Please see the editor’s note below.
The Hollywood Arclight Theater is currently screening Going Clear, the Scientology documentary based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, in advance of a March 29th debut on HBO. (It is also playing in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.) The Arclight is a stone’s throw to the west of Scientology’s monstrous blue mega-compound on Sunset Boulevard, a huge piece of prime real estate that is but a small part of Scientology’s roughly three-billion-dollar global empire.
The audience last Thursday afternoon enjoyed Going Clear immensely. There was laughter and whooping throughout, spirited applause at the end, and after the house lights came up, it seemed obvious that perhaps as many as half of the audience were ex-Scientologists themselves; they recognized and greeted one another with a mixture of gladness and relief. Twenty or so lingered for a while. They hugged, shook hands, and posed for cell phone photographs. I overheard one fifty-something man say, “Oh, I was in for thirty-two years!” with a dazed laugh, as if unable to believe it himself. It felt like a party, but against a sober, frightened background — a reunion of survivors.
Going Clear is a blistering indictment of David Miscavige, Scientology’s small, dapper current leader, but the film stops well short of a categorical denunciation of Scientology itself — which makes for a weirdly unfocused, equivocating movie. Relying on the testimony of a series of high-ranking apostates including Paul Haggis, Spanky Taylor, Jason Beghe, Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, Miscavige, who gained control upon the death of Scientology’s founder, Lafayette Ron Hubbard, in 1986, is accused in the film of tyranny, physical and mental abuse, greed, viciousness, snooping in private counseling records, and just generally running Scientology in a totalitarian fashion. Going Clear openly calls on celebrity Scientologists John Travolta and Tom Cruise to reject Miscavige’s leadership. But how is it possible to condemn Miscavige without condemning the whole organization?
Those familiar with tales of Xenu the Space Tyrant and the Rehabilitation Project Force will find little real news about Scientology in this movie, but even a longtime observer will find it thought provoking, if not entirely credible. If anything, Going Clear (like the book before it) bends over backward to appear fair to Scientology. Despite recounting all kinds of well-known crimes, shenanigans, and lies on the part of L. Ron Hubbard, Wright is at pains to suggest that the old charlatan was somehow sincere in his own beliefs and practices. He wrote:
[Hubbard] may have been grandiose and delusional, but the endless stream of policy letters and training routines that poured from his typewriter […] attests to his obsession with the notion of creating a step-by-step pathway to universal salvation. If it was all a con, why would he bother?
Wow, who can say, maybe because Hubbard was grandiose and delusional? Equally weird is Wright’s refusal to condemn Hubbard as a writer. Despite having published a record-breaking one thousand and eighty-four books, L. Ron Hubbard is manifestly the most wretchedly incompetent writer of a popular book ever to bloviate on any planet, including Teegeeack, which is L. Ron’s annoying name for the Earth seventy-five million years ago. Try this on for size, chosen at random from Dianetics, Scientology’s foundational text:
In ancient times, the Roman was fond of his pleasures and some of the things he called pleasure were a trifle strenuous on other species, such as Christians. When the Christian overthrew the pagan state [wat] the ancient order of Rome was in a villain’s role. Anything, therefore, which was Roman was villainous. This went to such remarkable lengths that the Roman love of bathing made bathing so immoral that Europe went unwashed for some fifteen hundred years.
Dianetics is stuffed to the gills with illiterate bushwa like this, which Wright is somehow content to characterize as “a bluff, quirky style.” Oh and here is L. Ron, earnest seeker of salvation, simperingly boasting of having “slept with bandits in Mongolia and hunted with pygmies in the Philippines,” and “studied twenty-one primitive races”: part of this interview appears in the movie.
Going Clear relies heavily on the authority of Marty Rathbun, who left Scientology in 2004 after a twenty-seven-year career culminating in his role as David Miscavige’s chief enforcer — a job in which he freely admits to roughing people up and lying regularly while “following orders.” He believes now that Miscavige is the apostate — not himself — and there is some evidence to suggest that Rathbun, who was in on Miscavige’s original power grab after Hubbard’s death in 1986, hopes to succeed his former boss as the head of a reformed Scientology. Rathbun is the author of the 2012 What Is Wrong with Scientology? Healing Through Understanding, a book that seeks to restore Scientology to its original, Hubbardian principles and away from Miscavige’s malign influence. Among the many problems with the book, as longtime Scientology observer Tony Ortega (former editor of the Village Voice) wrote in an excellent (and scathing) review, is that there is all kinds of evidence to show that Hubbard was every bit as awful as Miscavige. Still, Rathbun is a professed believer, and a founder of the “Independent Scientology” movement.
Among the “Beliefs of Independent Scientology,” according to the group’s website, are that “LRH was neither perfect nor a sociopath,” while “David Miscavige is a classic sociopath”; “extracting donations under duress is robbery not Scientology”; “aggressive exposure of abuses and criminality is the only way to improve Scientology’s condition”; and that “Scientology’s disrepute is due to the adversarial (crazy) actions of the Church as directed by DM.” Au contraire. It would be far easier to make the case that Scientology is continuing right along the path unequivocally laid down by L. Ron Hubbard. Indeed Wright’s book contains all the ingredients for making such a case, without quite coming right out and making it.
The obfuscating jargon of Scientology makes it somewhat difficult for lay people to form a clear opinion of its practices; it’s a clever way to separate Us from Them. Creating a specialized language was a deliberate aim of Hubbard’s. As Wright observed in his book, the new vocabulary of “thetans” and “enturbulating” and “hatting” and the “Pentagon-level glut of acronyms” would help Hubbard to “entrap his followers in a self-referential semantic labyrinth.” And “Independent Scientology” is firmly situated within that labyrinth. On Rathbun’s blog, a testimonial from “S.B.” notes how their Scientologizing went once they were free of Miscavige’s organization:
After nearly 20 years in the Sea Org, when I disconnected from the C of S a few years ago — I immediately experienced a resurgence of Cause. Overnight I regained numerous OT abilities, abilities I hadn’t seen for years. This was a huge, sweeping and remarkable difference. So I continued to observe my progress on the OT Scale, and I gauged the validity of my path by the resulting increase or decrease thereon.
As LRH says, everyone is somewhere on the OT Scale.
And also as LRH says, the OT levels are not the only route to OT. There is also demonstration of competence. And I found there was a direct connection between acting to maintain my personal integrity and Cause level (which perforce includes remaining disconnected from suppressive people and groups) and my consequent happiness, stability, effortlessness, and OTness.
Rathbun still wields a lot of power within the tottering, fractured edifice of Scientology. This excerpt from a blog post is characteristic of how he’s viewed among many of the faithful and ex-faithful around the world.
In July 2009 I was reading the daily “Google Alert” for media on Scientology. I saw the name Marty Rathbun. Marty was a god from my standpoint. He was at the very top of my command line. I trusted him implicitly. […] The story was the “Truth Rundown” in the St. Pete Times. It took several minutes for me to realise that Marty was not talking FOR the church. He was out and what he was saying was being confirmed by Mike Rinder the second most senior person on my command line. Time stood still as I watched, in slow motion, my life shatter in front of me.
For the next two days I did ZERO post work. I locked my door and read EVERYTHING I could find on the Internet. I cannot adequately explain the feeling of your entire life’s purpose and goals unravelling before you. But that’s what was happening. I got to see that the madness and mayhem in South African Orgs was not a localised problem. It was a global pandemic.
But in the movie, little attention is paid to the fact that Rathbun is still a believer who makes his living auditing and counseling others who have “blown,” which is what it’s called when you escape from Scientology — pursued, not infrequently (if dozens of available accounts are to be believed), by a pack of hostile crazies trying to drag you back again. Wright does report, in the book, that “Rathbun now makes his living by providing Hubbard-inspired counseling to other defectors, but he says that he has no desire to be part of a hierarchical organization. ‘Power corrupts,’ he says.” No kidding.
Going Clear reads very credibly as a kind of campaign document supporting Rathbun’s candidacy as the successor to Miscavige. Though the movie might not have been intended for that purpose, in an interview with Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, Lawrence Wright expressed views in line with that possibility:
The problem has to do with the dysfunction at the very top of the church. And that can be fixed, but it would take some of these celebrity members to demand it, I think. It’s in their power, and I feel like it’s a moral responsibility for people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta who have benefited from the church and who have sold the church all over the world to take it on themselves.
“Totalitarian organizations run by sociopaths never have a succession plan. The megalomaniac in charge simply cannot imagine himself no longer in control,” Tony Ortega wrote to me in an email in response to the question of how a succession might take place. Ortega has been masterfully covering Scientology for twenty years, and his long, detailed explanation is a knockout.
There is no succession plan in the bylaws of CSI/RTC/CST, and it’s hard to imagine how there could be any kind of transfer of power, as long as Miscavige is alive. So what’s going to happen?
I can think of some scenarios, but I tend not to prognosticate at my website. With Scientology, I’m continually surprised with how things turn out — which is why I enjoy reporting on it so much. […] So, I caution you, these possible scenarios might turn out to be completely wrong.
1. Miscavige is incapacitated. He’s only 54, so this seems somewhat unlikely, but let’s say he’s debilitated by a stroke or passes away. Who takes over? It’s completely unclear from both the bylaws of CSI/RTC/CST as well as who seems to be around him. At this point, it’s the lawyers (most of whom are not Scientologists) who prop up Miscavige. Would the lawyers quickly move someone like Marc Yager or Jenny Linson into the “Chairman of the Board” spot? Would the membership accept that? It’s really hard to know.
2. Miscavige removed by coup. This is something that a lot of angry former Scientology members want to see happen, as well as some still inside the church. But they base it on a bad misreading of the CSI/RTC/CST founding documents. As Denise Brennan explained to me before she died last year, when she helped Hubbard create those alphabet soup entities in 1981, they specifically designed them to make it appear that a system of trustees and boards of directors could select a new leader of Scientology. But it was all a sham, she explained. As long as Miscavige is alive and has the attorneys working for him, he will not be removed. Mike Rinder agrees with me on this score.
3. An outside force. To me, this seems the most likely. I have a feeling that the IRS or the FBI is biding its time, watching as Scientology continues to shrink and weaken. At some point, they’ll move in. And then Miscavige and Scientology will be caught up in court actions basically forever, and a succession will be a moot point.
Going Clear seems to support, even to encourage the idea that if the aging superstars Travolta and Cruise were to throw their lot in with Rathbun, he would be able to engineer a coup to remove Miscavige. That is, it tacitly argues, it’s not Scientology itself that is at fault — it’s the leadership. On that point Wright, Rathbun, and Gibney are apparently in accord. Just get rid of David Miscavige, put the leadership (and vast wealth) of Scientology into wiser hands, such as, for example, those of Marty Rathbun, former auditor of Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and all will be well. “It’s a moral responsiblity” for Cruise and Travolta to demand it, the film’s authors allege, apparently unpersuaded that the founder of this ludicrous doctrine was a bad crazy person and a criminal, its IRS exemptions should be rescinded, and it should be permitted to expire peacefully (Ortega’s Scenario 3, which is one that a lot of people, in Los Angeles at least, will wholeheartedly support).
As far as the movie is concerned, sure, go see it. It is honestly worth the sixteen bucks just to watch Tom Cruise and David Miscavige literally saluting each other and posters of “LRH” every five seconds in their faux-naval finery.
Photo by Clinton Steeds
*Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to correct the misattribution of a quote from Marty Rathbun’s blog. We apologize for the error. Additionally, a spokesperson for the producers of Going Clear disputes a central notion of this post, asserting that Rathbun “no longer believes in the teachings of Scientology” and “is no longer involved with the independents,” pointing to a blog post from last year, in which Rathbun writes, “I came to realize that its control and exploitation elements are so thoroughly embedded within the teachings of Hubbard as to make the journey more likely to be on-the-whole negative than positive.” He, moreover, states that “As much as independent scientologists accuse the organization (RTC , CSI, et al) of operating on judgmentalism, arrogance, utiltarianism over conscience, form over substance, and Hubbard-revisionism dressed up as Hubbard-literalism I have found all those shortcomings just as prevalent in the independent field as in the organizations.”
The spokesperson also asserts that the film does not “suggest that the church could be ok with different leadership. We pretty clearly go after the only two leaders the church has had in its history — Hubbard and Miscavige.”