The early days of any religious or cultural moment hold great fascination for me, and likely for many readers, as we consider: What was the original idea? What were the founder's motives? How did people initially respond? What conflicts exist between history and legend? Where did the originating action or idea shift to become something else?
As much as one can, Lawrence Wright answers these questions in Going Clear, his jumpy and extensive exposé of Scientology and its founder, prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. For those who've read previous works on Hubbard and his "religion," including Wright's piece on director Paul Haggis, disaffected former Scientologist, there's little new here in terms of the story's arc and outline, and many of the elements have been more fully covered elsewhere. But Wright does a fine job fleshing out a host of people associated with the movement, and he provides far more detail on the treatment of those who signed on for the long haul in the days of Hubbard who came to wonder where the glory went.
In addition, Wright isn't writing an "attack piece"; rather, he attempts to understand Hubbard, his ideas, and the organization. The answers are disquieting, but he gives Hubbard's ideas—both his socio-psychological ones and the ones Hubbard himself referred to as "space opera"—a fair hearing, comparing Hubbard's codifying of internal human processes to the way Freud came up with id, ego, and superego. Wright presents Hubbard's system, but then also details how that system is reshaped as one progresses in Scientology, the early ideas being subsumed into a tale of galactic battle and clinging, invisible aliens who cause all our anxieties. Aside from pointing out that no one thinks the universe is as old as Hubbard's narrative relates (quadrillions of years), Wright lets the story stand in all its absurdity, allowing the reader to conclude, "Well, that's just nuts."
The reason I threw the word religion into quotation marks above is because it's unclear that that's what Hubbard created, but the word is a fluid one, and Wright takes pains to point out that any explanation for life that provides an all-encompassing belief system is arguably a religion. (I've argued that French secularism is actually a religion, just as Khmer Rouge communism was; the presence of a deity isn't the issue.) Hubbard seems, at the outset of his explorations, to have invented an alternate schema for grasping and dealing with human psychological problems and interpersonal dynamics; later, however, he brings in the science fiction trappings. Is that religion? Hubbard himself may have opted to call his "research" a religion entirely in order to evade snooping by authorities, as Scientology ran into problems even early on by exceeding both its reach and grasp. (Some of the early misadventures are harrowing and hilarious; Hubbard often constructs plans that resemble pulp-fiction plots, but he uses real people to act out these scenarios.)
Wright also discusses Hubbard's possible dementedness, but he never simply says, "The man was crazy." Nor does he merely assert that people caught up in the movement are fools (or that the leaders are purely mercenary in their aims, though the church's current head, David Miscavige, does seem the one character lacking all virtue in this tale). In the end, we're left with the mystery of human personality and behavior.
Wright turns out to be a terrific author for this project, as he'd also examined, without some preconceived notion of the "evil" of those involved, the roots of al Qaeda in his masterful The Looming Tower. He does not come to bury Hubbard, but to investigate and engage him. In this, he reminds me of Fawn Brodie, author of No Man Knows My History, the fascinating biography of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, and Garry Wills, whose book Reagan's American: Innocents at Home marvelously captures the elusive Ronald Reagan. All three authors have plenty of reason to think ill of their subjects, but both also make sure the reader is aware of their subjects' virtues, the ways in which they succeeded in inspiring people and triggering movements in their names. Like Brodie, Wright identifies his subject as a con man and a liar, but that doesn't prevent Wright from recognizing how much of himself Hubbard invested in his outsize project, whatever his motivations and whatever the consequences.