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Scientology Mythbusting with Jon Atack: The Tomato Photo!

Jon_Atack_Blue_SkyWe’re starting a new weekly feature today, and we’re very excited about it. In 1990, author Jon Atack published what is still one of the very best books on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, A Piece of Blue Sky. Atack now has a new edition of the book coming out, and it reminded us what an encyclopedic resource he is. So we had an idea. In the world of Scientology watching, we noticed that there seem to be some legends, myths, and contested facts that tend to get hashed and rehashed in books, articles, and especially on the Internet. With Atack’s help, we’re going to tackle these issues one by one, drawing on Jon’s deep knowledge and (who knew?) droll sense of humor.

This week, let’s start out with one of the most iconic photographs of L. Ron Hubbard and settle some facts about its background. Get your alligator clamps ready — it’s time to torture a tomato!

If you’ve spent any time learning about Scientology, you’ve no doubt run into some version of this image…



Jon, these photographs of L. Ron Hubbard doing something strange to a tomato are pretty famous. There are two slightly different versions that are widely available on the Internet, and they appear to be part of a larger photo session of Hubbard in the greenhouse of his English estate, Saint Hill Manor. But you pointed out to us that because the Daily Mail published one of them in 1968, that date is often ascribed to them, when by 1968 Hubbard was actually at sea and was no longer in England. (Even our man in Austin repeated that erroneous date in his new book, alas. See caption, p. 87.) Also, what the hell is he doing in these photos? Even Hubbard wouldn’t try to “audit” a tomato with an e-meter, would he? We’ve read that he was trying to impress some local reporters about his horticultural knowledge, which was his cover story for why he was in East Grinstead. Is that the truth?


ATACK: The tomato photos were taken in the greenhouse at Saint Hill Manor in the early years, between 1959 and the UK government’s decision that The Hub was an ‘undesirable alien’ (how true!). The Hub was determined to create ‘Public Relations Officer area control,’ so he gave an interview to a BBC gardening program and courted the local press. Sadly, the BBC didn’t keep the film. It would be instructive for young auditors to see how Hubbard processed a tomato. The Hub said he was irradiating plants to remedy the world’s food problems, pretty much the way Xenu irradiated satans — sorry, forgot the lisp, thetans — to solve population problems. Only this was nice radiation. He claimed that using this state-of-the-art scientific method — as developed by Lysenko, who left the USSR starving — he had created the ‘everbearing’ tomato. Had he consulted a gardening manual, he would have been embarrassed to find that tomatoes are everbearing, or perennial, by their very nature. But gardeners discard plants after a year because they provide less fruit in their second year. The same is true for many plants treated as annuals. As a veteran tomato grower, I can vouchsafe this information: the plant will stay alive through the winter.

Dr. Hubbard’s second scientific enquiry concerned the nervous systems of plants. The crocodile clips are jabbed in and then a nail is used to torture the already traumatised tomato to see if it felt pain (warning: some tomatoes were hurt in the making of this photo). The Hub asserted that when connected to the electropsychometer, you could measure these responses. When it’s quiet enough, you can hear the tomatoes scream. It’s almost enough to put you off your green salad. Curiously, however, the fruit of a plant is unlikely to have any nervous connection to the plant itself, being no more than a capsule for seeds. Something like hair or nails in humans. This is why fruitarians consider themselves the most ethical of vegans, because, as long as they take the seeds out, they aren’t killing anything. (Though, in History of Man, The Hub said people were vegetarians because they’re afraid of being eaten.) It is very likely that plants’ electrical conductivity does change, but calling that ‘pain’ is stretching it. When questioned about his attempt to fill a prescription for barbiturates, Dr. Hubbard said they were for his “horticultural purposes only.” So maybe he was trying to relieve them from the distress caused by his Frankenfood experiment. Hubbard had admitted to non-horticultural uses of barbiturates in an early lecture, saying that it is hard to come off phenobarbitol, and he knew, because he’d done it. But then, as one sage reviewer said of The Hub’s musical album, “You’re supposed to eat vegetables, not listen to them.”

THE BUNKER: Russell Miller, in Bare-Faced Messiah (a book Atack helped Miller research), says that it was an article about Hubbard using radiation to grow giant tomato plants in an August, 1959 edition of the East Grinstead Courier that prompted a feature in a December 18, 1959 edition of Garden News which carried the sensational headline, “PLANTS DO WORRY AND FEEL PAIN.” That headline then started a bit of a mad rush of reporters to Saint Hill…

It was not long before television and Fleet Street reporters were beating a path to Saint Hill Manor demanding to interview Hubbard about his novel theories. Always pleased to help the gentlemen of the press, he was memorably photographed looking compassionately at a tomato jabbed by probes attached to an E-meter — a picture that eventually found its way into Newsweek magazine, causing a good deal of harmless merriment at his expense.

So there’s our answer. In late 1959 or early 1960, Hubbard was beguiling reporters with his horticultural tall tales and was hoisted on his own petard when he posed for the infamous tomato photo.

BONUS MYTH: Jon, as long as we’re talking about photos, we hope you can clear something up. Last fall, the Los Angeles Times wrote something like the millionth article about Mitt Romney’s love for the Hubbard novel Battlefield Earth. (And perhaps one of the best results of the election is we may not have to hear that chestnut again.)

Anyway, it was the photo that ran with the story and its caption which caught our eye. Here’s the image:


And here’s the caption supplied by the LA Times: “Author L. Ron Hubbard poses for a portrait in a room with a typewriter, a camera and various books and photography equipment on Jan. 10, 1982, in New York City. (Michael Montfort / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Imag)”

We really did a double-take when we saw that date. In 1980, L. Ron Hubbard went into hiding with Pat and Annie Broeker, and except for seeing a few people who later helped out at a ranch near Creston, California, Hubbard maintained complete seclusion from the outside world until his death in 1986. For the first couple of years of that seclusion, before they settled down in Creston, the Broekers traveled around with Hubbard from place to place, but we’d never heard that they had got as far east as New York. And in their secrecy, would Hubbard and the Broekers really allow him to be snapped by a well known photographer? (Montfort, who died in 2008, enjoyed some notoriety for photographing the poet Charles Bukowski, actor Klaus Kinski, and other musicians and artists.)

ATACK: It looks more like the Queens stay in ’73 with Jim Dincalci. The massive sebaceous cyst is evident (it looks as if it has been popped) on his forehead. Thinking I’d upset a former Hub aide with too much negative material, I asked him, “What do you most remember about Hubbard?” expecting one of those generally self-serving and bogus expressions of “compassion” by the great man. Instead, the former senior Sea Org executive said, “The huge lump on his head.” Being terrified of doctors (who were, of course, all trying to kill him), he just let this lump grow. It was airbrushed out of photos taken aboard ship (by Maud Castillo and others). He also let his teeth rot in his head, for the same reason. When the wonderful Cyril Vosper was stopped by cult surveyors — body routers — they would become starry eyed when he told them he’d known the Great OT. Once he’d got them ready, he’d say, “But he had the most dreadful bad breath, because of his rotten teeth.”

THE BUNKER: We took your advice and checked in with Jim Dincalci, who served as medical director on the yacht Apollo with Hubbard and then traveled with him to Queens in late 1972 when Hubbard became concerned that French officials were about to arrest him. For ten months, Hubbard and Dincalci and Hubbard’s bodyguard Paul Preston lived in an apartment in New York until Hubbard was convinced it was safe enough to go back to the boat in September, 1973.

DINCALCI: That is my photo taken by me of LRH in 1973 in Queens, New York. It was floating around the web after a television interview that Jon Atack set up behind the scenes. I think I let them use the photo but did not give up rights to it, but I am not sure. So the Montfort thing is a lie, unless in some way they were sold it some weird way. But yes, I can prove I took it because I have a similar one (with negative) in storage.


THE BUNKER: It looks like we have another myth busted. Jim’s 1973 photo somehow turned into one taken nine years later by Michael Montfort. Perhaps someone else will track down how that happened. Another shot taken by Jim in that Queens apartment can be seen here, with LRH and his trusty typewriter (and lump).

Next week: We take Newsweek (and many others) to task about Scientology’s beginnings.


Posted by Tony Ortega on February 2, 2013 at 07:00


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