Scientology has been a target, too, of much derision. Its founder was the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who once told an employee that his adherents wanted him to appear in the sky over New York but that he declined, not wishing to overwhelm them. Its theology is built on the nuttiest of founding myths, involving incidents that Hubbard said occurred 75 million years ago in something called the Galactic Confederacy, in which an evil overlord named Xenu sent human souls (thetans, in Scientology jargon) to Earth in space planes resembling DC-8s.
Scientology’s elite corps of clergy belongs to something called Sea Org, whose purposes and activities are shrouded in secrecy. And its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise, has come across in recent years as domineering, overzealous and cracked.
The many endnotes in Lawrence Wright’s book on the church, “Going Clear,” are the first clue that this author is not fooling around. Sixnotes explain facts on the introduction’s first page, and they multiply from there, 40 pages worth, wedged between the bibliography and the acknowledgments, not including the footnotes in the text itself, which signal “he said, she said”-type differences of opinion and feature boilerplate denials from lawyers and publicists. (One of my favorites reads, in part, “Cruise’s attorney says that no Scientology executives set him up with girlfriends, and that no female Scientologist that Cruise dated moved into his home.”)
Scientology has for almost all of its history been one of the most notoriously secretive and litigious religious organizations in the world, its leaders among the most paranoid and obfuscating. In this book, Wright, a staff writer at the New Yorker and winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” brings a clear-eyed, investigative fearlessness to Scientology — its history, its theology, its hierarchy — and the result is a rollicking, if deeply creepy, narrative ride, evidence that truth can be stranger even than science fiction.
“Going Clear” starts with exactly the right questions: “What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible?” And in his early chapters, Wright implicitly draws parallels between this religion and those with which readers may be more familiar.