I know parts of this were serialised in the Sun, but being a Guardian-reading lefty, I didn't hear about this book until a few days later, when reports came in of it mysteriously vanishing from the Amazon listings. The word on the internets was that there'd been an emergency meeting between Tom Cruise and the Amazon CEO, after which the book was swiftly removed from sale, and all other UK booksellers soon followed suit; the Scientology legal team had obviously been putting on the pressure and the sellers had shamefully caved in. Tsk. Now, despite having had some prior run-ins with Scientologists, I probably wouldn't have actually bothered buying this book, but the fact that they tried to ban it made me very keen to get hold of a copy. The publishers in Ireland, when I contacted them directly, were unable to ship to the UK, but another Irish bookseller (Eason's) was quite happy to sell me a copy, and I was quite happy to give my cash to a seller less craven than Amazon or Waterstones; even if it turned out to be crap, book-banning is something worth opposing. Luckily, it turned out to be a pretty good and very interesting read.
The name of L Ron Hubbard is something of a joke among the SF community - failed writer of low-quality sci-fi starts own religion! - but on reading this personal account of Scientology's foot-soldiers, it starts to look less like a comedy and more like a terrible tragedy. Duignan's story, capably ghost-written by Nicola Tallant, tells of a troubled young man in search of stability, seduced by the Church's promise of answers and then sucked in to do the cult's bidding for over two decades. More like a pyramid scheme than a religion, the lower-level staff work 16-hour days or longer, their salaries entirely dependent on the number of new converts they bring aboard, and the number of books or courses they sell to existing ones. Theoretically, the aim of all Scientologists is to progress towards the enlightened state of "Clear" and beyond, where time-travel, telekinesis and total bodily control are possible, but every step of the way has to be paid for, and most of the staff never make it, despite years of underpaid work. The money just seems to vanish somewhere into the upper echelons, while the acolytes (and their children) live in squalid dormitory conditions, fending off demands for harder work and more money - for example, Duignan tells of how every staff member was forced to buy a newly-released box set of L Ron Hubbard lecture CDs, at a cost of several hundred pounds each. While the high-profile (and rich) celebrity members can rise through the ranks with alacrity, the poorer ones can end up spending their lives in a state of near-slavery without even getting near their goals.
Why, then, do they put up with this? Well, this is where the claims of brainwashing come in. In Duignan's case, this was a young orphaned man from a broken home, not particularly well educated, who had already tried a religion or two and was obviously easy pickings; just the initial friendly treatment by the recruitment staff was enough to hook him in. After that, the combination of high-pressure sales-talk, the insistence on staying away from corrupting influences (friends, family and other non-Scientologists) and some elementary psychological tricks (confidence-destroying group sessions and high doses of toxic vitamins, among other things) served to increase his dependency on the Church; soon, like an abusive relationship, he came to believe that he had no hope of surviving in the outside world, and accepted all of the crap that was thrown at him. The list of atrocities committed by the Church against its members is long and very uncomfortable to read; there are families split up by arbitrary staffing decisions, terrible work-camps for transgressors, medication denied to the sick, even female Sea Org members being forced to have abortions when their pregnancy broke Church rules.
However, if all this sounds too depressing, and you were hoping to have a laugh at some crazy cult practices, there's plenty of comedy material here too. The announcement of Hubbard's death is particularly funny; a stadium full of committed Scientologists are told that, rather than dying, Hubbard had merely ascended to the next plane of reality, and cast aside his unnecessary body, and he was quite well, thankyou. The Church's initial attempts at creating a database were also quite hilarious - given that Hubbard had inconsiderately died before giving them any guidance (Hubbard's direct instructions had to be used for all aspects of life, including the best ways to clean floors), their back-up plan was to try some past-life regression, to see if any of their previous alien incarnations had any particular skills in database-creation. It's things like this that give me hope that Scientology will be too utterly incompetent to complete their World Domination plans.
Duignan's apotheosis came after he started illegally accessing the internet (forbidden to all Sea Org members). Finding out that the Ultimate Truth towards which he was aspiring was actually some old guff about Lord Xenu, and that the Great Leader Hubbard was not only terribly ill when he died, but also full of the same psychiatric drugs that he forbade his own followers - well, this was the last straw. With the help of some anti-cult organisations, he planned and executed his escape, though not without some tense moments as the Sea Org enforcers were sent out to bring him home. Luckily for him, he managed to evade their clutches for long enough to be properly deprogrammed, though their next step was predictably to try to block publication of this book. While Duignan wasn't quite as high-up in the Church as the blurb makes out (more like middle-management than serious corporate insider), this is still an absolutely fascinating exposé of a very nasty cult, and worth reading by anyone who has an interest in such things, or who opposes the banning of books by pressure-groups. A cult classic (heh heh).