21 Apr

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.

17 Mar

The Ordinary Review

Book Review: The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall

Cover image for

The Ordinary Acrobat

The Ordinary Acrobat occupies the literary territory between memoir, history, and anthropological report. Wall opens with his nod to the “circus memoir” genre, in which the author describes his or her first interaction with the circus, before jumping into the circus experience that captivated him, compelling him to learn more about the exotic culture and history of the circus. Not surprisingly, Wall was became fascinated with the circus while in France, a cultural stronghold for the contemporary circus. France classifies circus as a fine art, and it is governed by France’s Ministry of Culture, which puts millions into supporting the art and its state supported circus school annually.

Wall researched this book from the enviable position (from my perspective as a scholar and a former circus performer) of a Fullbright fellowship and the ability to sit in on classes at France’s National School. In compiling the work, it’s clear that Wall also spent an immense amount of time speaking with circus professionals and historians, reading works of circus history and lore, and “chasing ghosts”—the name the author gives to visiting sites of circus history, even if there’s nothing left connecting the site to the circus anymore. When I picked up the book, I was worried that it would be heavy on memoir (What do I care about reading some circus neophyte’s memoir? I asked myself), but in fact, the memoir aspects permeated the narrative without overpowering it. Wall’s personal experiences tied the history and cultural observations together, propelling the story forward and providing a great sense of how the circus developed to where it stands today.

Even though I’ve been involved in circus arts for about half my life, I learned a lot about the roots of the circus and how some of its traditions developed; some of which I had never even thought about. For example, the traditional red and gold circus colors and ring master look are based on military fashion. One of the first and most influential circuses (as we think of them today) was put together by Philip Astley, a retired cavalry officer. When he started his circuses, he based his shows on equestrian skills (a tradition that persisted until very recently, although still seen in “traditional” circuses today), and lifted most of his style choices from his military experience. Wall makes the point that such choices became codified into traditions that were handed down through the years between performers, resulting in the rather uniform look of circuses in the 20th century.

The first skill that the author describes learning is juggling and he devotes three whole chapters (three!) to juggling and speaking to professionals. As a juggler, I was impressed; jugglers are typically the misfits of the circus (speaking as a juggler), and as one performer that Wall spoke with put it, jugglers are “heady.” Wall also described the problem with juggling performance: it tends to only really be appreciated by other jugglers. “Be hinging their craft of virtuosic execution, jugglers painted themselves into a corner. Although it is thrilling, this kind of technical juggling is tough for audiences to appreciate … Many tricks are harder than they look, and vice versa.” He also noted that since there is no inherent danger in juggling as there is in other circus disciplines, audiences sometimes have a difficult time connecting with it. Some jugglers have moved past this by turning it their acts into full blown art pieces. Wall spoke with juggler Jerome Thomas, who confided the secret to engaging the audience with an act as art: “You make him work his imagination … You make him dream!” The audience has to do some mental work in order to connect with the act, not just be wowed by a deluge of props cascading to the floor.

Wall also relates his foray into trapeze and investigations into clowning, all the while including fun facts. One of the most ridiculous (and terrifying) was that in 1829, a town in Pennsylvania prosecuted a group of acrobats for witchcraft for “‘having private conferences with the spirit of darkness,’ as well as exposing their populace to such ‘performances of magic’ as ‘leaping over a horse through hoops.’” Jumping through hoops: the devil’s handiwork! I also found the section on clowning quite informative. Wall met Andre Riot-Sarcey, director of Les Nouveaux Nez, a modern clowning quartet. Andre explained that clowning is “the reduction of ourselves into our purest desires, to our desperate hunger for approval,” and he also offered the most important information about clowning: “CLOWN = FUNNY !!!”

At the end of the book, Wall discusses the cultural significance of circuses and compares the artistic landscape in Europe and the U.S. One of the best comments on this came from Bernard Turin, director of France’s National School in discussing why circus arts declined so sharply in the middle of the 20th century: “A popular art should bring people together. It should unify them and pull them upward. Unfortunately, television doesn’t do this, it pulls them downward. Instead of bringing people together, it isolates them.” This segues into something of a call to action from Wall. Circus arts can bring people of all social classes together, but in the U.S., we leave the funding of circus arts entirely to the private sector, so the artists we get really only end up working in corporations. No one starts troupes or shows because there is too much financial risk involved, thus leaving the American circus landscape devoid of new contributions and innovation. Circus can pull people upward, as Turin put it, and as someone who spent most of my youth in a circus environment, I tend to agree.

I recommend this book for both people who have an existing interest in circuses (you will learn something!) and for people who don’t (it will endear you!). Like I said, I found that this book was a great way to get in touch with my circus “roots,” and I think that it’s a highly accessible work on the past, present, and future of the circus as an art form.