Going Clear: A Case Study

Documentaries serve several purposes, none of which are as important as informing the audience. The most entertaining documentary is meaningless if there is not a message or call-to-action. The issue with informing the audience comes from how easy it is for the director to mislead information, whether consciously or not. This is why it is imperative for the audience to research what they saw to corroborate the information. A case study takes previous materials, documents, and sources to provide supporting evidence.  

In the HBO documentary, Going Clear, director Alex Gibney adapted the Scientology tell-all of the same name written by Laurence Wright. In the documentary, Gibney told the history of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and the organization. Specifically, Gibney interviewed former members of the church who were willing to speak out against the level of abuse that seemingly ran at all levels of the church. The thesis was that Scientology was a legitimate cult that shared many similarities with the mafia. Yet, Gibney never gave a thesis outright, allowing the audience to perceive the information in their own way. While the evidence in the documentary is damning, Gibney presented it as straightforward as possible. The information all led to a simpler question: Is Scientology a cult?

To understand the difference between a religion and a cult, research was conducted of two examples of groups widely considered cults, specifically the People’s Temple led by Jim Jones who instigated a mass suicide of over 900 people and the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX led by David Koresh who had a stand-off with the FBI. Marc Galanter used the simplest definition of a cult being a charismatic group, in which they have more than twelve people, a shared belief system, sustain a high level of social cohesiveness, are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms, and impute charismatic power to the group or its leaders.[1] While similar, Lorne L. Dawson’s definition focused more on the cult’s leader saying, “…cults are more concerned with the satisfaction of individual needs and desires. The usually lay claim to some esoteric knowledge that has been lost, repressed, or newly discovered.,, They offer a more ‘proximate salvation’ and, in principle, one more readily attained by more people.”[2] While the two definitions are not exact matches, the basic definition revolved around the understanding that cults are new religions that have charismatic leaders who are promising salvation. It is important to point out that not all cults are dangerous, but the cults focused on for this paper, and typically reported on in the media, were dangerous.

One of the first cult tragedies came in November 18, 1978, when the Peoples Temple committed “revolutionary suicide” and over 900 American civilians died. Jim Jones, the leader, started as a Pentecostal faith healer and became an associate pastor in Indianapolis, where he brought up black members of the congregation, much to the dismay of the church board of directors. Integration and socialism were always Jones’ strongest ideals.[3] He started the Peoples Temple, and in 1960, the Temple was accepted as a congregation in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. The Peoples Temple grew to a peak of 20,000 members during the 1960s and in March 1974, the first congregates arrived in the South American country of Guyana where Jonestown is established. Less than a year later, half of the entire congregation was living in the jungles of Guyana for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.[4]

The reason for this migration is for Jones to have more control over his flock. By removing them from outside “negative” elements, they are more susceptible to his whims.[5] Jones would practice “white nights,” practice mass suicides. This idea of collective suicide came about when the first few defectors left in 1973. The idea of practicing suicide instilled the idea that ending your life on your terms was better than what would happen when the enemies take over Jonestown. The repeated use of rehearsals, made the ideas easier to comprehend to the congregation, rather than springing it on them at the last second. Jones declared that, “…a truly loving people would kill their children before they would allow them to be captured, tortured, brainwashed, or perhaps even killed by falling in the hands of the fascists.”[6] This control and influence over a group of almost 1000 people says a lot about the charisma of Jones and how dangerous a cult could become.

Davidians started as an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and Vernon Howell gained power of the now Branch Davidians. He went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and upon his return to Texas, changed his name to David Koresh, gathered a group of disaffected Davidians, and took control of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.[7] He began stockpiling weapons and garnered even more control. At one point, in 1987, Koresh married his wife’s twelve-year-old sister because of a vision. He would continue to take the virginities of many underage girls and took many wives.[8] Koresh’s beliefs led to a believed mass murder, where he set fire to the compound as the ATF and FBI stormed the compound with tanks.[9] It is still unclear if suicide, murder, or collateral damage, led to the most deaths.

As for Scientology, Going Clear, both the documentary and book explore the control the church has over their members. In one particular instance, Tom Cruise, the most famous spokesperson for the church, talked to David Miscavige, the current Scientology leader, about wanting a girlfriend. After a hunt of “the prettiest women in the church,” Nazanin Boniadi was selected for a special program that ultimately led her to Tom Cruise. The two dated for a while but Nazanin was warned if she did anything to upset Tom that she would be destroyed within the church.[10] They eventually breakup and, according to the documentary, Nazanin was thrown all of the way down to the lowest ranks of the church, scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush while her old friends and acquaintances stepped over her, too afraid to acknowledge here in case they would be punished as well.

Another incident with Scientology came when David Miscavige took doubtful Scientology executives and put them into barely livable double wide trailers, called the hole, and demanded them to confess their crimes against the church, much like the Inquisition. They were doused with water with an A/C vent right over them, they were hit, and they were made to play a game of musical chairs to the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, specifically for the lines, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.” The prize for the game? Being able to stay in the hole, while the losers were sent to “god knows where.”[11]

This level of abuse and manipulation is in line with both the Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians, yet Scientology is a recognized religion by the IRS. While Scientology keeps its walls up, people slip through the cracks, and for every ex-member who is willing to speak out, more are too afraid of the repercussions. In the documentary, there is evidence of Scientologists stalking outside the home of Marty Rathbun, threatening him and his wife, who was not a Scientologist. The question of whether Scientology is a cult or not is answered with the fact that David Miscavige is a charismatic and influential leader who has “esoteric knowledge that has been lost, repressed, or newly discovered,” which is the definition according to Dawson, and uses the group’s behavioral norms to gain influence, which is part of Galanter’s definition. So, in essence, yes, Scientology is a cult because the good of its members only comes from the complete control of its members.

1. Marc Galanter, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4.

2. Lorne L. Dawson, Comprehending Cults (Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1998), 31.

3. David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988), 3.

4. Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, 9.

5. Dawson, Comprehending Cults, 149.

6. Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, 147.

7. Galanter, Cults, 169.

8. David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson, A Placed Called Waco (New York: Public Affairs, 1999), 108-111.

9. Galanter, Cults, 11.

10. Laurence Wright, Going Clear (New York: First Vintage Books, 2013), 355-359.

11. Wright, Going Clear, 331-334.