Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Visiting the first church of scientology and Hubbard's offices

When I was a youngling wandering southern california eons ago, one of my hobbies was visiting cults. From old photographs I can see I had a rather innocent and even vulnerable looking face, and cultists were always keen to recruit me. I found them quite fascinating, and over time I became familiar with the "marks" (troubled and lost youth typically), the true believers ("marks" who've joined up) and the handlers (those one level above the believers). I even met a few of the "operators" -- those who are in the cult for power or perks, not for belief. The latter were quite good at spotting my true nature, and would quickly turf me back to the street (my face was misleading).

Nowadays, 25 years later, I fear I no longer have a face that appeals to cultists. Fortunately a friend of mine, no younger than I, still does. So it came that he and I enjoyed a tour of the very first church of Scientology in Washington DC (1701 20th Street NW), and then took a unique guided tour of the unmarked building that was Scientology's first headquarters, around the block at 1812 19th Street Nw, Washington, DC 20009. This latter building is not marked in any way. I believe it is usually visited by Scientologists, but for some reason we were invited. Our hosts were gracious and personable, though I suspect that one of them (quite senior in the church) suspected my true nature. We did not deceive them and admitted to being physicians, but we were very quick to (honestly) state that we were not psychiatrists. In Scientology's doctrine psychiatrists are the closest thing to Satan, and while our guests might tolerate heretics Satan himself would be too much. It probably helped that both of us now work in health care software companies and no longer see patients.

My friend did tell an earlier younger host that we had, of course, often treated patietns with psychiatric medications, but fortunately she appeared not to hear.

So it is that I read of Hubbard's life, or at least the sanctified version thereof. It was a fascinating life. A brilliant, romantic, and precocious youth, a restless wanderer and adventurer, a college drop-out who churned out reams of pulp fiction (science fiction, adventure fiction, even romances -- all under varied pseudonyms). I could see many of the books in his offices and scan some of his 1950s writings (which were more direct and clear than his later writing). [Update 3/06: Alas, it's a life more fictional than I'd thought. Did Hubbard know what was fact and what was imagination? See more below.]

I think I could also tell when he developed what I'd guess was his schizophrenia-like disorder, his unusual thinking patterns [1] about about age 20 -- a very typical age of onset.

There were many fascinating aspects of the tour. Despite the name of the church, there were no science texts in Hubbard's collection -- nothing on biology, geology, medicine, physics, astronomy, chemistry, electricity, etc. He evidently read history, a bit of philosophy, science fiction and mystical stories -- but not science. Most curiously he had a copy of one of Freud's popular books on psychoanalysis; not marked with any bloody ink and mixed in with his other texts. Nowhere was there mention or reference to any women in his life other than his mother.

There's a remarkable series of 'e-machines', and a fascinating letter mentioning that the first e-machine was the descendant of 40 preceding years of research in psychogalvanometry (there are no Google links to that term, and only a handful of obscure links to the 'psychogalvanometer'. I am amazed there's not more on what was apparently a fad from 1910 to 1950).

Reading the books and literature a few themes emerge, which I think capture the flavor of Hubbard's mind. First and foremost there's his well known hatred of psychiatrists. He refers to the German (psychology), the Viennese (psychoanalysis) and the Russian (psychiatry - most foul). The intensity of his hatred may have some delusional qualities, but he lived in the era of Soviet dissidents imprisoned in psych facilities, frontal lobotomies, etc. The connection he made between the Soviets and psychiatry is particularly interesting.

Throughout his life he revisits themes that have, to someone who's cared for schizophrenic patients, a familiar feeling. He believed that Niacin was a good treatment for substance abuse and radiation poisoning, apparently because it induced facial flushing that he connected with sauna-induced vasodilation. His early books focus on radiation exposure, cellular memory (single-celled organisms 'learn' and pass their learning on to their descendants), and multiple lives. There's some suggestion of an antipathy to Christianity but a sympathy for Buddism; yet the newer Scientology churches display a modified Christian cross.

I was most interested in his use of language, and in his concerns about the meaning of words (shades of his science fiction colleague AE Van Vogt, who later signed up with scientology). His use of 'flub' for "error" is characteristic. He seemed very bothered by words having multiple meanings, and preferred that a word have only a single precise meaning. A children's book on learning makes a somewhat odd transition from a general discussion on learning styles to an perseverant discussion of the dangers of words that could be misunderstood. His concern with the meaning of words, and with the power of words to cause physical harm or effects, has a magical and tortured quality. It is ironic in a man who was a stupendously prolific writer and typist (90 words a minute!).

It is a fascinating tour of an increasingly powerful church (or cult -- a nascent religion). I can believe they easily have 300,000 members, and if each contributes $5,000/year (courses and contributions) that's a tax-exempt cash flow of $1.5 billion/year. Enough money to buy many US senators and politicians. Impressive!

It will be very interesting to see how Scientology evolves.

Update 10/27:

[1] The more I thought about Hubbard's mental status, the less ready I am to give him a label as "simple" as "schitzophreniform disorder". Given his extraordinary bursts of productivity, I could as easily and as amateurishly "label" him as "mania with delusional components". There is clearly something odd about his fixed beliefs and obsessions, and particularly his themes of struggles with the "unconscious" and his focus on words and their slippery meanings. I get the impression of someone fighting to master a mind coming apart, and ending in some odd truce that worked quite well the rest of his life.

I'm not confident, however, that even a professional psychiatrist would know quite how to categorize Hubbard in our current ill-defined taxonomies of psychiatric disorders. It would be very interesting to know more about Hubbard's family history, and whether any particular disorders were prevalent in his parents, cousins, etc.

As my friend noted, the relationship between the delusional disorders, religiosity, and the propensity to create religions is complex, interesting, and intensely controversial.

Update 3/2/06: Rolling Stone has a wonderful story on Scientology. It adds a bit of detail to his biography (note- I went to Caltech):

... After the war, Hubbard made his way to Pasadena, California, a scientific boomtown of the 1940s, where he met John Whiteside Parsons, a society figure and a founder of CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A sci-fi buff, Parsons was also a follower of the English occultist Aleister Crowley. Parsons befriended Hubbard and invited him to move onto his estate. In one of the stranger chapters in Hubbard's life, recorded in detail by several biographers, the soon-to-be founder of Dianetics became Parsons' assistant -- helping him with a variety of black-magic and sex rituals, including one in which Parsons attempted to conjure a literal "whore of Babalon [sic]," with Hubbard serving as apprentice.

Charming and charismatic, Hubbard succeeded in wooing away Parsons' mistress, Sara Northrup, whom he would later marry. Soon afterward, he fell out with Parsons over a business venture...

Wow. I bet JPL doesn't put that bit in their official history.

Update 5/14/07: While tagging my scientology posts I came across this unpublished 2005 reference to a CT article on L Ron's creative biography. It reminded of Kim Jong-il's equally momentous list of achievements. I suspect the resemblance is not coincidental.

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