Alex Gibney’s much-talked about new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief—based on Lawrence Wright’s similarly titled 2013 exposé—has been making headlines since it made its Sundance debut in January. It opened on limited screens across the country last Friday and will premiere on HBO in two weeks. In the meantime, the Church of Scientology has gone into overdrive attacking the film: taking out full page ads in major newspapers to denounce it; buying up Going Clear-related search results on Google; and trying to discredit the filmmakers and their subjects in a series of videos on the Church’s website. Scientology has long been shrouded in mystery—doubtless in large part due to the Church’s secretive practices—but the Church is also notorious for terrorizing critics and defectors. Suffice it to say they are not an easy institution to investigate. In honor of their inscrutable reputation, and with Scientology-talk nearing zenith zeitgeist, I decided to put together a reading list of stories that explore the Church from a variety of angles. Please don’t kill my dog.
1. “The Apostate” (Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, 2011)
Wright is nothing short of a master reporter (he won a Pulitzer for The Looming Tower, his 2006 history of al-Qaeda), and his deep investigative skills shine in this epic piece, a profile of Hollywood director and screenwriter Paul Haggis. Haggis was once one of Scientology’s most prominent members; he is now one of the Church’s most prominent defectors. This article eventually became part of Wright’s 2013 book Going Clear.
2. “The Tip of the Spear” (Joel Sappell, Los Angeles Magazine, 2012)
Starting in the mid-1980s, journalists Joel Sappell and Robert Welkos spent five years examining the Church of Scientology for the Los Angeles Times, ultimately producing a six-day, 24-article series (available here in its entirety) that ran in June 1990. Here—more than two decades after the fact—Sappell reflects on his unnerving experiences reporting on the Church.
3. “What Katie Didn’t Know” (Maureen Orth, Vanity Fair, October 2012)
An exquisitely creepy behind-the-scenes look at the Church of Scientology’s 2004 search for the next Mrs. Tom Cruise.
4. “Scientology’s Hollywood Real Estate Empire” (Daniel Miller, The Hollywood Reporter, July 2011)
Little known fact: the Church of Scientology owns more historic buildings in Hollywood than any other entity. Miller’s decision to examine the Church’s relationship to Hollywood in the context of its real estate empire makes for fascinating reading.
5. “Escape from Sea Org” (Astra Woodcraft, as told to Abigail Pesta, The Daily Beast, July 2012)
Astra Woodcraft was seven when she was indoctrinated into the Church of Scientology via an arm of the church known as Sea Org. This is the story of what she endured, and how she escaped.
6. “Are Academics Afraid to Study Scientology?” (Ruth Graham, JSTOR Daily, November 2014)
Scientology attracts an extraordinary amount of media attention, but scholars have been slow to devote time and research to its study—Why?
See Also: “A Scientology Glossary” (David Sessions, The Daily Beast, July 2012)
Don’t know the difference between an engram, an E-meter, and an operating Thetan? Don’t worry, The Daily Beast has your back.