The world has been waiting such a long time—decades!—for something like this book, and now that it's finally arrived, I'm pleased to report that it's just as good as we could've hoped. Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief is a great journalistic achievement—a comprehensive history of L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology, from its inception in the late 1940s to today, constructed with what appears to be airtight reportage.

That "airtight reportage" bit is important because, as the book details, the Church of Scientology has sued people who have dared to write about it. But the book incorporates pieces of Wright's New Yorker profile of screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, an outspoken former Scientologist, and that story remains unchallenged by the church's attorneys to this day. (The meeting between the church's legal and PR representatives, Wright, and a ragtag collection of the New Yorker's editors and fact-checkers is the book's climactic scene; that there have been no repercussions for Wright thus far make the scene, thankfully, a kind of anticlimax.)

For nearly four hundred pages, Wright grabs hold of the church's most sacred beliefs and cheerfully dismantles them, beginning with the story of its founder, sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard. From what I can tell, Scientology considers Hubbard to be the greatest man who ever lived, a cross between Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, with some Indiana Jones and Captain America slathered on top, but Wright paints a much darker portrait. The Hubbard we're introduced to—who comes across as an egomaniacal compulsive liar, a man who beat one wife and abandoned a child he had with another woman—is pretty much the height of heresy for the church. Wright notes in the acknowledgments that it's been decades since any author has attempted a Hubbard biography, because former attempts have been discredited or suppressed by the church's lawyers.

With the heart of the Scientology story turned inside out, Wright then lays the whole church bare. He loosely outlines the outlandish beliefs of the church, which slowly become revealed to inductees as they contribute more money and climb the ladder of self- improvement, as dictated by half-assed therapy sessions performed on the church's pseudoscientific "E-Meters." (If I had one wish for the book, it's that Wright would spend more time explaining the full science-fiction story of the church, with its "tyrannical overlord named Xenu" and its central myth, which begins "seventy-five million years ago in the Galactic Confederacy, which was composed of seventy-six planets and twenty-six stars.")

But the Church of Scientology is obviously more interested in terrestrial stars. Wright explains the great lengths to which the church has gone to keep their most visible member, Tom Cruise, happy. Those close ties between the church and Cruise can't help but alter your perception of the movie star. I can't think of Cruise now without also picturing the terrible crimes for which Wright blames the church—blackmail, human rights violations like kidnapping people who tried to escape the church, and forcing people into inhumane work conditions that sound more like slavery than anything else. These are serious allegations, and certain precautions must be taken. Thus, the narrative is spiked throughout with short footnotes inserted for the sake of legal protection: "Cruise's attorney says that no Scientology executives set him up with girlfriends," "The church characterizes this as an attempt at extortion," and "The church denies that Miscavige has ever abused members of the church."

Which brings us to the church's second (and present) leader, David Miscavige. Miscavige is the kind of blessing that is granted only once in a journalist's life—a stereotypical villain, a perfectly unbelievable figure in the flesh. (Hell, even his last name sounds like something terrible that happens to you by accident.) The Miscavige portrayed in Going Clear is an out-and-out monster. He physically abuses his subordinates, he makes sure that anyone who opposes him—including his wife—gets sent away to de facto prison camps, and the church's forced-work laborers, who earn pennies a day, are expected to buy extravagant birthday gifts for him. You won't find a more hate-worthy villain in a book this year. recommended