by Daphne Ford
Since the premiere of Alex Gibney’s documentary film “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” on HBO last March, its subject has seemed nearly impossible to avoid. While the Church of Scientology has been a topic of discussion for years, the film based on Lawrence Wright's 2013 book of a similar title has reintroduced many claims and controversies to the public eye.
Former scientologists serve as the film’s interviewees, including several well known Hollywood patrons and ex-executives of the church. The film lays the ground floor by introducing the viewer to L. Ron Hubbard, science-fiction writer and founder of Scientology, and how the popularization of his self-help book “Dianetics” led to an organization that today claims to have 10 million members worldwide.
A portion of the film covers the mythology behind Scientology, which is unorthodox to say the least, involving a galactic dictator, DC-8 aircrafts, hydrogen bombs, volcanoes, 3D screens and alien souls. The information is reserved only for those who have risen to a certain level within the church, and allegedly received through a locked briefcase containing highly secretive documents, hand-written by Hubbard himself.
Scientology’s origin story has long been criticized and viewed by the public as absurd, but this ideological foundation isn’t necessarily harmful. Though unfamiliar, it’s an origin story like any other. The film’s most effective critique is more concerned with the church’s practices.
A large part of the film is dedicated to the alleged abuses former members were forced to endure (and sometimes commit) during their time with the church. Accusations include inhumane working and living conditions, isolation from loved ones, dismal pay (members of the church’s elite Sea Organization reportedly make 30 cents per hour) and capital punishment. Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, a former member of the Sea Organization and liaison to John Travolta, describes how she was separated from her infant daughter and subjected to heinous living and working conditions while pregnant, often working for 30 hour stretches with three hour breaks for sleeping. Among the most shocking is the film’s coverage of “The Hole,” a facility in Riverside, California where senior members were voluntarily imprisoned for years at a time and physically abused, interrogated and mentally destroyed. The trauma behind these recollections is evident, and at times difficult to watch.
The film delves into the drastic measures the church has taken to secure its celebrity associates, including claims that Nicole Kidman had her phone tapped while engaging in a relationship with high profile member Tom Cruise, and a heavy implication that John Travolta has stayed attached to the church for fear of having intimate details of his life revealed.
Along with its assertions of physical and mental abuse, the film reiterates claims of the church’s financial wrongdoings as well. It sheds light on the monetary commitments Scientologists must make in order to advance within the church’s system. The teachings of each level appear to be kept secret from those who have not advanced spiritually, which apparently requires financial contribution. Current leader David Miscavige’s battles with the IRS are discussed, which resulted in the recognition of the Church as a nonprofit religious or charitable organization, and therefore tax exempt.
The debate over Scientology’s authenticity as a legitimate religion is a thought-provoking theme of the film. Even though the church is legally considered to be a nonprofit organization, it certainly profits off of its members. It is hard to compare Scientology to other major religions because of the simple fact that its literature is obscured from those who have not yet paid the price. Whether or not the objectives of the church are purely fiscal (certainly some members come from a place of genuine belief), the business model under which they operate leads to much speculation. The film raises the question: what defines a religion? And more importantly, who gets to define it?
Everything said and shown regarding Scientology in the film is nothing that can’t be found on Wikipedia today, but something about seeing rather than hearing reinstates a discomfort with the church that many have grown accustomed to.
Scientology is a cultural reference at this point. The Internet, one of the church’s greatest enemies, has helped to publicize many alleged “secrets” of the church that were once fiercely shielded from the public. As a person who has been around for as long as the internet, I know that these days, the sci-fi mythology of Scientology is usually what you hear about first. It is used as an example of absurdity and mocked, parodied and criticized in pop culture. Admittedly, it has been hard to understand why anybody would be on board with Scientology because of the way it is represented in the media.
The film doesn’t do much to make the mythological aspects of the religion more accessible, but it does provide a glance into Scientology as it is represented by Scientologists. Former members describe early experiences with the church that shine a much more appealing light on it. Essentially, it is a method of self-improvement; the chance to free one’s self from his or her burdens. Better yet, it appears to be effective. A supposedly honest look into Scientology is presented that recontextualizes its members as victims. The core values of Scientology aren’t all that unreasonable; the manipulation comes after these values are introduced. After viewing the film, Scientology no longer feels like a joke so much as a threat.
Structurally, the film lacks some continuity. It jumps from subject to subject and is less-linear than some might prefer. This is excusable, however, considering the abundance of information available on the subject and the time allotted for a documentary made for network television. Gibney could have been choosier and less broad with his approach, but that would have detracted from the film’s integrity. Had it focused more on the church’s relationships with celebrities, it would have drawn away from those who have had less of a voice. Had it covered more of the origin story, there may have been less emphasis on the church’s financial and political practices. It may be brief at times, but it is an impressive accumulation of sources and material all the same.
It should be noted that the documentary serves as a call to action. It can appear biased, but this isn’t helped by the fact that everyone associated with the church who was asked to participate in the film denied the request. Although it covers Scientology at its roots, the central focus is on the predatory actions of the church and those who have escaped.