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Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition

Interview with Lawrence Wright

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

You write this scene where Paul Haggis is brought in to read the deepest, darkest secrets of his religion, where he finds out about all the Xenu and space opera stuff. His reaction, which seems reasonable, is “This stuff is crazy.” Why do they stay in, especially after hearing those parts of Scientology's belief system?

Scientology is not unique in having an extremely esoteric belief system. Religion is irrational. It's almost the definition of it. New religions such as Scientology certainly bear a higher mark than other religions because they're not consecrated by time. Most of the dominant religions in the world were founded at a time when there were not investigative reporters and television. They got the benefit of not having the scrutiny that we give to new belief systems now.
With Scientology, there are two things. One is they may believe it. There may be people in Scientology who avidly endorse the belief system that makes up the faith. Tom Cruise is a notable example. And then there are other people like Paul Haggis who may not swallow it, but who remain a part of the religion for other reasons. A belief system is what separates a religious community from the rest of society. And if you say, “I believe this,” you cross a line into a community of people who agree with you or at least say they do. With Scientology, like many other religious communities, it's a very supportive, but closed environment. Many people, like Paul Haggis, have their friends inside that circle. Their family are involved with it. They've given a lot of money. They've made public declarations of their belief. It's not so easy to step outside of that circle once you're inside of it. And they're often times rewarded by their involvement. Many people I talked to said they got a lot out of Scientology. People go into Scientology often times because they have some personal problem they want to address, and Scientology offers a menu of courses that may help. Jerry Seinfeld still credits Scientology with helping him gain the confidence to become a standup comedian by taking one of their communications courses. That kind of report is really common. In addition, Scientology has a form of therapy called auditing, and sometimes people feel they've gotten something out of it. One of the things that people report very commonly is they've discovered past lives during the auditing process. That's good news to a lot of people, that they've lived before and that they'll live eternally. That’s very appealing.

What little familiarity I have with Scientology's dark side came from Debbie Cook's court hearing here last year – claims the church kidnapped, imprisoned, mentally and physically tortured people. How common is this behavior, and how and why did it start?

It's confined to the clergy of Scientology, which is called the Sea Org. And the church has these re-education camps for members of their clergy in various places around the world. But at the international headquarters of the Sea Org, which is a compound in Southern California in the desert, there is one of these re-education camps comprised of two double-wide trailers and called “the hole.” And in 2006, (David) Miscavige, the leader of the church, began confining some of his top executives in these trailers. He had all the furniture removed, so they slept on the floor. At one point there were more than 100 of these Scientology executives confined in “the hole.” The level of abuse that went on there was really extraordinary. I was just stunned when I started interviewing people about their experiences inside that and how grotesque it became, especially for a religion. The physical and verbal and emotional abuse that took place was so degrading. And it certainly reflects poorly on the church itself that they allowed this kind of thing to happen.
But physical abuse and confinement, involuntary confinement, that's something that has been a part of the Sea Org since it was first formed on this Scientology fleet that L. Ron Hubbard created in the middle-1960s. And he himself ordered children, even, to be confined in anchor chain lockers for days and weeks at a time. That's where this idea of forcible punishment took root and, I think, if you wanna find the DNA of this kind of abusive system, it goes back to the days on the Apollo, the ship that Hubbard commanded.

Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
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  • Interview with Lawrence Wright In his newest book, Going Clear, Austin-based journalist Lawrence Wright profiles Scientology, a new American religion that, while ubiquitous among the... | 4/10/2013
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  • Interview with Laurie Ann Guerrero Laurie Ann Guerrero’s collection Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying won the 2012 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and was published February 15 by University of... | 4/10/2013
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