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Home » Culture and Criticism

TN Read-Along #13: Inside Scientology Discussion Thread

Submitted by on December 18, 2011 – 12:15 PM59 Comments

William Poundstone is pretty good with a low-pH zinger. In Bigger Secrets, a book I've reread a hundred times thanks primarily to Poundstone's "…seriously?" prose, he gives this account of Scientology's handling of Hubbard's death:

Finally in 1986, the Scientology organization conceded that Hubbard was permanently indisposed. The word death was studiously avoided, but we were given to understand that Hubbard "no longer had need of the encumbrance of the physical identity we have known as L. Ron Hubbard," in the words of Scientology President Heber Jentzsch. (60-61)

So far, Inside Scientology is offering a similar experience: the sense, in prose, of a chef uncovering a dish, then standing back from it silently while it steams.

As I may have mentioned elsewhere, I'm listening to the book, so the experience is a bit different — starting with the fact that I consume it primarily in the car, so all the eye-rolling I do at L. Ron Hubbard's made-up words and kookoopants conceptions of our collective past (…a…mollusk? world? REALLY, NUTBAR?!), and Scientologists' credulity thereof, has nearly sent me off the road several times.

I haven't finished it yet — as of this writing, I've gotten to the part where that Jeff guy is trying to dodge the draft by taking over Scientology's graphic-design "org." So far, though, I've been impressed that what the introduction promised — as balanced a look as possible at the history and workings of Scientology — is pretty much delivered, not least because the even-toned presentation makes much of the man and his teachings look that much more ridiculous. (There is one spot where she stops just short of adding an acerbic "…for ONCE" to a sentence about how Hubbard did not write to the FBI to complain about something or other as he had 23,193 times in the past. Heh.) The narrator, Stephen Hoye, has an "I don't make the news, folks; I just report it" delivery that creates smug delight around each variation on the theme of "research failed to substantiate Hubbard's grandiose claims" — of which there are many. Hoye's rendition of the lead-up to the Saturday Evening Post's story on the Church, then Hubbard's childlike reaction to the author's contemptuous hit job (and the snippets from the hit job itself), is immensely entertaining. I also like the patronizing micro-pause he takes before each time he says "LRH." Because: barf.

I admire Hubbard's construction of the organization. He was clearly a megalomaniac, but the explanation of how the special terminology — how words no longer mean what they mean to "suppressive persons" — both makes converts feel special and privileged and effectively estranges them from outsiders is concisely insightful, and Hubbard's ability to capitalize on certain sore spots and anxieties, while not used for good in my opinion, is in fact an "ability." Reitman's refusal to break the authorial wall and wail "THIS IS THE SMURFIEST THING I EVER HEARD — 'A GIANT CLAM,' FOR FUCK'S SAKE" is really quite heroic, as I screamed that very thing to myself in the car last night about ten times and I doubt I could have resisted doing so in Reitman's shoes. (I have also screamed things like "MARRY SOMEONE YOUR OWN AGE, YOU BIGAMOUS DEADBEAT-DAD HOG FART" and "WHY DON'T YOU 'INTREPIDLY EXPLORE' A BEEHIVE, YOU LYING WEIRDO" and "PLEASE LEARN CRITICAL THINKING, NINETEEN-SIXTIES TWENTYSOMETHINGS, JESUS H. CHRIST.")

It's informative, it's obviously meticulously researched, and it's creeping me right out that searching for it on Google pops Scientology's own website up first. Nice SEO, thetans.

What about you guys? How's the writing from a reading (vs. listening) standpoint? Any disgusted muttering occasioned by the word "Dianeticists"? Anyone else giggle at the part where Hubbard is all, "Dear Navy, I wish to inform you that blah blah leaving the state, as surely you will give many shits about my whereabouts at all times," and the Navy was like, "Whatever, dude. Take care"?

Speaking of that, one last snippet from Poundstone on Hubbard's d'oh-stinguished naval career:

Off Oregon, Hubbard's ship engaged what they thought was a Japanese submarine. The navy thinks it was just a log. Hubbard's ship next sailed down the coast and opened fire on Mexico. Since we weren't at war with Mexico, the navy thought this was a dumb idea. Hubbard was discharged for arthritis and bursitis. (60)

Reitman differs in that Hubbard was apparently released because of his ulcers, and also for being a pain in the ass, but still. Hee.

…Discuss!

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59 Comments »

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Oh, goody, the thread is open!

    I'm reading as opposed to listening, but there has been plenty of muttering at the page a la "GIANT CLAMS THETAN XENU REALLY SIXTIES PEOPLE? I KNOW IT WAS THE SIXTIES BUT REALLY?" on tap at my bar, with lots of "Honey I know you're in the middle of updating your website but LISTEN TO THIS CRAP" chasers.

    The book definitely reads like a magazine journalist wrote it, and I don't mean that in a bad way. The flow is smooth, with the info broken down so not too much is lost but the story doesn't get bogged down in microdetail either. And the detached tone definitely highlights the whatthefuckery in a way that a more "engaged" one might have drowned out.

    I'm a little ahead of you, with the fleet of ships being steered about, and my impression of Hubbard so far:

    The man was obviously whacked out and a fabulist of the highest order, but more than that, he was also one of the canniest businessmen ever, with a crystal clear insight into, specifically, the American Capitalist state of mind.

    Hubbard somehow managed to pick up that money is our national language, and the medium through which we express worship and worth. He knew that charging for everything would allure us, and that the more we paid the more fantastic the secrets we were paying for had to be. Nobody spends fifteen years and a hundred grand getting "cleared" to hear the ultimate secret is "stand up straight and eat your veggies." We are paying for a GOOD story, and God knows he was perfect to provide that. He learned from his Dianetics mistakes and used that knowledge to streamline what he wanted to do, and say what you will, it worked.

    However, the "REALLY? GIANT CLAM?" factor is never far out of mind.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Oh, and I've got to share my husband's assessment of Hubbard: "Crazy like a fox…with rabies."

  • attica says:

    It's a marvel to me why clams don't sue these eejits.

  • Julie says:

    I'll have to pick this one up next! I've taken to listening to audio books in my car, and for some reason, nonfiction is working better for me. I'm almost done with "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Krakauer, which apparently has similar themes and tone. When the narrator is giving the Joseph Smith backstory, there are these tiny pauses that make you feel like he's thinking, "Um, really? Shiny gold tablets that were conveniently lost? Really??" and it makes it an entertaining listen.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The entire "I went back to a past life and it was so intense, I broke a bunch of ribs" sequence is boggling. And…"Teegeeach"? I understand that teenagers raised in the faith might not question it as readily as others, but if you came to Scientology from "extern" life, how do you not see that he's just making shit up?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Julie, that definitely applied to reading it, too. (See also: Krakauer's bone-dry description of all the crizzap Sandy Hill Pittman hauled halfway up Everest. Er, "had Sherpas haul halfway up Everest.")

  • Brian says:

    The thing that gets me about Hubbard is haven't these people ever read any of his science fiction? One of the great shames of my life is that I read the entire ten-volume "Mission Earth" series when I was a teenager, just to see if I could. (Incidentally, Hubbard died halfway through writing book 8, and you can clearly spot the point, because the narrator you've had for the entirety of the series suddenly disappears and is replaced.) The point being that if you've read any of his fiction, then most of his "theology" reads just like…well, like the bad ideas he didn't put into his novels. If you're exposed to the guy as a sci-fi author first, and a religious figure second, there's no way to possibly take him seriously.

  • Sandman says:

    Looking forward to reading this one; I planned get it from the library, and I hope it comes through quickly.

    "Dianeticists" sounds weird, but maybe it's because for me the name "Dianetics" never hit the (pseudo-?)scientific tone I presume Elron – er, L. Ron. was aiming for. "Dianetics" sounds to me like it should be the name of an early-80s series of workout videos produced by a L'Oreal blonde in leg warmers named Diane; unfortunately, they got remaindered when Jane Fonda stole her thunder.

  • MinglesMommy says:

    OH. MY. GOD. I need to find this book so I can read along. I must learn all about this clam business. Because I personally believe that we actually descended from oysters. From the planet Flurgh. (I have this sudden desire to start quoting "Futurama.")

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    You know L Ron's head is Robot Body Nixon's most trusted adviser, Minglesmommy.

  • Angela says:

    Did they ever discuss Crowley or the obsession with redheads in the 1950's sci-fi community? Not that I would place ole L-Ron with Heinlein or Herbert (and that is sad company) but I just keep
    wondering where a meme like "beautiful genius redhead births new messiah" even starts. LSD and I Love Lucy? No wonder Nicole got the hell out of Dodge!

  • Lindsay says:

    Sara, a side note on the 'SEO' techniques employed by Scientology:

    As someone who used to work for a Search Engine (RIP Ask Jeeves *sniffle*), I can tell you first-hand that this is the way they optimize their Search Engine results:
    1)get live Search Engine employee's email and/or phone number.
    2)beg/plead/bother/harass until that person passes their complaint up the chain-of-command.
    2)rinse, repeat
    3)eventually the complaint is in front of someone (Legal, CEO, whomever) with the power to command a permanent 'fix' <–"No mollusks, ever!!"

    Let me tell you, my team raised plenty of objections to prejudicing SE results in this manner. But the Plebes have absolutely no say when there is a directive from the Higher Ups…or you can bet that you'd see a whole hell of a lot more results anti- or even questioning-Scientology.

    I'm SO reading this book!

  • avis says:

    I am guessing there are many more lurkers than posters because at this point if you Google this book the first thing that comes up is Tomato Nation!

  • Hannah says:

    I'm about halfway through (started early; too excited!), and among the many interesting side effects of reading this book is that I now look skeptically upon any unfamiliar nonprofit–especially the drug-related ones. I wonder if there's a good litmus test for ensuring that you're not contributing to a Scientology "org"?

    (Also, the Lisa McPhereson story? Oy. That'll stick with you.)

  • Hannah says:

    OH MY GOD and I just investigated the press release in our office fax this morning that brought to mind my new nonprofit suspicions: "The Say No To Drugs Holiday Classic was started 23 years ago by world class runner and local resident Sandra Johnson, member of the Dianetics Athletics Association of the Church of Scientology." http://www.saynotodrugs.com/who-we-are

    (Doesn't help that I'm just south of Clearwater. I'm scared. Hold me.)

  • Georgia says:

    I work reviewing books, and at least twice my boss has invited in Scientologists who try to get us to review L. Ron Hubbard's old (re-issued) sci-fi & western books. Thankfully, we don't review re-issues, but damn if those reps aren't persistent. (My boss is fully aware of the crazy evilness, but basically just appeases them so they'll stop harassing her.) I did get some great swag, though: L. Ron Hubbard playing cards, each of which features a different book cover and synopsis, and an interview/profile of Hubbard on DVD, with voice-over by Jason Dohring (aka Veronica Mars's Logan Echolls).

  • cayenne says:

    I was afraid I wouldn't have the chance to join in to this amazingly erudite & snarky discussion, but the book has just arrived for moi at my friendly neighbourhood library, and I just happen to be stuck in an airplane for much of tomorrow, so: yay. I am actually looking forward to air travel, go figure.

  • momcat says:

    Not even reading the book (although I plan to), but I'm reminded of a favorite movie,"Repo Man," in which a character points to a book called "Diuretics" and says it changed his life.

  • Kim says:

    I am guessing there are many more lurkers than posters because at this point if you Google this book the first thing that comes up is Tomato Nation!

    That is hilarious and gives me the wig, at the same time. Are we being…watched?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Must these people abbreviate everything? "DM," "sec checks" — it's all so wannabe-military and kids'-clubhouse-y.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    And in case you missed it when it first came out, Paul Haggis resigns from Scientology and Anne Archer makes us hate her: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_wright?currentPage=all

  • Sandman says:

    I just picked this up from the library and I'm already simultaneously creeped out and rolling my eyes.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Okay I'm up to DM's takeover, and man, could you ask for a better illustration of "it can ALWAYS get worse"?

    Seriously, what are the odds of this "religion" existing at all, then being taken as far as it was by the one and only person on the planet the right combination of brilliant and total lunacy to do so, and then, at just the right moment, be engulfed by another b/tl combo who had just the right proportions to drag the thing to its next (bizarre/creepy/deeply sad and mockable) level?

    I know about brainwashing and groupthink and making the most bizarro things seem totally reasonable if you're trained to think that way but JESUS CHRIST, people. Private jails? Hard labor? Eating from buckets? If you have needs this treatment is fulfilling, you need so very, very much of that psychiatry it is frightening.

    (Isn't it amazing how people who are truly in need of mental health treatment manage to gravitate towards Scientology and its ilk, that strokes and pats them and tells them it's not them, it's the world, and they are really strong and brave and have a mission and we are the only ones with the true keys to existance, all credit cards accepted?)

    Oh, and Operation Snow White? WHY ARE THESE FUCKERS NOT IN JAIL??

  • Megan in Seattle says:

    Oh, the abbreviations and initialisms! As Sars and Jen S. suggest above, Hubbard was a bit of an organizational genius: nothing makes the in-group feel "in" like having a language only they can follow without a decoder ring. And then the way the group targets celebrities (the chapter on the seduction of Tom Cruise really is something) and seekers of all sorts is pretty amazing.

  • Pegkitty says:

    I'm a little over 1/3 of the way through, just where they have beaten the IRS (!) into submission. Looking forward to all the celebrity business.

  • Sandman says:

    … nothing makes the in-group feel "in" like having a language only they can follow without a decoder ring.

    I think the combination of "insider" knowledge, secret codes and the kind of ad hominem argument implicit in terminology like "suppressive persons," "denyers" (which: thanks, Spell Rong Hubbard) and the refrain of "you just don't get it," is killer.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The New Yorker piece also points up a "you jus' jellus" tone in response to legitimate questions about events and procedures — sort of a variation on "you don't get it." Dismissive verbal shrugs of "that's a lie," "consider the source," etc.

  • Hannah says:

    Amen to "kids clubhouse-y"–that's a perfect summary of the concept I was having trouble describing, and the defensive/dismissive "we're right and you're stupid" response to Every. Damn. Thing. also goes along with the whole "Afternoon in a Sandbox with Little Ronnie Crazy" motif.

  • c8h10n4o2 says:

    So I finished the book on my Kindle last night, and having read Raven right before that (if you REALLY want to see how wrong a cult can go) I am now fully creeped out and glad that the closest that my parents took me to organized religion was Unitarian Universalism. The most doctrine I was exposed to was "Eh, be nice to people." And Miscavige is completely spooky. I kind of wish that we'd gotten to find out why SPOILER he wound up banishing his wife, but the sources might not have been there. The endnotes were also really helpful, which I'm guessing that you might be missing out on in the audio version. The notifying the Navy thing is actually explained as legitimate in the endnotes because he didn't officially get released until 1950. The section on Lisa McPherson is completely horrifying and I will never go near Clearwater ever.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Ironically, having finished the book (yay turkey/tryptophan pinning of body to couch1) the thing I took away, especially from the last chapters, is that for an organization that has fully focused on secrecy and fundamentalism, it's really turned out like every other single human endeavor in history.

    It has ups, downs, true believers and disgruntled exes. It made a lot of money, missed a lot of trends but rode others, is currently being run by a crazy man, and asks for a lot of your money and time so the further in you go, the more reluctant you are to admit having wasted so much of both.

    It has celebrity spokespeople (and during the Tom Cruise chapter, I took away several personally drawn suppositions: That David M. was in love with Tom Cruise in some way, that Cruise was basically blackmailed into his prostie ways [this is a 'religion', after all, that makes it a central point to know all your secrets], and Cruise took it over the top on purpose to make Scientology look bad. Just some ideas, you can't sue me, Scientologists!)

    It has young starry eyed idealists and popular culture mockery. And in Lisa McPherson and who knows, maybe others? it has martyrs.

    Nothing Scientology has done in its history has made it different, in any way, shape or form, from any other group endeavor on earth.

  • attica says:

    Jen S 1.0: b.b.but….the clams! :)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Oh, right. The clams. Damnit. Okay, I'll concede the clams as the Unique Mollusk attached to the Scientology ship.

    Stupid clam. I hate you!

  • Kerry says:

    I haven't started the audiobook yet — I just picked it up from my library. But I just wanted to come here to respond to the note left on my hold slip that read "TN Book Club?" Yes, anonymous librarian in Blackwood, NJ, it IS for the TN Book Club! I was so delighted to find your note, thank you for filling my request.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Wow, really? That's awesome.

    Awesome in a different way: the Lisa McPherson chapter, upon which I've just embarked while doing chores. That poor woman.

  • senlin says:

    I agree, so far (I'm about halfway through), this is definitely well-written and pretty fascinating. I knew very little about Scientology going in and was trying to stay open-minded about it, but now I'm pretty convinced it's basically a cult. :P I guess it's tried to be less cult-like in recent years, but… there's just so much in this book that's so completely crazy. I really have to wonder how intelligent people could have had anything to do with this church.

    As for LRH, it made me kind of sad, because he obviously had some serious mental problems. I feel like the main reason he got away with most of the stuff he did is because he surrounded himself with worshippers who would wait on him hand and foot – which, again, is basically what a cult-leader does.

    The Scientology backstory of Xenu and so on does make pretty good science fiction. I feel like all of this could have made a pretty good episode of "Star Trek" (the original series); it's too bad that LRH made it into a reality that involved the lives of real human beings.

    But anyway, great book so far. :D

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Ironically, there are people who take Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. seriously enough to think of it as a religion.

    The difference being, obviously, that the creators of these stories do NOT set themselves up as prophets or demand your unquestioning obedience. They'll take your money, but at least you get a tangible DVD or action figure to play with in return.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The Lisa McPherson chapter is making me very sad.

  • Barb says:

    There has been talk in the science fiction community for decades that L.Ron wrote a science fiction short story about how to create a religion. No one has ever given me an actual title or any publication information, and I would really like to know if such a short story exists. Then I would like to read it. Can the Nation help me with this?

  • Jaybird says:

    "[T]he chapter on the seduction of Tom Cruise really is something)."

    Yes. Yes, I'll bet it is. Specifically, it's ipecac in written form, no doubt.

    Now I have to get that book just to see if I'm right.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Barb, I heard rumors along the lines that he bet a freind he could start a religion, but I've never seen confirmation. I'd be interested to read that story if it's out there.

    And Lisa McPherson? Yeah. Fuck you, Scientology, with a rusty shovel. Sideways.

  • syfr says:

    bar bet between Hubbard & Robert Heinlein.

  • Blaise says:

    Wow I finished the book the other night! Definitely an awesome read. The founding was great, and I love how LRH decided to just start his own navy. The only thing better than a Captain is an Admiral!

    And a "billion-year contract"? Seriously? The Sea Org is definitely scary.

    I'll admit I was looking forward to the Tom Cruise chapter the most. It was good, and weird how he became friends with DM. I was hoping there would be more though about the reasons why he became outspoken again. I guess I was hoping for more blackmail in there hehe.

  • Princess Leah says:

    About 1/3 of the way through this on my Kindle. LRH has just decided to discard his physical body and DM is on the rise. Creeptastic. Cannot believe that there is still 2/3 of the story left to go. This book is riveting stuff and (as many above have mentioned) remarkably even-handed in dealing with very incendiary material.

    With most major religions there is no way to prove or disprove the bedrock belief: Follow these rules and good thing(s) happen for you in the afterlife/next life.

    I would venture to say that one of the core Scientology tenets has been resoundingly shown to be false: The whole 'you will die if you venture beyond the Wall of Fire without proper preparation' thingie. I've read the one-page secret document that is meant to be lethal to the uninitiated. I am uninitiated. I am still alive. This is true of any number of folks who have read the one-page doc online or in Inside Scientology or in any of the multiple publications that have revealed the OT 3 secret.

    This, however, is probably not going to dissuade any true believers, cognative dissonance being a thing.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I'm sure they've come up with some story of the disembodied LRH blocking any incindiary pixels from the filthy eyes of Wogs.

    (Oh, and wogs! What would an asshole made up religion be without that soupcon of racism? Delightful!)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I don't approve of what Nicole Kidman is doing to her face, but when I got to the part where she was considered an "SP" (JUST SAY THE WORDS "SUPPRESSIVE" AND "PERSON" AND STOP ABBREVIATING EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN THING, SMURVES! AH GAHHHHH), I suddenly wanted to see all her movies and buy Keith Urban albums.

    Okay, not that last thing and not that movie with Sean Penn, but still. Totes Team Nicole over here.

  • Todd K says:

    I only like an average of one Nicole Kidman movie/performance for every six that appear, but I have to be a quasi-fan of anyone who can survive and flourish after the combined creepiness of Cruise and that embarrassing masturbatory book by cinema academic David Thomson. (Those unfamiliar with the book will think I'm using "masturbatory" in a wholly abstract sense. Those who have ever even leafed through it will know better.)

  • Grace says:

    I'll have to dive back into this book tonight – I read the first couple of chapters on my kindle, then got sidetracked between Thanksgiving travel and work craziness.

    Strangely enough, my office is a couple of blocks from the San Francisco HQ of Scientology. They took over a beautiful old building that's across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid. I'll occasionally see a few (2-3) members of the Sea Org walking around the neighborhood. The real fun is that a local anti-scientology group regularly pickets outside the 'church', usually blasting house music, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, and dancing. I should have taken some pictures yesterday, but they're usullly there a few times a month, I'll have more chances.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    hee. "Occupy Sea Org!"

  • Princess Leah says:

    My husband is British, and I ran 'wog' past him. He just about died hearing me say the word, even though I was quoting from Inside Scientology. Just because we don't know how offensive this term is outside of the U.K. does not make it okay to use, Scientologists. Seriously.

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