Lawrence Wright has spent much of the past decade reporting on the politics, religion and culture of the Middle East and Central Asia. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and The Road to 9/11 is a sweeping account of the people, events and geopolitical forces that led to the attacks on the World Trade Center.
But Wright recently turned his focus from a culture dominated by an ancient belief system to one with a much more contemporary faith: Scientology. His newest book is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief. In it, he looks at the complicated life of the religion’s founder, science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the cultural dynamic of post-war America that led to the widespread adoption of the faith, and the claims of ex-members that violent techniques are used by church leaders to keep members in line.
The origin of the book was Wright’s nearly 25,000-word feature for the New Yorker, “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology.” The article focused on the famed Hollywood screenwriter and director’s 35 years inside the church and his tumultuous departure.
Wright explained to Think Out Loud host Dave Miller that due to the secrecy of the church, and its history of filing libel suits, the lengthy feature turned out to be the most fact-checked story in The New Yorker’s history:
One of the most polarizing aspects of Scientology is the church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard.
For his article, Wright dug through Hubbard’s complete, 900-plus page military record in the National Archives in St. Louis. He found discrepancies in key biographical information Hubbard promoted. The New Yorker published documents that highlight some of his findings. During his investigation, Wright never found any evidence that Hubbard was wounded during World War II.
Wright puts this in context in a blog post he wrote for The New Yorker:
As I reported in the article, I discussed Hubbard’s war record with Tommy Davis, the spokesman for the Church of Scientology. He said that“if it was true that Hubbard had not been injured, then ‘the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie.’ He concluded, “The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.”
Wright observes that Hubbard’s own words have caused some trouble for the credibility of the religion. In 1948, he’s quoted as saying during an author’s conference, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars he should start his own religion.”
”Where do you fall on this question,” Dave Miller asked Wright, “of whether or not he [L. Ron Hubbard] actually believed what he ended up developing and spending half his life writing about?”
“I don’t think he was a fraud … if he really was a con man at some point he would have taken the money and run. He never did that,” said Wright. “He spent day after day, hour after hour, with [e-meters] in his hands, alone, exploring the inner recesses of his mind and looking at the needle to see if these were true events … Scientology really is a journey into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard.”
He added, “And it’s a dangerous journey. It’s a dangerous mind.”
To hear Think Out Loud’s full conversation with Lawrence Wright, click on the audio link at the top of the page.
Editor’s Note - January 15, 2014: A previous headline and statement in this article referred to “Going Clear” as a novel. In fact, “Going Clear” is Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction work about Scientology.