Without you Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief probably never gets made. This isn’t just because you are the Pulitzer Prize winning author whose 2013 non-fiction book prompted Gibney to make the film in the first place. The most important contribution you made to this film was your professional integrity and the rigor of your work. Because if you are going to go after Scientology you had better be sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.
One of the early revelations of the film is this pertinent fact: in 1993 Scientology succeeded in strong-arming the I.R.S. into granting them tax-exempt status (as a religious non-profit). This means they managed to coerce—by means both litigious and extra-legal—the single most powerful non-military U.S. government agency.
The lesson here is: if you are going to take a swing at these guys you had better be prepared for a long, protracted and bloody war.
That your book managed to clear all the legal hurdles required set the stage for Gibney to make his film. And what a film it turned out to be. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief manages to balance tone and content in a way that treats the subject with the gravity it deserves without ever losing sight of the more surreal and absurd aspects of the whole sordid mess.
Gibney also removed the word Hollywood when adapting the title of your book for his project. He seems to have decided that while there is some salacious value in the antics of people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, they aren’t really the story here. The film exclusively concerns itself with how people allow themselves—gradually and through a toxic stew of self-deception, wishful thinking and a lack of critical attention—to be lured into a pyramid scheme of the most puerile sort.
Structurally the film quickly dispenses with the necessary, but cartoonishly absurd, origin story of Scientology—and a short bio of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. After that the narrative moves into more interesting territory. In a series of interviews intercut with low-key re-enactments and unsettling archival footage (of both LRH and the current leader David Miscavige), Gibney examines both the development of the church and, in parallel, the methods used to ensnare and retain its adherents. The interviews with various former members of the Church are persuasive in their frank descriptions of the kind of surreal behavior they participated in—and were subject to.
Almost as an afterthought you see clips of Cruise and Travolta, but mostly as object examples of how the church achieves their ends by leveraging people’s own vanity and need for absolution. At various times both men were considering leaving the Church and the strong implication seems to be that their own personal confessions were used to discourage that particular course of action. These personal revelations were obtained during what Scientology describes as ‘auditing’. A process that is essentially a melding of the Catholic confessional and talk therapy—without any of the institutional prohibitions on disclosure.
Perhaps most affecting is the story of Paul Haggis, a producer and filmmaker that was a member of the Church for over thirty years. He left Scientology in 2009—ostensibly after a disagreement with the Church hierarchy over their support of Prop 8 in California. His story is a template for all of the stories in the film. A man looking to make some improvements in his life finds himself ensnared—after decades of slow ascension through the ranks—in an enterprise that proves to be, at its core, a ludicrous fabrication. A fabrication invented by a man (LRH) that was likely a victimof his ownprofound mental illness.
It is here that you enter the story, Lawrence. In 2011 you published your 25,000 word essay in the New Yorker called ‘The Apostate”. It is a brilliant piece about Haggis and his 34-year relationship with the church—and how the scales finally fell from his eyes. From that article came the book—and eventually, Gibney’s film. After that, the threats of lawsuits, intimidation and generally bad behavior that were the inevitable consequence of exposing the Emperor’s junk to the world.
And for taking all of that on, we owe you a real debt, Lawrence. A couple of beers at the absolute minimum.