The New Yorker’s Massive Scientology Article: Candy for Journalism Nerds

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Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 7 2011 5:33 PM

The New Yorker’s Massive Scientology Article: Candy for Journalism Nerds

Lawrence Wright's sprawling, much-anticipated article on PaulHaggis's defection from Scientology hit the Internet late last night. Thearticle runs a full 26 pages online or be warned 47 pages in hard copy, basedon the Slate office printer's output.

If, like me, you were hoping for a juicy and salaciousexposé, you'll probably be disappointed. There are no revelations of babies beingsacrificed to Xenu or dirtysecrets about Tom Cruise's sex life. (We do learn that the FBI is investigatingthe church on charges of human trafficking, as Gawker noted this morning.) Some of the crazier-seemingdetails like the fact that members of the elite SeaOrg pledge to serve the church for a billion years have been shared before .The real drama here isn't the information itself, but how that information getsreported.

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For the first 20 pages, the articleis fairly exhausting to read. That'sbecause Wright (conscious of the church's litigious history) lays outall the he-said/she-said bickering so diligently. For example:

Claire and Marc fell in love, and married in 1992.She says that she was pressured by the church to have two abortions, because ofa stipulation that Sea Org members can't have children. The church denies thatit pressures members to terminate pregnancies. Lucy James, a formerScientologist who had access to Sea Org personnel records, says that she knowsof dozens of cases in which members were pressed to have abortions.

Sometimes it feels like half thearticle is simply parentheses citing another variation of "So-and-so deniedthis."

This back-and-forth, however, is also what makes thearticle's central set piece so good. After months of negotiation with Scientologyspokesman Tommy Davis, Wright and six staff members of The New Yorker meet Davis, Davis's wife, and four attorneys todiscuss the huge data dump the church provided in response to "nearly athousand queries" from Wright material that filled "forty-eight binders ... stretching nearly seven linear feet."

Over the next several pages, Wright patiently sticks it tohis interviewee on topics like founder L. Ron Hubbard's views on homosexualityand the wisdom of casting formerly high ranking officials as bitter, criminalnutjobs. (At one point, Davis passes around a photo of one defector that, he says,showed the man sitting naked with a giant globe in his lap. The man was bent ongetting "'all people to give up their money,'" Davis claims. "'He's not a very sane person.'")

Most dramatically, Wright carefully unravels thechurch's long-cherished beliefs about Hubbard's World War II record. (Hubbard hadwritten that he was blinded and severely lamed in the war, but healed himselfusing techniques that would form the basis of Scientology.) Without spoilingthe fun, we'll just note that part of Wright's damning detective work involvesobtaining nine hundred pages ofHubbard's military records from the National Archives and a character fromOliver Stone's JFK gets up in the mix.For a reporting nerd, it's pure candy.

We already know that Wright will be expandingthis article into a book, but I hope he has theatrical ambitions, too. Wrighthas already adapted two of his New Yorker pieces into one-manstage shows ; this article could make a great two-handerin the style of Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon .If existing footage ofDavis is any indication, it should be an easy translation process.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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