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.
Following Dylan Farrow’s open letter detailing her sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen, a look back at Maureen Orth’s original 1992 Vanity Fair report:
There was an unwritten rule in Mia Farrow’s house that Woody Allen was never supposed to be left alone with their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan. Over the last two years, sources close to Farrow say, he has been discussing alleged “inappropriate” fatherly behavior toward Dylan in sessions with Dr. Susan Coates, a child psychologist.
Best Essay: Lisa Taddeo, “Why We Cheat,” Esquire
A look behind-the-scenes at the alleged 2004 search by the Church of Scientology for the next Mrs. Tom Cruise:
Nazanin Boniadi, 25, who had not yet become the human-rights activist for Amnesty International and the actor she is today, was summoned in October 2004 to meet an important church official at the Celebrity Centre International, in Hollywood. She arrived to find the high-ranking Greg Wilhere, who, according to a knowledgeable source, told her she had been selected for a very hush-hush mission that would entail meeting dignitaries around the world. He added that if she succeeded she would be helping to make the world a better place. Thus began a month-long preparation process that entailed her getting audited every day and telling Wilhere her innermost secrets, including every detail of her sex life. Nobody who had been in a threesome, for example, would be considered—a rule that apparently eliminated one candidate. Since Boniadi was a gung-ho Scientologist who had already attained a level of O.T. V—beyond the Wall of Fire—she embraced the church’s motto ‘Think for Yourself’ and threw herself into every task she was assigned. Wilhere, meanwhile, had frequent whispered phone conversations with the person he called ‘the project director,’ says the source. Early on, he sent Boniadi to a photo shoot, which revealed that she wore braces and that her naturally black hair had red highlights. She was told that she had to lose the braces and make her hair one color to emphasize her ethnicity. It didn’t matter that she still had a good six months to wear the braces; they had to go. So did her boyfriend.
Sara Eckel | Longreads | January 2018 | 19 minutes (4,774 words)
In the fall of 2016, I stood on the concrete steps of a mustard-colored ranch house off the New York State Thruway in Ulster County, a broken red umbrella hooked below my shoulder. The mustached man at the door — 50ish, in a t-shirt and khakis — had the stern, dry look of a high-school science teacher.
“Hi, Thomas, my name is Sara, and I’m a neighborhood volunteer for Zephyr Teachout for Congress.”
Thomas didn’t tell me to go away, didn’t slam the door or scold me for interrupting his day. He stoically endured my spiel about why I was spending my Sunday afternoon doing this — because Zephyr has been fighting corruption for her entire career, and I believe she’ll go to Washington and represent the people of New York’s 19th District, rather than corporations and billionaires.
“Okay, thank you,” he said, closing the door.
“Would you like some literature?” I asked, proffering some rain-dotted pamphlets.
“No, you people have sent us plenty.”
James Grissom | Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog | Knopf | March 2015 | 26 minutes (7,038 words)
“James Grissom wrote a letter to Tennessee Williams in 1982, when he was only 20 years old, asking for advice. Tennessee unexpectedly responded, ‘Perhaps you can be of some help to me.’ Ultimately he tasked Grissom with seeking out each of the women (and few men) who had inspired his work—among them Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando—so that he could ask them a question: had Tennessee Williams, or his work, ever mattered? This is Grissom’s account of their intense first encounters, in which Tennessee explains his thoughts on writing, writer’s block, and the women he wrote.”
Josh Roiland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Journalism and a CLAS-Honors Preceptor in the Honors College at the University of Maine. Roiland is a cultural historian of the American news media, who researches and teaches classes on the cultural, political, and literary significance of American journalism. This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Literary Journalism Studies. Our thanks to Roiland for allowing us to reprint it here, and for adding this introduction:
David Foster Wallace saw clear lines between journalists and novelists who write nonfiction, and he wrestled throughout his career with whether a different set of rules applied to the latter category. In the years after his death, he has faced charges of embellishment and exaggeration by his close friend Jonathan Franzen and repeated by his biographer D.T. Max. Their criticisms, however, do not adequately address the intricate philosophy Wallace formulated about genre classification and the fact/fiction divide. This article explores those nuances and argues that Wallace’s thinking about genre was complex, multifaceted, and that it evolved during his writing life.
* * *
Before he sat down with the best tennis player on the planet for a noonday interview in the middle of the 2006 Wimbledon fortnight, David Foster Wallace prepared a script. Atop a notebook page he wrote, “R.Federer Interview Qs.” and below he jotted in very fine print 13 questions. After three innocuous ice breakers, Wallace turned his attention to perhaps the most prominent theme in all his writing: consciousness. Acknowledging the abnormal interview approach, Wallace prefaced these next nine inquires with a printed subhead: “Non-Journalist Questions.” Each interrogation is a paragraph long, filled with digressions, asides, and qualifications; several contain superscripted addendums. In short, they read like they’re written by David Foster Wallace. He asks Roger Federer if he’s aware of his own greatness, aware of the unceasing media microscope he operates under, aware of his uncommon elevation of athletics to the level of aesthetics, aware of how great his great shots really are. Wallace even wrote, “How aware are you of the ballboys?” before crossing the question out.
Choire Sicha is (of course) co-founder/editor of The Awl, which also happened to publish some of my favorite longreads of 2010.
But first, a note about what was excluded. For starters, a number of things from The Awl, which were of course my ultimate favorites. (I won’t name names, because I love everyone who writes for us equally but also in a unique and special way, but I will point out that we have a delightfully browsable Longreads tag!)
Then also, what I think is my favorite story of the year, Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills,” is subscription-only online. (It is here.) So it can’t be included, because, democracy now! Or something. (Attention currency now?) Likewise, Emily Witt’s excellent “Miami Party Boom” is excerpt-only online (it is here) and so must also be excluded. (But you should buy that issue just to read it. And I do mean “just”! (I’m kidding, n+1! Love you! Because also the second part of the Elif Batuman travelogue about Samarkand in that issue is totally worth reading.)
So here are five complicated, thorny, sometimes even aggravating pieces of writing that stuck with me throughout the year, usually for better, only rarely for worse. These address, in different ways, issues of how we we write. With what sort of language? What do we disclose and when? How do we discuss ourselves? What is the value of talking to other people when writing about our experiences? And then what do we do with that information? Most importantly, exactly how can and should we write about others? (That is another reason why the Janet Malcolm piece was so important.) What obligations do we have?
• Maureen Tkacik, “Look at Me!”
• Jay Caspian Kang, “The High is Always the Pain and the Pain is Always the High”
• Emily Gould, “Death and Blogging”
• Sady Doyle, “13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon”
• Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, “wrote this last night on my blackberry at
the forever 21 flagship launch party”