The pulp fiction era of the 1930s and '40s encouraged prolific writing: authors were paid a penny a word. The most prolific of them all was L. Ron Hubbard, who holds the Guinness World Record for publishing more than a thousand books. In the 1950s, Hubbard also turned his imagination to the founding of a new religion, Scientology. The story of Hubbard and his church reads like a remarkable work of fiction, but Lawrence Wright tells it straight in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, published this year.
Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New Yorker staff writer, spent years researching Hubbard and the founding of his church. He tells Kurt Andersen he first ran across Scientology as college student in the 1960s. “I was curious about it, and like everyone, I had heard about the movie stars that had passed through Scientology,” Wright says. “I wondered what’s in it for them? What do they get out of it? And I got more curious as the church’s reputation became darker.”
Researching his book, Wright talked with many former Scientologists, some of whom, like director and screenwriter Paul Haggis, rose high in the ranks of the church before finally leaving. And dozens told him horror stories about witnessing or being subjected to forced confinement and even beatings at the hands of church leaders. (A church statement accuses Wright of ignoring “the real story of Scientology in favor of stale allegations and ever-changing bizarre tales invented by a handful of confessed liars.”)
But despite all that — and research that uncovered Hubbard’s own harsh treatment of his wives, many children, and other members of the church — Wright admits a grudging admiration for the fiction-writer-turned-theologist.
“He was a complicated, charismatic man,” Wright says of Hubbard. “He was a spellbinding figure and I think in some ways a little ridiculous. But give him credit — he wrote more books than you and I will ever have the opportunity to read. He created a religion that somehow survived. It’s a fascinating organization.”
Bonus Track: Scientology's Sea Voyage
In his book, Wright describes Hubbard’s years at sea, on the run from various governments and perfecting his doctrine. "Hubbard called himself 'The Commodore,'" Wright explains. "He brought in a bunch of young people" to help him operate the ship, "and that Navy became the clergy of the church today." One of their many missions was to find a hidden space ship buried on Crete.