Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015)
If you thought Scientology was screwed up before seeing this documentary, then be prepared to be dumbfounded by the sheer level of crazy WTFness that will leave you laughing with incredulity one minute, and shaking your head in horror the next. Scientology was created as a “religion” (I use the term loosely) by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, who characterised it as a religion so as to avoid paying tax. Hubbard is presented here as a lunatic who beat his wife, kidnapped his child, and created one of the most ridiculous belief systems known to man. After his death in 1986, David Miscavige, a bonafide psychopath, became the head of the organisation – sorry, I mean “church” – and runs it to this day.
To go into much detail of what is involved in Scientology is difficult, because it’s an absolute maze of craziness that is hard to even comprehend. Members of the church are required to pay a fee for ‘auditing’ sessions and study materials for each level that they complete. Initial levels focus on emotion and the mind, and only when you’re in so deep does it suddenly chuck out its ridiculous creation story which involves aliens and incomprehensible bullshit that is far removed from any semblance of reality.
Scientology currently has very few members across the world, thanks in large part to the internet which produces easily accessible information and criticism about the organisation. Though they have certainly tried to limit this spread of information, they have failed, and today most people can see it for what it is: a deeply disturbing cult. Many past members have now left Scientology, and some of the more prominent ones appear in interviews in Gibney’s film, including former second-in-command Mark Rathburn, former head of the church’s Office of Secret Affairs, Mike Rinder, and film director, Paul Haggis. Interviewees provide insight into the disturbing inner workings of the organisation which includes the torture of senior executives in ‘The Hole’, coerced abortions within the Sea Org, forced disconnection between family members, and violent abuse conducted by David Miscavige himself.
Scientology’s attempts at securing celebrity membership are also explored, with Tom Cruise and John Travolta the main players. Interviewees describe how Cruise’s auditing sessions (consisting of personal and supposedly confidential disclosures) were secretly videotaped at David Miscavige’s orders, with some workers given the task of combing through notes to compile a list of all the dirty secrets that could be used against Cruise if ever necessary. While you can’t help but feel a little sorry for Travolta, it’s hard to have too much sympathy for Cruise when he’s shown to be a complete egomaniac and a moronic one at that. In 2004 Miscavige created an award – the ‘Freedom Medal of Valour’ – for Cruise, and excerpts of the thirty-five minute film that accompanied the ceremony are shown in Gibney’s film. It is like something out of a superhero parody, and the fact Cruise has taken this so seriously only proves what a narcissistic imbecile he is. And yet… you do have to wonder. If he wasn’t so scared of having every last secret of his leaked, would he still be involved?
Ron Hubbard established the ‘Fair Game’ policy in 1950, which stated that anyone judged to be a threat to the church (read: anyone inside or outside the church who dares to criticise it) can be punished and harassed using any and all means possible. It is little wonder then why so many individuals remained stuck in this cult for years, and makes it all the more impressive that many of them did eventually get out. Footage is shown of Mark Rathburn being accosted outside of his own house by a gang of ‘Squirrel Busters’ (you honestly can’t make this shit up) who had taken up residency opposite his house for five years to spy on him and make his life hell. It says a lot that this is preferable to being involved within the organisation, and further research reveals that even some of Miscavige’s own family members have left. Though it wasn’t included in the film (Gibney clearly had to be careful) Miscavige’s wife (who is supposedly still there) hasn’t been seen in seven years, nor have other prominent members.
The tax exemption bullshit is a complete farce, and Going Clear details how the church essentially blackmailed the IRS into giving in. One can only hope that this will change in the future (and in Australia too) but as shown in the film, the church is currently able to buy itself out of almost anything. Their low membership numbers at present are somewhat reassuring, but the exorbitant amounts of money available to them are concerning.
As a film, Going Clear provides plenty of information and food for thought, but the breadth of the subject matter means it is a lot to take in in a short amount of time. To get a full grasp on the matter may require reading Lawrence Wright’s book on which the film is based. Unfortunately it is only available for Kindle download in German, which seems more than a little suspicious. HBO reportedly hired 160 lawyers to review the film ahead of its screening on cable television in anticipation of Scientology’s attempts at litigation. The church of Scientology has criticised film reviewers who have praised the film, and took out full page ads at the time of its US release to advise the public to avoid it. That’s pretty much the best publicity the film could get.