Peoples Temple and Synanon, so L. Ron Hubbard's baroque faith had serious competition from this part of the world.
When I heard Lawrence Wright interviewed about his new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, he explained that he had been interested in exploring how large numbers of people can come to accept and hold on to what seem crazy beliefs. Since I knew Wright as a reporter who'd done a creditable job explicating the intricacies of the development of Al Qaeda (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11), I figured this one could be worth exploring.
The book certainly was worth a look -- as an example of what careful, fact-checked reporting should look like. Of course Wright had to be tight with his sourcing. Scientology was enjoined by Hubbard to sue, sue and sue again anyone who criticized it. It even managed to drive the old Cult Awareness Network out of business (though apparently Scientology's apparatchiks took over the name.) And, according to Wright, Scientology successfully browbeat the IRS into labeling it a legally recognized religion, giving it considerable latitude in financial and other disclosure issues. The story is pretty awful -- this seems to be one of those two-tiered outfits where leaders and movie stars like Tom Cruise are pampered by (small) armies of mistreated followers. For my friends on the left, this reminded me of nothing so much as what I've heard of the nasty inner life of Marlene Dixon's unlamented Democratic Workers Party.
Though this is a great exposé, it doesn't quite do what Wright has seemed to promise in his interviews. All the focus on the abuse by the powerful doesn't catch why apparently sensible, otherwise ordinary people who weren't born into it get caught up in Scientology's isolating psycho-drama. I was pleased to read that Scientology's institutional homophobia is currently stirring unease among some adherents; it's good to know my people are disturbing the (minor) powerful in yet another arena.
This book is a good read and a good warning about what we're capable of.