In 2013, Bob spoke to author Lawrence Wright about his book, "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief," which delves deep into the history and practices of the Church, including its hostility toward reporters and strong ties with Hollywood. With the debut of the film version of his book at Sundance last week, we revisit the conversation.
BOB: Last week at the Sundance film festival debuted a documentary based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright, called Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.” The film version of “Going Clear” -- by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney -- will appear on HBO on March 16. Here’s a clip from the film, in which two former members describe the conditions of a secret Scientology compound in California nicknamed “The Hole”:
CLIP: The doors had bars put on them, the windows all had bars put on them. And there was one entrance door that a security guard sat at 24 hours a day... I had to stay there, sleep there. It stunk, and you know there were ants crawling’ around. You’d sleep about an hour or two hours a night. You were in such a mental state that you’re very controllable, very suggestible.
BOB: Needless to say, the movie is causing some consternation at Scientology HQ, which for the first time will be facing major scrutiny at cinematic scale. We’ll shortly get to the particulars of how the church has been dealing with that scrutiny... But first: an interview we did a couple of years back with Lawrence Wright about the The Church of Scientology -- which his book characterized less as a religious institution than as a cult, shakedown racket, and brutal security state. Still, Scientology boasts members the world over and assets exceeding a billion dollars, despite a theology that sounds like the stuff of science fiction. In fact, it is the stuff of science fiction, as imagined by its founder, the late sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. Some know Scientology as a sort of celebrity religion, practiced by the likes of John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Tom Cruise. But, anyway you look at it, the church is so much more. Larry, welcome to On the Media.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Thank you, Bob. It’s good to be with you.
BOB: Now, most religions, as we observe in the book, are based on founding myths. And I suppose the overlord Xenu of the Galactic Confederacy 75 million years ago is no more implausible than Noah's Ark or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And you take pains to point that out in the book. That said, you've also made very clear that the founding myths of Scientology, as promulgated by L. Ron Hubbard, are based on lies. His claims about the supernatural benefits of what he called Dianetics hinge on an utterly fabricated autobiography. I mean, it might be hard to fact check Noah's Ark, but Hubbard left a paper trail.
WRIGHT: Yeah, new religions do have a bar to jump over. In the case of his military service, this whole mythology about him wounded, crippled and blinded and left in a hospital without any hope, and he cured himself using techniques that he later refined into Dianetics--there’s no evidence that he was injured in the war. The official records say he had conjunctivitis, but nothing serious. So him healing himself and developing these techniques seems to be based on his own imagination.
BOB: To give context as to why we'd even be having a conversation about how individuals practice their faith, we’re not simply talking about spiritual matters here. In your book, you have documented what has long been rumored, and that's violence against, and imprisonment of, members for infractions, real and imagined.
WRIGHT: I had 12 people tell me that they were beaten by the leader of the Church, David Miscavige, and more than 20 who witnessed such abuses. Oftentimes, the executives were dragged off to involuntary confinement in these re-education camps, with nothing – no furniture. They slept on the floor. It was infested by ants. And some were confined there for years on end.
BOB: You're not the first journalist to delve into Scientology. The St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, did it. The Los Angeles Times did it, Time Magazine, and an author, Paulette Cooper.
WRIGHT: She was the very first to do an exposé of Scientology in the middle seventies, and the Church harassed her. They framed her for threatening the President with assassination and threatening the Church with a bomb threat. It was all phony but they got her indicted. And it wasn't until the FBI raided the Church in 1977 and found a file called Operation Freakout that they discovered that there was a plan all along to drive Paulette Cooper insane or to get her locked up and imprisoned.
BOB: Operation Freakout, the dirty tricks and the harassment of Cooper, foreshadowed another initiative of a breathtaking or a stomach-turning scope. Tell me about Operation Snow White.
WRIGHT: L. Ron Hubbard was paranoid about the information that the government was amassing on Scientology at the time, so he ordered his wife, Mary Sue Hubbard, who was in charge of what was called the Guardian's Office - that was their sort of secret police and CIA - to infiltrate organs of American government and foreign governments, and also Washington Post, other newspapers. They infiltrated the IRS, the FBI, the Justice Department. They infiltrated the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations.
BOB: With moles, members as employees.
WRIGHT: Yeah, more than 5,000 people were employed in this effort to gain control of all the pertinent information about Scientology, either steal it or change it or just bring it to the awareness of the Church.
BOB: Throughout the book, you employ neutral language. You keep your cool, even when you're writing about David Miscavige, who comes off as a violent sociopath. And you’re equally detached-sounding when you write about L. Ron Hubbard himself, despite the lies and the paranoia that you also describe. But there is this one character in the book who just can't escape your opprobrium, and that's Tom Cruise.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
ANNOUNCER: Tom Cruise on Tom Cruise, Scientologist.
TOM CRUISE: I think it’s a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist and it’s something that you have to earn.
WRIGHT: The Church was always looking for an exemplary figure that would represent Scientology to the world, a shining celebrity that would give credibility and attention to the Church. He's their symbol. He’s the most important Scientologist, except L. Ron Hubbard, there ever has been. He's their main pitch man. It’s his close friend, David Miscavige, who runs the Church. It’s Tom Cruise who benefits materially from the labor of these impoverished Sea Org workers who have built him an airplane hangar for his airplane collection and handcrafted a limousine for him and surround his household staff and cook his dinners.
BOB GARFIELD: And, if you're right, pimping him a girlfriend.
WRIGHT: You know, he was breaking up with Penelope Cruz and he let it be known that, uh, he wanted another girlfriend, and they auditioned a number of different Scientology women, and they came upon a very attractive Iranian-American. Her name was Nazanin Boniadi, and they told her that they had a mission for her. And they put her in the Celebrity Center, away from her family, and they took her shopping in Beverly Hills for a new wardrobe. They fixed her hair. They fixed her teeth. And then they took her to New York. There she found the object of her mission was Tom Cruise. She moved in with him, lived with him for a while and then went in with him in his hideaway in Telluride. David Miscavige and his wife came, and one night they were talking, and Miscavige speaks in a kind of rapid Philadelphia brogue and she couldn't quite understand him. And so she, a couple of times, asked him to repeat himself.
And the next day everybody was inflamed with her, the way she treated the leader of the Church. And after that, Cruise decided to have nothing more to do with her, and she went off to Clearwater, Florida, the spiritual headquarters. She was made to clean out a garbage dumpster and clean a public toilet with a toothbrush.
BOB: You observe in the book that the fate of the Church of Scientology hinges on its staying in good graces with the Internal Revenue Service, which gets to determine whether an organization is a bona fide tax-exempt religion. At the moment, the IRS is copacetic with David Miscavige and penal punishments and harassment and...and violence?
WRIGHT: That tax exemption was granted in 1993. The Church of Scientology at the time was a billion dollars in arrears on its past taxes. It just decided not to pay taxes. And it had to get a tax exemption or it would go out of business. So they launched 2400 lawsuits against the IRS and individual agents. They had private investigators trailing agents to see who drank too much, who was fooling around, and they published personal stories smearing the character of people that were working for the agency.
BOB: Now, it’s one thing to bully an author and another thing to bully apostates. But the IRS, the IRS? How do you manhandle the IRS?
WRIGHT: It’s amazing to think about, that this rather small organization could bring the IRS to heel. But they really were intimidated by Scientology. So the deal was that those lawsuits would stop and those personal stories would stop, and the Church gained its exemption. And once that happened, the vast protections of the First Amendment encompassed the Church and its behavior.
BOB: The Church has been remarkably successful in kind of battening down the hatches, but there was a very revelatory leak in 1985.
WRIGHT: There was a lawsuit in the middle eighties, and all of the most protected secrets of the Church’s cosmology--the whole business about Xenu, the Galactic overlord, and the space aliens that inhabit your body, and so on--all of that was dumped into the court record. When the judge announced that this material was actually going to be made available, there were 1500 Scientologists lined up in the courthouse to block everybody else from gaining access to these records.
BOB: Kind of a human denial of service attack.
WRIGHT: Yeah [LAUGHS], it’s exactly the case. But, unfortunately for them, the Los Angeles Times did obtain a copy and published a summary in the paper, to the astonishment of the whole world when they began to read about it.
BOB: Scientology seems to have two main bogeymen. One is psychiatry, for some reason, and the second is - the media, which they believe are, you know, as a monolith, against their religion. I don’t recall ever reading anything good about Scientology. Are they onto something?
WRIGHT: I agree that Scientology is the most stigmatized religion in the country, largely, I think, because of their own efforts and their own behavior. I didn’t really set out to write an exposé of Scientology. What I really wanted to do was understand it. And in the process of that, I met with a lot of hostility and resistance on the part of the Church. But the facts are what they are.
BOB: Larry, thank you so much.
WRIGHT: It’s been a pleasure, Bob. Thank you.
BOB: Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.