'Going Clear': A New Book Delves Into Scientology

Jan 24, 2013
Originally published on January 27, 2013 3:50 am

In the introduction to his new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright writes, "Scientology plays an outsize role in the cast of new religions that have arisen in the 20th century and survived into the 21st."

The book is a look inside the world of Scientology and the life of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. A recent ad for Scientology claims to welcome 4.4 million new converts each year.

Wright, who won a Pulitzer for his book The Looming Tower about the history of al-Qaida, has written throughout his career about the impact of religion on people's lives. He reports that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists, and about 5,000 of those live in Los Angeles. This includes some Hollywood actors; Wright says that almost from the time Hubbard founded Scientology, he hoped to attract members from Hollywood.

"He really said that he wanted to take over the entire entertainment industry," Wright tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, " ... but his dream grew larger when he established the Church of Scientology in Hollywood and set up the Celebrity Center with the goal of attracting notable celebrities. ... They wanted an exemplary Scientologist to show to the world, and ... you know, they did get some people like Gloria Swanson, the star of silent films, became a member. Rock Hudson came in the door for a while, and, in those early days, they were constantly patrolling for someone who could be the public face of Scientology."




Interview Highlights

On the Scientology practice of auditing

"If you get into Scientology, you will go to auditing. It's like therapy except that there is an E-meter between you and your auditor. That's a device that actually measures your galvanic skin responses. It's two metal cans that you hold. They used to be Campbell's Soup cans with the label scraped off. A small current passes through it and there's a needle that registers your reaction, and that's what the auditor is looking at when you're responding. Oftentimes in these circumstances you might remember — when pressed by the auditor — a previous existence, and this is given reality and validity by the E-meter. If you have an image in your mind and the E-meter says — according to the auditor — this is something real, what is that? And you have a vague memory of maybe a farmhouse in France — southern France in the 19th century — then you're asked to give more flesh to that memory and, eventually, you've developed a full, fully bodied, confabulated memory of another existence, and that's, that's very powerful in the minds of a lot of Scientologists, and good news because the idea that you are immortal has just been proven to you."

On a key moment in Hubbard's life when he believed he had a near-death experience

"He was taking gas for the dental surgery, and in the process he had, I think, what was a hallucination. He believed that he had died and gone to heaven and his disembodied spirit floated through these gates and suddenly all the secrets of existence were revealed to him and all the things that people have been asking since the beginning of time about the meaning of existence. And then, suddenly, these voices were saying, 'No, no. He's not ready. He's not ready,' and then he felt himself being pulled back, back, back, and then he woke up in the dental chair and he said to the nurse, 'I was dead, wasn't I?' and she apparently looked startled and the doctor gave her a dirty look. But this was a big moment in Hubbard's career because suddenly he became interested in metaphysics. And he wrote a book called Excalibur, which was never published, but it was based on the revelations he supposedly had achieved during this dental surgery. He said that people who read it were so shaken by it that, in one case, the reader came in and put the manuscript on the desk of the skyscraper office of the publisher and jumped out the window, and that the Russians had seized it and so on, but it never actually got published and we only have fragments of it available to us."

On how Hubbard really believed in Scientology and wasn't just a con man

"If he were purely a fraud and a con man as many say, at some point he would have taken the money and run. But he never did. He spent his whole life elaborating the cosmology, the bureaucracy he created to support this church. He spent the rest of his life — usually very much alone — elaborating his theories, the psychology, the religion that he was trying to create, the bureaucracy that's very intricate that supports it. That's what he gave his life to. So I think he really did believe, to some extent, that Scientology was real, but he was constantly inventing it. It was always on the fly, and for people who were around him, actually that was very exciting because you never knew what revelation was going to come next."

On the difference between Dianetics and Scientology

"In Dianetics ... there was a reactive mind and an analytical mind, and, you know, if you can purge these ancient memories that trouble you, you then, you'll be free, you'll be clear. Scientology has another layer on top of that, and in Scientology there are these levels of spiritual accomplishment that are called 'Operating Thetans.' The word 'Thetan' means, you know, 'the immortal soul.' We are all immortal souls, and part of Scientology is that you discover that in the course of your learning. But there are presently eight levels of Operating Thetans. When you get to Operating Thetan Level No. 3, there's a big discovery that you have in Scientology. It was the most closely held secret in the church until it was put out and dumped into a courtroom in the '80s and all the copyrighted secrets of the church became public knowledge. At that level, Hubbard reveals that we are all infested with space aliens that are called 'Body Thetans,' and they're really the sources of all of the problems and fears and things that we have in our lives, and if you can audit yourself and discover these Thetans and expel them, it's akin to casting out demons that you can free yourself to ever higher levels of spiritual accomplishment."

On the belief that Hubbard will return to Earth

"There's a widespread belief that he's going to return, and every Scientology church and his several residences and so on, they have his office ready for him. His sandals are at the shower door. He's got his cigarettes on his desk. In his residence in the Scientology compound in southern California there's a novel beside his bed, and they change his sheets on his bed daily and they set a table place for him for one at his dining room table. So there's a sense that he might come back at any moment."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Lawrence Wright, has written a new book investigating the history of Scientology and the story of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The book is called "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief." Wright first wrote about Scientology a couple of years ago in The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer.

He spent much of his career examining the effects of religious beliefs on people's lives. He won a Pulitzer for his book "The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." "Going Clear" traces the story of Scientology from its founder's formative years, to the present. Hubbard died in 1986. We're going to focus on Hubbard's story.

Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. When we think of a religion, we think of worship; and we think of a god. But there isn't quite a god, or worship, in Scientology. And Scientology offers what L. Ron Hubbard, its founder, I think would describe as scientific explanations of the world.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yeah, it doesn't really present itself as a faith. It claims to be built on scientific observations of the founder, L. Ron Hubbard; and that it can be proved to be - work like a technology, a spiritual technology, as they say. And you can ascend these higher levels - very expensive climb but it's, in their opinion, a little different from a religious belief.

GROSS: So for people unfamiliar with Scientology, would you just explain what you consider to be some of the basic principles of it?

WRIGHT: Well, there's, in Scientology, a belief that you are an immortal soul; like, the term in Scientology is a thetan. And we can demonstrate this to you. If you go into Scientology, you will go to auditing. It's like therapy except that there is an E-meter between you and your auditor. That's a device that actually measures your galvanic skin responses. It's two metal cans that you hold; they used to be Campbell's soup cans, with the labels scraped off. A small current passes through it, and there's a needle that registers your reaction. And that's what the auditor is looking at when you're responding.

Oftentimes in these circumstances, you might remember, when pressed by the auditor, a previous existence. And this is given reality and validity by the E-meter. If you have an image in your mind and the E-meter says - according to the auditor - this is something real; what is that? and you have a vague memory of maybe a farmhouse in France, Southern France in the 19th century, then you're asked to give more flesh to that memory. And eventually, you've developed a fully bodied, confabulated memory of another existence. And that's very powerful, in the minds of a lot of Scientologists, and good news because the idea that you are immortal has just been proven to you.

Another thing that happens oftentimes, in this setting, is that people have the experience of having what they call going exterior. In other words, they have an out-of-body experience, and they can - some part of them, the thetan, can arise out of the body itself and float around the room, and even drift off into other planets. If you've had those kinds of paranormal experiences, then the logic and the critiques that other people might register against the Church of Scientology aren't going to affect you very much.

GROSS: And correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Scientology claims to be able to help you achieve those states; to be able to help you recapture early memories, recapture fetal memories, recapture memories of past lives.

WRIGHT: Right. Yeah. Originally, the founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was concerned about the progress of these memories that seemed to go past your previous existence into the womb and then even earlier than that, into past lives. And he fought against it, but gradually embraced the idea wholeheartedly. It became a signature part of Scientology.

And people who have these memories are exhilarated by them, oftentimes. It explains so much about their current lives. I talked to one man, for instance, who had told me that he had had a hemorrhoid problem that he had developed in the military. And whenever there was a parade, a military parade, it would reoccur. And in the auditing, he realized that as a boy during the Civil War, he had been shot in that portion of his anatomy. And once he discovered that memory, it never recurred.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright. He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about al-Qaida, called "The Looming Tower." Now, he has a new book about Scientology, which is called "Going Clear." A good part of your book is devoted to the story of L. Ron Hubbard, which I wanted to talk with you about. He is the founder of Scientology.He was born in Nebraska, in 1911. His parents were Methodist. What role did Christianity play in his early life?

WRIGHT: It seems in looking at his writings that organized religion had very little to do with his life. He said he had a grandfather who was an atheist. In some respects he ascribes more influence to this medicine man on a nearby Indian reservation named Old Madfeathers, who did exist. I don't know exactly what relationship Hubbard had with him, but displays of magic and so on were very impressive to him.

But the kind of mainstream religions that we think of he seemed to have very little participation in.

GROSS: You write that in the spring of 1932, during the Great Depression, Hubbard undertook a venture that displayed many of the hallmarks of his future exploits. He posted a notice on several university campuses saying: Restless young men with wanderlust wanted for the Caribbean motion picture expedition. What was this expedition that he was planning?

WRIGHT: This was a wonderful, misbegotten adventure, that he wanted to go into the Caribbean with movie cameras and film voodoo rites and that sort of thing and sell those - and pick up objects; he said whatever one collects for museums. He managed to round up a crew of young collegiates at the height of the Depression. It was really unusual that he could pull this off.

He rented an old schooner in Baltimore for the adventure, and they could barely get out of Chesapeake Bay. In fact, the tugboat was towing them out because the wind wasn't blowing, and it turned out the ship was still tied to the dock. They started off very, you know, in a rather lame fashion and were becalmed. And then amid high seas, people were sick. There was no money. They ran out of food. They only shot a little bit of a cockfight in Martinique.

Finally everybody deserted in a general funk, and it was a complete disaster. The captain of the ship said it was the worst trip he ever took.

GROSS: So you write the trip was a calamity from the start. But you say with the expedition, Hubbard defined himself as an explorer, sailor, filmmaker and leader of men, even though he failed spectacularly in each of those categories. So how did he define himself that way if the trip was such a failure?

WRIGHT: Well, he got them there in the first place, and secondly he always had a way of looking on the bright side, if you can say that. He called it a great adventure. And I have no doubt it was. As miserable as it was in many respects, he had at least achieved his dream of getting all these people on the boat in the first place. The fact that they hung him in effigy on the mast was never mentioned in his accounts.

GROSS: L. Ron Hubbard wanted to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. And he had published a lot of science fiction stories, most notably in the publication "Astounding Science Fiction," which was very big in its time. And Hollywood has been very important in furthering Scientology with the help of movie stars who are Scientologists - you know, most notably Tom Cruise, John Travolta. What was Hubbard's Hollywood dream?

WRIGHT: Well, he really said that he wanted to take over the entire entertainment industry. I think originally he had hoped to be a successful screenwriter and a director along the lines of Cecil B. DeMille. Matter of fact, he hired DeMille's son, Richard, as his assistant.

But his dream grew larger when he established the Church of Scientology in Hollywood and set up the Celebrity Center with the goal of attracting notable celebrities such as, in an ancient list at that time, Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Walt Disney - that caliber of person. They wanted an exemplary Scientologist to show to the world.

And even, you know, they did get some people like Gloria Swanson, the star of silent films, became a member. Rock Hudson came in the door for a while. And in those early days they were constantly (technical difficulties) someone who could be the public face of Scientology.

GROSS: But he also wanted to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood, before he established Scientology.

WRIGHT: Yes, he did. He wrote, you know, one serial back in the days when they had serials. Each week they would do small segments that, you know, came before the main feature. So he wrote one of those serials. But he claimed that he had written a number of other movies that he doesn't actually have credit for.

GROSS: So did writing movies remain a dream of his even when he became famous for "Dianetics" and then Scientology?

WRIGHT: Oh, all through his life he was fascinated by the whole moviemaking experience, and he wrote a script in 1979 called "Revolt in the Stars" that he hoped to have made, and that never went anywhere. And because he was spurned by Hollywood, he set up his own film studios at a compound in Southern California. And it mainly produced training films for Scientology, but he was constantly hoping to make it as a real screenwriter and a real director.

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, and he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book about the history of al-Qaida called "The Looming Tower." He has a new book about Scientology and it's called "Going Clear." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright. He writes for The New Yorker. He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower," which is a history of al-Qaida. Now he's written a new book about Scientology called "Going Clear."

So let's talk about another key moment in the story of the founder of Dianetics and Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. In 1938, during dental surgery, he had I think what you could describe as a near-death experience, and he thought that the secrets of existence were revealed to him in that experience. How did he describe the experience?

WRIGHT: Well, he was taking gas for the dental surgery, and in the process he had I think what was a hallucination. He believed that he had died and gone to heaven, and he - his disembodied spirit floated through these gates, and suddenly all of the secrets of existence were revealed to him and all the things that people have been asking for since the beginning of time about the meaning of existence, and then suddenly these voices were saying: No, no, he's not ready, he's not ready.

And then he felt himself being pulled back, back, back. And then he woke up in the dental chair. And he said to the nurse: I was dead, wasn't I? And she apparently looked startled, and the doctor gave her a dirty look.

But this was a big moment in Hubbard's career because suddenly he became interested in metaphysics. And he wrote a book called "Excalibur," which was never published, but it was based on the revelations that he supposedly had achieved during this dental surgery.

And he said that people who read it were so shaken by it that in one case the reader came in and put the manuscript on the desk of the skyscraper office of the publisher and jumped out the window and that the Russians had seized it and so on. But it never actually got published, and we only have fragments of it available to us.

GROSS: What you were able to read is something you describe as his secret memoir, which the Church of Scientology claims is a forgery. What is this book, and when was it written?

WRIGHT: When he came back from the war, he was shaken by his experiences. In 1947, he had written a letter to the V.A. complaining that he was mentally unsettled and asking for help. We don't have any indication that he ever did get any kind of mental assistance from the V.A. But he did begin at that time a journal that has been called "The Affirmations."

And in there he (technical difficulties) a number of prescriptions and what seemed like post-hypnotic suggestions to himself. And he said the purpose is to - of this experiment is to re-establish the ambition, willpower, desire to survive the talent and confidence of myself. And he notes he was anxious about people's opinion of him, and he was anxious, and he must be convinced that he's able to write skillfully and well.

And he admits that his service record in the military was none too glorious. He talks about his relationship with his wife, Sara(ph), and how he's uninterested in her sexually, but he's got a chronic history of sexual infidelities that he reveals in this. And I can read you some of the affirmations.

GROSS: Why don't you? Yeah.

WRIGHT: I can write. My mind is still brilliant. That masturbation was no sin or crime. That I do not need to have ulcers anymore. That I believe in my gods and spiritual things. That my magical work is powerful and effective. That I am not susceptible to colds.

And then he goes on to say: You will live to be 200 years old. You will always look young. You are not a coward. There are no snakes in the bottom of my bed. These are the kinds of things that he's saying for page after page; they're very intimate revelations into the struggles, I think, that were going on inside his mind after he got out of the war.

GROSS: I want to add one that you left out, which is I am not bad to look upon, which I think - I'm just speculating here, but might reveal, you know, insecurities about his looks. And you also say that there were affirmations that he wrote down in the pages of this book that he would record and then play back as a means of self-hypnosis, including things like it is not necessary for you to lie to be amusing and witty. Material things are yours for the asking. Men are your slaves. You are not a coward. You have no doubts about God.

You have no fear of what any woman may think of your bed conduct. You know you are a master. You know they will be thrilled. And I'm wondering, having read these affirmations and the insecurities that he reveals, what does that reveal to you? How do you interpret that about who he was as a man and what motivated him and what his insecurities were?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, there are all these contradictions in his character. And it accounts for the fact that there are these starkly different narratives in Hubbard's life, the one that he tells and the church tells about it and the one that the records that we actually are able to produce have to say about him.

And I think he acknowledged these contradictions in these affirmations. He was a man full of conflict internally. And I think a lot of his life was driven by the need to heal himself, and that was - his first book, "Dianetics," a goal was to kind of self-therapy. He was struggling all of his life to mend himself.

And he definitely did follow that journey of feeling that he was wounded, that he was broken and that he needed to be healed. And once he could do that, he could heal all of mankind.

GROSS: And I should mention that there's, you know, a third part of this book that we've just been describing that he wrote, a book which I will say again Scientology says is a fraud, his third part was - you describe it as a checklist of personal goals and things that he believes about himself or wants to believe about himself, the person he wishes to be.

And some of those things are: You are fair like sunlight. You can read music. You are a magnificent writer who has thrilled millions. You are psychic. You do not masturbate. You do not know anger. Your patience is infinite. So did he - do you know to what extent he used these things for - to practice self-affirmation or to undergo self-hypnosis?

WRIGHT: Well, we know he was a master hypnotist, and no doubt he must have used it on himself as well. And these are noble goals, for the most part. I mean, you know, people want to be calm, serene and, you know, ready to handle world's challenges. And then in many ways those are the goals of Scientology and "Dianetics," when you get involved in it.

So we can see these thing are kind of pre-figuring, you know, the church that he would establish, but it also set the boundaries of the man that he really wished he was.

GROSS: When you say he was a master hypnotist, you mention in the book that he was a stage hypnotist. What forms of hypnosis and in what contexts did he practice?

WRIGHT: There was a well-known meeting of the Science Fiction Society in Los Angeles, and he - at that occasion he hypnotized a number of members of the audience. And he convinced one of them to take off his jacket. He told, you know, everyone, you know, a post-hypnotic suggestion that this man would have to take off his jacket and his hat whenever Hubbard touched his tie or something like that.

And the man involuntarily had to do so. Another man he convinced he had two miniature kangaroos in the palm of his hand. So he was very persuasive to the audience that was present at that occasion.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright will be back in the second half of the show. His new book about Scientology is called "Going Clear." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lawrence Wright, author of the new book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief." Wright first wrote about Scientology two years ago in The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. Wright won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

We're focusing on the story of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. Scientology is based in part on principles he outlined earlier in his book "Dianetics," which was a bestseller.

When did L. Ron Hubbard develop "Dianetics"? And I'm going to ask you for, if it's possible, to give a brief description of "Dianetics."

WRIGHT: According to Hubbard, he wrote the book in the beginning of 1950. It took him a month to write. We have a letter that he wrote to his friend Robert Heinlein, one of his compatriots in the science fiction circles, and took him took him (technical difficulties) this lengthy book. Of course he was famous for his speedy writing; he turned out hundred thousand words a month when he was writing for the pulp magazines. So he wrote this book. He had great hopes that it would bring him fortunate and fame, and it did. But the kind of respect that he hoped would come along with it didn't happen. He sent the book to the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association with the idea that they were going to a laud the book with praise and they would be astonished by his insights. But they looked at it as a kind of psychological folk art. I mean there were - he mentioned studies that never seemed to have taken place. You know, he's constantly referencing things that there's - you know, there are footnotes but there's no sourcing on it. Nobody knew what to make of it. And so instead of praise, he was ridiculed. And ever after that, you know, he was hostile to psychiatry.

But set that aside, "Dianetics" swept the nation, swept the world. It was a huge New York Times bestseller, in many ways prefigured the whole category of self-help books that followed the end of the war. He was a big hit and made a lot of money and lost it very quickly.

GROSS: So, you know, your book about Scientology is called "Going Clear." And the concept of going clear originates with Hubbard's "Dianetics." What does going clear mean?

WRIGHT: It's a very important stage in the progress, spiritually and physically and morally. According to Hubbard, you have two minds in your body. There is the analytical thinking mind, which is like a computer. It's perfect. It remembers everything. And then you have your reactive mind, and it's full of fears and neuroses that are built on these ancient memories and Engrams - E-N-G-R-A-M-S. It's not exactly memories; it's an exact recording of an event that happened to you. And the goal of "Dianetics" is to eliminate those fears and neuroses by discovering them and having you repeat them again and again until they are disarmed of any kind of effect on your behavior. It's a lot like therapy, like Freudian therapy. But the goal eventually is to clear all of that out, and when you have accomplished that, you have eliminated your reactive mind and you are clear. And when you have become clear, you are smarter. You're more charming. Your eyesight is better. You don't get ill anymore. You achieve a highly superior state.

GROSS: So Hubbard came up with this idea of going clear. Did he ever achieve that state?

WRIGHT: No, Hubbard never achieved anything like the powers that he was supposed to acquire if he had gone clear. He had terrible health, for instance; his health was constantly threatened - he was obese, so we don't really have any evidence of the kind of supernatural powers that he hoped to demonstrate as a clear.

GROSS: So you mentioned that with that "Dianetics" Hubbard made a fortune and then lost the money. How did he lose it?

WRIGHT: He never had control over the movement. It was wild. People formed "Dianetics" clubs all over the country but he didn't get anything out of that and competing groups sprung up. And Hubbard tried to establish institutions that would train "Dianetics" counselors. His own personal life was going through some wreckage at this point. He was a bigamist and he had an argument with his wife and he had abducted his baby daughter and fled to Cuba, so it was a very colorful self-destructive period of his life. And while he was going to through all that, he even lost control of "Dianetics," the name and the organization, and he was really falling on hard times when he began to turn to the idea of creating a church, rather than just a movement.

GROSS: So you say he lost control of "Dianetics" and there were independent "Dianetics" groups that formed around the country, there were competitors to "Dianetics," and he wanted to get control of his ideas again. Is that why he started Scientology?

WRIGHT: Well, he had to find a way to reinvent himself. And numerous people have witnessed him saying, you know, the way to make real money is to start a church. And I think that that might have been influential in his decision to do that, but in my reading of Hubbard is that he was not really a con man. I think he believed what he was doing. And yes, he did start a church and he did make a lot of money.

But if he were purely a fraud and a con man, as many say, at some point he would have taken the money and run. But he never did. He spent the rest of his life - usually very much alone - elaborating his theories, the psychology and the religion that he was trying to create, the bureaucracy that's very intricate that supports it. That's what he gave his life to. So I think he really did believe, to some extent, that Scientology was real, but he was constantly inventing it. It was always on the fly, and for people who were around him, actually that was very exciting because you never knew what revelation was going to come next.

GROSS: So could you compare "Dianetics" to Scientology? Is Scientology an extension of "Dianetics" or is it something different?

WRIGHT: Yes, it is different. In "Dianetics," as I said, you know, there was a reactive mind and an analytical mind, and, you know, if you can purge these ancient memories that trouble you, then you'll be free, you'll be clear. Scientology has another layer on top of that, and in Scientology there are these levels of a spiritual accomplishment that are called Operating Thetans. The word Thetan means, you know, the immortal soul. We are all immortal souls, and part of Scientology is that you discover that in the course of your learning. But there are presently eight levels of Operating Thetans. When you get to Operating Thetan level number three, there's a big discovery that you have in Scientology. It was the most closely held secret in the church until it was put out and dumped into a courtroom in the '80s, and all the copyrighted secrets of the church became public knowledge. At that level, Hubbard revealed that we are all infested with space aliens that are called Body Thetans, and they're really the sources of all of the problems and fears and things that we have in our lives, and if you can audit yourself and discover these Thetans and expel them, it's akin to casting out demons, then you can free yourself to ever higher levels of spiritual accomplishment.

GROSS: One of the things a religion gets to do is claim tax-exempt status, and in that sense the IRS has some power in determining what's a religion or not, you know, in the technical sense. So does the IRS grant religious status to Scientology and did it ever?

WRIGHT: Yes, it did. In 1993. Bear in mind the IRS is an agency ill-equipped to make distinctions like this. But it's the only opinion that matters. When the IRS says an organized body is a religion, then what you might think of it, whether it's a cult or a sect or whatever, it's only commentary. That's the only opinion that counts. And once given, there are these vast constitutional protections awarded the church. Now, the circumstances of that tax exemption are rather troubling. The Church of Scientology launched 2,400 lawsuits against the IRS and individual agents. Part of the deal that was struck in 1993 is that those suits would be dropped. So whatever you think about the merits of the case, you also have to consider the circumstances under which that tax exemption was given.

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, author of a new book about Scientology called "Going Clear." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, the author of a new book about Scientology called "Going Clear." We're talking about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

At some point L. Ron Hubbard takes to the sea and he moves the main people in Scientology to the sea with him. Why did he take to the sea?

WRIGHT: Well, he was beleaguered. He was becoming unwelcome in England, where he was living. He was worried about suits and criminal charges that were being filed in various countries in the world, and in that state he decided the best place for him was on the high seas. So he recruited a number of his younger members and formed an organization called the Sea Org or Sea Organization. It was - it became the clergy, but originally it was just his crew, and he had this small Scientology armada that sailed primarily in the Mediterranean and later in the Caribbean. And he spent about eight years at sea going from port to port, more or less just drifting.

GROSS: So was he at sea for legal reasons?

WRIGHT: In part. He was evading process servers. He was also on the lookout for a couple of things. One, he wanted to take over a country. He had in mind that Scientology needed a home - and he was searching for that home. At one point he thought about Rhodesia, and then Morocco was a very promising place and he sent Scientologists into Morocco to infiltrate the government and make themselves friendly with the security agencies. And they actually came very close to being involved in a coup against the king. The Scientologists were present at an attempt to kill the king at a military parade and shortly after that Scientologists were made unwelcome in Morocco. He told another person that Russia might be a good place for Scientology to take over, so he was always on the patrol for that.

Another little portion of his adventures on the seas, once he began to accept the idea of past life memories, he became very enthusiastic about it and his own past lives were vividly told to these very impressionistic young Sea Org members. And so he set off on what he called a mission into time to retry to recover treasures that he had buried in past lives. And so they sailed to Sicily and other places where he said that he had buried gold and other treasures, and they never actually found anything substantive. He would sketch out what he believed would be the logical place for them to dig and they did that but they never came back with any real evidence that he had ever left any treasure.

GROSS: So at some point he decides to come back to land. He needs a safe place to be and a place where Scientology can flourish and he chooses Clearwater, Florida. Why Clearwater?

WRIGHT: Well, the name itself I think is resonant in Scientology jargon, but it was also a vulnerable little town. It was a rather sleepy, you know, not a dying town, but not a vigorous place. It was, it seemed like easy pickings. And so Scientology came in posing as another kind of Christian evangelical group. And they purchased an old hotel, the Fort Harrison, which is right in downtown Clearwater. And nobody knew who they were. It was the mayor who noticed that there was an awful lot of security around this building for a Christian church. And so they began asking questions about who these people actually were.

The mayor then found himself set up in a phony hit and run charge and then, you know, some charges that were trumped up in Mexico about infidelity and a bigamous marriage that never happened. And all of this started suddenly happening to the mayor, who was the one who was asking these questions.

And it wasn't until a newspaper reporter revealed that L. Ron Hubbard was in town that people in Clearwater realized that they had become the new headquarters for Scientology.

GROSS: So does L. Ron Hubbard eventually move back to land?

WRIGHT: Yes, he does. But he stays in hiding. He was in hiding in Clearwater. He was actually living in a nearby community, Dunedin, in an apartment. And...

GROSS: In Florida.

WRIGHT: In Florida. And when the news came out that he was there, he panicked and fled to New York. And then he went to Washington. But very quickly he sent out delegations to Southern California. And they found a large estate in Southern California in the desert where he could be less conspicuous.

But he wore disguises and so on. He was constantly on the run. I think in part he was driven by his own demons, not just by a process service.

GROSS: So you say it's about 1980 - it's 1980 that he basically goes into hiding. Six years later he dies. You write that his declining health was kept a secret from members of Scientology. Why?

WRIGHT: Well, this is opposed to the Scientology ideal of, you know, perfect health. His health was constantly threatened, according to his former medical officers. He suffered, you know, a series of small strokes, heart attacks and those kind of things. Very serious medical emergencies. And so during the latter part of his life he was constantly ill.

He was very overweight. And few people knew about that because he was kept in seclusion. He didn't want to see anybody. And people really didn't know where he was. They were told that he was just over the rainbow.

GROSS: Which meant?

WRIGHT: Which meant it's not for you to know. He was actually, often, in some - there were two different desert compounds that he moved between, and very few people actually got to see him.

GROSS: When L. Ron Hubbard did die in 1986, how was that handled by the leadership of Scientology?

WRIGHT: Well, it was a puzzle. How do you explain this? How do you explain the death of the founder? It's always a problem, of course, in any new religion. But death is an awkward subject in Scientology, not much dealt with. So his declining health, his years of really poor health, something that people didn't know about - so the Scientology membership was not prepared that their leader was going to pass away. And it was decided that instead of dying, actually Hubbard chose to drop his body, as they said, that he had accomplished his mission here on Earth and he had gone on to higher stages, the next level of Scientology development. And that's the way it was explained to the membership.

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, author of a new book about Scientology called "Going Clear." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, the author of a new book about Scientology called "Going Clear." We're talking about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the church of Scientology. He died in 1986. So what is L. Ron Hubbard's place in Scientology now?

WRIGHT: Well, he's the founder and everything he ever wrote or said is considered to be scripture. You know, and this is a man who holds the record in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most number of titles published - more than a thousand. So that's a lot of scripture to deal with. Some of those are novels and pulp fiction and so on, but all of it accrues into the Scientology library.

There's another feature about Hubbard that I find very interesting, is that there's a widespread belief that he's going to return. And every Scientology church and his several residences and so on, they have his office ready for him. His sandals are at the shower door. He's got his cigarettes on his desk.

In his residence in the Scientology compound in Southern California there's a novel beside his bed, and they change his sheets on his bed daily and they set a table place for him, for one, at his dining room table. So there's a sense that he might come back at any moment.

There are actually places - several places in the United States where his works are kept inside titanium canisters, inside bomb-resistant caverns. And in at least one place they have this secret emblem that is massive and on top of the ground so that a passing spaceship or a spirit - perhaps that of L. Ron Hubbard - would notice it and know that that's the place to go.

GROSS: The subtitle of your book is "Scientology: Hollywood and the Prison of Belief."

WRIGHT: Right. I think the mystery of Scientology, especially with the clergy and people that I was writing about that had been so oppressed, is why they stayed in it. Yes, there are good reasons why they don't leave. They, you know, many of them have no money. They have no friends outside the church and if they leave they'll be shunned by all the family members and friends that they have in the church.

And oftentimes if they leave the clergy, they'll be presented with a bill called a freeloader's tab, often amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, that they can't even begin to think about paying off. So the exit costs are very high. But still, all that said, what really keeps them in the church is their own desire to believe and to be a part of this organization. And it's very compelling for them.

GROSS: The Church of Scientology International has, as you know, issued a statement about your book, and I just want to read some of it.

WRIGHT: Sure.

GROSS: And I'll say we've just talked about L. Ron Hubbard. Your book goes on way past L. Ron Hubbard's life to the present. And there are many stories about people who say that they were mistreated in Scientology. So this statement on your book issued by Scientology says: Mr. Wright's book is so ludicrous it belongs in a supermarket tabloid.

The claims are nothing more than a stale rehash of allegations disproven long ago. The author and the publisher refused to provide the church with a copy of the book and showed little interest in receiving input from the church during the writing or so-called fact-checking. In the two years that Mr. Wright spent on his book he sent the church only a dozen isolated and esoteric, quote, fact checks. Your response?

WRIGHT: Amazing series of lies. You know, just take the number of queries that we sent to the church. You know, starting with The New Yorker, we sent 971 fact checking questions at the very beginning and then more after that. Since the article came out in The New Yorker we've sent more than 150 fact checking questions to the church. They have them.

I don't know why they would make that statement. And they were very dilatory and hostile in their responses, and incomplete. So it was very frustrating to deal with the church. I spoke to more than 250 people, most of them Scientologists, either current or former members. And some of them were executives at the highest level the church has ever had and have gone to the very apex of the spiritual ladder inside Scientology.

So there is plenty of new information inside this book.

GROSS: So let me read another excerpt of the Church of Scientology's statement about your book, Lawrence Wright. They write: It is important to note that Wright's British and Canadian publishers had second thoughts, choosing not to publish Wright's book after being informed of the numerous inaccuracies and defamatory lies it contains that were told to Wright by a handful of bitter and discredited former Scientologists. Your response?

WRIGHT: Well, we don't have a Canadian publisher and never did. We have the right to distribute in Canada. So I don't know exactly what they're talking about there. The British publisher was scared off by a legal threat, and I think that just goes to testify how stalwart my American publisher is, Alfred A. Knopf, to withstand this kind of assault.

And also it testifies to the difference between the American laws and those in the U.K., the libel laws. In the U.K. we don't have the benefit of the First Amendment protections of free speech. And I've been asked by PEN, the international writer's association, to go to Britain and address members of Parliament about the deficiencies in that system and how it punishes books like mine that want to expose the truth of organizations that might have quite a lot to hide.

GROSS: Well, Lawrence Wright, I really want to thank you for coming back to FRESH AIR. Thank you very much.

WRIGHT: It's always a pleasure. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright is the author of the new book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief." You'll find a link to the full version of the Church of Scientology International response to his book, as well as an excerpt of Wright's book, on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.