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In-Depth Interview

Lawrence Wright on Going Clear: Reporting on Scientology, America’s most insular — and misunderstood — religion

Lawrence Wright on Going Clear: Reporting on Scientology, America’s most insular — and misunderstood — religion

Lawrence Wright
Photo by Daniel Bergeron

In case you missed the New York Times profile and book review, the Washington Post’s book review, the Atlantic debacle or the Rock Center segment, Austin-based Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief was released last week.

The book’s publication comes almost two years after Wright’s article, “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology,” appeared in the New Yorker. The article, which won the National Magazine Award for Reporting, examines the film director’s decision to leave the church after a 34 year membership. It received an unprecedented amount of attention, due in part to Haggis’s notoriety and Wright’s ability to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable Church of Scientology.

In Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief, Wright continues his examination of the church: its history, its practices and its ability to attract some of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Ahead of Wright’s Austin appearances on KLRU’s Overheard with Evan Smith and his book signing event at BookPeople, CultureMap chatted with the journalist about his new book, the Church of Scientology and why he writes about religion.

CultureMap: Last week, the New York Times published a profile about you in which you said, “I’m fascinated by it and by what drives people to Scientology, especially given its image.” You’re obviously not alone, based on the amount of attention Going Clear has received. What do you think is so compelling about Scientology?

Lawrence Wright: Well, it’s fascinating. When I did the New Yorker story, I knew I was interested but I didn’t know [if the public would be]. Monday it came out and by Wednesday it had been downloaded two million times. It’s an unsatisfied curiosity — a little threatening.

Most people believe that Scientology is a wacky cult and no sane person would be associated with it. Then you have Paul Haggis, a creative, smart, successful member of the church for 34 years and it’s unsettling. That’s why I was drawn to Paul as a central character. I wanted people to understand what drew people in.

CM: You’ve written about the Amish, al-Qaeda and Scientology, among others. As a writer, what drives you to seek out such insular groups?

LW: I think most of us believe we lead rational lives. Yet, religion is by its nature so irrational. It seems at war with how life is run, how we order our existence. Some of the profound differences between cultures are just religious differences. They’re not racial. They’re beliefs. That fascinates me.

Scientology seems particularly unusual. It aroused my interest. To be honest, I’ve never dived into such an obscure world with a different language. As you delve into higher levels, there is a hostility towards the outside world.

CM: In 1993, the Internal Revenue Service declared the Church of Scientology a religious group and therefore tax-exempt. Do you classify Scientology as a religion?

LW: It doesn’t matter what I think. There is only one entity that matters and it’s the IRS. Everything else is common theory. I am uncomfortable with how they obtained [the exemption]. They set forth so many lawsuits and part of the deal was that the lawsuits would be dropped. That concerns me. In any case, the question of whether if it’s a religion or a cult, the language is misleading.

Yes, it has cultic aspects. [It has] a charismatic leader and people draw away from society. But that [can be] true of mainstream religions. It also has characteristics of religion because people believe in it. I try not to spend a lot of time classifying it.

CM: Going Clear has received a lot of attention because the child abuse you claim the Church of Scientology perpetuates. Was that the most surprising thing you uncovered?

LW: I knew about the physical abuse inside the church. I wasn’t surprised by that. But [what] really surprised me and disturbed me is how children were recruited into the clergy. And they sacrifice everything. They sign billion-year contracts at an age [when] they can’t make these decisions. And they’re pushed into really hard labor.

Haggis said it’s like the child slaves he sees in Haiti during his charity trips. I’m puzzled by how that continues to happen. The church says it obeys all child labor laws, but I think they’re exploited. [The children] believe in what the church is offering them. But, I don’t agree that they’re old enough to make those decisions for themselves.

If they decide as adults to walk away, they have no education, they’re impoverished cause they were paid next to nothing. And if they leave, they’ll be forced to disconnect or their family will disconnect from them. Then, they’ll be given a bill usually for hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of that is very disturbing behavior on the part of the church.

CM: As a journalist, how do you reconcile that the First Amendment, which gives the press protection under the Constitution, is the same amendment that guarantees the protection to religion and, therefore, protects the Church of Scientology?

LW: I’m preoccupied by that very thing. The First Amendment is a great thing. I would hate to be a reporter in a country that was unable to have the freedom of press and speech that we have. Yet, it covers freedom of religion as well. In Britain, my publisher backed down [from publishing Going Clear because of the U.K.’s strident anti-libel laws].

I’ve been asked by the PEN American Center to go to Britain and talk to members of Parliament because this is exactly the damage those laws do. In terms of flows of information, it stops it. My publisher [in the United States] is not afraid of these threats and we’ve gotten lots of them. I am fortunate to be in this country, with these protections and a publisher that is willing to stand up.

CM: The Church of Scientology has a history of using intimidation to combat negative press. Were you at all worried about that when you started writing Going Clear that they would go after you?

LW: I try not to think about that. You’ll scare yourself away from a good story. And this was a really good story. That’s what I was put here to do: Tell stories.

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Lawrence Wright's KLRU taping is Friday, January 25. He will appear at BookPeople on Monday, January 28.