Going Clear
Author:Lawrence Wright

Going Clear BY Lawrence Wright


Scientology plays an outsize role in the cast of new religions that have arisen in the twentieth century and survived into the twenty-first. The church won’t release official membership figures, but informally it claims 8 million members worldwide, a figure that is based on the number of people who have donated to the church. A recent ad claims that the church welcomes 4.4 million new people every year. And yet, according to a former spokesperson for the church, the International Association of Scientologists, an organization that church members are forcefully encouraged to join, has only about 30,000 members. The largest concentration, about 5,000, is in Los Angeles. A survey of American religious affiliations compiled in the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists. That’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.

Despite decades of declining membership and intermittent scandals that might have sunk other faiths, Scientology remains afloat, more than a quarter century after the death of its chimerical leader, L. Ron Hubbard. In part, its survival is due to colossal financial resources—about $1 billion in liquid assets, according to knowledgeable former members. Strictly in terms of cash reserves, that figure eclipses the holdings of most major world religions. Scientology’s wealth testifies to the avidity of its membership, relentless fund-raising, and the legacy of Hubbard’s copyrights to the thousand books and articles he published.

The church also claims about 12 million square feet of property around the world. Hollywood is the center of Scientology’s real-estate empire, with twenty-six properties valued at $400 million. The most recent addition to the church’s Hollywood portfolio is a television studio on Sunset Boulevard formerly owned by KCET, acquired in order to open a Scientology broadcasting center. In Clearwater, Florida, where Scientology maintains its spiritual headquarters, the church owns sixty-eight largely tax-exempt parcels of land, valued at $168 million. They include apartment buildings, hotels and motels, warehouses, schools, office buildings, a bank, and tracts of vacant land. The church often acquires landmark buildings near key locations, such as Music Row in Nashville, Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, and Times Square in New York City. A similar strategy governs the placement of Scientology’s holdings in other countries. Typically, these buildings are magnificently restored architectural treasures, lavishly appointed, even if the membership is negligible. The church owns a five-hundred-acre compound in Southern California and a cruise ship, the Freewinds, which is based in the Caribbean. The Church of Spiritual Technology, the branch of Scientology that owns the trademarks and copyrights to all church materials, including Hubbard’s immense body of popular fiction, maintains secret bases in several remote locations in at least three American states, where the founder’s works are stored in titanium canisters in nuclear-blast-resistant caverns. One of the vault locations, in Trementina, New Mexico, has an airstrip and two giant interlocking circles carved into the desert floor—a landmark for UFOs, some believe, or for Hubbard’s reincarnated spirit, when he chooses to return.

There are really three tiers of Scientologists. Public Scientologists constitute the majority of the membership. Many of them have their first exposure to the religion at a subway station or a shopping mall where they might take a free “stress test” or a personality inventory called “The Oxford Capacity Analysis” (there is no actual connection to Oxford University). On those occasions, potential recruits are likely to be told that they have problems that Scientology can resolve, and they are steered to a local church or mission for courses or therapy, which the church terms “auditing.” That’s as far as most new members go, but others begin a lengthy and expensive climb up the church’s spiritual ladder.

The mystique that surrounds the religion is owed mainly to the second tier of membership: a small number of Hollywood actors and other celebrities. To promote the idea that Scientology is a unique refuge for spiritually hungry movie stars, as well as a kind of factory for stardom, the church operates Celebrity Centres in Hollywood and several other entertainment hubs. Any Scientologist can take courses at Celebrity Centres; it’s part of the lure, that an ordinary member can envision being in classes with notable actors or musicians. In practice, the real celebrities have their own private entry and course rooms, and they rarely mix with the public—except for major contributors who are accorded the same heightened status. The total number of celebrities in the church is impossible to calculate, both because the term itself is so elastic and because some well-known personalities who have taken courses or auditing don’t wish to have their association known.

An ordinary public Scientologist can be inconspicuous. No one really needs to know his beliefs. Public members who quit the church seldom make a scene; they just quietly remove themselves and the community closes the circle behind them (although they are likely to be pursued by mail and phone solicitations for the rest of their lives). Celebrity members, on the other hand, are constantly being pressed to add their names to petitions, being showcased at workshops and galas, or having their photos posted over the logo “I’m a Scientologist.” Their fame greatly magnifies the influence of the church. They are deployed to advance the social agendas of the organization, including attacks on psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry, and the promotion of Hubbard’s contested theories of education and drug rehabilitation. They become tied to Scientology’s banner, which makes it more difficult to break away if they should become disillusioned.

Neither the public nor the celebrity tiers of Scientology could exist without the third level of membership—the church’s clergy, called the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, in Scientology jargon. It is an artifact of the private navy that Hubbard commanded during a decade when he was running the church while on the high seas. The church has said on various occasions that the Sea Org has 5,000, 6,000, or 10,000 members worldwide. Former Sea Org members estimate the actual size of the clergy to be between 3,000 and 5,000, concentrated mainly in Clearwater, Florida, and Los Angeles. Many of them joined the Sea Org as children. They have sacrificed their education and are impoverished by their service. As a symbol of their unswerving dedication to the promotion of Hubbard’s principles, they have signed contracts for a billion years of service—only a brief moment in the eternal scheme, as seen by Scientology, which postulates that the universe is four quadrillion years old.

The church disputes the testimony of many of the sources I’ve spoken to for this book, especially those former members of the Sea Org who have now left the organization, calling them “apostates” and “defectors.” It is certainly true that a number of them no longer accept the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard; but many still consider themselves fervent Scientologists, saying that it was the church itself that has strayed from his example. They include some of the highest officials who have ever served in the organization.

Scientology is certainly among the most stigmatized religions in the world, owing to its eccentric cosmology, its vindictive behavior toward critics and defectors, and the damage it has inflicted on families that have been broken apart by the church’s policy of “disconnection”—the imposed isolation of church members from people who stand in the way of their longed-for spiritual progress. In the United States, constitutional guarantees of religious liberty protect the church from actions that might otherwise be considered abusive or in violation of laws in human trafficking or labor standards. Many of these practices are well known to the public.

And yet curious recruits continue to be attracted to the religion, though not in the numbers that Scientology claims; celebrities still find their way to the church’s VIP lounge; and young people sign away the next billion years of their existence to an organization that promises to work them mercilessly for practically no pay. Obviously, there is an enduring appeal that survives the widespread assumption that Scientology is a cult and a fraud.

I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious beliefs on people’s lives—historically, a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics, which is the substance of so much journalism. I was drawn to write this book by the questions that many people have about Scientology: What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom? These questions are not unique to Scientology, but they certainly underscore the conversation. In attempting to answer them in this book, I hope we can learn something about what might be called the process of belief. Few Scientologists have had a conversion experience—a sudden, radical reorientation of one’s life; more common is a gradual, wholehearted acceptance of propositions that might have been regarded as unacceptable or absurd at the outset, as well as the incremental surrender of will on the part of people who have been promised enhanced power and authority. One can see by this example the motor that propels all great social movements, for good or ill.


Austin, Texas


The Convert

London, Ontario, is a middling manufacturing town halfway between Toronto and Detroit, once known for its cigars and breweries. In a tribute to its famous namesake, London has its own Covent Garden, Piccadilly Street, and even a Thames River that forks around the modest, economically stressed downtown. The city, which sits in a humid basin, is remarked upon for its unpleasant weather. Summers are unusually hot, winters brutally cold, the springs and falls fine but fleeting. The most notable native son was the bandleader Guy Lombardo, who was honored in a local museum, until it closed for lack of visitors. London was a difficult place for an artist looking to find himself.

Paul Haggis was twenty-one years old in 1975. He was walking toward a record store in downtown London when he encountered a fast-talking, long-haired young man with piercing eyes standing on the corner of Dundas and Waterloo Streets. There was something keen and strangely adamant in his manner. His name was Jim Logan. He pressed a book into Haggis’s hands. “You have a mind,” Logan said. “This is the owner’s manual.” Then he demanded, “Give me two dollars.”

The book was Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, by L. Ron Hubbard, which was published in 1950. By the time Logan pushed it on Haggis, the book had sold more than two million copies throughout the world. Haggis opened the book and saw a page stamped with the words “Church of Scientology.”

“Take me there,” he said to Logan.

At the time, there were only a handful of Scientologists in the entire province of Ontario. By coincidence, Haggis had heard about the organization a couple of months earlier, from a friend who had called it a cult. That interested Haggis; he considered the possibility of doing a documentary film about it. When he arrived at the church’s quarters in London, it certainly didn’t look like a cult—two young men occupying a hole-in-the-wall office above Woolworth’s five-and-dime.

As an atheist, Haggis was wary of being dragged into a formal belief system. In response to his skepticism, Logan showed him a passage by Hubbard that read: “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you and command you to believe it or else. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true. Think your own way through things, accept what is true for you, discard the rest. There is nothing unhappier than one who tries to live in a chaos of lies.” These words resonated with Haggis.

Although he didn’t realize it, Haggis was being drawn into the church through a classic, four-step “dissemination drill” that recruiters are carefully trained to follow. The first step is to make contact, as Jim Logan did with Haggis in 1975. The second step is to disarm any antagonism the individual may display toward Scientology. Once that’s done, the task is to “find the ruin”—that is, the problem most on the mind of the potential recruit. For Paul, it was a turbulent romance. The fourth step is to convince the subject that Scientology has the answer. “Once the person is aware of the ruin, you bring about an understanding that Scientology can handle the condition,” Hubbard writes. “It’s at the right moment on this step that one … directs him to the service that will best handle what he needs handled.” At that point, the potential recruit has officially been transformed into a Scientologist.

Paul responded to every step in an almost ideal manner. He and his girlfriend took a course together and, shortly thereafter, became Hubbard Qualified Scientologists, one of the first levels in what the church calls the Bridge to Total Freedom.

HAGGIS WAS BORN in 1953, the oldest of three children. His father, Ted, ran a construction company specializing in roadwork—mostly laying asphalt and pouring sidewalks, curbs, and gutters. He called his company Global, because he was serving both London and Paris—another Ontario community fifty miles to the east. As Ted was getting his business started, the family lived in a small house in the predominantly white town. The Haggises were one of the few Catholic families in a Protestant neighborhood, which led to occasional confrontations, including a schoolyard fistfight that left Paul with a broken nose. Although he didn’t really think of himself as religious, he identified with being a minority; however, his mother, Mary insisted on sending Paul and his two younger sisters, Kathy and Jo, to Mass every Sunday. One day, she spotted their priest driving an expensive car. “God wants me to have a Cadillac,” the priest explained. Mary responded, “Then God doesn’t want us in your church anymore.” Paul admired his mother’s stand; he knew how much her religion meant to her. After that, the family stopped going to Mass, but the children continued in Catholic schools.

Ted’s construction business prospered to the point that he was able to buy a much larger house on eighteen acres of rolling land outside of town. There were a couple of horses in the stable, a Chrysler station wagon in the garage, and giant construction vehicles parked in the yard, like grazing dinosaurs. Paul spent a lot of time alone. He could walk the mile to catch the school bus and not see anyone along the way. His chores were to clean the horse stalls and the dog runs (Ted raised spaniels for field trials). At home, Paul made himself the center of attention—“the apple of his mother’s eye,” his father recalled—but he was mischievous and full of pranks. “He got the strap when he was five years old,” Ted said.

When Paul was about thirteen, he was taken to say farewell to his grandfather on his deathbed. The old man had been a janitor in a bowling alley, having fled England because of some mysterious scandal. He seemed to recognize a similar dangerous quality in Paul. His parting words to him were, “I’ve wasted my life. Don’t waste yours.”

In high school, Paul began steering toward trouble. His worried parents sent him to Ridley College, a boarding school in St. Catharines, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, where he was required to be a part of the cadet corps of the Royal Canadian Army. He despised marching or any regulated behavior, and soon began skipping the compulsory drills. He would sit in his room reading Ramparts, the radical magazine that chronicled the social revolutions then unfolding in America, where he longed to be. He was constantly getting punished for his infractions, until he taught himself to pick locks; then he could sneak into the prefect’s office and mark off his demerits. The experience sharpened an incipient talent for subversion.

After a year of this, his parents transferred him to a progressive boys’ school, called Muskoka Lakes College, in northern Ontario, where there was very little system to subvert. Although it was called a college, it was basically a preparatory school. Students were encouraged to study whatever they wanted. Paul discovered a mentor in his art teacher, Max Allen, who was gay and politically radical. Allen produced a show for the Canadian Broadcasting Company called As It Happens. In 1973, while the Watergate hearings were going on in Washington, DC, Allen let Paul sit beside him in his cubicle at CBC while he edited John Dean’s testimony for broadcast. Later, Allen opened a small theater in Toronto to show movies that had been banned under Ontario’s draconian censorship laws, and Paul volunteered at the box office. They showed Ken Russell’s The Devils and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. In Ted’s mind, his son was working in a porno theater. “I just shut my eyes,” Ted said.

Paul left school after he was caught forging a check. He attended art school briefly, and took some film classes at a community college, but he dropped out of that as well. He grew his curly blond hair to his shoulders. He began working in construction full-time for Ted, but he was drifting toward a precipice. In the 1970s, London acquired the nickname “Speed City,” because of the methamphetamine labs that sprang up to serve its blossoming underworld. Hard drugs were easy to obtain. Two of Haggis’s friends died from overdoses, and he had a gun pointed in his face a couple of times. “I was a bad kid,” he admitted. “I didn’t kill anybody. Not that I didn’t try.”

He also acted as a stage manager in the ninety-nine-seat theater his father created in an abandoned church for one of his stagestruck daughters. On Saturday nights, Paul would strike the set of whatever show was under way and put up a movie screen. In that way he introduced himself and the small community of film buffs in London to the works of Bergman, Hitchcock, and the French New Wave. He was so affected by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up that in 1974 he decided to become a fashion photographer in England, like the hero of that movie. That lasted less than a year, but when he returned he still carried a Leica over his shoulder.

Back in London, Ontario, he fell in love with a nursing student named Diane Gettas. They began sharing a one-bedroom apartment filled with Paul’s books on film. He thought of himself then as “a loner and an artist and an iconoclast.” His grades were too poor to get into college. He could see that he was going nowhere. He was ready to change, but he wasn’t sure how.

Such was Paul Haggis’s state of mind when he joined the Church of Scientology.

LIKE EVERY SCIENTOLOGIST, when Haggis entered the church, he took his first steps into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard. He read about Hubbard’s adventurous life: how he wandered the world, led dangerous expeditions, and healed himself of crippling war injuries through the techniques that he developed into Dianetics. He was not a prophet, like Mohammed, or divine, like Jesus. He had not been visited by an angel bearing tablets of revelation, like Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Scientologists believe that Hubbard discovered the existential truths that form their doctrine through extensive research—in that way, it is “science.” The apparent rationalism appealed to Haggis. He had long since walked away from the religion of his upbringing, but he was still looking for a way to express his idealism. It was important to him that Scientology didn’t demand belief in a god. But the figure of L. Ron Hubbard did hover over the religion in suggestive ways. He wasn’t worshipped, exactly, but his visage and name were everywhere, like the absolute ruler of a small kingdom.