeniably shocking.
And yet, it is my reaction to all of this: my shock after finishing Going Clear — which is brilliantly researched and reported and at times reads like a thriller — that I find most interesting and worthy of interrogation. Because while imprisonment and torture and brainwashing and financial vampirism are all awful things, they are nothing new — certainly where religion is concerned. And this begs a simple question: Why do we find the story of Scientology so shocking?
As Wright points out in Going Clear, the formation and history of Scientology is not all that different from the formation and history of other religions. Sure, Hubbard wove weird science fiction elements into his religion, but are galactic colonies and thetans and the wall of fire all that different from parting oceans, resurrection, and burning bushes? Is locking people away, physically and mentally abusing them, and forcing them to eat slop and clean dumpsters with toothbrushes any worse or shocking than burning witches at the stake.
And this, I think, brings us to the reason why readers (at least readers like me) find Scientology so disturbing: We want to think — to fool ourselves into thinking — that we, as a people, have evolved. We want to think that we have grown as a race. That we are now more civilized and less cruel. That things like the Salem Witch Trials and the Crusades can’t, won’t, don’t happen here and now.
And, of course, that is as big a lie as any in Scientology.
A quick look at the headlines of the day shows us how little we as a race of people — and our religions — have evolved.
- In Syria, ISIS executed nine men and a boy — by tossing them off the top of a building — it accused of being gay.
- While visiting the United States, the Pope — you know, the cool, hip, kinder and gentler Pope who likes poor people and is worried about global warming — canonized Junípero Serra, a friar who spread the gospel in 18th-century California. Of course, by “spread the gospel” what we really mean is that he “forced Native Americans to abandon their tribal culture and convert to Christianity, and that he had them whipped and imprisoned and sometimes worked or tortured to death.”
- Also while jetting across the U.S., the Pope managed to fit in a cozy visit with Kim Davis — you might remember her as the homophobic clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Kentucky until she was tossed into jail — during which they hugged and cried and he gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong.”
Keep in mind: The above three examples are obviously just scratching the surface. I did like zero research for this. I just skimmed the headlines while eating toast. And this is the stuff mainstream media is actually reporting. Which means — at least to me — that we shouldn’t be all that shocked by Scientology.
Because — and here is a sentence I never thought I would write — Scientology and Hubbard are pretty much just easy targets: they’re weird and sketchy and easily categorized as “the other.” Just like any other cult, they provide us an easy villain — and an easy villain allows us to make ourselves feel separate and better and evolved.
Don’t get me wrong, the story of the Church of Scientology and Miscavige – with his super-weird sidekick/puppet Tom Cruise — is terrible. Just not much more terrible than the truth about other religions — than the truth about rest of the world.
And Going Clear, it’s really only shocking if you haven’t been paying attention.
While we’re on the subject of cults, I have been missing the NFL — though certainly not the Bears: 0-3, and with little chance of winning any time soon. Also: Here’s a fun fact: The Raiders are favored to beat Chicago this weekend — favored for the first time in 27 games. What a shit show.
Still, I would have liked to have seen Aaron Rogers throw five TDs against Kansas City. And I definitely would have enjoyed watching Colin Kaepernick throw for just 67 yards and four interceptions (sorry, Ryan!) versus Arizona.
Not watching the NFL makes me feel like I’m missing out on something important. The grand drama that the media and the NFL create around professional football — the heroes and villains, the victories and defeats, the joys and sorrows — are all lost to me. Almost as if I had wrested myself from a cult — or “blown” as Scientologists are said to call it — leaving my old life and everyone I knew behind.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.