Author: Lawrence Wright
Pages: 448 (hardcover); 532 (Nook enhanced edition)
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pub. Date: 17 January 2013
Review Note: This is a book I purchased for my Nook. I bought the “Enhanced Edition”, which included extra content such as interviews with people the author used as sources for the book, as well as the author discussing various points he was trying to make. Each video snippet ran about 2 minutes long on average.
I really can’t say for sure why I felt the need to read this book. It was a mix of morbid curiosity and general fascination I guess. I found this book to be equal parts disturbing, dense and intriguing. If even a fraction of what is revealed within these pages is true, especially regarding the church’s apparent proclivity to harass naysayers, then one can only wonder how the church has survived for as long as it has.
For those that may not know, Lawrence Wright is a writer for The New Yorker, and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. Specifically, he won the prestigious award for his book discussing 9/11, which was published in 2006. He has spent the last couple of years pouring through immense binders of information supplied to him by his subject in this book (The Church of Scientology), as well as spending countless hours interviewing several people who have since left the church. Given the relative secrecy of the organization he was researching, that he managed to go through all that information and produce a book at all is astounding in my eyes.
My own mild fascination with the Church of Scientology dates back to 2005 when Tom Cruise kind of, well, appeared to lose his marbles. Actually, why am I mincing words here? We all know he appeared to be completely nuts. The internet had filled with parodies of him jumping on Oprah’s couch (the one depicting him with electricity coming out of his hands à la Palpatine was a favorite of mine), and he gave that insane interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show. It made me wonder – “just what is the story of Scientology, anyway?“.
I found out about Mr. Wright’s book by accident as I was browsing around the Barnes & Noble website, looking for a new book for my Nook Tablet. It took me a few days to decide to get it, mostly because I knew that it was on the longer side, and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to delve into the whole of Scientology’s history.
Mr. Wright’s book is an interesting case study of the church, in that it is clear to me that he went out of his way to be as fair and as non-judgemental as possible. Any judgements that are passed on the church’s history, practices and behavior of its adherents over the years comes directly from Mr. Wright’s sources who were willing to be named in the book. Other incidents that were told through Mr. Wright are presented in a firmly journalistic sense, but some of what he describes, especially in relation to disciplinary actions can be difficult to read. The book itself starts off on the slow side, enticing the reader with the introduction of Paul Haggis (a writer, director and producer of many successful films – “Crash” among them) and the beginning of his involvement in Scientology, but then quickly moves into the life of the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. It’s a necessary step, but there is a lot of ground that is covered and it can kind of feel as though the book becomes weighed down by so much information at once.
Midway through the book, the narrative shifts to the church’s development throughout the mid-1970s and early 1980s. The 1980s was a particularly volatile time period in the church, fraught with lawsuits with both former Scientologists and the infamous fight for designation as a religion (thereby gaining non-profit status) by the IRS. Some of the stories are disturbing, such as that of Lisa McPherson (a Scientologist who suffered a mental breakdown and later died while in the church’s care), and various followers of the church who decided to leave. The stories of familial separation and alienation between those that leave and those that stay in the church are downright heartbreaking.
Throughout the entirety of the book, I could not help but wonder what it is that keeps people in the church’s fold. L. Ron Hubbard’s life story depicts a man who was at best, well-meaning and troubled and at worst, tyrannical and crazy. It makes it difficult to figure out what about LRH’s story is true and what is false. There are abundant discrepancies between the biography of his life from the church (derived from LRH’s own writings) versus records about his life from more traditional sources such as military and other official records. Wright presents each side fairly, but of course to an outsider the discrepancies are difficult to ignore.
Overall, I found the book interesting enough to get me past some of the slower, denser parts. The stories about modern celebrities are mostly limited to a few accounts relating to John Travolta and focusing largely on Tom Cruise’s relationship with not only the church, but with its leader, David Miscaviage. Other notable celebrities are mentioned mostly in passing, so if you’re looking for some tell-all style narrative, this is not the book for you. Even with the focus mainly on Cruise, it hardly resembles any exposé done by the hundreds of “infotainment” media outlets out there. Wright does a nice job of keeping his focus as a respected journalist and does not give in to the temptation of turning his book into a breathless unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise and the church à la Kitty Kelley.
If you have no interest in the history of the Church of Scientology, the life of its founder, or how the organization functions, then this is not the book for you. If you have more than a passing interest, or if you wonder what it is that Tom Cruise is so fired up over, then this might be some interesting reading. As I said before, the book is slow to start, and it does suffer the consequences of trying to make sense of something that is largely a mystery. Mr. Wright’s book is clearly thoroughly researched, and he presents the story in an even-handed manner.
As is noted in the beginning of this review, I purchased the “Enhanced Edition” for the Nook. The interviews are a nice way of putting faces to some of the names, and it gives the reader a sense of “filling in” the story of these people nicely. If you don’t mind paying a little extra, then I recommend that edition. I do not know if there is a corresponding enhanced edition for other e-readers.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Readers would do well to have a healthy curiosity for the subject, so it is not written for everyone. Despite being dense and slow-moving in some parts, it is worth reading.