The Scientology Story You Need To Hear

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.

"For 30 years, I never read one critical thing about Scientology," says Paul Haggis in Going Clear. "When I finally decided to open my eyes and look around, I was shocked. Just shocked."

Haggis is one of many ex-Scientologists featured in Alex Gibney's documentary, based on Lawrence Wright's book, debuting this Sunday on HBO. While Wright's work provides a wealth of in-depth research on the Church of Scientology's development, the film recounts the story through those who saw it firsthand. Confessional, enraged, and often regretful, these men and women share their own astonishing stories of abuse and entrapment within one of the world's most controversial organizations.

Paul Haggis, whose famous exit from the church inspired Going Clear, speaks alongside people like Sylvia Taylor, Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder, and Tony Ortega — all well-known names to those who've avidly followed the tabloid unraveling of Scientology in the media. In the last 20 years, they've pioneered a loose but loud collective of ex-members and whistleblowers, shouting truth to the world and denouncing the people who maintain this villainous farce. I was one of the many readers who kept up with their cause, and yet, when I wrote my own piece on Scientology last year, I briefly became the object of their ire. 

Wright's Going Clear was one of the things that inspired me to profile a current Scientologist. I'd been one of those fascinated readers, scouring Ortega's Village Voice features, forwarding YouTube clips of Scientology and Me, and becoming the kind of know-it-all friend who launches into diatribes whenever someone brings up Tom Cruise over dinner. But, Lawrence Wright's book — and, indeed, the film it inspired — is an unmatched chronicle of Scientology's lurid history and the people whose lives it consumed.

With all this horrific documentation and public testimony readily available, it seemed impossible that any current member might still believe in their church. And, yet, they existed. I'd seen them out in the open, cheerfully offering e-meter tests in the subway, or handing out flyers in midtown. I'd once stumbled across a swarming Anonymous protest outside a theater where Katie Holmes (then Mrs. Cruise) was performing, and ran up to the first person I saw who wasn't wearing a mask. We exchanged raised eyebrows at all the screaming and she handed me a leaflet. That's when I realized she was a Scientologist, there to counter-protest the activists. I smiled in total panic and ran away, thinking: But, she looked so normal!

That was my intent when I set out to profile "the normal Scientologist," as I called her. I assumed that, like me, everyone was versed in the origin story of the church and the tragic tales of people like Lisa McPherson and Jenna Miscavige Hill. Even if they weren't, the woman I profiled seemed so transparent to me. Her statements spoke for themselves, so obviously in lock-step with the party line. The only thing that surprised me was the lack of fear I felt in her presence. She wasn't an alien. She was a lifer.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis.
Over months of interviews with my subject, as well as other writers and academics on the topic, the piece evolved into a simple, straightforward profile — one that I felt pretty damning. Days before it went live, I briefly spoke to writer Jon Ronson, who's made a brilliant career out of profiling bad guys (for lack of a more nuanced word) from the inside. I told him I was scared of the church being angry with me, minor web-writer though I was. Should I expect harassment? Stalking? Dead cats on my roof? He shook his head and laughed, saying that those days were over. The church was on a friendliness defensive now, and the only ones who should be scared were those who'd left the church.

Indeed, it wasn't the church but those ex-members and activists who came after my piece. Tony Ortega was one of the first to post about it, inciting hundreds of outraged comments, emails, and Tweets toward story and myself. At best, I was just a total idiot. At worst, I was a secret Scientology shill — no better than a rape apologist. "I'd spit on you but you're not worth the saliva." They threatened retaliation and public humiliation (mission: accomplished, guys!). They posted weirdly altered pictures of my face and emailed me links to stories "you haven't heard." Of course, I had heard them. I'd linked to them in my own piece.

While, at the time, I was blindsided by this response given my motivations, I certainly don't fault ex-members for expressing outrage and vitriol over something they felt so invalidating. While my intentions with the story were good, it felt unnecessary in light of all the others to be heard.

Going Clear underlines that very need. That's what makes it so much more than an excellent documentary. Perhaps, even more than books, we need more films to blast these stories into eyes and ears. It is easy to be dazzled by the story of Scientology. We're used to seeing it packaged as a glossy, sci-fi fantasy. But, seeing these men and women on screen takes all the cinema out of it. Going Clear puts faces to names and voices to unbelievable testimony. It grounds Scientology into grim reality, in the faces of the people it has hurt. They're not ex-aliens or formerly evil people. They're ordinary human beings who have survived something many of us will never understand.

The same goes for those still on the inside. Some are unable to escape and others not yet willing.

"I can't damn these people who aren't coming out because they're ashamed," concludes Paul Haggis. "I bear the same shame."

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