Scientology: the Book or the Movie?

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

By Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison Of Belief – The HBO Special

By Alex Gibney

Which? Without a  doubt, choose the book if you want a thorough understanding of Scientology, from origins to current practices. After,  by all means watch the film, very loosely based on the book, to see what many of the people Lawrence Wright introduces you to look and sound like.

Wright answers several questions in his fine, balanced, well researched and presented examination of Scientology, in particular, about its Hollywood connection, leaving the single biggest one for readers to decide for themselves.

Who was L. Ron Hubbard? What experiences led him to found his own religion (a categorization many would strongly dispute but won by doing something few can: bringing the IRS to its knees)? Why did people join and proselytize Hubbard’s belief system? What do celebrities, among them Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Anne Archer, and others, find compelling about Scientology? What ideas comprise the beliefs of Scientologists? Why is Scientology secretive and what are those secrets? With Hubbard long dead, who currently leads Scientology? How has Scientology succeeded in surviving and amassing considerable wealth since the death of its founder? And, finally, the question Wright leaves readers to answer for themselves: is Scientology a religion, a religion in the making, or is it a cult, a very visible, wealthy, and pugnacious one at that?

You’ll find much that’s sensational in Going Clear, and much bearing the hallmarks common to religious cults, among them Jim Jones’s People Temple, Moses David’s (David Berg) Children of God (now The Family International), and Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (which Hubbard affiliated with after WWII), to cite a few.

You’ll see these similarities on full display in Wright’s book. These include a charismatic leader, proprietary knowledge without which salvation cannot be had, absolute devotion to the exclusion of family and past friends that promotes a binding insularity and captivity, to note just a handful. For comparison, and especially if cults interest you, you might want to try Tim Reiterman’s biography of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple march to tragedy, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. While different in approach and membership, you’ll recognize how Scientology tacks to the cult course. Of course, as Wright develops in his epilogue, a movement may actually be a nascent religion in the making that appears alien and threatening to the reigning orthodoxy, as did Christianity and Mormonism, to cite an older and newer example. A further apt point made by Wright concerns how a religion’s set of beliefs can appear absurd when an observer views them without the faith of the believers, something that can call into question the precepts of most any religion.

As for the sensational, these do not result from Wright’s even writing. They spring from Hubbard and Scientology itself. Examples include Hubbard’s manufactured naval history, the harsh punishment of members in the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), the original organization of Commodore’s Messengers Organization employing pubescent girls, the low pay and miserable living conditions of members compared to the lavish furnishings of top leaders, the special treatment afforded celebrities, the aggressive stances against perceived church enemies that often included physical intimidation and endless and expensive legal suits (which serve to restrict unauthorized published information and which the church used to win their designation as a tax-exempt religious organization in the U.S.), and many more.

Recommended as an insightful exploration of a movement, its influence, and its claim to religious legitimacy. w/c


Happy Dysfunctional Valentine’s Day

Gone Girl

By Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn offers up a thriller about love, deception, and sociopathic behavior that is often reflective of real life dysfunctional marriages and just as often funny. Briefly, and without revealing too much, since the pleasure of the novel is revelation upon revelation, twist after twist, Nick and Amy meet in New York, fall in love, marry, and seem happy, until both lose their jobs. Nick decides to move back to his hometown of North Carthage, MO, ostensibly to help care for his dying mother and Alzheimer father. Then Amy disappears, apparently abducted by parties unknown. It isn’t long before the police settle the mantle of prime suspect on Nick’s shoulders. And the question is who took Amy and why, or did hubby murder her? But beware: nothing is as it seems.

Flynn tells the story from Nick and Amy’s perspectives, leaving us to wonder, at least in the first part of the book, who we are to believe. In part two, Flynn reveals what really happened and why. In part three, she resolves the situation. Some have faulted Flynn on the ending, but I found it perfectly acceptable, in keeping with the personalities of the characters. However, morally tidy it is not.

Flynn skillfully handles sociopathy, having her sociopathic character expound, as well as showing how others perceive or misperceive the sociopath. It’s claimed that somewhere around four percent of the U.S. population is sociopathic. Not all, or even a fraction of, sociopaths are psychopaths, and they are nearly impossible, by their very nature, to spot. One trait, however, can give them away; that is, the compulsion to escalate their behavior, something Flynn expertly illustrates.

If you prefer, try the film version starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. And if you prefer your romance even more dysfunctional and just plain psychotic, watch Fatal Attraction starring Close and Michael Douglas again, or for the first time if it’s new to you. w/c



Read the Original Blade Runner

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

By Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks what constitutes being human. Obviously, it’s more than just being made of flesh and blood, fashioned in an image many believe replicates their creator, and having the ability to think; in Androids, the robots bear such close resemblance to humans that bounty hunters like Rick Deckard must administer specialized psychological tests to determine whether people they hunt are human or robot.

In Philip K. Dick’s novel the key distinguishing trait is empathy. Can people not only understand the feelings of others, but can they also share those feelings. In a world devastated by nuclear war, where people obviously showed no empathy for the suffering of others, empathy has been transformed into a religion of sorts, Mercerism, the shared long climb up the hill of human travail to the inevitable end. Doesn’t get much more nihilistic than that.

Deckard, when we meet him, has a dream. He wishes he could afford to own a real animal, as his more successful neighbor owns a horse. Deckard owns an electric sheep that he tends as if it were living, demonstrating his empathy. Real animals, most of which were exterminated in the war, are the new status symbol, and Deckard believes that owning and caring for one would improve his and wife Iran’s social status and sense of well being.

Then an opportunity presents itself in the form of six new model Nexus-6 androids that have escaped from Mars after killing human emigrants. (Since radioactive dust chokes Earth, the U.N. encourages people to settle Mars, preserving the gene pool, and provides free androids as an inducement.) One of the androids nearly killed the San Francisco Police Department’s chief bounty hunter Dave Holden, landing him in the hospital. Deckard catches the assignment of retiring (killing) the six. To learn more about the new model, he hovers to Seattle to meet with the manufacturer. There, he administers the Voigt-Kampff test to the daughter of the owner, Rachael Rosen. She tests positive as an android, a fact kept from her. Deckard’s coldness about the matter has ramifications later in the novel.

Eventually, Deckard does locate and dispatch the six androids. (In a sub story, John R. Isidore, a radioactively damaged human, known as a  “special,” harbors them to satisfy his strong desire for companionship, regardless of how indifferently they treat him.) However, the hunt plunges Deckard into an existential crisis, only partially assuaged when he impulsively purchases a real goat. His issues spring from a growing sense of empathy for these nearly human androids and his weariness at retiring them. Deckard meets another bounty hunter who is extremely ruthless and emotionally cold. He can’t fathom the man, and can’t see himself in the same role, though, of course, he is. Further, he commits the offense of having sex with an android, Rachael, feeling emotion for her, only to learn she has had sex with many bounty hunters to protect Rosen-made androids. Add to that an apparent plot by the androids to discredit Mercerism and it’s easy to empathize with Deckard’s despair. Then, too, it doesn’t help when he learns Rachael has taken an additional measure of revenge on him, for readers to discover themselves, leaving the question as to why? Because he destroyed the other androids, or because he callously revealed her true identity to her? And if the latter, well, what does that say about her, a Nexus-6’s ability to experience human emotion, and future generations of Nexuses to refine empathic traits? In other words, what is human; is human a much more encompassing classification than we are will to admit?

Philip K. Dick famously described himself thusly: “I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.” (Dick; Exegesis) This novel lends credence to the claim. w/c

Philip K. Dick and Ambiguity

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

By Philip K. Dick

Perhaps quoting from Freddie Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” best puts what many consider the finest of Philip K. Dick’s works into perspective: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Ambiguity threads its way throughout The Man in the High Castle, because ambiguity is the whole point of the novel. Is the timeline followed by the characters in the novel reality? Or, is true reality, as Juliana comes to believe, that expressed in the alternative reality book most in the novel are reading, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? Perhaps chance dictates the path of a life or a country, and divining what’s to come means foreseeing with mystical help, as, again, most of the characters do employing I Ching (Book of Changes). The layering Dick accomplishes makes The Man in the High Castle a terrific reading experience, a novel guaranteed to elevate a person’s anxiety level.

The Man in the High Castle tells two alternative histories to what we accept as our reality. First is that which seems like reality to the characters and to readers. The Axis powers won WWII, they have divided the U.S. into the Pacific States of America (Japan), the Eastern States (Germany), and the Rocky Mountain buffer zone; further, Germany still seeks out Jews for extermination, and have pretty much killed everybody in Africa, as well as the Slavs. Roma, etc.; and they have an active space program, to boot. The second alternative history has the Allies winning WWII. However, the new order does not resemble the reality we known. America has resolved many of its problems, including its inherent racism. Great Britain, now both racist and expansionist, reigns as America’s rival. The Soviet Union has collapsed.

Readers experience this reality through the eyes and thoughts of the main characters: Robert Childan, owner of an American antique shop in San Francisco, who finds himself constantly kowtowing to his new masters, the Japanese; Nobusuke Tagomi, head of the Japanese trade mission, who, like many occupiers, is fascinated by American artifacts and buys from Childan; Frank Frink, whose real name is Fink, a Jew in hiding, a master artisan of fake antiques, who launches his own company; Baynes, who actually is Rudolf Wegener on a mission to reveal to the Japanese the German plans to nuke the Home Islands; and Juliana Frink, who lives in Colorado, where she hooks up with Joe Cinnadella, a Nazi assassin sent to kill Hawthorne Abendsen, author of the alternative history within this alternative history, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

You certainly can read much into the story Dick weaves, and many have. Dick constantly asks us to ponder what is real and what isn’t. He doesn’t explicitly ask the question, but this theme runs throughout the novel. For instance, a customer complains that Childan has sold him a fake antique gun as an original. Childan discovers that his supplier is fabricating items to appear as antiques. What’s real and what isn’t, and, more perplexing, does knowing matter? On a larger scale, by the end we’re challenged to wonder which is reality, the story we have read, or the one we’ve glimpsed in excerpts and discussions of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? Have we crossed over into another reality when we follow Julianna into Abendsen’s home, which turns out to be anything but a fortress.

Then there are the issues of chance and change, the ideas the future lived by the characters was somehow ordained and immutable, much as we might believe the outcome of WWII could not have been other than it was because it is our reality. Dick has the various characters addressing these questions of reality by resorting to the I Ching for answers about the fortuity of an event, or what might await them should they take one action or another. Frank Frink, for instance, tries to determine if he should start his own business. He receives an answer that appears contradictory; in other words, ambiguous.

Finally, why does any of it matter anyway, what the characters do, what we ourselves do? Look to the book title The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It compresses the ideas expressed in Ecclesiastes 12:5 into a short phrase, those ideas being: All things come to an end, the world we know moves on, and can become a world different from what we know.

So, fellow readers, enjoy the ambiguity that is The Man in the High Castle. w/c

Rod Serling and the Trump Presidency

The Twilight Zone: It’s a Good Life (Season 3, Episode 8; 1961))

Rod Serling (from story by Jerome Bixby)

While Rob Serling could not possibly have had Donald Trump in mind when he aired what many call one of the best, if not the best, episode of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life,” there’s little doubt he had infantile placating, immature behavior, and authoritarian predilections in mind. It certainly feels like a commentary on our lunatic Nineteen Eight-Four like politics and our man/boy president. Just imagine a leader so capricious, so self-absorbed, so vindictive that he might welcome a new Siberia, or revel in Anthony Fremont’s cornfield of people with bad thoughts, i.e., not one hundred percent square with his own. It might look a lot like “It’s a Good Life.”

If you’ve never seen the episode, you should watch it. You’ll find all the original episodes of The Twilight Zone on Netflix. You can also find them on CD. And to give you can idea of what it would be like to exit in world ruled by someone with a child’s mind, look at this clip of the final minutes of “It’s a Good Life.” Now, that’s real scary stuff.   

By the way, yes, that is Cloris Leachman. Interestingly, all the principal players are still living. Bill Mumy played Anthony (though he does resemble Ron Howard as a boy). w/c

When Drugs & Prison Are State Business…

A Scanner Darkly (1977)

By Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick merges two things he experienced personally—the drug culture of the late 1960s and 1970s and paranoia about being watched by various policing organizations, particularly the FBI and CIA— into a novel about a cop whose personality splits in half by living in two states: watcher and watched. The novel breaks down into three acts: Robert/Fred as a cop working undercover to ferret out drug kingpins; Robert/Fred in full blown confusion about his identity and paranoid over his safety; Robert/Bruce in a rehab facility that works to keep his blind to his identity while pushing him ever closer to being a walking vegetable. It’s enough to make you run away from your own medicine cabinet screaming, constantly looking over your shoulder to see who might be watching you.

Robert Arctor is an undercover narcotics cop in the future (1990s in the novel). He lives in a house he owns with two roomers, both notorious dopeheads. All of them think about narcotics incessantly, obsess on getting high, staying high, and worrying about getting drugs, especially deadly D, a synthetic concoction that produces neurological disorder in users. He’s mad for Donna Hawthorne, a woman he can get near and be friends with but can’t have in the way he desires. In his role as Fred, the narc, he wears a scrambler suit when at police HQ, as do his fellow narcs, so as to preserve their anonymity. Soon enough, we see paranoia taking over Robert/Fred to the point where he believes someone is out to get him, possibly his roomers. He has scanners installed in his house to watch their, and his, every move, resulting in a distinct split in his personality. Operating as two people can be quite taxing, to put it mildly. In the end, due to his own heavy use of D, his mind fails him. Worse, unbeknownst to him, he has been a pawn in a much larger game orchestrated by the Feds and betrayed by his greatest desire. In the end, he finds, or more appropriately, loses himself in a rehabilitation home and camp designed to do the exact opposite.

Few have captured what it’s like to be addled by drugs as Dick in this novel. The conversations among the roommates border on lunacy. And they are funny much of the time. Less so is the deception and manipulation in the rehab home, particularly when we realize the goal of rehab is mental destruction.

A Scanner Darkly isn’t really science fiction, certainly not like his novels Martian Time-Slip, The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and others. It more captures a moment of his life in California when he was raging on drugs and in and out of mental institutions. You might consider it Exhibit A in why you want to avoid drugs: for your personal mental health and to avoid a quasi police state intent on tossing the afflicted into private prisons. w/c

Five Movies Perfect for Christmas Eve

Sure There Are Others, But These Are Our Favorites

The shopping is done (hopefully), the gifts are wrapped (sort of), the tree is trimmed (nearly), a drink is poured (hot cider, maybe), and the weary are ready to kickback with a movie. Here are five that will not disappoint, Christmas gifts all.

  1. A Christmas Carol (1951)  There is no better adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, and no better Scrooge than Alastair Sim.
  2. White Christmas (1954)  What can we say except pure joy. Those colors, those dance numbers, those idealized 50s moments; it’s a treat for the season.
  3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)  The message here is true and so beautifully expressed: that our lives, that everyone’s life touches others in ways we will never realize … unless our Guardian Angel intervenes.
  4. A Christmas Story (1983)  Warm, nostalgic, and humorous, a tale from the life of one of America’s great raconteurs, Jean Shepherd, who narrates.
  5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)  If laughing’s what you need on Christmas Eve, this one will have you rolling on the floor. There’s nothing like watching Cousin Eddie cleaning out the trailer’s septic tank and hoisting a beer to make Christmas complete.

Merry Christmas to one and all. w/s