Based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a documentary by Alex Gibney, is a sustained look at the extremities of religious belief and the exploitation of those who adhere to them. Gibney’s explicit goal was to demonstrate “how people become prisoners of faith in various ways,” and this the film does with elan. The depredations of the faithful are not exclusive to Scientology alone; and its founder L. Ron Hubbard once admitted, “If you really want to enslave people, tell them that you’re going to give them total freedom.”
The film itself, which premiered on HBO last night, is still a little woozy with stark imagery, grim solemnity, and a self-consciously spooky underscore that leans too heavily on the Theramin; it also could have used a little more cultural and social context, because it’s about far more than Scientology — it’s about all “True Believers.” For a somewhat less solemn takedown of the Dianetics crowd, you should have a look at “Do You Want to Buy a Bridge?”, a choice 1996 piece of investigative journalism by my Bard College classmate and friend Mark Ebner, published in the late lamented Spy magazine. Twenty years ago he revealed much of the same material as Going Clear does and a little more besides. He begins:
I am an ex-drug addict who has solicited prostitutes in my day. I’ve also masturbated and inhaled at the same time, and I have been arrested more than once in my life. I dropped out of high school, and I’ve been under psychiatric care. Oh yeah, and I owe the IRS roughly six thousand dollars that they are well aware of.
In the language of Scientologists, the above information reflects what they include in their “Dead Agent Packs” — dossiers of all the dirt they dig up on people critical of their “religion.” Often they disseminate damaging information like this to the friends, family, landlords, and employers of anyone who dares speak of — or worse, publish anything derogatory about the “church.” So what I’m doing here is Dead Agenting myself before we begin, beating them to the punch.
Recently I spent two weeks undergoing an initiation to Scientology for this magazine. My experiences constituted only the beginnings of the beginnings of what this cult is all about, but it was enough to leave me strung-out with fear, watching my back, and wondering where the next element of harassment was going to come from.
Scientologists don’t like it if you leave. Even if you leave quietly. There is a saying adherents fondly quote: “The way out is the way through.” Deep thoughts passed on by decade-dead megalomaniacal psychopath Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, in whose writings church followers find a labyrinth so complex, so full of elitist jargon and weird science that those trapped in it cannot see that the way out is the way through the fucking door.
You can find the whole article at Mark’s Web site here, and below is the trailer for the HBO film Going Clear. Gibney’s documentary could have used a bit of Ebner’s anarchic energy, but there’s no reason you yourself can’t have both.