Why People Are Saying Lawrence Wright's Scientology Book Is So Great

Lawrence Wright's long look at Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Beliefis set for release tomorrow, and reviews, for the most part, have been overwhelmingly positive. But why?

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Lawrence Wright's long look at Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Beliefis set for release tomorrow, and reviews, for the most part, have been overwhelmingly positive. But why? Lawrence is only the latest high-profile investigation into the underbelly of Scientology, following big heaves by St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times and Janet Reitman's landmark book Inside Scientology. While those who have read Wright's effort already have not reported any bombshell revelations, they are full of raves. How does it stand out? Well, here's what critics have to say:

Wright Puts Scientology in the Context of American Religious Belief

Though he provides biting anecdotes and damning allegations Wright is not dismissive of Scientology. Troy Jollimore at the Chicago Tribune explains how the book's "most intriguing aspect" is how Wright raises "general questions about the nature of faith and reason and the role of religion in American life." Wright makes the case that it's hard to write it off as illegitimate, that "Scientology's methods of establishing its claims are in principle no better, but also no worse, than those of any other religion." Jollimore explains how the "prison of belief" that factors into Wright's subtitle has a place in every religion. But that general point does not take away how Scientology's particular "prison of belief" can be horrifying. Take this example Jollimore provides:

In one striking example, Hollywood composer Mark Isham, who worked with [Paul] Haggis before the latter's apostasy, justified his refusal to read newspaper articles critical of the church by stating that in his view, "it was like reading Mein Kampf if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion."

But the book makes the case that the scariest part of Scientology is that it shares a "the resistance to criticism and objective evidence" with other religions. Wright writes all of this in what James Kirchick of the Daily Beast describes as a "measured tone." Per Kirchick, Wright's "use of a scalpel instead of a hammer to dissect Scientology and its manifold abuses, which renders his conclusions all the more damning." That said, Janet Maslin in the New York Times makes the case that for all of this Wright isn't quite able to crack Scientology's mysteries.

Wright's Impressive, Immersive Reporting

Paul Elie at The Wall Street Journal explains that while there are a lot of shocking details—one that has been passed around includes a Scientology executive being forced to clean a bathroom with his tongue—it's the sheer detail of Wright's reporting that makes it stand out. Elie explains that the "power" of the book is "in our awed recognition that Mr. Wright spent years of his life on this story—that he interviewed dozens of odd or compromised or fearful people, assembled the intricate edifice of Scientology's beliefs, mapped the territory of its empire, and traced its ill effects, even though the organization and its people aren't particularly interesting." That said, Kirchick notes that those "revelations" that Wright provides will "come as news even to hardened Scientology buffs who follow the Church’s every twist and turn." The details he gets are peppered by the, almost humorous in their multitude, denials from lawyers.

One caveat to all the in depth reporting: it is not always easy reading. Elie writes that "Going Clear is sometimes hard going on account of its subject matter. But it is an utterly necessary story even so." Publisher's Weekly explains that the detail is "persuasive, albeit sometimes mind-numbing."

That Said, The Anecdotes Are Amazing

Evan Wright at the Los Angeles Times calls the anecdotes "insane."  We got a taste of what the book might have to offer in the two excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter, one went in depth on how Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's relationship was characterized by Scientology, the other tells the horrifying story of John Travolta's liaison to the church, Sylvia "Spanky" Taylor, who was sent to the church's prison-like disciplinary program the Rehabilitation Project Force. While Tony Ortega, formerly editor of the Village Voice, wrote on his website where he follows Scientology: "Spanky’s story is great, and in part for the reason that Tikk (Manhattan lawyer Scott Pilutik) pointed out in the comments — it shows that John Travolta was aware that members were being 'rehabilitated' in labor camps." The Daily Beast has a list of what it calls the fifteen "most startling revelations" this morning, such as the story of Hubbard's second marriage to a 21-year-old named woman named Sara. "When Sara wanted to leave him," The Daily Beast's summary reads, "Hubbard and a man who might have carried a gun abducted their baby daughter, Alexis. Then they kidnapped Sara. He told her that if she tried to leave him, he’d kill Alexis, then later claimed he had killed the baby already—'cut her into little pieces and dropped the pieces in a river.'"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.