(On Cable TV, September 2015) Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney takes on the church of Scientology in Going Clear, and the result is as fascinating as any of his other movies. Adapted from Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, it’s a highly critical look at the inner workings of Scientology, featuring a number of disillusioned former high-ranking members of the organization. After a look at the colorful life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Going Clear spends time detailing the recent and current activities of the organization and the reasons why several of its former members have left it. Along the way, the relationship between Scientology and its star members John Travolta and Tom Cruise is detailed in ways to make us understand how they all benefit from the association. It’s a slick documentary, although the “dramatic recreation” segments meant to illustrate some of the material is overdone: the interview alone are compelling enough. Going Clear is builds to a highly critical portrait of Scientology, packaging together a lot of material that has been available for years but seldom presented in such a self-contained form. Read the film’s Wikipedia article for more details on the ensuing controversy.
Bridge, 1950 (1987 revision), 628 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-88404-279-0
This is how Dianetics begins:
Important Note: In reading this book, be very certain you never go past a word you do not understand. The only reason a person gives up a study or becomes confused or unable to learn is because he or she has gone past a word that was not understood. [P.viii, bold in text]
Okay, so how about the following reasons: A person may give up because the writing style is so redundant that even clear language wouldn’t help. A person might give up because the author himself doesn’t have a clue what he’s writing about. A person might give up because the writing style is juvenile despite (or even because) a pretentious vocabulary. A person might give up because they realize that what they’re reading is total garbage.
I haven’t been shy, elsewhere, in dismissing Scientology as a sham and a cult based on nonsense. The information is available elsewhere for your own edification. But even then, I wanted to give a chance to “The Book” that started it all, Dianetics, in the hope that I may be wrong.
Turns out I didn’t have the slightest clue how much crap is at the foundation of Scientology.
Readers with the internal fortitude to read the entirety of Dianetics will go through three stages. The first is bewilderment, as they’ll try to wrestle with L. Ron Hubbard’s embarrassing writing style. The opening “Important Note” is only a mere warning against the awful prose in which this piece of trash is written. Seemingly written for none-too-bright teenagers, Dianetics is nevertheless sprinkled with pretentious vocabulary that’s as ridiculous as it’s unnecessary. The book contains hundreds of footnotes referring to definitions, but when you see footnotes like “11. craven: cowardly.” [P.205] or “21. harlot: a prostitute” [P.323], it’s obvious that Elron’s just playing at sounding smart. The writing style is even worse; nonsensical phrases are written as if they meant something and then immediately followed by patronizing passages that assume that the audience is a bunch of morons.
Bafflement leaves place to amusement, and it’s not uncommon to encounter passages so insane that they can only elicit laughter. (Merely take the straight-faced citation of Shakespeare as a scientist [P.173] as a particularly incongruous passage) It turns out that according to Dianetics, all can be explained by trauma-induced “engrams”, harmful mental patterns that can be formed even inside the womb. (Allow me to cite once more: “The engram is not a memory; it is a cellular trace of recording impinged deeply into the very structure of the body itself” [P.140, italics in text]) The mind is a computer, and knowing how to debug engrams can set you free. Sounds iffy? It’s even worse in the book: “An engram received from Father beating Mother which says “Take thay! Take it, I tell you. You’ve got to take it!” means that our patient has possibly had tendencies as a kleptomaniac.” [P.281] Hubbard’s tirades against psychologists, hypnotists and “Juniors” are especially amusing, especially when you realise that Dianetics is a brain-damaged take-off on Freudian psychiatry, and the so-called treatment nothing more than a form of ill-guided hypnosis.
But as you go along, amusement will eventually turn to fierce loathing. Hubbard’s view that homosexuality is an illness “extremely dangerous to society” [P.140] is disturbing, nearly as much as his warped vision of society. According to him, it seems that all husbands beat their wives regularly, adultery is widespread (especially for pregnant women), “attempted abortion is very common” [P.211] and women generally do their best to screw up their own children.
Would you trust this man? The real shock of the book comes as you realize that, yes; people actually fall for that stuff. Even without knowing about the ludicrous “Operating Thetan” garbage of higher-level Scientology, people fell for Dianetics, maybe taken by the false impression that Elron was discussing “touchy matters” in a repressive age.
In some ways, Dianetics reminded me a little of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, by the way a thick book can convince a lot of people. Where the comparison fails for me is that it insults Rand’s followers: While Objectivists might be selfish and rude, Scientologists are just plain nuts. There’s no real contest which group I’d rather hang with, given the unpleasant choice.
I may be restating the obvious, but Dianetics is one of the most odious books I have had the misfortune to read. Horribly written, devoid of any basis in reality as we know it and an affront to both intelligence and good taste, Dianetics is a masterpiece of crackpot literature. Stay far, far away from this book. Unless you want to double-check what I’m writing, in which case you will quickly realize that the above review barely understates the true insanity of Dianetics. Have fun…
Key Porter, 1987, 390 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 1-550-12027-7
First things first: I will not shy away from admitting that I loathe Scientology.
Most of this anger is a natural byproduct of my general abomination for sects. Organized -read “established”- religions at least have a veneer of respectability and relatively down-to-earth beliefs. (Despite my avowed atheism, I once got an A+ on a college-level essay that argued that the catholic church had a beneficial impact on the colonization of Canada. This has scant relation to Bare-Faced Messiah, but I can’t pass this opportunity to mention it.) Sects, on the other hand, combine financial swindling with seemingly voluntary lobotomy. How else to explain paying obscene amount of money to find the state of mind one can get from a good long walk in the woods with a pretty girl?
Scientology, however, holds a special place in my pantheon of Bad Ideas. As an early Internaut, I still seethe at their callous legal shenanigans which finally forced the shutdown of the anonymous remailer anon.penet.fi. As a Science-Fiction fan, I carry the collective burden of a genre that hosted L. Ron Hubbard before he decided that the way to make money was to organize a religion. The so-called “top-secret” documents of Scientology, recently revealed by a band of courageous ex-scientologists, read like bottom-level sci-fi garbage. Scientology has no clothes; if it appears so blindingly obvious to me and multiple other wise persons, why isn’t it obvious to everyone?
Bare-Faced Messiah is not really about Scientology. It’s a biography of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. By casting the forefather in the true light of his accomplishments, Russell Miller reveals the tissue of lies and forgery that is at the heart of Scientology.
L. Ron Hubbard didn’t compromise a life of honest work and accomplishments by starting the scam called Scientology. This biography makes it clear that Hubbard was a self-aggrandizer, a fabulist and an unbalanced boy well before he used his easy talent for fiction to write for SF magazines. Numerous incidents where Hubbard keeps promoting himself as “The Youngest Eagle Scout Ever” -when no records could prove or disprove this affirmation- is particularly instructive.
From this boy without a clear sense of himself would emerge a teen constantly inflating his modest accomplishment in tales worthy of men’s adventure magazines. Which inevitably happens, as Hubbard finds himself drawn in a profession where lies are honorable. But Hubbard is a compulsive buyer and before long, he tries to evade his debts in the military service. His war is not heroic, but his war tales are, as he manages to transform a battle with a known magnetic anomaly into a country-saving duel with a Japanese submarine.
After the war, Hubbard divides his time between magazine pieces and trying to swindle a medical pension from the Navy. He eventually writes a piece called “Dianetics”, from which he’ll establish a religion. Though this first scam ends badly -Hubbard is a compulsive spender-, it lays the foundations for Scientology.
From there, the remainder of the tale is distressingly familiar: a man with too much power, too much money and too little wisdom. As Scientology grew, Hubbard diminished. His death in 1986 puts a merciful end to a life taken over by paranoia.
I will quickly gloss over Hubbard’s bigamy, his criminal records, the ludicrous tale of his private navy and other assorted antics; they’re more valid reasons to look for Bare-Faced Messiah. This wonderfully well-researched book lays bare the moral foundations of a fascinating character. For Hubbard might be the twentieth century’s most successful con artist, his true life is even more fascinating than his imagined life.
Anxious to read the book? Worried that your local library’s copy was destroyed by your friendly neighborhood scientologist? You’re in luck: Check out the online, uncensored version of Bare-Faced Messiah at http://www.jritson.demon.co.uk/bfm/bfmconte.htm
The Internet just might get the last laugh over Scientology…