Early on in Going Clear, HBO’s shocking exposé on the hidden truths of Scientology, it’s posited that to work through Dianetics—“church” founder L. Ron Hubbard’s seminal work and cornerstone of the group’s philosophy—is to work through the mind of Hubbard himself. The line itself feels almost throw away at first; a simple observation serving as but a tiny drop in an ocean of damning accusations. The longer I watched, however, the more the saliency of this line stuck out in my mind. As evidenced by what’s presented in the documentary, Hubbard was clearly (to use the technical term) bat-shit loony tunes, therefore all of the bat-shit lunacy we learn about the religion/philosophy/movement/whatever he founded begins to make a bit more sense.
Based on writer Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book , Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, from documentarian Alex Gibney (Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks), offers viewers the most concise and accessible look inside the mysterious “church” yet to be produced. Relying on interviews of former members—some of them once high ranking executives in the organization—and archival footage, the documentary paints a jaw-dropping portrait of Scientology as an insidious organization whose glossy exterior belies a darkness within, a darkness that appears to be the result of Hubbard’s unchecked mental illnesses.
Though undiagnosed (not surprising, given Scientology’s infamous opposition to psychiatry and psychology) the image of Hubbard painted by Going Clear is that of a man beset by paranoid personality disorder and narcissism. He was a man who boasted of great deeds that never happened, who spun thrilling yarns of adventures he never had, and who touted success where he failed. Anyone who should happen to oppose his narrative or question his claims is labeled as yet another in a long line of people who are out to get him. He was a bully who refused to believe he could be anything but right and he acted accordingly.
While many of the accusations against Hubbard and Scientology aren’t exactly revelatory (this is the internet age, after all, and all of the information provided by the documentary have been detailed in various locations over the years) the portrait of the pulp writer turned prophet lays the groundwork that becomes the portrait of the “church” itself. Consider: Hubbard is a man who, according to Going Clear, once hit his wife over the head with a .45 handgun because she was smiling in her sleep, and was therefore thinking of someone else, and who later absconded with their daughter to Cuba, only to tell his wife that he had killed their daughter, cut her up, and deposited her remains in various rivers and fields around the country (spoiler alert: he didn’t actually). He was a man who refused to defend and instead attacked, a philosophy he later codified and made a tenet of his “religion”.
There’s a word for a man who chooses to go on the offensive rather than ever going on the defensive, and that word is bully. Understanding this makes everything about Scientology start to fall into place. It explains the vehemence with which members of Scientology attack their detractors; to them, they are merely following in the footsteps of their beloved LRH, adhering to the rules he laid down regarding the handling of opposition.
Still, asshole bully or no, there’s a measure of forgiveness—or at least understanding—I’m willing to offer to Hubbard owing to his clear insanity; he comes away from Going Clear looking mostly like a troubled man who never got the help he needed so he invented a way to help himself. Charlatan or no, being absolutely off-the-wall bananas does not necessarily make you a monster. No, the only monster I saw over the course of viewing Going Clear was current Scientology leader, and Tom Cruise’s bestie, David Miscavige. It’s possible to look at Scientology under Hubbard as “just a scam” or a quirky belief system started by a crazy person. It’s when Miscavige comes on the scene that Going Clear becomes a frightening tale of power-madness and megalomania.
Going Clear can be seen on HBO and HBOGo.