Brow Beat

What Sundance Favorite Going Clear Tells Us About Scientology

In 2012, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright published a masterful profile of Oscar-winning director and former Scientologist Paul Haggis. That piece, along with three years of reporting, became Going Clear, Wright’s searing, best-selling book on Scientology and its cultish leader, David Miscavige. Director Alex Gibney has now adapted Wright’s book into a documentary of the same name, and, according to the first reviews trickling in from Sundance, it’s a revelatory account of the religion’s inner workings.

So what, exactly, does the film tell us about Scientology? Not much new, if you’ve read Wright’s book. For those who haven’t, we’ve done a roundup of some of the more striking allegations:

Miscavige Is a Power-Hungry Mad Hatter

Going Clear draws a clean line between L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, and Miscavige, who assisted Hubbard in his teen years and claimed the church’s top position in 1987. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn notes that while Hubbard “may very well have felt passionately about the potential for his religion to cure his own psychological ailments,” Miscavige’s “crazed managerial style” is used for the less admirable ends of fear-mongering, pocketing of church funds, and abuse of church members.

The film uses rare archival footage to show Miscavige at the pulpit, addressing those at galas and birthday parties with “the confidence of a dictator,” and several defectors detail his obsession with “transforming the church into a global superpower.” The portrait painted is of a man consumed and warped by ambition. Omitted from the movie is Wright’s research on the disappearance of Miscavige’s wife, Michele, who hasn’t been seen in public since 2007 and whose whereabouts remain unknown.

The Church Recruits and Rears Celebrities

In case it wasn’t abundantly clear: Scientology leaders actively seek out, convert, and micromanage celebrities to further the religion’s reach and attract followers. The most notable, of course, is Tom Cruise, whose marriage to Nicole Kidman was—according to Marty Rathbun, the church’s second highest-ranking official before defecting—intentionally undermined by Miscavige. Why? Because Kidman wanted to sever ties with the church, and because her father “is a well-known psychologist in Australia, and Scientology vehemently opposes psychiatry and psychology.” According to the Daily Beast, Rathbun also reveals that the church “re-educated Cruise’s adopted children with Kidman, Connor and Isabella, into turning against their mother so that Cruise could retain custody.” Rathbun and others then attempted to pair Cruise with a suitably Scientology-supporting wife.

Another of Going Clear’s high points is the testimony of Spanky Taylor, who played a huge part in recruiting Scientology’s other crown convert—John Travolta. Taylor brought Travolta into the church, but, having since defected, admits that his allegiance isn’t entirely voluntary: After years of spiritual “auditing”—the process by which members reveal their deepest secrets and desires in order to go “clear”—the church has enough dirt on Travolta to keep him loyal. Though Going Clear demands that Cruise and Travolta speak out against the injustices of Scientology, they and other followers like Elizabeth Moss, Beck, and Kirstie Alley remain quiet and refused to participate in the film.

Torture and Other Human Rights Abuse

The story of Taylor’s defection is also relevant in the context of the disturbing allegations of torture, assault, and human rights abuse that plague the church. As a member, Taylor was forced to do “arduous physical labor” while pregnant, and her infant daughter was “taken away from her and left in a urine-soaked crib and unsanitary, fly-infested conditions.”

Going Clear touches on these crimes and more, including slave labor on the church’s Sea Org boats, members forced to “disconnect” from family, frequent physical abuse by Miscavige, and a prison camp used to punish church officials. Allegations like these have long existed, but the film’s first-hand accounts from defectors like Rathbun, Taylor, and Mike Rinder make them even more chilling.

The Numbers Game

Going Clear ends by noting that the church has fewer than 50,000 members but still possesses more than $3 billion in assets. Most of this wealth can be attributed to Scientology’s long, tortured, and ultimately triumphant battle with the IRS to be deemed a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. That victory is perhaps Miscavige’s keystone achievement: as the film details, and as the New York Times reported in 1997, Miscavige used a combination of lawsuits, backroom negotiations, and private investigators digging up dirt on IRS officials to secure Scientology’s status as a religion.

That status guaranteed the millions in revenue that finance Miscavige’s “never defend, always attack” approach. Defectors are constantly harassed, and Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri observes that “many of those still in the religion fare worse, with elaborate punishments that would be considered assault and torture if you or I did it, but in Scientology’s case are protected under the First Amendment protection of religions.” Scientology officials have already slammed Going Clear, claiming Gibney and Wright refused to interview church members; Gibney and Wright, for their part, hired 160 lawyers to vet the film for inaccuracies and ensure legal protection. Their work is a stunning exposé of an organization and religion too long shrouded in mystery. Going Clear will air on HBO in March.