2013 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief
Alfred A. Knopf/Random House
Interview by Sallie Tisdale
Sallie Tisdale: First Al Qaeda and now Scientology - bitter enemies to make. You note "the caution with which scholars regard the subject" of Scientology and how many of your sources were "fearful of retribution." Were you? Was there any hesitation?
Lawrence Wright: There was. I had thought about writing about Scientology for years, but it has a well-earned reputation for being vindictive and litigious. When I first talked to David Remnick at the New Yorker about doing the subject, we decided not to. It wasn't entirely because of the legal consequences, but because I didn't have a good way in to the story. But when I found out about Paul Haggis, it was just too good to pass up. They did scare off my British publisher. In Britain they have completely different libel laws—the church threatened the publisher and they just folded at once.
ST: You are particularly interested in religious belief, which you see as being profoundly influential in human history. You also note that Scientologists seem to lack a sense of humor or irony. Have you found this lack in other religions as well?
LW: Humor and irony don't mix very well with piety. You can have humorous people in any religion, but the more they become enmeshed with the dogma, the less they can indulge humor. I've always been interested in humor, and every time I go into a foreign environment, I always ask people for jokes. I didn't find many Scientology jokes. When I was writing about Mormons, there are some pretty funny Mormon jokes—I wouldn't say hysterical, but there are Mormon jokes. It's an interesting comparison with Scientologists, because even though Mormons can be very protective of themselves, they aren't anywhere near as defensive. Mormonism has enough maturity to look at itself with a certain distance that Scientology hasn't achieved.
ST: There are other religions with "eccentric cosmology, vindictive behavior toward critics and defectors" and which damage family relationships. There are certainly other religions which vehemently defend themselves. How do you see Scientology in the context of new religions—and old?
LW: Scientology is not a big religion—maybe somebody somewhere inside the church knows how many members there are, but that information has not been bequeathed to us. Though it's not a big religion, it's a very conspicuous one. What new religions offer is novelty, and of course, a community. Any religion offers a community as a primary appeal. But part of what draws people to a religion is the sense that ‘This is for me.’ One of the things that's interesting about Scientology is that it set out to be that religion for people in the entertainment industry. It wanted to be a good cultural fit with the entertainment industry in the way, for example, that Pentecostalism is not. You don't find a lot of Pentecostals in the entertainment industry.
ST: Anonymous sources have been crucial to your career. We live in a time when rumors and outright lies spread rapidly, are often treated as news and can become part of the historical record. How do you convince the reader to trust you?
LW: I try not to depend on anonymous sources. As a reader, I don't trust them, either. For a long time in writing this book I tried not to use any anonymous sources. What I found were a number of people who were terrified—they wanted to talk, but were afraid of the consequences. The church had gone around to a number of the most public members and coerced or convinced them to sign nondisclosure agreements. This was a real hurdle. Some of them were willing to talk off the record, as long as the church wouldn't tie them to the statements. If I wanted to get the story, I had to get them to talk to me anonymously or they would be facing punishment. Others had left the church, but still had family members in the church and had a delicate balance to maintain in order not to lose connections. In some cases people were willing to act as an information backstop for me, and tell me if I was right or wrong about a point. It was tricky. In many cases, people who started out as anonymous agreed to make their statements on the record, and many had never spoken openly before.
ST: This was a collaborative venture and you are generous with praise for editors, fact-checkers and researchers who helped. How much of a book like this is legitimately yours alone? You get the credit - and the criticism.
LW: More than any other book I've done, this has depended on a team effort, beginning with The New Yorker, which had the courage to publish the article in the first place in the face of a cascade of threats. The only way we could truly defend ourselves was to make sure we had everything right. I turned in the first draft within six months, and then they put a fact checker on it full time. It was another six months before it was published, and by then we had six fact checkers on it working full time. We all had in mind what had happened to Time magazine, which had been sued by the church a decade before and had won at every stage all the way to the Supreme Court, but it cost them more than any lawsuit they'd defended in their entire history. Despite all the trouble The New Yorker had to endure, then Knopf stepped up. Book publishers don't have fact checkers. I hired my own, Lauren Wolf, and she became a tremendous ally. The three of us—Lauren Wolf, the Knopf lawyer, Anke Steinecke, and I vetted everything. When the book was published, we felt very secure about what was on the page. People took risks—institutions took risks in publishing this, and I couldn't have done it without them.
Sallie Tisdale is the author of seven books, including The Best Thing I Ever Tasted (Riverhead, 2000), a finalist for the James Beard Award for Writing, and Talk Dirty to Me (Doubleday, 1994), which will be reissued later this fall. She was a National Book Awards nonfiction judge in 2010.