William Seward Burroughs II was a prominent US novelist and essayist. Like John W Campbell (the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction“) he thought of himself as an intelligent sceptic, but enthusiastically embraced a series of fringe ideas – including Scientology – and was exploited by L Ron Hubbard.
Burroughs was welcomed to Scientology as a ‘celebrity’ whose membership would impart credibility and generate public interest. However, he demonstrated that this approach was a double-edged sword when he objected to the growing authoritarianism of the Church of Scientology and spoke out against it in this article.
Hubbard wrote a response which was published in “Mayfair’s” August issue. It will be the subject of my next post.
“Mayfair“seems a strange forum for an exchange between Burroughs and Hubbard to take place. It was a ‘glamour’ magazine for men which published photosets of models along with a few serious articles and short fiction aimed at educated readers (its market niche) – a British version of “Playboy”.
However, Burroughs had been a regular contributor of short stories and non-fiction articles to early issues of “Mayfair” and later worked with the magazines deputy editor, Graham Masterton.
- The focus of Scientology in this period was in the UK, where Hubbard had lived and worked from 1959 (when he bought Saint Hill Manor with the proceeds of the dianetics fad) to 1966.
- Burroughs has also taken Scientology courses in the UK (notably in Edinburgh Scotland in 1968 where he spent £1,500).
From Burroughs point of view it must have seemed appropriate to issue his ‘challenge’ in a British magazine where he was confident it would be published.
Less than a year after his “Mayfair” article was published (in 1971) Burroughs published a violent short story entitled, “Ali’s Smile“which opens with a character receiving a letter of disconnection from a fellow Scientologist.
Despite all of this, he remained a ‘true believer’ in Scientology ‘tech’ for many years. He left the organisation because he could not stomach the authoritarian control that Hubbard exercised over members.
The Historical Context
L Ron Hubbard had moved to England after buying Saint Hill Manor with the proceeds of dianetics in 1959. His apparent ambition was to transform it into the World HQ of Scientology. However:
- Growing media concern about the activities of Scientology in the UK inhibited Scientology’s growth there (as can be seen in these contemporary newspaper reports View Online | Download as .pdf)
- Hubbard was forced to leave England in 1966. The Church of Scientology was attracting criticism from governments worldwide and he feared extradition to the US to face a variety of legal charges. To avoid this, he founded the “Sea Org”in early 1967 and spent the next eight years of his life on board ship, never far from the legal refuge of International waters.
Later, two critical television programmes were broadcast, “Scientology: A Faith for Sale” (1967) and the classic “The Shrinking World of L Ron Hubbard“, (1968). Both showed Scientology in a very poor light. Notably, “The Shrinking World of L Ron Hubbard” (from which the image above left is taken) presented an interview with Hubbard which made him appear unbalanced.
I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L Ron Hubbard (1970)
The article is headed with this statement from Burroughs:
You claim Scientology is the universal road to freedom. Well I’ve taken your course and I say: Prove it to all of us. Come out country simple and prove it.
This does not mean that Burroughs is sceptical about Scientology. He make it quite clear, later, that he actually believes in ‘the tech’ – he objects to the secrecy practised by the Church of Scientology and wants Hubbard to make all of ‘the tech’ freely available.
Some of the techniques [of Scientology] are highly valuable and warrant further study and experimentation. The E Meter is a useful device […]. On the other hand, I am in flat disagreement with the organizational policy. No body of knowledge needs an organizational policy. Organizational policy can only impede the advancement of knowledge.
[…] Suppose Newton had founded a Church of Newtonian Physics, and refused to show his formulae to anyone who doubted the tenets of Newtonian physics?
Why Was Scientology Obsessed with Secrecy and Control?
Burroughs’ argument must have disturbed Hubbard.
When he invented dianetics he was dependent on others to finance the ‘dianetic institutes’ which constituted the prototype for of the Church of Scientology. He had asserted that dianetic therapy had been proven to be miraculously effective by rigorous research – and was taken at his word. When other ‘researchers’ entered the field (and failed to reproduce his results) Hubbard could see his creation slipping from his fingers.
When the dianetic institutes collapsed (partly due to Hubbard emptying the coffers) he resolved never to make that mistake again. As he had temporarily lost control of the intellectual property rights to dianetics, he invented Scientology and recruited new followers from the mailing lists he had taken with him from dianetics.
Hubbard asserted absolute control over Scientology by presenting himself as a kind of universal genius with the common touch. He became the one and only “Source” of ideas in Scientology. These were described as ‘research.’ They were, in fact, religious revelations – and Hubbard was the prophet.
Despite this status, there was always the chance that someone, someday, might challenge Hubbard’s authority by releasing ‘research’ of their own and gaining a following. As long as Scientology was presented as ‘scientific’ this would remain a risk.
Hubbard’s solution was to develop an authoritarian organisation which suppressed free inquiry. For example, members were interrogated (with the e-meter) in ‘security checks‘ to see if they harboured any doubts or negative thoughts not only about Scientology, but also Hubbard himself.
Scientology Versus Psychiatry – Burroughs’ Perspective
Burroughs goes on to consider Scientology’s vendetta against psychiatry, with reference to an article in “Freedom” magazine (which is still published by the Church). Afterwards, he asks,
Now, what is all this flap about psychiatrists? At worst, psychiatrists are the defendants of the establishment ‘adjusting’ or coercing individuals into socially acceptable mores. At best, they urge a more liberal and humane approach to human problems and may even clash with the Establishment.
Burroughs recognises Scientology’s ‘crusade’ against psychiatry as cover for Hubbard’s reactionary social and political attitudes, and a justification of his power over Scientologists. He wonders,
[…] we can read and appreciate Ezra Pound’s poetry without sharing his political views. Can we make a similar distinction between Hubbard’s publicly expressed opinions and the technology and practice of Scientology? No, we can not. […]
If Mr Hubbard was content to be a technician who made some important discoveries we could afford to ignore his personal opinions. When he sets himself up as the saviour of all possible universes, we cannot.
Scientology, Secrecy and Control
Burroughs also understands the way in which Scientology obtains compliance.
Should anyone wish to make an objective evaluation he would find it difficult to do so owing to the structure of the Scientology organisation. To begin with the techniques in use are not described in Mr Hubbard’s books. To learn these techniques, one must take courses at a Scientology centre. An one does not simply pay the tuition, obtain the materials and study. Oh no. One must JOIN.
[…] The advanced courses are not only unpublished but confidential and any student revealing this material is subject to expulsion and exclusion from further training.
In other words, there is no possibility of objectively assessing Scientology. Only those who accept its truth are admitted to the mysteries of the higher levels. The merely curious are excluded by the high fees required.
Burroughs now describes his experience of Scientology’s security checks at length – interrogations with the e-meter which included questions like, “Do you have any unkind thoughts about L Ron Hubbard?”
He sees this as part of a pattern of oppressive control – which includes the Church of Scientology’s obsessive secrecy. He speaks of his experience studying the advanced levels,
You have to swear and believe that the organizational policy is correct and that the materials are as Mr Hubbard says they are before you can see them. It’s like a physicist saying “you can’t see my formulae unless you agree that they are correct, sight unseen.
We can see now that this apparatus is the only way that Hubbard can retain personal, absolute control over the organisation. Hubbard made Scientology up, and this is was only way he could prevent others from challenging his power by doing the same.
Burroughs observes, “The practice of security checks is now discontinued”. He was wrong – in fact ‘Sec Checks’ are still an unpleasant fact of life for Scientologists today. He goes on, however to describe the ‘conditions’ – a series of increasingly serious punishments for doubt or disobedience that are also still in force.
William Burroughs, Independent Scientologist
As to my personal evaluation, after six months of study I would not be writing this article unless I was convinced that Scientology is worth serious consideration. […] Scientology can do more in ten hours than psychoanalysis can do in ten years.
Burroughs is starting out on the path of the Independent Scientologist. He realises that L Ron Hubbard is not the man the Church of Scientology would like you to think he was – but has not yet realised that his creation is also empty and meaningless.
There were never any controlled experiments, no data, no publication and certainly no peer review to support Hubbard’s many claims. The only thing that holds The Church of Scientology together is the repressive control that Burroughs finds so unpalatable.
Burroughs now expresses some doubt as to Hubbard’s claims about the ‘reactive mind’, and those of psychiatry. Unfortunately, his idea of “Western psychiatry” is psychoanalysis – a theoretical construct that is discredited today because, just like Scientology, it can never be falsified (e.g. if you agree with your therapist you are making progress, if you disagree you are repressing – the therapist can never be wrong).
However, he now comes to his challenge:
Mr Hubbard says he wants recognition for his discoveries. Well let him show his confidential material free of charge and without any restrictions to qualified workers in other fields.
This was precisely what Hubbard did with dianetics – published it as a book, and found he was unable to keep control of his creation. Burroughs fails to see that all the repression in Scientology was put there deliberately to prevent that ever happening again. Burroughs is asking for something which Hubbard could never contemplate.
The remainder of the essay is a uncritical survey of wild ideas which demonstrates that Burroughs did not understand how science really works and helps to explain why he fell for Scientology in the first place. Although his understanding of psychology and science may have been faulty, his appeal for intellectual freedom is still relevant.