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Scientology Heresy: Jon Atack on L. Ron Hubbard’s Debt to Psychiatry

PsychoanalysisJon Atack is the author of A Piece of Blue Sky, one of the very best books on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. He has a new edition of the book for sale, and on Saturdays he’s helping us sift through the legends, myths, and contested facts about Scientology that tend to get hashed and rehashed in books, articles, and especially on the Internet.

Jon, we have a feeling you’re going to get us in a lot of trouble this week. You’ve been unearthing some real gems for us recently, but in this investigation, you’ve found some connections in the early writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that suggest he owes a greater debt to some psychiatric techniques than his followers might like to admit. We have a feeling today’s comment section is going to be lively!

So what did you find, Jon?

JON: Science of Survival (1951) was the first Hubbard book that I read. It remains the best written of his books, perhaps because it was compiled by Richard de Mille. I was baffled from the first by the term narco-synthesis, which is mentioned briefly and with little explanation. It wasn’t in my two-volume Oxford dictionary. Hubbard said “a pre-clear must never be audited under sedation” and added “as in narco-synthesis.” (Book 1, p.162). In Book 2, he uses the term again, while talking about US government use of “pain-drug-hypnosis.” (pp.222-223). There is an earlier, brief mention in Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950). I knew that it meant drug-assisted therapy, but I did not resolve the full meaning of this strange term until long after I’d left the cult.

Part of my search was through the Research and Discovery volumes — the first edition, before they were edited to remove Hubbard’s boasts about his extensive drug use. Hubbard was evidently aware of the origin of narco-synthesis.

I found the first full description in an obscure book, which came highly recommended by Hubbard, in an even more obscure lecture (R&D2, p.12). The book, Hypnotism Comes of Age, was written by Wolfe and Rosenthal, and it described narco-synthesis and its origins: “The doctors call this new technique narco-synthesis, because, while under the hypnosis, the soldier patient re-experiences the shocking occurrence that caused his breakdown — his traumatic episode — and then reincorporates the memory thus obtained.” (p.150). The text also speaks of the patient being asked to count backwards until in trance. The same practice is found in Book One Dianetics — although Hubbard was less than candid about the trance state it can produce.


During the Second World War, both U.S. and British psychiatrists were experimenting with a form of psychotherapy that induced hypnotic states through the use of drugs. Dr William Sargant described his work on soldiers with “battle neurosis” or “combat fatigue” in his seminal Battle for the Mind, in 1957 (incidentally, Sargant was considered the UK’s number one SP, before I inherited that title. Hubbard had a copy of this book in his library at the Founding Church, in Washington, DC). Doctors Roy Grinker and John Spiegel had published an account of their work in 1945, under the title Men under Stress. Barbiturates and sodium pentothal were used in this work, which also relied upon Pavlov’s discovery of conditioned responses and Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind and repression. Grinker and Spiegel called their work “narco-synthesis,” because it used narcotic sedation to assist the patient to rebuild or “synthesize” the personality.

As with Dianetics, in narco-synthesis the patient was required to “abreact” or re-experience traumatic events. Hubbard was familiar with this work; not only did he recommend Hypnotism Comes of Age, but he also showed more direct knowledge: “One will find regression if one treats soldiers who have been unlucky enough to undergo narcosynthesis … He was merely sick before, but now he is crazy … Anything which is touched in narcosynthesis is apt to be restimulated permanently.” (R&D1, p.333f). Hubbard even suggested the headline “Man released from Veteran’s Hospital on Tuesday kills wife on Thursday!” (ibid, p.334).

It seems eminently possible that Hubbard encountered narco-synthesis, or at least discussion of it, during his stay at Oakland Naval Hospital in 1945. It was intriguing military psychiatrists throughout the English-speaking world. Hubbard was also taking phenobarbital (see R&D, p.125), at the very time that he claimed to have used abreactive therapy to cure his imaginary war wounds. Hubbard, indeed, claimed to have treated schizophrenics with narco-synthesis (D:MSMH, p.123f), as well as doing further drug hypnotism on cases which had already been “cured” by narco-synthesis (Evolution of a Science, p.24). In a lecture given a few weeks after publication of this article, Hubbard warned against the practice of narco-synthesis (R&D1, p.123; see also D:MSMH, p.390 drug hypnotism is “dianetically illegal”). However, a few days after this lecture, Hubbard said “it is allowable … to produce a more accessible condition by amnesia trance, and even by drugs” (R&D1, p.184). In one of his earliest lectures, Hubbard had said, “Narco-synthesis and other drug therapies have some slight use in Dianetics” (ibid, p.8; see also p.48).

In fact, Hubbard’s alleged research not only included decades of “straight hypnosis,” he also gives us to believe that his work with narcosynthesis was extensive: “[tests] have been made on people who could be hypnotized and people who could not but were drugged. They brought forth valuable data for dianetics.” (D:MSMH, p.57). Further, “one day, a multi-valent patient, under drugs, went back to his birth” (ibid, p.126). This takes on a particular significance, because it was the first time that Hubbard encountered the supposed “birth engram.”

Most important, it is narcosynthesis which led to the very discovery of the engram: “The author is well aware that many physicians, in using narco-synthesis, have occasionally accidentally entered ‘unconscious’ periods.” (D:MSMH, p.117, footnote).

Narcosynthesis sought to “abreact” painful memories, as Sargant said, “Freud had found that ‘affectless memories, memories without any release of emotion,” [‘charge’ to both Freud and Hubbard] were almost useless. Unless a doctor could get his patient to relieve the emotions originally associated with a repressed experience that had generated a neurosis, the mere fact of his remembering the experience would not constitute a cure. Sadler consequently defined abreaction as “a process of reviving the memory of a repressed unpleasant experience and expressing in speech and action the emotions related to it, thereby relieving the personality of its influence. In World War I, much the same abreactive treatment had been successfully used, but for the most part with hypnotism not drugs.” (Battle for the Mind, p.54)

Narcosynthesis was largely used on personnel suffering from what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The practice fell out of favor because it was held to be inapplicable outside the stresses of war. After some spectacular results with injured US pilots in North Africa, Grinker and Spiegel found no peacetime application for the technique. It worked on those who had been traumatically terrified, but that was it. Apart from his few, oblique references, Hubbard completely failed to acknowledge the work of these psychiatrists, which was fundamental to his own Dianetics. Indeed, one of his “broad generalities” would be that all psychiatrists are “suppressive persons” and a part of the galactic conspiracy to enslave the souls of all sentient beings. But, as he pointed out, “The criminal accuses others of things he himself is doing.”


Geir Isene on David Miscavige, Creative Marketing Genius

Another fun and informative video from Karen de la Carriere, J. Swift, and Angry Gay Pope!



Posted by Tony Ortega on September 7, 2013 at 07:00

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