A Sci-Fi Honey Review by Katie

Going Clear (2015)

In 2013, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright published a book entitled Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. The seed for the book was an article published in The New Yorker two years prior, in which writer/director Paul Haggis discussed his relationship to (and subsequent defection from) the Church of Scientology. Outing some of the more controversial practices of the organization, which until then had been largely shrouded in mystery, Wright’s article and ensuing book revealed a darker side of this powerful and enigmatic institution. Wright’s work has now been adapted for the screen in the HBO documentary Going Clear: at once an illuminating exploration of the history of this unusual “religion” and a provocative exposé on crimes and corruption perpetrated by the Church, as witnessed firsthand by former members. Through historical records, archive footage, privileged Church materials, and interviews with eight Scientology apostates brave enough to appear on camera, director Alex Gibney sets out not solely to denigrate the religion and its followers, but to understand how a cult of belief that is barely half a century old, and peddling such a mystifying philosophy, could exert control over so many.

The film begins by exploring the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science fiction writer who spent the early part of his career churning out tales of adventure and intrigue for pulp fiction magazines. His breakthrough work was the book Dianetics, the foundation from which the Church of Scientology sprung. Affectionately known as “LRH” and revered as a deity-like figure by members of the Church, Going Clear presents a more troubling version of a man who may have been a pathological liar, abuser of his wife and child, and a skeptic of his own sanity. While the Church of Scientology was allegedly founded as a moneymaking scheme, exempt from taxation by categorizing itself as a religion, Hubbard undoubtedly believed his own hype and saw himself as a savior for the human race. In the time before Jim Jones and David Koresh, Hubbard became a dangerously charismatic leader who recruited followers to surrender their lives – and their pocketbooks – to the tenets of his bizarre philosophy.

Scientology leader David Miscavige: violent, abusive, generally terrifying
Gibney’s film makes it easy to see, at first, what draws so many to sign “billion year” contracts in service to Scientology. Most interview subjects – some involved with the Church for decades, in high-ranking positions – recount early memories of their involvement with a still-perceptible excitement for the promise that Scientology held for them. Touted as a way to better yourself, and all of humanity by extension, Scientology is packaged as a pseudo-scientific means of self-help: a way to free your mind of emotional trauma until you are “Clear.” For many who have struggled with personal demons, Scientology seems at the outset like a viable way to achieve spiritual well-being. Some joined the Church right out of high school, barely on the precipice of adulthood; others were married while involved with the Church and raised their children from birth to adhere to the doctrine of LRH. Either way, the amount of time a follower must spend in their struggle to achieve “Clear” status is directly proportionate to the amount of money they have to spend getting there. “Auditing” sessions, a sort of faux-psychotherapy without a clinically licensed operator, force the individual to expose their deepest emotional wounds, leaving them vulnerable and susceptible to control. In their quest for spiritual enlightenment, many of the future defectors suddenly found themselves trapped in a prison of belief from which there was little hope for escape.

Well into the second hour, Going Clear is still unpacking the myriad terms and acronyms used by followers to chronicle their journey up the “Bridge to Total Freedom.” From “Engrams” to “Thetans”, the film is a veritable crash course in decoding the terminology used to bolster the framework of a Scientologist’s belief system. When you’ve reached the “OTIII” (Operating Thetan Three) level on the Bridge, you are granted access to the religion’s convoluted creation myth, in Hubbard’s own writing. More preposterous than some of the most outlandish science fiction writing in history, level OTIII is where the galactic overlord XENU makes his first appearance in the Scientology mythos. While creation stories and sacred rituals of other religions are arguably just as odd – Christians, for example, symbolically drink the blood of their savior, whom they believe rose from the dead – the existence of Xenu in the Scientology canon is what many non-believers cite as proof that Scientologists are just batshit crazy. But underneath that laughable exterior, there are real human beings and real families who suffer under the crushing weight of blind faith that keeps them bound to this organization. By the time the film reveals what “Disconnection” means in the context of the religion, your heart will break for the sacrifice the defectors make in deciding to finally think for themselves.

Gibney would be remiss if he didn’t focus at least some of the film on two of the world’s most famous Scientologists – Tom Cruise and John Travolta – and the way that celebrities are exploited into becoming ambassadors for the Scientology way of life. It is here that Going Clear occasionally feels like it’s mining sensationalist tabloid gossip we’ve all seen in line at the grocery store, far-removed from the ‘real’ world: ‘Scientology Splits Tom and Nicole’ could easily be a National Enquirer headline. But celebrity egos, though massive, are also fragile; and Hubbard successor David Miscavige uses this to further the Scientology agenda. By awarding trivial Freedom Medals and building an exclusive Celebrity Center in Hollywood, the organization caters to their need to feel self-important while conversely profiting off their fame and fortune. Cruise’s status within the Church has turned him into the butt of jokes about religious fanaticism, but he still has a loyal following of fans who see his films. The same can’t be said for non-celebrity Scientologists who empty their bank accounts in a desperate attempt at ascending to the next arbitrary level of the Bridge.

Director Paul Haggis, former Scientologist
Documentaries often have one-sided agendas, but Gibney makes it very clear within the film that all requests for interviews or comments from current members of the Church of Scientology, including Miscavige, were uniformly denied. Allegations made against the Church in Going Clear include harassment, stalking, physical and emotional abuse, blackmail, forced separation of family members, and even using torture-like tactics to “break” and control followers – all occurrences with little proof other than verbal accounts, from former members who have a history of dishonest behavior and have admitted to lying in the past to protect their standing in the Church. It is increasingly apparent throughout the course of the film, however, that those involved in the making of Going Clear have nothing to gain from defecting, other than finally unburdening themselves by speaking the truth. The risk involved with publicly condemning the Church, the looming threat of rejection and retaliation, greatly outweighs any benefit. Scientology’s rigid secrecy and unwillingness to address any of the accusations brought forth doesn’t do much to rid them entirely of suspicion.

Going Clear isn’t a perfect *gotcha* indictment of the ills of Scientology, the way, say, Andrew Jarecki got his man in The Jinx – although, it would’ve been great if Miscavige had granted an interview to Gibney and gone on to confess to this elaborate hoax while taking a bathroom break. Miscavige will likely never admit to any of the horrors alleged by the documentary witnesses, because he, like many believers, is fully indoctrinated in the cult of “LRH.” To believers, Hubbard never died – he simply “discarded his body,” and moved on to a higher OT plane. Paraphrasing Rod Serling during a Scientology rally, Miscavige triumphantly declares that “there’s a signpost up ahead – it reads, next stop: infinity!” When a religion purporting to understand the human brain uses more science fiction than science to sustain their theology, something is wrong.

Whether you believe all the contentions in Going Clear or not, the many former members speaking out against an organization that has amassed a vast ill-gotten fortune and exerts frighteningly widespread influence cannot be ignored. At the very least, Gibney’s film is a compelling impetus to lure more apostates out of the shadows and investigate their claims further. Until that day, Xenu reigns supreme in the hearts and minds of Scientology adherents, and only the truth can set them free from the prison of their devotion.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Four thetans out of five.

Tom Cruise letting his crazy hang out for Scientology. 
Skip to 4:21 for the money shot.

If you'd like to make sure none of your hard earned money goes to Xenu, Gawker has compiled this helpful list of every celebrity Scientologist, so you can avoid them if you choose.

In the meantime, sign this petition to encourage the IRS to revoke the "Church" of Scientology's tax exempt status...