TV News & Reviews

HBO documentary ‘Going Clear’ details Scientology’s theater of the surreal

Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer, publishing more than 1,000 books.
Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer, publishing more than 1,000 books. L. Ron Hubbard Library

Scientology won’t be destroyed when “Going Clear,” filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary, airs on Sunday.

Unlike another recent HBO documentary project, “The Jinx,” “Going Clear” probably won’t lead to the high-profile arrest of an eccentric millionaire.

And that’s too bad.

The movie version of “Going Clear” does manage to distill Scientology — the celebrity-infused, money-driven spiritual movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950 — down to its most objectionable practices. Aided by its source material (New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s 2011 article and 2013 book), Gibney’s film explains a bit, too, about the movement’s appeal, mostly by speaking with former believers.

Why would these seemingly thoughtful, intelligent people sign a billion-year contract to work for pennies a day? Why would these clear-eyed Americans cut off their families, divorce their spouses and leave their children based on the work of a science fiction novelist?

The answer rests with “auditing,” the therapy-esque sessions Scientologists undergo with the assistance of another church member and a device called an E-meter, sometimes referred to as “one-third of a lie detector test.”

It starts out as a glorified self-help program, designed to make recruits more effective communicators and creators. Auditors ask questions like, “Can you remember a time when your mother denied you love?”

Auditing lets Scientologists work through troublesome memories (some from past lives) until they aren’t sending negative energy through “cans” of the E-meter. Meanwhile, it’s all being recorded and written down, so that every Scientologist has a collection of files in what’s called a “preclear folder.” If you try to leave the church, those files can be used against you.

The documentary leaves out some of the church leadership’s more frightening misdeeds detailed in its source material, but Gibney nonetheless talks to so many expats that “Going Clear” never has time to go very deep with anyone.

The stories of ex-Scientologists, like the memories of survivors of many other insular sects, oscillate between infuriating and terrifying. And what Hubbard himself called Scientology’s “space opera” mythology of “Operating Thetans” pushes its reputation far into the most fantastical corners of recent history.

In one of the most gripping scenes in Wright’s book, former Scientologist and Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis recalls receiving the secretive “Operating Thetan III” documents, kept in a locked briefcase that was lashed to his arm. Like every other Scientologist at this rung on Hubbard’s ladder of enlightenment, he had invested years and many thousands of dollars before he was deemed ready for OT III.

Inside a locked study room, he opened a manila envelope and read the handful of pages, scrawled in Hubbard’s own hand.

This is the story Hubbard called “The Wall of Fire,” the tale of Galactic Confederacy overlord Xenu; of interstellar DC-8s dropping frozen people into Earth’s volcanoes; of hydrogen bombs and alien souls that cling to humans and harm us.

After a few minutes, Haggis returned to the supervisor.

“I don’t understand,” Haggis said.

“Do you know the words?”

“I know the words, I just don’t understand.”

“Go back and read it again.” In a moment, he returned. “Is this a metaphor?” he asked.

“No,” the supervisor responded. “It is what it is.”

Haggis’ journey into and out of Scientology could have made a fascinating film by itself, and he’s just one of a dozen articulate talking heads.

Having too much good material to work with is a problem Gibney has faced before: In “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” he tackled the Roman Catholic Church’s culpability in child sex abuse scandals.

But “Mea Maxima Culpa” didn’t have the candid perspectives that “Going Clear” gets from the likes of former top lieutenants like Marty Rathbun, who performed the extensive auditing that put Scientology poster boy Tom Cruise near the top OT levels.

Men and women who escaped from the highest levels of Scientology under current church leader David Miscavige describe bloody beatings, many delivered directly by the leader. Multiple witnesses have described Miscavige, who barely clears 5 feet, flying across a conference table during meetings to strangle Scientology department heads in their seats.

Some ex-church members, whose problem is more with Miscavige than Scientology itself, are taking what they learned and offering auditing outside the church’s purview. This makes them what the church calls “squirrels.”

Squads of Scientologists wearing cameras on their heads harass these “squirrels,” banging on their doors and wandering their neighborhoods in hats and T-shirts reading “SQUIRREL BUSTERS!”

Back at Scientology headquarters, Miscavige sometimes makes people salute his beagles, who wear sweaters with naval insignias. It’s that kind of absurdity that nearly obscures the horror of what can happen to the church’s inner circle.

In one instance, high-ranking church members were forced into an abusive marathon of musical chairs while Queen’s greatest hits blasted. Some call it “The Bohemian Rhapsody Incident.”

Visually, “Going Clear” relies too often on the quiet imagery of a needle bouncing around an E-meter. But that is probably because Scientologists are not exactly forthcoming with footage.

Clips of some of their training videos do make it in, for yet more surrealist theater. The vertically challenged Miscavige is front and center in Scientology’s “We Stand Tall” music video, part of the celebration of victory over the IRS in 1993.

That’s right: Scientology is recognized by the United States as a legitimate religion, with all the First Amendment freedoms and financial benefits that status affords.

Snapshots of the awkward high-fiving between Scientology’s scoffing henchmen and the gray-suited IRS negotiators who settled with the church for $12 million are some of the most enraging images in “Going Clear.”

Though it’s admirably light on salacious celebrity revelations, “Going Clear” alleges that Miscavige would monitor Cruise’s auditing sessions and mock the actor’s sex life. (Miscavige was best man at Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes.)

Ex-leaders also claim that John Travolta’s preclear folder was used to threaten him when he wanted to leave the church.

But it’s Miscavige at the center of “Going Clear,” Miscavige who made the marketing video of Cruise cackling in a black turtleneck, Miscavige who approved the daily footage from the set of “Battlefield Earth,” Travolta’s Hubbard-based sci-fi flick.

Miscavige’s vaguely named Freedom Magazine has been busy during the run-up to “Going Clear.” Every ex-Scientologist featured in the film has his or her own little hit piece on Freedom’s website, with titles like “Sara Goldberg: Crocodile Liar” and “Marc Headley: The Soulless Sellout.”

After years of targeting its external enemies and extorting its own members, the organization excels at smearing people.

But presenting itself in the public eye as a legitimate religion instead of an unhinged cult of greed? That’s another story, and it’s just going to get harder after “Going Clear.”

To reach Sara Smith, call 816-234-4375 or send email to Follow her on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.

Where to watch

“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

Scientology 101

Clear: A “highly desirable state” in which a person, through auditing, gets rid of all the interference from troubling memories buried in the subconscious, or “reactive mind.”

RPF: Short for Rehabilitation Project Force. Scientologists describe it as a “second chance” program that offers “redemption rather than dismissal’’ for members deemed to have committed serious offenses. Those in RPF receive intense religious counseling and must perform manual labor. The program reportedly can last months or even years.

Sea Org: Short for Sea Organization, a religious order for those who dedicate their lives to the service of Scientology. Paid $75 a week plus meals, lodging and medical care, members sign a 1-billion-year contract, to symbolize their commitment to serve in this life and the next ones. The Sea Org was developed when Scientology was largely based on ships.

Suppressive person, or SP: A Scientologist who “works to upset, continuously undermine, spread bad news and denigrate other people and their activities.” Often applied to a member who speaks ill of the church. An SP cannot have contact with other Scientologists, even family.

Auditing: “Helps an individual look at his own existence and improves his ability to confront what he is and where he is.’’ The auditor asks questions and uses a device called an E-meter that is said to measure the person’s reaction, allowing the auditor to locate areas of distress.

Fair Game: A Hubbard policy that says church enemies “may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist” and that the person “may be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.” Hubbard canceled the policy in 1968, but critics say the church still uses it to justify harassment of opponents.

Introspection Rundown: A Scientology procedure Hubbard devised to calm a person in the throes of psychosis. The person is isolated and not spoken to except for frequent auditing.

The Tampa Bay Times

Important dates in Scientology

1948: Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard begins his first work on the concept of Dianetics.

1950: Hubbard establishes a foundation for the study of Dianetics in New Jersey.

1950: The May issue of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction publishes a “fact piece” on Dianetics authored by Hubbard.

1950: Hubbard’s full-length book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” becomes an instant best-seller.

1951: The state of New Jersey accuses Hubbard’s Dianetics foundation of practicing medicine without a license.

1951: Hubbard closes the New Jersey office and starts a new foundation in Wichita.

1952: The Wichita Dianetic Research Foundation files for bankruptcy. As a result, Hubbard loses all legal rights to Dianetics. He founds a new center in Phoenix and calls his new outfit the Hubbard Association of Scientologists International.

1952: Hubbard announces the invention of the E-meter, created by chiropractor Volney Mathison. He also publishes “Scientology: A History of Man.”

1954: The Church of Scientology is incorporated in Los Angeles. Hubbard regains control over the concepts of Dianetics and incorporates them into Scientology.

1956: The United States grants the church federal tax-exempt status as a religious organization.

1958: The FDA confiscates a shipment of Dianezene, a pill Scientologists falsely claimed would prevent radiation sickness. Dianazene is a vitamin supplement with massive doses of niacin, which can cause a burning sensation in the skin during the church’s “purification” rituals.

1959: Hubbard moves to a mansion in Sussex, England, which he uses as a home base and Scientology’s international headquarters.

1960: The Hubbard Mark II E-meter, then the Mark III E-meter, are released for use in Scientology “auditing” courses.

1965: Hubbard’s “The Bridge to Freedom” outlines the path Scientologists can take to advance within the church’s hierarchy.

1966: Narconon, a drug-rehab program controlled by Scientology to recruit new members, is founded.

1966: The Guardian’s Office, a group tasked with defending Scientology from critics and the government, is formed.

1966: Hubbard quits his official post as the head of the church to write new materials for more advanced Scientology training.

1967: The IRS strips Scientology of its tax-exempt status.

1967: The Sea Organization (Sea Org) is formed and housed on three ships. It is reserved for only the most committed Scientologists.

1970: The Church of Scientology’s Celebrity Centre is formed in Los Angeles, later housed in luxury hotel Chateau Elysee.

1975: The Sea Org transfers from its ships to a center in Clearwater, Fla., called the Flag Land Base.

1977: FBI raids Scientology offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles after members of the Guardian’s Office are caught trying to steal government documents. Several church members, including the founder’s wife, Mary Sue Hubbard, were eventually convicted of conspiring to subvert the government through obstruction of justice, theft, burglary and wiretapping. More than 5,000 people were part of the church’s “Operation Snow White,” which was the largest infiltration of the U.S. government in history.

1984: Several senior Scientologists quit the church, accusing Hubbard of diverting funds to his personal offshore bank accounts.

1986: Hubbard dies after a stroke. His death is announced by David Miscavige, one of Hubbard’s personal assistants, who said that Hubbard had “discarded the body” as it was no longer of use to him. “He has moved on to the next level. It’s beyond anything any of us has imagined. This level is, in fact, done in an exterior state. Meaning that it is done completely exterior from the body.”

1987: Miscavige takes over as ecclesiastical head of Scientology.

1993: Scientology leaders reach a deal with the IRS, agreeing to drop multiple lawsuits against the government in return for $12.5 million. The church’s tax-exempt status is restored. The move saves the church tens of millions of dollars a year and makes all member donations tax-deductible.

1994: Confidential Scientology documents are published anonymously online. Included are “Operating Thetan” writings by Hubbard, including the infamous OT III or “Xenu story.”

1995: Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old church member, dies after being held in the church’s care for 17 days. The church is later charged with abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.

1996: Scientologists purchase the Cult Awareness Network, which had previously targeted the church, after CAN declares bankruptcy. An avalanche of lawsuits filed by the church had led to CAN’s financial troubles.

2000: “Battlefield Earth,” a movie based on a Hubbard sci-fi novel and starring church member John Travolta, bombs with critics and at the box office.

2002: The church forces Google to remove links to a Norway-based website critical of Scientology.

2002: Scientologists reach out to 9/11 first responders to offer free “detoxification” exercises.

2005: Comedy Central’s “South Park” parodies the church in the famous “Trapped in the Closet” episode. Cast member Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist, quits the show a few weeks later.

2005: Church member Tom Cruise draws attention during a combative interview with Matt Lauer on “Today,” calling psychiatry a “pseudoscience.”

2008: An internal church video of Cruise is leaked and goes viral. Although Cruise’s enthusiasm is mocked, sales of “Dianetics” increase.

2008: The hacker group Anonymous releases a video about Scientology and calls for a worldwide protest.

2009: The St. Petersburg Times publishes an expose on the church called “The Truth Rundown.” It details allegations of Miscavige’s physical abuse of church members and employees.

2009: Wikipedia restricts access to its site from IP addresses within the church after a spate of self-serving edits made to articles about Scientology.

2011: With the help of former Scientologist and Hollywood filmmaker Paul Haggis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright publishes a Scientology expose in the New Yorker, later expanded into the 2013 book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.”

Sources: ABC News, The New York Times