How William S. Burroughs Embraced, Then Rejected Scientology, Forcing L. Ron Hubbard to Come to Its Defense (1959–1970)

Image by Chris­ti­aan Ton­nis, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

William S. Bur­roughs was a cul­tur­al prism. Through him, the mid-cen­tu­ry demi-monde of illic­it drug use and mar­gin­al­ized sexualities—of occult beliefs, alter­na­tive reli­gions, and bizarre con­spir­a­cy theories—was refract­ed on the page in exper­i­men­tal writ­ing that inspired every­one from his fel­low Beats to the punks of lat­er decades to name-your-coun­ter­cul­tur­al-touch­stone of the past fifty years or so. There are many such peo­ple in his­to­ry: those who go to the places that most fear to tread and send back reports writ­ten in lan­guage that alters real­i­ty. To quote L. Ron Hub­bard, anoth­er writer who pur­port­ed to do just that, “the world needs their William Bur­rough­ses.”

And Bur­roughs, so it appears, need­ed L. Ron Hub­bard, at least for most of the six­ties, when the writer became a devout fol­low­er of the Church of Sci­en­tol­ogy. The sci-fi-inspired “new reli­gious move­ment” that needs no fur­ther intro­duc­tion proved irre­sistible in 1959 when Bur­roughs met John and Mary Cooke, two found­ing mem­bers of the church who had been try­ing to recruit Bur­roughs’ friend and fre­quent artis­tic part­ner Brion Gysin. “Ulti­mate­ly,” writes Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou at io9, “it was Bur­roughs, not Gysin, who explored the Church that L. Ron Hub­bard built. Bur­roughs took Sci­en­tol­ogy so seri­ous­ly that he became a ‘Clear’ and almost became an ‘Oper­at­ing Thetan.’ ”

Bur­roughs immersed him­self with­out reser­va­tion in the prac­tices and prin­ci­ples of Sci­en­tol­ogy, writ­ing let­ters to Allen Gins­berg that same year in which he rec­om­mends his friend “con­tact [a] local chap­ter and find an audi­tor. They do the job with­out hyp­no­sis or drugs, sim­ply run the tape back and forth until the trau­ma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially respon­si­ble for recent changes.” No doubt Bur­roughs had his share of per­son­al trau­ma to over­come, but he also found Sci­en­tol­ogy espe­cial­ly con­ducive to his greater cre­ative project of coun­ter­ing “the Reac­tive Mind… an ancient instru­ment of con­trol designed to stul­ti­fy and lim­it the poten­tial for action in a con­struc­tive or destruc­tive direc­tion.”

The method of “audit­ing” gave Bur­roughs a good deal of mate­r­i­al to work with in his fic­tion and film­mak­ing exper­i­ments. He and Gysin includ­ed Sci­en­tol­ogy’s lan­guage in a short 1961 film called “Tow­ers Open Fire,” which was, writes Kon­stan­ti­nou, “designed to show the process of con­trol sys­tems break­ing down.” Sci­en­tol­ogy appeared in 1962’s The Tick­et That Explod­ed and again in 1964’s Nova ExpressEach nov­el ref­er­ences the con­cept of “engrams,” which Bur­roughs suc­cinct­ly defines as “trau­mat­ic mate­r­i­al.” Dur­ing this huge­ly pro­duc­tive peri­od, the rad­i­cal­ly anti-author­i­tar­i­an Bur­roughs “asso­ci­at­ed the group with a range of mind-expand­ing and mind-free­ing prac­tices.”

It’s easy to say Bur­roughs uncrit­i­cal­ly par­took of a cer­tain sug­ary bev­er­age. But he clear­ly made his own idio­syn­crat­ic uses of Sci­en­tol­ogy, incor­po­rat­ing it with­in the syn­cret­ic con­stel­la­tion of ref­er­ences, prac­tices, and cut-up tech­niques “designed to jam up what he called ‘the Real­i­ty Stu­dio,’ aka the every­day, con­di­tioned, mind-con­trolled real­i­ty.” An inevitable turn­ing point came, how­ev­er, in 1968, as Bur­roughs jour­neyed deep­er into Scientology’s secret order at the world head­quar­ters in Saint Hill Manor in the UK. There, he report­ed, he “had to work hard to sup­press or ratio­nal­ize his per­sis­tent­ly neg­a­tive feel­ings toward L. Ron Hub­bard dur­ing audit­ing ses­sions.”

Bur­roughs’ dis­like of the church’s founder and extreme aver­sion to “what he con­sid­ered its Orwellian secu­ri­ty pro­to­cols” even­tu­at­ed his break with Sci­en­tol­ogy, which he under­took grad­u­al­ly and pub­licly in a series of “bul­letins” pub­lished dur­ing the late six­ties in the Lon­don mag­a­zine May­fair. Before his “clear­ing course” with Hub­bard, in a 1967 arti­cle excerpt­ed and repub­lished as a pam­phlet by the church itself, Bur­roughs prais­es Sci­en­tol­ogy and its founder, and claims that “there is noth­ing secret about Sci­en­tol­ogy, no talk of ini­ti­ates, secret doc­trines, or hid­den knowl­edge.”

By 1970, he had made an about-face, in a fierce­ly polem­i­cal essay titled “I, William Bur­roughs, Chal­lenge You, L. Ron Hub­bard,” pub­lished in the Los Ange­les Free Press. While he con­tin­ues to val­ue some of the ben­e­fits of audit­ing, Bur­roughs declares the church’s founder “grandiose” and “fas­cist” and lays out his objec­tions to its ini­ti­a­tions, secret doc­trines, and hid­den knowl­edge, among oth­er things:

…One does not sim­ply pay the tuitions, obtain the mate­ri­als and study. Oh no. One must JOIN. One must ‘sign up for the dura­tion of the uni­verse’ (Sea Org mem­bers are required to sign a bil­lion-year con­tract)…. Fur­ther­more whole cat­e­gories of peo­ple are auto­mat­i­cal­ly exclud­ed from train­ing and pro­cess­ing and may nev­er see Mr Hubbard’s con­fi­den­tial mate­ri­als.

Bur­roughs chal­lenges Hub­bard to “show his con­fi­den­tial mate­ri­als to the astro­nauts of inner space,” includ­ing Gysin, Gins­berg, and Tim­o­thy Leary; to the “stu­dents of lan­guage like Mar­shall MacLuhan and Noam Chomp­sky” [sic]; and to “those who have fought for free­dom in the streets: Eldridge Cleaver, Stoke­ly Carmichael, Abe Hoff­man, Dick Gre­go­ry…. If he has what he says he has, the results should be cat­a­clysmic.”

The debate con­tin­ued in the pages of May­fair when Hub­bard pub­lished a lengthy and bland­ly genial reply to Bur­roughs’ chal­lenge, in an arti­cle that also con­tained, in an inset, a brief rebut­tal from Bur­roughs. The debate will sure­ly be of inter­est to stu­dents of the strange his­to­ry of Sci­en­tol­ogy, and it should most cer­tain­ly be fol­lowed by lovers of Bur­roughs’ work. In the process of embrac­ing, then reject­ing, the con­trol­ling move­ment, he com­pelling­ly artic­u­lates a need for “unimag­in­able exten­sions of aware­ness” to deal with the trau­ma of liv­ing on what he calls the “sink­ing ship” of plan­et Earth.

via io9

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Tells the Sto­ry of How He Start­ed Writ­ing with the Cut-Up Tech­nique

When William S. Bur­roughs Appeared on Sat­ur­day Night Live: His First TV Appear­ance (1981)

Hear a Great Radio Doc­u­men­tary on William S. Bur­roughs Nar­rat­ed by Iggy Pop

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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