What do Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Nicole Kidman, Katie Holmes and Kirstie Alley have in common? Yes, they are all celebrities. But they have also been linked to the Church of Scientology, a controversial religion that some critics call a cult. And there are plenty of juicy stories about these and other celebrities in Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.

The book is an in-depth examination of a mysterious, murky religion that, despite its relatively small membership, “plays an outsize role in the cast of new religions,” says Wright. The Church of Scientology attracts a lot of attention by aggressively courting celebrities. In Going Clear, we read of Cruise being recruited by the church, and how his girlfriends and wives, Kidman and Holmes among them, are indoctrinated, only to later leave Cruise, and Scientology, behind. Then there is Travolta, who displays his devotion to Scientology by starring in the movie Battlefield Earth, based on the science fiction novel of the same name by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Going Clear is much more than a celebrity tell-all, however. Wright is a gifted writer for The New Yorker, whose deep and thorough reporting won him the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, an investigation of al-??Qaeda and 9/11. Going Clear doesn’t simply recast stories about celebrities and Scientology, but takes us inside the organization via interviews with former church members and through research that most notably includes the writings of Hubbard.

We learn how this mildly successful sci-fi writer became an overnight sensation in 1950 when he published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The self-help book explained how humans can improve their lives by ridding themselves of painful memories and emotions buried in the subconscious. The book became a bestseller and inspired Hubbard to establish the Church of Scientology. Wright describes how a seemingly plausible self-improvement theory became more complicated when Hubbard began hooking church members up to an E-Meter—tin cans affixed to the ears, with wires running to an electrical conductor—in an attempt to release the bad thoughts inside the brain. And we learn that Hubbard, who always had a fascination with Hollywood, made a conscious effort to attract movie stars to Scientology in order to boost its profile.

If you have been intrigued by the exploits of Cruise, Travolta and other celebrities with Scientology ties, or have ever wondered what the religion is all about, then Going Clear is a must-read. Wright treats the subject with intelligence, objectivity and careful research, making it the definitive book on the history and practice of Scientology.

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