2013 is no exception: Lawrence Wright's Going Clear, out a month, is getting great reviews and is, at the time of this writing, No. 34 on our Bestsellers List with 25 days in the Top 100. This week, Jenna Miscavige Hill's Beyond Belief (a great title!) appears; I predict it too will sell well.
Why the everlasting fascination with Scientology, which may or may not have tens of thousands of members (the numbers, like most for this group, vary widely)? "I'm just not that interested in it," one noted journalist recently told me. "It's really very small." And yet, like the proverbial train wreck, a good book about the cult-or-religion (you decide) is hard to resist. Here's a partial list of the way the two newest entries in the category compare.
Going Clear: While the subtitle of Wright's book makes reference to Hollywood's involvement with the Church, his main Hollywood contact seems to be Paul Haggis (screenwriter for such films as "Million Dollar Baby" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" and director of such short-lived TV series as "Family Law" and "The Black Donnellys"). He only nods at information about the more famous members, Tom Cruise and Travolta
Beyond Belief: Hill's is much more personal story. She was essentially born Scientologist; her uncle David Miscavige is the sect's leader and her parents were, for a time, high up in the organization. She focuses, therefore, more on regular people, though there are some interesting passages about how the Church treats celebrities: Lisa Marie Presley in particular.
Going Clear: While it is clear that Wright has a particular point of view about Scientology, he approaches the topic journalistically and lets other people (Haggis, predominantely) reveal information. He also adds a lot of history and biographical information about L. Ron Hubbard, which can make this book feel a bit padded.
Beyond Belief: Jenna Miscavige Hill is no journalist, and she knew the history of Scientology from the inside. Only after she left the main Church and went to Australia did she gain some perspective. "I had been under the impression that everyone loved L. Ron Hubbard," she writes, "and that Scientology was flourishing and expanding all over the world. However, it seemed like most people in Australia did not even know what it was, and those who did often were skeptical."
Going Clear: Wright's book is exhaustively researched and gives a new reader a very good overview of the religion, although it never completely makes clear what the tenets of the Church are. (Or perhaps they're so muddled as to be unexplainable.)
Beyond Belief: Hill is very specific about Scientology practices. Apparently, all powerful people senior to her are addressed as "Mr," regardless of their gender. She also describes her punishments -– usually for "misunderstood words," a seemingly weird psychosemantic education all young Scientologists must endure; scrubbing bathrooms for days at a time was not unusual. She also reveals that "an out 2d is an unacceptable relationship, like the one that got her once-powerful mother declared an SP (Suppressed Person), the Scientology equivalent of excommunication.
Going Clear: Writing about scientology is risky business, as every writer (including this one) knows, and Wright is extra careful to show his methods –- one of the strongest scenes in the book is a how-I-got-the-story passage about meeting with the Church's spokespeople to check facts. One of the most chilling moments comes when Wright wonders aloud to Paul Haggis as to his future, now that he has spoken out. Haggis replies, in essence, that he wouldn't be surprised to be caught up a few years from now in some sort of scandal that doesn't appear to involve Scientology.
Beyond Belief: While she writes perhaps in more detail than even the most curious care to know about the punishments and threats made to her and her fellow renegade husband, Dallas Hill, the author seems strangely calm about her final decision to leave the Church. And how Byzantine that departure was; even while the Church threatened to punish the Hills by declaring them SPs (Suppressed Persons) and trying to extract payments for behavioral "violations," Hill spent weeks and months making her decision. Today, she's totally estranged from Scientology, unabashedly and seemingly fearlessly declaring the Church "a dangerous organization whose beliefs allow it to ... violate basic human rights."