Half-way into Alex Gibney’s scorching expose about the harrowing evolution of the cult phenomenon, ‘Scientology’, author Lawrence Wright states “Scientology is really a journey into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard. And the further you get into it, the more like L.Ron Hubbard you become”. As the documentary dives deep into the psyche of Scientology founder Hubbard, we understand what a scary thing that journey would be. Pulitzer winning author Lawrence Wright in 2013 published “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief”, which vividly detailed the genesis of the church of Scientology and how it gradually corrupted or abused its staunch believers, while also racking up money through the courtship of Hollywood Celebrities and battles against IRS. The book exposed vital evidence about this dangerously protective cult and its egomaniac leaders.
Alex Gibney’s documentary “Going Clear” (2015, produced by HBO) follows the chronology of the church (based on Wright’s research), starting with Hubbard’s rise as Pulp sci-fi writer, and also interviews former Scientologists and former high-ranking members (the deep inner circle) of the cult. The documentary starts with the origin story of Hubbard, a wretched war vet and worse husband. He is also a highly imaginative sci-fi writer and a world traveler. In the 1950’s he wrote the much-heralded book “Dianetics”, which was seen as a breakthrough in modern mental health, while it was only a self-help doctrine. The book was Hubbard’s attempt to grapple with his own mental issues and a way to rationalize some of his irrational beliefs as legitimate truth.
The book didn’t any kind of recognition from psychologists, although it became a sensational hit amongst general readers. Hubbard’s later Scientology instrument like ‘E-meter’ became a tool to monitor a person’s emotional trauma, which are discharged through what is known as ‘an auditing session’. After many auditing session, a person achieves the state of ‘Clear’. This method of freeing oneself from inhibitions fascinated the wealthy and the intelligentsia. Money flooded in as many as Hubbard’s psychological cure reached a wider audiences, but trouble brewed with Internal Revenue Services (IRS). Hubbard made great efforts to change his cult into a religion to evade the millions of dollars of tax he has to pay. Ron Hubbard’s fight against IRS was eventually won by his successor David Miscavige, and the way Scientology fought against a government organization was really a bloodcurdling thing to hear.
Through few muckraking and staunch support of Hollywood celebrities like Travolta and Tom Cruise, Scientology was recognized as religion (meaning that they are free of tax payments) and the religion’s church proclaimed it as the only means to bring you ‘inner peace’. Of the outspoken former members, denouncing Scientology, the prominent one was writer/director Paul Haggis (“Crash”, “In the Valley of Elah”), who states how he benefited from the Church’s early teachings, but ultimately couldn’t abide to its harsh & nonsensical practices. The former inner circle members of Scientology offer a blistering portrait of the Church leader ‘David Miscavige’, who has built a harsh prison camp for the outspoken members and also perpetrated various other psychological and physical tortures (including the non-stop bullying of Church’s detractors). The most scathing of the revelations are the allegations against Tom Cruise and Miscavige’s role in damaging Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman.
The documentary implicates Cruise and Travolta as the vital public figures with great potential to hold ‘Church of Scientology’ accountable for its innumerable abuses and offenses (although they chose not to do that). Director Alex Gibney also vividly depicts how the context of religious cults (under the guise of bringing peace to world) could easily bring its faithful followers to emotional as well as financial ruin. Gibney and Wright weave the mindset of a believer, and how the highly intelligent people are converted into blind follower. The structure of the documentary has the usual Gibney style (“Taxi to the Dark Side”, “Enron”, Armstrong Lie”, etc), where the selected speakers moves forward the narration as archive footage and info-graphics solidifying their recital. But, despite this conventional style, the documentary fascinates us, not just because of its shock value. The exceptional elements are the interviewees themselves, who describe their anguished and embarrassing experience with ‘Scientology’ with that sense of latent awakening. Looking back at these intelligent spiritual seekers’ experience we are imbued with a scarier thought of how dangerous a religious faith could be, if it is harnessed by the most corrupted.
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (120 minutes) is a powerful unmasking of a dangerous, self-destructive faith. It ultimately makes us to contemplate about our own fixation on particular beliefs.