“Going Clear”: HBO Doc Probes Scientology’s “Prison of Belief”

By on March 27, 2015

Alex Gibney’s documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, about the inner workings of founding guru L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial “religion,” debuts on HBO on Sunday, March 29.

The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where it received a standing ovation from those in attendance. It has also received widespread praise from critics for its deconstruction of the Church of Scientology’s claims through a combination of presenting a condensed history of Scientology and its founder, how celebrities interact with the Church, the stories of a number of ex-members — and the abuse and exploitation that they described seeing and experiencing.


HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins told The Hollywood Reporter that the network had 160 lawyers look at the film due to fears of backlash from the Church. She said they were also bracing for protests. The last time HBO decided to air something bout Scientology, the 1998 documentary Dead Blue: Surviving Depression, throngs of protesters converged in front of HBO’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, lambasting Nevins and the company for presenting antidepressant drugs in a positive light (Scientologists are opposed to psychiatry).

Going Clear is based on prizewinning New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.


You’ll note that the word “Hollywood” has been dropped from the doc’s title: we haven’t found a concise reason for why it wasn’t included, but it’s likely that it could be that the title was simply too long for a documentary. Or perhaps HBO, who produced the documentary, may have excised it over concerns that focusing on the Hollywood aspect of the Scientology story in the doc was going to be tough enough, and perhaps it wasn’t worth it to highlight that aspect. After all, HBO has to keep up their Hollywood relationships with west coast-based TV executives, producers and actors, and you never know who might be a member of the Church.

One of the Church’s claims, after all, is that their are 8 million members, but this has been roundly debunked in the film, which claims that there’s only about 30,000 adherents worldwide.

And one out of every six members of the Church of Scientology lives in Los Angeles. Not surprising, really.

There are well-known representatives from the Hollywood chapter, naturally, including filmmaker Paul Haggis, who became the poster boy for escaping Scientology’s sway, thanks to the 2011 New Yorker profile that ultimately grew into Wright’s book.


Then there’s John Travolta. It’s rumored that the actor allegedly remains a member of the Church because it has too much dirt on him and has threatened to make his private info public. Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri writes:

Travolta, it’s suggested, is kept in the group because they have mountains and mountains of dirt on him, the result of years of spiritual “auditing” (the process by which Scientologists basically reveal their deepest secrets, which are then cataloged and brought out whenever someone needs some, uh, encouragement, as the Mafia likes to say).


Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was born in 1911, in Tilden, Nebraska. After having a series of misadventures in the Pacific, in Guam and other places, he came back to the U.S. and began attending college, dropping out due to failing grades to become a science fiction writer.

Hubbard later claimed to have had a distinguished wartime naval career, but he never saw any actual combat and left the US Navy petitioning the Veterans Administration for psychiatric care. Two bigamous marriages failed. He found a little bit of success writing pulpy sci-fi stories, but he wasn’t really making much of a career for himself, and as he declared in the late 1940s: “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”

Hubbard also took up ritual magic, the occult and hypnosis, and even gave demonstrations of hypnosis, in 1948. There’s an unsubstantiated rumor still floating around that claims Hubbard actually started Scientology after making a bet with another sci-fi writer. As one version of the story goes, Hubbard made a bet with Robert Heinlein, a much better science fiction writer than he ever was, that he could get rich by creating a pseudo-religion.

Rumor or not, many witnesses have come forth over the years, reporting that Hubbard made similar statements in their presence, that starting a religion would be a good way to make money. These statements have led many to believe that Hubbard hid his true intentions and was motivated solely by potential financial rewards. Editor Sam Merwin, for example, recalled a meeting with Hubbard which convinced him of Hubbard’s real intention: “I always knew he was exceedingly anxious to hit big money—he used to say he thought the best way to do it would be to start a cult.” (he apparently said this as early as December 1946). Writer and publisher Lloyd Arthur Eshbach reported Hubbard saying, two years later, “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is” (quoted in Over My Shoulder: Reflections On A Science Fiction Era, Donald M. Grant Publisher, 1983). Several other writers have been quoted as hearing Hubbard say pretty much the same thing, and and they all wrote it down.

He began forming the first kernels of an idea — frankly, he probably had it all along — of a “therapy system” that he felt had tremendous promotional and sales potential. It combined together elements of hypnotic techniques, Freudian theories, Buddhist concepts and elements of other philosophies and practices, and in May of 1950, at the age of 39, Hubbard wrote his first essay detailing discoveries made about the human mind in a science he called “Dianetics.”


It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, which was edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.. ASF had become a magazine that was central to science-fiction’s “Golden Age” (late 1930s through the 1950s). Campbell enthusiastically embraced Dianetics, which was was heavily promoted in the pages of ASF (he later reversed his position on it, in 1951). Using the concepts begun with Dianetics, Hubbard would go on to found the Church of Scientology in 1953.


Hubbard claimed to have uncovered the cure for virtually every ailment known to man, and professed to have healed himself from partial blindness caused by an alleged war injury. Hubbard promised his book could work wonders on anyone who tried it. He said that he could take anyone who was not brain-damaged and in less than a thousand hours of therapy, which could be done by somebody completely untrained who had read the book, you could take this person to a state called “clear.” Hubbard claimed that all illnesses were psychosomatic, and could be cured by eliminating painful past experiences from the brain. L. Ron Hubbard has also said, “The real work here is to put man in a mental condition where he can solve his own problems.” The goal of Scientology is to put people “in a position where they can confront their own problems and solve their own problems, and so bring them up by their own bootstraps.”

L. Ron Hubbard

Hubbard said the troubling reactive mind could be forever discarded through auditing. During an auditing session, one confesses his innermost thoughts to another, all the while being monitored by an a type of lie detector called the “electropsychometer,” which he believed would yield better results in auditing. He obtained a franchise for this device, which he renamed the Hubbard Electrometer, or E-meter.  He began calling patients “pre-clears” and “within six weeks had created a new subject apparently out of thin air. Auditing, Hubbard said, allowed one to leave his mind from troubling past life traumas.

“This book reveals the results of fifteen years of study and research on the working of the human mind. Tackling the problem by the scientific method, the author has discovered what he believes to be the source of all mental and psychosomatic ills, and has developed a technique of Dianetic Therapy that has work successfully for everyone one of the two hundred and seventy unselected cases treated and tested.”

Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was an instant best-seller. Hubbards’ book — later referred to as “Book One” — was expected to sell around six thousand copies, but it kept selling, staying atop the New York Times best-seller’s list by selling over 150,000 copies within a year. Glowing testimonies to Hubbard’s technology led to the Hubbard Association of Scientologists. Based in Hollywood, CA, the organization taught Hubbard’s courses to anyone willing to pay the $25 an hour for the therapy. “Scientology means knowledge or truth, study of,” Hubbard said. “The overall training of an auditor compares to the same number of class hours in college of about twelve years.”


Of course, the real reason for forming this new religion, Scientology, was probably always a way for Hubbard to get rich. He established a headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, awarded himself the degree of Doctor of Scientology, and in May of 1952 incorporated the Hubbard Association of Scientologists International under the personal control of himself and his third wife, Mary Sue.


Here’s an excerpt from a letter — written by Hubbard on April 10, 1953, and discovered by the FBI during its raid on Scientology headquarters — shows that he clearly intended to turn Scientology into a “religion” for financial reasons:

The arrangements that have been made seem a good temporary measure. On a longer look, however, something more equitable will have to be organized. I am not quite sure what we would call the place – probably not a clinic – but I am sure that it ought to be a company, independent of the HAS [The Hubbard Association of Scientologists] but fed by the HAS. We don’t want a clinic. We want one in operation but not in name. Perhaps we could call it a Spiritual Guidance Center. Think up its name, will you. And we could put in nice desks and our boys in neat blue with diplomas on the walls and 1. knock psychotherapy into history and 2. make enough money to shine up my operating scope and 3. keep the HAS solvent. It is a problem of practical business. I await your reaction on the religion angle. In my opinion, we couldn’t get worse public opinion than we have had or have less customers with what we’ve got to sell. A religious charter would be necessary in Pennsylvania or NJ to make it stick. But I sure could make it stick. We’re treating the present time beingness, psychotherapy treats the past and the brain. And brother, that’s religion, not mental science.


That same year, 1953, he regained control of Dianetics after a protracted legal battle and incorporated the Church of Scientology, Church of American Science and Church of Spiritual Engineering. Then, in 1954 he incorporated the Church of Scientology of California, which became the Mother Church. Two years later, the Church was granted US federal tax-exempt status. In 1957, passing himself off as a nuclear physicist, Hubbard gave a series of lectures in London on “nuclear radiation and health,” promoting a vitamin compound which he claimed cured both “radiation sickness” and cancer. 1957 was also the year the CIA began keeping a file on him.

Here’s An Introduction To Scientology, which is hailed as the only filmed interview that L. Ron Hubbard ever granted. It was shot in 1966.


Going Clear estimates Scientology has to date amassed over $1 billion in tax-free wealth.

“An organization that’s managed to retain its tax-exempt status based on its classification as a religion according to the IRS with access to some $3 billion in assets, is still a fearsome beast to contend with,” writes The Hollywood Reporter in its review.

“The documentary is a broadside against the controversial religion,” Variety adds. It argues that Scientology exploits its tax exempt status to amass millions of dollars in property and donations, behaving more like a business than a charity.


In 1967 the IRS stripped Scientology’s mother church of its tax-exempt status. With his organization coming under increasing scrutiny from a variety of governments and tax woes abounding, Hubbard wrote his famous “Fair Game” law, which states that anyone named an enemy of Scientology “may be tricked, sued, lied to or destroyed.” He would issue a directive canceling use of the term, “Fair Game” a year later, due to the negative publicity it received, but continued his attacks on every agency who would go after his Church, for whatever reason. That same year, Hubbard bought three ships and put to sea with a small cadre of followers. Styling himself “the Commodore,” and spent the next several years wandering the Atlantic, pursued by imaginary Reds and Nazis and attended by “Commodore’s Messengers,” teenaged girls dressed in white hot pants who waited on him hand and foot, bathing and dressing him and even catching the ash from his cigarettes.

Hubbard made bungling attempts to take over Morocco and Rhodesia and was banned from further entry into Britain. He began the Sea Organization (SO), whose members wear pseudo-naval uniforms, adopt naval ranks, sign billion year contracts and are pressured to have abortions when they become pregnant because children are perceived as interfering with their SO obligations.

While the Church of Scientology continued to expand, its private intelligence agency known as the Guardian’s Office (GO) ran cloak-and-dagger operations against various governmental agencies and anyone else the Church perceived was getting in their way. Eventually, in the early 1980s, Hubbard and his wife, who weas jailed along with eleven GO officials, were caught up in a bungled bugging and burgling operation against government offices across the US that Hubbard had personally created and code-named “Operation Snow White.” Hubbard was named as an un-indicted co-conspirator, but escaped justice because no one could find him. He had gone into seclusion following the “Operation Snow White” debacle and in the early 1980s David Miscavige, a second-generation Scientologist, took the reins of Scientology at age 21. At that time “…high-level defectors [were] accusing Hubbard of having stolen as much as $200 million from the Church [and] the IRS was seeking an indictment of Hubbard for tax fraud. Scientology members “worked day and night, shredding documents the IRS sought,” according to one defector.

Hubbard died in 1986 before the criminal case could be prosecuted. He is reported to have left behind an estate worth $26 million dollars.

In 2008, the internet hacker group Anonymous began releasing statements on YouTube and through a press release, outlining what they called their “War on Scientology.” In addition to shutting down the Church’s servers and causing a lot of technical problems, they’ve also released secret Church documents. One particular piece of information is this Scientology-approved orientation film with a rather bland title, Orientation: A Scientology Information Film, which is quite a remarkable bit of propaganda, although certainly it was meant to be used by the Church as a recruitment tool.  It appears to have been recorded in secret, with a small hand held camcorder. The film was produced by the Church’s Golden Era Productions, and like all Scientology instructional films, is based on a screenplay originally written by Hubbard himself. The film is hosted by Larry Anderson (who left the Church in 2009), and includes testimonials by Scientologists Kirstie Alley, Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, and John Travolta, who are identified only onscreen by their occupations. Kirstie Alley says, “To tell you the honest-to-god truth, without Scientology, I would be dead. So, I can personally, highly recommend it.” Travolta says: “Well, basically, there’s no part of my life that Scientology hasn’t helped. “

Have a look:

Here’s Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.

At the end of the film, Anderson, the host, says: If you leave this room after seeing this film, and walk out and never mention Scientology again, you are perfectly free to do so. It would be stupid, but you can do it. You can also dive off a bridge or blow your brains out. That is your choice. But, if you don’t walk out that way, if you continue with Scientology, we will be very happy with you. And, you will be very happy with you. You will have proven that you are a friend of yours”

There’s so much more that can be written about Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and the documentary itself, and its impossible to sum up everything, just as we’re sure that Going Clear is not going to be able to cover it all — that would probably end up being a mini-series, frankly, and it’s too bad HBO didn’t make that recommendation to the filmmakers — but we thought we’d close our post with this, L. Ron’s 1982 album Space Jazz, an album of soft jazz sounds punctuated by meant to be the accompanying soundtrack for his epic Battlefield Earth sci-fi novel, also released in ’82. It features performances by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Nicky Hopkins and Gayle Moran, among others. A demonstration of the “computer space jazz” soundtrack was one of the festival displays at the 1982 US Festival. In 1984, the LP was retitled Battlefield Earth.

Jazz pianist Chick Corea is featured on this track, though frankly we don’t know how you could concentrate on the book while listening to this album if this track is typical.

“As Thoreau secluded himself by Walden Pond,” Hubbard boasted at the time, “so I have chosen to do so in my own fashion. I am actively writing, having published Battlefield Earth, and my Space Jazz album.”

Battlefield Earth, you may recall, was eventually made into a colossal flop of a movie, in 2000, at which point L. Ron Hubbard was long dead, and Travolta, who was now too old to play the boy hero, was cat to play the villain Terl instead.

We find it rather strange that Travolta hasn’t attempted to make a bio-pic out of L. Ron’s life itself, now that would be something!



About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.