“My goal wasn’t to write an exposé, it was simply to understand Scientology.”
So says Lawrence Wright at the beginning of HBO’s blockbuster documentary “Going Clear.”
The film, which Wright adapted from his bestselling book of the same name, describes Scientology as a criminal cult that harasses former members who become critical of the church; physically and emotionally tortures some current ones; and once strong-armed the IRS into granting it tax-exempt status as a recognized religion.
Beneath the sensational and harrowing stories, however, “Going Clear” amounts to a study of belief more broadly — of “why people believe one idea rather than another,” as Wright puts it.
One by one, former church members recount their involvement in the Church with a mix of shame, puzzlement and resignation.
“I was really stupid,” says Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis, one of Scientology’s most famous apostates. “I was part of this for 30 years before I spoke out. […] Why didn’t I do it earlier?” Others are even more self-critical: “Maybe my entire life has been a lie,” says Spanky Taylor, an ex-Scientologist who alleged that, as a pregnant mother, she was held in a “prison camp” and punished with grueling physical labor for objecting to the way the church “denied medical treatment to her boss.
” Their embarrassment about their pasts becomes even easier to understand when Wright describes the church’s creation myth: A galactic overlord Xenu expelled hordes of people to a prison planet (Earth) 75 million years ago, dropped them into volcanoes, then dispersed their spirits (or “thetans”) with nuclear bombs.
These spirits still possess humans to this day, and Scientologists expend a great deal of energy and money trying to exorcise them.
But “Going Clear” avoids the trap of incredulity. Those interviewed for the film, while eccentric, are accomplished, well spoken and, most of all, sincere.
Parallel to their stories of abuse and warped belief are understandable explanations of their choices: Haggis explains that as a young man, worried about his relationships and anxious to get his start as a documentary filmmaker, he was partially seduced by Scientology’s reputation for advancing careers, and was comforted by their undogmatic facade. Indeed, the Church’s website still boasts that “[u]nlike religions with Judeo-Christian origins […] Scientology does not ask individuals to accept anything on faith alone.”
As a curious an hopeful 21-year-old, he contributed a modest $50 to begin his training. Like many of those interviewed for “Going Clear,” he says that Scientology more resembled a self-help organization at first glance.
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