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


Nuclear Destruction in Slow Motion

Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965)

By Philip K. Dick

When Philip K. Dick wrote Dr. Bloodmoney, nuclear holocaust was a real possibility, a real fear, as evidenced by the effectiveness of “Daisy,” the Johnson TV ad, run once, playing on the fear of Goldwater’s extremism writ large in a giant fireball seen in the eye of a little girl. Those were the days of mutually assured destruction, the idea of the two world powers equally armed to the point that neither could win an all out nuclear war. However, some may not be aware that military planners had conceived of another type of nuclear use: battlefield tactical. Here they would employ lower variable yield bombs and artillery shells that would cripple enemy troops but spare general populations from total annihilation. These tactical weapons comprised a good portion of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. And as some may also know this idea of limited nuclear engagement has reached the public forum again. Which in an oddly prophetic way makes Dick’s novel as relevant now as it was in 1965.

In Dr. Bloodmoney, we get a glimpse of a post nuclear war world that hasn’t been entirely destroyed, just blown back into the early 19th century. Harnessed electricity is scarce. Cities lie in ruins. Barter economies prevail. Horses make a comeback as the sole means of land locomotion, apart from walking. And there’s an added feature: mutated humans and animals, like talking dogs, intelligent rats, and the like, as well as psychic humans. It might be a Dick amphetamine fired nightmare, but it has the ring of veracity to it.

In the future, 1972, a Livermore scientist, Bruno Bluthgeld (blood-money in German), initiates a high altitude nuclear test that goes horribly wrong. It blankets much of the world in radiation. Suffering from self-hatred and hated by everyone, Bluthgeld carries on under the name Jack Tree, settling in West Marin, where he, with the help of Bonny Keller, seeks psychiatric help from Dr. Stockstill. In town resides a collection of characters who surface from time to time as the novel progresses. Most important of them are the phocomelus (congenital deformity of the limbs) Hoppy Harrington, child Edie Keller, Bonny’s daughter, and Walt Dangerfield. Hoppy uses artificial limb extenders to accomplish tasks, both ordinary and extraordinary. Edie converses with her unborn twin resident in the area of her appendix. Walt Dangerfield and his wife circle Earth in a capsule on their way to start a settlement on Mars. Aside from the effects of radiation poisoning, life is fairly normal in 1981, when the novel opens. Then bombs begin falling and the world is reduced to ruble. The novel fast forwards to the end of the decade, where we see how people live in the post-holocaust world that appears to have been created by limited nuclear warfare.

This is an odd world, where people gather round a radio to hear stranded Walt read to them, almost as if hearing the word of God, or the word of the way it was. It’s also a world where the once weak, Hoppy in particular, acquire frightening power, and where a girl and never born child must bring him down. It’s also a world where normal life and commerce emerge from the destruction, where there is yet hope for a better future. (Of course, it would be much better for all if we could control ourselves and not blow up the world we have, imperfect as it may be. Something to thing about when pundits spout off about tactical nuclear strikes, as they have been lately on news shows.)

Dick fans, if they haven’t already read it, will like it. Others who wish to discover why people like Dick so much might be better served by starting with The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, three of his best known works, each filmed, as well. w/c

Is Oprah’s Latest Book Pick Any Good?

An American Marriage

By Tayari Jones

Marriage is challenging enough, what with getting to know a person in the most intimate ways imaginable (excluding sex), making your way financially as a couple, starting a family, and then holding it all together for the next forty or more years; it’s complicated by a factor of at least ten when the husband lands in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And, for good measure, toss in being black in a still strongly racially prejudiced America. Could any marriage survive such odds stacked against it? That’s the question asked and answered by Tayari Jones in An American Marriage.

Roy and Celestial meet and marry. They settle in Atlanta. Roy holds some pretty traditional values regarding marriage, and one is that the man should provide for the household. This allows Celestial to pursue her artistic dreams; she hand makes bedazzled cloth dolls, mostly in the image of Roy at first. They both have fairly complicated lives and certainly come from different backgrounds. Roy grew up poor, though it didn’t seem that way to him as a child, because he had the love of his father and mother. Celestial grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of affluent parents, due to the success of an invention of her father. She attended the all female Spelman College. He attended the all male Morehouse College, where he had a friend, Andre. Andre grew up next-door to Celestial and through him Roy meets Celestial. All goes well in their marriage (normally rocky at times) until Celestial and Roy drive down to Louisiana to spend Labor Day weekend with his parents. They stay in a motel the first night, where they argue. Roy leaves to gather himself. He helps a white woman get into her room, and later in the night police bust down their door and arrest him for raping the woman. Though innocent, he’s tried and sentenced to fourteen years. You wonder how much is really different about the Old South compared to the New South.

Roy spends five years in prison in Louisiana, while Celestial carries on with her life in Atlanta, building her business, and receiving support from Andre. Jones does a skillful job of giving us a look into Celestial’s and Roy’s lives during these years through the letters they write each other. We not only learn much more about their feelings for each other and their families, but we also understand how Roy’s imprisonment slowly drives a wedge between them. Much transpires—family truths, deaths, romance, and pain—in their lives and those of their families and friends and we gain our understanding of these events through their letters. By the time Roy is exonerated and released his and Celestial’s worlds have changed dramatically, something Roy recognizes but has a very hard time accepting; he wants to pick up where they left off a year and a half into their marriage, but five years is a long time. It’s in the latter part of the novel where choices are made by Roy, Celestial, and Andre that can have different readers arguing over their merits. Some may take particular issue with Roy, viewing his actions and expectations as unreasonable. Then there is Celestial’s reaction to them some may or may not agree with. This feature makes it an ideal book group read.

At its heart, An American Marriage is about trying to make a marriage work under the most stressful conditions imaginable. It’s also about the extra strain racial prejudice places on two people just trying to lead lives most would consider normal. These strains relate directly to being black in America. If two highly educated, highly racially aware, on their way to success individuals can’t escape the consequences of the American racial divide, who can?

So, is Oprah Winfrey’s latest pick worth read? Indeed it is, because it’s timely and very good. w/c

Women’s Fate under Pro-Life

Red Clocks

By Leni Zumas

Leni Zumas uses the Personhood Amendment as the impetus for her novel about the lives of four disparate women, plus a fictional 19th century historical figure, to illustrate in dramatic fashion the constraints under which many women struggle now and perhaps in the near future if certain zealots get their way. She further emphasizes her points by compartmentalizing these women by their primary roles: The Biographer, The Wife, The Daughter, and The Mender. The historical figure, an ambitious woman who doesn’t hew to the societal demands of her time, is simply a woman, itself, when you view the novel this way, a restrictive compartment.

The novel follows the lives of these women living in a small Oregon coastal fishing town, including how they interact with each other. The Biographer, Ro, researches and writes a biography of 19th century Arctic explorer Eivør Mínervudottir, teaches at the local high school, and tries via IVF to have a baby before her biological clock and a new law sounds expiration. The Wife, Susan, raises two children as she suffocates in her marriage to her teacher husband, who seems indifferent to her and certainly self-absorbed. The Daughter, Mattie, an adopted child, finds herself pregnant and desperate, as abortions have been outlawed and harming a fetus in anyway is a crime. The Mender, Gin, a young crone of sorts, lives in the woods, prefers the company of her animals to humans, and sells herbal remedies to townspeople. And Eivør forms something of an intermezzo between chapters not only adding a note of emphasis to the issues faced by the characters but also reminding us that severely restricting women to certain accepted roles has always been the norm.

These women prove complex, more expansive than their definitions, but also squarely within them as well. Ro nearly impoverishes herself trying to become pregnant but puts aside her desires to help, though not without much inner torment, Mattie resolve her unwanted pregnancy. Susan struggles to exit her marriage and builds up lots of resentment toward Ro, who she views as free, though Ro resents Susan partly because she has what Ro desires. Gin, for her part, can’t help but be involved with others in town, regardless of how much she wishes most to be left alone.

Hanging over all of them and affecting them in different ways is the Personhood Amendment, which steals control of their lives from them and imposes potentially severe punishments and restrictions upon them. This, for those not familiar, for in fact it is a real proposal pushed by some antiabortion groups, declares life begins at conception, triggering a whole laundry list of laws, among them murder for abortions, no contraception, and more. In the novel, this is coupled with it being illegal to go to Canada for an abortion, as you will be turned away, even arrested, at the “Pink Wall,” the requirement of two, a man and woman, as parents, and the impending end to IVF. Since all these currently don’t exist but could if some had their way, the novel has the flavor of a dystopian future.

Some may find the novel’s flow a bit disjointed and the writing a little showy, while others may not think it dystopian enough in the sense of being technologically removed from our time. But for others interested in how society works, and can work even harder, to mold women to limited expectations, the novel will resonate. w/c

The Land of Abused Women and Children

Gather the Daughters

By Jennie Melamed

Jennie Melamed’s debut novel Gather the Daughters could not be more timely as it comes on the heels of the #MeToo movement, the Weinstein case, and a U.S. president with a history of abusing women, not to mention supporting others doing the same. In Melamed’s novel, the abuse begins early, with the male members of her fictional patriarchal religious cult having sex with their daughters prior to puberty, before turning these children over to other men for marriage and child bearing shortly after puberty. All this is done in the service of escaping and living free of what they call “the wasteland,” that is, our modern world, and perpetuating an isolated primitive agrarian and tradesman barter society. This cult featuring sexual abuse is not without real life precedent. One has only to recall some recent infamous examples, among them David Berg’s Children of God, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, and Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Melamed paints the full picture of her fictional patriarchal cult through the eyes of a handful of girls on the verge of puberty. Janey proves the most rebellious. She is older then the others, slowly starving herself like an anorexia to forestall her puberty. She doesn’t want to end up like the other girls, married off immediately after puberty in what’s called the summer of fruition. These married off girls begin having babies immediately, though by the law of the religion they can only have two healthy children. That means they are mothers and women of the community when they are thirteen or so. Their mothers, then, are women in their mid to late twenties. There are no grandparents, because once people reach the end of their usefulness, they drink the draft and take their place buried in the fields. Janey leads the girls in a rebellion, which consists of leaving their homes, living on the beach, and foraging for their existence. Obviously, as the leaders, called Wanders (those who travel off the island for needed supplies), know this cannot go on forever. Vanessa is another girl with her doubts and own quieter rebellious tendency. Her father is one of the Wanders and, unlike his counterparts, is thoughtful and kind. You might even like him, if you can put out of your mind that he sleeps with his daughter. Crisis arrives in the form of a contagious illness that sweeps through this society, killing many, necessitating that the wanders seek new members from the outside. In some ways, the illness proves fortuitous, as all the island inbreeding has resulted in increasing defective birth.

What you have here are men exerting absolute control over women and children by isolating them, instilling discipline and fear by tailoring a religion to their desire, and by engaging in acts of abuse, rape, pedophilia, and murder. It’s not a pretty tale, but some may regard it as an exaggerated metaphor of how men have treated women over the ages. Pastor Saul sums up matters nicely after the great bout with disease and the restocking of the island with new recruits in his sermon, attributing the suffering to disobeying the ancestors:

“As I look upon us, I can see the reasons for their displeasure. We have strayed from them. We have strayed from their vision and their holiness. We clot up the minds of our daughters with useless knowledge, instead of taking the precious time to teach them to be a solace to their fathers. Wives have forgotten how to be a support to their husbands. We let our aged live too long, past their prime years, for the simple reason that our hearts are soft. Men are swayed by the words of women, by the words of wives and daughters who refuse to submit to their will as wives and daughters should.”

Well done about a world rational people would run screaming from. And, yet, these little worlds in degrees exist today. w/c

Are We Immune to Authoritarianism?

It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

By Sinclair Lewis

While not Lewis’ best what with his sarcastic and sardonic style in highest dudgeon, it does remind readers just how thin the layers of democracy and civilization are, more easily than we care to believe blown away like topsoil during the Great Depression. It warrants a reading because of the warning and prescient message it has delivered to every generation of Americans since its publication in 1935. 

While readers, distant as they are from the 1930s, may think the novel alerts to the dangers of fascism, it’s really more about the rise of populist demagogues who play on the emotions of disgruntled and disenfranchised people, specifically in Lewis’ case, Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long. The message is it can happen here when given a sufficiently dissociated electorate who respond to simplistic messages, such heard numerous times in American history, as well as most recently: “Make America Great Again,” and “What Have You Got to Lose?”  and most recently, “The Deep State.” To which Lewis, and millions of others, would respond: “Nonsense, if the messages weren’t so fraught with danger.”

The novel divides into three parts. The first covers the furious campaign of one Berzelius Windrip (even the names drip with the sardonic) and his cohorts to win the 1936 Democratic nomination, the winning of it, the organization of a fascist-like corps, and then the rapid conversion to virtual dictatorship. In the second comes the complete destruction of democratic institutions and the use of propaganda and doublespeak to befuddle a nation and whip up enthusiasts, while actively suppressing all kinds of opposition, as well as tossing many into concentration camps and the liberal use of physical abuse and murder. Windrip’s “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man,” a hodgepodge of socialist and fascist fantastical pledges aimed at those who feel left behind bear a striking resemblance to Long’s eight “Share the Wealth” planks, among them limits on personal wealth, guaranteed income, proper treatment of veterans, and the like. In the third the oppressed organize to conduct their own propaganda campaign to undermine the authoritarian government of Windrip and his successors by palace revolt and assassination, closing on the thought that the effort will be long and relentless.

The focal character here is a sort of intelligent everyman, small town newspaper editor and armchair philosopher Doremus Jessup. As his name implies, Doremus is something of a gatekeeper, here a defender of the American republic way of life, who fails at first to recognize how easily the nation can be swayed by demagoguery into giving up its precious freedoms. However, once aroused, Doremus joins with others, to his own personal peril, in active rebellion. Readers will find it interesting to compare the final words of It Can’t Happen Here with those of Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s 1939 ode to the plight of the oppressed, The Grapes of Wrath. The former concludes with, “And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.” Tom Joad exits near the end with these words to his mother, “Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.” (It continues and represents one of the most stirring moments in the novel.)

While not Lewis’ greatest, it is a book with a message, a shouted warning that the lovers of democracy must always be on guard and always ready to rise to its defense, the sooner always being the better. 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