Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s blockbuster that tore into the consciousness of the world with its first airing on HBO Sunday night, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” lifts a big stone and shines a bright light onto a chaotic teeming universe of slimy, crawly and yucky things.
But the scene exhibits not just the festering, brutal cult of Scientology, but also the hidden world of intelligence manipulation of human behavior more widely, and the ultimate victims, human minds – it could be any of ours – that get sucked into this kind of stuff.
To call the two-hour documentary “troubling” or “unnerving” is to say not nearly enough. Based on the best selling book by the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright and the relentless research and blogging by the Raw Story’s Tony Ortega, it is filled with former Scientologists describing life in the cult, revealing patterns of astonishing abuse and brutality toward its followers, veritable blackmail against some of its celebrity adherents (like John Travolta), relentless harassment of its defectors turned detractors, and its brazen assault on the IRS that led in the 1990s to its tax exempt status.
Then there is the completely wild and fantastic world view – the story of the universe through Scientology’s eyes – that only an inner circle of members find out about, based on the rich imagination of its science fiction-obsessed founder, L. Ron Hubbard. This documentary is not about a curious oddity on the margins of society, it is about all of us and the kind of world we live in.
For one, Scientology is officially shunned in other parts of the world, including in Germany and France. But in the U.S., under the protection of its IRS-granted tax exempt status, it continues to operate with impunity. (Don’t forget, being tax exempt means that the nation’s taxpayers are subsiding this operation). But now, with the rise of the Internet, the inner horrors of the group have begun coming out as Ortega’s blog became a lightning rod for growing legions of brave Scientology defectors to tell the true story.
It reminds me of the Jim Jones cult of Jonestown, when in November 1978 a courageous U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission to its compound in Guyana, and was met with a complete coverup of the abuses going on there.
Then, when he was about to leave, two or three victims of that cult slipped notes to Ryan saying they wanted out, and he began to catch onto how sinister the operation really was. Ryan paid for that with his life after departing for a nearby airport, and an order was given from within the cult to totally self-destruct through the forced poisonings and shootings of over 900 victims.
The Scientology case is not nearly so extreme, but the threats, lawsuits and angry reactions it has hurled against growing legions of ex-members who speak out, and media who give them a platform, often have a violent tone.
The “Going Clear” documentary does not go into the context of cookie-cutter patterns of Scientology-like cults that were cooked up by the most sinister faction of post-World War II U.S. intelligence. Experimenting with ways to stem the growing public demand for social and economic justice, this covert intelligence faction fomented mind-numbing cults.
Documentation of this undertaking was lost when, on the eve of congressional Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s, the CIA chief ordered all documents related to what was code named “Operation MK-Ultra” to be destroyed.
But Hubbard’s alleged ties to Naval intelligence are well documented and so was the obsession of the CIA with Chinese brainwashing techniques. To produce a brainwashed so-called “Manchurian candidate” was impractical, the CIA found, except as such persons were confined to a very closed environment, cut off from the outside world.
Such were the parameters of cults, religious and otherwise, that proliferated from the 1950s onward. Drugs, sensory deprivation, and monotonous repetition were keys to inducing victims to act contrary to their own wills to do the bidding of sinister forces.
In the case of Scientology, the idea was to neutralize the best and brightest.