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Tue February 5, 2013

Hollywood Hot Shots, Scientology And A Story Worth The Risk In 'Going Clear'

Originally published on Wed February 6, 2013 9:26 am

In the 1970s, a young man named Paul Haggis was walking down a street in Ontario, Canada. He encountered a man peddling a book.

"And he handed the book to Paul, and he said, 'You've got a mind — this is the owner's manual,' " journalist Lawrence Wright tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And inside, there was a stamp saying 'Church of Scientology,' and Paul was intrigued, and he said, 'Take me there.' " Haggis soon became a member of the Church of Scientology — and he's a central character in Wright's new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.

Haggis moved to Hollywood, where the church's deep penetration of the movie industry helped his career as a screenwriter. Eventually he went on to win Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby.

He also advanced in the church. He contributed to it, publicly defended it — and was finally allowed to read some of its deepest secrets. And he told Wright about a disturbing experience: He was admitted to a special, tightly secured room to read top-secret pages by L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer who founded the church. "And in there, he talks about Xenu, the galactic overlord who at one point had ruled the universe," Wright says. "It was a universe actually very similar to ours but very overcrowded, and Xenu had to 'depopulate' the universe, so he brought in a number of people, ostensibly for tax audits, and froze them."

Haggis found this story of the universe to be "madness" — his word — but stayed in the Church of Scientology for years before finally leaving. The mystery of why so many people remain in the church was a major question that drove Wright to write his book.

"Going clear" refers to a stage of spiritual development in Scientology: Those who are Clear have freed themselves from "engrams," subconscious memories of past trauma. But to become Clear, a Scientologist must go through many therapy sessions, called "auditing."

"Between you and your auditor, there's a device," Wright says. "It's called an e-meter, and it's really one-third of a lie detector. You hold two metal cans in your hand, so imagine that you're with your therapist, but there's a lie detector."

Scientologists say the e-meter can measure the mass of your thoughts — and, says Wright, if you believe in the technology, outside criticisms of the religion aren't going to bother you, because auditing can be a transformative experience.

If that sounds like brainwashing, Wright says, there are indeed forms of what he calls "thought control" in Scientology, particularly within the clergy. "It's called the Sea Org, and many of them live inside a compound in Southern California, in the desert," he says. "The world outside is not very well-known to them. They've set aside their education, they're impoverished by their service, many of them have all their family members inside Scientology, and if they were to try to leave, no one in Scientology would ever speak to them again."

Sea Org members are also billed for "services rendered," Wright continues, an amount that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. "And if they decide to run away, usually, there's a team that goes after them and tracks them down and brings them back." Escapees, he adds, can be confined involuntarily in re-education camps, sometimes for years on end.

The FBI began to investigate and raid Scientology properties in the 1970s after allegations that the church was illicitly gathering information on people. Agents discovered one of the re-education camps, where dozens of people were being held and punished — but none of those people took the chance to escape or report on church practices. "It's their belief, their own will that holds people in Scientology, even oftentimes when they have been abused," Wright says.

Paul Haggis was never quite that fervent a believer — but he stayed, even though he found the story of Xenu to be "madness."

"He was glued into the community," Wright says. "His family was all deeply involved in it, it had helped him in his career. He felt that some of what they call 'technology' in Scientology, which is its approach to human behavior, had been helpful to him. And there was not a triggering event."

Not, that is, until Scientology threw its weight behind Proposition 8, California's attempt to ban gay marriage. Haggis has two gay daughters, Wright says, and one of them discovered that a Scientology church had signed a petition in support of the proposition. "And that enraged Paul, and he demanded that the church renounce it, and they wouldn't, and so he began an investigation," Wright says.

Scientology assiduously courts celebrities — and Haggis was the first celebrity to look into what outsiders were saying about the church, and the allegations of abuse that had surrounded it for years. Wright says Haggis was shocked, "and he decided he was going to leave, and leave noisily, as he said, sending an email to about 20 of his Scientology friends, with his resignation."

The church can ill afford to lose members, especially members as prominent as Haggis. While it pulls in large dollar amounts, Wright says Scientology is poor in members. "I think they're hemorrhaging members," he says. "Certainly, I've talked to a lot of former members who say they've left the church recently."

"Certainly, the two things Scientology has on its side are money and lawyers," he says of the notoriously lawsuit-happy church, "but those qualities won't save it if it can't find a way to bring new members into the fold."

Is Wright afraid of Scientology's fearsome legal reputation? "We've had a lot of letters from lawyers," he says. "But I went into this with my eyes open. I've been careful. I've done what I can to query the church about factual matters. It's been a very difficult relationship with them, often very hostile in tone on their part, but the thing is, it's an irresistible story, and for someone like me, the risk was worth it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the 1970s, a young man named Paul Haggis was walking down a street in Ontario, Canada. He encountered a man peddling a book.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: He handed the book to Paul, and he said, you've got a mind. This is the owner's manual. And inside, there was a stamp saying "Church of Scientology." And Paul was intrigued, and he said, take me there.

INSKEEP: That's how the journalist Lawrence Wright begins the story of Paul Haggis, a central character in "Going Clear," Wright's new book about the Church of Scientology. Haggis became a member of that church. He moved to Hollywood. The church's deep penetration of the movie industry helped his career as a screenwriter, and he went on to win Oscars for "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby."

Yet he told Lawrence Wright of a disturbing experience when Haggis was allowed to read some of the deepest secrets of this religion. He was admitted to a tightly secured room to read pages by L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer who founded the church.

WRIGHT: And in there, he talks about Xenu, the galactic overlord who at one point, had ruled the universe. And it was a universe actually very similar to ours, but very overcrowded. And Xenu had to depopulate the universe, so he brought in a number of people - ostensibly for tax audits - and froze them.

INSKEEP: Haggis found this story of the universe to be madness - his word. But he stayed in the Church of Scientology for years before he left it. Lawrence Wright interviewed Haggis while exploring the mystery of why people remain in that church.

At a basic level, Scientology sounds like - I don't know, Freudian psychology, or something like - it sounds like - it's just talking. But it got more elaborate, the more deeply that you - that Paul Haggis got in.

WRIGHT: Yes, indeed. There's a little difference between ordinary therapy and Scientology therapy, which is called auditing. Between you and your auditor, there's a device. It's called an e-meter, and it's really one-third of a lie detector. You hold two metal cans in your hand. When Paul joined the church, they were Campbell soup cans with the labels scraped off. So imagine that you're with your therapist, but there's a lie detector. Now, that raises the stakes considerably.

If you believe in the validity of this machine - in Scientology, they say it measures the mass of your thoughts. If you believe that it's telling you the truth, what other people say about Scientology, the jokes they might make about its theology and those sorts of things, that's not going to reach you. You've had transforming experiences.

INSKEEP: Is that brainwashing?

WRIGHT: There is a form of thought control, in Scientology, that is especially pronounced in its clergy. It's called the Sea Org, and many of them live inside a compound in Southern California, in the desert. The world outside is not very well-known to them. They've set aside their education. They're impoverished by their service. Many of them have all their family members inside Scientology, and if they were to try to leave, no one in Scientology would ever speak to them again.

Then they're given a bill for services rendered, often amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if they decide to run away, usually there's a team that goes after them and tracks them down, and brings them back. And they are sometimes, frequently, put in involuntarily confinement in re-education camps; sometimes, for years on end.

INSKEEP: You recount an occasion in the 1970s, in which the FBI discovered that the Church of Scientology had been gathering information illicitly on a variety of people. They began raiding Scientology properties. They burst in, in a building; they find dozens of people in one of these re-education camps. They're being punished; from the outside, you might think they're being degraded. Here's a bunch of FBI agents and yet, you write that not a single one of those people took the opportunity to escape, or report on the church.

WRIGHT: That's exactly right. And, you know, one of the reasons that - one of the subtitles of my book "Going Clear" is "The Prison of Belief"; is that it's their belief, their own will that holds people in Scientology even, oftentimes, when they have been abused.

INSKEEP: And yet at the same time, you write of a man who, although he was clearly, deeply financially committed to this church and deeply interested in it, could never quite bring himself to entirely believe.

WRIGHT: It's true. It's - you know, I think this is probably true of a lot of people, in different religions.

INSKEEP: Why did Haggis stay so long if he found it to be madness - in his word?

WRIGHT: He was glued into the community, you know. His family was all deeply involved in it. It had helped him in his career. He felt that some of what they call technology in Scientology - which is its approach to human behavior - had been helpful to him. And there was not a triggering event for him to leave, until Proposition 8 came along.

That was the proposition in California to ban gay marriage. And as it happens, Paul has two gay daughters. One of his daughters discovered that a church affiliated with Scientology had signed the petition supporting Proposition 8, and that outraged Paul. And he demanded that the church renounce it, and they wouldn't. And so he began an investigation.

And for the first time, a celebrity member of the church actually decided to take a look at what people were saying about the church, about the allegations of abuse that had surrounded it. And he was shocked. And he decided he was going to have to leave, and make a - and leave noisily, as he said; sending an email to about 20 of his Scientology friends, with his resignation.

INSKEEP: You give some figures for the Church of Scientology, in the early pages of the book. The dollar figures seem very high.

WRIGHT: Yeah, a billion dollars in liquid assets.

INSKEEP: The numbers of people do not seem all that.

WRIGHT: They're impoverished, in that regard. And I think they are hemorrhaging members. Certainly, I've talked to a lot of former members who've left the church recently. The two things Scientology has on its side are money and lawyers, but those qualities won't save it if it can't find a way to bring new members into the fold.

INSKEEP: Although that raises another question for you. You recount how reporters - such as an investigative journalist for Time magazine - when they reported unflattering things about the church, they've been sued to the farthest extent they can be sued, whether there was a case or not.

WRIGHT: That's true. It was the most expensive suit Time ever defended.

INSKEEP: So are they going to come after you?

WRIGHT: Well, we've had a lot of letters from lawyers but, you know, I went into this with my eyes open. I've been careful, and I've done what I can to query the church about factual matters. It - been a very difficult relationship with them; often, very hostile in tone, on their part. But the thing is, it's an irresistible story. And for someone like me, the risk was worth it.

INSKEEP: Lawrence Wright is the author of "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief." Thanks very much.

WRIGHT: I really enjoyed it. Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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