10 Things We Learned From Scientology Doc 'Going Clear'

Now that the HBO doc on Scientology has aired, we break down a few of its more damning talking points

Alex Gibney's HBO documentary 'Going Clear' reveals some of Scientology's most controversial secrets. Credit: Paul Buck/EPA/Getty

Last night, HBO aired Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Alex Gibney's documentary exposé of the Church of Scientology and its founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. While much of the information contained within the film isn't technically new (especially since the doc is based on executive producer Lawrence Wright's book of the same name), it does forcefully, brutally put faces to many of the stories, and assembles a meticulous, damning case against the church. The organization had taken aggressive action to counterattack (including a full-page ad in The New York Times) after the movie's premiere at Sundance last January, and now that the film has finally aired on the cable channel, they're likely to go on the offensive as a whole new audience begins to discuss some of the Scientology's more terrifying, disturbing practices. Here are 10 of Going Clear's biggest talking points.

1. L. Ron Hubbard's life was built on a series of lies and bullying
Though much of Scientology's early doctrine revolved around Hubbard having been cured of wounds and illnesses during his military service, the actual records paint a different story, suggesting that he only suffered from "mild arthritis and conjunctivitis." He went on to use the threat of suicide to bully his second wife, Sara Northrup, into marrying him; the film recounts an incident when Hubbard violently woke her up for smiling in her sleep, which was allegedly indicative that she was thinking about another man. He later kidnapped their daughter, Alexis, and repeatedly claimed that he had hacked her into pieces before returning the still-alive child — only to take all of the couple's money preceding their divorce.

2. Hubbard sent letters about Dianetics to the American Psychological Association
The religion's early documents had a foundation of psychological concepts, such as the idea of "going clear," based on a proposed distinction between separate halves of the brain. Yet as much as Hubbard claimed Scientology wasn't a form of psychiatry or psychology, and even as the church eventually took the mental health professions to be its enemy, Hubbard sought validation from those some people, sending materials about the book to the American Psychological Association. But authorities took the work to be "psychological folk art" and dismissed it as "a passing fad, like the hula hoop," suggesting a possible part of the reason for Hubbard's later vehement disdain rage at the profession.

3. Scientology's clergy formed as a response to investigations
Under investigation in several countries for avoiding taxation, the film mentions how Hubbard "took to the sea," creating a fleet of ships that would allow him to evade authorities. These ships (three in total) were manned by the so-called Sea Organization, leading to the creation of the church's clergy known as "Sea Org." Original member Hana Eltringham Whitfield attests that she was secretly invited to join Sea Org, and was then brought to a dilapidated ship in the Canary Islands. A number of her peers would do the hard work of scrubbing and fixing up the ship to make it seaworthy, while Hubbard would later, smoking cigarettes and "surveying his kingdom." She also recounts how he would join the laborers after dinner and wax philosophical about the "fifth invaders."

4. The "secret" behind Scientology alienated many of the church's members
Once members of the church reach the rank of "Operating Thetan III," they are given Hubbard's hand-written notes and told the secrets of the church — a tale involving a past alien society perfectly resembling the America of the 1950s (coincidentally the moment when Hubbard came up with the story). A galactic overlord named Xenu called in mass numbers of people, "ostensibly for tax audits," and took to a prison planet (actually Earth). Their spirits were shown massive films of crucified people, after which they become "thetans," the neurosis-inducing "souls" of people within Scientology's mythos. (This part of the church's belief system has also been memorably dramatized in an episode of South Park.) Filmmaker and infamous former Scientologist Paul Haggis describes learning this story in Going Clear, recalling that he initially saw it as a test of sanity: It had to be denied in order to prove that you were not crazy and had become sufficiently clear. No such luck.

5. The church essentially went to war with the IRS over tax exemption
The film recounts a full-on battle between the IRS and the church over the notion of tax exemption for Scientology on the basis of it being a religion. Yes, it's difficult to definitively determine what constitutes a religion and what doesn't. But the protection of the IRS (and the first amendment) allowed for the sidestepping of otherwise required payments. Even Hubbard's novels were declared religious documents after current Scientology leader David Miscavige initiated mass lawsuits against the IRS, then claimed he would pull the plug on them if the church became tax-exempt. Going Clear includes footage of a massive rally where Miscavige is shown declaring to his legions of followers, "The war is over."

6. Scientology's win over the IRS allowed the church to rake in money
That victory, and Scientology's subsequent assumption of non-profit status, has allowed the church to amass enormous sums of money without necessarily spending it in the way religious organizations traditionally do. Though it has been difficult to determine how much the church earns in full, Wright says that he discovered tax records while researching his book that suggested just three of the 20 or so major organizations comprising Scientology had earned upwards of $1.5 billion.

7. Members of Sea Org who criticize the church are "destressed" through torture
Much of the film is spent discussing the Rehabilitation Project Force, a confined space created by Hubbard which ex-church member Spanky Taylor — formerly John Travolta's handler and closest contact within the church — describes as a "prison camp." She was sent after criticizing the church for denying medical treatment to her boss; though it was seemingly a "mistake," she discovered that many of the church's executives were also at RPF. Miscavige describes it as a place to become "destressed" through menial labor, but Taylor describes it as "30 hours on, three hours off." Eventually, she became pregnant, something the church describes as an "unpractical burden" for members of Sea Org, leading it to pressure many into having abortions.

8. Scientology blackmails its members with private "audit" sessions
Throughout the film, Taylor wonders how Travolta has been continually kept in thrall to the church, particularly when he has the power to push back against many of its practices. The possible conclusion: the recorded "audit" sessions, Scientology's equivalent of confession. They are meticulously recorded and conveyed to church officials, allowing the revealed secrets to be used as leverage against dissatisfied members. The assembled auditing sessions constitute a perpetual Sword of Damocles, capable of, in theory, bringing him or any other member down at any moment.

9. The church broke up Tom Cruise's marriage to Nicole Kidman
Former church spokesman Marty Rathbun says that because Kidman's father was a psychologist, she was deemed a Potential Trouble Source, and threat to one of the church's biggest stars. According to the documentary, Kidman's phone was tapped and she was tailed by private investigators; Cruise's own auditing sessions were allegedly pored over by Miscavige, who received "daily reports" on how the couple were doing. And, once the relationship was over, the church apparently attempted to "assign" Cruise a new girlfriend — Homeland actress Nazanin Boniadi.

10. Miscavige created a prison camp for Sea Org members
In what might be Going Clear's most brutal bombshell sequence, talking heads describe "The Hole," a cesspool riddled with ants where Scientology executives were held, often for years. They would suffer beatings, were doused with water, and were forced to play "musical chairs" — set to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." All of this was designed to elicit confessions of their crimes against Hubbard and Miscavige. Eventually, the Hole led several Scientologists, including Rathburn and now-activist Mike Rinder, to leave the church. The Scientologist ex-wives of these dissenters went on TV to repeat what the film convincingly argues are coached talking points, such as the idea that they knew "every inch" of their former husbands. Out of all of Going Clear's revelations, this one might be the smoking gun.