When Paulette Cooper revealed Hubbard’s bogus educational credentials and the church’s vindictive treatment of defectors in her 1971 book The Scandal of Scientology, Cooper reported that her phones were tapped; a delivery man attempted to shoot and strangle her cousin, likely mistaking her for the author; Scientology officials accused her of sending a bomb threat to the church. Cooper was indicted on that trumped-up charge.
And when Richard Behar of Time called Scientology a “cult of greed,” he said that the church sent private investigators to illegally obtain his phone and credit records, and sued him all the way to the US Supreme Court. Scientology lost, but not before costing Time more in defense costs than any other case in the magazine’s history up to that point.
Scientology has issued an official rebuttal to Going Clear, which claims to document some 200 errors in the book. No perceived oversight is too small to merit comment. Scientology excoriates Wright for mischaracterizing the volcanic island of Madeira as an atoll. Atolls are ring-shaped and made of coral, volcanic islands are made of rock. Point: Scientology.
With its rebuttal, Scientology seems to be laying groundwork to argue that Wright did not follow standard journalistic practices in his investigation. (As the church writes: “These represent errors, some large and others small, but all of them a result of reporting methods that lacked factual accuracy, avoided the Church and relied on individuals who display their disdain for their former religion and could hardly be qualified as reliable or ‘expert.’”)
But what’s amazing is how much of Wright’s account goes unchallenged in Scientology’s rebuttal. Wright quotes a handwritten memoir of Hubbard’s from the late 1940s in which Hubbard confesses to being a chronic liar, a malingerer, a military shirker, and a conflicted masturbator. Wright explains that when the document first came to light in 1984, the church’s lawyers initially acknowledged Hubbard’s authorship but claimed the document shouldn’t be taken seriously because it was just a form of “self-therapy.” Later on, Wright says, the church claimed without evidence that the document was a forgery. This time, church leaders just let it pass without comment.
The author weaves the normally hidden fact-checking process into the action of the book, dramatizing a showdown between The New Yorker’s factchecking team and senior Scientology officials. Hubbard claimed that he used Dianetics to heal himself of wounds he suffered in combat during World War II. In the factchecking meeting, a Scientology official named Tommy Davis vehemently defends the story, saying that if Hubbard was never wounded and never healed himself, then Dianetics—and thus all of Scientology—would be based on a lie. Wright presents overwhelming evidence that Hubbard was neither wounded in battle nor healed of blindness after the war; he argues convincingly that the documents Scientology cites to “prove” Hubbard’s war wounds are clumsy forgeries. Point: Wright.
Davis was the public face of Scientology and the head of the church’s Celebrity Centre International in Los Angeles—a sort of social club for celebrity members which also runs Scientology classes and “auditing” sessions—until he mysteriously disappeared over a year ago. His responsibilities involved the care and feeding of Tom Cruise, the world’s most prominent Scientologist. The church went to extremes to please Cruise—hand-building luxurious vehicles for him, even scouting out a Scientology-approved girlfriend. This special treatment puts Cruise and other celebrity Scientologists in a kind of bubble, shielding them from the seamier truths of their oft-vindictive faith. “I was in a cult for 34 years,” Paul Haggis told Wright after his defection. “Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”
Since its founding in 1954, Scientology has weathered countless scandals, any one of which might have been enough to sink the nascent religion. It’s clear that the church has survived in part by diligently defending its image and attacking its critics. Thanks to books like Going Clear, and to increased public scrutiny, that façade is starting to crack.
The Atlantic advertorial was removed less than 12 hours after it went online, amid merciless mockery on social media. The magazine apologized—not for partnering with Scientology per se, but rather for not considering the implications of partnering with Scientology. At the end of January, the magazine issued revised guidelines for sponsor content and advertising, stipulating that “The Atlantic will refuse publication of such content that, in its own judgment, would undermine the intellectual integrity, authority, and character of our enterprise.” Point: journalism.