Scientology, disability, and the illusion of transcendence

A picture of Scientology’s Pacific Area Command Base, a large blue building in Los Angeles affectionately known as ‘Big Blue.’ The words from Red Bull’s famous slogan, ‘Gives You Wings,’ have been edited in below the building’s large ‘Scientology’ sign.

We'd rather have you dead than incapable. ... The whole agonized future of this planet, every Man, Woman, and Child on it, and your own destiny for the next endless trillions of years depend on what you do here and now with and in Scientology.⁶

Behind the grandiosity of Scientology's claims, however, there is no verifiable evidence that any of its believers have entered the ‘new realm of ability’ that Hubbard promised.⁷ Why, then, does anyone remain loyal?

I. Freedom from imperfection

Before Scientology, there was Dianetics. Having spent decades writing pulp and science fiction stories for a living, in 1950 Hubbard branched out into popular psycho-therapy. Psychological self-help books promised to equip ordinary people with the tools to address their own mental health issues, often by simplifying existing medical theories for popular consumption. Hubbard, however, forged ahead with his own (scientifically unfounded) ideas.

L. Ron Hubbard sitting behind a desk. His arms are hovering above the desk to emphasise a point, and his face is scrunched in mid-sentence.
L. Ron Hubbard sitting behind a desk. His arms are hovering above the desk to emphasise a point, and his face is scrunched in mid-sentence.
Hubbard in 1950, from WikiMedia Commons, Los Angeles Daily News. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L._Ron_Hubbard_in_1950.jpg.

II. Freedom from the here and now

Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was a runaway success, topping multiple best-seller lists and spawning a wave of do-it-yourself psycho-therapy groups.²¹ However, the long-term sustainability of the movement was hobbled by Hubbard’s poor business sense and rampant profligacy, which resulted in him bankrupting his new business empire and briefly losing the rights to Dianetics.

III. Freedom from facts

L. Ron Hubbard was disabled. This is arguably the single most important fact in the history of Scientology. For most of his adult life he suffered from poor health, including terrible eyesight, stomach ulcers, pneumonia, and depression. Much of Scientology came about as a direct response to whatever happened to be ailing Hubbard most at any given time; if it was his ulcers, he would invent a new ‘rundown’ designed to clear an individual of ulcers; if it was pneumonia, the rundown would address respiratory problems.³⁷

Portrait of Lisa McPherson. McPherson is smiling and looking over her rigths shoulder, directly into the camera.
Portrait of Lisa McPherson. McPherson is smiling and looking over her rigths shoulder, directly into the camera.
Portrait of Lisa McPherson, from WikiMedia Commons, Estate of Lisa McPherson. http://lisamcpherson.org/images/lisa_raw_scan.jpg.

Conclusion

L. Ron Hubbard compared the spiritual life of thetans to a game.⁴⁵ Bored with their omniscience and omnipotence, thetans decided to entertain themselves in ever more restrictive realities, with the objective being to conquer the MEST universe within a set of rules, or ‘self-created barriers’.⁴⁶ If we follow this thought to its logical conclusion it would seem that disabled people are just unskilled players, while the most normatively ‘able’ people are prodigies. But as the Lisa McPherson case shows, this is no game.

Notes

  1. World Religion News, ‘L. Ron Hubbard Gives an Introduction to Scientology in 1966 Interview,’ 15 May 2015. [https://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/scientology/l-ron-hubbard-gives-an-introduction-to-scientology-in-1966-interview].
  2. ABC News, ‘Scientology Leader Gave ABC First-Ever Interview,’ 31 March 2007. [https://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=2664713&page=1].
  3. Quoted in Jon Atack, A piece of blue sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed, (New York: Carol, 1990) p. 412.
  4. Scientology Newsroom, ‘Scientology: How We Help — Making Learning Disabilities Vanish,’ 20 March 2013. [https://www.scientologynews.org/press-releases/making-learning-disabilities-vanish.html].
  5. People, ‘Tom Cruise: My Struggle to Read,’ 21 July 2003. [https://people.com/archive/tom-cruise-my-struggle-to-read-vol-60-no-3/].
  6. Quoted in Chris Shelton, Scientology A to Xenu: an insider’s guide to what Scientology is really all about, (Denver [CO]: Graphics Werks, 2015), p. 149.
  7. Quoted in Hugh B. Urban, The Church of Scientology: a history of a new religion, (Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 80.
  8. Ibid, p. 55.
  9. L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics: the modern science of mental health, (Glostrup: New Era Publications, 2007 [1950]), p. 8.
  10. Ibid, pp. 9–10.
  11. Ibid, pp. 55–84.
  12. Ibid, pp. 13–24, 65.
  13. Quoted in Shelton, Scientology A to Xenu, p. 67.
  14. Quoted in Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 46.
  15. Atack, A piece of blue sky, p. 416.
  16. Jon Atack, ‘Hubbard and the Occult,’ 1995. [https://www.spaink.net/cos/essays/atack_occult.html].
  17. Urban, Church of Scientology, pp. 49–52.
  18. Douglas C. Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,’ in Longmore and Umansky [eds.], The new disability history: American perspectives, (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  19. Norman Dain, ‘Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry in the United States,’ in Micale and Porter [eds.], Discovering the history of psychiatry, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  20. Bradley Lewis, ‘A Mad Fight: Psychiatry and Disability Activism,’ in Lennard J. Davis [ed.], The disability studies reader, (London: Psychology Press, 2006).
  21. Russell Miller, Bare-faced messiah: the true story of L. Ron Hubbard, (London: Silvlertail Books, 2015 [1987]), p. 161.
  22. Quoted in Ibid, p. 204.
  23. Urban, Church of Scientology, pp. 64–8.
  24. L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology: a history of man, (Glostrup: New Era Publications, 2007 [1952]), p. 5.
  25. Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 69.
  26. Stephen Koff in St. Petersburg Times, ‘Xemu’s Cruel Response to Overpopulated World,’ 23 December 1988.
  27. Often misspelled as ‘Xenu’.
  28. Shelton, Scientology A to Xenu, pp. 177–90.
  29. Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 82.
  30. Robert S. Ellwood, The fifties spiritual marketplace: American religion in a decade of conflict, (New Brunswick [NJ]: Rutgers University Press, 1997), p. 7.
  31. Richard Hughes Seager, Buddhism in America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), chapter 4.
  32. Frank Flinn, ‘Scientology as Technological Buddhism,’ in James Lewis [ed.], Scientology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 212.
  33. John R. Wilmoth, ‘Arguments and Action in the Life of a Social Problem: A Case Study of “Overpopulation” 1946–1990,’ in Social Problems, Vol. 42, (1995), pp. 318–43.
  34. Allan M. Winkler, Life under a cloud: American anxiety about the atom, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
  35. Quoted in Urban, Church of Scientology, p. 95.
  36. Quoted in Ibid, p. 87.
  37. Atack, A piece of blue sky, p. 415.
  38. Quoted in Miller, Bare-faced messiah, p. 98.
  39. Quoted in Atack, A piece of blue sky, p. 88.
  40. Ibid, p. 91.
  41. Quoted in Miller, Bare-faced messiah, p. 307.
  42. Tampa Bay Times, ‘Events leading to the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson,’ 17 October 2019. [https://www.tampabay.com/special-reports/2019/10/17/events-leading-to-the-death-of-scientologist-lisa-mcpherson/].
  43. Sunny Pereira and Chris Shelton, ‘Introduction to Scientology’s Introspection Rundown,’ Youtube, 19 April 2018. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VomNed9H740].
  44. Tampa Bay Times, ‘Events leading to the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson’.
  45. Greg Karber, ‘6 Game Design Lessons from L. Ron Hubbard,’ 3 August 2015. [https://medium.com/@gregkarber/5-game-design-lessons-from-l-ron-hubbard-4343cbd50577].
  46. L. Ron Hubbard, The Creation of Human Ability, (New Era Publications, 2007 [1954]).
  47. Geoff McMaster, ‘Once thriving Church of Scientology faces extinction, says cult tracker,’ 11 January 2018. [https://www.folio.ca/once-thriving-church-of-scientology-faces-extinction-says-cult-tracker/].

Historian of modern Britain, popular culture, and queer identities. PhD student, trans activist, and Quaker from South Wales. She/her pronouns.

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