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February 15 2011

16:46

What we’re reading: the long arc of reporting on Scientology, a different kind of drug war, and a new narrative collaboration

The long-form buzz this last week has been all about Lawrence Wright’s piece on Scientology for the New Yorker, “The Apostate.” It’s ostensibly a profile, but it’s also investigative journalism and a compelling narrative. Wright’s deft storytelling was recently addressed on this site by Roy Peter Clark, who looked at a passage from “The Looming Tower,” Wright’s account of the run-up to the 9/11 attacks.

Wright once again delivers the narrative goods with a 25,000-word story that takes a long time to read, making you miss a meeting or two and maybe skip lunch. The kicker alone is worth the time investment, but there are lots of other elegant moments along the way.

Like many big pieces, the story didn’t happen overnight. Listen to Wright’s podcast about the story and see a sample of disputed documentation from the piece for more clues about the back-and-forth with Scientologists.

Wright himself mentions some of the prior reporting that helped pave the way. The St. Petersburg Times’ three decades of investigating Scientology began in 1979 with coverage that won the paper a Pulitzer the following year. Those efforts continue today, most recently in an ongoing project from reporters Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin. This tireless stretch of reporting laid a paper trail and provided an opportunity to use the church’s earlier responses to dig deeper.

Just how much synthesis and narrative work Wright and the St. Pete staff have done becomes apparent upon reading this impressive but jargon-heavy account from a woman named Bea, who says she spent decades serving Scientology before leaving the church. It clocks in at almost exactly the same length as Wright’s New Yorker piece, and must be invaluable for those investigating the church. At the same time, it shows just how much translation and anthropological work anyone trying to write a general audience piece about Scientology has to do.

For those looking for non-Scientology material to read, we were impressed with the clean, insightful writing of Jennifer Senior in her recent New York magazine piece, “The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War.”

We discovered Senior’s story because of a new collaboration between Longreads and Mother Jones magazine. Each week, Mother Jones will feature a top 5 Longreads list for narrative nonfiction junkies everywhere. The partnership has just begun, but we’re already impressed with many of the choices. Check out the lists for Week 1 and Week 2.

Photo of Scientology leader David Miscavige by Robin Donina Serne of the St. Petersburg Times.

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