Those of us of a certain age will recall that, while kooky religious cults have always been part of the American experience, in the mid-to-late 1970s there seemed to go through a boom period. Seemingly every week a new fringe fad movement would emerge, many of which were steeped in inexplicable psycho-babble about helping adherents "find oneself" and enrich their "inner beings". During this period I was approached in a Jersey City bowling alley, of all places, by a card-carrying member of one such cult/religion, the name of which I have happily forgotten. Upon being asked to sign up for the movement, I decided to conduct a bit of an experiment to prove a point to my girlfriend (now wife): that the gullible people associated with these groups are just vulnerable souls who can be easily manipulated by virtually any person possessed with a modicum of self-assurance, charisma and determination. I responded to my would-be savior that I could not join her movement because I was a devoted Hestonite. I made the term up on the spot because the evening before, ABC-TV had shown their annual telecast of "The Ten Commandments". I explained that Charlton Heston was my Lord and Savior because I had seen him perform so many miracles. The baffled young lady logically pointed out that he was simply an actor, but in the course of a five-minute conversation I had somehow to get her to take my position seriously and to discuss in some detail why I believed Charlton Heston was my Lord and Savior. I was thoroughly enjoying the experience and wanted to see if I could go "all the way" with her and make her convert to my new-found religion. However, my girlfriend was getting fidgety and felt I had already proven my point. Besides, I guess there were people waiting for us to bowl with them, which seemed to be the priority at the moment. I still believe to this day that, had I been graced with another fifteen minutes of time, I would have signed up the first member of the Hestonite religious movement.
With each succeeding generation, unquestioning belief in established religions declines. (A recent poll shows that one third of Americans under the age of 30 are not affiliated with any specific religion.) Yet, there is still no shortage of 70's style "self-help" religions, all eager, if not desperate, to attract new adherents. It's easy to ridicule adherents to these causes as naive whack-jobs but in my own experience, those who buy into them tend to be sympathetic souls who are often trying to overcome some kind of personal crisis. They find solace in being accepted among other true believers. Without a doubt, the most controversial non-mainstream religion is Scientology, which is very much in the news of late because of director Alex Gibney's high profile new documentary, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief", based on the best-selling book by Lawrence Wright. The film premieres on March 29 on HBO and has been the subject of countless news stories. I saw the "Going Clear" several weeks ago at an advance screening at the HBO building in New York. To say it's a powerful, thought-provoking experience would be an understatement.
The film traces the origins of the Scientology movement, which was started by successful science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The movement was originally known as a self-help program called Dianetics and it caught on in the post-WWII era. The "bible" of this movement was Hubbard's own best-selling book. Hubbard enjoyed the fruits of his success, charging devotees to attend self-help seminars. However, over time, Dianetics, like most such groups, began to fade in popularity. Always one to improvise, Hubbard reinvented the movement under the name Scientology. Instead of concentrating entirely on lost souls, Hubbard implemented a plan to appeal as well to the well-heeled and financially successful - with a very special effort to attract celebrities. Hubbard must have been astounded by his own success. By the 1970s, Scientology had taken off and continued to grow, attracting influential movie and TV stars along the way. Hubbard's books- works of inspiration to some, the ravings of a con man/mad man to others, topped the bestseller lists. But there were still problems. Hubbard, who is alleged to have started the movement as a tax dodge, never remitted payments to the IRS. For years, the agency dogged him to the extent that he literally took off to sea as part of a newly-found division of Scientology known as the Sea Org (which is characterized in "Going Clear" as a virtual slave labor operation.) Presumably, those who chose to sail with him and indulge in manual labor along the way, were primarily on a mission to sail the globe and extol the virtues of Scientology. Gibney's documentary says his goal was a bit less lofty: he put to see because the IRS was after him to pay back up to a billion in back taxes. In an audacious move, Hubbard took on the IRS by having his disciples file thousands of frivolous law suits against the agency. Eventually, they prevailed and the IRS- simply to get out of the legal quagmire- granted Hubbard what he always desired: protection from taxes by declaring Scientology as a genuine religion. With that key controversial ruling, Scientology kicked into high gear. The church invested heavily in properties around the world and its current wealth (largely in real estate) is estimated to be over $3 billion. Hubbard was secretive man who rarely gave interviews. The film presents an extremely rare exception, with a vintage interview Hubbard gave for a British documentary. He comes across as likable, avuncular and perpetually smiling and jolly. However, critics say he was attracting troubled people to his movement and systematically isolating them from the world outside of Scientology. According to "Going Clear", Hubbard became like a real-life Bond villain: living in seclusion amid palatial splendor and enjoying unquestioning loyalty from his followers. When he died in 1986, so great was the Scientology cult of personality, that his successor as leader of the church, David Miscavige, could not bring himself to admit to Scientologists that he was actually dead. In one of many fascinating video clips that Gibney secured, Miscavige spins Hubbard's death as a personal choice, saying that he succeeded in reaching such a higher form of life that he felt compelled to shed his now useless human form. The assembled masses cheer in support of their leader's "transition" to a higher plane.
The documentary presents some aspects of Scientology that simply come across as goofy. The process of "auditing", for example, involves church members having to undergo an interrogation to cleanse their bodies of what Oddball of "Kelly's Heroes" would call "negative waves". The interviewee sits at a desk and has some wires attached to him or her that, in turn, are connected to a machine that measures how much negativity is in your physical being. The fact that the device looks like a prop from an old Ed Wood movie doesn't seem to bother the participants. The more they reveal about their inner most secrets, the more the arrow on the machine moves back and forth, as though it is actually measuring something meaningful. Critics say the real purpose of this procedure is to collect money (you have to pay to have your body cleansed internally in a seemingly endless process that drags on for years and requires the participants to pay ever-increasing sums for even more vital auditing sessions.) The documentary takes the position that the audio taped sessions provide a good amount of potential blackmail that can be used against anyone who wants to leave the church. The minute they do, their files become "unclassified". Gibney also takes full aim at Hubbard, who is regarded as a modern wise man by followers. He paints him as a mean-spirited crackpot who, according to his former wife's writings, was controlling and physically abusive. The film states that when she tried to leave Hubbard, he kidnapped their small children and absconded with them to a foreign country where he entrusted them in the care of people who were impoverished and mentally challenged. (The church still doesn't acknowledge Hubbard was even married.) Gibney does allow, however, that Hubbard eventually became a true believer of his own abilities and actually bought into his own myth.The film doesn't pretend to be an objective look at Scientology. Rather, it's an unabashed hit piece that swamps the main beliefs of the movement like a tsunami. As an example of investigative journalism, its effects are quite powerful. Gibney interviews numerous former Scientologists throughout the film, several of whom were in the church hierarchy before gradually becoming disenfranchised from a movement that they claim controls every aspect of your life. These people uniformly claim that those who dare to leave the "faith" are subjected to almost surrealistic pressure from church officials ranging from being ostracized from family and friends who are still in the fold to being followed by private detectives, denounced in social media forums and being harassed by stooges from the church who literally follow them around with video cameras on their own property. (Church officials deny these tactics are ever employed but the documentary shows clear evidence of Scientologists videoing one of the former higher-ups in the church.)
The most controversial aspects of the program center on Scientology's celebrity -based strategies. According to critics, the church has routinely lured celebrities into Scientology in order to use them as Judas goats to bring in new members. These celebs are pampered to ridiculous levels and, according to the program, wined, dined and feted at various big events in their honor. John Travolta is seen in old film clips proudly extolling his life as a Scientologist but the celebrity who comes across the worst is Tom Cruise. He and Travolta appear to be about the only big names left in terms of boxoffice appeal to prospective members. Cruise is seen in some unintentionally humorous ceremonies in which he is treated like a god by David Miscavige. At one ceremony, Miscavige honors Cruise, who is seen wearing a silly looking, over-sized medallion that looks like something purchased at Mr. T's wardrobe sale. We are later informed in the film that Miscavige had become concerned about Cruise drifting away from the church after his marriage to Nicole Kidman, who was not a true believer. In shocking claims (which the church denies), espionage-type tactics were used to convince Cruise that she was a poisonous influence on his life. (Cruise is also alleged to have engaged in wiretapping Kidman's phone calls, an allegation the actor denies). The marriage broke up and, if you believe the film, Kidman even ended up being estranged from her two young children. The documentary accuses Scientology of sentencing their errant members to torturous stays in secluded prison camps where they are forced into degrading manual labor with little food or rest. One interviewee tells a shocking story about having to literally escape from guards so that she could save her newborn baby, who she says was being endangered by her wardens. The church has denied all of these claims. To be fair, one of the former higher-ups admits that even if a posse came along to liberate these prisoners, they would undoubtedly opt to stay. That gives credence to Scientology's answer to their critics: that no one is forcing anyone to stay in the movement.
One could make the claim that all major religions are based on astonishing stories of faith that would scarcely convince anyone if they were not indoctrinated into them at the earliest possible age. As a priest once told me, "Faith is the belief in something that is unbelievable in the scientific sense." Surely, if no one was exposed to these tales of faith until they reached adulthood, the major religions would be a hard sell. So how does Scientology differ from other religions? As discussed in the documentary, any other major religion will proudly and openly discuss the main cornerstones that the faith is based on. Yet, Scientologists have to wait years and pass any number of hurdles (both psychological and financial) before they are finally given the key to what the foundations of the religion is all about. As described by the church's #1 arch enemy, Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis, who left the church very publicly a few years ago, he was honored by being presented with a box that contained the Scientology version of the secrets of the faith and universe. Haggis said that, upon opening it, all the box contained were some photocopies of handwritten notes by L. Ron Hubbard that were incomprehensible ramblings. Apparently, the religion believes that every human is contaminated with matter that once belonged to a race of evil aliens from another planet. All of this is part of the master plan of the head bad guy alien named Xenu who has succeeded in contaminating we earthlings. Here is how the Daily Mail summarizes Hubbard's vision:
"The Church of Scientology was founded in 1953 by American science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote that 75 million years ago, an alien ruler called Xenu brought billions of his people to Earth in a spaceship and then killed them in a bomb blast, leaving their spirits to wander around and harm the living." Apparently, Scientologists don't find it "coincidental" that Hubbard had previously made a living as a science fiction writer who was paid to create fantastic scenarios that included evil aliens bothering earth people.
The claims in "Going Clear" would seem surrealistic had it not been for the church's decades-long evasion of answering straight questions with straight answers. Miscavige and other top church officials have adopted the same bunker-like mentality that their mentor, Hubbard, had employed with great success. Their problem is that Hubbard lived in the pre-internet era. Through social networking, those critical of Scientology have easily been able to unite and coordinate their allegations against the church. Meanwhile, in the wake of all the buzz caused by "Going Clear", the church has had to go on record to deny that they take vindictive actions against their critics. This leaves them in the classic no-win situation. If they don't retaliate, the overwhelming amount of publicity about the church will be negative. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, a documentary is worth a million.) If they do retaliate, they will play into the hands of their critics, who are salivating to prove that the strong-arm tactics are continuing. Meanwhile, the documentary contends that, although the church still maintains billions in wealth, the membership is estimated to have shrunk to no more than 50,000 members worldwide. Although no source is cited for this statistic, it is arguable that the church's influence is fading. In today's wired world, if the allegations of harassment are true, it would be impossible for the church to track down and try to intimidate all of their critics worldwide.
It should be said that in recent weeks, Scientology has launched a major PR offensive against the airing of this film. The Hollywood Reporter sent the church a list of twenty questions. In its five page response, the church denied all charges in the film and dismissed their critics as liars who envy L. Ron Hubbard's accomplishments. The church spokeswoman who signed the letter did not respond to the specific questions. In fact, if Scientology wanted to negate the impact of Gibney's documentary, they would host a screening of the film and encourage debate among its members as well as members of the press. They would have the top church hierarchy on hand to publicly challenge their critics, who would be invited to participate, and expose their alleged lies. That isn't likely to happen. In fact, church hierarchy refused to even attend a screening with the Hollywood Reporter staff in order to give their response to the film. David Miscavige remains out of public view and hasn't done a major interview with an eminent journalist since his ill-advised appearance on "Nightline" with Ted Koppel in the early 1990s. The church says that they provided Alex Gibney with twenty rank and file church members to appear in the film but that Gibney conspicuously refused to include them. However, in an interview this week with Chris Hayes on MSNBC's "All In", Gibney scoffed and said twenty five people he didn't know anything about turned up and demanded to be part of the film, which was already being completed. In Gibney's film, there is a list of prominent Scientologists who allegedly were offered to appear in the film but refused to do so. Gibney maintains that he wanted to deal with the people the film focuses on, not everyday members who were cherry-picked on a moment's notice by the church. In any event, the church has not done itself a favor by refusing to provide the hierarchy to give their side of the story in the film. 'tis a pity, as it would have made for some fascinating cinematic moments.
One thing is clear about "Going Clear": the people who need to see the movie the most- the members of the church- will probably not do so. They should view it and come to their own conclusions. If they find the allegations in the film are foreign to their own experience, then they can feel secure in their beliefs. However, this isn't likely to happen. No one can physically stop them from viewing the film, but chances are most of the church members will never see it because they will deny themselves that opportunity.
"Going Clear"fulfills the goal of every documentary maker: it is provocative, haunting and incites debate. It truly is "must-see" TV, whether you agree with its conclusions or not.
Click here to read the Hollywood Reporter's story about the Scientology response to their inquiries.
Click here to read coverage on the Scientology web site Freedom
Click here to read the entire five page letter Scientology issued to present their views on "Going Clear".
Click here to read The Daily Beast article "Why Scientology's Cone of Silence Shattered".