Lawrence Wright was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11". This week, the German translation will be published this week of his latest book, "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief". In it, Wright, 66, describes how faith can change people's behavior. In the United States, Scientology is officially recognized as a church. In Germany, however, the organization has been monitored in several states since 1997 by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a group of agencies responsible for observing potentially undemocratic segments of society. Scientology officials claim to have 12,000 members in Germany, but German authorities believe that figure is closer to 4,000.
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Wright discusses his new book and his experiences researching the controversial organization.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Wright, you have challenged the Church of Scientology, a powerful organization known for its litigiousness. During the research for your book, you spoke to 200 Scientologists and people who left the church. How did the organization react?
Wright: The church was naturally aware of my research. When I interviewed dropouts, we were tailed by private detectives. The church published surveillance photos of that. Prior to the publication of the magazine story which resulted in the writing of the book, a meeting took place with the lawyers from Scientology, four of them, and they had brought along large quantities of files. Together with the publisher's fact checkers we clarified 971 factual questions to protect ourselves from litigation.
SPIEGEL: You have an elaborate alarm system at home. Why?
Wright: I had that installed as a precautionary measure. After my publications, the church printed a special edition trying to refute my alleged lies. And the church has launched a counterattack -- the television ad aired during the Super Bowl, for example.
SPIEGEL: To German ears your book has a somewhat sympathetic tone to it. You call Scientology a church and some sympathy for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard can be detected. Why?
Wright: It is correct that I was cautious. But my main reason was that I have always felt that the reader should be able to draw his own conclusions. It is more astounding just to present him with the facts without commentary -- and more effective.
SPIEGEL: Prior to this book, you wrote another one about the ascent of al-Qaida for which you were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. What prompted you to focus on Scientology?
Wright: Like a lot of people, I looked at Scientology as a bizarre belief system, and yet there where all these well-known personalities suffering a kind of public relations martyrdom for their beliefs, like Tom Cruise or John Travolta.
SPIEGEL: The genesis of Scientology alone is completely crazy. Hubbard, the former science fiction author, wrote that the galactic ruler Xenu lived 4 billion years ago in a universe similar to our own. Under the pretext of a tax audit, he lured people into spaceships that looked like American DC-8s. Then they were transported to the prison planet Earth, stuffed into volcanoes and blown up with nuclear bombs. That surely cannot be taken seriously.
Wright: Right, but then somebody comes along who is more skeptical than oneself, smarter and more creative, who twice writes scripts for films that get an Academy Award, "L.A. Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby," and he stays for 35 years even though he considers many things to be madness. Why does he stay? That is the theme of the book.
SPIEGEL: Why are seemingly reasonable people interested in an organization whose goal quite plainly appears to be a particular form of money-making?
Wright: These people are spiritual seekers who have tried to find answers in other religions and have not been satisfied, people with personal problems. Scientology offers so-called personality tests and courses to help find solutions to those problems that were found in the tests. A lot of people have actually subjectively been helped by these courses.
SPIEGEL: It is still difficult to understand the appeal of Scientology.
Wright: Many intelligent, skeptical people become members of Scientology, like Hollywood screenwriter Paul Haggis. I wanted the reader to feel a little scared about the capacity of the human mind and the human personality to be changed by outside forces, because it is possible to direct a person's thinking and behavior.
SPIEGEL: What drove Haggis to Scientology?
Wright: Paul Haggis was a young man in a complicated relationship. After having been approached on the street, he brought his girlfriend along and they took a course that was designed to help their relationship, and Haggis felt that it did. What interested him was the apparently scientific approach to a spiritual problem, a technique to solve problems with.
SPIEGEL: How does Scientology proceed with this technique?
Wright: In the beginning, the goal is to become "clear". Hubbard wrote that there are two minds, a rational and a reactive one. The rational mind functions perfectly like a computer and the reactive one causes all the fears and anxieties. Thoughts as such are to be repeated again and again until they no longer have a negative meaning.
SPIEGEL: That sounds somewhat like trauma therapy. How should one picture a Scientology therapy?
Wright: At the so-called auditing, the person is connected to a machine called an "E-meter," a kind of lie detector. He holds two tin cans in his hands -- they used to be Campbell soup cans with their labels stripped off -- that measure the galvanic skin response. In an auditing session he could say: "I do not feel well, because my mother scolded me this morning." Then the auditor would let him tell the story over and over again, until the meter remains unaffected. And then the auditor would ask him to reflect if that reminds him of similar experiences in the past. He may remember his teacher hitting him with a ruler. And then he goes further back until there are no more memories. Still, the auditor persists. Then perhaps the E-meter flickers, the auditor inquires and suddenly the person sees himself on a spaceship in an ancient civilization, in a war with other spaceships. So apparent memories are being fabricated, the needle moves and says that these are real memories from a past life.
SPIEGEL: Is it easy to induce such memories?
Wright: It is surprisingly easy. The story of the spaceships was told to me by Scientologists. To some people it already happens during the first session. You suddenly believe that you have lived before, that you are an eternal being -- and Scientology helped to awake these memories in you. Often people also have an out-of-body experience and the soul looks around the room or even goes to another planet. It is like a drug trip, so powerful that any criticism of Scientology does not affect you.
SPIEGEL: And such hocus-pocus is sufficient for people to leave all caution to the wind?
Wright: Apparently. A Scientologist told me his story. He suffered from hemorrhoids since he had been in the military, and every time he watched a war movie or saw a military parade he would have an outbreak. Under auditing, he remembered being a child in the Civil War in the 19th century. A soldier shot him in the ass. After this discovery during auditing he never again had an outbreak of hemorrhoids. This man was absolutely convinced that the auditing had cured him. People even talk about memories they had in the womb or when they were sperm.
SPIEGEL: That sounds pretty gaga.
Wright: Even Hubbard thought that was gaga, until more and more people told him of such sperm dreams. Then he apparently had them himself too.
SPIEGEL: How can that be possible?
Wright: It is frighteningly easy to implant false memories into people that they then believe to be real.
SPIEGEL: How many people are members of Scientology?
Wright: The church insists that there are 8 to 10 million, but that is a lie. The International Association of Scientologists has only 50,000 members. The true figure probably lies in-between.
SPIEGEL: What touched you most during your research?
Wright: The abuse of children. They are drawn into the so-called clergy, the Sea Org, as eight- or nine-year olds. They sign a contract for a billion years, because in the scheme of infinity that is not much. They have given up their education, they are poor, they cannot even drive a car. They do not have the prerequisites to survive in a normal world.
SPIEGEL: Scientology says the organization complies with all labor laws. Members of the Sea Org must be 16 or 18 years old and receive the required amount of schooling.
Wright: I spoke to a young man named Daniel Montalvo, who joined the Sea Org at the age of 11. One of the first things they had him do was to remove asbestos from a hotel that Scientology had bought -- without any protective equipment. Later he was a kind of page for a celebrity, a servant who stood in front of the building while the celebrity was getting auditing. I ask myself if he ever wondered why that child was not in school.