On Monday night, HBO hosted a screening of Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker. Even a casual follower of celebrity culture knows a bit about the Church of Scientology‘s strange intensity, but after viewing the film and listening to Gibney speak, it’s clear why this movie is making a lot of waves since premiering at Sundance. As it turns out, we don’t know the half of it. We might not even know the eighth of it.
It’s one thing to read accounts of the creepy and sometimes deranged behavior of the church, but to watch former Scientologists who escaped — and I use that term literally — tell their often heartbreaking stories sheds a whole new light on the cold, hard impact of the church. Here are a few of the most surprising revelations from Going Clear and Gibney’s talk:
1. That Super Bowl ad was a direct response to Going Clear‘s premiere at Sundance
Remember this? Remember how weird it felt to see this during the Super Bowl? This was the church’s hardcore PR team going into defense mode after the much-talked-about premiere of Going Clear at Sundance. Our own Mike Ryan wrote at the time that it was “an utterly devastating takedown” of the church, and Scientology’s response was predictably colorful and full of allegations. But even the church knows that you attract more bees with honey, and Gibney confirmed that the Super Bowl ad was, indeed, a more light-hearted, optimistic response to the positive buzz for the documentary. It was also probably very expensive, not that money is a problem for the church…
2. The church has become obscenely wealthy while losing members
In our original review for Going Clear, the fact that the church’s membership was dwindling was a surprise, especially because their worth and budget have ballooned. Recent tax filings point to the church having as much as $3 billion. Keep in mind, this is supposed to be a church, and it’s always tried to present itself as a church. A few ways that they accomplished this: by becoming tax exempt after shaking down the IRS and, to put it bluntly, swindling people out of their money and keeping labor costs at Dickensian lows. (One former Scientologist interviewed said that while he worked at the church, he was paid no more than $50 a week, even after more than a decade of service.) It’s worth pointing out that after defeating the IRS, the head of the church, David Miscavige, threw an extravagant victory party that rivaled China’s ceremony when they hosted the Olympics in Beijing. Because they could. Of course, their membership numbers are now down to 50,000 and could be even lower, even though they claim to have more than 10 million members worldwide. Former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, who is interviewed in Going Clear, wrote a blog post in 2013 that talks about how the church has wildly exaggerated their numbers.
3. L. Ron Hubbard absolutely believed his own hype
It’s easy to think that the father of Scientology was nothing but a sci-fi snakeoil salesman, knowingly preying on vulnerable people who were seeking solutions to life’s ills. But LRH, as he’s referred to in the church, truly believed in the kooky scientific methods and therapies he created while trying to keep it separate from traditional psychology and psychiatry. He started out as a prolific pulp science fiction writer where he planted the seeds of the belief system that he would eventually create. By the time he wrote Dianetics, which became a New York Times bestseller and a huge self-help fad in the ’60s and ’70s, LRH was completely convinced of his ability to shape people’s minds and well-being. He didn’t believe he was fooling people, he believed he was rescuing them and/or helping them. He believed that he had the power to turn them all into his disciples so they could spread the word and grow his church (and his bank account).
4. New church members were not told about Scientology’s creation story until they reached a certain “spiritual” level
One of the most entertaining (and WTF-heavy) segments of Going Clear was listening to the former Scientologists talk about the first time they heard the insane creation story. And it is insane. South Park covered this a few years ago, but the sequence in Going Clear would make Terry Gilliam and David Lynch proud.
Here’s the truly shocking part: People who joined the church weren’t told about this until they reached Operating Thetan Level Three, or OT III. That could be years before they learned the true nature of the church they’d just joined. At that point, members deemed “ready” were handed a manuscript with the entire Xenu story scrawled in LRH’s own handwriting. Paul Haggis, who famously left the church in 2009, said that he’d been on board with the self-help stuff, but had to take a real leap of faith before buying into the space stuff. He even doubted that it was real, that this was a test to see if he was insane. After watching so many former Scientologists laughing about the story, it makes you wonder how many Scientologists actually believe it.
5. Everything you think you know about the Church of Scientology is a hundred times worse than it seems
The church is not merely weird, eccentric, new age, or defensive of its image. As depicted in the film, it’s cruel, abusive, and believes it’s fighting a war to exist despite its happy doctrine of a world without wars or criminals. Further, the film demonstrates that the church is likely engaging in criminal behavior by harassing former members and their families, blackmailing, slandering and libeling them, even if some of those family members were never members of the church. The church is also alleged to make some of its members perform hard labor in a prison camp called “the hole,” and it separates children from their families; those children are often neglected and in poor health. People appear to be physically abused while being convinced that they are the ones who need the church to set them straight and relieve them of the evil alien energy they hold inside.
What Going Clear shows us is that Scientology might be the North Korea of religions. It’s truly terrifying, and it should be stopped. If only its most high-profile members could speak out without the danger of retaliation.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief will air on HBO this Sunday, March 29.