January 20, 2013

BUT WASN'T BOWFINGER THE DEFINITIVE CRITIQUE?:

Eyes Wide Shut : a review of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief By Lawrence Wright (MICHAEL KINSLEY, 1/20/13, NY Times Book Review)


[W]right's book, "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," makes clear that Scientology is like no church on Earth (or, in all probability, Venus or Mars either). The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday: the ruthless struggles for power, the show trials and forced confessions (often false); the paranoia (often justified); the determination to control its members' lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick); the maintenance of something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years and punished if they tried to escape; what the book describes as mysterious deaths and disappearances; and so on. Except that while the American Communist Party, including a few naïve Hollywood types, merely turned a blind eye to events happening in faraway Russia, Scientology -- if Wright is to be believed, and I think he is -- ran, and maybe still runs, a shadow totalitarian empire here in the United States, financed in part by huge contributions by Tom Cruise and others of the Hollywood aristocracy. ­"Naïve" doesn't begin to describe the credulousness and sense of entitlement that has allowed actors, writers and directors to think they were helping themselves and the world by hanging around the Scientologists' "Celebrity Centre," taking "upper level" courses and gossiping about who was about to be labeled a "Suppressive Person" (bad guy).

Wright's last book, "The Looming Tower," a history of Al Qaeda, won the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the author of, among other books, a charmingly presumptuous premature autobiography, "In the New World," published in 1987. He belongs to a small cult of his own -- an Austin-centered group of writers dedicated to preserving long-form narrative journalism. With this book, he's certainly paid his dues for a few years.

Wright is well advised to be calm and seem neutral in his presentation of the Scientology story, since the group has been known to make life miserable for its critics, its favorite weapon being the lawsuit, often brought in order to bury the defendant in legal costs and hassles. The purpose of a lawsuit is "to harass and discourage rather than to win," Hubbard said. Perhaps, though, this knowledge that any mistake will be abnormally costly does lend added credibility to Wright's vast research and reporting.

Among the horrors Wright either uncovers or borrows (with credit) from previous Scientology exposés in Time magazine and The St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times is "the Hole," a hellish double-wide trailer parked at a California resort owned by the church. Forty or 50 people were housed there with no furniture or beds, eating leftovers, enduring cold-hose group showers. There are stories of people being beaten; and lots of stories of forced divorces, mandatory "disconnections" -- orders not to talk with a spouse or friend who has offended in some way. But only once in 430 pages filled with lurid anecdotes did my skeptical antennas start to twitch. Wright asserts that someone was punished by being "made to run around a pole in the desert for 12 hours a day, until his teeth fell out." Really? That's the first thing that happens when you run in circles in the desert all day? I need to know more. How many days are we talking about? Did they let him floss?

But I shouldn't jest. Wright's favorite Scientologist, at least in this life, is the television and film writer Paul Haggis. (He wrote and directed "Crash," which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2006.) Haggis talked at length with Wright and therefore gets off way too easily in the retelling. I was about to write that Haggis is no fool, but let me amend that: he is no fool in the particular matter of cooperating with the author of a book about events you were involved in. In Washington it's called the Bob Woodward rule -- always talk, or you'll regret it.

Haggis is quoted advising Tom Cruise to have a sense of humor about himself, "something that is often lacking in Scientology," Wright says dryly, in one of the few passages where he shows his cards. That is certainly true, and possibly a problem, but if so it is among the least of them. When people are running something akin to a private gulag across the United States and, to a lesser extent, the entire world, who cares whether they get the joke? And what is the joke, exactly?

That they think they're entitled to be treated like a religion.
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Posted by at January 20, 2013 8:11 AM
  
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