When I first heard about the documentary Going Clear, I was intrigued largely because I’m an American, and we’re obsessed with celebrity. I know about Tom Cruise’s affiliation with the faith group, and I recalled that John Travolta claimed that Scientology cured his dyslexia.
I watched the stinging documentary last week, and was stunned by the sheer volume of allegations by defected members of the religion. When I read more about the doc, I found that the writer of the book on which Going Clear is based, Lawrence Wright, wasn’t initially in the business to eviscerate Scientology, but to create an unbiased understanding of the group. But what he got was much, much more than that.
Initially, I was hesitant about watching this documentary because the idea of interviewing former cult was unappealing to me. Usually, former cult members describe themselves as misfits and looking to fit in. Not the Scientology crew. These defectors seemed like strong-willed achievers who were drawn to the faith because of the humanitarian mission, but after joining, found that they had to pay large sums of money, endure hours of hard labor and risk being ostracized by their social networks if they left.
Developed by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology itself isn’t the villain in the film. Instead, the film takes issue with David Miscavige, successor to L. Ron Hubbard as leader of the Church of Scientology. Miscavige is portrayed as being obsessed with his own power, totally paranoid and completely enamored with Tom Cruise. He is shown to have a strange bromance with Tom Cruise, who seems to be using the Church of Scientology to fund his luxurious lifestyle in exchange for being the glamorous face for the church. It’s a deeply embarrassing portrayal of Cruise, who appears to be the best person to expose the practices of the Church of Scientology but would rather enjoy the perks given to him.
Gibney also shows how the Church was able to achieve tax exempt status, by essentially waging a legislative war against the IRS. Essentially, David Miscavige, wanting to carry on Hubbard’s dream of earning tax-free income, asked members of the church to send frivolous lawsuits to the IRS. Soon, the lawsuits became too much for the IRS to handle, and they gave the Church of Scientology non-profit status. Now they don’t pay taxes, have billions of dollars worth of assets and can go about achieving whatever it is they want to.
Finally, Gibney interviews a handful of former members who are all defected, including writer and director Paul Haggis. Members recount stories of being gouged for money or risking having personal information about themselves–learned during a supposedly confidential “auditing session”–leaked to the press or having to do thirty hours of hard labor with three hours of sleep in between. Paul Haggis left the church after learning that the Church of Scientology supported anti-gay legislation in California. Another woman left after the Church refused to let her daughter see a doctor. One of the hardest stories to hear is from a woman who is completely disconnected from her daughter who is still a member of the Church.
The film doesn’t feel like an exposé at times, but it is. The mystery of Scientology is finally out there, and it’s not looking good for them.
You can watch Going Clear on HBO Go.