By Ian Berke
March 1, 2017
I love documentaries, which I always see on the big screen, but somehow missed Alex Gibney’s highly praised look at Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which screened here briefly two years ago. I just watched it last night. Even seeing it on a small screen, I was blown away, as we often said 30 years ago.
Scientology was much in the news in the 1990’s, with everything from Tom Cruise’s rapturous endorsement, to the group’s many lawsuits against critics. Gibney is a major documentary filmmaker, with at least 37 full-length films. Many are not only well known, important and award winning – Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015), and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) – but have often had significant influence, a rarity for documentary films.
Is Scientology a cult, a scam or a religion? In 2013, Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer for the New Yorker, published a well-researched book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, in which he interviewed more than 200 current and former members of Scientology. Wright made a strong case that Scientology is a cult and a scam, abusive and exploitive of its members who are under rigid psychological control. Much was shocking, like his revelation of a prison system secretly run by the Church to discipline members thought to have strayed or questioned dogma. Other punishments included forcing people to clean toilets with toothbrushes.
The organization was founded by L Ron Hubbard, a prolific science-fiction writer in the 1950’s. Hubbard had commanded a sub-chaser in Southern California during WW II and was relieved of command after peculiar Queeg-like behavior that included shelling Coronado Island. He had long been paranoid and was enraged at the psychiatric profession, which he was convinced was evil. He developed extremely bizarre and elaborate theories that Xenu, an evil galactic master, had stripped the souls of millions of his subjects, whose spirits (Thetans) reside in our body and can only be purged with intensive individual counseling (“auditing”) sessions conducted by trained auditors. The process uses a machine, which has the subjects grip two metal cylinders while a meter purports to show their inner state, akin to a lie detector. Initial auditing sessions are cheap but the faithful are pressured to do more intensive and costly auditing, after which doctrinal secrets will be revealed. This generated an enormous income stream because these upper-level sessions cost thousands of dollars.
In the 1970’s, the Church infiltrated the IRS and stole documents in an attempt to force the IRS to grant them tax-exempt status, a crime for which a number of members ultimately went to jail. Clearly orchestrated from the very highest levels of the Church, the principals nonetheless denied any involvement. In 1993, the Church finally won their decades-long battle with the IRS to achieve recognition as a religion, a huge economic benefit.
Gibney has used Wright’s book as the framework for his film. But Gibney’s interviews, and archival footage, give the story a power greater than print. Some of the clips of the Church’s major presentations in front of thousands are astounding and resemble footage out of North Korea, where hundreds of thousands hail their supreme leader.
Scientology is known for being highly secretive and aggressively litigious whenever it perceives itself under attack, which seemingly includes anything from the questioning of its doctrines and its complex financial dealings and practices.
Gibney interviews eight former Scientologists, including Paul Haggis (director of Crash), about their involvement, growing disenchantment, and finally, separation. Three of those interviewed held senior leadership positions. After leaving, all were surveilled, harassed and threatened. Even without this abuse, leaving the group was extremely traumatic for all of them. None had been in Scientology for less than 20 years. Most had joined or been recruited when they were in some life crisis or depression. Psychologically vulnerable, they would be emotionally supported by fellow members while being attracted to the promise that achieving higher levels of consciousness through intensive auditing would make them stronger. Of course they were encouraged to drop contacts with non-Scientologists. Most said that it was difficult to describe their initial and enduring sense of comfort (often for years) but all used the term “brainwashing.” They described an atmosphere of paranoia, fear and constant infighting among senior leadership.
Hubbard was fascinated by Hollywood and correctly realized early on that having film celebrities who were open members would be enormously helpful in their recruitment efforts. Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the two most famous members, are both highly supportive of the Church. But the Church was always afraid that the nonmember spouses or partners would somehow succeed in luring members away from the Church. In particular, Nicole Kidman, formerly married to Cruise, was surveilled and her phone was tapped. Ultimately the Church succeeded in its efforts to separate the two.
Hubbard died in 1986 and was succeeded by his assistant, David Miscavige. The ex-members portray Miscavige as obsessed, vindictive, and greatly feared. A scrolled coda states that Gibney tried repeatedly to interview Miscavige, Cruise, Travolta and other senior figures. None responded. Cruise continues to be an effective spokesman for the Church and the clip of Miscavige presenting him with a Freedom medal is disgusting. Cruise comes off as mindless, to say the least.
The financial empire that Scientology has created is mind boggling. Wright calculates that just three of the 20 organizations that make up the Church are alone worth between $3 and $4 billion. In addition, there are huge real estate interests, not just in the US. Of course tax-exemption has been a bonanza. All donations are deductible for which we taxpayers pay. Likewise, the Church’s many properties are exempt from property taxes. Although a church spokesman claimed 3.5 million US members in 2007, several analysts have estimated that figure to be no higher than 40,000.
Going Clear is very well done, riveting, powerful, often shocking and deeply unsettling. It is unforgettable and I came away with a sense of paranoia myself. Running time: 120 minutes.
HBO financed this film and it is available through Netflix or online. I never thought I would recommend anything on the small screen, but this is fascinating and important, well worth watching – even on your television or computer.
Copyright © 2017, Ian Berke Real Estate. All rights reserved.