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New book on Scientology features celebrities, intrigue

Published Jan. 17, 2013

On his way to a dinner party in Los Angeles, Marlon Brando cut his leg helping a stranded motorist. When the legendary actor arrived in pain, John Travolta offered to help him with a Scientology procedure known as an "assist."

"Well, John, if you have powers, then absolutely," said Brando, who let Travolta touch his leg.

The two celebrities closed their eyes for 10 minutes. Then Brando, not a Scientologist, opened his and said, "That really helped. I actually feel different."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Lawrence Wright has sewn numerous precious scenes like this into his much-awaited new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.

Released Thursday, the ambitious work is Wright's meticulous, nuanced and engaging telling of the story of L. Ron Hubbard and his controversial creation, the Church of Scientology.

Wright will appear Thursday night on NBC's Rock Center along with the principal figure in his book, Hollywood director Paul Haggis, a former Scientologist who now calls the church a cult.

It is a massive landscape for one book to cover — from Hubbard's early days as a writer, explorer and budding philosopher, to the church's founding in 1954, to the intriguing adherents drawn to his teachings.

Wright renders a portrait of an organization in a perpetual and often awkward struggle for acceptance.

Because he chronicles the stories of abuse that have come in recent years from former members, the church has criticized his work, saying it lacks corroboration. But Going Clear also chronicles the stories of people who say they have benefited from Scientology.

There are no major disclosures. Wright does offer a rich portrayal of Scientology, full of insight, detail, celebrity intrigue and graceful writing.

When Scientology leader David Miscavige takes the Hollywood couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman under his wing, the leader surrounded them with "a completely deferential environment, as spotless and odorless as a fairy tale," Wright reports.

The author explores what he calls the "three tiers of Scientologists.'' They are the parishioners who live secular lives, the celebrity Scientologists who are at the center of church marketing efforts and the Scientology clergy, the zealous members of the religious order, the Sea Org.

He opens with Haggis' conversion in the 1970s, showing what attracted him to a belief system he considered logical and also exotic. Wright then traces the arc of Hubbard's remarkable life.

His well-researched narrative shows Hubbard's magnetism, his galvanic personality, his ability to charm and impress. Hubbard's evolution from pulp fiction writer to science fiction author to religious leader is carefully documented, providing added understanding.

Hubbard's dark side is presented, too — the womanizing, his indifference toward his first wife and children, his marriage to his second wife while still married to the first.

Wright also reports exaggerations and discrepancies in Hubbard's official church biography.

Especially insightful are passages describing how Hubbard developed the theories and findings foundational to Scientology. Wright presents new information about the church's formative years -- the 1950s through mid-1980s. It was a dramatic period in church history, a period of adventures and tensions. Wright expands our understanding of it.

Wright then returns to Haggis, using his long Scientology experience as the spine of a story that brings in many characters.

Miscavige is the brassy and often violent church leader who regularly interferes with the revolving door love life of top parishioner Tom Cruise.

In Wright's portrayal, the leader seems obsessed with tapping into celebrity culture for his own enjoyment, to enhance his image and to enlarge the church's imprint on society.

Cruise is the on-again, off-again, on-again church celebrity, who eventually becomes Scientology's most visible, vociferous and pampered parishioner.

Wright has him meeting with top officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations to help Scientology make inroads at home and abroad. He also is seen rallying other Hollywood Scientologists to be as dedicated as he is.

Travolta is portrayed in a more sympathetic light, particularly when Wright tells the story of a fundraising dinner at the actor's home.

When a guest refers to one of the waiters with a slur offensive to gay people, Travolta admonished the guest, saying such remarks were not tolerated in his home.

"Haggis was flooded with admiration for the firm but graceful way that the star had handled the situation," Wright says. That night, Wright reports, Travolta and Haggis repaired to the study and talked about the bigotry they had witnessed in the church.

Haggis, the father of two lesbians, said one of them had been made to feel unwelcome at the church's Celebrity Centre in Hollywood.

Travolta said Hubbard's writings on homosexuality had been misinterpreted.

But Wright follows up by citing Hubbard writings that display the founder's homophobia and also show he moderated his positions later. The passage illustrates Scientology's "ambivalence" on the issue, as the author puts it. It also an example of the nuance that Wright brings to his work.

As time wears on, Haggis' initial fascination for Scientology wears off. He finds it unsatisfying. And in rare encounters with Miscavige, he cannot bring himself to be deferential.

A major disagreement with the church sends him on a personal "investigation" that uncovers unflattering reports about his church, including a 2009 Tampa Bay Times report, The Truth Rundown.

Like others before him, he walks away.