I recently watched “Going Clear,” an HBO documentary about the Church of Scientology. It’s a hard-hitting look at the organization, told largely through the testimony of former high-ranking members.
Much of “Going Clear” is familiar to me because I had an encounter with Scientology in the late 1990s. At that time, I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my then-wife had taken a teaching job at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. After a year as an adjunct instructor, I too was hired as a tenure-track professor.
One evening, we received a phone call from my sister-in-law. She had recently graduated from college and moved to the Pacific Northwest. She told us that she had a new boyfriend who had introduced her to Scientology. They were both taking classes and working for the organization, and she said how much she was getting out of it.
But there was a problem, she said: Her sister and I were journalists. This fact apparently emerged during an “auditing” session in which Scientologists are interviewed about their personal lives. For her to advance in the organization, my sister-in-law would need a letter from us promising that we would never report or write anything about Scientology.
We declined to provide such a letter even though we had no intention of writing about Scientology. In fact, we were grateful that Scientology’s paranoia had provided us with leverage to help get our relative out of an organization that we viewed, in the words of Time magazine, as a “ruthless global scam.”
That exit happened suddenly a couple of years later, after we had left Louisiana for North Carolina. After not hearing from my sister-in-law for some time, she called out of the blue and told us she was planning to leave her boyfriend and Scientology as soon as possible. She was frightened. Could she stay with us, where the organization couldn’t find her? We said yes.
When my sister-in-law arrived in North Carolina, she told us about the organization’s dark side. For example, her boyfriend once dragged a former member off the street and into a car to take him back to a Scientology center. She worried that they might come for her too. Thankfully, Scientology never tracked her down, though they did call her parents asking about her whereabouts.
The entire experience showed me that Scientology is scared of scrutiny. As “Going Clear” shows, the organization’s public-relations strategy is to attack not only its critics, but also neutral observers who examine its practices.
The central role of the news media is to act as a check on government and powerful institutions. That includes organizations such as Scientology. Let’s hope that the Tampa Bay Times, HBO and other media continue to shine a light on its operations.