As far as I can remember, the first time I heard about the Church of Scientology was when I read a review on “Battlefield Earth” (2000), an infamous Hollywood turkey which was based on the SF novel of the same name written by the founder of the church. I learned later that some of prominent Hollywood celebrities such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise are the members of the church, and I have often heard about some weird stories involved with how the church exerted its considerable power and influence over many of its members.
Mainly because I have merely regarded the Church of Scientology with amusement and skepticism, I could not help but chilled and disgusted a lot by many dark, disturbing moments in Alex Gibney’s documentary film “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”. While it is amusing and interesting to see how the church was established from the wacky philosophical ideas of its controversial founder, it is also unnerving and chilling to see how his church has aggressively expanded its power and influence while ruthlessly manipulating and exploiting its members for many years, and you will be definitely alarmed as watching the sobering presentation of facts and testimonies in the documentary.
In the beginning, the documentary provides an overview on the life of the founder of the Church of Scientology. During his early years, L. Ron Hubbard, who is often referred to by his initials ‘LRH’, was initially a writer of countless pulp SF stories during the 1930s, but, after serving in the US navy during the World War II, he became involved in an occult group led by rocket scientist Jack Parsons in Pasadena, California, and that was how he came to meet his second wife Sara Northrup, who was Parsons’s girlfriend at that time.
Not long after marrying Northrup, Hubbard developed his own therapy method called Dianetics. He asserted that people can be improved mentally and physically through being regressed to their past traumas and then ‘going clear’ during a process called ‘auditing’, and he drew lots of public attention when his book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” was published in 1950. While his method was criticized and rejected by experts for good reasons, many people were willing to listen to him, and that led to the foundation of the Church of the Scientology.
Meanwhile, his relationship with Northrup became deteriorated, and several unpleasant episodes between them before their eventual divorce suggest that Hubbard had some serious mental problems. He was a liar and swindler in my humble opinion, but it seems he really wanted to believe that he could be cured through Dianetics, and his church was probably a tool to defend his unverified therapy method against the world. He was very serious about refining his ideas further with more details, and we see an intricate chart showing many levels of spiritual improvement through which church members will go step by step. In addition, he was a charming and charismatic guy like many cult leaders, and his devoted followers were ready to hear whatever he concocted through his wild imagination.
Because his church was not recognized as a non-profit religious organization by the US government during its early years, Hubbard and his followers had to drift around the Mediterranean for avoiding tax problems. The life on their ships was not so good, but his followers always looked up to him without question, and he surely enjoyed his role as their captain while having them do lots of small and big jobs on their ships everyday.
Hubbard eventually sneaked back into US several years later, and things began to change when Hubbard’s young protégé David Miscavige took the leadership of the church during the 1980s. After it was finally recognized as a non-profit religious organization by the US government, money was quickly accumulated in the church without any tax deduction, and its public image was boosted by a number of prominent Hollywood figures who often talked about how they were changed by the church in positive ways.
While mainly shown through archival footage, Miscavige, who declined to be interviewed for this documentary, looks like a ruthless, manipulative person who may be far more ambitious and egoistic than his mentor, and several ex-scientologists including Oscar winner Paul Haggis tell us how they became disappointed and disillusioned as opening their eyes to the harsh, questionable tactics of their church. In case of Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor, who was a former liaison to John Travolta, she was put into a rehabilitation facility of the church just because she defied against the church for a small ethical reason, and she describes to us how she and others in the facility were treated like labor camp prisoners. While being allowed to sleep only for a few hours, they were pushed into a grueling labor schedule without any decent meal, and it was certainly an effective way to crush any defiant thought they might have.
Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who were once the key church members around Miscavige, frankly talk about how they were abused and bullied along with other key members in a facility called “the Hole”, and they also tell us how their church has maintained its public image by any means necessary. For instance, many pieces of private information can be acquired during the auditing sessions of church members, and they can be used later for holding church members inside the church – or keeping their mouth shut outside the church. It is possible that Travolta and Cruise are no exception, and we are told about how much Miscavige has influenced Cruise’s life since Cruise became a church member.
Like Gibney’s previous documentaries including “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005) and “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, which is based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 non-fiction book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief”, is a darkly compelling one to watch, and I found its calm but scathing expose persuasive and believable. I understand and respect how others find comfort and peace from religion, but I did not see much of that from the Church of Scientology while watching the documentary, and I am now warier of Scientology than ever. Any good religion must open its door for anyone to come in or come out, you know.