“Just because you believe it doesn’t make it true,” reads a bumper sticker I’ve recently seen.  It’s not a popular one; I’ve only seen it once.  It’s also not popular, I suppose, because most people think the opposite, that my belief in something is the only measure of its truth.  This of course has led to many calamities across the centuries, not to mention missed opportunities, stumbles into dark forests and putting up with abuse today on promise of reward tomorrow. Such belief in many cases is personal and idiosyncratic, in other cases it is widely held with no apparent source.  In others, the most powerful, beliefs have been systematized, institutionalized and inculcated in adherents over the generations: they grow, endure and prosper.

From Divine Right of Kings to Holy Mother Church, from My Country Right or Wrong to Women are Subordinate Beings, it seems as if we’ve seen it all.   Scientology, having declared itself a “Church,” is one of the latest manifestations of such organized belief systems, and in some theoretical calculus of belief probably not the most harmful.  It is, however, here and now; the damage it has done, and continues to do, to its adherents, as testified to by many former believers, is extensive and ugly.

Movies Going_Clear_PosterAlex Gibney, of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, fame, (55 credits all together,) has created a documentary if not quite as relevant to the state of the nation as these, is interesting and powerful nonetheless. Directly following his Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, about the pedophilia scandal of the Catholic church,  Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief  is driven by a similar interest in trangressive human behavior.  Reviewed as “chilling,” “startling,” jaw dropping,” the subject is not as urgent as that of  torture by U.S. operatives in Taxi , of subterfuge and manipulation among the biggest  proselytizers of “free markets” in the Smartest Guys, or of sexual abuse of thousands of children in Silence, nor does it open so easily to questions of the deeper fault-lines of human behavior. Because its scope is smaller the effect of the movie may be larger, serving as an important finger to tip the scales of justice from the Church/Corporation of Scientology’s $3 billion dollars in real estate rewards to accountability for its actions.

Though much has been written about Scientology,  it’s strange beliefs (Xenu the galactic overlord, frozen bodies from other planets, Thetans, just for starters) and charismatic leaders, L Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige, for most onlookers it has remained just one, if the largest, of the wide-ranging American fringe cultures; a curiosity; perhaps an occasional pest when approached to do a “personality inventory” on a public sidewalk. Going Clear aims to put it more at the center of our attention, not so much for its beliefs, as for the cruelty, even crimes committed, to and by members, and scamming American tax payers out of millions, all justified by those beliefs.

The movie uses as its point of departure Lawrence Wright’s investigative book of a similar title, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief , which persuaded Gibney the story was worth going after in film.  Wright himself is one of the interviewees, providing context and his own interest in the organization.

 “I’ve studied Jonestown, radical Islam,” Mr. Wright says. “They’re oftentimes good-hearted people, idealistic, but full of a kind of crushing certainty that eliminates doubt. You know, my goal wasn’t to write an exposé; it was simply to understand Scientology, trying to understand what people get out of it, you know, why do they go into it in the first place.

For those who haven’t followed the decades long revelations about the organization the film does an admirable job of collecting and placing in historical order L. Ron Hubbard himself, the origins of his first book, Dianetics, the transition from a self-help organization into a ‘church,’ and the supercession to leadership after his death by David Miscavige.  There are plenty of revelations along the way — Hubbard’s time in the United States Navy, being relieved of command, his prodigious output as a fiction writer –over 1,000 titles claimed– ultimately of science fiction, the direct transfer of science fiction ideas and language into that of the church.  His early association with one Jack Parsons, who was not only deeply immersed in the occult but a founder of the Pasadena jet propulsion laboratory is a revelation of another sort: high wackiness in top military testing facilities.

Even for those who have a good idea of the allegations against Scientology, bringing them together and giving faces to them adds weight and presence; scattered information and impressions become a forceful design. In fact,  it’s a strong argument that sapiens is the wrong classification for our species.

Wright’s 2013 book was not the first about the group (see notes at the end for a longer list) but it broke new ground, getting interviews with several top officers who, after decades in the organization, had left. His principle source, about whom he wrote in a February, 2011 New Yorker piece was Paul Haggis, famous for writing, directing and producing films such as Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers and In the Valley of Elah.  He had also been an  adherent of Scientology for 35 years. Haggis is interviewed at length in the film to good effect.  But Gibney found even more:

  • diary excerpts from Hubbard’s second wife, Sara Northrup, from 1946-1951, who was very important to the writing of the foundational text, Dianetics.  She wrote that he had conceived the idea of a church “for tax purposes.” [They subsequently divorced in ugly circumstances, her Divorce Plea alleging beatings, chokings, sleep deprivation and emotional cruelty; that medical advisors thought him a paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalizable.]
  • admission by a former second in command that he had led the fight against the IRS, including hundreds of law-suits, moles placed in government offices, to have the church declared tax exempt;
  • that leaders under Miscavige have been held in confinement under appalling conditions, one for a long as seven years, in a remote facility called The Hole;
  • that Tom Cruise, at Miscavige’s prompting, allowed his then wife, Nichole Kidman, to be phone-tapped to get material enough to declare her “a suppressive; ” that their children were tutored on their mother’s “suppressive” behavior.

Gibney lets his subjects talk about what attracted them –self-improvement and doing good strongly present– and what finally led them out –slowly dawning recognition of authoritarian control, and for some, physical abuse.   Several, Haggis  most strongly, voice dismay at what they now see of themselves.  He says he has no regrets about leaving,

‘Except waiting so long. Being so stupid for so long. But it’s really insidious.

I was always an outsider and if it can affect me that much – a cynic and a loner and an outsider – go figure! You have to be really purposefully blind, you have to choose to be blind, and that’s what I was doing and that’s what all my friends are doing.”

Tom Cruise and John Travolta figure prominently as well, not as interview subjects, which they declined to be, but through stock footage of interviews and Scientology conventions.  You won’t come away liking them much at all.  In fact you may never drop another dollar on a Tom Cruise movie.

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So, if the movie is so good — make every effort to see it!– why does it fall short? Because unlike the other three films which, while detailing specific acts and actors, also open windows onto larger questions, Going Clear, as can be seen by the reactions of virtually every reviewer, remains about Scientology, alone. The larger social matrix in which it is embedded is not so clearly seen, even if that was among Gibney’s hopes for the film.  A strong one, as indicated in the title:

This notion that smart people can get seduced by a system of belief, and then end up doing the most appalling things that they never would’ve considered otherwise. That was really interesting to me because it’s about Scientology, but it’s also about all sorts of other things in terms of any fundamentalist belief, any deep-seated political passion where people lose themselves, and suddenly lose their rudder in this prison, this mental “prison of belief.”

Most viewers will come away, however,  with an overwhelming impression of Scientology being the prison of belief, not that it is one example among many.

This is true for several reasons:

  • Telling the Scientology story with the detail needed did no leave much time for more serious pushing into motives and causes of long-term “blindness”;
  • Such serious pushing is not very filmable;
  • Religious belief in most cultures is deeply insulated from serious questioning;
  • The links between Scientology beliefs and belief in general may have seemed to be obvious to those immersed in the making of the movie, and needing no further comment.

Gibney’s films about torture, financial corruption and priestly child abuse arrived into a large, on-going national (and international) debate, quite apart from his contribution. The subjects of the movies were representative of events and people widely known, and for the most part, loathed. Revelations of odd beliefs and strange practices, on the other hand, don’t seem as representative of larger human fracture lines, because they are so common.  Mainline church members of every belief system think the ideas of others are odd. But, outside of the recent Sunni–Shia  savagery, we give each other’s “strangeness” a reciprocal pass.  We don’t “see” it; it’s impolite to mention it. Gibney says of himself  that he grew up believing all sorts of strange things — that a baby was born of a virgin and eventually rose from the dead. But because these Churches are such major elements of world-wide culture this strangeness is sealed off.  There isn’t a whisper of suggestion in the movie that Scientology beliefs, while different in kind are not different in category from those of every other religion. And so, more than his preceding movies, Going Clear remains about the thing itself, not the foundation stones of human behavior.

Marty Rathbun and Gibney himself, for example, make much of the cruelty of “disconnection,” when members of the church cut off all communication with those who have left.  Marty Rathburn’s entire family is not speaking to him. And it is cruel.  It is also common in human experience.  Exile in ancient Athens was the most feared punishment;  excommunication from the Catholic church, in centuries past, had serious material and familial consequences, not to mention, at times, death.  Family members not speaking for years at a time, while perhaps not enforced with threats of bodily injury, functions widely across the world.  Shunning may be cruel but it is not unique to Scientologists.

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Gibney has cited Wright’s compassionate approach in his book as having appealed to him.

 “I was so impressed with the empathy toward many of the people in the Church. It wasn’t just a kind of freak show; his reporting resonated with the psychological process that can occur in many belief systems — how when people are convinced of the nobility of a belief system, they can do the most appalling things

He hoped to do the same in the movie, to allow us to see them as human beings.  And we do. But we are left thinking, even as they say of themselves, How Could They Have Done This?  Perhaps it’s just hubris that we think that we, ourselves, would never fall into such a trap.  On the other hand, some of us never have.  Some of us spotted the carnival at first sight.  Why didn’t Haggis, Rathbun, or thousands of others?  That is the real question and one which is not, perhaps could not be, answered.  It’s one that desperately needs some answers, however.

I have some experience with this .  I worked for three years with the United Farmworkers.  High officials in it were attracted to an equally pernicious cult, Synanon.  Games of public humiliation were played, usually with the aim of ferreting out negative or behavior deemed injurious to the greater good.  Some volunteers refused and there was no Hole into which they were thrown, but the attraction to, and belief in such methods for controlling others was strong.  I was also an officer in the United States Navy from 1965-68, while it was increasingly clear that the war in Vietnam was doing terrible things to a large civilian population; hundreds of thousands were dying in terrifying ways; more hundreds of thousands were evicted from home and land and connection to ancestors.  Many around me in the Navy and other parts of the Armed Forces understood this, yet I was one of only several dozen to resign my commission.   During the more recent American invasion of Iraq there were high ranking officers who spoke against it — but only after they had gotten out, none resigning on principle.  Why is this so?

Why does belief –in special powers, privileged insight, a noble cause, the infallibility of leaders– so often trump experience?

The deep investigation needed is not why people abuse power — we should all know this by now– but why so many will allow the abuse to happen.  Though a guard sat at the door of the Scientology Hole, was it so impossible to leave?  In the game of musical chairs held in the Hole, the wild pushing and shoving to keep the last chair was NOT in order to be released, but to be allowed to STAY in the very organization that was humiliating and injuring them.  This was George Orwell’s fundamental fear that guided his 1984, not that Stalin-like tyrants would force obedience, but that people would willingly create, and live in, such a system; would demand it. This is the infamous Stockholm Syndrome at a high level, to which, apparently, millions of us are in danger of falling insusceptible.

How do we help people to evaluate the claims of others, and to say, easily and often, NO?

We get it that as Haggis says, the indoctrination sort of sneaks up on you,

“The slow indoctrination process is as subtle as it is dangerous — largely because you truly believe that you are thinking for yourself, when in fact you are discouraged to do anything of the sort.”

— but why aren’t people’s filters better, stronger, more self-created?

We get it that there is a “pride of belonging to a stigmatized group,”

“It’s like being in love with a narcissist. All your friends will warn you that you are just being used. You understand why they think what they think, but you believe in your heart that they just don’t see what you see. You just tune them out. For that reason, when I did discover what many outside the church knew, I was truly shocked. While some of the information had been out there for many years, like all Scientologists, I refused to look. Yes, I was told not to, but I didn’t have to be. This was my group and I knew there to be many people in the world who were bigoted and close-minded, and when I was told that we were “under attack” in Germany or France or wherever, instead of looking for the reasons, I assumed this to be the case — and donated many thousands of dollars toward our “defense.” Yes, there was considerable duress involved in those “donations,” but if I didn’t honestly believe what I was being told I would not have handed over such large sums.” [See Haggis at Tony Ortega.]

–even so, how to account for refusal to believe friend after friend after friend?  How does the bonding of one group virtually swamp the bonding of others, often deep with experience and longer in time?  This is what needs exploration.

I know from my own, and shared experience, how difficult it is to leave friends united in common effort, to give up long-held beliefs and assumptions.  Those now testifying about Scientology in Going Clear, in Wright’s book and others on their own, in their own books and web-sites, are brave people. The world needs their example and to hear them. And to understand that belief in Scientology is only a small part of the larger, human, problem.

Though the above are from Paul Haggis, they are not from the film, but subsequent interviews and articles.  More of this kind of reflection and sharing of experience in the movie would have strengthened its larger point.

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Despite investigations of the organization since its beginnings in the 1950s, despite recent articles and books, a critical mass hasn’t yet been reached to, if not dismantle it, at least to hold it accountable for the many complaints about it.  Perhaps Going Clear will provide that.  Perhaps, as Wright and Gibney and others hope, the Cuises and Travoltas of Hollywood (and there are many more) will, if not denounce, at least stop celebrating, and attracting, new addicts.

There is recent news that Oregon’s senator Ron Wyden has asked the IRS about its determination in 1993 that Scientology was a religion, not a corporation, and was therefor tax exempt.

A lawsuit filed by Marty and Monique Rathbun for invasion of privacy and other crimes is beginning,  finally, to open a legal front against the organization.

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Post Release News

Paul Haggis on the experience: http://tonyortega.org/2015/03/24/going-clear-paul-haggis-pens-a-description-of-the-scientology-experience-you-wont-forget/

Marty Rathbun Affidavit http://tonyortega.org/2013/09/05/marty-rathbun-affidavit-scientology-leader-david-miscavige-lied-to-texas-court/

Tony Ortega on Paulette Cooper: The Unbreakable Miss Lovely  Coming out in May,

On Going Investigations and Links

Former Village Voice editor and long-time Scientology critic Tony Ortega   Up to date news and links

www.tonyortega.org

Articles going back to critiques of Dianetics in 1950 http://htmlpad.org/Scientology/ 
Non English critiques http://whyweprotest.wikia.com/wiki/Non-english_publications_on_Scientology 

Previous Investigations

The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology, John Sweeny, 2013

Scientologists at War directed by Joseph Martin and produced by Danielle Clark and Michael Simkin was broadcast on June 17, 2013, on British Channel Four.[30]

 “The Apostate” in The New Yorker in 2011. Lawrence Wrighton Paul Haggis

Scientology – Abuse at the Top, Amy Scobee , (2010)

Inside Scientology – The Tampa Bay Times, 2009-2011

Secret Lives — L. Ron Hubbard , Channel 4 documentary, 1997 

Bare-faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard, Russell Miller, 1988 (now reissued)

Inside Scientology Robert Kaufmann, 1972,

William S Burroughs [Yes, THE William Burroughs] once a ‘clear’ then a critic

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Here’s My Bumper sticker:

Just because you’ve read it doesn’t make it true.

Just because you’ve heard it doesn’t make it true.

Just because you’ve seen it doesn’t make it true.

Just because your best friend swears it doesn’t make it true.

Just because you think it doesn’t make it true.

How do you know something new is true?

When many old things true don’t have to become untrue in order to make it so.

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