When I was sixteen, in 1982, I ran away from home and made my way from West Virginia to Boston. There, I soon found myself quite lost. Spying an extremely attractive young woman who was carrying a clipboard and accosting people in a friendly way, I decided to ask her for directions with the most innocuous chat-up line I’ve ever used: “Can you tell me how to get to Newbury Street, please?”
She told me how to get there and we continued chatting. I thought I was really doing great with her, but it soon turned out she was a Scientologist, attempting to recruit random passersby to take the “personality test” like you always see people doing on Hollywood Blvd. She asked me if I’d heard of Scientology and I told her the only thing I knew about it was what I’d read about it in the writing of William S. Burroughs.
That went right over her head, but undaunted, she asked me if I’d be interested in taking a “personality test” and truth be told, I was interested in just about anything this chick had to offer me. So we walked to the huge, embassy-like Church of Scientology building a few blocks away, and she deposited me with staff members there before disappearing back to her clipboard and her post down the street.
I ended up spending a week sleeping there in exchange for doing janitorial work and re-binding a small library of dusty old books that were in bad repair. It was either there or the riverbank (I was also hoping I’d see the Sea Org hottie again, but that never happened).
It was an awfully strange experience going from a small town in the hills of West Virginia to bunking with a cult of headfuckers in “the big city” in less than 48 hours, but one that I will write about here another time.
My point of offering this, um, partial anecdote is to say that if it was not for the fact that I was an avid teenage reader of William Burroughs, I doubt I’d have gotten myself into that zany, madcap situation. Then again, maybe my brief brush with L.Ron Hubbard and crew could be more honestly attributed to me being a teenage guy who was thinking with his dick. That’s probably that’s just as valid of an excuse…
So that’s my introduction to William S. Burroughs’ Wild Ride with Scientology an interesting short essay Lee Konstantinou wrote about Burroughs’ decade-long flirtation with Scientology that appeared on io9 yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:
Scientology appears again disguised as the “Logos” group in Burroughs’s 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded. As described in the book, Logos has “a system of therapy they call ‘clearing’. You ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled as neutral memory’ When all the ‘engrams’ have been run and deactivated the subject becomes a ‘clear.’” In the 1964 novel Nova Express, Scientology is for the first time openly described in Burroughs’s fiction. During an interrogation scene in the book, an unnamed character declares “The Scientologists believe sir that words recorded during a period of unconsciousness… store pain and that this pain store can be lugged in with key words represented as an alternate mathematical formulae indicating umber of exposures to the key words and reaction index… they call these words recorded during unconsciousness engrams sir… The pain that overwhelms that person is basic basic sir and when basic basic is wiped off the tape… then that person becomes what they call clear sir.”
At the start of 1968, Burroughs deepened his relationship to the Church. He took an intense two-month Scientology Clearing Course at the world headquarters of Scientology in Saint Hill Manor in the UK and Burroughs was declared a “Clear,” though he later claimed that he had to work hard to suppress or rationalize his persistently negative feelings toward L. Ron Hubbard during auditing sessions. The Berg has almost a dozen files filled with Burroughs’s pamphlets from Saint Hill as well as his almost unreadable hand-written notes on Scientology courses and questions he prepared for auditing sessions he himself conducted. These files include, as I’ve mentioned, an attempt to create a cut-up from auditing questions; from the start, Scientology was very much connected to the cut-up technique and Burroughs’s theory that language constituted a kind of virus that had infested the human host. At Saint Hill, Burroughs entered an intense and obsessive period of auditing sessions with an E-Meter, including a process of exploring past lives, though he slowly began to grow alienated from the Church and what he considered its Orwellian security protocols. Burroughs’s antipathy for Scientological “Sec Checks” are apparent in his strange and violent story, “Ali’s Smile,” which was published in the collection Ali’s Smile/Naked Scientology.
Burroughs eventually rejected Scientology—because of what he called “the fascist policies of Hubbard and his organization”—but cautiously endorsed some of its “discoveries.” His break with the Church developed over course of the late sixties in the pages of the London-based magazine, Mayfair, where Burroughs wrote a series of increasingly hostile “bulletins” about his adventures with the organization. These bulletins culminated in Burroughs’s amusingly titled Mayfair article, “I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard.” This piece was republished in the Los Angeles Free Press. In his challenge to L. Ron, Burroughs wrote:
Some of the techniques [of Scientology] are highly valuable and warrant further study and experimentation. The E Meter is a useful device… (many variations of this instrument are possible). 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. There is a basic incompatibility between any organization and freedom of thought.
For his inquiries, Burroughs reports, he was expelled from the organization and in 1968 was put into what Scientologists call a condition of “Treason”; though the exact circumstances surrounding this incident remain unclear. Burroughs’s public battle against the Church continued in a 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, where he expressed his support for Robert Kaufmann’s exposé, Inside Scientology, published by Olympia Press. Here Burroughs uses his harshest language yet: “Scientology is a model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties.” Strangely enough, despite his break with the group, Scientology reappeared in the 1972 film Bill and Tony, which Burroughs made with Antony Balch (the masturbating guy in Towers Open Fire). In Bill and Tony, an image of Burroughs’s disembodied floating head recites instructions for how to operate an auditing session.
Thank you Steven Otero!