Lawrence Wright, the Austin-based Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, concludes his inquiry into the origins and alleged abuses of the church of Scientology with 42 pages of endnotes. One wishes he'd tacked on more pages yet: More than once I longed for a glossary to help refresh me on the church's unique and bewildering nomenclature for its administrative body, such as the difference between the Religious Technology Center (RTC) and Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF). (Short answer? More hard labor in the latter, reportedly.)
A crib sheet cast of characters, like the kind that kicks off old Russian novels, would have been helpful, too, in distinguishing Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's cosmological major players (like the galactic overlord Xenu) and earthbound disciples, such as current church leader David Miscavige and the many former members, including Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash), who have renounced their faith and/or the church and gone on the record about their experiences.
The allusion to fiction isn't accidental: Hubbard, after all, got his start writing for pulp magazines and, according to Wright, "[s]ome of the most closely guarded secrets of Scientology were originally published in other guises in Hubbard's science fiction." Wright paints a vivid portrait of Hubbard as a kind of swashbuckling fabulist, projecting the irresistible élan and brazen self-mythologizing of a Wes Anderson character. But one is more likely to be chilled than charmed by Hubbard, especially as Wright relates how he discarded wives and regularly humiliated and abused his followers, in a sort of degradation-leads-to-redemption philosophy that appears to have carried into the religion's new leadership. Unsurprisingly, church spokespeople have vehemently denied Wright's accounts of repeated violence by Miscavige (an intimate of Scientology's most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise), as well as contested, well, just about everything else here. In his acknowledgements, Wright anticipates those complaints: "A reporter can only talk to people who are willing to talk to him; whatever complaints the church may have about my reporting, many limitations can be attributed to its decision to restrict my interactions with people who might have provided more favorable testimony." Does Going Clear tell the whole story of Scientology? Probably not. But it's wholly engrossing stuff.
Lawrence Wright will speak and sign books on Monday, Jan. 28, 7pm, at BookPeople. Wright's talk is free and open to the public, but tickets are required for the signing portion of the event and are available only with the purchase of a copy of Going Clear from BookPeople; see www.bookpeople.com for details.
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